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Chapter Text

35 ABY

One standard year after the assault on Starkiller Base

 

When the war finally came to Hapes, it came first in the form of wake rotation, the starfield rippling and distorting counterclockwise around the Millennium Falcon as it eased into realspace above the blue-and-green-speckled orb of Stalsinek IV. It had been a long and difficult journey through the ionized veils of the Transitory Mists, where a single erroneously calculated maneuver would have torn the ship apart, and then out the jumble of hyperlanes known as the Knot Holes, where one wrong turn would have led to Maker knew where— certainly not the Resistance base, where Rey longed to be playing sabacc with Finn or running flight simulations with Poe or chatting with Jessika. Anything was preferable to traveling alone, searching for what no one was sure even existed in the first place.

 

"No endeavor is fruitless if you learn something about yourself along the way," Luke had told her before she left. "Take this time to reflect. Clear your mind and commune with the universe. Let the Force help you find inner peace."

 

"Can't it help me find the mission objective instead?" Rey had quipped, prompting a fondly exasperated yet somehow oddly wistful half-smile from her master. She'd known then that he was remembering another student who had been just as impatient, just as sharp-tongued. And thinking of that person, even if it was only in passing, had quite ruined her day— as it always did— and her mood had been far from improved by the hours spent in hyperspace with only the Falcon' s droid brain trinity for company and the sheer nightmare of navigating the Mists. The beginnings of a tension headache lurked in the back of her skull.

 

"This better be worth it," Rey muttered under her breath as she grabbed the controls, coaxing the ship into the slow dive of planetfall.

 

*

 

Stalsinek IV was a rainforest world, dark green and oppressively humid. Rey was used to the arid, scorching heat of the desert, not this damp variety that lay heavy on the skin and filled the lungs even in the dense, overgrown places where sunlight was a distant dream. After an hour of trekking beneath the canopy of blackneedles, coilwoods, and whisperpines, she was drenched in sweat, her breath coming out in harsh bursts, the migraine sharp behind her eyes. But there was something here— she could feel veins of energy crackling through the gaps in the tree trunks. All she had to do was hone in on the source.

 

Rey stopped walking and pressed her fingers to her aching temples. She wasn't very good at Force healing yet, but she could at least take the edge off, make it easier for her to hear herself think...

 

Power surged through her fingertips, the migraine vanishing like a dandelion puff before a strong breeze.

 

Huh, she thought, surprised and completely free of pain. That settles it, then. There had to be a Force nexus nearby, amplifying her own abilities. Without the headache to distract her, she noticed for the first time just how tangible the energy currents were, thin sections of air shimmering faintly like a massive spiderweb wound through the branches, radiating outwards from somewhere deep in the woodland.

 

"For countless millennia the Hapans have told tales of a magic fountain in the Corsair Outback," Luke had said. "Its waters supposedly cure disease, restore limbs, and bestow youth on those who drink from it. Of course, such stories have been largely dismissed as tall tales, but, if there's one thing I've learned over the years, Rey, it's that most legends contain a kernel of truth. If there is a place of power in the Hapes Cluster, then it is a place where the Force exists as a concentrated wellspring, waiting to be harnessed by one who is sensitive to it."

 

The ruins of the first Jedi Temple on Ahch-To were a nexus, as was the cave in the swamps of Dagobah. Rey had trained at both, but she wasn't progressing as well as Luke would have liked— hence this little field trip. While Leia had initially been hesitant to send her off without reinforcements, there were no troops to spare and, like it or not, they needed her at her best in order to defeat Snoke and the Knights of Ren.

 

The war was going badly. The Resistance was getting desperate. Desperate enough to allow their sole Jedi-in-training to chase after fairy tales in the Inner Rim.

 

Rey would never admit this to anyone but, over the past several months, there had been a tiny, treacherous voice whispering in her ear that she could have been so much stronger by now, if only she'd found the right teacher. One whose philosophies didn't clash with her own outlook as Luke's— for all his patience and kindness— tended to do.

 

"I can show you the ways of the Force!" Kylo had shouted, dark-eyed and impassioned as he leaned into her while she stood at the edge of the snow-covered cliff.

 

She shoved the memory aside with a scowl, wishing she could banish it entirely. She would never join him. He'd have to kill her first, and she wasn't about to let that happen.

 

The energy streams grew more intense the further into the labyrinth of trees she went. A strange taste blossomed on her tongue, weighty and metallic like ozone, or perhaps blood. Raven-thorns scratched at her bare arms as she quickened the pace; without breaking stride, she ran her palm over the shallow cuts and they disappeared, leaving nary a mark. Yes, there was power here, old and vast, overwhelming her senses until she felt drunk, her skin prickled with goosebumps and her heart thundering against the bones of her ribcage.

 

The temple was the first thing Rey saw after wriggling through a wall of fragrant blueleaf shrubs. Slabs of milky white stone rose from the undergrowth, their opalescent edges catching what few rays of light filtered in through the canopy of trees. Although the facade had grown scattered patches of grayish moss, the complex of squat rectangular buildings wasn't in ruins, just abandoned— for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, judging from the weeds that sprouted between the walkways and the enormous strangler figs that were attempting to reclaim the wide, open courtyard.

 

The second thing she noticed was the fountain.

 

Rey stepped through the Misura vine-entangled entrance arch, ignoring the rows of pillars etched with intricate reliefs that she would otherwise have paused to examine. She was focused on the jet of silvery water that issued from a small oval pool in the middle of the courtyard, into which flowed the energy currents that had guided her through the forest. Its pull on her soul was magnetic. It called to her the way the Skywalker lightsaber had in the basement of Maz Kanata's castle. Unlike then, however, she was no longer afraid of the Force. Sometimes it was a friend, sometimes it was a frustrating enigma, but it was always her constant companion.

 

She reached out to touch the water— and nearly screamed from how cold it was. Kriff, it was freezing, like she'd plunged her hand into a bucket of ice. She pulled her arm back. Her fingers were dry.

 

Huh, she thought for the second time that day. That was... not the way water worked.

 

Upon closer inspection, the liquid in the fountain didn't look much like water, either. For one, it really was silver, not colorless and reflecting the stone surroundings, as Rey had assumed. She dropped down on one knee and studied the pool, and her face was very conspicuously not reflected back at her— it was all just silver, oozing and burbling and lapping at the stone edges.

 

She closed her eyes, couching her breathing into the slow, deep, cleansing pattern of the meditative trance. The darkness blinked with the constellation of lights that formed the rainforest, the life energy connecting the trees to the creatures that lurked and slithered and roosted and hunted amidst them. And there, at the center of all things, was the fountain, blazing in her mind like the beating heart, the anchor, the nexus point.

 

"Show me," Rey said.

 

And something— some ancient, endless, primal thing— answered, "Yes."

 


 

The monotonous, well-oiled routine of the Finalizer' s bridge was disrupted by several officers snapping to attention when Kylo Ren stormed inside, the blood and soot of field combat still clinging to the armor that shrouded him from head to toe. They then quickly returned to their business, not a single one of them foolish enough to gawk or eavesdrop as he confronted Hux on the observation deck.

 

"I see you're still with us," said the redheaded general, turning away from the viewport beyond which the agriworld Taanab was obscured by the floating wreckage of several Resistance ships. "That went rather well, don't you think?"

 

"Perhaps I'd have a higher opinion if you hadn't sent in the air force after I commed you specifically to say that I had it under control." Kylo's voice was a low, metallic growl through the voice modulator, his gloved fists clenched at his sides.

 

Hux shrugged. "You were taking too long, Ren. The battle up here was already over, so I deemed it more efficient to direct our TIEs to the capital instead of giving Taanab's ground troops a chance to rally."

 

"What you did," Kylo spat, "was make them desperate enough to raze their own fields. Billions of acres of prime farmland are currently going up in smoke beneath our feet. I look forward to seeing you try to explain that to the Supreme Leader."

 

"Our priority is to secure the Perlemian Trade Route as soon as possible," Hux retorted. "I am confident that Leader Snoke will laud my strategy—"

 

"Your strategy? More like your desire to hog all the glory for yourself, thus costing the First Order valuable resources—" Kylo fell into an abrupt silence, head cocked to the side. It was as if he'd heard something, even though the only noises on the bridge were the tick of chronometers and the beep of radars.

 

"What is it?" Hux demanded. "Why did you— Ren, where are you going?"

 

The other man was already halfway across the room. "I have business elsewhere," he said without looking back.

 

"We debrief in T minus fifteen minutes. You can't just leave."

 

"Actually, General," Kylo drawled as he stepped over the threshold, "I think you'll find that I rather can."

 

And then he was gone, the doors hissing shut behind him.

 


 

When Rey opened her eyes, the world was pitch black. Not the dark of night, but of shadow. It was deathly quiet, the birdsong and the chirp of insects and the rustle of leaves replaced by a silence so thick that it was a knot in her throat. There was a woman kneeling where the fountain had been— or perhaps the fountain had been a woman all along, the spout a slender torso, the pool a graceful draping of voluminous golden robes. Her skin was as white as ivory, her eyes were as green as the forest, and her snowy wings seemed to fill the void of nothingness that the planet had become.

 

"Child," she murmured.

 

Looking back, Rey would be very embarrassed about what she said next. "Mother?" It was an instinctual question that betrayed the wound in her heart, the hope that she still nurtured even after all this time.

 

"It will be hundreds of thousands of years yet before the Mother wakes. I am the Daughter." The woman spoke in a slow voice bearing traces of confusion, as if she, too, had just emerged from the depths of sleep. "Or I was. Or another aspect of me was. In this form I am the Goddess."

 

"I've known other deities." Rey thought of cruel R'iia, whose breath brought the weather storms of Jakku. "What makes you so special?"

 

"I should ask the same of you." Pale wings stirred in the darkness as the being leaned forward. "Only my adherents may perceive me thus, and you, while strong in the Force, are not of the blood." A cool hand touched Rey's face. A pause, and then, "Ah. I see." The Goddess sounded startled, puzzled, and intrigued all at once. "That changes things."

 

"What does?" Rey demanded. She was being rude but previous experience had taught her that it was sometimes more effective to bully the Force into giving up its secrets. This was yet another source of friction between her and Luke.

 

The Goddess ignored her question. "You seek wisdom. You wish to know the reason for your lack of prowess. There is an ocean in your mind but you can't find it, even if you hear it in the space between heartbeats. Even if you feel echoes of it surge within you."

 

"You imagine an ocean," Kylo had murmured, head bowed and eyes hooded in the bluish light of the interrogation room.

 

A frown marred the Goddess' pristine visage as she, too, saw the memory in Rey's head. "That one is... interesting as well. Oh, the ruin you will bring upon each other."

 

"No surprises there," Rey groused. She didn't need divination to know that her future relationship with Kylo would consist mostly of attempts to inflict grievous bodily harm. "We're getting a bit off topic, though, aren't we?" It was always the same problem with these ghosts or manifestations or whatever she was supposed to call them— when they weren't being unhelpfully vague, they were talking about something else entirely. She needed to be the one to focus. She needed to speak their language. "How do I find the ocean?"

 

"By finding where your power comes from. Where you come from."

 

"It would really save a lot of time if you just told me," Rey helpfully suggested.

 

"Not as much time as you might think," replied the Goddess. "The threads of destiny are coming together. You will learn very soon." She sat back on her knees, hands folded in her lap. "And now he is near. In the mood he's in, I'd advise you to run, but, somehow, I don't think you're going to do that."

 

*

 

It happened so fast. With Rey's next breath, she was in the courtyard of the abandoned temple once more, the surrounding forest soft and purple in the twilight. Stars, how long was I out? she wondered as she got to her feet on joints stiff from staying locked in one position for what must have been hours. In front of her, the fountain sparkled and rippled like nothing had ever happened, like it had never turned into a winged woman in a soundless vacuum of space and time.

 

As the lingering grogginess from the trance lifted, Rey became all too aware that she was not alone. There was someone behind her, his Force signature jagged and raw and furious. At the exact moment that she registered his presence, the unmistakable shriek of a broken kyber crystal flaring to life shattered the air.

 

Rey didn't waste a single second. Igniting her own lightsaber, she spun on her heel and was off in a flash, leaping straight at the masked figure standing a few paces away. Their beams collided and held, sapphire to scarlet, the resulting amethyst haze glinting off of his blank obsidian helm. She'd met him a year ago, in another forest, and he'd been a tight coil of menace and determination while she had been scared out of her wits.

 

This time was different. This time, they were both angry.

 

She pushed off from the blade-lock and set upon Kylo in a barrage of short, quick strikes that drove him backwards even as he deflected with masterful swiftness. Her plan to corner him against one of the pillars failed when he managed to sidestep around her and bring the lethal, serrated edge of his weapon down over her shoulder. She slanted her blade at a defensive angle, and her teeth rang from the force of his blow.

 

"You appear to have marginally improved since we saw each other last." The words emerged in a rumble of static and smoke that sent that same old shiver down her spine. She had dreams about him sometimes, dreams that she could barely remember upon waking, but the mask always came off in the end.

 

"Yeah, well, your uncle is a good teacher." She emphasized that last word, let it sink in like a barb, before kneeing him in the stomach and taking advantage of his momentary falter to put some distance between them, couching her limbs into a balanced two-handed guard with the lightsaber held on the right side of her body.

 

"Had you joined me, I would have started you off with the Ataru form of combat as well," Kylo remarked, "before we unlocked your full potential with Juyo, which I am certain Skywalker hasn't told you about because he is a weak and foolish man afraid of the dark." He assumed an opening stance of his own, scarlet crossguard angled to the ground, feet closely spaced. "But the time for that has long since passed. I know now that it was my compassion for you that proved to be my undoing. Consider my offer formally rescinded."

 

"What a tragedy," Rey mocked. "And you and I have very different definitions of compassion."

 

"And of tragedy, too."

 

When they crashed into each other again, it was vicious and relentless, the energy from the nexus augmenting both their powers until the temple's ancient stone foundations were shaking and the starlit forest was ablaze with sound and fury. He'd had a year to stew, to lick his wounds, and to let the resentment fester, and it showed in the way he bypassed disarming maneuvers in favor of going straight for the kill. It was much the same for her, too, all of Luke's platitudes about self-restraint vanishing in the face of this man who'd murdered his own father and almost mortally injured Finn. When they skidded apart after another exchange of blows, Kylo's hand stretched out and Rey felt the Force constrict around her, lifting her off her feet and hauling her towards the screeching edges of those intersected beams of red light. Summoning all her strength, she threw off his telekinetic grip and twisted her body in midair so that she slammed into him instead. His lightsaber flew out of his grasp and he landed hard on the floor of the courtyard, flat on his back with her straddling his hips and her blade humming at his throat.

 

"How did you find me?" she growled.

 

"The Force betrayed you." She could hear the sneer in his voice, arrogant and exultant as if he wasn't about to get his head cut off. "Did you think you could commune with a nexus point without me knowing, when I was only a few systems away?" His fingers twitched and, with a mighty groan, the nearest stone pillar cracked at the base and came toppling down over their heads. She automatically raised a hand to keep it still— the act of doing so was effortless, like breathing, here in this place where energy swept through her in mighty currents— but, the moment her lightsaber lifted from his neck, he surged upwards, rolling her over and to the side, the ground vibrating as the dislodged pillar smashed into the spot where they had been a scant half-second ago.

 

Now the one on her back, Rey glared up at the expressionless black helm looming above her. "You could have killed us both!"

 

"Wouldn't that have been poetic," he mused, "for you and I to die together?"

 

"You're crazy." Her fingers scrabbled at the tiles, feeling around for the lightsaber she had dropped, but he was having none of it, pinning her wrist to the floor with one heavy, leather-clad hand.

 

And then the Force... left. That was the only way to describe it, the sudden absence akin to the immediate ringing stillness after a door had been slammed shut. "Perhaps next time you will think twice before destroying my temple," the Goddess hissed in Rey's ear, followed by— nothing. Absolutely nothing.

 

"What was that?" Kylo demanded, his body tense and strained on top of hers. As if he'd heard it, too. " Who was that?"

 

Rey opened her mouth to issue some form of snappy retort. To rail at him for always, always ruining everything, for being a continued blight on her existence and on the galaxy at large. But, at that precise moment, a smattering of footsteps reverberated throughout the courtyard, mingled with the unmistakable clicking sound of safeties being deactivated.

 

"On your feet!" a stern, masculine voice commanded. " Slowly. Hands up where we can see them."

Chapter Text

There was no true night in the Hapes Cluster. The region's high density of stars, nebulae, and moons— as well as the glow coming off the Mists— saturated the evening sky with bright light that shifted from purple to silver to blue depending on the dance of the satellites. Despite this, the twenty armored figures surrounding Kylo and Rey were wearing what appeared to be night vision goggles as they took careful aim with bulky, long-barreled pistols.

 

"Hapans are beautiful, but they can't see in the dark" was a common proverb among the spacers that passed through Niima Outpost. Rey had always assumed that it was a metaphor but there seemed to be some truth to it, after all, and this part of the forest was relatively dim due to the thick tree canopy. She and Kylo extricated themselves from each other and stood up— she would have shoved him away from her in a fit of sheer pettiness if instinct hadn't warned that any sudden movements would be ill-received.

 

Her lightsaber was three feet away. She made a halfhearted attempt to summon it into her palm, already knowing that it wouldn't work. There was a gaping hole in her soul where the Force used to be, where it had been severed by a vengeful Goddess thanks to Kylo shattering that pillar. "If we manage to get out of this alive, I'm going to wring your neck," she promised him in a savage undertone.

 

Before he could respond, however, the Hapan who'd ordered them to put their hands up stepped forward. While the goggles made it difficult to gauge his line of sight, the skin on Rey's nape prickled like he was staring directly at her.

 

"No, of course not," he muttered to himself after a while, shaking his head as if to clear it. "That's impossible."

 

"Captain Elerron." One of the men who'd been conducting a sweep of the premises hurried over to his superior, Kylo's and Rey's weapons clutched in his hands. "Lightsabers, sir."

 

All traces of bewilderment vanished from the captain's demeanor as he reacted to the perceivably dangerous situation with a swift decisiveness befitting his rank. "Stun them!" he barked. "Now!"

 

Rey ducked beneath the initial onslaught of blaster bolts. Even though it had been a while since she'd last fought without the benefit of her Force abilities, it was muscle memory all the same. She broke through the circle of soldiers, swept one man's legs out from under him, and yanked his pistol from his hands. At the corner of her eye, Kylo had charged as well, was now exchanging blows with two of the soldiers while the others tried to fire at him without hitting their compatriots. Hearing the telltale click of blaster settings being calibrated behind her, Rey turned around and—

 

Drop the gun, whispered a voice in her mind. Her own voice? Her own thoughts? The command grew more insistent as she stared down the barrel of her new opponent's pistol in the moonlight. Yes, she should obey...

 

The blaster that she'd procured clattered to the ground. The soldier she was facing adjusted his weapon's settings once more and squeezed the trigger, and at first there was a burst of green light, followed by—

 

darkness—

 

*

 

Rey woke up in a cell, somewhere. She had been deposited onto a small cot only marginally softened by a thin mattress and a threadbare pillow, the battered metal creaking as she sat up. There was a window high on one wall, outfitted with durasteel bars that were too closely spaced to squeeze through but let in generous amounts of muggy tropical air and illumination from the radiant night sky— enough for her to see, without any problems, the hulking figure sitting on the cot opposite hers, his gloved fingers digging into the edge of the mattress and his booted feet planted firmly on the floor.

 

She swallowed nervously as she realized she was looking at Kylo Ren's unmasked face for the first time in a year. Waves of disheveled black hair framed his pale, angular features, now bisected by a scar that ran from his brow all the way down to the corner of one cheek. I did that, she thought with a surge of pride. Everything else was more or less the same, save for his expression. He had studied her with calm, academic curiosity in the interrogation room and gazed upon her in guarded surprise and reluctant awe during their fight in the snows of Starkiller Base, but now he was outright scowling at her, dark eyes narrowed and lower lip jutting out with a petulance that she would have considered childish if she hadn't known this man and what he was capable of.

 

"How long was I out?" Rey demanded, matching his glare as best as she could.

 

"I came to shortly before you did. However, our gracious hosts have not seen fit to grant us the luxury of a chrono." Kylo's natural voice was as soft and deep as she remembered, if about ten times more sarcastic and sharpened by an intense dislike. "In any case, telling time is the least of our problems."

 

"Our problems? You mean this mess you've gotten us into?" she snapped.

 

"By all means, please expound," he said icily. "I wait on tenterhooks for a breakdown of the mental gymnastics that led you to believe any of this is my fault."

 

"You heard the Goddess! If you hadn't destroyed that pillar, we could've neutralized those men with the Force. Or, at least—" she sniffed in disdain— "I could have."

 

She'd hoped to rile him into giving her the screaming match she sorely needed but, instead, Kylo fell silent, a hint of contemplation breaking through the ire on his face. The visual effect was unsettling, like the silhouette of some fanged predator gliding just beneath the surface of the tides on Ahch-To.

 

"So that's what it was," he said at last.

 

Rey's brow creased. "You asked me—"

 

"I felt something, yes. A presence, right before the Force was— taken away. But I had no idea as to the nature of the culprit, or even that they said anything." Kylo smirked at her while she seethed at having inadvertently divulged sensitive information to the enemy. "A goddess, was it? Goddess of what?"

 

"None of your business," she retorted. "Anyway, it's still your fault for coming after me. I've no doubt it was the ruckus that drew the Hapans to our location."

 

He looked his rather considerable nose down at her. "I was merely attempting to recover my grandfather's lightsaber— my birthright, which you stole—"

 

"Is it really stealing if it comes when called?" she asked him with an air of goading, venomous sweetness.

 

He sprang to his feet and she followed out of an instinct to keep his movements in check. They met in the middle of the distance between the cots, so close that she could smell him, the sweat and smoke of battle mingling with the cold metal of starships and the lingering woodsy spice of aftershave to produce an unexpectedly heady combination. Coupled with the wrath in his star-cut eyes, she felt like she was drowning, would drown in him— "You imagine an ocean, I see it, I see the island"— but she held her ground, lifting her chin, baring her teeth.

 

"The next time we test our respective skills in the Force, little scavenger," he warned, "I will not be bleeding out from a bowcaster wound to the stomach and you will regret your arrogance."

 

"If there is a next time," she shot back, "because right now we are in a cell and we can't use the Force and these Hapans don't seem the type to let us go with a light slap on the wrist!"

 

They were jolted from their impasse by the sound of doors opening and closing, footsteps, and conversation, muffled through a layer of metal that was apparently thin enough to facilitate eavesdropping. Rey hurriedly stepped away from Kylo, keeping a wary eye on him as she pressed her ear to the wall. Unfortunately, the people on the other side were speaking in a lyrical, staccato-laden tongue that she couldn't parse. It occurred to her that the captain— Elerron, was it?— and the soldier who'd found the lightsabers hadn't had accents. Perhaps they'd been using the same type of electronic translators that the Resistance wore in the field on worlds where Basic wasn't the common language.

 

She stalked back to her cot and sat down with a frustrated huff. Across the room, Kylo mirrored her actions, albeit more quietly.

 

"What do you know about the inhabitants of this cluster?" he asked. It was obvious that his animosity, like hers, had been lessened somewhat by the signs of life beyond the cell reminding them of their mutual predicament.

 

Not much, Rey inwardly conceded. The few Hapans that found their way to Jakku were pirates, outcasts, keeping to themselves and never staying long. "They're classified as near-Human," she said slowly, "but they're pretty much isolated from the rest of the galaxy because most outsiders can't navigate the Transitory Mists. They're all eerily beautiful, and they're ruled by a queen—"

 

"The Queen Mother," Kylo corrected. "Their government is a constitutional monarchy called the Hapes Consortium. And, unless I miss my guess, they have found a way to repel the Force. Not like at the temple," he was quick to clarify. "What happened there was on account of a different entity altogether. If she truly is a goddess, then that kind of nullification effect would be confined to her place of worship. The fact that our captors reacted with such alarm upon discovery of our lightsabers suggests that they are ignorant of the temple's properties, and the fact that they know we are Force users but have not bothered to restrain us suggests that they possess alternative methods of containing our kind."

 

"I'm nothing like you," Rey countered grumpily. "And how can you be so sure that she's not the goddess of the Hapans?"

 

"Because the Hapans," Kylo explained with an impatient sigh, "consider the Queen Mother their goddess. Now, unless you are telling me that Ta'a Chume is suddenly capable of turning incorporeal—"

 

Rey interrupted him, stung by his condescending tone. "So, did you learn all of this from your mother?" It was probably safe to say that he had. Leia was a living, breathing compendium of galactic politics.

 

The color drained from his face. "That is not a subject for discussion."

 

"Oh, I don't know, I kind of like talking about it, Ben."

 

He lunged too fast for her to react. Before she knew it, she was sprawled on the mattress with him on top of her, the cot groaning under their combined weight, one hand clasped loosely around her neck. "If you ever—" he was all of a sudden shaking so hard he could barely get the words out— "call me by that name again—" He stopped, seemingly at a loss for a suitable threat even though he could have strangled her right then and there, and Rey was once again confronting the unhinged, haunted-looking man she had bested last year as a planet collapsed all around them, a hollow-eyed specter exuding fury and despair in equal measure.

 

"You'll what?" she goaded him as the worn leather of his glove pressed into her throat. "Kill me like you killed Han?"

 

"Everything I have ever done was not without purpose," Kylo muttered, sounding almost feverish. "To gain strength, I had to first gain victory over the self—"

 

"You took the life of someone who loved you," she bit out, because that was one of the things that lay at the heart of her resentment, wasn't it? That was one of the reasons her anger had grown roots as time passed. She'd yearned for her family for as long as she could remember and he'd thrown the gift of his away. "Your father walked onto that bridge wanting to bring you back to the light, but you—"

 

The door to the cell slid open with a hiss of hydraulics. The Hapan captain peered at the star-dusted scene of Kylo frozen above Rey on the cot.

 

"It would seem that this is a habit for the two of you," Elerron wryly commented.

 

*

 

The prisoners were to be interrogated separately, and Rey had the dubious honor of going first. Her wrists handcuffed behind her back, she was escorted by no less than five masked soldiers, two of them gripping each of her arms and one nudging a blaster at her spine as the captain led the way down a narrow corridor that looked every inch as sterile and utilitarian as the halls of Starkiller Base. Now that she had the opportunity, she studied her captors; their armor was crafted from a heavier material than the plastoid composite of stormtroopers' but more tapered to their bodies and polished black, with a silver trim. The other two soldiers were sticking close to her, each one carrying a large cylindrical container with the glass opaqued to hide its contents from view— the same sort of device that Rey had noticed fastened to the wall just outside her and Kylo's cell.

 

There was a distinct absence of interrogation racks in the austere, halo-lit chamber she was ushered into. Instead, she was made to sit at a metal table while the cylinders were arranged on opposite ends of the room. The soldiers filed out, leaving Rey alone with the captain, who took the chair across from hers, removed his helmet, and placed it on the table. He was in his late forties or early fifties, startlingly handsome, with a salt-and-pepper undercut and piercing gray eyes. There was indeed an electronic translator clipped to his ear, the mouthpiece grazing along his chiseled jaw.

 

"I am Captain Antares Elerron of the Mist Patrol, charged by Her Imperial Majesty Ta'a Chume, She Who Has No Equal, to keep our borders safe," he announced in a formal tone of voice. "Many decades have passed since lightsabers were last seen in Hapes. We had, as a matter of fact, been given to believe that the Jedi were no longer extant."

 

"And yet here I am." Rey was actually just an apprentice, but he didn't need to know that. "Where's here, exactly?"

 

"The Royal Hapan Armed Forces' garrison on Stalsinek IV."

 

That was a relief, at least. Once she got out of here, it would be easy to lose any pursuers in the rainforest while she made for the clearing where she'd stashed the Falcon. But perhaps there was no need to escape; perhaps this man could be reasoned with. "Look," Rey said, "I'm sorry for trespassing. I meant no harm—"

 

She broke off abruptly. Elerron had drawn his pistol and was now aiming it right between her eyes. "How did you find your way through the Transitory Mists?" he inquired, calm yet firm.

 

Tell the truth.

 

"Instinctive astrogation." The words fell from Rey's lips as effortlessly as the gun had fallen from her hand back at the white temple. "The Force allows me to determine the safest path through hyperspace no matter where I am."

 

"Why did you come here?"

 

Tell the truth.

 

"To meditate at what your people call the Fountain of Youth, which in reality is a convergence of the Living Force."

 

"What is your name?"

 

Tell the truth.

 

"Rey."

 

Elerron fired off question after question and she answered every single one. Before long, she had told him what she had seen at the fountain and who Kylo was and why they had been fighting, and even though there was a small part of her that was aware she was being compelled by some intangible mechanism, it was eclipsed by her willingness. Her obedience to... herself?

 

It was the gun. Rey grew more certain as the minutes passed. It was releasing an electromagnetic wave field that interfered with her thought processes, prompting her to acquiesce to Elerron's unspoken commands as if it were her own brain issuing them. She might have been able to circumvent the effect with the Force, but...

 

Her gaze flickered to one of the cylinders in the corner. Following her line of sight, Elerron flashed a tight smile. "One invention we can thank the Chiss for," he remarked. "The Ascendancy and the Consortium don't agree on a lot of things, but we are united in recognizing the threat posed by this phenomenon that your lot hold in such high regard. However, the parameters of this interrogation ensure that it is impossible for you to fabricate, so I believe that you have no ill designs. There remains just one more question to be asked." He took a breath, as if steeling himself for whatever was to come, looking for a moment much older than his years. "What is your relation to Teneniel Djo?"

 

"I have no idea who that is."

 

Elerron frowned. He glanced down at the pistol in his hand, confirming Rey's suspicions that the weapon was bending her will to his. "Who are your parents?"

 

Rey's heart skipped a beat. "I don't know. My family abandoned me on Jakku, in the Western Reaches, when I was very young." No, that wasn't right, they hadn't abandoned her. They were going to come back, she just had to get this war over and done with so that she, too, could return—

 

"Dear child, I see it in your eyes," Maz had said. "You already know the truth."

 

Elerron's composure had slipped. A slight but visible tremor ran through his lean frame as he stared at her, seemingly at a loss for words. Before Rey could ponder this strange turn of events, the door opened and one of the soldiers standing guard outside poked his head into the room.

 

"Captain," he said, "the prince is here."

 


 

The Stalsinek IV garrison was a rudimentary military installation on a sparsely populated backwater world; thus, the unit stationed there simply did not know how to deal with the arrival of the Queen Mother's son and several members of the elite Royal Guard. The whole base was thrown into an uproar, and Lance Corporal Obran Jantsk was in a distracted mood as he hurried to find an astromech droid who could repair the hull of the prince's consular vessel that had been scraped up while docking on the too-small landing pad.

 

Already severely rattled from when one of the fearsome Chume'doro had nearly hurled him into the wall for forgetting to holster his gun in His Highness' presence, Jantsk failed to immediately alert a superior when he noticed that the prisoners' cell had been left unguarded. He was just about to pass by the door when the sharp knock of a weighty fist thudded from the other side.

 

Clicking his tongue in impatience, the young lance corporal activated the intercom. "Yes, what is it?"

 

"'Fresher's broken," grunted the male prisoner, his words a touch garbled through the static of the audio feed.

 

In conditions of high stress, the brain sometimes tends to oversimplify. A 'fresher needed fixing; otherwise, the task of cleaning up the resultant mess might fall to the lowly soldier who hadn't rectified the problem as soon as possible. Jantsk had not been part of the team that brought the trespassers in, but the other men had boasted that they went down without a fight, and, while they'd been in possession of lightsabers, the mysterious power that he'd only heard about from old folk tales was apparently disabled by the ysalamiri cage hung outside the cell. Not to mention that every second he'd stand there waiting for a maintenance droid was another second that an astromech droid wouldn't be fixing the prince's ship.

 

"All right, stand back," Jantsk instructed. "I'm coming in."

 


 

The tall, fair-skinned man who entered the interrogation chamber at a brisk pace cut an intimidating figure in his chain-mail cuirass and flowing scarlet cape. His graying blond hair was pushed back from his high forehead by a golden circlet crafted in a laurel wreath's likeness, and the face beneath the intricate arrangement of precious metal was so immaculately proportioned and fine-boned despite the lines of age that Rey could at first do nothing but look at him. She'd only ever viewed the Hapans on Jakku from a distance but, judging from Elerron and this newcomer, the rumors of their unearthly beauty hadn't been exaggerated.

 

That wasn't the only reason she was gawking, however. He was also familiar, in a way that she couldn't place but nagged at her like a dull toothache. Had she seen him before?

 

The prince's silvery blue eyes had been trained on the captain from the moment he swept into the room. "Antares, you'd better have a good reason," he said in Basic, "for summoning me from the capital in the midst of the succession debate—" His gaze darted to Rey. And stayed there.

 

Rey was no stranger to haunted expressions. She'd seen it on Kylo, and on Luke and Leia from time to time. This was different, though— more potent on a soul-searing level. The Hapan prince was literally looking at her as if she were a ghost.

 

"Teneniel," he whispered.

 

That name again. Before Rey could open her mouth to demand who that was and what the hell was going on, Elerron spoke up. "My men and I were out on a routine patrol when we found her and another intruder at the temple, Prince Isolder. She says she was abandoned in the Western Reaches when she was a child. She has no memory of her parents. However, she has a lightsaber and she saw the Lady Teneniel's winged goddess in a vision."

 

"So she is Force-sensitive," Isolder said without taking his eyes off Rey, "just like her mo—"

 

"We don't know that for sure," Elerron hastened to tell him. "I recommend a DNA test first."

 

"Have you gone blind?" Isolder snapped. "Do you not see what is in front of you, that she is the spitting image of my late wife? And who else may perceive the winged goddess if not the descendants of Allya? There is no doubt about it, Captain." And then he said the words that turned Rey's world upside down. "She is my daughter."

 


 

Not for the first time, Lieutenant Varik Nalto bemoaned the dearth of competent men in the border regiments as he searched the garrison for Jantsk. The kid was eager to please but not particularly quick-witted, and he was supposed to have returned to the landing dock with an astromech droid almost thirty minutes ago.

 

Upon rounding the corner, Nalto stopped short, the blood freezing in his veins. The door to the conspicuously empty cell was open, and the ysalamiri cage had been ripped from the wall and was now lying on the floor in shattered pieces. The lizard-like creature it had contained was dead, had been shot with a blaster from the looks of it, its tawny-furred body still clinging pitifully to the nutrient frame that had made it possible for the ysalamir to survive away from the olbio trees of its native planet.

 

Nalto could not dwell on either the brutal loss of life or the waste of valuable technology— there were more pressing matters to attend to. He unclipped the comlink from his belt, his heart pounding as he barked into the mouthpiece, "Attention, all troops! Prisoner on the loose. I repeat, prisoner on the loose."

Chapter Text

Rey had dreamed about this moment for fifteen long, parched years. As she'd prowled through the bellies of defunct starships and hauled nets over the sands and scrubbed parts free of grime, as she'd curled up in her scrap metal bolt-hole at night and mixed flour with precious water and closed her eyes while the X'us'R'iia screamed through the land, her imagination had been her refuge, conjuring a different set of circumstances every time. She'd often wondered what her family would say when they found her, if they would hold her in their arms, if the only tears shed would be happy ones at last.

 

In none of even the most dramatic, far-fetched scenarios had she been in handcuffs, and she'd definitely never imagined that her first words to the man who was purportedly her father would be, "I'm your what?"

 

"My daughter," Isolder repeated, his aristocratic features softening as he took a step towards her. "Kira—"

 

She sprang to her feet, some latent sense of panic spurring her to retreat further into the room, shaking her head. "My name is Rey."

 

For a moment Isolder looked like he was about to argue, but the pallor on her face and the trepidation in her eyes must have made him decide that a more delicate touch was required. "Yes, you are Rey," he said slowly, "Rey of the Western Reaches, who walks with the Force. But you are also Kira Ka Djo, only child of Isolder of Hapes and Teneniel of Dathomir, granddaughter of the Most Revered Ta'a Chume, and rightful heir to the Hapan throne."

 

"Your Highness, I must counsel against such premature declarations," Elerron said, looking aggrieved. "In spite of the striking resemblance, Her Majesty would never accept—"

 

Isolder waved a dismissive hand. "Of course there will be a DNA test for formality's sake. However, it will only confirm what I already know to be true." His full attention swung back to Rey, who noticed much to her discomfort that his blue eyes were wet with tears. "I know you, you see. You were such a mischievous, tiny thing, always trying to yank this—" he motioned to the circlet he wore— "off my head every time I carried you. But I could never stay mad for long because you'd blink up at me with your mother's eyes and smile her smile... I would know you anywhere. Another fifteen years could have passed before we found each other again and my heart would still tell me that you are mine. Do you not remember your papa at all, even if only a little bit?"

 

No, Rey thought. I don't. Luke had speculated that her past was mostly a nebulous haze of disjointed images because of flashburn, a phenomenon wherein a Force-sensitive mind deleted painful memories in order to cope with emotional trauma. Still, it had never occurred to her that she wouldn't feel an instant connection to her family once she was reunited with them. The Hapan prince was familiar, yes, but she was bewildered by the odd situation, helpless with her hands bound and the Force blocked off. This was such a far cry from the joyous meeting of her childhood fantasies that she felt cheated— and furious.

 

"You can't be my family," she snarled at Isolder as a horrible, aching sensation burned in her chest. "Because that means— look, people dump their children because they can't provide for them or keep them safe. You're a— you're royalty." She practically spat the word out. "You're flush. And that means you either left me behind on Jakku or sent me there because— because you didn't want me." It was a possibility she'd secretly feared but couldn't bring herself to acknowledge. She'd had to live on hope as she fought over scrap in the dirt with the other scavengers, as hunger gnawed at her stomach, as R'iia blotted out the sun. My family loves me, they love me, surely there is someone out there who loves me. "So, no, you can't be my family," she repeated. "I won't believe it."

 

"Ki— Rey," Isolder corrected himself when her hackles rose as he started to call her by the name that was not hers, "please allow me to explain. Let's sit down— Elerron, take those blasted restraints off of her. It is exceedingly bad form to treat the Chume'da like a criminal."

 

Wondering if she had just been insulted in the Hapan tongue, Rey glared at Isolder as Elerron cautiously approached, sidling around her to input a numerical combination that activated the handcuffs' release. She shook feeling back into her wrists and stretched arms that had been locked in one position for too long, but she stayed where she was, on her feet. She might need to make a break for it should things go downhill.

 

If he was bothered by her refusal of his invitation to sit down, Isolder didn't show it. Instead, he remained standing as well, casting an imperious look at Elerron and inclining his head in the direction of the door. The beleaguered captain opened his mouth as if to argue, but then appeared to think better of it, shooting one last searching glance over his shoulder as he left the room.

 

"Antares is a good man," Isolder remarked once he and Rey were alone. "A fine soldier, if a bit still smarting from his demotion fifteen years ago." He sighed. "I want to tell you everything, Rey, and I hope that someday you will let me. However, given your current mood and the circumstances, I think it would be best to skip ahead and address the issue of why you were sent away. Believe me, if there had been any other option—" He paused, staring for a moment at some harrowing event in the past that only he could see. "When you were five years old, a civil war broke out in the Hapes Cluster. My brother Kalen led a rebellion composed of those who were dissatisfied with the Queen Mother's reign. There were a great many of them, mostly from the Rifle Worlds and the Lorelli Reach, and they believed in their cause strongly enough to kill anyone who got in the way. They attacked the capital and routed our forces, and you and Ta'a Chume were evacuated in separate ships. I would have given anything for us to stay together but my place was with my people."

 

Memory was a tricky thing. Rey had strained to recall as much as she could over the years, coming up with nothing but a slew of blurred faces and an atmosphere of overwhelming panic. However, the longer Isolder spoke, the more the vagueness solidified, until she could see flames all around her and a hand touching her cheek in both farewell and benediction, and then air and sky.

 

"You were in so much danger," Isolder continued in a low, tense voice. "You were the Chume'da, the heir. Kalen would never have spared your life, no matter how young you were. His ideology had twisted him, rotted him from the inside. I killed him myself a month later, on the bluffs of the Fountain Palace. With his death, the tide changed and what was left of the Armed Forces managed to retake Hapes and crush the rebellion. Ta'a Chume returned and all was right again, except for one thing. We couldn't find you. Your ship's signal had gone dark."

 

"Who else was on board?" Rey asked in little more than a whisper. Faint silhouettes tugged at some long-buried part of her mind— women in armor, the lower halves of their faces covered by masks.

 

"A nursemaid and two members of the Royal Guard. They were supposed to bring you to Orinda, where the New Republic had just transferred its capital and where I had influential friends who could give you their protection, but you never made it to the rendezvous point."

 

"And the woman I look like... Teneniel Djo..." Rey trailed off. She already knew, didn't she? She'd heard Isolder talk to Elerron about his late wife. That was one of the reasons she hadn't wanted to believe him in the first place. If he truly was her father, that meant her mother was dead.

 

"Teneniel passed away not long after you were born," Isolder replied, his sorrow shining through the span of years in such a manner that one could clearly imagine how it must have blazed when the wound was still fresh.

 

And before Rey could even react to that, before she could pick apart the tangled threads of her mixed emotions and attempt to understand whether she felt grief or nothing for a woman she didn't know, the door burst open, and all hell broke loose.

 

She absorbed every detail of the scene. She must have— because, when she looked back on it in the months to come, she would recall with the piercing clarity of rising adrenaline the spiked heavy armor of the Chume'doro, statuesque and half-masked women with cannons mounted on their broad shoulders, and the way Elerron's mouth had tightened into an urgent line. She would remember someone saying in Basic, "Your Highness, the other prisoner has escaped, he has recovered his weapon, you must leave."

 

But in the present moment, in the here and now, she registered only the concept of escaped prisoner and recovered weapon before she shot out of the interrogation room like a rocket, shoving past the guards, ignoring the cries that trailed in her wake, running as fast as her feet could carry her down the metal corridors where the air rang with sirens, running along with soldiers carrying guns that she already knew wouldn't do any good, not if Kylo Ren had recovered the Force.

 

It returned to her, too, at about five meters away from those strange cylindrical containers. It crashed through her in waves, bringing with it the magnetic pull of her quarry, the jagged flare of his energy signature. Some of the soldiers pouring out from the barracks and the mess hall tried to stop her— hell, they probably thought she was the subject of the alert— but she swept them aside with raw telekinetic blasts, their bodies slamming against the walls, their weapons clattering to the floor. Eventually she outpaced them all, darting from the garrison's main building and into the warm summer night, where the landing pad was littered with corpses, where a scarlet crossguard shrieked beneath a net of constellations as it was plunged through the chest of the last soldier standing.

 

Rey advanced on Kylo with a renewed burst of speed, but he was too far away, already climbing into the cockpit of a Miy'til starfighter, the hilt of the Skywalker blade glinting conspicuously from his utility belt. He'd donned his helm and yet, somehow, she just knew he was smirking in triumph as he gave her one last look before the transparisteel canopy closed over him.

 

"Oh, no, you don't!" Rey shouted even though he couldn't hear her over the roar of 6X4 fusial thrust engines. She scrambled to commandeer a fighter of her own while, behind her, Isolder reeled off commands in Hapan— possibly stand down or something similar, because no lasers were fired in her direction.

 

Rey barely spared a thought for them; the universe had narrowed to encompass only the snowy beams of Kylo's starfighter as he coasted over the treetops. It wasn't long before she followed, her knuckles clenched to white around the yoke, the ground falling away, the dashboard blaring with unheeded warnings to reduce speed, the forest opening up into—

 

air and sky—

 

*

 

While she dearly treasured the idea of shooting Kylo down and retrieving the lightsaber from the twisted wreckage, she abstained from firing right away, instead cutting him off with a groan of thrusters pushed to their limit and forcing his ship lower, to an altitude that would at the very least make a crash survivable. She loathed him with every fiber of her being but, at the end of the day, she had no wish to be the one who killed Leia's son.

 

To her surprise, the transceiver crackled to life as she glided over the woods, hot on his tail. "This hardly seems like the time and place to have it out," he observed in a crisp, static-tinged voice that contained a sliver of amusement. The ass was gloating.

 

"Should've thought about that before you made off with my lightsaber." Setting the cannons to stutter-fire, Rey clipped at his wings— or tried to. He dodged her lasers with ease, the white starfighter zigzagging through the silver night like some ephemeral wraith, bolts of emerald green plasma missing its hull by centimeters. He was a good pilot, much to her annoyance, and she would have to up her game—

 

No sooner had the thought occurred to her when he pulled into a sharp ascent, spiraling in the air and then dropping behind her. Suddenly she was the one being pursued. Growling under her breath, Rey jerked hard on the yoke, bringing her ship into an abrupt about-face that nearly snapped her neck. The two Miy'til starfighters hurtled towards each other, lasers colliding in violent explosions that trailed fiery sparks down onto the rainforest canopy.

 

Kylo and Rey swerved at the same time, mere seconds before what would have been a devastating impact. She was still regrouping from the dizzying move when he told her over the shortwave, "For the record, it's my lightsaber," and darted up into the stratosphere.

 

Rey didn't give chase. There was no point— she couldn't bring herself to make a kill-shot, and she couldn't follow him through hyperspace. She landed on a riverbank and thumped the dashboard once the starfighter had powered down. That failed to take the edge off of her frustration, so she screamed as well, the wordless sound ear-splitting in the dark and silent cockpit.

 

*

 

She navigated the moonlit forest on foot, searching for the Falcon. Occasionally she would hear the drone of ion engines overhead and duck beneath the tree cover to avoid being spotted by what were most certainly search patrols. Part of her desperately wanted to return to the garrison and demand more answers from the Hapan prince, but another part was...

 

Afraid. It took a few more minutes of stumbling through the undergrowth for her to figure out that she was afraid. What if the DNA test revealed that she wasn't of Isolder's blood and that her resemblance to his dead wife was pure coincidence? After all, the whole thing seemed too outlandish to believe. She was a scavenger, she was no one, she was definitely not a long-lost princess.

 

Was princess even the right term? Isolder had called her something else. He had called her the Chume'da.

 

The heir to the throne.

 

She shivered in the humid breeze. If she was Kira Ka Djo, that seemed even more ominous, like when Maz had told her to take the Skywalker blade and to wield the Force. Back then, she'd up and bolted— into a forest, right into Kylo.

 

The irony was not lost on Rey.

 

She found his ship first, the sleek black Upsilon- class shuttle he'd used to get to Stalsinek IV. Aside from giving it a kick as she passed by, she left well enough alone. Let there be proof that the First Order had trespassed on Consortium territory. Another hour of walking led her to the pale gray silhouette of the Falcon, playing host to a gaggle of beek-monkeys that skittered away at her approach.

 

Once inside the freighter, Rey checked her messages. Her heart stopped cold at a communique from Leia that, after being patched through the usual decryption sequence, informed her of the Resistance's defeat at Taanab and ended with a directive to return to base as soon as possible. This was bad— Taanab had been one of the last Republic strongholds along the Perlemian Trade Route. This meant that only the Anaxes fortress, the Ringali Shell, and Orus stood between the First Order and Coruscant.

 

"I have to go," Rey said out loud, testing the words on her tongue. She balked at the prospect of leaving without a resolution to the mystery of her past, but the Resistance needed her. There was the family she'd wanted to find and there was the family she'd found along the way, and there was no question where she had to be right now.

 

As the Falcon shot out from the woodland and into the stars, Rey glanced at a corner of the viewport. Lights burned from distant windows down on the ground, and she wondered if at this very moment Isolder was watching her go the same way her five-year-old self had watched a ship take to the skies. I'll come back, she thought. Someday, when the war was over and she owed nothing more to the bonds it had forged. I promise.

 


 

Coruscant was in the middle of its day cycle when Rey arrived at the military headquarters that the Resistance now shared with the vestiges of the Republic fleet— those that had been stationed elsewhere at the time of the Hosnian system's destruction. The atmosphere in this sprawling complex of stately buildings had been growing increasingly dour as the First Order advanced deeper into the known galaxy with each passing month, and, today, Rey could almost taste the despair that emanated from the people milling about in the hangar bay when she disembarked. And yet they still looked at her with such a stubborn, hungry gleam in their eyes that she felt like a fraud. Hope was the legacy of the Jedi, as Luke had said with perhaps just the slightest trace of bitterness, but some Jedi she was, almost causing a diplomatic incident and losing her lightsaber on her first solo mission.

 

Finn was waiting for her at the entrance to the hangars, his smile welcoming and genuine, if lacking its usual brightness. While Rey was certain she would have felt it if something bad had happened to him on Taanab, she still couldn't help scanning for injuries before rushing into his open arms. "You're all right!" he exclaimed into the crook of her neck. "You were gone for so long, I thought—"

 

"I'm fine," she hastened to assure him, squeezing his broad frame one last time before pulling away. "I'm glad you're okay, too."

 

"Phasma almost had me," Finn said as they began the long walk to Leia's office. "But I somehow— I mean, her blaster rifle jammed on its own, or maybe not. I wanted it to, and it did."

 

Rey smirked. "Yeah, I love it when that happens. You know, if you let Master Luke train—"

 

Finn interrupted her, not because he was annoyed but because this was an old argument between them. "Right now, the Resistance needs my skill in armed combat and my familiarity with First Order tactics. I can help more people this way."

 

She made a show of rolling her eyes, belying the small, fond smile on her lips. "Carry on, then, Lieutenant."

 

Finn retaliated with a good-natured bump of his shoulder against hers. "Enough about me— how was your trip? Did you find the nexus?" His brow creased as he noticed what was missing from her utility belt. "Rey, where's your lightsaber?"

 

She told him the whole story as quickly as she could, barely pausing for breath between sentences, not particularly caring that she would have to repeat herself to Leia in a few minutes. Finn deserved to know everything first; he'd earned that. At first he listened with the stone-faced expression that came so naturally to military men and women, nodding in all the right places, but, the more she recounted, the more his jaw dropped, until he was outright gaping at her by the time they reached the hallway of offices belonging to High Command.

 

"You're a princess!" His awed whisper rang through the quiet corridor, eliciting curious glances from passersby.

 

"Not so loud," she admonished, tapping a security code into the keypad of the door at which they'd stopped. "Besides, that's not confirmed yet—"

 

The door slid open and Finn charged inside. "Rey's a princess," he announced to Leia, who was sitting at her desk, and to Luke, who was standing by the window.

 

"Finn!" Rey hissed, scurrying over the threshold as two pairs of Skywalker eyes blinked at her. "I told you, we're not sure—"

 

"Oh, I'm sorry, Your Majesty—"

 

"Don't call me that!"

 

Leia cleared her throat. "Only kings and queens are 'Your Majesty.' Princes and princesses are 'Your Highness.' But I think," she said, gesturing for them to be seated, "you had better start from the beginning."

 

*

 

Rey had expected Luke and Leia to listen to the entirety of her debrief with more composure than Finn had shown. She was, however, dead wrong. Mention of Kylo was met with the stoicism borne of old pain, but hearing Isolder's name for the first time caused Luke to glance at his twin with a flicker of mild amusement.

 

"Oh, don't you dare start," Leia muttered, suddenly very interested in the polished grain of her quasiwood desk.

 

"I didn't even say anything," Luke protested.

 

"Rey, ignore my brother, he's being an ass," Leia instructed in a brisk tone of voice. "Please continue."

 

Even though she'd just been issued a direct order by a woman she highly respected, Rey found herself hesitating. Pink had crept onto Leia's elegant cheeks, faint but there. General Organa was blushing, and that, somehow, was the strangest thing to have happened over the past twenty-four hours.

 

"The two of you know the Hapan prince?" Finn asked, leaning forward eagerly. He could stand on ceremony along with the best of them but, behind closed doors, he treated Luke and Leia with a heartwarming informality that Rey could never hope to master.

 

" Know is relative," Luke replied. "I've met him. Leia, on the other hand, knows him better than I ever could."

 

"So much for you not saying anything," Leia snapped, and Luke chuckled, and not even the healthiest dose of internal confusion could have stopped Rey from grinning at this glimpse of the fiery young rebels that the Jedi Master and the General had once been.

 

"Luke and I met Isolder during the war— the first one," Leia grumpily explained. "The Rebel Alliance set up a meeting with Ta'a Chume to discuss the possibility of the Hapes Cluster joining our cause. The negotiations lasted for a week and nothing ever came of them— the Consortium didn't want to draw the Empire's attention to their little corner of the Inner Rim— but, during that time, Isolder and I struck up a... camaraderie."

 

"He was sweet on her," Luke clarified, a twinkle in his storm-blue eyes revealing that he was enjoying this perhaps a little too much.

 

Leia scowled at him but didn't deny it. "Our paths crossed again after the war and we'd message from time to time—"

 

"Drove Han nuts," Luke cheerfully interjected.

 

"— Luke!— but we eventually lost touch. As I understand it, there was an uprising in Hapes, and I was busy butting heads with the Senate," concluded Leia. "Returning to the matter at hand— it puzzles me, Rey, that this Captain Elerron would summon the prince to deal with a trespasser in the Corsair Outback, of all places. What did you and Isolder talk about?"

 

*

 

After Rey had finished speaking, the silence that hung in the room was so thick it could have been cut with a knife. Desert silence, she thought a bit frantically. The tense, oppressive stillness of high noon, when everything went dormant in the stifling heat. Only this time she was in a military base on Coruscant, a gentler sort of sunlight filtering in through the windows, falling on furniture and star maps and two age-lined faces that were staring at her in shock as she fidgeted uncomfortably in her chair.

 

"Fifteen years ago, on Orinda," Leia said as if in a daze, "I received an encrypted communique from Isolder telling me that he was entrusting something of great importance to my care. He contacted me again once the rebellion against his mother had been quelled, and he was most distraught when I informed him that no ship from Hapes had arrived. He wouldn't tell me what had been on board. I had no idea that it was—" She rose to her feet and came out from behind her desk, stooping to cradle Rey's face in her hands. In that moment the General looked so much like her son, staring at Rey after the lightsaber flew into her palm instead of his, the wind knocked out of him. "It was the Chume'da," Leia whispered. "It was you."

 

*

 

A droid was called in to extract a blood sample. Without Isolder's DNA, there was no way to either confirm or disprove Rey's exact parentage at the moment, but they could scan for Hapan genes. Leia and Finn accompanied the droid to the medbay after Luke politely requested some time alone with his student, who kept her gaze trained on the floor once it was just the two of them in the office.

 

"Master Luke," she began, swallowing the lump in her throat, "I'm so sorry about your lightsaber—"

 

He shook his head. "It wasn't your fault at all, Rey. My nephew is welcome to it— he might even learn something. What matters to me is that you have returned safe and sound. Besides—" his cybernetic fingers tapped the hilt clipped to his belt— "I am much more attached to the blade I crafted myself. As I suspect you will be, too."

 

Rey looked up. "You mean it? You'll teach me how to make my own...?"

 

"Yes. But first we must talk about your vision at the nexus point. Coupled with this recent news about your parentage— let's assume for now that you are Isolder and Teneniel's child— I believe we've uncovered the reason you have been having trouble with the Force. The entity said you weren't of the blood, and then she seemed to change her mind once she had studied you a little more. I wonder if perhaps she was just unable to detect it right away, diluted as it was by your father's non-human genes. I never met this Teneniel Djo, but Isolder mentioned she was from Dathomir, correct?" Luke waited for Rey to nod before continuing. "That is a planet in the Outer Rim, and I do know a few things about the witch clans who hold dominion there. They are Force-sensitive but they understand the Force in a way that differs vastly from conventional Jedi or even Sith praxis. They treat it as a kind of magic. And they worship the Winged Goddess."

 

"Her goddess," Rey said, mind racing. "That's what Elerron told Isolder— that I saw Teneniel's goddess at the fountain."

 

"That proves it, then. Teneniel Djo left Dathomir, married a Hapan, and somehow stumbled upon a Force nexus in her new territory. There, in the forests of Stalsinek IV, her faith grew roots."

 

"She didn't build the temple, though," Rey pointed out. "The place looked ancient, Master."

 

"The original builders probably erected that temple to a deity of their own," Luke mused. "It's a mystery, to be sure. Who better to solve it than the Royal Highness of that place?"

 

Rey groaned. "You're as bad as Finn. Do me a favor— don't tell Poe yet. He'll never let me hear the end of it. Chewie, too."

 

Their gazes swung towards the door at the familiar scrape of metal. Finn was bouncing on his heels, practically giddy with excitement, but it was Leia who spoke first.

 

"Congratulations, you're royalty," she said to Rey without preamble. "Don't let it get to your head— it's not all it's cracked up to be, I promise. And I have something for you, too." She went back to her desk and rooted around for a while before producing a datastick, which she then pressed into Rey's suddenly ice-cold hand. "This contains the transceiver frequency to the Song of War, Isolder's personal ship. I have no idea if it's still in commission, but it's worth a shot." Her brown eyes softened. "You and your father have a lot of catching up to do."

Chapter Text

36 ABY

One standard year later

 

This isn't happening.

 

Moments, they pulsed like heartbeats, glinting in the arterial red light that flooded the world as Coruscant's Orbital Defense Headquarters fell from the sky in a rain of metal shards the size of small buildings, having been sucked into the planet's gravitational pull and burning upon atmospheric entry to wreak flame and havoc on the city below.

 

This isn't happening.

 

The stray thought flitted across the surface of Rey's mind every now and then, as if the nth time would be the charm and she'd wake up to a reality where the First Order had not converged upon Coruscant and quickly overwhelmed the combined Resistance and Republic fleets. Her brain was resorting to its old tricks, attempting to shut out the truth with childish fantasies. This was happening. This was real.

 

"How's she holding up?" Rey asked, glancing over her shoulder where Leia was being supported between Finn and Poe as they hobbled through the ruins of the Senate District. The air was thick with smoke and dust, stained crimson from the myriad fires, but Rey was close enough to notice that the general was having difficulty breathing, her face deathly pale. Blood soaked through the cloak that had been wrapped around her torso as a makeshift bandage, seeping out in copious amounts from the wound inflicted by Malacath Ren's beskar greatsword.

 

"Fading fast," Poe replied tersely. "We have to get her to Luke as soon as possible."

 

Rey trawled the Force, confirming her master's presence at the rendezvous point. " Falcon' s just up the street." Or what was left of the street, anyway. The one saving grace was that this district had already been obliterated and, thus, the enemy had focused their attentions elsewhere. It was deserted, heaps of debris walling it off from the ground skirmishes scattered throughout the rest of the city, although the air carried the sounds of battle, the bombs and the lasers and the screams.

 

A tower had collapsed onto their intended path; there was an opening between the twisted metal wide enough for their party to squeeze through one at a time. Detecting no signs of life on the other side of the barrier, Rey motioned for Poe to go first. She then gently nudged Leia forward, murmuring words of encouragement to the injured, disoriented woman, whose bones felt impossibly brittle beneath Rey's hands. No sooner had Leia disappeared through the gap when Rey suddenly became aware of the energy signatures behind her, sharp and malevolent and crackling with the dark side of the Force.

 

Kriff.

 

She turned around. Finn, ever on the alert, had raised his blaster, pointing it towards the swirling mists where three armored figures had materialized. "Go," she told him, nodding in the direction of the gap. "I'll hold them off."

 

"Rey, I'm not going to leave you—" Finn started to protest, but she cut him off.

 

"Poe needs your help getting General Organa to the ship, and someone has to buy time. Go. I'll catch up."

 

"You'd better," Finn muttered as he scrambled to wedge himself through the rudimentary tunnel. They'd learned early on to trust in each other's capabilities— they'd had to, or else nothing would ever get done.

 

Once Finn was safely on the other side of the barrier, Rey slipped into— not opening stance, not yet. Instead, she stood stock-still in an almost meditative posture, assessing the situation as the three silhouettes fanned out, the better to launch a simultaneous offensive from different directions, she supposed. She'd engage them for five minutes before retreating, she decided, and hopefully Finn, Poe, and Leia would have reached the Falcon by then.

 

The figure standing directly in front of her spoke in a lilt that was unmistakably feminine even through the helmet's voice modulator. "Hello, little Jedi," purred Boethiah Ren, whom Rey privately considered the most dangerous of Kylo's knights, garbed in a mix of heavy plate and cortosis weave. "Your last bastion has fallen. The remains of your fleet are scattered. It's not too late to come on over to the winning side, you know."

 

"How can you still want her to join us after she killed Malacath?" growled Clavicus Ren, his barbed mace already slanted into an attack position in his gauntleted fists.

 

"The fact that she was able to kill that behemoth is precisely why I want her as an ally," countered Boethiah. "You're just miffed because she broke your arm on Kuat three months ago."

 

"Spare me the recruitment speech," Rey snapped. "I'm perfectly fine where I am." She was trying not to appear too surprised— she'd telekinetically shoved Malacath off a second-floor balcony before he could land another strike on Leia, but that seemed far from enough to kill him. Perhaps Resistance soldiers had finished the job.

 

"It's over, Jedi," sneered Hircine Ren, his black cloak rustling as he brandished his electrostaff at her. "The Resistance will never be able to recover from this defeat. The Republic is no more."

 

Rey drew her own weapon. "Then I guess there's nothing left to do but take you all down with me." Luke had always warned that she'd one day cut herself on the sharpness of her own tongue— she just hoped that it wouldn't be today.

 

The darksiders charged and Rey sprang into action, her ignited saberstaff slicing through the air, the blades imbued with a silver sheen by the durindfire crystals she had pried from the bedrock of Tatooine. Precious gems polished by centuries of wind and sand, appropriate for someone like her who had known nothing but drought for fourteen years. The twin metallic beams clashed with Hircine's electrostaff, Clavicus' mace, and Boethiah's wickedly curved, poison-tipped daggers in a lethal dance amidst the smoke and ruins. Rey made liberal use of crumbled pillars and toppled ledges, springing off from them and spinning and slashing at her foes as she counted down the minutes in her head. She was at a clear disadvantage— the knights' armor and weapons were resistant to lightsaber plasma and she was outnumbered— but she had a chance if she could move faster, if she could strike harder—

 

She felt him before she saw him. Even through the cloying miasma of his subordinates' shadowy energies, his Force signature engulfed her senses, as fierce and distinctive as a lightning bolt. And there was lightning, flaring forth from gloved fingers, wrenching Clavicus' wrist backwards before his mace could find its mark on Rey's skull.

 

At first Rey could only stare, dumbfounded, as Kylo placed himself between her and his knights. Clavicus was holding his injured wrist at an awkward angle, low, animalistic noises of pain emerging from his helmet's mouthpiece, while Boethiah had stepped out of range, head cocked to the side like she was shrewdly observing the scene. It was Hircine who dared speak, saying, "Lord Ren?" in a confused tone.

 

"Find your own plaything," Kylo instructed through the deep rasp of his voice modulator. "I have a score to settle with this one."

 

*

 

He attacked her as soon as the others had vanished. But it was nothing more than an opening move designed to start the duel, his crossguard colliding against her saberstaff without the usual brute strength. Almost as if his heart wasn't in it, which was ridiculous— wasn't it? They put each other through their paces, red and silver illuminating their gloomy surroundings as the sky continued to fall over Coruscant, debris from aerial battles pockmarking the ground. It was when Rey had to skirt around the S-foil that had crashed into their field of combat that Kylo lunged at her in an overhead strike that had her spine nearly bending in half as she blocked, the intersected beams of their sabers shrieking at her throat.

 

"Where is she?" he demanded. He sounded strange— panicked and desperate, his words garbled by static.

 

There was no one he could have meant but Leia, and Rey's sense of protectiveness kicked into overdrive. "I won't let you hurt her. You've done enough." She thumbed the release located in the middle of her weapon's hilt, and their blade-lock was effectively broken when her staff divided into two separate lightsabers and she took up the offensive, driving Kylo backwards with the relentless wave-front assault of the Jar'Kai form. She had rarely employed this technique against him over the past year but now was as good a time as any, considering that she wasn't planning on a lengthy duel. Sure enough, the imaginary timer in her head went off after only a few more seconds. Gritting her teeth, she swung both blades towards him in a deadly arc that forced him to weave awkwardly to the side in order to dodge, and then she was off, lightsabers extinguished, scampering in the direction of the gap and squeezing through it without a backwards glance.

 

He didn't try to stop her.

 


 

Crawling through realspace, the Millennium Falcon approached the prickly emerald glow of the Transitory Mists, its Carbanti countermeasures package ticking away to scramble any identifying electronic signatures and mask the communiques that were being sent back and forth across encrypted HoloNet channels as what was left of the Resistance tried to keep track of their comrades. Every once in a while, a signal would go dark, and Rey would steadfastly suppress thoughts of what might have happened to the ship on the other end. That way lay madness. She had to focus on the present moment, on keeping her crew alive.

 

Leia was convalescing in the quarters that had been Han's, her wound sewn up by Luke's deft Force Assist, while Chewbacca stayed at her bedside. Luke himself was standing in the cockpit with Finn and Artoo, watching Rey and Poe navigate this sector that appeared empty to those unaware that the Hapes Cluster lay just beyond the ion veils that pulsed and trembled and shifted in the black. It was hypnotic, how the Mists curled like smoke, but for Rey the pretty visual effect was soured by the fact that the war was all but lost. Her mind was still refusing to process the ramifications of that, and so it strayed to the next best distraction— Kylo. Now that the heat of the moment had worn off and they were well away from each other, she could take the opportunity to dwell on this latest fight, their eleventh one since Stalsinek IV. She battled his knights more often than she did him, but it hadn't escaped her notice that he was stronger and more focused each time compared to the last; Luke had surmised that he must be meditating with the Skywalker blade even though he had yet to wield it in combat, and, indeed, Rey's master had once scrutinized a vid feed of the First Order storming a Resistance barracks and observed that Kylo's technique now possessed a decidedly Djem So bent. "It wasn't always like that," Luke had murmured. "When he was my apprentice, he favored Niman."

 

However, it struck Rey that something had been off about Kylo an hour ago on Coruscant. His moves had been scattered and inefficient in a way that reminded her of Starkiller Base. And he'd asked about Leia— could he have known that she'd gotten injured? Had he been... concerned?

 

No, Rey told herself firmly. His mother and his uncle might still nurture the hope that he could be redeemed, but she wasn't about to fall into that trap. Han Solo had paid for that mistake with his life, and she was nothing if not a survivor.

 

"What now?" Poe's soft drawl from the co-pilot seat broke into the mire of Rey's thoughts. He was more relaxed now that Jessika had confirmed that she was with BB-8 and that they had found temporary refuge in the Fakir sector, shielded by the Sarnikken Asteroid Belt. "We need a place to hide, somewhere to take stock of the situation and regroup with the others."

 

"The First Order's occupied all major systems," Finn said gravely. "We can hole up in the Outer Rim but they'll be expecting that, and anything more Corewards will be riddled with blockades."

 

"Wild Space?" Poe ventured, and then shook his head to nix his own suggestion. "No, they have eyes there, as well as in the Unknown Regions. We'd be sitting ducks with no idea where the next attack will be coming from."

 

Rey was staring out the transparisteel viewport, at the swirling green Mists. She could feel Luke's contemplative gaze trained on her back and, finally, he spoke up. "I think there's a reason Rey chose this particular route," he said. "I think she already knows where we're going."

 

She nodded, taking a deep breath in an effort to calm her inner turmoil, and then her shaking hand reached for the communications panel on the dashboard. To make contact with Isolder.

 

*

 

By the time the Falcon was beamed clearance to enter the Mists— along with a navigational chart containing the grid coordinates where they were instructed to proceed— Leia was feeling marginally better. She clung to Chewbacca's arm as they joined the others in the cockpit, watching the ion clouds fade into the starlines of lightspeed and then— after a jump that lasted mere seconds— realspace once more.

 

"That hyperlane we just shot out of, the inhabitants of this cluster call it the Spine," said Leia. "Now we're in the Throat, the only section of the Transitory Mists that allows for sublight travel to... there." She pointed to a blue-and-green sphere in the distance. "Shedu Maad. That's the same planet we orbited during those failed negotiations decades ago."

 

Rey barely spared Shedu Maad a glance; all her focus was immediately drawn to the massive structure hovering above it, a silvery assemblage of spired towers and ornate battlements set beneath a transparent crystal dome and mounted on black, wind-sculpted basalt, with five enormous pylons thrust outwards to give a star-shaped appearance. It took Rey's brain a while to come to terms with the fact that she was looking at a spaceship, the diameter of the centrally-oriented hull falling only a few hundred meters short of the Finalizer's length, cradled by an impressive array of shield generators, turbolaser batteries, anti-starfighter cannons, and tractor beam projectors, glittering like a crown in the light of icy nebulae.

 

"And that," Leia continued, "is the Star Home, the flagship of the Hapan Queen Mothers. It's several thousands of years old."

 

"It's a castle," Finn blurted out, eyes wide. "A castle in space."

 

"These people do well for themselves, don't they?" Chewbacca grunted in Shyriiwook, and then slanted a furtive glance in Rey's direction. "No offense, Your Worship."

 

"Oh, stop calling me that," Rey admonished even as part of her guessed, with a pang of sorrow, that Chewbacca's distaste stemmed from his loyalty to Han, who had been jealous of Isolder vying for Leia's affections.

 

"Hey, Your Princessness, I've always wondered," said Poe, "Isolder calls you the heir, doesn't he? But shouldn't he be the heir, seeing as he's the child of the current monarch?"

 

It was Leia who answered, shaking her head. "No man may rule Hapes. The title of Chume'da always passes on to the eldest daughter. If the Queen Mother only has sons, the firstborn's wife is expected to take the throne."

 

"But Isolder's wife refused," Rey added. She still couldn't bring herself to refer to the deceased woman or to the prince as her parents, even though she had been communicating with the latter on and off throughout the past year and he had told her bits and pieces of her own history in transmissions that were always cut short whenever Rey got too paranoid that the First Order might have sliced the feed. "Teneniel Djo had no interest in ruling, so, the moment I was born, I was proclaimed the heir." Kriff, but it felt odd to say all of this out loud, like she was assuming someone else's life. "She died when I was seven months old."

 

Finn reached out to lace their fingers together, giving her hand a sympathetic squeeze. She flashed him a wan smile, suddenly burningly grateful that they had both made it out of Coruscant. Whatever happened in the time to come, at least they still had each other.

 

*

 

A cool, clipped voice from the Star Home's bridge guided the Falcon through the docking procedure at one of the hangar bays located in the base of the main hull, between the roots of the encircling pylons. As they veered closer to the Hapan ship, Rey couldn't help but notice that most of its armaments had swiveled to face them, and she didn't breathe easy until they were safely beneath the hull, and then inside.

 

*

 

Isolder was waiting on the docking pad, flanked by his retinue of Royal Guards. Prodded forward by Finn and Poe, Rey approached him nervously, having no idea what the standard procedure was for greeting one's estranged father on their second meeting. Should she hug him? Stars, she hoped not. Maybe she was expected to curtsy since he was a prince— but she was the heir to the throne, wasn't she? Did she rank above him? Maybe he was the one supposed to curtsy— no, that was wrong, men didn't—

 

Isolder solved her dilemma by clasping her hands in his. "Rey," he said warmly, the gentleness in his blue-gray eyes somewhat at odds with his regal demeanor, "I have treasured our communiques over the months, but everything pales to the joy of seeing you in person once more. I regret that it has to be under such grievous circumstances."

 

"M— me, too," Rey stammered, inwardly cringing at how very undignified she sounded compared to him. "This is Finn— and Poe— I've mentioned them before, I think, and— well, you already know the others..." She trailed off, ill at ease. This isn't happening, her treacherous mind insisted again.

 

Isolder greeted her friends politely, and then his smile broadened as he shook Luke's and Chewbacca's hands in turn, seemingly oblivious to the way the Wookie gave every impression that he'd rather be anywhere else. Finally, he came face to face with Leia, who was bringing up the rear with Artoo.

 

Ageless glory, was all Rey could think as the two older people shared a look that contained three decades' worth of words unspoken. Echoes of a different time.

 

Isolder bowed, one leg drawn back across the floor, right hand pressed to his abdomen while the left swept out in an elegant flourish. "Princess Leia."

 

Instead of correcting him on her title, Leia sank into a deep curtsy that was every bit as graceful as if she were wearing finest silk in lieu of the soot-stained Resistance uniform over which Luke's cloak had been thrown to hide the smears of dried blood. "Prince Isolder."

 

"The last time you were here, you brought with you the last Jedi," said Isolder. "Now you bring two, one of whom happens to be my daughter. Thank you for taking her in and for treating her kindly."

 

"Better late than never, I suppose," Leia quipped. "I won't take you to task for never divulging the contents of that long-lost ship. I understand the need for secrecy, but if only I had known, dear friend, I would have done everything in my power to send out search parties—"

 

Isolder raised a brow. "It sounds like you are indeed taking me to task, Your Highness."

 

Leia inclined her head, a hint of a smile softening the line of her mouth. "Perhaps I am a little, at that."

 

He glanced at Artoo, acknowledging the droid's beep of recognition. "But where is your protocol unit? Quite a character, as I recall."

 

"Threepio is with Admiral Ackbar's fleet," Leia replied. "We were separated during the Battle of Coruscant, but the surviving Mon Calamari ships have sent word that they're lying low along the Old Trade Federation Route. They're safe there. For now."

 

"But not for long," said Isolder cannily. "Isn't that right?"

 

Leia met his gaze, unflinching. "I must speak with Ta'a Chume."

 

"Of course. Please follow me." And whatever Isolder saw on her face made him add, "General."

 

*

 

The winding hallways of the Star Home were every inch as opulent as the exterior suggested. The durasteel spaceframe was lined with handsome Wayland marble so that Rey and her party walked amidst walls of translucent, gold-flecked white, the viewports paneled with Chammian ivory and offering magnificent views of the celestial wastes. She would have been hard-pressed to believe she was on a ship if she hadn't felt the hum of six Kerts-Bhrg generators beneath her feet. With her natural affinity for tech, she surmised that there were at least twenty-four sublight engines, each one capable of powering a Victory-class Star Destroyer on its own.

 

Rey could still remember the first time she had commed Isolder from Coruscant, after quite a bit of nagging from Finn. "I know you're scared, I know it's not turning out the way you hoped," he'd said, "but you want this, Rey. For so long you've wanted to know where you come from and who your family is— and, okay, maybe neither of us were expecting him to be some snooty prince— but if you don't reach out to him, you're always going to be plagued by all these questions. You really want to live your life like that?"

 

Isolder had been surprised when Rey finally transmitted to the Song of War, and she'd made a mess of it at first by stumbling through an apology for commandeering the Miy'til starfighter and then hightailing it out of Hapes. As the months passed, however, their conversations flowed more easily, and, while she hadn't been at liberty to disclose her movements, he'd been all too eager to answer her questions. He'd never pressured her to return to the cluster— even though it was clear that she would always be welcome— and for that Rey was grateful. Now, as he spoke quietly with the Skywalker twins on the way to the throne room, he glanced back at her from time to time as if he couldn't believe that she was really here, and she found her heart warming a little towards this stranger who was her father, who was, to her endless relief, a good man.

 

"I have not yet offered my condolences," Rey heard Isolder murmur to Luke and Leia. "General Solo and I did not always get along but I was saddened by the news that..." He trailed off. He didn't need to say it out loud— the thought hung heavy in the air.

 

"I don't envy that captain of yours who used a Gun of Command on the trespasser who turned out to be the Chume'da," Leia sighed. "Anyway, yes, thank you, old friend. I also commiserate with you on the passing of your wife. She must have been a remarkable woman."

 

"She was," Isolder said softly. They both fell into a brief, respectful silence, and then he continued, "Prior to the events of last year, we already had some intelligence on the First Order's dark side warriors, but, on Stalsinek IV, it grieved me to learn about your son. I cannot even begin to imagine how you must feel."

 

Rey couldn't see Leia's face from where she was walking behind her, but she recognized that same old sorrow, how it stooped the line of the general's shoulders, how it quavered through the Force. "His name is Ben," was all Leia said.

 

At this point, Luke fell back to speak with the others. "If I may offer some counsel for our upcoming audience with Ta'a Chume," he said in a low voice so as not to attract the attention of the silently marching Royal Guards, "it would be best if Leia were to do the talking. That means—" he cast a meaningful look at Poe— "no passionate speeches about doing the right thing, and—" he leveled the same at Finn— "no show of impertinence or impatience."

 

"Why?" Rey asked quickly, over the sounds of Finn and Poe starting to protest.

 

"Because it takes a certain kind of woman to hold on to power in the cutthroat nest of political intrigue that is Hapan society," Luke replied, an uncharacteristic flicker of aversion disrupting the solemn placidity of his tone. "Your grandmother, Rey, is very much that kind of woman. We must proceed with care."

 

The group came to a halt outside a set of ornately carved doors. Isolder tipped his face up to the security camera fastened to the wall. The device whirred as it scanned his features, beeping once to indicate a positive ID, and then the doors slid open, to usher them into the presence of the Queen Mother of the Hapes Consortium.

Chapter Text

The throne room of the Star Home was suffused with the kind of artificial lighting that Rey had noticed the Hapans seemed to favor— pale and radiant, with a tinge of silver blue. This light cast an ethereal gloss over the marble pillars and the lush silk tapestries, over the unmoving silhouettes of Royal Guards stationed at various ingress points, and over the dais at the end of the hall upon which perched a stately white throne. The woman sitting on it was too far away for Rey to hone in on her features, but something about her posture called to mind the shadevale venomstings of Kashyyyk, how they watched from atop scaled coils when another lifeform encroached on their territory and took their time deciding whether the intruder was worth the effort needed to strike.

 

"This place is normally bustling with courtiers," Isolder told the group as he led them forward, "but, given the sensitive nature of this meeting, my mother and I thought it best to be discreet."

 

"Seems to me they could've taken a smaller ship, then," Rey mumbled to Leia.

 

"It's right out of the Hapan playbook," Leia said, also keeping her voice low. "Starting with a show of strength and grandeur— after all, an intimidated opponent is much easier to negotiate with."

 

Rey wondered at the general's use of the word opponent, but she couldn't help agreeing that it was difficult not to feel cowed as they approached the dais and she got a closer look at the Queen Mother. Ta'a Chume was old in the way mountains were old— imposing and awe-inspiring, having transcended the ravages of time while other lesser entities had been destroyed. Her snow-white hair tumbled past her shoulders in an artfully riotous mass of loose, flowing curls, streaming from a crown that looked as if it had been carved from ice, twisting gracefully up towards the ceiling like many-pronged antlers. Silver chains of Bosph starcrystals were draped over her forehead, and the tips of her long lashes were spiked with tiny fragments of ur-diamonds that glittered over eyes the color of dark jade. Her upper lip was painted a shade of midnight blue that was almost black, while the bottom one was powdered as white as the rest of her smooth face. She wore an opulent cloak spun from shimmering charcoal-gray veda cloth, falling open slightly to afford glimpses of the high-collared ivory gown beneath. The fingernails of one hand, adorned with jewel-encrusted stiletto cones as sharp as daggers, tapped idly on the elbow-rest of the throne as she waited for the group to break their silence.

 

Isolder cleared his throat. "Most Revered Ereneda—"

 

"Let us dispense with the formalities. My sycophants are not around to appreciate them." Ta'a Chume spoke in flawless Basic, her voice as cold as her crown. "I see that you have once more brought war to my borders, Princess Leia— although it is General Organa now, I hear."

 

"The Rebel Alliance won the first war, Your Majesty," Leia reminded her. "With your help, the Resistance can win this one."

 

Ta'a Chume arched an elegantly sculpted brow. "You are asking me to send my fleet into battle against the First Order on your behalf?"

 

"No," said Leia. "I am asking you for sanctuary. I am asking you to open the hyperlanes to my fleet and allow us to hide behind your Veil while we marshal our forces once more."

 

"Then I would be harboring the First Order's most despised enemies. Snoke has not yet turned his eye to Hapes, but I highly doubt he would be willing to let this lie."

 

"He doesn't have to find out— and, even if he does, what can he do, Ereneda?" Leia argued. "The Transitory Mists cannot be breached by warships en masse, not with your battle cruisers guarding the entrances."

 

"The Mists," hissed Ta'a Chume, a trace of anger finally leaching into her frigid tone, "were already breached last year, General. By your son."

 

"And by me," Rey blurted out.

 

The room fell silent. Everyone turned to look at her but she only had eyes for Ta'a Chume, who stared down from the dais with a carefully blank expression. Rey's common sense was screaming at her to switch off and let Leia handle things, as Luke had advised, but she was tense and anxious from recent events, desperate to help her comrades who were scattered throughout the galaxy trying to evade the First Order's wide nets. She had to do something.

 

"I was there, too," she continued, willing her voice not to crack. "I also trespassed on your borders. That's how your son found me." Was she talking too loud? She couldn't accurately gauge her volume over the adrenaline pounding in her ears. "And if Prince Isolder is right, that means I'm your granddaughter." She paused as she sought to recall the exact term that Isolder sometimes used to denote their familial relationship. "That means I, as blood of your blood, can ask you to at least hear us out first."

 

Ta'a Chume studied her for several long moments. There was something in the Queen Mother's green eyes that Rey didn't like— a certain shrewdness, a certain glint of triumph that made her feel as if she'd walked into a trap. Leia reached out and gripped her arm, a gesture that elicited a lump in Rey's throat from how protective it was even though she didn't understand the reason behind it.

 

"You're right, she does look like your dead wife," Ta'a Chume said to Isolder after a while. "More than that, I recognize the backbone. Perhaps it is Teneniel's, perhaps it is even mine. We'll have to conduct a DNA test anyway, to satisfy my court, but I personally believe that she is Kira Ka Djo." To the others, she announced, "I've made my decision. My borders will be open to the Resistance for a fortnight, during which you may evacuate your troops into the Corsair Outback. My navy will be instructed to look the other way, but I do not guarantee my protection should you stir up trouble. Any ship that attempts to enter the Mists after the allotted time will be shot down on sight."

 

Rey could not feel relief. Not yet. The frenetic current of the Force— as well as Leia's tightening grasp on her arm— told her that there was a catch, and, indeed, it wasn't long before the Queen Mother added, "Kira will, of course, stay in the capital. And assume her role as Chume'da of the Hapes Consortium."

 


 

Admiral Natasi Daala, who had been the first female to acquire such a rank in the Imperial Navy and was now part of Snoke's High Command, flashed a shark's grin at Hux as he stalked into the boardroom of the Heresiarch, the Sovereign- class Super Star Destroyer currently hovering in orbit above Coruscant. "The Lusankya got away from you, did she? I keep telling you young bucks not to underestimate us old dogs, but you never listen."

 

"I hardly think age has anything to do with it," Hux spat as he took his place at the conference table across from her.

 

"No?" queried Daala. "Only a naive green officer would think that Wedge Antilles couldn't punch through an Interdictor screen. Those weren't normal X-wing pilots you were dealing with— that was Rogue Squadron."

 

"It is irrelevant," Hux tersely declared. "The Lusankya may have made the jump, but she was badly damaged. We've taken all the major shipyards and we have the Core. There's nowhere for the Resistance to go, nowhere for them to repair their vessels and reorganize. It will only take a few months— six, at most— to hunt down and eradicate every last one of them." He nodded at the thin, gray-haired man seated to Daala's right. "General Quillan, if you could be so kind as to give us a status report on the ground cleanup?"

 

Quillan cleared his throat. "The invasion of Galactic City was a success and we are in the process of terminating the rebel elements that survived the battle." He hadn't misused the term; anyone who defied the First Order was a rebel now. "Sien Sovv went down with his ship, as did most of the Resistance leaders. Gial Ackbar's on the run but, regrettably, we are unable to confirm either the death or capture of Leia Organa."

 

"Once a bitch, always a bitch," growled Commodore Vilim Disra, another veteran of the first civil war. "We have to find her as soon as possible. Forget the Jedi— our empire is not secure as long as Organa draws breath."

 

"There will be time enough for editorializing," Hux admonished. "Right now, I would prefer for General Quillan to finish his report. Is there anything else of note?"

 

"We did recover the body of Malacath Ren," Quillan replied. "It was badly scorched but we were able to distinguish a lightsaber wound along the torso. Skywalker's doing, or his apprentice's."

 

"Which goes to show," said Daala, narrowing her eyes at Vilim, "that the Jedi are still a force to be reckoned with, and must be as much of a priority as Organa herself."

 

Vilim opened his mouth to argue but Hux spoke over him, having no desire for the strategy session to devolve into petty bickering. "So one of the knights is dead. I imagine Ren must be throwing another fit right about now."

 

"Where is he, anyway?" asked Admiral Siralt.

 

"I have no idea." Hux's tone was cool. "I am not his commanding officer, as he is so fond of reminding me. Probably off destroying a control panel or something similar."

 


 

In the privacy of his suite on the Finalizer, Kylo retrieved the Skywalker blade from the padded inner compartment of a spacer's chest outfitted with a security lock. Unlike the charred, twisted helm, this particular heirloom of his grandfather's was not kept on proud display. Head bowed, he gazed down, through his own mask's visor, at the hilt in his gloved palm.

 

"Through victory, my chains are broken," he rasped in an almost experimental fashion, as if testing the old Sith words on his tongue. Several heartbeats passed, and then— "We are victorious. Am I free?"

 

There was nothing to answer him but a dark, hollow silence.

 


 

"We can't agree to this!" Finn's harsh whisper rang throughout the small anteroom where Ta'a Chume had agreed to let them have a few minutes alone to discuss her proposal. "We have to stay together." He looked beseechingly at Leia, but she was locking eyes with Luke, a disgruntled frown marring her features.

 

"Did you see how quickly she came up with those terms?" Leia demanded. "She planned this from the very beginning, before we even set foot on board this ship."

 

"It certainly seems that way," Luke agreed with his trademark caution.

 

"This means her reign is in jeopardy," Leia muttered, now more to herself than to her brother or to anyone else. "She needs to secure the line of succession, to put a stop to other noble houses vying to replace a monarch with no heir. She's willing to do whatever it takes to keep her throne."

 

Something drifted to the surface of Rey's memories. "You had better have a good reason for summoning me from the capital in the midst of the succession debate," Isolder had warned Elerron in the military base on Stalsinek IV. Had the Queen Mother been besieged even then? Perhaps even since Kalen's rebellion was vanquished and the ship bearing Kira Ka Djo never returned...

 

"Do you think she'll let us leave?" Poe asked. "Now that we know how important Rey is to her—"

 

"We'll fight our way out if we have to," snarled Chewbacca. "Go somewhere else—"

 

"There's nowhere else to go," Rey whispered, once again drawing everyone's attention. The more she spoke, the more it was as if she were heralding her own doom. "We'll never find a place as safe as the Hapes Cluster. We have to do this." She swallowed. " I have to do this."

 

It was a daunting prospect. It sent chills down her spine. She might conceivably be able to contact her friends from time to time, but they were going to be in deep undercover in the Corsair Outback. She would never get to see them, for who knew how long.

 

Finn grabbed her by the shoulders, determination written all over his kind, handsome face. "Rey, you don't have to do anything you don't want—"

 

"It's a war, isn't it?" Tears were starting to form at the mere thought of being separated from the Resistance— from Finn— and thrust into a bizarre new world. "What we want doesn't matter anymore."

 

"What about what we need?" Poe countered. "We need our Jedi. We need our friend."

 

"As your Jedi and as your friend, this is the best thing I can do for you. For all of us." Rey turned to Luke, Finn's hands falling away from her body at the motion. "Isn't that right, Master?"

 

Luke solemnly held her gaze for interminable ages. At last, he nodded, every inch the boy from Tatooine who was no stranger to the sacrifice of the self.

 

When Isolder strode into the room, Leia rounded on him with startling alacrity. "You!" she hissed, fists clenched at her sides like she was suppressing the urge to throw something at his head. "Did you know about this? Did you know what Ta'a Chume had in store for us?"

 

Isolder held up his palms in pleading, in promise. "I swear to you, I did not."

 

"Liar—"

 

"He's telling the truth, Leia," Luke interrupted.

 

But the general's outrage could not be quelled. "From the moment I learned about your daughter's true parentage, all I ever wanted was for her to be able to interact with it on her own terms," Leia told Isolder bitterly, accusingly. "We came here in good faith, not so that Rey could be coerced into the viper pit!"

 

"No one is coercing her," said Isolder, paler than usual and looking as miserable as a prince could look. "You have the Queen Mother's word that you will be free to go should you decide not to take the deal."

 

"And then what, Your Highness?" Leia shot back, the title hurled like a curse. "Let our enemy weed us out like rats, nest by nest, as the months pass? Let Rey be burdened with the knowledge that she could have prevented it? This is coercion, whether or not you dress it up with pretty words."

 

Rey wanted nothing more than to give free reign to the wetness in her eyes, to sob at the unfairness of it all, at the uncertainty of the time to come, at the fierceness with which Leia was fighting for her. But she'd decided back in the throne room that she needed to do something to help her comrades, and, well, this was something. This was the only thing. She had to be strong.

 

And so she blinked away her tears, never letting them fall. "I've made my choice," she announced to the room. She stared only at her father, because the sight of anyone else's faces might shatter her resolve. "I'll do it. I will be the Chume'da."

 


 

The buzz of an incoming transmission broke the stillness of Kylo's suite. He hurriedly stowed the Skywalker lightsaber before it could be seen by the only person who had access to this frequency, and then he walked over to the communications bay.

 

Snoke's visage flickered to life, his pale skin and frosty eyes imbued with a bluish tint by the HoloNet waves. At first, he simply regarded Kylo with the searching gaze that had always called to mind scales and measures, and the feeling of being found wanting, but, finally, he smiled. It was not a smile of happiness or triumph— merely satisfaction in a job well done.

 

"And now the real work begins," Snoke intoned. "Are you ready, Emperor Ren?"

 

Kylo nodded. "Yes."

Chapter Text

37 ABY

Year One of First Order galactic rule

 

The fibercord twanged tight as Rey scaled the Fountain Palace's tallest tower, the grappling hook's durasteel barbs straining against the sides of the crenel a dozen meters above her head. It was late morning on the planet of Hapes; she squinted in the brilliant sunlight, wishing she still had her old stormtrooper-lens goggles, and the breeze blew cool on her sweat-dotted brow. Higher and higher she went, heart pumping and adrenaline rising as the city grew smaller and smaller, until the rooftops were nothing more than a carpet of multicolored jewels on a field of green. Smiling to herself, she pushed up on her knees and straightened her spine so that she was practically walking along the side of the building's facade, her body slanted against horizon and blue sky.

 

Over months of making the climb a daily ritual, she'd grown to treasure these moments when it was just her and the tower and gravity; it was a form of moving meditation that kept her Force abilities sharp, kept the Starship Graveyard alive in her heart. It was good to remember where she'd come from— it ensured that the upgrade in her living situation didn't turn her head.

 

Finally, she hauled herself up over the battlement, her feet on flat, solid ground once more. The Fountain Palace was perched on a black basalt crag that loomed over the small, neat city of Ta'a Chume'Dan, and from here Rey had an excellent view of lush gardens, panoramic waterways, and elegant streets orbited by movable landing pads where constant streams of light freighters, massive cargo ships, pleasure yachts, and diplomatic barges alike came to dock. The administrative capital served as the cluster's hub of governmental, commercial, and legal activity, due to laws requiring all major business to be conducted on Hapes itself, but it would not be called Ta'a Chume'Dan forever. When Rey ascended, she would take the title of Kira Ka Chume and the city would be renamed in her honor.

 

"Kira Ka Chume'Dan," she said out loud, and then frowned. "Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue."

 

There was a deep, rich laugh from somewhere behind her. "People will get used to it, Your Grace, as they once got used to the city no longer being called Ni'Korish Chume'Dan after the last Queen Mother."

 

Rey turned around. Major Moreem Espara, who commanded the nine other Royal Guards charged with protecting the heir to the throne, was leaning one broad shoulder against the doorway leading out to the balcony, arms folded over her breastplate and one ankle crossed in front of the other. It was a jaunty pose that would have drawn Ta'a Chume's ire— Rey, however, welcomed it. She was still ill at ease with most aspects of court ceremony, and she actually liked Moreem. It felt wrong to have her bow and scrape.

 

"You don't have to watch me all the time, you know," Rey told Moreem in fluent Hapan. "Per'Agthra is a fortress. I hardly think random kidnappers or assassins would be able to get in so easily."

 

"Most dangers come from inside the palace walls, Chume'da," Moreem replied. "But, as it is, Her Majesty has sent for you."

 

Rey struggled not to groan. She had quickly learned that even the tiniest sign of disrespect for Ta'a Chume made most people uncomfortable— if not alienate them completely. "Lead the way, then, Major."

 

"Actually..." Moreem tucked a windblown strand of curly black hair behind her ear, topaz eyes flickering over Rey's sweat-stained tunic and ratty leggings. "You might want to freshen up first, Your Grace. It's a tea."

 

*

 

The Queen Mother's salon was an airy complex in the eastern wing, furnished with red qashmel carpets and paintings flecked with gold and silver leaf. Like the Star Home, this and most other rooms in the Fountain Palace boasted white marble walls and accents of intricately-carved ivory, gleaming in the sunlight that filtered in through colored-glass windows.

 

The gauzy Tarisian roses adorning the pale champagne skirt of Rey's long-sleeved chiffon gown rustled as she crossed her legs— or tried to, anyway. If she shifted her thigh up any further, she'd rip a seam. Annoyed, she placed her satin-slippered foot back on the floor as Ta'a Chume observed her from across a laroon wood table laden with delicate pastries and porcelain cups. The older woman had yet to apply the elaborate makeup she donned for public appearances, but her bare face was every bit as intimidating with its chiseled features and hawk-like stare.

 

"I want to ascertain that there is no bad blood between us after my last command," she said in a tone that implied Rey didn't have much choice in the matter. "By now you must have come to your senses."

 

"I have, Ereneda," Rey assured her. They'd had a screaming match a few days ago because Ta'a Chume had declared it unseemly— and dangerous— for Rey to continue traveling to the Corsair Outback every week. Rey had decided that no one was going to tell her where she could and could not go, but her grandmother didn't need to know that. It would be all too easy to liberate a shuttle from one of the many hangars in the dead of night and be back on Hapes by dawn; for that plan to work, however, Ta'a Chume needed to believe that Rey was compliant.

 

"I understand that you would like to learn more about Teneniel, which is why you keep visiting those moldering old ruins she used to frequent," said the Queen Mother, very emphatically not mentioning the other reason Rey went to Stalsinek IV— as far as the Consortium was concerned, no deal had been brokered and the Resistance did not exist in any capacity within the Mists. "But, as my heir, it is high time that you focused on your royal duties and on learning how to rule. I am not long for this world, and I wish to head to the next one secure in the knowledge that I have left my realm in capable hands."

 

"Yes, Ereneda," Rey murmured, her demeanor softened by no small measure of surprise. This was the first instance of Ta'a Chume mentioning her own mortality in her granddaughter's presence and, although eight months was scarcely enough time to establish familial love on the latter's end, her stomach flipped uneasily at the thought of this powerful, seemingly unassailable woman dying.

 

"Already my courtiers scramble to sink their claws into you," Ta'a Chume warned. "You must become adept at discerning who is trustworthy and who is not. Most of them fall into the second category, but play your cards right and none will dare question your reign. For the Queen Mother is She Who Has No Equal, as good as a goddess."

 

From there the audience progressed in a brisk, purposeful manner, with Ta'a Chume lecturing Rey on various topics pertaining to the Consortium as they nibbled on the pastries and sipped their tea. Every once in a while Ta'a Chume would ask a question and Rey would answer as best as she could, building on previous lessons and her own personal observations. It was all routine, and yet these discussions had become more and more technical in nature as the months passed. By the time a servant entered the room to announce the arrival of Prince Isolder, Rey was mentally exhausted and grateful for the reprieve.

 

She stood up to greet her father. She didn't have to, but he was the closest thing to a true ally that she had at court. Aside from the Royal Guards who shadowed her every step, Isolder was the one she spent the most time with, day in, day out, except for when he was off-world. And, oh, how she couldn't stop herself from beaming when he kissed her cheek, exactly the sort of thing she had imagined her parents doing every morning or as they bade her good night...

 

"Had I known you were joining us, I would have had the servants prepare the naris-bud instead of the Manellan Jasper," Ta'a Chume chided her son once he and Rey were seated.

 

"Naris-bud was the only tea I didn't passionately abhor as a child," Isolder explained to Rey. "I never cared for the beverage in general."

 

"The two of you have that in common," Ta'a Chume remarked.

 

Damn, Rey swore to herself. She thought she'd mastered the art of maintaining a neutral expression while choking down what was essentially bitter leaf water, but she needed more practice, apparently.

 

Isolder turned to address Ta'a Chume. "I apologize for unexpectedly dropping in like this, Ereneda, but I have urgent news." He paused, glancing hesitantly at Rey; the Queen Mother gestured for him to continue, making good on her resolve that it was time for the Consortium's heir to learn more about ruling and, consequently, to have access to the kind of confidential information that came along with it. "First Order warships are amassing just beyond our borders. More arrive every day. Admiral Noroos believes that they are positioning themselves for an all-out invasion, using Lorell and Taanab as staging points."

 

"How would that even be possible?" Rey demanded, setting her teacup down with a clatter. "They can't pass through the Mists! Even if Ren found a hyperlane two years ago using the same Force ability I did, his fleet won't be able to squeeze through all at once, from different directions— which is the only way they'd be able to overwhelm the Dragons guarding the Reach and the Rim Worlds."

 

Isolder nodded. "That is correct, Rey. This could be mere grandstanding on their end. I wonder, too, if they've learned the whereabouts of the Resistance and are seeking to threaten us."

 

"They'd have sent a message by now if that was the case," said Ta'a Chume. "They're nothing if not efficient." She rose to her feet, an abrupt dismissal. "I shall speak with Noroos and the other admirals to figure out the best way to handle this development. In the meantime, I expect utmost discretion from the two of you regarding this matter."

 

*

 

"Your grandmother is rattled," Isolder commented as he led Rey to another wing of the palace.

 

Rey blinked at him. "I find that difficult to believe, to be honest."

 

"You learn how to tell after a while." Although it was just the two of them in the hallway, he lowered his voice. "The situation is grave, to say the least. If the First Order manages to enter Consortium territory and catch wind of Resistance presence, their wrath will know no bounds. You have not revealed the bargain to anyone else at court, have you?"

 

"No, of course not." Since there had been too many witnesses on Stalsinek IV, Ta'a Chume had had to disclose that Rey was a Force-sensitive who'd run afoul of Kylo Ren; however, no one else save for the loyal Captain Elerron knew she was affiliated with the Resistance, and no one else save for the Chume'doro present at the Star Home meeting— who were bound by sacred oaths to keep the secrets of the Hapan Royal House— knew that she hadn't returned to claim her title of her own free will. Isolder called her Rey in private but, to the rest of Hapes, she was Kira Ka Djo, She Who Would Come After.

 

"Well, I suppose there is no use worrying about it until Ren makes his intentions clear," Isolder mused. "For now, let us speak of happier things."

 

Rey was actually very worried about it, but her father was right— and his tone intrigued her. "Such as?"

 

He looked proud of himself. "I found some more old holos."

 

*

 

In the prince's study, with its white walls and emerald green fabrics, a beautiful woman cajoled the wailing infant in her arms to look at the camera, a moment immortalized in the grainy blue static of obsolete recording technology.

 

No matter how many times Rey saw her mother's likeness, the eerie resemblance always caught her off-guard. It was as if she were peering at the future, at an older version of herself. Teneniel wore her hair down, though, and her smile was more brittle at the edges. She had not been very happy at court, preferring instead the rainforests of Stalsinek IV that reminded her of Dathomir's savage jungles and contained the Force nexus that she'd imbued with an aspect of her Winged Goddess.

 

Rey stared at the holo, transfixed. It was so close to being familiar, like a word on the tip of her tongue. If she strained harder, dug deeper, surely she could discover this minute-and-a-half in the depths of her memories. Surely she would be able to recall what it had felt like to be held in her mother's arms.

 

There was a woman, somewhere in Rey's subconscious. Someone who promised her she'd come back, someone who had touched her face for the last time with the same hands that styled her hair into the three buns she refused to change even here in her new life. That woman was not Teneniel Djo, but Aletra Creel, the nursemaid who had vanished along with the two Royal Guards after presumably leaving Rey on Jakku.

 

Stars, if only she could remember.

 

"Tell me again how you and Teneniel met." Rey was speaking to Isolder but her eyes were glued to the recording.

 

Even though he had repeated this story quite a few times over the months, he was glad to indulge her once more. "I traveled often in my younger days, exploring the galaxy and learning about other cultures. I was still the second son then, with no major responsibilities to my name." A shadow fell over Isolder's face the way it always did when he thought of Kalen, the brother he had killed in battle, but it passed quickly, with the acceptance that time had taught. "On one such sojourn through the Outer Rim, I stumbled upon a planet where the light was as red as blood."

 

"Dathomir," Rey breathed.

 

"I ran into your mother beneath the trees of that world. She had been temporarily exiled from her clan for using magic on two Initiates in a fit of rage— she caught them trying to learn the dark spells, and got perhaps a little carried away stopping them with a spell of her own—"

 

"She had a temper," Rey interrupted with a grin.

 

"A formidable one," Isolder confirmed, chuckling softly. "Her grandmother, who was also the matriarch of their clan, had sent her off into the wilderness for a period of reflection and atonement, charging her to return only once she had mastered her emotions. The witches of Dathomir are, as a whole, very rigid in their views of how magic should be utilized."

 

"Bet they and the old Jedi Order got along splendidly," Rey quipped. "Do you think that was why Teneniel decided to go with you? Because she was fed up with her clan's teachings?"

 

"I wouldn't say fed up," Isolder clarified. "It was more like her experience had taught her that there were a great many things she needed to learn about herself and her connection to magic, and she doubted she could learn those things while stuck on her homeworld. So I took her with me and we traveled together for a while, and somewhere along the way we fell in love."

 

"So it wasn't love at first sight."

 

"No. Not like it was with Leia." Isolder smiled in remembrance. "I met the princess when I was in my early twenties, possessed of all sorts of youthful romantic notions. With Teneniel, it was different. Slower. We started from a place of friendship and mutual respect, which eventually blossomed into something more. And then we got married, and we had you."

 

In the holo playing on loop, a four-month-old Rey yanked at the ends of her mother's hair, bawling her heart out. Teneniel burst into uncontrollable giggles even as she tried to extricate the reddish-brown strands from the chubby little fingers, and, this time, the twenty-two-year-old Rey who was watching the scene registered the vague scent of wild berries and knew, without a doubt, that this was what her mother had smelled like.

 

It was a start. It was enough for now.

 

"I want that for you, too, you know." At Isolder's cryptic statement, Rey turned to him, at first not understanding what he meant, and he cupped her face between both hands. "Whether it be the lightning bolt or the slow fall, I want you to someday have what your mother and I had in the end."

 

"I don't think there's time for that," Rey said dismissively, blushing despite herself. Romance was a foreign concept for her, having dwelt in isolation most of her life. Her two years with the Resistance had exposed her to the sort of dalliances that went on between her comrades, most of whom were hot-blooded young people who didn't know what the next hour would bring, but she remained in the dark as to what love actually was. The Hapan lords and ladies didn't seem to set much store by it, either, focused as they were on power plays and financial gain. And even though she was technically no longer a Jedi apprentice, Luke's ruminations on how attachment complicated one's own journey with the Force had been drilled into her brain.

 

That didn't mean she wasn't curious about it. Hence the blushing.

 

"Someday, dearest one," Isolder repeated. "Of course, whoever it is will have to go through me first, and I shall have no qualms about telling them they aren't good enough for you."

 

Rey laughed.

 


 

The Citadel was the name given to the sprawling First Order complex that had been built over the ruins of Coruscant's Senate District. In one of its many enclosed hangar bays, the doors to the Emperor's personal shuttle— which had dropped down from the orbiting Heresiarch— hissed open, and Kylo Ren stalked down the ramp flanked by his knights, all of them in full masked regalia.

 

From the silent ranks of stormtroopers and uniformed officers standing at attention, Hux stepped forward, keeping pace with Kylo as he strode out of the hangar. "Emperor Ren." Hux had never quite gotten the hang of not uttering Kylo's new title through clenched teeth. "My men have successfully obliterated the Resistance cells scattered throughout the Slice. Organa, Ackbar, Kre'fey, Antilles, and the Jedi, however, remain at large."

 

"I was given to believe that you originally estimated it would take six months to hunt them all down, General," Kylo remarked in a deceptively conversational tone of voice. "It has been rather more than six months, I'm afraid."

 

Mephala Ren snickered. "Perhaps his talents are better suited elsewhere, my lord."

 

"Such as guard duty," added Meridia Ren, "on some Outer Rim dirtball."

 

Hux ignored the cattiness of the twin sisters, addressing Kylo alone. "Our nets are closing in, Your Majesty. There aren't many more sectors they could be hiding in—"

 

"Forget them for now," Kylo ordered. "I need your fleet to join Daala, Quillan, and Siralt outside the Hapes Cluster. It's the last unconquered territory left in the Inner Rim, and we're about to change that."

 

"Has Regent Snoke approved this course of action? I was under the impression that Hapes would be brought to heel only once we finished cleaning up all the former Republic sectors—"

 

Kylo stopped in his tracks, one hand lashing out. Hux's sentence cut off in a squeak as he was telekinetically lifted into the air and hurled against the wall, the Force clamping around his throat.

 

" I am the Emperor," Kylo growled. "It is my word that is law. Understood?"

 

Hux managed a slight nod. Kylo's arm dropped back to his side and the general sagged to the floor, gasping for breath. He watched Kylo and the knights walk away, his watery blue eyes narrowed in sheer hatred.

 


 

The message arrived five day cycles later, transmitted from one of seven massive Baleen- class heavy freighters that simultaneously materialized right in front of the warships guarding the Hapes Cluster's end of the Spine. Admiral Vela Noroos nearly choked on her caf at the impossible sight just beyond the bridge's viewport, but, before she could give the order to fire, the message overrode all nearby Hapan frequencies, and the face of a gray-haired, green-eyed woman in First Order uniform appeared on the command center's holodisplay.

 

"Greetings. I am Natasi Daala, admiral of one of four fleets that have the Hapes Cluster surrounded. More will come. You may do with these freighters as you wish, for they are unmanned and have served their purpose— which is to show you that the Empire of the First Order possesses technology capable of bypassing Ta'a Chume's Veil." The prerecorded transmission flickered once, twice, and then Daala spoke again. "You have twenty-four standard hours to send an envoy to His Imperial Majesty's flagship to discuss the terms of the Consortium's surrender. Or we invade."

 


 

On the other side of the Transitory Mists, Major Tschel waited for the Hapan response. He was on board the Despot, another Sovereign- class dreadnought like the Heresiarch that served as Daala's capital ship, and the admiral herself was leaning back in her seat with a predatory stillness.

 

"I bet Hux is seeing red right now," Tschel said to Daala with the affability of one who had known her for decades, ever since he was a lieutenant in Sheev Palpatine's navy. "He'd have given anything to be the face of that speech, the power-hungry little bastard."

 

"It was a tactical maneuver on Emperor Ren's part," said Daala. "He wants this takeover to proceed as smoothly as possible, and the Hapans would have chafed to receive an ultimatum from a man. They recognize only female power."

 

Tschel scoffed. "Well, they soon won't have a choice. Our new sub-hyperspace drives have made sure of that."

 

"Don't underestimate the Consortium," Daala warned. "I've yet to exchange broadsides with one of their Battle Dragons, but, if the old stories are anything to go by, I'd prefer to avoid it altogether."

 

"I don't know much about them," Tschel admitted. "Very mysterious region that Palpatine left well enough alone."

 

Daala stared at the ionized green clouds swirling amidst the black. "I daresay he would've launched an invasion if he'd had the tech needed to penetrate the Mists. The Hapes Cluster is fantastically wealthy. A fine addition to any empire."

 

*

 

The response beamed to the Despot was a tersely-worded communique with the Hapan envoy's details. It arrived at the eight-hour mark, which made Tschel blink. "I thought it'd take them longer to come to a decision. It's almost as if they were... expecting this?"

 

"That's the Queen Mother for you," Daala grunted. "Always a step ahead of everyone else."

 


 

The thing about Hapan women was that any of them, at any given time and place, would unfailingly be the most beautiful woman one had ever seen. Kylo wished he'd kept his mask on as Lairelosse Yliri, the Ducha of Talcharaim, strode into the meeting room of the Heresiarch like she owned it, her fleureline weave robes swishing with every step, the gold fabric bringing out the burnished tones of her dark bronze skin. As it was, he did his best not to gawk, acknowledging her flawlessly executed curtsy with a nod before gesturing for her to take the seat across from him at the table. It was a private audience, with her guards as well as his waiting outside the closed doors.

 

"Lady Yliri," Kylo began, "I trust that your voyage over was a pleasant one."

 

"As pleasant as can be expected with the threat of war looming over my head." Lairelosse's voice was disarmingly bright and clear, like a glass bell. She seemed too young to be an envoy for such a delicate matter. Kylo estimated her to be the same age as Rey— would be by now, if she is still alive— and then he steadfastly banished his treacherous thoughts about the scavenger girl from his mind.

 

"It doesn't have to be a war," he told Lairelosse. "Should Ta'a Chume deign to swear fealty to the First Order, not a single drop of Hapan blood need be shed."

 

"I would not be so certain, your grace. Let me tell you something about my people." She leaned forward, as if about to impart a great secret. " We will not be ruled by outsiders. If Ta'a Chume bows, the majority of our sixty-three inhabited systems will revolt."

 

"And what are sixty-three systems compared to an entire galaxy's worth of ordnance?" Kylo asked. "I have the advantage. I could decimate the Hapes Cluster in a fortnight using only half my fleet."

 

"You could, but then you would be king of ashes," Lairelosse shot back. "We would sooner salt our fields and poison our waters, burn our castles and bury our mines, and hit self-destruct on every last one of our Dragons before we let any of it fall into First Order hands."

 

"While that would certainly be tragic, it's still a more preferable outcome than an independent sector continuing to exist within the borders of my empire," Kylo retorted. "We are wasting time, Ducha. I expected us to either discuss surrender or to declare hostilities, not to posture and play word games."

 

"I did not come here to surrender, Your Majesty. And only a fool would declare hostilities while behind enemy ranks." Lairelosse's ink-black eyes gleamed. "Ta'a Chume wishes to avoid bloodshed, same as you. Luckily enough for all of us, Hapes has a time-honored tradition of settling differences between rival factions via one very efficient method."

 

"Which is?" he snapped, his patience fraying.

 

"I bring you an offer from She Who Has No Equal," said the envoy. "An offer of marriage to the heir of her throne."

 

At first, Kylo was absolutely certain that he'd misheard. After several moments passed with Lairelosse looking at him expectantly, he found his voice, brows knitting together. "Over the years, the First Order has intercepted the odd Hapan pirate ship here and there. According to our information, you have no Chume'da. Isolder's daughter disappeared during a failed uprising and is presumed dead."

 

"Your information is outdated," Lairelosse declared with relish. "Kira Ka Djo was returned to us some time ago. A union between our two realms would be the best solution, don't you think? The Consortium retains some degree of autonomy, and the First Order gains access to the Hapes Cluster and the riches within." She stood up. "I'll take my leave before I outstay my welcome, Emperor Ren. We shall be waiting for your response to begin marriage negotiations or to exchange broadsides, and rest assured that we are prepared to do either. But do take your time— you have the advantage, after all."

 

She swept out of the room in a rustle of gold, leaving Kylo alone to wrestle with the enormity of the choice set before him.

Chapter Text

Snoke's holo was deep in thought, head bowed, long fingers curled under his chin, unmoving. By contrast, Kylo was restless even as he stood respectfully still, his own fist clenching and opening at his side in slow, tentative spasms.

 

Finally, Snoke looked up, his frost-colored eyes holding Kylo prisoner in their celestial depths. "The Ducha Yliri is right. A conjugal union between the Emperor of the First Order and the Chume'da of the Hapes Consortium would be most pragmatic."

 

"Master." The protest ripped loose from Kylo's throat before he could stop it. "I cannot marry a woman I do not know." He couldn't marry, period. A wife had never figured into his plans, and he had no wish to be shackled by the same sort of arrangement that had wrung Leia Organa and Han Solo out to dry.

 

"You have made far greater sacrifices for our cause, Kylo Ren. It would not do to falter now, when we are so close to glorious dominion." Snoke's tone took on a sinuous cajolery, sinking its thorns into Kylo's soul. "Can you not taste how close we are? It is your destiny to rule, and with the wealth of Hapes at your disposal, with the Dragon Fleet at your back, you will build an empire on a grander scale than even I could have ever dreamed."

 

"It won't be my wealth, it won't be my fleet," Kylo muttered. "It will still belong to—"

 

"Your bride," crooned Snoke, "who will one day be the Queen Mother. Who will be all too eager to share her earthly possessions with her husband if she is properly wooed."

 

Kylo grimaced. Pride kept him from saying it out loud, but Snoke seemed entirely too confident in Kylo's abilities to woo anyone. "I don't know if it would be advisable to wager the future on a woman's heart."

 

"What about a woman's duty to her people? A woman's sense of self-preservation?" Snoke asked, changing tactics with the usual abrupt sharpness that always threatened to draw blood. "Once we have established a foothold in the Hapes Cluster, the Consortium will not dare test us. After your marriage, we shall be in a position to hold the sword over their head."

 

"Well, that sounds romantic," Kylo burst out in a fit of pique, only for his stomach to drop once he realized what he had just done. He immediately sank to the floor of the Heresiarch's communications bay, prostrating himself at the towering, icily silent hologram's feet. "I apologize, Master."

 

"It would appear that you have gotten quite drunk on the power I deigned bestow upon you, my little lordling," Snoke spat out. "While you are the face of this new empire, I am its regent. Your word is law but it is I who speaks through you. Have you forgotten?"

 

"No, Master." Kylo squeezed his eyes shut. "It won't happen again. I swear."

 

"I should hope so. For your sake," Snoke rumbled from his obsidian throne, hundreds of systems away yet vast and inescapable. "If you insist on acting like a petulant child, then I shall order you around as if you are one. You will marry this Kira Ka Djo and forge an alliance to herald the dawn of a new age, or you will suffer the consequences." His next words were softer, the line of his mouth twisting into a dark smile. "Do not fret overly much. You spoke of romance and I would be the first to tell you that romance has no place in this, but Hapan women are the most beautiful in all the galaxy. It might not be as bad as you fear."

 


 

"I won't do it!"

 

The elegant crystal figurines on the mantelpiece in Ta'a Chume's salon rattled from the shockwaves that Rey's anger sent out into the Force. Rey herself was standing in the middle of the room, glaring virulently at the Queen Mother, who was regarding her with an impassive expression from her gilded scroll wing chair.

 

"I won't agree to this." There was a beast trying to claw its way out of Rey's chest, some vile, ugly thing birthed from fury and disbelief, but she might as well have been the sea, crashing desperately against the insurmountable rock that was her grandmother's iron will. She turned to Isolder, who had also gotten to his feet at Ta'a Chume's declaration but was otherwise not saying a word. "You can't make me do this," Rey pleaded with him. "All your talk about wanting me to be happy, to have what you and Teneniel had— I won't find it with that— that monster—" Her voice broke. "Please—"

 

"Rey is correct, Mother," Isolder told Ta'a Chume quietly. "She has already assumed her role at court under duress, and now you are proposing to offer her up like a sacrificial lamb to the Emperor."

 

"The alternative is to fight a war we cannot win," retorted Ta'a Chume. "This is what's best for our people."

 

"Then you marry him!" Rey snapped.

 

"I am not the one he chased to Stalsinek IV, the one with whom he has crossed blades and in whom he has met his match. Who better to keep a Sith husband in line than a Jedi wife?"

 

"I'm not a Jedi. I haven't trained with my master in months. Your terms made sure of that!"

 

"And you took those terms, did you not? To save your friends. Tell me, what do you think will happen to them when the First Order finds out they're here?" Ta'a Chume asked pointedly. "With Ren as your consort, you will have greater control over where his forces may go. We will retain sovereignty of the cluster and we will be able to keep the First Order away from General Organa's hideout. If you won't do this for Hapes, then do this for the Resistance."

 

"You have all the answers, don't you?" Rey narrowed her eyes at the woman she just couldn't bring herself to like, even as she'd come to grudgingly respect her power and political acumen. It was a sad thing to realize that the family she'd been searching for was a far cry from perfect— sadder still that one of them was actually capable of making her vision go dim with rage. "Did you know this would happen? Were you plotting to use me as a bargaining chip right from the start? Did you anticipate that the First Order would soon come calling?"

 

"I suspected that it would be a possibility," said the Queen Mother with maddening calm. "New empires are always so eager to make their mark, after all, and who could resist the siren song of Hapes? Strategically located, oozing with precious stones and fertile land and unique weapons... Yes, I suspected. And I planned accordingly, because that is what a leader does."

 

"Leaders fight for their people!" Rey yelled. "They don't unlock the gates and welcome the enemy with open arms!"

 

"You foolish child," Ta'a Chume hissed. "Don't you understand yet? This is how we fight. We give them the foothold they're after, but we control how they move."

 

"You're using we an awful lot, considering that I'm the only one who's going to be a murderer's wife!" In spite of her defiance, Rey knew that once again she had no choice. This time, it wasn't just the continued survival of the Resistance that was at stake, but that of an entire civilization as well. Even if by some miracle she and her comrades managed to escape from the cluster unscathed, she would be leaving an entire race at the mercy of the regime that had thought nothing of wiping the Hosnian system from the map. She was well and truly ensnared.

 

"Take heart, Kira." Ta'a Chume must have sensed Rey's belligerent acceptance, because she now sounded marginally more sympathetic. "Many empires have come and gone since the first Queen Mother took the throne. Hapes has watched them rise and she has watched them fall, and she will outlast this one, too. The First Order will not destroy us, and neither will they destroy you, for you are blood of our blood. Now save us all."

 


 

Little more than a standard day cycle had passed when the Heresiarch' s angular shadow fell over Megos, largest of the seven moons that orbited the planet of Hapes. Carefully watched by six Battle Dragons, twice that amount of Nova- class cruisers, and countless Miy'til starfighter squadrons, the wedge-shaped dreadnought made its slow approach on the cloud-wreathed, blue-and-green sphere that lay at the heart of Consortium territory.

 

On the Heresiarch' s bridge, the atmosphere was fraught with tension, every passenger's gaze drawn to the warships that surrounded the planet of Hapes and had their sights trained on the destroyer. The battle cruisers were formidable enough, bristling with weaponry, long-necked and split-winged like gigantic birds of prey, while the Miy'til starfighters gleamed in the black like a colony of pale wasps, but the Dragons were the backbone of the Hapan navy for a reason. Each one was five hundred meters long, a stout central core connecting two saucer-shaped hull plates that were lined from top to bottom with circular sections of ion cannons and turbolasers. The discs would rotate to bring fresh guns to the enemy while the previously used guns recharged their capacitors, ensuring a nonstop barrage supplemented by proton torpedo tubes, tractor beam projectors, mounted heavy triple ion cannon batteries, and pulsemass mine launchers, all wound up in the Dragon's metallic coils.

 

"This was a mistake," opined Jyggalag Ren, the new recruit who had taken Malacath's place. "We should've brought reinforcements. If they decide to open fire, we'll sustain a fair lick of damage before our sub-hyperspace drives can tunnel us out."

 

"They won't open fire," declared Boethiah. "The Emperor may be on board but they know that killing him won't stop the First Order."

 

Not while Snoke is still around. The unspoken words hung in the air.

 

"Do you think Lord Ren will go through with this?" asked Hircine. "An arranged marriage— whoever heard of such a thing?"

 

"Pretty commonplace in Hapes, from what I understand," said Boethiah. "In their culture, marriage is a way of forming alliances, brokering peace between rival houses, and sometimes even sealing trade partnerships."

 

Jyggalag chuckled. "What about stopping invasions?"

 

Boethiah smirked behind her mask. "I rather suspect this will be the first of its kind. They've never had to give their Chume'da away before. Bet you all those fancy lords and ladies down there aren't very happy right now."

 

"I hate politics," sighed Hircine. "I've lived to a ripe old age by avoiding politics. Give me a good rough-and-tumble brawl any day."

 

"And yet Lord Ren chose you to accompany him, along with me and Jyggalag, instead of Clavicus or the twins," Boethiah pointed out. "That suggests he has faith in your ability to help steer us through the marriage negotiations. Unlike Meridia and Mephala, you don't go around picking fights for shits and giggles. And unlike Clavicus, you're smart."

 

"Not smart enough to continue avoiding politics, apparently," Hircine grumbled.

 


 

Rey looked up as the door to her room opened, puzzled that it was Isolder who entered instead of the ladies-in-waiting who would prepare her for the initial meeting with Kylo that was scheduled to take place in a few hours at the throne hall.

 

"What are you doing here?" Her tone was a little too sharp but she couldn't bring herself to care.

 

"I wanted to apologize." There were bags under her father's eyes. "We have not spoken since the audience in the Queen Mother's salon yesterday, but I know you are resentful that I did not speak up as emphatically as I should have."

 

"Ta'a Chume's word is law," Rey muttered. "No one in the Consortium defies her."

 

"That's no excuse. You are my daughter and I should have fought for you," Isolder said gravely. "Since then, I have attempted to privately sway her from this course. I'm afraid that her mind is set, but I was able to persuade her to let you attend the marriage negotiations."

 

Rey cocked her head. "How did you manage that?"

 

Isolder flashed her a tired, solemn smile. "A good deal of appealing to her compassionate nature—" At this, Rey snorted— "as well as reminding her that the First Order needs to be made aware that the Chume'da has power of her own. And, also, by promising her that I'll stop you from punching Leia's son the moment you see him. I'm not as young as I once was, though, so I might move a touch too slowly..."

 

She rolled her eyes at him, far from mollified but at least her anger was redirected to those more deserving. The negotiations were supposed to be conducted between the two heads of state and their trusted advisors; this concession that Isolder wrangled had been hard-won.

 

He left when the ladies-in-waiting arrived, one of them carefully holding a Hapan ceremonial crown with both hands. Rey stared at the object, feeling a bevy of apprehensive looks darting to her hair. She'd always been adamant about keeping these three buns even as so much else of herself was stripped away, but...

 

"An intimidated opponent is much easier to negotiate with," Leia had said eight months ago on board the Star Home. While Kylo was in possession of superior ordnance, it was Rey who had the element of surprise on her side. Isolder was right— the Chume'da had power of her own, and she could submit to this farce of a marriage on her terms.

 

But she needed to look the part.

 

Taking a deep breath, Rey undid the elastics from her hair, letting the whole chestnut-colored mass tumble past her shoulders. "All right, ladies," she said to the other women, "do your worst."

 


 

Kylo had half an hour to go before he needed to board the shuttle that would fly him to Ta'a Chume'Dan. He wondered if this was a trap, if he and his retinue would be slaughtered upon making planetfall while the Dragons tore the Heresiarch to shreds up here in the black. It was an unlikely prospect but he found himself almost wishing for it. A swift, fiery death seemed preferable to marrying a stranger, some coldly beautiful, viperous Hapan woman.

 

His gaze strayed to the spot under his bed where he'd stashed the spacer's chest, from where his grandfather's blade beckoned. He'd stopped meditating with the thing in this time of relative peace— it had certainly made him stronger in terms of combat and Force usage, but it also had the curious effect of prying open the cracks in his soul that Han Solo's death had caused. Vader still came to him in visions, but no longer as the forbidding figure clad in black armor, whispering Sith words in Kylo's ear. Instead, it was a young man, unmasked and with a scar at the corner of his right eye peeking out from beneath copper-colored curls, and he never said anything at all.

 

Kylo had been enraged when he saw his family heirloom in the traitor FN-2187's hands, exultant when he reclaimed it on Stalsinek IV. Nowadays, however, part of him regretted ever laying eyes on the damned thing. The sensations he got from communing with the blade were frightful, shifting, and uncertain, making him remember Han Solo and feel concern for Leia Organa. He'd stopped sensing her in the Force after Starkiller Base, as if she'd finally realized the grave threat he posed and taken the necessary steps to shield herself, but as time wore on with no sign of her to be found anywhere in the galaxy, the notion that she might be dead had started to creep up on him, bringing with it a stab of fear that grew sharper as the days passed. For the most part, he was able to clamp down on this fear and keep it buried deep inside him, far away from Snoke's prying gaze, but his hold was tenuous at best.

 

And then there was the matter of the girl. The scavenger. Rey.

 

After she left him in the snow with his face torn open amidst the collapse of the First Order's most powerful weapon, Snoke in his infinite wisdom had helped Kylo see how greatly he'd erred in letting his guard down. But in the year that followed Stalsinek IV, he'd met her again and again in battle, and in some twisted way had come to look forward to the next time they would cross paths, the next time he would see her teeth clenched in a snarl and the wiry muscles of her arms straining and her saberstaff brandishing the white heat of the desert. Wherever she was now, she was probably with Leia. Or maybe dead, or dead, too, which perturbed him more than he would have admitted to anyone.

 

He wondered, briefly, what Rey would think about his marriage, and when he left his suite to head for the Heresiarch's shuttle complement, it was with a strangely hollow ache that he did not understand.

 


 

A small congregation of nobles led by Prince Isolder himself received Kylo at the entrance of the Fountain Palace. The Chume'doro immediately swarmed around them with military precision, women whose broad frames, heavy armor, and stern silence reminded Kylo of Phasma. He wouldn't have objected to Phasma and her F-11D blaster rifle's presence right about now, but stormtroopers at what was ostensibly a diplomatic overture would have made the other side more defensive than they already were. Most of High Command had clamored for a display of strength before Kylo pointed out that the Consortium was well aware that the wolf at the door had fangs. He'd brought only three of his knights for protection, as well as Hux and Daala, his more politically adept officers— although he was loath to admit it in Hux's case. It was a show of good faith, the same reason he'd agreed to the negotiations being held on Hapan soil, the same reason he was not wearing his mask.

 

"Emperor Ren." Isolder stepped forward, regarding him with cold blue eyes. This seemed to be the signal for the other nobles to sink, as one, into the briefest of perfunctory curtsies and stiff bows.

 

Kylo fought the instinct to return the gesture, a lingering remnant from childhood lessons on etiquette. Emperors did not bow. Instead, he nodded at the older man standing in front of him. "Prince Isolder. Well met."

 

"It is good of you to think so," Isolder replied with icy sarcasm, and Kylo bit his tongue to avoid snapping, I don't want to marry your daughter, either. Fine diplomacy it would be if he and the Hapan prince came to blows before he'd even set foot inside the palace. "Please follow me, Your Grace."

 

Once they had passed through the marble doorway, Kylo heard Hircine curse under his breath, a sound in sync with the disquieting sensation of the Force abruptly being cut off. Ysalamiri cages lined the shimmering white walls at regular intervals, the bulky, opaque cylinders incongruous with the gilded paintings and jewel-toned glass windows.

 

"Kindly excuse us for taking such precautions, Emperor Ren," Isolder said in much the same tone with which he'd greeted Kylo. "Our people do not trust the Force, especially when it is wielded by an as-yet unknown quantity soon to be in the proximity of the Queen Mother."

 

"I don't mind at all, Your Highness," said Kylo, affecting nonchalance. "I am only sorry that these cages should clash with your lovely decor."

 

"In that case, I hope you won't attempt to rectify the situation by smashing any of them and killing the poor beast within."

 

"As long as your hospitality is not revoked, there will be no need for me or my knights to do so."

 

Daala shot Kylo one of her rare impressed glances from where she walked beside him. She was probably thinking of his grandfather— she'd mentioned on more than one occasion that Kylo possessed the same dry wit and sharp tongue as her lord Vader's own. Had this been two or three years ago, his chest would have puffed with pride at such a comparison. Now, however, he thought only of the young Jedi Knight in his visions, somber and unspeaking.

 

The throne hall was a long, wide chamber carved from snow-white alabas, the floor tiled with Kuati marble of the same color and inset with flecks of sapphire and gold. Unlike the rest of the palace that Kylo had seen, the windows here were not stained glass but rather transparisteel, resistant to aerial attacks. The high-vaulted ceiling was adorned with gilded sculptural ornamentation of lilies, swords, and serpentine dragons, as well as vivid frescoes depicting star maps of Hapes' sixty-three systems and the various wars and treaties that comprised the history of the Consortium.

 

The people in the hall fell deathly silent when Kylo's group entered. He'd never before seen such a gathering of people in all his life, every single one of them lovely and ethereal and bedecked in feathers, silks, and glittering gemstones. Neither had he ever been the recipient of such a concentrated mass of caustic, wary gazes.

 

"We're not welcome here, Lord Ren," Boethiah murmured. "Despite the impending nuptials, they still see us as invaders. I would advise you to tread carefully."

 

"Don't I always?" Kylo shot back from the corner of his mouth, and Boethiah snorted before drawing her hood further over her masked face.

 

At the end of the hall was an enormous raised platform that loomed over the courtiers in the same manner that the bluffs of the Fountain Palace loomed over the capital city. There were three thrones perched atop the steps; the one on the left was empty, obviously Isolder's, while the one on the right was occupied by a slim figure that Kylo could barely make out through the translucent gossamer curtains streaming from the pale silver arch that had been placed overhead. In any case, he wasn't ready to scrutinize his future bride too closely just yet, so he focused all his attention on the woman seated in the middle of the platform.

 

This, without a doubt, was Ta'a Chume, the Queen Mother of the Hapes Consortium, with the twisted crown and the white-powdered face and the gaze like winter steel. Her throne eclipsed the two others in both opulence and breadth, made from strands of rose-tinted gold and star-dusted silver intricately woven together to form the seat, the armrests, the clawed feet, and the stylized wings that spread halfway up to the ceiling, unfurled like a dragon's in mid-flight. Sprinkled throughout the interlocked threads of precious metal were Corusca gems and fire emeralds, night pearls and sapphires, diamonds and blood-red Tumanian rubies, and shards of the ice moon, the luminescent jewel that could be mined only in the Gateworlds of the Hapes Cluster.

 

"That chair alone could commission a fleet of destroyers," Kylo heard Jyggalag remark to Boethiah and Hircine as they approached the platform, which also had an ysalamiri cage mounted at each end. These two cages, however, weren't opaque, and the creatures lurking within were clearly visible, their tails flicking against the glass and their amber eyes training curious reptilian stares at the newcomers.

 

Isolder ascended the steps and took his place at his mother's side while the rest of the welcoming committee melted into the watchful crowd. Kylo straightened his spine, taking care not to let his shoulders drop into their instinctive slight hunch, as Hux and Daala clicked their heels and saluted the Queen Mother. The three Knights of Ren standing behind Kylo remained as motionless as the Royal Guards that had fanned out to both surround the First Order delegation and barricade the platform.

 

"Emperor Ren." Ta'a Chume's imperious tones rang throughout the gilded hall. "I bid you welcome to my court. Before we commence with the negotiations, allow me to state for the record that I would like us to listen to each other with open minds and strive to work together in ensuring a prosperous future for our two realms. It is my sincerest wish that your journey here will not be in vain."

 

The pretty speech ended on a firm note, as if it had been a warning all along. A warning that seemed to very pointedly encompass their audience, all the lords and ladies who looked as if they had been collectively forced to swallow a whole lemon. Kylo could only imagine the uproar that had taken place when Ta'a Chume announced the betrothal to her court.

 

A movement of red hair at the corner of his eye brought him back to the present moment— Hux had broken his rigid stance to dart him an urgent look. Right. It was his turn to say something.

 

"I thank you for your hospitality, Queen Mother, as well as for your wisdom in arranging a mutually beneficial solution to the current problem of territory," said Kylo. The Hapans needed to remember that this whole thing was their sovereign's idea. "My people are tired of war while yours would rather not start one. We are therefore united by a common purpose, and I have every faith that we will manage to broker an enduring, fruitful peace."

 

Ta'a Chume graciously inclined her head. "Then, if it pleases His Majesty, you may approach the throne and meet our Chume'da."

 

Kylo's legs felt like they were made of lead as he ascended the steps that seemed to go on forever, an entire hall fixated on his movements. When he reached the top of the platform, he noticed that there was a cunning gleam in the Queen Mother's dark jade eyes that he didn't like, a gleam that made foreboding curl in his gut. Before he could dwell on it, however, the woman on the rightmost throne stood up and emerged from behind the gossamer curtains, and his train of thought screeched to a halt.

 

"Hapan women are the most beautiful in the galaxy," Snoke had said, but beautiful couldn't even begin to describe Kira Ka Djo. She wore a gown of Saava silk dyed a rich oceanic blue color, with long sleeves that ended in triangular points over her wrists and a low-cut, gold-flecked bodice that clung to her slender torso before flaring out into a diamond-studded overskirt, the hem artfully slashed and in places bunched up into swirling rosettes in order to reveal the yards of voluminous chiffon that lay beneath, every inch painstakingly embroidered with a motif of golden century flowers and the fractal star that was the insignia of the Hapan Royal House.

 

To complement the dress, her crown was made of gold and set with diamonds and sapphires, framing her face like a halo, the points cut into miniature globe crosses, her chestnut hair swept into a sophisticated chignon that emphasized the elegant slope of her bare neck. Her eyes were dramatically rimmed with kohl, a smattering of gold dust at the edges, and there was something familiar about their hazel depths that Kylo couldn't parse. In fact, there was something about her, in general, that tugged at him, but he was too flustered by the mass public scrutiny and his physical reaction to her splendor to immediately decipher what it was.

 

"Chume'da." He bowed his head, retreating into the autopilot of formalities the same way he fell into combat forms by rote. "May this signal the beginning of an amicable relationship between our realms and..."

 

He trailed off mid-sentence as he lifted his gaze back to her features. His brain was finally starting to catch up, finally starting to realize that—

 

— underneath the opulent silk and the lavish jewels—

 

— underneath the cosmetics that hid her freckles and sharpened her cheekbones and softened the strong line of her jaw—

 

— underneath all of that— she was—

 

"Amicable relationship?" Rey growled, with narrowed eyes and a feral flash of teeth as Kylo's heart all but stopped in his chest. "Not kriffing likely."

Chapter Text

Rey did not hold much truck with the finery of her father's people. That wasn't to say she detested looking at the Hapan lords and ladies in their resplendent formal attire; on the contrary, she could spend hours doing just so, appreciating the contrast of brocade on satin, the way a white topaz headpiece could bring out the silver hue in someone's eyes.

 

But actually wearing such things was a different story. Perhaps concluding that her granddaughter would be a more amiable hostage if provided some measure of freedom, Ta'a Chume usually allowed Rey to scurry around Hapes in simple tunics and leggings when her presence was not required at court. In the long run, this had led to the unfortunate side effect of Rey being little-used to the tightness of corsets, the scratch of embroidered silk, and the constraints of heavy skirts.

 

As such, while she was aware that she currently looked very glamorous indeed, she was also, to not put too fine a point on it, dying inside. Her ladies had laced the corset a bit too securely— perhaps in an effort to imbue curves where there were none on Rey's coltish frame— and the pins holding the crown in place dug into her scalp like sharp talons. Her face was pancaked with layers of foundation and bronze pigments, her lips sticky with the peach gloss that had been brushed over them to offset her bold eye makeup. She felt too stiff and too warm, and also rather like a fraud, but she gladly acquiesced to these discomforts because the look on Kylo Ren's face made it all worth it.

 

Her hackles had started rising practically from the moment he walked into the throne hall flanked by Armitage Hux and Natasi Daala, with Hircine, Boethiah, and a third Knight of Ren she didn't recognize marching close behind. Rey had been expecting Kylo to arrive in his usual armor or perhaps the grand robes of his new office, but instead he wore a belted tunic over black trousers, heavy leather boots, gloves, and a long cape that flowed with his every step like a raven's wing. She would never admit it even with a blaster to her head, but this less elaborate attire flattered his lean figure, emphasizing his broad shoulders and formidable height. With his mane of thick dark hair framing his pale face as he'd purposefully stridden towards the platform, seemingly oblivious to the court's stares and whispers, he'd looked every inch a prince. And not a charming, gallant one like Isolder, but a sinister prince who brought blood and battle and ill omens.

 

Therefore, it was all the more satisfying when his jaw dropped once he realized she was Kira Ka Djo.

 

Rey was standing right in front of Kylo; she had the privilege of watching his mouth fall open and all trace of urbane courtesy vanish from his features, to be replaced by complete and utter shock. His brown eyes went wide and his complexion drained of what little color it had in the first place, so that he was now as white as a sheet. After her hostile declaration, which had been pitched low so as to go unheard by the courtiers, he remained silent for several more seconds, gaping at her like a fish plucked from water.

 

It was a petty sort of triumph that swelled in Rey's chest, but it quickly morphed into bewilderment when something like relief spasmed across Kylo's features. The expression lasted only for a second— just long enough for her to register its similarity to the look on many a Resistance foot soldier's face when the all clear was sounded, we live to fight another day— and then it was gone.

 

"Is this a trick?" Kylo's voice shook with anger, and Rey couldn't help feeling that some of it was directed at his own self. His hand instinctively dropped to the space where his lightsaber should have been, but, while his security detail had been allowed to keep their weapons, one of the conditions for the Emperor being allowed to approach the Queen Mother's throne had been to leave his lightsaber on his ship. There was a stir below the platform as the Knights of Ren tried to rush up the steps but were blocked by the Chume'doro closing ranks around them, the scrape of metal mingling with the click of safeties being deactivated.

 

"It is no trick, Your Grace," Ta'a Chume said calmly. "The captain on Stalsinek IV noticed Kira's resemblance to her late mother and summoned the prince. After the war, she returned to us to seek sanctuary and to claim her birthright."

 

"If the Mist Patrol hadn't apprehended us at the temple, I would never have been reunited with my family," Rey told Kylo with venomous sweetness. His gaze, which had been scanning the hall as if searching for hidden Resistance troops, snapped to her. "So, really, I have you to thank, Emperor Ren."

 

His eyes narrowed into slits. "And who else sought sanctuary with you, Chume'da?" He spat out her title like it tasted foul on his tongue. "Am I to find Dameron among your retinue? Is FN-2187 long-lost royalty as well?"

 

"I have no idea where the others are." It wasn't a total lie— the Resistance was scattered throughout the uninhabited moons and planets in the Corsair Outback, the various cells changing locations every few weeks. "I was separated from them during the Battle of Coruscant. If you still think this is a scam, you can check the DNA records for yourself."

 

But demanding to see the results of the DNA test would be tantamount to calling the Hapan head of state a liar, which would hardly endear the First Order to an already wary populace. Kylo was in a difficult position and he knew it, and he obviously knew that Rey knew it, judging from the way he was glowering at her.

 

Oh, she was enjoying this far too much.

 

"Are the two of you quite done making a scene?" The question dripped like icicles from Ta'a Chume's lips, shattering the world that was Rey and Kylo alone. Rey wanted to argue that it wasn't like they'd been shouting at each other but, on second thought, their tense standoff was already eliciting speculative murmurs from the crowd. Not to mention the minor chaos erupting below the platform, where Hux and the others had recognized her and were getting antsy.

 

I'm always so shortsighted when it comes to you, Rey seethed at the sullen, black-clad man in front of her. Kylo had the habit of eclipsing everything else, making her throw caution to the wind for the sake of crossing blades and wits with him on whatever battlefield presented itself. This magnificent hall, with its painted ceiling and gilded ornamentation, was a kind of battlefield as well. She had to start getting smarter, had to start using the same weapons that Ta'a Chume wielded with such skill.

 

Rey took a deep breath. "I think His Majesty and I are done getting reacquainted." She tried to say it with an air of sophisticated loftiness, but it only sounded bitingly sarcastic. Oh, well. Practice would make perfect— soon, she hoped. "Shall we proceed with the negotiations?"

 

*

 

"What the hell is going on?" Hux demanded as Kylo stormed down the platform. "Why is the Jedi girl dressed up as the Hapan Chume'da? Is the Resistance here? Is—"

 

"Shut up, Hux," Kylo grunted, and then he proceeded to explain the situation to his flabbergasted companions. "I will need all of you to be at your best during the discussion of terms," he concluded. "They've already managed to blindside us with this reveal. See that it does not happen again."

 

"So that's Rey," Jyggalag murmured to Boethiah and Hircine as the Royal Guards herded them through a small side door that led to an airy, well-lit council room. "Pretty little thing."

 

"A pain in the ass," Hircine shot back. "I don't like this. It's too much of a coincidence, isn't it?"

 

"We don't have a choice," Boethiah said tersely, her gaze fixed on Kylo as he exchanged heated whispers with Hux and Daala. "I think the Emperor will speak with us later about what this could possibly mean but, for now, we have to play the Consortium's game."

 

*

 

Studying Rey as she sat across from him at the glossy kriin-wood conference table, Kylo had a hard time reconciling this vision draped in jewels and the blue and gold of Hapes with the ragged scavenger he'd come to know. In fact, despite the barbs traded in the throne hall, he could almost believe there'd been some mistake, that she was a different person entirely. But she was currently looking at him like he was a particularly stubborn speck of dirt on her shoe, and that was a very Rey look. One that Kylo had no problem returning in kind. He had been relieved to see her once the initial shock wore off— relieved to know that she was alive, after all— but this was the kind of weakness that needed to be examined in private. Right now, he would do well to govern his emotions by clinging to the more familiar territory of their mutual dislike for each other

 

She was sitting between Isolder and a middle-aged brunette with violet eyes who had introduced herself as Daemora AlGray, the Ducha whose family controlled the Relephon Moons. To Isolder's left was Lairelosse Yliri, and further down the table was a thin, sandy-haired man named Beed Thane, the Archon of Vergill. Hux and Daala were flanking Kylo as usual, while the three Knights of Ren had elected to remain standing, positioning themselves between their master and the wide windows that occupied the entire length of one wall. Ta'a Chume was similarly protected by her Royal Guards as she presided at the head of the table, her icy crown glittering in the sunlight.

 

I need to find some political advisors, Kylo reflected. His High Command had done an admirable job of steering through the maze of surrenders and territorial reconfigurations that had characterized the First Order's sweep through the galaxy so far, but they were still military whose default setting was battle tactics. An intragalactic affairs expert or two on his council wouldn't go amiss.

 

The Ducha AlGray spoke up in pleasant tones that was at odds with the atmosphere in the room. "As chief negotiator for the Hapes Consortium and with the permission of Her Imperial Majesty Ta'a Chume, She Who Has No Equal, allow me to formally call this meeting to order. I have been instructed to proceed as if these were traditional marriage negotiations, and so—"

 

Hux cleared his throat. "With all due respect, they are not. This is a political union between two governments, with entire navies and economies at stake. It would be a disservice— and certainly the cause of many misunderstandings— if we were to treat this as an ordinary marriage."

 

"The esteemed general can surely be forgiven," said Daemora without missing a beat, her chipper smile intact, "for his ignorance of Hapan customs. Among the upper echelons of our society, marriage is a political union, joining together two houses and facilitating trade and military partnership between both. This is the mindset with which we are approaching these nuptials."

 

Kylo was too distracted to either relish in Hux's discomfiture or plot the blundering general's slow, painful death. The conversation had driven home one very important point that his mind had been refusing to process. But now it was finally starting to sink in.

 

Rey.

 

His would-be bride was Rey.

 

He was going to marry Rey.

 

It was surreal and it was ridiculous, and Kylo felt like throwing up from sheer stress alone. Across the table from him, Rey was beginning to look a lot less angry and a lot more panicked, as if it were also dawning on her that it was their shared future being discussed in this room.

 

"First we must be clear as to what both sides stand to offer each other," Daemora continued. "I believe that the Empire is well appraised of Hapes' wealth and ordnance. This does not yet include the dowry that Her Grace Kira Ka Djo will bring into her marriage, which will also be considerable. The question that remains is, what does the First Order have to offer her? What will she gain from this union?"

 

"Aside from the safety and survival of Hapes' sixty-three inhabited systems?" Daala asked archly.

 

Lairelosse struck like a viper lunging from the shadows. "I did not realize we were here to exchange threats. Nor did I think anyone would issue threats this deep in territory not her own."

 

"I was the first female admiral in Palpatine's Imperial Navy," Daala pointed out. "I've spent my life doing what I shouldn't in places that weren't meant for me."

 

Kylo decided that it was time to intervene. "The Chume'da will gain the title of Empress, and all the power and prestige that comes with it." That was tempting enough, wasn't it? He was speaking in terms of an entire galaxy, not just one little slice of the Inner Rim. "In return, we will of course expect Hapes' full cooperation in all endeavors to maintain prosperity and stability within our borders."

 

"Cooperation that we will be only too glad to provide," said Isolder, "as long as it does not infringe on our sovereignty. That is one of our two non-negotiables— that Hapan rule prevails in Hapan space."

 

"And what," said Kylo, "is your other non-negotiable?"

 

"That my daughter be treated with the utmost kindness and respect." Isolder's blue eyes were as hard as flint as he met Kylo's gaze. "That never will a hand be raised to her in anger, that never will she be made to feel lesser or betrayed."

 

Rey turned her head slightly to look at her father, the expression on her face a mix of surprise and gratitude and still that hint of disbelief, after all this time, that anybody would give a damn about her welfare. I know you, Kylo thought. I've been in your head. I saw your fear and your loneliness. I saw exactly how you yearned for someone to love you this much.

 

He wondered if he'd ever looked at his own parents in that way. It seemed unlikely. They had never taken his side in anything that he could recall; Han hadn't had much use for a quiet, awkward son who preferred reading to aiding and abetting in various schemes, and when the dark started manifesting in an eight-year-old Ben Solo's Force abilities, Leia had promptly shipped him off to Luke. They hadn't even been able to protect him from Snoke—

 

No, that was wrong. Snoke was a wise master who had trained Kylo to his full potential. These were a child's insecurities, the chips on a foolish boy's shoulders. They had no place in an emperor's head.

 

"Her Grace Kira Ka Djo will be treated in accordance with how she behaves herself," Kylo said curtly, brushing aside how odd it felt to refer to Rey by her birth name.

 

"Am I to be your obedient wife, then?" Rey spoke for the first time since taking her seat, hurling each word at him like a spear. "Shall I simper witlessly while millions suffer under your dictatorship?"

 

"As opposed to how happy and content they were amidst the anarchy and corruption of the Republic?" Kylo retorted. "I assure you, these millions will be far better off once things have settled down."

 

"You mean once you've finished executing all those who oppose you," Rey snapped, "and destroying their homes and torturing their loved ones!"

 

He shrugged. "Some measures are harsher than others. All are necessary. In any event, no such activity will be conducted in Hapes as long as the Consortium upholds their end of this bargain."

 

"I am their end of this bargain!" And, Force, while some traitorous part of him had always found the scavenger magnificent in her defiance, gold and diamonds gave her a sharper edge, made her burn as if she were a vengeful goddess. Her eyes flashed like a forest afire with the dawn. "You come here all high and mighty to seek my hand in marriage, and you bring with you the general who obliterated the Hosnian system, the admiral who razed D'Qar, and the Knights of Ren who participated in the ground invasion of Coruscant! So forgive me if I have some reservations, you cruel, pompous ass!"

 

Kylo's gloved fist slammed down on the table. "Even if I were spineless enough to make apologies for military actions undertaken during a time of war, I would hardly do so at the behest of a temperamental child," he hissed. "We made the journey over in the hopes of coming to terms and avoiding yet another blood-soaked conflict, but if the notion offends your sensibilities so much, Chume'da, all you have to do is say the word and we'll be out of your hair. And I will see you again on the battlefield."

 

In the stony silence that followed, the Queen Mother leaned forward in her seat, immediately drawing everyone's attention. "I believe that tensions are too high to facilitate any sort of agreement presently. May I suggest that we put this meeting on hold?" Judging from her tone, it was either more of a command or the most forceful suggestion that Kylo had ever heard in his life. "We can resume negotiations tomorrow, or when we have all gotten suitably used to one another. In line with this, Emperor Ren and his party are more than welcome to stay at the Fountain Palace as honored guests."

 

Daemora's pleasant composure had faltered during Kylo and Rey's verbal duel— in fact, she'd looked like she was having a heart attack when Rey called the Emperor of the First Order a pompous ass— but, now that her sovereign had stepped in, she was swift to collect herself, her smile returning to its holo-perfect brightness. "Yes, Ereneda, I believe that would be an ideal solution," the chief negotiator said smoothly. "We shall adjourn for now."

 

*

 

Beed Thane had held his peace all throughout the meeting. In Rey's experience, the Archon was a shrewd and extremely calculating man who dispensed words as reluctantly as a miser parted with their credits; however, once the First Order delegation had been escorted from the room, he spoke up. "Begging Your Majesty's pardon," he said to Ta'a Chume, "but I am not so sure it would be prudent to let the First Order have the run of the Per'Agthra while a formal treaty has yet to be drafted. I don't like the looks of those masked figures."

 

"As I understand it, Ren was their master even before he ascended," said Ta'a Chume. "They will obey him no matter the circumstances, and he won't command them to slaughter us in our beds. The boy has his mother's flair for politics, if twice her temper."

 

"His mother?" Daemora queried.

 

"He is Leia Organa's son," Ta'a Chume replied.

 

"Ah." The Ducha AlGray glanced at Isolder, who shook his head in mock exasperation.

 

"Your predilection for gossip has not mellowed with age, my lady," he chided.

 

"I can't help it." Daemora flashed a genuine smile, the one she didn't use for diplomacy, the one that met her violet eyes. The difference was staggering. "Gossip keeps me young."

 

"Speaking of people inheriting their mother's temper..." Ta'a Chume shot a pointed look at Rey, who lifted her chin as she braced herself for a crushing reprimand. However, the elderly woman only nodded. "I normally wouldn't condone such an outburst, but I think more of that sort of thing will prove beneficial for our side."

 

"I don't really see how," Rey mumbled, embarrassed.

 

"You get under Ren's skin, Your Grace," Lairelosse piped up. "With the Queen Mother's permission, I can teach you how to use that to your advantage."

 

"Permission granted," Ta'a Chume said dryly. "Kira has much to learn."

 

*

 

"I don't care what the Jedi girl or that old hag said, this has to be a trick." Hux was pacing the length of the Upsilon-class shuttle's private compartment, obviously still smarting from his gaffe in the council room, while Kylo, Daala, and the knights watched with varying degrees of amusement. While their respective quarters inside the Fountain Palace were more than adequate, they had retreated into their ship in order to speak freely, out of range of any holobugs.

 

"First of all, Ta'a Chume is hardly a hag," said Boethiah, "and, secondly, that's Emperor Ren's grandmother-in-law you're talking about."

 

"Prospective grandmother-in-law," Kylo corrected. "A prospect that seems to be diminishing with each passing second."

 

"To your very great sorrow, I'm sure, my lord," said Jyggalag, with enough sarcasm to make it sound like a joke— but not quite enough to disguise the shred of curiosity that lay within the sentence. "The Chume'da is not at all what I expected, and neither is Rey. That they're the same person is—"

 

"A trick!" Hux repeated. "A ploy orchestrated by the Resistance!" He stopped pacing and stood in front of Kylo, his lanky shoulders squared. "Your Majesty, I cannot stress enough how important it is that a DNA test be conducted in our presence, on our machines."

 

Kylo opened his mouth to issue a scathing retort, but the logical part of him won out over his dislike for Hux. The general was right. "We can make that request after we've hammered out the terms of the marriage contract," he decided. "That way, no matter the results of the test, at least the negotiations will already be over and done with and it will be less critical to abstain from offending the Hapans."

 

"And if Rey is the heir, Your Majesty, do you mean to go through with it?" Daala hesitantly asked. "Will you marry a sworn foe?"

 

He would rather eat glass shards, but Snoke's words were at the forefront of his mind. Of course, there was every chance his master would take it all back upon learning the identity of the Chume'da. As of now, though...

 

"I will do what I must," was Kylo's stoic reply, "for the sake of the First Order."

Chapter Text

Lairelosse looked more at home in the Chume'da' s solar than Rey herself ever would. The room, while gorgeous, had been designed with the comfort of a traditionally feminine aristocrat in mind, and Rey definitely didn't fit the bill. Pale, lustrous, rose-colored body wood had been fashioned into delicate chairs and scroll-legged tables, and the white marble walls were decorated with the same sort of gilded paintings found in the Queen Mother's salon, as well as lush dreamsilk tapestries that echoed the motifs of the embroidered carpets artfully scattered across the polished flooring. A silver harp stood in the corner, gathering dust; they said that the young Ta'a Chume had played like a dream before assuming the mantle of leadership, but Rey had thought that the instrument was some kind of weapon when she first laid eyes on it.

 

I bet the Ducha Yliri knows how to play the harp, she groused, glancing at the raven-haired woman sitting across from her with legs crossed at the ankles and hands folded decorously on her lap. Lairelosse favored metallic fabrics because they accentuated her flawless dark skin, and today her robes were made of silver satyn while a chain of black star sapphires hung from her neck. She looked regal and beautiful enough to make Rey feel a bit foolish in her heavy crown and elaborate dress, but, to make matters worse, the Ducha had also been getting on her nerves for the past hour and a half.

 

"Again, please, Your Grace." Lairelosse's mellifluous tones contained no sign of the exasperation that she herself must have been feeling. "Just a vague smile, like you have a secret, and peer up at me through your lashes instead of directly meeting my gaze— no, don't blink so much, you look like you have something in your eye— and soften your mouth—"

 

"Pardon me, my lady," Rey burst out, finally at wit's end, "but why are you teaching me how to flirt?"

 

"Because this is a form of female power," Lairelosse smoothly replied. "Granted, we don't have much use for it within the Consortium, but other governments aren't as advanced as ours. Emperor Ren is the head of his people's government, and you must deal with him accordingly."

 

"He and I were trying to kill each other eight months ago," Rey pointed out. She could speak more freely with Lairelosse, whose family had been unfalteringly loyal to the Royal House for generations and whom the Queen Mother had taken into confidence. "He might find it a little surprising if I start seducing him out of nowhere."

 

Lairelosse smirked. "And why shouldn't a woman seduce her betrothed?"

 

"It's not—" Warmth flooded Rey's cheeks. "I don't think about him in that way. I don't like him!"

 

"No, you don't," the Ducha blithely agreed. "You hate him and he hates you. But hate is just a kind of passion, isn't it? And the thing about passion is that it can, with some cleverness, be diverted to another course. You don't have to set him afire with lust—" at this, Rey pretended to gag, but Lairelosse ignored her— "but you can spin him around. Men are so much more malleable when they follow their blood, and we need Ren to be as malleable as you can make him. Despite our strong start in the negotiations earlier, I assure you that we are very much on the losing side."

 

Rey bit her lip. She was aware that, while the Consortium could run rings around the First Order in the political arena any day, it was military might that would always win out in the end. She had two objectives, as far as she could see: prevent a war, and keep Kylo's forces away from the Corsair Outback. She could only accomplish both these things if she submitted to the marriage treaty and got him to lower his guard.

 

While she didn't think she could ever stomach outright flirting with him, she could at least learn how to be both charming and unflappable.

 

"Then of course there is the mood at court to consider," Lairelosse continued. "We are divided, currently. There are those like the Ducha AlGray and myself who see this union as a lucrative deal, and there are those like Archon Thane who see it as a betrayal of everything the Consortium stands for."

 

"Thane?" Rey echoed, startled. "Then why is he on the negotiation panel?"

 

"To mollify the opposition," said Lairelosse. "Ta'a Chume felt it would be wise to ensure that all interests are represented. Thane has earned a name for himself as incorruptible and devoted to his ideals. With him on the panel, no one can accuse the Queen Mother of selling out Hapes. And with you reining in your distaste for the situation, more of the court will follow your lead."

 

"I wouldn't be so sure of that. They've known me less than a year."

 

"That is immaterial. You are the Chume'da, She Who Will Come After. There are more than a few lords and ladies striving to prove themselves indispensable to your future reign."

 

"Including you, Ducha?" Rey questioned wryly.

 

There was an oddly pleased glint in Lairelosse's eyes, as if Rey had passed some sort of test. "I seek only to serve the Royal Hapan House, as did my mother who was Ducha before me," said the woman draped in silver. "Shall we proceed with the lesson, Your Grace?"

 

"I still don't see how smiling seductively at someone qualifies as getting under his skin," Rey complained.

 

"And that," said Lairelosse, "is precisely why Ta'a Chume thinks you still have much to learn."

 

*

 

The First Order delegation had an entire wing of the palace to themselves, it seemed. Kylo's tastefully furnished room of dark homogoni wood, crimson fabrics, and brass accents opened out into a fragrant rose garden with a miniature waterfall, bisected by two stone paths; one led from his door to the main hallway, while the other met the first one at its terminus and linked up with what appeared to be someone else's suite of rooms in the opposite wing, judging from the canopy bed he glimpsed through a gap in the curtains on the other side of the garden.

 

Such luxury was not without its price. A signal jammer had been installed somewhere, turning all attempts at HoloNet communication into nothing but static. Kylo could hardly blame the Consortium for this— he would have undertaken the same precautions had the situation been reversed— but it did mean that he was unable to contact Snoke's fortress. The ysalamiri cages affixed to walls and pillars at five-meter intervals and rigged to alarms in case of tampering also ensured that he couldn't use the Force to commune with his master.

 

Kylo sat down on one of the agate-tiled benches by the waterfall, staring into the glassy depths of a pool teeming with colorful jewelfish. He looked up at the sound of footsteps, and it was Hircine coming to stand respectfully beside him. Unmasked, the oldest Knight of Ren was a man in his fifties, with close-cropped gray hair, a bushy beard, and stoic brown eyes.

 

"Settling in all right, my lord?" he asked Kylo, who lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "You don't have to do this, you know." They'd swept this particular spot in the garden for surveillance equipment and found none, but Hircine spoke in a low voice, anyway. One could never be too careful. "Just say the word and we can squirrel you out of here in no time."

 

Kylo wondered if that was even an option, if he would be permitted to walk away from this. Then again, Snoke had made it clear that he disliked Rey's effect on his prized apprentice— perhaps he would call a halt to the nuptials once he was informed of the Hapan Chume'da' s identity. Kylo had no way of knowing right now; his shuttle had already been transferred to one of the Fountain Palace's many hangars, signal-jammed and guarded by ysalamiri, and he didn't think the Queen Mother would look too kindly on him nipping off for a bit in the middle of negotiations. He could request that he be allowed to contact Snoke, but what would that signify? That he was merely a puppet of the Empire's true ruler—

 

But that's what you are, isn't it? sniped the treacherous part of himself that had been awakened by Han Solo's death. The part that he was trying so hard to keep secret from Snoke. You are emperor in name alone.

 

"Lord Ren?" Hircine prompted after too long a silence."What do you want to do?"

 

"We stay," Kylo said tersely. "It's true that Hapes needs this alliance more than we do, but..." He trailed off. He had his orders but he was loath to admit it out loud.

 

Hircine bowed. "You are my master," he said heavily, as if he had read Kylo's mind. "Mine and the other knights'. Our loyalty is to you and we will do as you say without question."

 

Kylo nodded, too stunned to speak. Such a declaration skirted close to treason against Snoke but, then again, the Knights of Ren had never played by the First Order's rules. They recognized only strength and trial by fire; Kylo was their leader because he'd bested them all in single combat and led them to victory countless times since. As long as he continued to prove himself in battle, he would have no cause to question their allegiance.

 

There were no politics among the Knights of Ren. It was comforting, in its own way.

 

"I just don't know if you and the Jedi girl getting married would be safe for either party involved," mused Hircine. "Given your antagonistic history."

 

"On the bright side," said Kylo dryly, "if I'm found in bed one morning with my throat slit, none of you will have to exert much brainpower to figure out who to blame."

 

Hircine coughed. " Will you be sharing the same bed with her, then?"

 

Kylo had been so preoccupied with the strategic aspects of his impending marriage that he'd failed to take into consideration what else it would imply. Now it was all he could do to refrain from getting to his feet, boarding his shuttle without another word, and flying to the edges of the Outer Rim, never to return. "Not every union has to be consummated," he heard himself telling Hircine, his own voice sounding like it was coming from a long way off. "Least of all one marked by such a distinct lack of... affection on both sides."

 

"But you will eventually need to secure your reign with an heir," Hircine ventured, obviously ill at ease. Kylo was willing to bet that the older man had drawn the short straw among the knights as to who would broach this topic with their master.

 

"That is a conversation for another time," Kylo mumbled. "She and I aren't even formally engaged yet. We'll cross that bridge when we get there."

 

*

 

The late evening found Rey in a terrible mood. She'd snuck out of her chambers to steal— borrow— a ship, only to discover much to her chagrin that security measures had been tightened due to First Order presence. Before any of the increased number of guards could notice the Chume'da skulking around the entrance to the hangars, she crept back to her rooms via the unmonitored garden path, frustration curling low in her gut. The Resistance needed to be informed of this new development as soon as possible— preferably before Finn got wind of it from a third party and launched an imprudent rescue mission, doubtless with Poe, Chewbacca, and Jessika at his side— but it looked like she would have to wait and, if worse came to worst, trust in Leia to talk her friends out of doing anything stupid.

 

This particular garden section of the Per'Agthra opened up into the sky, allowing copious amounts of moonlight to come spilling down over the grass and the waterfall and the violet-red Malreaux roses, so dark in color that they were almost black. It had taken Rey a while to get used to the brightness of a Hapan night, the combined illumination from the stars and the seven moons intense enough that it was almost a kind of soft, silvery daytime, and now she wondered if there was a part of her that missed true, primal darkness, when all lights went out and the world rested until morning.

 

Standing in the middle of the garden, she tipped her face up to the heavens, which pulsated with arctic celestial mazes and the distant emerald veils of the Transitory Mists. Breathe, she told herself, closing her eyes. There was no Force to be found here, so close to the ysalamiri cages in the guest wing, but perhaps the scent of the roses and the cold night air would help her regain inner peace.

 

"It is you, after all."

 

Rey opened her eyes to glare at the source of the deep, sardonic tones. She met Kylo's obsidian gaze from across a distance of roses and water as he took in the sight of her shabby tunic, gray wraps, and leggings, her face scrubbed clean and her hair pulled up into the usual three buns.

 

"And here I was harboring the faint suspicion that the Hapans were foisting some other girl off on me," he continued. "You clean up very well, Your Grace."

 

"What are you doing in my garden, Your Majesty?" Rey demanded, all of Lairelosse's advice from earlier in the day flying right out the window.

 

"Ask whoever thought it would be a good idea to put me in the suite directly across yours."

 

Great. Just great. As if it wasn't bad enough that she had to suffer his presence in the palace in general, he had also invaded— invaded!— her little nook. The garden had already been here when she'd taken up residence, but she tended the roses herself, and had named every single jewelfish in the pool. Located in a secluded wing of the Per'Agthra, it was one of the few places where she could be alone with her thoughts— a sanctuary, of sorts. And now she couldn't have even that.

 

Rey took a wary step back as Kylo moved forward, a man made of moonlight, clad in a long-sleeved black tunic and loose trousers and bearing the under-eye circles of one who had been unable to sleep. "Tell me, how does the Chume'da of the Hapes Consortium wind up a scavenger on Jakku?" He sounded for all the world like he was initiating a casual conversation, but his face revealed him as it always did, all creased brow and slight, puzzled frown.

 

"Wouldn't you like to know," Rey scoffed.

 

Annoyance flickered over Kylo's sharp features. "Perhaps you are unaware," he taunted silkily, "but it is inadvisable for husbands and wives to keep secrets from each other. Quite a few marriages have come to grief because of such a thing."

 

Rey nearly took the bait. Nearly screeched at him, "We aren't married yet, you absolute dolt!" However, she remembered something Lairelosse had said, about how losing one's composure was as good as losing the argument. "The betrothal hasn't even been finalized," she serenely pointed out. "But I'm glad you're excited. That makes one of us, at least."

 

"I wouldn't go as far as to profess myself excited, but I am looking forward to peacefully welcoming the Hapes Cluster into the Empire's fold."

 

"What would the Master of the Knights of Ren know of peace?" Rey challenged.

 

"Certainly more than the girl who almost bit my head off for asking a simple question," Kylo retorted.

 

"I didn't bite your—" She stopped, taking another deep, calming breath and trying to be surreptitious about it. He was an expert at making people angry; he probably got that from his parents. "Civil war broke out when I was five years old," she said in icy tones. "I was evacuated, but something happened. I don't remember what. I think my escorts were the ones who left me on Jakku." She deliberately omitted the fact that her ship had been headed for the Republic capital on Orinda— the fewer connections established, the better. Somehow, she didn't think he knew about Leia's history with Isolder at all, because that was the sort of thing he'd have snidely mentioned by now.

 

Kylo didn't immediately respond and, for a while, the only sound in the garden was the burble of water cascading over stone ledges. His dark eyes were enigmatic as he subjected her to another one of his penetrating stares, the sliver of his thin scar pale in the moonlight. "I was fifteen when the Hapan civil war took place," he said at last, as mildly as if he were commenting on the state of the weather.

 

"What does that have to do with anything?" Rey asked.

 

"You're very young." He wasn't smirking, not exactly, but he looked like he was enjoying a private joke at her expense.

 

"Well, you're ancient," she huffed. But she knew even as she said it that it wasn't the truth. He had a deceptively boyish face, bearing the vague awkwardness of someone who never quite grew into his odd angles, framed by waves of luxuriant dark hair. Adding to the illusion were those pensive eyes of his, as well as the unexpectedly sensual lips that, despite his constant efforts to press them into a hard line, always went soft at the corners... "Perhaps that's why I keep besting you in combat," she added, taking refuge in belligerence to make up for the fact that she'd stared at him for far too long. "Because you're old and slow."

 

One moment she was standing a couple of feet across from him; the next, she was backed up against the very edge of the pool, one wrong move away from falling into it, and Kylo was all that she could see, the expanse of his broad shoulders, the ends of his hair curling at the collar of his tunic, the dark of his pupils wide in the radiant night, the constellation of beauty marks on his ivory skin. He had one large hand pressed to the small of her back, holding her to him in a mockery of an embrace, and her own fingers flew to grasp at his shirtfront in a bid for either self-preservation or vengeance. If she ended up going for a midnight swim, then she was taking him down with her.

 

"You need to learn to respect your elders, my lady." It was obviously meant to be a sarcastic quip, but he said it in too low a voice, said it too close to her ear.

 

"Do you mean to push me into the water, then?" she inquired with as much icy dignity as she could muster, tightening her grip on his shirt.

 

"Who said anything about pushing? All I have to do is let you go." His fingers stirred at the base of her spine, burning and sparking even through the fabric that separated his skin from hers.

 

Rey couldn't think, couldn't breathe. It wasn't that she feared drowning— she doubted the pool even went up to her neck. No, it was the adrenaline rush, that knife's edge between staying upright and falling into freezing cold water, the imposingly rigid heat of Kylo's body against hers. It was the predatory glint in his eyes, his husky drawl, the satellites and hundreds of stars that she saw over his head when she lifted her chin to glare at him in defiance despite her precarious position.

 

"I respect my elders," she gritted out, "when they act their age—"

 

Her sentence cut off in an affronted squeal as he suddenly clamped both hands around her waist, hauling her off her feet and then swinging her around to deposit her further away from the pool. The instant she was on solid ground once more, she automatically widened the distance between them, her heart racing at how effortlessly he'd picked her up, as if she weighed nothing more than a feather.

 

"What are we doing?" The question left her lips on impulse. "This whole— thing. Surely you're aware that it's a horrible idea."

 

"It is," Kylo agreed. "But it prevents a war."

 

"You know what else would prevent a war?" Rey snapped. "If you left Hapes alone!"

 

"I cannot do that."

 

"The First Order already controls most of the galaxy, you have the resources of millions of systems at your disposal—"

 

"And how many of these systems will be content to submit to my rule with a completely independent sector right in their midst? How many will continue to respect the might of the First Order once the notion spreads that we were too afraid to breach Ta'a Chume's Veil? We did not crush the Republic and the Resistance by doing things by half measures. You should know— you were there."

 

I'm going to kill him. Rey wasn't so enraged by his flippant remark that some part of her couldn't marvel at this epiphany. One of these days, I am actually going to kill him. "So you're saying that it's all worth marrying me for. Me, Ren. Think about it." Perhaps she could prevail upon their mutual loathing to sway him from this course of action— and if that meant she sounded like she was disparaging herself, so be it. "You can't tell me that I'm anywhere near the kind of person you'd take for a spouse."

 

Kylo's gaze dropped to the water that he'd almost dunked her in. Just as she started to hope that he was mulling over her statement, his fists clenched at his sides. He wasn't wearing gloves, and it belatedly occurred to her that this was the first time she'd ever seen his bare hands, or indeed any inch of unclothed skin below his jaw. "I came here to marry the Hapan Chume'da," he said with hollow resolution. "That she happens to be you... is immaterial. I suggest you resign yourself to that fact."

 

"Oh, the ruin you will bring upon each other," the Winged Goddess whispered in Rey's memory. Tears of frustration sprang to her eyes. Had the deity on Stalsinek IV foreseen this little arrangement? When she decreed that the threads of destiny were coming together, had she meant that it was Rey's fate to be trapped in a loveless marriage? "It's not like I have a choice, is it?" Rey's voice sounded bitterly exhausted even to her own ears.

 

"You did have a choice," Kylo said. "Instead of scrambling to find your pitiful band of anarchists and going into hiding with them after the Battle of Coruscant, you chose to reclaim your birthright. Unfortunately for you, wealth and glory come with a hefty dose of responsibility as well."

 

This was quite possibly the most insulting thing he'd ever said to her. "It was never about wealth and glory. How dare you—"

 

"I misspoke," he interrupted, the words leaving him in a rush, too fast for her to process that this was as close to an apology as he was willing to give. "This court setting brings back unpleasant memories of the kind of people who comprised the Republic Senate. Despite what else I think of you, I know you're nothing like they were." He paused, and then appeared distracted, lost in his own thoughts, when he said, "I know you wanted a family."

 

"You're so lonely, so afraid to leave—"

 

"Get out of my head—"

 

"I'm not that girl anymore," Rey told Kylo Ren, willing away the metal bite of Starkiller Base to focus on the present moment, on the moonlight and the marble of where she had been born. "I'm not the scavenger you chased through a forest and strapped down to an interrogation rack. I'm not the no one whose secrets you stole." His eyes widened as she approached him, as she took the lead in invading his personal space for once. "I am the Jedi apprentice of Luke Skywalker," she savagely declared. "I walk with the Force and I crafted my blade from durindfire, the heart of the desert. I have held my own against you, the Knights of Ren, and the First Order countless times. I am also Kira Ka Djo of Hapes, Isolder's daughter and Ta'a Chume's heir. I am She Who Will Come After, and I have power here. The next time you manhandle me here, you will regret it. Do you understand?"

 

Kylo's face always gave him away. He regarded her like she was equal parts wild and thing and puzzle he was trying to figure out, every inch of him still except for the slight twitches of his fingers. The seven moons shone down upon them both as the sound of water and the scent of roses permeated the air.

 

Finally, he offered her a stiff nod. "I understand." He said it less like surrender and more like a tactical retreat for now but, if he thought she would give up this hard-won ground, he would be sorely disappointed. "Until the morning, then, Chume'da."

 

Rey stalked off to her rooms, fuming and struggling against the urge to look back at him even as she felt him watch her go. So much for regaining inner peace.

Chapter Text

The next few days went by in a whirl of bargains and compromises and concessions, interspersed with impasses and threats thinly veiled by a veneer of icy courtesy. Kylo let Hux and Daala do most of the talking, taking a cue from Ta'a Chume's strategy of playing the role of observer while Isolder, Daemora, Lairelosse, and Thane haggled in her name.

 

Rey stayed fairly silent during these meetings as well, although she would occasionally ask pointed questions in a tone bridling with suspicion and contempt. She showed up every day in stunning dresses and beautiful crowns, her features enhanced by the clever application of cosmetics that were in turns shimmery and delicate or bold and striking. But Kylo's mind kept wandering to that first night in the garden, how he had been able to see her freckles, how her bare, toned arms had shone in the moonlight. How her glorious eyes had blazed when she cut him down to size, and how something had caught within his chest to see the Rey that he remembered standing amidst the roses, looking up at the starry sky.

 

He was certain that his odd thoughts were a byproduct of having to wrap his head around the idea of marrying the scavenger. There were times in the council room when he would look at her seated across from him at the conference table and he would remember the dip of her tiny waist and the curve of her slender spine in his bare hands, the way the warmth of her skin had seeped through the thin shirt that bunched up at the pressure of his fingertips. Before that night by the waterfall, he hadn't touched anyone without his gloves in years. Even during the few occasions he'd taken a woman to bed, he'd kept them on, along with his arm-guards.

 

And now it was as if some long-forgotten hunger had been awakened. Now it was as if his hands burned with need, even though they were safely encased in worn leather once more. He could feel Rey's body against his fingers, in his arms, like a ghostly echo of sensation. He feared that it would slowly drive him mad.

 

By the fourth day of negotiations, the First Order and the Consortium had hammered out a trade agreement and a mutual defense pact. It was not without its casualties— Daemora's polite smile was a little worn at the edges, and Hux and Lairelosse seemed about ready to wring each other's necks. Even Ta'a Chume had started getting snappish with her own advisors. But now they were finally ready to discuss the wedding itself.

 

Today Rey wore an empire silhouette gown spun from teal-green veda cloth, with silver lotus blossoms lavishly embroidered along the square neckline, the fitted waist, the hem of the flowing skirt, and the cuffs of the wide, trailing sleeves. Her hair was loose, the tousled chestnut waves softening her face and cascading down her shoulders, crowned by a silver tiara with a small, intricately carved dragon's head perched at the center, its ruby eyes matching the scarlet lining that peeked out from Rey's sleeves and the drapes of her skirt.

 

She looked... fetching, and Kylo grimaced inwardly— what was it about her that reduced him to such whimsical adjectives? He tried to reassure himself that it was just the novelty of seeing her all dressed up, that she would stop having so bewildering an effect on him once he got used to this new version of her.

 

Hux currently had the floor. "The wedding must be held on Coruscant," he was railing. "It is the Empire's seat of power and, as Kira Ka Djo will be the future Empress, she needs to be there to assume her role."

 

"So conduct an official coronation on Coruscant," retorted Lairelosse, " after the wedding, which needs to be held here. Her Grace might be the First Order's future Empress, but His Majesty will also be her consort. If you want the Hapans to accept him as such, then the nuptials must take place on Hapan soil."

 

"Consortium laws also require that all major ceremonies be conducted on Hapes itself," Thane added. "For a Coruscanti wedding to be deemed valid, we would have to amend our constitution— a process that might take months."

 

More like years, Kylo thought snidely, all too familiar with the inefficient bureaucracy that tended to cripple the legislative branch of government. "It's settled, then," he said out loud, in a firm tone of voice. "We will celebrate—" he couldn't quite contain his sarcasm— "the nuptials here, and then there will be a crowning ceremony on Coruscant."

 

Hux scowled but dutifully made a note on his datapad. It was Rey who spoke up, saying, "I don't want to go back there."

 

"As my wife, you will have to hold court at the Empire's capital every once in a while," Kylo coolly informed her. "We can discuss a schedule later. It doesn't even have to be more than one visit per year, if you prefer. What isn't negotiable is your coronation."

 

Rey opened her mouth to argue, but Ta'a Chume abruptly broke her regal silence. "Emperor Ren is correct, Kira. Isolder and I will, of course, accompany you after the wedding. As for the subsequent visits, I am sure His Majesty will allow you to take whoever you wish to make your stays more... bearable, for lack of a better word."

 

Kylo nodded. "Each and every one of your courtiers will always be welcome at the Citadel."

 

Rey subsided, glowering mutinously as she leaned back in her seat, claws retracted. Stars, she was going to make him pay for this— he could feel it in his bones.

 

From her place at the head of the table, Ta'a Chume caught Daemora's eye and nodded. The Ducha AlGray coughed discreetly, calling everyone else's attention. "I'd now like to discuss the marriage contract. This is a written declaration that will be signed by the bride and groom during the wedding ceremony, before being sealed and preserved in the Royal Archives." She tapped a button on the holoprojector in the center of the table, conjuring an image of an ornate cursive alphabet scrawled in gold ink on a sheet of cream-colored paper. "For the panel's edification, this is my own marriage contract, drawn up and signed— goodness, has it really been twenty-five years?"

 

"You don't look a day over thirty, my lady," Isolder gallantly opined.

 

Rey cringed, eliciting a faint half-smile from Kylo. If this had been any other time and place, if he had lived any other kind of life, he would perhaps have told her in good-natured jest to get used to being embarrassed by her father. But to say that here and now would be to recall the red light and the falling, and it would shatter the civility that they were making an effort to maintain.

 

"The contract is in Hapan, so allow me to translate," said the Ducha AlGray. "Daemora, daughter of Liir from the Moons of Relephon, daughter of Kaida from the Olanji Breakwater, daughter of Viera from the Fastness of Archais, daughter of Melestel from the Sundered Plains, is getting married to Tam, son of Thalassa from the banks of the Infinite, daughter of Nayru from the Serpent's Trace—"

 

"I think the First Order's gotten the idea," interrupted Ta'a Chume. "Anyway, the gist is that it goes back four generations along the matrilineal line."

 

Kylo was already shaking his head before she'd finished speaking. "I have renounced my birth name, as well as my affiliation to Leia Organa. It would be dishonest to enter into a marriage on those terms."

 

"But your mother's pedigree would look so nice on paper, Your Grace," Daemora said mournfully. "Whether we go with her biological or adoptive relations, it would still be House Naberrie of Naboo or House Organa of Alderaan."

 

The reminder that his ancestry was common knowledge to the galaxy at large hit Kylo in an irrevocably damaged place. He had been in his early twenties when Ransolm Casterfo dropped that particular bomb at the Senate, and Kylo had found out that he was Darth Vader's grandson the same way everyone else did— via scandalous headlines on the HoloNet. The old betrayal still stung after all these years as he narrowed his eyes at the Hapans' chief negotiator. "I will sign no such document," he snarled. "If your side insists, then we might as well call off this whole affair."

 

"I believe it would be best if we skipped the contract altogether," Isolder said into the uneasy silence that followed. "For one thing, we will have to send an envoy to Dathomir in order to acquire the specifics of Kira's ancestry on her mother's side. That will take time."

 

"But it's a royal wedding!" protested Lairelosse. "There has to be a ceremonial record in the Archives."

 

"Perhaps a simpler version of the contract?" Daala suggested. "Just the names of the couple and their titles?"

 

Her proposal was accepted after some more bickering. From there, the talks dragged on well into the late afternoon, during which Kylo steadfastly avoided the speculative glances that Rey was casting his way.

 

*

 

The fiery light of the setting sun streamed into the garden as Rey scattered a handful of fish food across the surface of the pool. The water clouded with flashing scales and long, veil-like fins, and she smiled softly to herself. It had been another long day of political maneuvering, but she could always count on the jewelfish to cheer her up. They had their distinctive individual personalities and quirks, an observation she'd learned to keep to herself after one of her ladies-in-waiting looked at her like she'd grown an extra head before carefully replying, "As you say, Chume'da" a few months ago.

 

Rey had dismissed her ladies, wanting some time alone before the banquet later that night. Now that the negotiations were halfway complete, Ta'a Chume had decided it was time for her court to start getting used to the idea of treating the First Order politely in a social setting. She'd made clear in a private conversation that Rey was expected to put her best foot forward and be as diplomatic as possible during the whole ordeal. "Like it or not," the Queen Mother had said, "the more accepting the Hapan nobles are of the First Order, the more the First Order will feel secure enough in this bargain to leave us to our own devices. Remember, your objective is to keep them from snooping around in the Corsair Outback and finding the Resistance."

 

At least they're not making me change outfits, Rey consoled herself. The teal gown was the most comfortable one she'd worn yet, with no stiff petticoats or fussy lace. And she liked the dragon tiara, it wasn't as heavy as the other crowns she'd had to deal with thus far.

 

There was a rustle of black at the corner of her eye as Kylo entered the garden. Rey paid him no mind at first, mulishly keeping her gaze fixed on the jewelfish in the water at her feet. His own steps were hesitant, as if he were being compelled to approach her even though he knew it was a bad idea, and he sat down on the stone bench beside the waterfall with the wariness of a man straying deeper into enemy territory. Which wasn't too far off-base— she'd told him in no uncertain terms that this was her turf, after all.

 

Try as she might, she couldn't muster any ire for him at the moment. Perhaps she was even more exhausted than she'd thought, or perhaps it was the melancholy quality of sunset that softened all things, including her temper.

 

"Why don't you want to go back to Coruscant?" he asked her after a long silence, and she—

 

didn't feel like playing word games or hiding behind strategic pleasantries anymore—

 

"I was happy there," Rey said. "I didn't necessarily enjoy how busy and crowded it was, but I was with my friends. It was home, same as D'Qar. And then, same as D'Qar, you came along and tore everything down. I just don't want to see what it looks like now."

 

"We've rebuilt," Kylo told her, a hint of earnestness creeping into his solemn tone. "The city is much more organized, cleaner and grander than it ever was in the days of the Republic."

 

"At what cost?"

 

He sighed. "When the old ways have been set in stone, when the rot has gone down deep, creation must be an act of violence. That is what you never understood. Coruscant has changed for the better, and it won't be long before the rest of the galaxy does, too."

 

"Whatever helps you sleep at night, I guess," she grumbled under her breath. She refocused all her attention on the waterfall and the pool, hoping he'd get the hint. Unfortunately he turned out to be quite dense— instead of taking his leave, he just sat there, his pensive gaze raking over her from head to toe. She struggled not to fidget, struggled against the sudden urge to fix her hair or smooth down her skirt. She wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of appearing self-conscious, even if that was what she currently felt.

 

"Your mother was from Dathomir," he said at last. It was less of a question and more of a command to fill him in.

 

Rey wasn't particularly inclined to acquiesce, but there was no point in antagonizing him. Over the past few days, she'd come to the realization that her future would be rife with conflict. She might as well learn to pick her battles, save her energy for the ones that mattered. "Her name was Teneniel Djo. Of the Singing Mountain Clan. She died a few months after I was born."

 

Kylo's pale brow creased. "What could kill a Force witch?"

 

Rey shrugged. "It was a mysterious illness, by all accounts. And it was fast. She slipped away before they could figure out what was wrong."

 

Kylo looked off into the distance, his jaw clenching, and Rey wondered what was so broken about her that, even under these circumstances, she could take some quietly savage delight in him being at a loss for words.

 

"Why Rey?" He embarked on a new line of questioning. "Who gave you that name?"

 

"Why Kylo Ren?" she retorted. "I'm not the only one here who was someone else before."

 

"The boy I used to be had no place in the new world that I wanted to build. You found a world that you had lost. Our stories are in reverse of the other."

 

"You're deflecting," she accused him.

 

He made a strange sound just then in the back of his throat. To her ears it was almost the beginning of laughter, before he caught himself and stoppered it. "That's what we do in politics, Your Grace, although I feel obliged to remind you that you were the one who answered a question with another question."

 

"Fine, then, don't tell me," she huffed. "I won't tell you about my name, either."

 

"Fine."

 

"Fine," she repeated, baring her teeth.

 

"Great," he said with a tiny smirk, further cementing his position as the most infuriating man she'd ever known in her life.

 

"Excuse me," said the familiar nasal tones of General Hux.

 

Rey hadn't even noticed the redhead's approach, too wrapped up in her and Kylo's verbal repartee, and she cursed herself for once more allowing him to distract her from paying attention to her surroundings.

 

Kylo, for his part, looked annoyed. "What do you want, Hux?"

 

"I hate to interrupt," drawled the general, "but it's time for His Majesty to prepare for the banquet."

 

*

 

Daala was waiting for Kylo and Hux in the hallway of the guest wing, and she effortlessly fell into step beside Kylo during the brisk walk to his chambers. "I appreciate the thought," he sniped when the two officers followed him into his room, "but I am capable of dressing myself. I do not require either of your services in lacing up my corset, if that's what you're worried about."

 

Hux and Daala exchanged looks. Even bereft of the Force as he was, Kylo had no problem telling that they were locked in a silent battle of wills as to who would be the one to say something their emperor didn't want to hear.

 

"Your Majesty," Daala finally said, shooting one last exasperated glance at Hux, "ever since we arrived, we've been dining in our own hall and spending our limited free time confined to this area of the palace. Tonight marks the first of many public events, and General Hux and I merely wish to ascertain that you make a good impression. In other words, we thought we could help you select your outfit for the banquet."

 

"And what makes you think I would need fashion advice?" Kylo growled, the expression on his face thunderous.

 

There was another awkward silence, and then Hux squared his shoulders and drew himself up to his full height even more than Kylo had believed possible. "With all due respect, Emperor Ren—" While the general wasn't quite there yet, he seemed to be getting better at pronouncing Kylo's title without that barely-concealed trace of revulsion, probably an effect of having to refer to him as such so often in front of the Hapans— "I've noticed something about the Consortium. They let their clothes speak for them. Every day they show up at the negotiations bedecked in utmost finery, while we— well." His blue eyes darted from his and Daala's austere charcoal-gray uniforms to Kylo's all-black ensemble of leather and rough fabric. "Our progress in the talks has thus far not been ideal, and Admiral Daala and I suspect that the other side is growing bolder with each passing day. Appearance plays a huge role in their culture, and this banquet is a chance for you to dress as befits your status and remind them who they're dealing with."

 

"We also hope," Daala added with as much delicateness as a seasoned war veteran was capable of, "that an improved wardrobe might make the Chume'da more amiable towards you, and that it would lead to the talks being less of a living hell, so to speak."

 

There's something in the water on Hapes, Kylo reflected. First, one of his knights had asked if he planned to consummate his marriage, and now two of his officers were telling him that he needed a makeover. Was it because he didn't have his lightsaber and couldn't use the Force? He would make them pay for this insubordination sometime in the near future, but, for now, he had to concede that Hux and Daala had a point. Perhaps a second opinion or two would come in handy.

 

"Very well." Kylo nodded imperiously at the wardrobe containing the few items of formal wear he'd brought over just in case. "On with it."

 

What followed was the strangest hour of his life. And that was saying something.

 

"This looks nice," Admiral Natasi Daala remarked without much confidence, gingerly prodding at the sleeve of the brightest coat that Kylo owned.

 

"It's teal," sniffed General Armitage Hux. "That's the color of the Je— the Chume'da' s gown. A bit too on the nose, don't you think?"

 

"I don't think anything of all this frippery," Daala grumbled. "What about this, then?"

 

" Anything but black," said Hux.

 

"That rules out ninety-five percent of His Majesty's clothes."

 

"Well, we'll just have to work with the remaining five percent."

 

Daala frowned, pulling out a set of gray robes for Kylo's perusal. "What do you think, Emperor Ren?"

 

"I think," Kylo said darkly, "that the Hapes Consortium's propensity for excess had better carry over onto their liquor selection. It would be this day's only saving grace."

Chapter Text

"What do you mean he has to escort me into the dining room?" Rey cried, staring at her grandmother's holo in disbelief while Esli, one of her ladies-in-waiting, ran a brush through her hair.

 

"I mean exactly what I say," Ta'a Chume replied, her visage arctic in the powdery static beam of the holoprojector. "We are one step closer to formalizing your engagement. You must get used to the idea of Emperor Ren escorting you into all manner of rooms, my dear."

 

I'm not your dear, Rey longed to snap at the manipulative old woman whom she was growing to resent as the days passed and she felt more and more like a piece of junk being haggled over at the Concession Stand in Niima Outpost. She held her peace, however, because she didn't want to give the timid Esli an untimely stroke.

 

Once the Queen Mother had ended the comm, another lady-in-waiting poked her head out of the walk-in closet, catching Rey's eye in the mirror. "Your Grace, are you absolutely certain that you have no wish to change?" implored Janassa. "Perhaps the Denebrillan star silk with the lovely potolli fur stole?"

 

"Nope," Rey said firmly. "You got me into this dress this morning and you're not getting me out of it until it's time for bed." Besides, the teal gown's cut ensured that she didn't need to wear one of those blasted corsets; she always ate more than her fill during feasts, and she'd learned the hard way that there was no other feeling in the galaxy as uncomfortable as literally bursting at the seams by the end of the night.

 

Janassa sighed but obediently made her way to the dressing table to fix Rey's makeup. "You know, Chume'da," she mused as she dabbed fresh concealer onto the hollows under Rey's eyes, "I was just thinking the other day that Emperor Ren isn't so terrible-looking for an outsider. In my opinion, as far as physical appearances go, you could've done far worse."

 

"Thanks for trying to make me feel better," Rey joked.

 

Janassa giggled. "I'm serious! He's a bit on the broody side but he's tall and he has beautiful hair. Right, Esli?"

 

"I find him frightening," the other girl confessed with a shudder, "dressed all in black like that. And the scar..."

 

"It makes him look dangerous," Janassa excitedly declared. "How do you think he got it? He's a Sith, isn't he?"

 

Esli lowered her voice to a whisper. "I heard he used to be a Jedi. And then he betrayed Luke Skywalker and destroyed the academy on one of the Yavin moons in the Outer Rim."

 

"You should stop reading sludgenews," Janassa scoffed. "Hardly any of it ever turns out to be true."

 

"Well, I think Galactic Gossip was on to something," Esli mumbled with a spark of rare stubbornness as she wound a section of Rey's hair around a curling iron. "How else do you explain why the Jedi Order never came to the Republic's aid? Something must have happened to them."

 

"Something did happen to them, half a century ago," argued Janassa. "They were wiped out by Palpatine's empire. Luke Skywalker is a myth."

 

Rey could only sit there and marvel at the strange nature of truth, how drops of state secrets could trickle down to the masses via word-of-mouth, via the HoloNet waves. She suspected it wouldn't be long before the details of Kylo's parentage leaked to the rest of the Hapan court. In the meantime, she filed away the knowledge that the low-grade sludgenews publications could occasionally be relied upon, after all.

 

"Perhaps the Chume'da would know better than us," Esli shyly ventured. "You've been out in the galaxy, Your Grace, and you can use the Force. Have you ever met Luke Skywalker?"

 

Rey was spared from having to tell an outright lie when Janassa made an impatient noise in the back of her throat. "I'd much rather discuss Her Grace's betrothed."

 

Rey stared at her reflection, willing it not to color. It was no use; red deepened her cheeks beneath the petal-pink blush that Janassa had applied. "There's really nothing to discuss. He's obnoxious. I'm sure he got that scar from someone fed up with his fat mouth."

 

Esli and Janassa burst into peals of scandalized laughter, and a smile tugged at the corners of Rey's lips. Her ladies-in-waiting were in their late teens and could sometimes be flighty and irreverent, but being around them made Rey feel like the girl life hadn't allowed her to be.

 

"Speaking of his mouth, though," Janassa started to say, "it's very—"

 

"Y—you stop right there!" Rey sputtered, provoking another round of mirth from the two other people in the room that she wasn't inclined to join in this time. She refused to talk about Kylo Ren's lips. Precisely because she'd begun noticing them for the same reason Janassa obviously had.

 

A command from the Chume'da was a command, and so Janassa didn't pursue this topic. However, her dark eyes sparkled with fond amusement as she dusted a shimmery highlight over the bridge of Rey's nose. "Is there courtship beyond the Veil, Your Grace? Here we give small tokens of our affection, send love letters, hold hands, steal a kiss or two. Is it the same throughout the rest of the galaxy?"

 

"I wouldn't know," Rey answered. "I never had time for any of that." And then it occurred to her that what Janassa had said didn't quite adhere to her own observations of Hapan culture. "I thought most marriages here are arranged as well."

 

"Yes, but there are some who wed for love," said Janassa. "Esli's cousin, for example. The Marchioness Sevanar."

 

Esli nodded. "She and her husband were childhood sweethearts. Their story is like a fairy tale, actually."

 

"I hope to someday be as fortunate," said Janassa, with the soft smile of one who had yet to be jaded by life in the heart of the Consortium. "And for you, Chume'da, I hope that Emperor Ren romances you properly, at least for a little while. Stolen kisses and all."

 

Esli tittered. Rey groaned.

 

*

 

As befitted the occasion, Moreem and the rest of Rey's Chume'doro were all dressed in a gilded, opalescent version of their ceremonial armor, maskless and sporting sapphire capes. In sharp contrast to the gaiety of the ladies-in-waiting, they looked more like they were accompanying her to a funeral rather than a banquet, their eyes hard as flint and their mouths pressed into grim lines. The ladies on the other hand made no secret of their excitement, Esli and Janassa whispering giddily with Niobe, Vanya, and Sayl, the hems of their pastel gowns gliding over the marble tiles as they trailed after Rey through the Per'Agthra's shining corridors.

 

"You look about as happy as I feel, Major Espara," Rey observed.

 

"This isn't right, Your Grace, if you don't mind me saying so," Moreem grunted. "One hears rumors in the Armed Forces. Emperor Ren is not a kind man."

 

Rey wondered if the major was talking about Kylo's reputation as a whole or specifically the skirmish on Stalsinek IV, but she pried no further. Neither did she chastise Moreem for speaking out of turn. While she should be taking steps to ensure that the Hapan people accepted this betrothal, it was a comfort to know that at least some of them were on her side instead of encouraging her to make out with her nemesis.

 

The entrance to the Royal Banquet Hall was located at the end of a red carpet running down the length of a wide passageway lit with glow-lamps fashioned to look like torches. Ta'a Chume, Isolder, and the guests were already seated inside, so it was only Kylo and his retinue waiting for Rey by the open doors. She saw him first in profile, his head bowed slightly as he conversed with Daala in low tones. Clustered with them and Hux were three other people whose identities didn't take long to figure out, but all thought of evaluating the unmasked features of Hircine, Boethiah, and Jyggalag Ren flew from Rey's mind in the next moment when Kylo registered her approach and turned to face her, straightening his posture.

 

He's not wearing black, was her first, most instinctive reaction. The silvery white illumination afforded by the glow-lamps brought out the midnight blue shade of his high-collared cutaway tailcoat, embellished with sumptuous gold brocade and revealing glimpses of the ivory ribbed-silk shirt beneath. The slim fit of his formal blue trousers flattered his lean hips, his muscular thighs, and the sheer athletic length of his legs. With his naturally haughty expression that was only marginally softened by the thick, dark hair that fell about his face in casual yet elegant waves, he looked every inch the young emperor, radiating power and self-assurance.

 

Behind Rey, one of the ladies-in-waiting— it sounded like Vanya— giggled before being shushed by the other four as the respective entourages moved aside, forming a half-circle around Kylo and Rey as she drew to a halt in front of him.

 

Kriff, Rey thought, staring up into Kylo's eyes, which were rendered a lighter shade of brown in the glow of the torches and somehow seemed all the more gentle because of that, yet no less piercing in their scrutiny, emperors don't bow but am I supposed to curtsy? The Chume'da curtsies only to the Queen Mother but he technically outranks me—

 

After a moment of what appeared to be hesitation on his part, he stiffly offered his arm out to her. Months of etiquette lessons kicked in and she automatically tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow, trying her best to ignore how warm and solid he felt through the coat sleeve beneath her fingertips.

 

"Ready?" he asked in a voice meant for her ears alone, a quiet bass rumble that curled down her spine.

 

Not trusting herself to speak, Rey nodded, and Kylo led her forward, through the doorway and into a swell of light and music and glittering people. It was all she could do to hold on.

 

*

 

Kylo didn't think it was an exaggeration that he'd seen city streets shorter than the table that ran down the middle of the Banquet Hall, draped in white cloth and set with an array of bountiful floral arrangements, centerpieces crafted from crystal and gold, jewel-encrusted goblets, porcelain plates, and vermeil silverware. The chairs looked like they were wrought from solid gold, cushioned with dark crimson velvet, and the people sitting on them rose to their feet as one at the Emperor and the Chume'da' s entrance— with the exception of the Queen Mother, who watched cannily from the head of the table as an obsequious usher led Kylo and Rey to two empty chairs that he noted with some mild alarm were right next to each other, and smack dab in the middle of the table. He would be surrounded by Hapans all throughout dinner, effectively cut off from Hux, Daala, and his knights. Going to this thing had been a mistake.

 

Rey's slim fingers dug into Kylo's arm as they followed the usher. She's nervous, he realized, glancing down to see her bottom lip trembling as if she were chewing on the inside of it. Whoever applied her makeup— probably one of those infernal teenagers who'd shadowed her along the hall— had done an expert job in rendering dewy skin and rosy cheeks, but no amount of mascara or champagne tint could disguise the apprehension in her hazel eyes, not when she was this close to him.

 

"It's not too late to make a run for it," he quipped.

 

"I'm in heels," she shot back.

 

"So that's why you seem taller," he mused. "Not by much, though."

 

"We can't all be overgrown trees, my lord," she sniffed, and she was so oddly adorable in that moment, in her defiance layered over the attack of nerves she was trying to hide, with her chestnut-brown hair spilling down her shoulders from beneath her silver tiara, that his mouth softened with the beginnings of a genuine smile.

 

The string quartet in the corner had launched into a new piece upon Kylo and Rey's arrival, and it was to the graceful notes of the famed Hapan lute that Rey took her appointed seat. The other diners followed, along with Kylo, whose arm did not— did not— suddenly feel bereft of her touch.

 

*

 

Cuisine was the one aspect of her father's culture that Rey had had no problem wholeheartedly embracing thus far. To somebody who'd subsisted on veg-meat and polystarch for fourteen years of her life and then on the nourishing but bland military rations served up in the Resistance's mess hall, Hapan dishes were a rainbow of delights with their complex spices, enticing aromas, and scrumptious textures.

 

Sadly, tonight's peculiar circumstances ensured that she was unable to pay as much attention to the food as she usually did. With Kylo sitting beside her and everyone else subjecting the two of them to hawk-like scrutiny, the three kinds of appetizers brought out by the service droids for the first course— the pheasant terrine with a red onion compote, the skate cheek with crushed pea and mint, and the fig and gill-goat's cheese tart— all tasted like dust in her mouth. It certainly didn't help that it had fallen upon her to make the necessary introductions between Kylo and the people near them, and now those lords and ladies were lobbing pointed conversational volleys designed to not quite hide their displeasure with the betrothal.

 

"I believe, Your Majesty, that you and Her Grace knew each other prior to the fall of the Republic," purred Verisya Galney, the golden-haired Ducha of Terephon. "Would you care to enlighten us as to the nature of that acquaintance?"

 

Rey held her breath. Everyone at the table already knew what had transpired— if not the nitty-gritty details, then the vague and overarching shape of it. They just wanted to trip Kylo up.

 

There was a brief silence as he picked at his tart, obviously buying time while he formulated a diplomatic answer. "Three years ago, while conducting intelligence-gathering operations, I was made aware of a Force-sensitive individual from a desert planet," he said at last. "I attempted to convince her to join my cause. I was not successful."

 

Rey would have snorted at Kylo's wry understatement but something else drew her focus— at his mention of the Force, several gazes subtly flickered to the ysalamiri cages on the walls before swiveling back to him. They really do fear it, Rey thought, remembering her early days at court when Ta'a Chume had advised her to put her lightsaber away and to refrain from using her abilities. They fear us.

 

She caught herself with a frown. There was no us when it came to her and Kylo Ren. She might be marrying him, but she was not on his side.

 

Stars, I'm marrying him.

 

There it was again, that throb of panic that coursed through her system like the first pulse of the X'us'R'iia through the narrow pathways of Kelvin Ravine, made all the more charged because Kylo was beside her, looking entirely too handsome and imperious in dark blue and dusky gold.

 

"Is that what you were doing on Stalsinek IV, Your Majesty?" asked Jobal Feara, a portly, aging lord from the Wodan system. "You were recruiting?"

 

"Call it unfinished business between me and your Chume'da," Kylo tersely replied. "However, judging by the fact that you have a Chume'da, I'd venture to say it all worked out in the end."

 

He was reminding the court that Kira Ka Djo had only been found because of him. Which in a way was true, but that didn't make it any less infuriating, and so Rey couldn't blame the Countess Rakshesh of Harterra when she thundered, "You committed trespass and destruction of property, killed twenty of our soldiers, and stole one of our starfighters, Emperor Ren! How are we supposed to trust the First Order after that?"

 

Kylo's gloved hand tightened around his fork. "I do not regret my actions, as I did what had to be done at the time. The point of this new treaty is to prevent further discord between our realms. Upon ratification, I assure you, Countess, that I won't be the first to renege on the terms."

 

More than a few pairs of eyes darted to Rey. They were waiting for her to either defend the betrothal or to join in cutting the enemy down to size, she realized, and the next words to issue from her mouth would dictate the flow of the conversation.

 

But her mind had gone blank. Common sense demanded that she present a united front with the Emperor of the First Order, yet how could she appear to submit so meekly to a forced marriage? Save your friends. Save your father's people, who are your people, too, an inner voice urged, only to be drowned out by another voice that screamed, Save yourself, Rey of Jakku.

 

"The terrine is sublime, don't you think?" she blurted out.

 

Lord Feara's brow wrinkled in utter confusion. "Your Grace?"

 

"The terrine," Rey repeated in little more than a pained whisper. "The head chef has outdone herself tonight."

 

The Ducha Galney was the first to move in the abrupt, tense stillness, bringing a fork to her lips and taking a small bite of the aforementioned dish. "Yes," she said slowly, "it's exquisite."

 

"A marvel," Esli's cousin, Ysanne Sevanar, hastened to opine. She was a svelte young woman with fawn-colored skin and straight, jet-black hair, and her dark almond eyes were almost beseeching as she turned to Countess Rakshesh. "Would I be wrong to presume that such fine pheasant can only have come from Harterra, my lady?"

 

The fierce old countess appeared startled for a moment— and more than a bit piqued that the discussion had taken a completely different turn— but social norms dictated that she respond to Ysanne's question. "Not at all, my dear marchioness. Harterra prides itself on being Ta'a Chume'Dan's sole supplier of this particular game bird. It is one of our primary exports, second only to moonstone."

 

At that moment, Ysanne's husband gave a barely perceptible jolt— Rey suspected his wife had kicked him under the table— and spoke up. "I've been thinking of breaking into the mining industry, myself." He was a curly-haired man with blue eyes, a wry grin, and a languid manner of speaking. "Perhaps the Countess Rakshesh could give me some tips?"

 

Rey made a mental note to thank the Sevanars as the conversation shifted to mining. Beside her, Kylo decorously dabbed at his mouth with a napkin, but she glimpsed the upward curl of his lips and a flash of white, slightly crooked teeth peeking out from the cloth. Was he laughing? The amused glance he sent her way served to prove her suspicions. He was laughing at her for idiotically blathering on about the terrine. The nerve!

 

Rey fumed all the way through the soup course— a savory cream of acid-beet— and the entrées, but she made it a point to smile gaily and engage in courteous small talk with the other nobles. Kylo found his footing as well, speaking mutedly with Daemora AlGray, who was seated to his right and gradually looped him into her own circle of high society matrons. Everything was going well, for the most part; further down the table, Hux, Daala, and the Knights of Ren were keeping to their own but no one seemed inclined to start flinging wine in anybody else's face. Rey could relax...

 

Kylo leaned over. "Would my lady care to share her expert culinary opinion on the roasted squab?" he murmured in her ear.

 

"Very funny," she grumped.

 

"I take it that means it is less than sublime?"

 

" You're less than sublime."

 

Kylo exhaled that sound of strangled mirth again, the one that Rey first heard in the garden. She wondered what he would look like when he actually smiled, what he would sound like when he laughed outright. She wondered if the face he'd make would remind her of Leia or of Han.

 

"Will Her Grace remain with us after the nuptials?" questioned Verisya, causing Rey to immediately straighten up in her seat and look away from Kylo. "Or will the Chume'da' s court relocate to the First Order capital?"

 

"I'm staying here, Lady Galney," Rey answered, and a wave of visible relief passed through the Hapans. Her heart warmed a little bit; she didn't totally understand these people, but, for all their haughtiness and pomp and vicious cunning, they firmly believed that she belonged with them, and it was somewhat touching. In a way.

 

"I remember when you were born," Lord Feara told Rey with gruff fondness. "They rang the bells in the Starlight Tower all morning, all afternoon. Gave me a damnable headache, but no one would've dreamed of leaving Ta'a Chume'Dan at that point. There was celebration and there was feasting, even in the streets."

 

"The birth of the next Queen Mother is always a joyous occasion," said Daemora. "Of course, His Royal Highness probably remembers it differently."

 

The older people chortled. Rey glanced further up the table at her father, who was conversing with Beed Thane and Ta'a Chume and blissfully unaware that he was now a subject of discussion. "What did Prince Is— my father do?"

 

"He was running around like one of our pheasants after its head had been cut off," snorted Countess Rakshesh. "Your mother was in labor all through the night, you see. Lady Teneniel insisted that the birth be natural in accordance with her people's beliefs. Prince Isolder was so worried, he threatened to throw the attending physician into the dungeons and deliver the child himself."

 

"I told him, 'Your Highness, please calm down, would you care for a drink?'" boomed Lord Feara. "He then promptly threatened to throw me into the dungeons along with the poor physician!"

 

Their part of the table erupted into laugher. It wasn't long before Rey joined in, giggles bubbling up her throat at the mental image of her mild-mannered father ordering the Royal Guard to arrest random people. She threw her head back, laughed hard and long, and, when it was over, when she had settled down, Kylo was frozen in his seat, staring at her like he'd never seen her before. The man appeared utterly gobsmacked.

 

"What?" Rey hissed after furtively checking to make sure that everyone else was too caught up in mirth and in reminiscing to notice. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

 

"Nothing." Kylo shook his head as if to clear it. And then he—

 

He did something weird just then. He reached out to sort of— brush his gloved fingers along the teal sleeve of her gown that covered her upper arm. It seemed too deliberate to be accidental, but he retracted his hand as swiftly as if it had been burned. As she continued to frown at him, perplexed, he returned all of his attention to his food, and did not look at her again for a long, long while.

 

*

 

He had never been one for big events. In an old life now lost, he'd suffered through a surfeit of galas that Leia had dragged him to, sometimes along with Han back when she'd still been keeping up the pretense of a normal, happy family. While a part of Kylo could muster some disdain for the memory of that gangly boy who was all ears and elbows and mildly traumatized by the throngs of people whose uncharitable thoughts— about his appearance, his attitude, and his half-smuggler pedigree— he could hear as clearly as if they were in his own head, there was also a part of him that had never outgrown it. Even though things were different now and he'd long since learned to shield himself from unwanted external stimuli, he would have gladly jumped at the first opportunity to retire to his chambers.

 

It's the sheer artifice of it all, he mused. With the exception of his own retinue— and he wasn't even sure about Hux— everyone at this table wouldn't hesitate to order his assassination if they thought they could get away with it. Yet here they were, eating and chatting like nothing was wrong, and he had to play along because that was what politicians did.

 

Ben Solo had feared becoming like his father. Perhaps he should have been more afraid of turning out like his mother.

 

His thoughts drifted to Rey and how she had laughed at Lord Feara's anecdote. For some reason, Kylo had been expecting a sound lighter than air to complement her elegant gown and stately surroundings, but Rey's giggles had been vibrant, dulcet, just the slightest bit unrefined at the edges. It had been a moment devoid of falsehood, the first time he'd ever seen her laugh, her sparkling hazel eyes warm like brandy. It had tugged at the frayed edges of his soul.

 

He revised his previous conclusion. Rey wouldn't give any order to assassinate him. She'd kill me herself, he thought, and it was with something dangerously close to affection, because that made her the most genuine person in this room.

 

Halfway through the sorbet course, a hush fell over the end of the table nearest the entrance, gradually spreading to the rest of the guests. Daemora trailed off in the middle of recounting an amusing story from her debut, her mouth hanging open in mid-sentence at the sight of something to Kylo's left.

 

He turned to where she— and everyone else— was looking. A lanky masculine figure stood in the open doorway, dressed in an ensemble that wouldn't have been out of place at the seedy cantinas frequented by pirates and bounty hunters all over the galaxy— fitted black leather armor with brass studs, knee-high boots, and a black cape, two blasters holstered at the wide utility belt slung casually around his hips. The new arrival was in his early twenties, dark hair falling across his forehead in disheveled waves and violet eyes blazing with barely-controlled fury as they swept the Banquet Hall. The expressions of the people that gazed back at him ranged from confusion on Rey and Kylo's end to full-blown alarm on that of the Hapan nobles.

 

"Who is that?" Rey inquired, sounding curious but careful to keep her voice low as if out of respect for the dramatic atmosphere.

 

"Trouble," It was Ysanne who answered, agitated. "The Lady Daemora's nephew from a cadet branch. Aleson Gray."

 

"He loathes the First Order," added Verisya, shooting a look in Kylo's direction that could have passed for nervousness in someone more prone to showing their emotions. "This isn't good at all."

Chapter Text

It was Lairelosse Yliri who broke the frozen tableau that the Banquet Hall had become, springing to her feet with an enviable, almost impossible litheness on four-inch heels. "Aleson!" she merrily called out as she swept towards the newcomer, a dazzling smile on her face. "How good of you to join us—"

 

"Save it, Laire," snarled Aleson Gray. He brushed past her and made his way to the head of the table, his gaze meeting Rey's for a fraction of a second as he passed across from where she sat.

 

Despite the Hapans' otherworldly beauty, their features were so human that Rey tended to forget they were a different species. It was the eyes that gave them away; Hapan irises were jewel-toned, from Ta'a Chume's jade to Isolder's silver-blue. Even the brown shades, such as Lairelosse's and Ysanne's, revealed hints of gold or topaz when one looked closely in the right kind of light. Like his aunt Daemora, Aleson's eyes were far less subtle— they were a brilliant, piercing amethyst, and they darkened in recognition upon seeing Rey. He had to be around her age or perhaps a little older, but she supposed that he'd seen holos of Teneniel Djo and put two and two together.

 

He drew to a halt before the Queen Mother and dropped to one knee, head bowed, the gesture more perfunctory than respectful. Ta'a Chume regarded him warily for several moments, as if he were a mongoose that had infiltrated her snake's nest, in the silence of a hall where even the string quartet had stopped playing.

 

Finally, she nodded. "Welcome home, Lord Gray." She spoke for everyone's benefit, her cold tones ringing through the vast chamber. "I trust your journeys have been pleasant."

 

Lairelosse, meanwhile, had sidled up to Rey and was now mumbling pertinent information in her ear. "He's something of a spacer, spends most of his time beyond the Veil. Six years ago, he started lobbying the Consortium to join forces with the Republic and put a stop to the First Order. He was convinced they would eventually pose a grave threat."

 

"Well, he turned out to be right, didn't he?" Rey whispered back. Lairelosse was speaking very quietly, as if she didn't want Kylo, who was on Rey's other side, to hear. As if she wanted to protect Aleson from the Empire's wrath. It was a sense of loyalty to the young Ducha that had Rey following suit.

 

"Aleson Gray is one of the main critics of Hapan isolationism," Lairelosse continued. "He believes that the way forward is for the cluster to integrate with the rest of the galaxy. After the destruction of the Hosnian system, he and a few other nobles began exerting more pressure on Ta'a Chume to send the Dragon Fleet to the Resistance's aid. They weren't successful, obviously, but if anyone is going to be vigorous in their objections to this betrothal, it's going to be Aleson."

 

The dark-haired lord had now risen to his feet, gauntleted fists clenched at his sides. "My journeys were pleasant enough, Ereneda," he told Ta'a Chume. "However, I had to cut my drive up the Balmorra Run short when I learned that you were brokering an alliance with a murderous despot."

 

"Shit," Lairelosse swore under her breath, and Rey would have spared some shock at such a coarse expletive issued from the sophisticated aristocrat's mouth, had Kylo not glanced over at them.

 

"It seems that your friend doesn't like me very much, Lady Yliri," he remarked.

 

"I do apologize, Your Grace," Lairelosse hurried to say. "I've known him since we were children. He's rather impulsive and opinionated, but—"

 

Ta'a Chume spoke again, effectively putting a stop to the ripples of scandalized murmuring that had blossomed among her guests. "First of all, my lord, you will remove your weapons in the presence of your sovereign. Secondly, there is a proper time and place to air your grievances with my decision, and this banquet is not one of them."

 

"On the contrary, Your Majesty, there is no better time and place," Aleson retorted, even as he unfastened his utility belt and tossed it, along with the attached blasters, onto the floor. "Everyone is here to bear witness as I state for the record that I formally protest this union."

 

"The boy has a death wish!" Lord Feara exclaimed, aghast.

 

"I'll say," Rey muttered. "Throwing around loaded weapons like that, he's going to shoot his own foot off."

 

Kylo stilled, tearing his eyes away from the scene at the head of the table to gaze over at her once more. His wry expression told her all she needed to know; he was remembering the Battle of Vendikar Station, in the Colonies, when she'd telekinetically sent a blaster sailing towards Finn's waiting hands but misjudged the angle, causing the object to bounce off a nearby wall and then go off, shooting Meridia Ren in the arm— which had been Finn's objective in the first place. Kylo and Rey had been embroiled in their own duel but, in the space of a heartbeat, his masked visage had looked at the freshly-fired blaster on the floor and then at her before he resumed his attack. She'd wondered about that look later, if the expression under the helm had been one of disbelief or of contempt, or perhaps even amusement.

 

It was surreal to think about that time in her life here and now, amidst the marble and gold of the Per'Agthra. Already the war felt as distant as if it had happened to someone else.

 

"I've been all over the galaxy, Ereneda," Aleson was saying. "I've seen for myself the devastation the First Order has wrought. They would eradicate individual thought and freedom for the sake of their twisted view on what makes a perfect society. This is not what the Consortium should stand for."

 

"I won't sit here and be lectured by a boy who spends more than half of each year away from the Hapes Cluster," hissed Ta'a Chume. "Given such a schedule, how could you even presume to know what the Consortium stands for?"

 

"I know that we don't coddle those guilty of genocide!" Aleson shot back heatedly. "I know that we value our independence! I know I told you years ago that we should help the Republic before the situation worsened— and I was right!"

 

"Yes, he's dead, the fool," sighed Countess Rakshesh. "It's a pity. I will miss him."

 

But Rey could see for herself that the mood at the table was slowly shifting— that some of the lords and ladies were exchanging knowing, disgruntled looks, as if they agreed with Aleson. He was giving voice to their own resentments, their own fears.

 

"The First Order will not last, Ta'a Chume." He sounded earnest, impassioned, almost like he was now begging the Queen Mother. "This has happened before. Palpatine's shadow fell over the galaxy and Hapes did nothing, but justice and liberty won out in the end. This is an opportunity for us to be on the right side of history for once."

 

There was some part of Rey that could appreciate how neatly Aleson had cornered the Queen Mother. By confronting her out in the open, he'd ensured that she couldn't fall back on the same reasons she'd given Rey about letting the First Order think they had the upper hand. Still, Rey was surprised that Ta'a Chume would let anyone defy her so brazenly— in full view of her court and a fellow head of state— without having him clapped in chains or banished from her sight.

 

"He is popular with the younger set," Lairelosse told Rey as if she'd read the latter's mind, "and his family commands one of the largest private armies in the cluster. Their matriarch is bedridden; Aleson is the heir. Not to mention that he is also related to House AlGray, one of Ta'a Chume's staunchest allies. She can't afford to step on Lady Daemora's toes."

 

Ta'a Chume's next words seemed to substantiate Lairelosse's explanation. "We will discuss this some other time, Lord Gray," she said with an air of ringing finality, and that was how Rey learned that her grandmother had actually been caught off-guard and was now feeling around for a chance to regroup.

 

But Aleson was having none of it. " When will we discuss it?" he pressed. "When the deal is final and Hapes is at the Empire's beck and call? When Her Grace Kira Ka Djo has been sent into the jaws of the wolf? You say you won't sit here and be lectured by me, Your Majesty, but neither can I just stand quietly by and let our Chume'da marry the grandson of Darth Vader!"

 

It was almost comical, the collective gasp that rose up from the rest of the long table, the way the people seated near Kylo automatically shifted in their chairs to distance themselves from him. Everyone at court knew that Leia Organa was Vader's daughter, but only the negotiation panel had been aware that Kylo was her son. Glares of renewed suspicion and hostility were now being levied Kylo's way, and he—

 

He did nothing. Showed no reaction whatsoever. It was as if another kind of mask had slammed over his face, his features schooled into an expression of careful blankness— perhaps even mild boredom. It was only Rey who saw that his hand had dropped to his side, who saw that his fingers were now digging into his thigh so hard they left indents on the midnight blue fabric.

 

However, he was quick to relax his grip once he became aware that she had noticed. His jaw clenched and he looked away, forcing his hand to lay flat. She could only stare at him like everyone else was doing, her heartbeat too loud and too slow in her ears.

 

"Well?" Aleson demanded, whirling around to narrow his amethyst eyes at the Emperor of the First Order. "What do you have to say for yourself, Kylo Ren?" He spat out the name as if it were a curse before scornfully adding, "Or is it— Ben Solo?"

 

*

 

"You've got to hand it to that kid," Boethiah commented, currently the only one at her end of the table who bore no resemblance to a horrified statue, "he's a bit cheesy but he has great dramatic flair."

 

"Now is not the time, Boethiah," Hircine chided, shaking his head. "Oh, I have a very—"

 

*

 

very bad feeling about this, Rey thought, the room so silent that one could have heard a pin drop.

 

Kylo slouched back in his seat and crossed his arms, projecting a languid insolence that might as well have been Han's. "Unfortunately, there is nothing left to say," he drawled with urbane composure and a haughty smirk. "His lordship seems to have done all the talking for me."

 

Rey hadn't thought it possible for Aleson to look more furious than he already did, but he was swift to prove her wrong. Even without the benefit of the Force, she could taste it, the rage of someone who believed in something. That was the most dangerous kind. It burned. It was the same fire she saw in Leia Organa and even in Poe Dameron, although he was more circumspect. It was the kind of rage that could lead a princess to an Imperial shield generator on a forest moon, that could make a pilot take aim at a powerful darksider amidst sand and ruin and stormtroopers.

 

It was the kind of rage that could cause a Hapan noble to declare, "Then you leave me no choice, Ren." Aleson drew himself up to his full height, his demeanor taking on a certain formality. "By my right as an aggrieved citizen of the Hapes Consortium—"

 

"Aleson!" Isolder thundered from his seat on Ta'a Chume's left, an emphatic warning that was summarily ignored.

 

"— in accordance with the ancient laws of the Dragon Throne—"

 

Daemora was halfway out of her chair, hand pressed to her heart. "The little fool," she whispered, her lower lip quivering with a concern that was almost maternal.

 

"— I, Aleson Gray of Kavan, Lord of the Serpent's Trace, hereby challenge Emperor Kylo Ren of the First Order to a duel of honor!"

 

*

 

To their credit, Kylo's entourage reacted with admirable celerity; Hux, Daala, and the three Knights of Ren stood up and bolted to the emperor's side even before Rey could finish processing what Aleson had just said.

 

"Your Majesty, I must strongly advise against taking Gray up on his challenge," Hux was telling Kylo in urgent tones, but he was drowned out by Hircine, Boethiah, and Jyggalag excitedly sharing their individual assessments of the Hapan lord's strengths and weaknesses and what method of combat would be most effective against him. Hux made a valiant effort, continuing, "We are guests of the Queen Mother, it will be a diplomatic headache if you end up killing him, you are cut off from the Force, which means he might end up killing you—"

 

Kylo held up one hand in an unmistakable signal for silence, and the First Order delegation immediately complied, although Rey could sense from the knights' hungry expressions that they were starting to feel the stirrings of bloodlust. A darksider was a darksider even without the Force. Even unmasked. Hircine was an older man with a salt-and-pepper beard; Boethiah was all copper skin and golden eyes; Jyggalag, the knight who had replaced Malacath, was little more than a teenager, with reddish-brown hair and slate-gray irises. They looked nothing like the monsters that Rey had imagined were lurking beneath their helms, but, then again, neither had Kylo Ren.

 

Kylo was now making a show of looking around the Banquet Hall, at the crystal carvings, flowers, sparkling cutlery, and finely-dressed guests. "Here?" he asked Aleson with a trace of bemusement.

 

"On your feet," snapped the younger man, "you evil, homicidal, autocratic bastard!"

 

The smirk on Kylo's face blossomed into a wild, malevolent grin. " Definitely here." He stood up and made his way around the table, but it wasn't long before Rey had risen as well, scrambling to keep up with his long-legged strides and then block his path.

 

"You don't have to do this!" she told him sharply, because she knew what he was capable of, knew that a Hapan honor duel didn't end until one of the participants surrendered or died. He was not the type to surrender, and neither, it seemed, was Aleson.

 

Kylo wouldn't look at her but his hands dropped to her shoulders, firmly keeping her in place as he stepped around her. "Stand down, Chume'da." In contrast to the cavalier attitude he was displaying to the rest of the court, there was anger in the words that he said for her sole benefit— anger not directed at her, but at the situation in general.

 

The honor duel was the sole arena of Consortium jurisprudence where physical prowess mattered more than political skill. As such, it was considered a last resort— and even slightly barbaric. But the rules were clear; whatever conditions were agreed upon had to pass into law depending on who emerged victorious. It was therefore on tenterhooks that Rey watched from the sidelines as Aleson and Kylo faced each other, about two meters apart, while Ta'a Chume shifted in her seat so that she could have an unobstructed view. She looked rather like she was having a migraine, but not even the Queen Mother herself could stop a duel of honor once it had been declared.

 

"Terms?" Ta'a Chume brusquely demanded.

 

"Should I win, Ren will forfeit Her Grace Kira Ka Djo's hand in marriage," Aleson replied, "and he and his lackeys will leave the Hapes Cluster posthaste."

 

"Should I win," Kylo retorted, "his young lordship will allot me and the First Order the respect that is our due and shut his mouth on matters that he knows very little of."

 

"What does he think he's doing?" Rey heard Hux mutter to Daala. "He should at least ask for some strategic concession."

 

From what Rey knew of Hux, the general was probably smarting from being called a lackey. However, it occurred to her that Kylo was being strategic— if he pressed for a Hapan aristocrat's banishment or execution, that would hardly endear him to the Consortium. By being lenient in his own stipulations and treating the duel as a minor nuisance, he was positioning himself as a level-headed, tolerant ruler dealing with the hot-blooded troublemaker who was causing a scene at an important event. It was absolutely devious, a mix of Leia's ability to subtly manipulate a room and Han's artless compulsion to enrage the opponent.

 

It wasn't easy for you, having parents like that, Rey mused, her gaze fixed as if entranced on the stone-faced emperor in the middle of the hall, who looked more lonely than villainous, more warrior than king. You've had to live in the space between two worlds all your life.

 

The diners who had been sitting with their backs to what was now the field of combat stood up; some merely turned around while others made their way to the opposite wall, to lean against it and whisper among themselves. Ta'a Chume dispatched one of the ushers to fetch the customary weapons and, by the time the man returned, the atmosphere in the Banquet Hall was crackling with tension.

 

The swords were of a traditional Hapan make, with curved durasteel blades and ornate, guarded hilts. Heavier than a lightsaber, less maneuverable. Kylo first held the hilt as if he were testing the heft of it in his palm, an expression akin to distaste shadowing his features. It wasn't long, though, before he sank into the same opening stance that Aleson had adopted, feet apart at a perpendicular angle, knees slightly bent.

 

There was no ceremonial beginning to the duel— all chatter ground to a halt when Aleson lunged and Kylo met him in the middle, a metallic clash of interlocking blades. The Hapan lord spun away and struck again at the end of his rotating movement, a blow that Kylo parried by sweeping to the side.

 

The two men regarded each other for a while, circling like apex predators whose paths had crossed in the wilderness. It looked as if they were catching their breath, but Rey knew better— they had finished sizing each other up, had each gotten a feel for their opponent's reach and reaction time, and now the duel was about to begin in earnest.

 

What followed next was a dizzying series of attacks and ripostes, Aleson and Kylo slashing and stabbing and crossing blades up and down the length of the gilded hall. They were evenly matched; Aleson wielded the sword with the fluid proficiency of one who had been using this specific make since he was a child, but Kylo had more muscle, as well as a certain recklessness that broke through his opponent's guard time and time again. But there was something different about his fighting style— it was more intricate and footwork-oriented, but it was familiar all the same...

 

After a few more moments of careful observation Rey was able to figure out where she'd seen it before. There was an Old Republic holocron that Luke had found long ago, one of the few that had survived both Order 66 and the Knights of Ren's siege on the Yavin 4 academy. It contained lectures on the seven forms of lightsaber combat, and what Kylo was utilizing now bore striking resemblance to Makashi— Form II, the one most suited for dueling. She could all but layer his sequences over the grainy sample footage she'd seen in that holocron, the calculated flourishes of a Jedi Master named Dooku. And she remembered what Luke had told her, that Ben had studied all the forms with equal care so that he might one day become an expert in Niman, which was an amalgamation of its predecessors.

 

"My nephew was my most ambitious student," Luke had mused, his blue eyes weary and full of regret as he stared out over the oceans of Ahch-To. "Perhaps I should have guided that ambition, instead of trying to extinguish it altogether."

 

It was Kylo who drew first blood, his sword gliding across Aleson's bicep in one smooth slice. Rey heard Daemora cry out while, at the periphery of her vision, Lairelosse shuddered as if she had been the one struck. Blood dripped from Aleson's wound onto the marble floor; he ignored it in favor of launching a new offensive, this one speedier and more relentless than the last. Kylo was forced to give up ground, retreating, retreating, all the way to the far wall opposite the main doors.

 

The man was actually breaking a sweat. This surprised Rey because for so long she had been the only one who could hold her own against him with melee weapons. Then again, for someone like him to fight without the Force, it must be like fighting without a center of gravity, without a sense of self.

 

Aleson's blade flashed silver in the light of the glow-lamps. More blood spattered the tiles, this time from a cut along Kylo's thigh. His features twisted in menace, and Rey remembered snow. Remembered that false night, the blue and red and black of it all.

 

Kylo surged forward with a growl, driving Aleson back until they were once more level with the banquet table. The emperor suddenly switched forms, Makashi's complex bladework giving way to an overhead Djem So strike, the raw power of which tore Aleson's weapon from his grasp. It skidded away, far from reach, and time seemed to slow in the next few seconds as Rey watched various decisions play out over Aleson's face. Despite disarming his opponent, Kylo was still advancing, still caught up in combat mode, already pulling his elbow back for another blow—

 

Aleson dodged the other man's wide-angle swing, in the same seamless movement retrieving one of the blasters from his discarded utility belt. He raised his arm and fired, and Rey heard someone gasp. Only to realize it was her. She had made that sound.

 

Kylo automatically deflected the bolt. He wasn't wielding a lightsaber but the sword was durasteel, nonetheless— resistant even if it wasn't laser-proof. The shard of green light careened into the wall, dislodging one of the cylindrical ysalamiri cages, which fell to the floor and rolled away with a thud.

 

Rey was too near another cage to benefit from the break in the nullification field, but she saw the exact moment the Force came crashing over Kylo Ren. She saw the triumph in his brown eyes, the wildest and highest kind of exhilaration coursing through his broad frame. There was no more room for politics, no more room for diplomacy. He was a creature of instinct, ensnared in the nets of the dark side.

 

With a flick of Kylo's wrist, invisible currents lifted Aleson off his feet and sent him slamming bodily into the wall. By some miracle he'd held on to his blaster, and even as he lay crumpled in pain, he fired off a couple of rounds at the man prowling towards him with lethal menace. Kylo reached out an arm, freezing the two laser bolts in the air; they strained against his hold, humming with suppressed energy as scattered exclamations of shock and fear rose up from the audience.

 

Rey could already tell what was going to happen next, and she could also tell that, if Aleson Gray died tonight, the Consortium would be up in arms. Even though the alliance had been Ta'a Chume's idea, her people were more than capable of rebelling against her. They'd done it before.

 

Heart racing, with no thought for her own safety, Rey hurled herself forward, into the field of combat. Her high heels slipped and slid against the floor but she managed to stay upright, darting between the two duelists—

 

just as Kylo redirected the lasers—

 

Green light filled Rey's vision. The Force surged into her veins, hot and rich, as if some long-dormant pulse had been restarted. Through the emerald haze of the oncoming lasers, she saw Kylo's eyes widen in sheer terror, his lips forming the shape of her name—

 

right before she spread her arms in a slashing movement, latching on to the beams of energy with energy of her own and sending them in opposite directions before they could collide with her torso, one bolt hitting a pillar, the other scorching a windowpane—

 

An earth-shattering stillness fell over the hall. Rey lifted her chin, meeting Kylo's gaze with a defiance that she didn't quite feel, rattled as she was by what had just occurred. His chest was heaving; he was looking at her with the oddest mixture of fury and relief and darkness on his pale, scarred face. It was as if the monster that had awoken with the return of the Force had— not slunk away, not exactly, but subsided, still dangerous. That was okay, she could handle him, as long as she steered clear of the other ysalamiri cages—

 

Kylo took a step towards Rey, and then stopped like he'd thought better of it. He shook his head as if to clear it, and the next time he moved it was to turn around and address the stunned, deathly quiet Hapans.

 

"Ever since my delegation and I arrived in Ta'a Chume'Dan, we have made every effort to treat peaceably with the Consortium." His tone was cool but Rey was close enough to glimpse the embers of the dark side blazing in his narrowed irises. "Unfortunately, you have not seen fit to extend the same courtesy to us. All of you seem to be laboring under the delusion that we are pushovers. That ends tonight." He looked sharply at the Queen Mother. "You will no longer keep me and my knights from the Force. Take down your precious cages— I never want to see them again. Tomorrow will be the last day of negotiations. If we have not yet finalized the agreement by nightfall, then consider our sides officially at war."

 

Rey braced herself, expecting the Queen Mother to put up a fight. But, instead, Ta'a Chume simply nodded, as if she, too, realized the peril her entire realm was in.

 

Kylo returned the nod, although there was something vaguely mocking behind his gesture. Without another word, he strode out of the Banquet Hall, followed by his knights and his two officers. He was limping slightly from the cut in his thigh, but otherwise he paid it no mind as Rey watched him go.

Chapter Text

Once the First Order delegation had vanished from sight, it didn't take long for the Royal Banquet Hall to devolve into chaos. Most of the Hapan nobles who hadn't already been standing now rose to their feet; the few who remained seated added their voices to the clamor as everybody started talking all at once.

 

"Ren dared to use the Force in the Queen Mother's presence!" Lord Feara shouted, momentarily drowning out the rest. "Not only that, he very nearly killed the Chume'da! What's to stop him from trying again? We cannot go through with this!"

 

"You must have been watching an entirely different duel, my lord," retorted the Margrave Taurendil, who was representing Calfa-5 and its desert moons. "From what I saw, Her Grace acted bravely by putting herself in harm's way to save the life of a reckless young fool!" He threw a venomous glare at Aleson from across the room. "Challenging a guest to a duel! During dinner! The shame of it—"

 

"Lord Gray was well within his rights," snapped Wyllah Novar, the Ducha of Arabanth. "Through his actions, he has exposed the true face of the First Order. They plan to subjugate us, to destroy everything we hold dear."

 

"Only if the negotiations fall through," countered the elderly Ducha Onasi from the lush green world of Thrakia. "This alliance is our last hope." She banged the end of her cane on the floor for emphasis. "I refuse to lose any more sons to another war!"

 

"Would you rather your sons be cast in chains?" yelled Procyon Kantale, Lord of Stormhold. "Make no mistake, that is what all of us face. Why should we bow to outsiders?" He gestured towards the head of the table, where Ta'a Chume remained in her chair. "There sits my only sovereign!"

 

"This marriage pact was the Ereneda' s idea in the first place," scoffed the Viscountess Barizaan. "A fine subject you are, Stormhold, disobeying her command."

 

"It occurs to me," Wyllah snidely remarked, "that this whole issue could have been avoided if the Consortium had joined forces with the Resistance years ago."

 

"Of course the issue would have been avoided if we'd done that," said the viscountess airily, "because none of us would be here now. The entire Hapes Cluster would be space dust. That is what we are trying to avoid!"

 

In Rey's experience over the past several months, Daemora AlGray could be counted on to mediate during times of disagreement, steering the court into more civil waters with her pleasant smile. That was why Ta'a Chume had named her chief negotiator. Tonight, however, the Ducha of the Relephon Moons was markedly silent; she was staring at the Queen Mother with an imploring expression on her face, too preoccupied with her nephew's fate to mollify the angry nobles. Ta'a Chume's other stalwart ally was no help, either; Lairelosse had rushed over to Aleson and was now kneeling beside him, blistering his ears with a tense, low-pitched stream of choice insults and reprimands. It stood to reason that Lairelosse could make even losing one's cool seem graceful.

 

"I did what I had to do," Aleson insisted once the Ducha of Talcharaim had paused for breath. "I could never have lived with myself otherwise."

 

"This is a delicate matter of state, with millions of lives at risk, and you made it all about you," Lairelosse hissed. "You almost got the Chume'da killed, you thoughtless oaf! You rash, naive, irresponsible scoundrel!" She poked him in the ribs, eliciting a grunt of pain from the dark-haired lord. "Stars, how will your poor, ailing mother feel when she hears about this? I could shake you!"

 

Rey turned away from the blazing row at the banquet table. "How did you learn about the betrothal?" she asked Aleson bluntly. If the news had leaked out of Ta'a Chume'Dan, there was every chance the Resistance would catch wind of it. If they hadn't already. She had visions of Finn bursting into the palace at any minute to rescue her from Kylo Ren's evil clutches— that was the last thing they needed now.

 

It was Lairelosse who answered, her voice dripping with disdain. "The Lord Gray has a vast network of informants. It's a pity he was not informed enough to be prudent."

 

Aleson rolled his eyes as he picked himself up off the floor. He automatically offered his hand to Lairelosse, who grudgingly took it and got to her feet. Once they had relinquished their grip on each other, he bowed to Rey. "Welcome home, Your Grace. I regret that we must meet again under such distressing circumstances."

 

"Again?" Rey queried. She really should start taking him to task for the stunt he'd pulled, but her interest was piqued by this new glimpse into her past.

 

"Frankly, I don't remember it myself, but back at my family home on Kavan there is a holo of the two of us when we were children. I shall have to bring it next time, for your perusal."

 

"If there is a next time," Lairelosse said dourly, her gaze now as fixed on the Queen Mother as Daemora's was. "You'll be lucky if Ta'a Chume permits you entrance to the capital after this."

 

The ruler in question cleared her throat, prompting the squabbling aristocrats to fall into a silence that was rather more begrudging than deferential. "My lords and ladies," said Ta'a Chume, "everything I have ever done— every decision I have ever made— has been to ensure the safety of the Hapes Cluster. You have heard for yourself the dire ultimatum issued to us by Emperor Ren. I am telling you now in no uncertain terms that, should it come to open conflict, his forces will crush ours through sheer numbers alone. Many of you gathered here tonight fought for me against Kalen the usurper. I am asking you now to make peace for me so that we may preserve our home and our way of life."

 

"But, Ereneda, Ren is Vader's grandson," protested Countess Rakshesh. "How can you permit the blood royal to be tainted so?"

 

Rey nearly jumped out of her skin. She was most definitely not going to bear Kylo Ren's child or, indeed, do anything with him that would lead to such! The mere thought of it horrified her; she was turning red again, beneath the cosmetics that Janassa had so meticulously applied.

 

"I shall place my faith in the more favorable aspects of the emperor's lineage," Ta'a Chume replied. "By law, he is the crown prince of Alderaan, and by blood he is descended from Padme Amidala, Queen of Naboo. That should be illustrious enough for our standards, don't you think, Countess?"

 

"I'm more interested to know what the Chume'da thinks. She's the one who'll be saddled with him for the rest of her life," said Lord Feara. "That is another point of contention, Queen Mother, if you don't mind me saying so. Arranged marriages are all well and good, but forced marriages? We do not do this to our women, and especially not to She Who Will Come After!"

 

Feara's declaration was met with passionate agreement from most of the other nobles. This was not something Ta'a Chume could talk her way out of. Rey studied the sea of proud, belligerent faces, and a staggering epiphany hit her like an ice spike through the chest. She could have prevented this, or at least mitigated it somewhat. Every time she'd treated Kylo like dirt, every time she'd let the Hapans cast aspersions on his character either behind his back or to his face, she'd been solidifying in their minds that she was some hapless martyr. This went against the very grain of their matriarchal culture. Lairelosse had been right when she said that the people would follow Rey's lead, and her blatant aversion to her circumstances had spread through them.

 

She had been selfish, acting like her happiness was the only thing at stake. She had let her emotions get the best of her, and in doing so had not only pushed the Consortium one step closer to a war they could not win, but also placed the Resistance at greater risk of discovery.

 

"It's not a forced marriage." Rey's words cut through the hubbub and every eye in the room immediately swung in her direction. "I stand with the Queen Mother. I accept Emperor Ren's hand of my own free will." Her voice was going to waver at any moment and so she drew on the Force, let it swell inside her and straighten her spine and root her feet to the ground in a vast and fortifying hymn. "Have I not proven myself his equal in strength?" she asked, some instinct telling her that she should not let these nobles forget what they had witnessed tonight. Kylo was powerful, but so was she. "There is no subjugation here. Tomorrow, when we've finalized the agreement, he will be my betrothed." She took a deep breath, her eyes flashing as she concluded with imperious finality, "I am your Chume'da, and you will afford the Emperor of the First Order all the respect that is his due as my future consort."

 

*

 

It was dark and quiet in the guest wing of the Per'Agthra. At Kylo's insistence, the glow-panels had been extinguished and the Hapan guards that usually patrolled this corridor had been banished along with the ysalamiri cages. Only the Knights of Ren stood stationed outside his room.

 

"We should've brought reinforcements," Jyggalag repeated what he'd said several days ago. "Or retreated to the Heresiarch up in the black. If Ta'a Chume gives the kill order—"

 

"Let them try." Boethiah was exultant, her golden eyes shining in the gloom as she reveled in the currents of energy that had been denied to her for so long. "We have the Force."

 

"I thought we'd have to fight our way out of the Banquet Hall once Lord Ren made that ultimatum," Hircine mused. "The Hapans seem to have come to their senses and part of me is sorry for that. I would've loved the opportunity to give one of those snooty lords a shiner."

 

Boethiah cocked her head. "You'd stop at that?"

 

"Of course," said Hircine. "We're being diplomatic here."

 

Boethiah snorted and Jyggalag laughed, and then the latter switched to a more serious topic of conversation. "Did Lord Ren seem a bit off to either of you on the way back here?"

 

"A little shaken," Boethiah agreed. "I'm sure it had to do with Rey. Or Kira, or whatever her name is."

 

"You think he's pissed that she stopped him from killing Gray?" Jyggalag asked.

 

"That's what you think," Boethiah said dryly. "In my opinion, she gave him a scare, jumping in front of those blaster bolts."

 

The youngest Knight of Ren's mouth twisted in a thoughtful frown. "I can see he'd be worried about inadvertently starting the war if he killed the Chume'da, but actual concern for her welfare?"

 

Hircine shrugged. "The thing about having a sworn enemy is that, after a while, you develop a certain respect for them. Getting mowed down by blasters is hardly a fitting death for a Force user, isn't it? It has to be lightning or the business end of a lightsaber, or nothing at all."

 

"Yes, I'm sure that's what it is," Boethiah purred in that manner of hers that suggested she was enjoying a private joke at everyone else's expense. "Respect."

 

*

 

Rey's statement had subdued the court more effectively than she'd dared hope. Perhaps they'd been afraid that she would start hurling random people against the walls. In any case, the previously cantankerous nobles hadn't put up much of a fuss when Ta'a Chume seized control of the situation once more and declared an end to the evening's festivities. Now it was only Rey, Isolder, and Daemora who remained in the Banquet Hall with the Queen Mother, half-eaten sorbets and almost full wineglasses glimmering mockingly in the light.

 

"Oh, do stop fretting, Ducha AlGray," Ta'a Chume sighed. "I may have some choice words for your nephew later, but you know as well as I do that he'd be a bigger headache dead or banished rather than alive."

 

Daemora's spindly frame, elegantly draped in cerlin and opals, all but sagged with relief. "Thank you, Ereneda."

 

Ta'a Chume dismissed the other woman, waiting until she had left the room before looking at Isolder. Rey had found it odd that her father held his peace all throughout the arguing, but now she learned why he'd done so. "Well?" Ta'a Chume asked him. "From your observations, who do I have to watch out for?"

 

"Feara is more bark than bite, always has been," Isolder replied. "Kantale, Novar, and most of the younger set are truly angry, but they will follow Aleson. You have taught me that it's the quiet ones who are the most dangerous because you don't know what they're thinking. Verisya Galney, in particular, never said a word."

 

"She and Thane had that in common," revealed Ta'a Chume. "It was a risk telling him that Ren is Organa's son, but at least now we have confirmed that he can't be trusted."

 

Rey blinked. "You think he's the one who snitched to Aleson?"

 

"Not directly, I'm sure. He's much too smart for that," said Ta'a Chume. "The right words whispered in the right person's ear, starting a chain of gossip that eventually trickled down to the young lord's spies, or perhaps a communique that just so happened to be very easy to slice and decode... Who else could it be? Lairelosse and Daemora would never have gambled Aleson's life like that."

 

Rey's brow creased as she retraced the Queen Mother's line of thought. "You were aware that it was a risk, letting Ren's parentage slip on that first day of negotiations?"

 

"I've had my eye on Beed Thane for a while. Now he has shown his hand. What I didn't count on was Aleson being foolish enough to storm the palace and challenge Ren and myself so brazenly." Ta'a Chume smirked. "I forgot what it's like to be twenty-five. I shall not make the same mistake again."

 

Rey was stunned by the depths of her grandmother's machinations. This is how you do it, she realized. This is how you play the game. Ta'a Chume was in a league of her own.

 

Shaking her head in amazement, Rey turned to Isolder. "You implied that the younger nobles aren't a threat because they'll follow Aleson. Shouldn't it be the exact opposite?"

 

"It should, but then you went and nearly took two lasers to the chest for him. He owes you a life debt now, one that you may call in at your discretion. By the way, my dear—" Isolder chucked her under the chin. "I'd appreciate a warning the next time you decide to do something like that. My heart stopped, you know."

 

"Sorry." Rey beamed at him, quite unabashed and yet warmed by his gentle concern. And then another thought occurred to her. "But the life debt is based on a code of honor. Aleson reached for a blaster during a sword fight. That doesn't strike me as the actions of someone honorable."

 

"Technically, Ren was the first to break dueling rules by continuing to advance on a disarmed opponent instead of waiting for him to surrender or to retrieve his sword," Isolder pointed out. "That makes what Aleson did justifiable as self-defense, and our people will see it as such. However, what they won't be able to forgive is if a Hapan lord refuses to fulfill what is very clearly a life debt to his Chume'da."

 

*

 

Rey's guards and ladies were waiting for her outside the Banquet Hall. Aleson was with them, chatting with Niobe and Sayl, who were in the thick of fluttering their lashes at him. Rey struggled not to roll her eyes at the girls' antics and met the man's gaze instead.

 

"Is it my turn, then?" he asked her with an air of charming resignation that served to send Niobe and Sayl into a fresh round of giggles. Apparently, when not staging insurrections at important state dinners, Lord Gray was something of a flirt.

 

He disappeared into the hall at Rey's nod, and she and her entourage had barely taken a couple of steps back to her quarters when the yelling began, bits and pieces of Ta'a Chume's stridently-couched words drifting to Rey's ears as she made her way down the corridor.

 

Shame on your house— never in all my years— you could have died— such flagrant disrespect— your poor mother—!

 

On the whole, it was a good thing that Rey had decided to bring up the issue of Aleson's life debt some other time. He already had enough on his plate.

 

*

 

Once she was alone in her chambers, Rey immediately darted out the side door leading to the garden. She really should have changed into a more comfortable pair of shoes, but she was loath to put off talking to Kylo one second longer than necessary. While Isolder had advised her to wait until morning, when there was an increased chance that the emperor's mood had improved, Ta'a Chume had been adamant that Rey began the process of mollifying him as soon as possible. It wasn't that Rey agreed with her grandmother or that she was particularly eager to face Kylo again; she just had to do it now, before she lost her nerve.

 

"Apologize to him for any discourtesy on our part," Ta'a Chume had said. "Make it clear that we still very much desire this betrothal. Right now, you have to put your personal feelings aside and focus on damage control."

 

Rey could do that. Her pride would take a beating, but it was her pride, more or less, that had emboldened a large portion of the court to support Aleson in the first place. Tonight, she had to be a Jedi as well as the Chume'da.

 

It was easier now that she'd regained the Force. The light side wrapped around her in a peaceful hum as her silver heels clacked on the stone pathway leading to Kylo's room, the hem of her teal gown rustling over the dew-damp grass. The glow-panels that usually blazed through the windows of the guest wing had been switched off, so it was only moonlight that illuminated her way to Kylo's door. She could tell that he was still awake, his energy signature prowling restlessly behind his mental shields.

 

Rey squared her shoulders and knocked, the determined rap of her knuckles eliciting a flare of light from one windowsill as a glow-panel was ignited. The door slid open, and Rey had the merest of seconds to register the livid expression on Kylo's face before his fingers dug into her sleeve almost hard enough to bruise and he yanked her into the room, all but slamming her back against the closed wardrobe as he planted a heavy hand beside each of her shoulders, caging her between his arms.

 

He had taken off his gloves and his coat. The ivory shirt clung loosely to his powerful frame, incapable of disguising how the lines of his upper body had gone utterly rigid with tension. His eyes were so dark they were almost black, glittering with menace against the paleness of his face as he glared down at her. "You beautiful little idiot!" he spat. "What the hell did you think you were doing?"

 

"I..." Whatever she'd been about to say in her defense died on Rey's tongue as Kylo's shields came crashing down and she saw his despair in the Force, a wavering current rising from veils of dark and... light? No, that wasn't possible. She extended her perception in an effort to get a closer look, but it was too late— he retreated behind his walls once more, his consciousness flitting out of her reach.

 

She didn't know how long they stood like that, with but a sliver of space between their bodies and the scent of him overwhelming her senses, that same dizzying blend of smoke and hot skin overlain with discreet tones of sandalwood and amber and myrrh. His hair was disheveled, as if he'd raked his fingers through the midnight waves in frustration before she came knocking. Those same fingers were now trembling just the slightest bit against the wardrobe, and then they slid downwards, his palms drawing level with her waist.

 

Rey moved as well. She had some vague idea of pushing Kylo away but her hands slid across his chest and just... stayed there, feeling the warmth and hardness of his pectorals beneath a layer of ribbed silk, his heart racing in erratic pulses against her fingertips. She was pinned in place by his scorching eyes, by the formidable maleness of him that surrounded her, and perhaps even by the Force that seemed to skitter and sigh through this moment of live wire and glass.

 

"Answer me, Rey," Kylo commanded in a harsh rasp.

 

"What... what was your question?" Stars, the instant the words flew out of her mouth in that breathless little voice she didn't even recognize was her own, Rey wanted nothing more than the ground to open up and swallow her whole. But she truly could not remember what he'd asked— all logic, all situational awareness had disappeared somewhere between picking up his scent and noticing the way his muscles rippled beneath his shirt.

 

Kylo blinked at her. A funny look came over his face just then, a mix of disbelief and surprise and something else that was slow to be replaced by an inscrutable mask similar to what he'd adopted in the Banquet Hall. He wrenched himself away, stalking over to the bed and sitting down heavily on the edge of the mattress, all the while studying her like she was the most confusing puzzle in existence. "What," he finally repeated in softer but more guarded tones, "did you think you were doing?"

 

Now that they were apart, Rey could breathe again. Could summon the answer from the strange inertia her brain had been trapped in only a scant minute ago. "I was preventing a diplomatic incident," she sniffed with as much haughtiness as she could muster. "I don't know what you were thinking, continuing to attack Aleson like that after he lost his sword."

 

"Aleson," he jeered. "I'm glad you and his seditious young lordship appear to have become such fast friends."

 

"Now is not the time to lecture me on etiquette," Rey said hotly. Over the months, she'd improved at referring to people by their courtly address, but it wasn't ingrained in her just yet. She tended to slip up when she was flustered.

 

"I wasn't—" Kylo broke off with an exasperated sigh. He looked away, his jaw clenching, and Rey had the unsettling feeling that she'd missed something. That she'd misinterpreted what he'd been trying to imply.

 

"Anyway," she hastened to tack on, belatedly recalling why she was here in the first place, "I just wanted to apologize for what happened tonight and also this whole past week. I know the court hasn't exactly been welcoming, but that changes now. I'm reaffirming the Consortium's willingness to cooperate—"

 

"Shut up."

 

Rey bristled. "Excuse me?"

 

"Shut. Up." Kylo's gaze snapped back to meet hers. He seemed more incensed than ever before. "I'm familiar with how all of this goes. Giving that ultimatum was a calculated maneuver on my end. If they sent you here to do nothing but parrot your grandmother's words at me, then I believe we can skip that part. I already know how it all goes," he repeated, more to himself than to her. Underneath his anger she sensed... disappointment, a faint thread that she couldn't understand. "Feel free to remove yourself from my odious presence at any time," he continued, inclining his head towards the door. "The sooner the better for both of us, I think, Chume'da."

 

But Rey stayed rooted to the spot, hopelessly confused. Something nagged at her, forcing her to retrace the events leading up to this moment. The way his eyes had widened through the green light in the Banquet Hall, the way he had called out her name. The way he'd pushed her against the wardrobe and spoken to her in, she realized now, much the same manner in which Lairelosse had castigated Aleson for putting his life on the line.

 

Were you worried about me? Rey wanted to ask Kylo point-blank. But if he denied it, this encounter would end on a rather embarrassing note for her.

 

However, if he said yes, it would somehow be so much worse.

 

"Rey." The sound of her name in Kylo's low voice jolted her from her reverie. "Get out."

 

She couldn't move. Perhaps it was her ego that balked at scurrying from the room like a frightened mouse. Perhaps it was some mad urge that insisted she didn't leave until she made it clear that she hadn't come to him solely on Ta'a Chume's orders— but she had, hadn't she? Whatever the case, her mind was already frantically casting around for a reason to stay, and it wasn't long before her gaze fell to the slashed fabric at his thigh.

 

"I thought I'd help you with that," she said— briskly, in order to cover up her awkwardness. "Your wound, I mean." She'd marginally improved at healing in the year since Stalsinek IV; she'd worked on it with Luke, and she was confident that she could pull off a Force Assist if the cut wasn't too deep.

 

"It's taken care off," Kylo curtly replied, just as Rey noticed that the blood on his trousers was dry even though she detected no bandages. "I sealed it myself."

 

Her brow knitted in bewilderment. "You can't Force-heal. Master Luke told me—"

 

"Skywalker's teaching methods were abysmal," Kylo growled. It had been a mistake for her to bring up his uncle at a time like this; his knuckles clenched to white at the edge of the mattress, as if his temper was about to hit boiling point. "He was too much of a coward to let me harness the dark side so I could access my true potential. When I find him, I will make him pay for all those wasted years."

 

Danger, danger, blared the sirens in Rey's mind. She had grievously miscalculated. She had to get out of here before she ended up revealing that she knew where Luke was, before Kylo saw it on her face or read it in her Force signature.

 

"Are you quite done playing the part of concerned nursemaid?" he asked brusquely. "You have my assurance that the First Order's displeasure with this evening will not interfere with tomorrow's negotiations, as long as they are concluded within the alloted time. That is why you came to my chambers, is it not?" He flicked his wrist at the door and it burst open, almost wrenched off its hinges. Rey started as cold night air blew into the room.

 

Kylo flashed her a smirk that, for all its cruelty, was somehow still self-deprecating. "What kind of gentleman would I be if I didn't open the door for a lady?"

 

A dozen retorts sprang to the tip of her tongue but she bit down on all of them. While it would rankle that he'd gotten the last word, she really had to cut her losses. She couldn't antagonize him any further, not when his fleet lay in wait just beyond the Transitory Mists.

 

Rey marched out of the room with her head held high, taking refuge in a dignity that no one else needed to know rang false within her. She forced herself not to look back even as she felt his eyes follow her, and she was halfway across the garden when she realized something else. Something that had been lost in the heat of the moment but now made her stop in her tracks as her mind replayed their encounter.

 

Kylo had called her beautiful.

 

She turned around, but he'd already closed the door and switched off the light. His chambers were once more plunged in darkness.

Chapter Text

Kylo found sleep hard to come by that night. When he closed his eyes he saw Rey jumping in front of the lasers; when he opened them he saw her pinned against the wardrobe, asking him to repeat his question in that breathless, oh so distracted voice. For a moment he'd found himself pierced by the small, sad hope that he was not alone in this strange and inconvenient attraction, but it was getting more and more difficult to tell pretense from reality here in the Hapan court. She'd come to his room on her wily grandmother's orders; that much had been clear the instant she started spouting off about apologies and the Consortium's willingness to cooperate. It seemed that his little scavenger was becoming quite the politician...

 

His?

 

Kylo froze, alarmed by the direction his thoughts had taken. There was no denying the fact that he'd begun feeling a cloying sort of possessiveness towards her during the war, but that had been borne of a desire for vengeance, some deep-seated insistence that he be the one to meet her in battle and finish what had started in the forest of Takodana. How many times had he stormed through ranks of foes and allies alike, hauled along by his instincts or by the dark side, he could no longer tell, hacking and slashing and Force-shoving his way to where white light blazed like desert heat, Rey, I know her, I sense her, she is mine—

 

But that was eight months ago, almost nine, and they were different people now. In order for this sham of a marriage to produce the intended effects, he had to stop considering her his perpetual nemesis, and he had to get his hormones under control. Stars, the way he was acting at present, he was no better than a teenager.

 

You were perfectly fine doing without as a teenager, whispered some treacherous inner voice. You had more important things to do. But after Starkiller Base, after Rey...

 

Kylo bolted upright in bed, a frustrated snarl escaping from his lips as the covers slid down to his waist. He would not think about that. Not now. Not ever again.

 

He didn't know how long he sat there in the shadowy gloom of his chambers, the thick curtains drawn against the bright light of Hapes' seven moons that seared through the minuscule gaps between fabric and windowpane. Eventually, though, he felt it, the demand for entrance tugging and scratching at the corners of his mind like long, clawed fingers, a call that he was powerless to ignore.

 

You are emperor, that same voice mulishly insisted. You shouldn't have to answer to anyone.

 

Kylo shuddered. He took a deep, meditative breath, adopting a blank, calm facade right before he unlocked that part of himself where his master resided. That part where Snoke was always waiting.

 

K û skutqy â sikanjat.

 

Kylo was in a throne room, grim and austere unlike Ta'a Chume's, sporting black marble pillars and a floor hewed from the mineral-specked ore of burnt asteroids. There were no windows and no visible source of illumination, but a bluish-gray haze surrounded the figure on the throne like a mixture of dust motes and starlight. This was not a real place but, rather, a memory from an ancient time, and it was where Snoke preferred to commune with his acolytes.

 

"Master." Kylo was already speaking as he approached the throne. Snoke was no doubt displeased by the lengthy communications blackout and— unless he'd had a miraculous change of heart during that period— he would be even more displeased by the identity of the Hapan Chume'da. If there was to be punishment, Kylo was anxious to get it over with, so he explained the situation as quickly and as succinctly as possible, starting from the ysalamiri cages to why they were taken down. When he dropped the bomb about Rey being the Consortium heir, there was a flicker in Snoke's beady eyes, but his expression remained impassive. It was this lack of reaction that worried Kylo more; he felt small, like an errant child awaiting parental judgment, fear and resentment hollowing out his chest in equal measure.

 

Finally, the colossal being on the towering throne spoke. "I must admit to some... bewilderment, Kylo Ren, regarding your failure to insist that you be able to contact me. Did you forget that we've had the upper hand all this time?"

 

"The Hapans see me as the Empire's figurehead, Master, and they would have questioned my authority to negotiate—"

 

"So it was your pride that got in the way," Snoke silkily interrupted. "Have we not discussed how achieving true order in the galaxy requires total selflessness? I had believed that you took that lesson to heart when you killed Han Solo... Perhaps you did not want to lose face in front of the scavenger? Or perhaps you were afraid I would disapprove of the union?"

 

Kylo remained silent. There was no defense left to him, not when Snoke was talking in that deceptively gentle manner of his that almost always indicated a taste of pain in the very near future. The air in the throne room seemed to have grown thinner even though it was all just in Kylo's head. Dark energy crackled at corners that did not exist, not really, and strange shapes lurked in the shadows.

 

"Once again you have let the girl cloud your common sense," Snoke growled. "A revelation of that magnitude— you know you should have informed me right away, and yet you didn't. Why didn't you, little emperor?"

 

"I wanted to respect Hapan protocol. I wanted to make them amenable to—" A burning shard of the most immense agony sliced through Kylo's mind as Snoke pounced in a brutal search for weakness, unearthing the memory of Rey from a little while ago. What... what was your question?— I thought I'd help you with that—

 

Snoke started chuckling. It was low, gravelly, condescending, and amused all at once. It reminded Kylo of how Han had used to laugh at him when he'd shared his more fanciful musings as a child, or when he'd started banging his head against low ceilings and bumping into furniture as a gangly, too tall teenager. His cheeks flushed as hotly now as they did then.

 

"Kylo, Kylo, Kylo." Snoke shook his head, voice tinged with black mirth. "Falling victim to a woman's wiles— I expected more from you. Your potential betrothed is the scion of a bloodline composed of the most cunning rulers in galactic history. Women who stopped at nothing to gain power, who understood that a pretty smile, a little skin, could bend lesser men to their will. I see that the Hapan court is training her well." He clucked his tongue. "My poor, naive apprentice, did you honestly believe she would ever feel that way about you?"

 

Kylo stared at the floor, humiliated. To hear someone else put it into words made him feel so unbearably stupid— and angry, that Rey had tried to trick him like that.

 

"There will be no punishment tonight, although the Force knows you deserve it," Snoke decreed, magnanimous yet cold. "We must discuss what is to be done about the Hapes Consortium and the Resistance."

 

"The Resistance?" Kylo echoed.

 

Snoke lost his temper then, slamming a heavy fist into the throne's armrest so suddenly and viciously that it took all of Kylo's control not to flinch. "You utter fool!" In contrast to its previous mildness, the voice now roared like thunder, filling the world. "Had you been thinking with your brain, you might have seen what was in front of your very eyes! Of course the girl knows where the Resistance is hiding— or, at the very least, they will attempt to make contact with her one of these days. You are going to extract their location from her when the time is right. Perhaps after the wedding, once she has let her guard down a little."

 

"You mean for me to go through with this?"

 

"Regardless of the Chumeda' s identity, the advantages of marrying her still stand," Snoke replied, although Kylo had the uneasy feeling that this wasn't all. The flicker in his master's eyes earlier hadn't been one of rage or shock; it had been interest, pure and sharp, something predatory lurking in the depths of those frosty eyes. "And now, if you will attend to me, Emperor Ren, here is how you must deal with the Hapans from this moment on..."

 

*

 

The final round of negotiations wrapped up in the early afternoon of the following day. The First Order was firm and brusque, the Consortium uncharacteristically acquiescent. Indeed, it seemed to Rey that they had lost more ground on this last day than they'd gained all week, but Ta'a Chume obviously wanted to avoid adding fuel to Kylo's ire. He was in the blackest mood that Rey had ever seen, forfeiting all trace of politeness in favor of a sullen menace that made clear it would take only one more misstep on the Hapans' part for him to rain down the wrath of his lurking fleet on their heads.

 

The contract glowed in silvery High Galactic atop the holoprojector field, streams of legalese that Rey would have had trouble parsing if she hadn't witnessed every step of each clause being debated upon and decided on. Negotiators from both sides took turns signing their names on the last page, the scene bearing a ceremonial quality as scrawled initials blossomed like firebrands at each stroke of the stylus. Kylo was the second to the last to affix his signature, his penmanship an elegant cursive that was a surprise coming from that large, gloved hand that had killed so many and caused so much destruction. This was the first time Rey had ever seen him write anything, and she was brought up short by a flare of panic at how little she actually knew the man she was going to marry.

 

But there was no opportunity for second-guessing, no room to call off the whole affair. Kylo held the stylus out to her and she stepped forward on pitifully shaky legs, her heart in her throat. In line with her newfound resolve to stop acting like a petulant martyr, she offered him a courteous nod. One that he did not return, his expression stony.

 

She willed herself to not be mortified, hastily reaching for the stylus. As she did so, her bare fingers brushed against the leather of Kylo's glove and he recoiled, jerking his hand back as if he'd accidentally touched something disgusting.

 

Well, isn't that just great, Rey seethed, her pride taking another hit. Last night he'd called her beautiful and now he was acting like he wouldn't throw water on her if she were on fire. Perhaps later she'd puzzle over why this bothered her so much, but the present situation demanded all of her focus to act with poise, to keep a steady hand as she signed the contract. She hadn't learned how to write in High Galactic until recently and once she'd added the last stroke she was painfully aware that her signature looked clumsy and crude next to Kylo's. Everyone in the room was watching her, their gazes inscrutable— with all his training, not even Isolder would show any emotion at a politically charged moment such as this. She'd never felt more alone in her life.

 

Rey set the stylus down on the table, and then it was over. She was engaged to Kylo Ren.

 

It had been Jessika who'd introduced Rey to the concept of marriage proposals. "It varies from culture to culture," the pilot had said, "but on my homeworld, at least, someone gets down on one knee, with a ring." She'd even recounted a public proposal she'd witnessed in a city park as the sun was setting; the man had hired a band to play the song he and his girlfriend danced to on their first date, and there had been teary eyes and applause from the spectators when the woman said yes. "It was cheesy," Jessika had concluded, "and I'd personally knock a guy's teeth out if he ever popped the question in front of a crowd. But that lady was so happy. It was nice."

 

And Rey, who had known nothing of first dates and city parks and music, had treasured this little anecdote and for a while daydreamed about a proposal of her own, about somebody who was kind and who loved her, asking if they could spend the rest of their lives together. This cold, businesslike arrangement was so far from her silly longings that she was seized by the mad urge to cry, and Kylo's markedly aloof demeanor wasn't helping matters. She peered up at him, hoping to catch a trace of the man who had almost laughed in the garden and who had teased her in the Banquet Hall, but she found only a harsh, imperious stranger who looked like he would rather be anywhere else but here.

 

"It's settled, then," Ta'a Chume said stiffly, breaking the silence. "The wedding will be held in another week's time— that should give the Consortium sufficient opportunity to prepare the venue and handle all the logistics. There will be more meetings over the next few days to discuss the specifics of the ceremony, but for now I think we can safely say that this one is at an end."

 

"It is," Kylo agreed. "However, there is one last matter to take care of so that we may remove all doubts about the legitimacy of this alliance."

 

Ta'a Chume raised an eyebrow. "What doubts could you possibly still harbor, Your Majesty?"

 

"About who I'm marrying," Kylo tersely replied. "The Chume'da will now accompany me to the Heresiarch for a DNA test."

 

That's preposterous, Rey wanted to snap, with a healthy dose of I'm not going anywhere with you thrown in for good measure. However, Ta'a Chume was already nodding, her mouth set in a tight line.

 

"Of course, Emperor Ren. It is vital that you confirm for yourself that Hapes is not treating with you under false pretenses." The Queen Mother appeared to say this more for Rey's benefit, as if she sensed mutiny in the way her granddaughter was currently glowering. "I trust you will not object to the presence of Her Grace's guards aboard your ship."

 

"And my presence as well," Isolder added. "While you could scan for Hapan blood in general, it would certainly put your mind more at ease if you matched her DNA with mine, would it not?"

 

Kylo's jaw clenched. If Rey had to guess, he probably disliked the idea of having more Hapans on his ship than was strictly necessary. "I do not wish to inconvenience you, Prince Isolder."

 

"It's not an inconvenience." Isolder smiled, all teeth. "As a matter of fact, I cherish the opportunity to spend more time with my future son-in-law."

 

Kylo blanched, and some small, petty part of Rey couldn't help but cheer at his discomfiture.

 

*

 

Rey's ladies-in-waiting were even more put out than she was by Kylo's high-handed demand. Any nonsensical swooning over his dark good looks was superseded by their loyalty to the Consortium.

 

"Who does he think he is, questioning Her Grace's identity?" Janassa fumed as she helped Esli wind starcrystal-encrusted ropes of glittering sapphires through the intricately braided sections of Rey's hair. They had an hour before she was set to leave on the vessel that would fly her, Isolder, and their guards to the Heresiarch; the First Order delegation had already gone ahead on their own shuttle. Rey's ladies had been tasked to take her back to her quarters and freshen her up, but it seemed like they were preparing her for battle instead— the floral gown she'd worn to the negotiations had been discarded in favor of royal blue robes liberally embellished with more starcrystals so that the bodice practically counted as armor. The only hint of softness was the gossamer cape flowing from a heavy silver band draped around Rey's shoulders, and even the diaphanous fabric, too, was embroidered with countless threads of tiny arctic jewels.

 

"I don't like to say it, but I think Lord Gray's brashness cost us a lot of hard-won ground," Niobe remarked as she soaked used makeup brushes in pots of warm water. "For a while, it seemed that the First Order was more or less willing to let us negotiate on our terms, but now we have to scramble to appease them."

 

You're very smart, Rey thought, glancing at the petite redhead. You must also be very good at eavesdropping. She vowed to remember this; something told her that she would need capable spies of her own in the future.

 

Her attention darted back to the dressing table mirror, and she shifted uncomfortably at the sight of her own reflection. Of course, no real piece of armor would ever reveal so much skin below the collarbones. The V-shaped neckline's lavish ornamentation of silver stars and crescent moons did little to detract from the fact that she was sporting cleavage. It wasn't a lot, but it was there.

 

As Vanya fussed with the fall of the cape, her eyes met Rey's in the mirror. "You look lovely, Your Grace," she assured her with a hint of grim satisfaction. "That arrogant Emperor Ren won't know what hit him."

 

*

 

Rey met her father on one of the landing pads behind the palace, their respective security details immediately forming a protective barrier around them. He was standing by a row of sleek Express- class ambassadorial shuttles, each one only half the length of the Falcon, and Rey gestured to the nearest one with a rather dubious look on her face.

 

"Are we taking that?" she asked. With all their guards, it would be a tight fit.

 

"No," said Isolder. "We're taking that."

 

Rey followed his gaze to the middle of the landing pad. The Song of War blocked out the sky, distinct from all other Battle Dragons due to sheer size and the rich crimson paint on its two hulls stamped here and there with the golden crest of the Royal House that blazed in the sunlight. As Isolder's personal flagship, it was the largest vessel in the Hapan navy second only to the Dragon Queen, heavily armored and bristling with customized weapons specifications that put the Finalizer to shame. Using this to get up to the Heresiarch was a statement, much like the change in Rey's attire.

 

"It's like we're going to war," she commented with good humor. "We signed the peace treaty an hour ago, didn't we?"

 

"On the contrary, my dear—" Isolder offered Rey the crook of his elbow so that he could escort her onto the ship's ramp— "the war is just beginning."

Chapter Text

"They brought a warship!" Hux hissed at Daala as they watched the red Battle Dragon's approach from the bridge of the Heresiarch. "Surely this constitutes an act of aggression—"

 

Daala rolled her eyes. "You're just champing at the bit to render the peace treaty we worked so hard on null and void, aren't you? For crying out loud, the metaphorical ink hasn't even dried yet."

 

"I still maintain that a full-scale invasion would have been less of a headache," Hux muttered.

 

"And that," said Daala, unable to resist, "is why you are not emperor."

 

He glared at her. "Speaking of— where is he?"

 

"Down in the hangars," she replied. "Waiting to receive his... fiancée. "

 

There was a brief pause as the two officers considered how very odd this sounded. The thought of Kylo Ren having a wife in general was surreal enough, but for that wife to be a scavenger turned Force-sensitive Resistance fighter turned heir to the Hapan throne— well, it moved the situation into the realm of the absurd.

 

"Ah, Natasi, didn't you know, the Force works in mysterious ways," Wilhuff Tarkin would have sarcastically quipped, his mouth curling into the disdainful sneer that he'd reserved for the supernatural powers of the Jedi. It was not often that Daala thought of the Grand Moff these days— he had perished on the first Death Star almost four decades ago and was now a ghost in her memories, someone who had happened to her in a different life.

 

"I do not have high hopes for this union," Hux finally remarked.

 

Daala scrutinized the younger man. Even though he'd pulled his weight during the negotiations, she still didn't trust him. Hux liked to give the impression that he was someone who kept his cards close to his scrawny chest, but she'd had him all figured out within seconds of their first meeting. Ambitious, ruthless, chip on the shoulder a mile wide— yes, she knew the type well, and in her experience these were the most dangerous precisely because they had something to prove.

 

Just like Tarkin. Just like her.

 

"I'm not optimistic about the upcoming marriage, either," Daala said with a shrug. "But at least it's bound to be entertaining to watch."

 

*

 

The Chume'doro were on edge as they disembarked from the shuttle that had ferried them from the Song of War to the Heresiarch. Rey couldn't say she blamed them; while they were technically not in enemy territory due to the terms of the agreement, the sight of hordes of stormtroopers assembled in the hangar bay for their arrival was still unsettling.

 

Kylo held up the vanguard, flanked by Hircine, Boethiah, and Jyggalag. There were a couple of other figures in black armor behind him, identical in every way from their masks to their boots, and Rey cursed under her breath. While she'd never been a fan of the twins in the first place, they were the absolute last thing she needed now.

 

"So many soldiers, Emperor Ren," Isolder mused as he and Rey approached Kylo. "One might think you don't trust your allies."

 

"Your guards have cannons mounted on their shoulders that are each one capable of destroying a small building," Kylo pointed out. "Welcome aboard, Your Highness and Your Grace." He looked at Rey then, really looked at her for the first time since she emerged from the shuttle, and was it her imagination or did his eyes widen just the slightest bit before darkening as he seemed to swallow a sudden lump in his throat, his fists clenching at his sides—

 

Kylo turned on his heel and marched out of the hangar bay, leaving Rey and Isolder no choice but to follow him, trailed by their guards. There was a shift in the crowd and soon the two identical knights had wedged themselves on either side of Rey as they walked.

 

"Hello, little Jedi," sneered Meridia, her tone raspy through the helm's voice modulator. "Or should I start calling you princess?"

 

"She cleans up so well, doesn't she?" Mephala opined from Rey's left. "I almost didn't recognize her."

 

"Oh, I'd know that smell anywhere," Meridia said airily. "Smells like desert rat."

 

Rey did her best to ignore them, keeping her gaze trained on Kylo's back. He had tensed, somewhat, but otherwise he made no move to put a stop to the twins' antics. Isolder opened his mouth, no doubt to issue a scathing reprimand, but Rey caught his eye and shook her head. Meridia and Mephala thrived on rankling other people, and the most effective way to deal with them was to not take the bait.

 

"What's the matter, princess?" Mephala continued to goad. "Are you too high and mighty to chat with the common folk now?"

 

"I am the Hapan Chume'da, not a princess," Rey said as evenly as she could manage, still staring straight ahead, refusing to look at either of her attackers. "You will address me as 'Your Grace,' and after my coronation as Empress of the First Order, you will call me 'Your Majesty.'"

 

That shut them up. They fell back, the weight of their resentful gazes boring into Rey's nape. Perhaps there was some benefit to be had in reigning over her foes, after all. She wouldn't deny that she felt a surge of satisfaction at having gotten the last word with the reminder that the Knights of Ren would soon be her subjects. It was almost worth marrying Kylo for.

 

Almost.

 

His flagship was the first dreadnought of its make that Rey had ever set foot on. Snoke's forces had fought the majority of the war with Resurgent-class battlecruisers like the Finalizer; the Sovereign-class was something else entirely, and there had only been four of them at last count. According to old Resistance intelligence, the Heresiarch measured fifteen thousand meters in length and hosted a complement of thirty-five TIE interceptor squadrons, five bomber squadrons, and seventy-five AT-ATs. To prevent it from wreaking catastrophic destruction during broadsides, they'd have to take out the axial superlaser first...

 

Stop thinking like that, Rey chided herself. There is no war, these people are your allies now. But as Kylo led the way deeper into the heart of the ship, she couldn't resist looking around, committing the layout to memory, cataloging the tech on display. At this point she could no longer tell if it was battle instinct or a scavenger's compulsion.

 

The DNA test took place in the medbay of the Heresiarch. It was a simple enough affair, a sleek black-and-silver droid extracting blood from Rey and Isolder and then feeding the samples into the sequencer. As they waited for the results, Rey was reminded of a similar scene from months ago, the Royal Court observing warily as her blood was matched with Isolder's, Ta'a Chume's, and an archived sample from one of Teneniel's medical tests. She'd been on tenterhooks then, so afraid that a mistake had been made and she wasn't Kira Ka Djo after all. And yet there had been a part of her that had also hoped for a negative result, because the Hapans were cold and regal and such a far cry from the people she had imagined belonging to. Some of the lords and ladies had been less than welcoming, treating her with outright distrust right up until the moment the screen flashed with confirmation that she was the heir to the throne. And then they had bowed— every single noble in the room.

 

There was definitely no bowing now. Once the sequencer had verified the DNA match, Kylo merely nodded at Rey and Isolder. "That settles it, then. Would you care for some refreshment before you return to Ta'a Chume'Dan?"

 

Rey blinked. "Refreshment?"

 

"You have been very gracious in acquiescing to my request for DNA verification. It would be the height of rudeness for me to send you away without offering the finest vintage I have on board." The invitation was extended without a semblance of warmth; it was clear that Kylo was going through the motions of social niceties, fully expecting her to refuse.

 

Rey took one look at his icy expression and made the impulsive, ill-advised choice to call his bluff. "Some wine would be lovely." Petty triumph sparked in her veins as surprise and annoyance flickered over his pale face. "I'd like to see for myself if your treatment of guests has improved." Oh, it was a wicked thing she was doing, bringing up old wounds at a time such as this.

 

Kylo turned to Isolder as if half-hoping that the latter would help him out of the situation he'd gotten himself into. Instead of courteously declining, however, the aged prince seemed content to follow Rey's lead, flashing another brilliant, toothy smile. "Yes, yes," he boomed jovially, "Her Grace and I would be most honored, Emperor Ren! Thank you!"

 

"The honor is mine," Kylo gritted out, well and truly trapped. "Please follow me."

 

*

 

After the Resistance's crushing defeat at Coruscant, the majority of Rey's daily routine had been spent in the gilded marble halls and extravagantly furnished rooms of the Fountain Palace. Thus, the large but austere salon that Kylo led them to was rather underwhelming, even though the scavenger girl that Rey had once been would have nearly swooned at the mere luxury of an actual table, actual chairs, and a viewport that spanned the length of the entire wall on one side, displaying a breathtaking panorama of the stars and moons that surrounded Hapes Prime, silver flecks and cold white globes irradiated by the emerald haze of the Mists.

 

As the Chume'doro and the Knights of Ren stationed themselves outside the salon, the three royals took their seats— Rey and Isolder on the couch, Kylo in a handsome black leather armchair that appeared too small for him, as Rey suspected most standard-sized furniture would be. He hunched in on himself and stretched his legs out further than was strictly decorous; it would have been endearing if he'd been anyone else.

 

The door hissed open and a timid-looking lieutenant brought in a bottle of wine and three slim flutes carefully balanced on a tray, which he set down on the table. He uncorked the bottle and made to pour the wine into each of the glasses, but Kylo stopped him with a curt, "We'll help ourselves, Mitaka," and the lieutenant all but scurried from the room.

 

"Ah, avedame." Isolder sounded reluctantly impressed as he eyed the label on the bottle with interest. "From the Jasserak Highlands. This is a rare treat, Your Majesty. You have good taste."

 

Kylo blinked, giving Rey the impression that the compliment had thrown him off-balance. "Thank you," he said at last, awkwardly. "It is nothing, of course, compared to Hapan gold."

 

"The Chume'da doesn't care overly much for the gold. She finds it too bitter," said the prince. "Perhaps the avedame will be more to her taste."

 

And it was, as it turned out. The reddish purple wine was earthy and sweet, and Rey tried not to let on how much she delighted in each sip. Kylo for his part drank sparingly, more interested in swirling the liquid around in its flute. He was probably waiting for the whole ordeal to be over, counting down the minutes in his head.

 

"It is good that we have the chance to talk in private, just the three of us," Isolder ventured after a drawn-out silence. "I thought I should prepare you both for a certain topic that will doubtless crop up over the coming days as we plan for the wedding. I speak of consummation—"

 

Rey almost choked on her wine. Kylo's fingers tightened around the stem of his glass so violently that the crystal seemed in danger of snapping in half.

 

"There will be a banquet after the ceremony," Isolder soldiered on, "and at some point the two of you will abscond to the Chumeda' s suite, where you will spend the night in accordance with Hapan custom."

 

"There is no need for that," Kylo hastened to protest. "I do not expect Her Grace to—" He faltered, a flush of red leaching into his pallor.

 

"Naturally there will be no coercion involved," Isolder declared in stern tones, giving Kylo such a forbidding look that a lesser man would have flinched. "However, the union will not be valid in the eyes of the Royal Court until you share your wife's quarters."

 

"But that is so unnecessary!" Rey cried, echoing Kylo's sentiments. "The Queen Mother herself knows that this will be a marriage in name alone..." Something about Isolder's grim expression caused her to trail off.

 

"To be sure, there is no pressure on you as of now," the prince carefully said. "It will be a different story once you have ascended and there is need for a new Chume'da, but I believe that is a matter best saved for another time. What the two of you need to discuss now is your wedding night and how to handle the issue when Daemora AlGray brings it up in a future meeting. Given your shared history, it's a contentious subject that I feel should be preemptively resolved."

 

This is a back-channel negotiation, Rey realized. Ta'a Chume often employed this technique for the more delicate aspects of trade or political agreements— conflicts would be discussed in secret so that they would already be ironed out when it was time to draft a formal treaty, both parties putting on a show for public sake. Given the circumstances of this betrothal, it was a wise move to ensure that things would go smoothly from now on, and Rey wondered if Ta'a Chume had put Isolder up to this. She would have appreciated some warning beforehand, but they'd probably been worried that she'd refuse to set foot on the Heresiarch if she had known. Part of her resented having been manipulated— again— but an even bigger part was actually grateful that she wouldn't have to sit there, taken aback and mortified, while both the Consortium and the First Order discussed her and Kylo's sex life.

 

Sex life. Kriff.

 

Rey sneaked a glance at the dark-haired emperor, her mind wandering down a dangerous path that she couldn't abstain from now that the topic had been broached. The more she told herself not to think about it, the more it became a fixation with each starlit moment that passed. Kylo wasn't terrible to look at— she'd long recognized that fact even though she still hadn't come to terms with it— and a flicker of something wild and nervous curled in her abdomen as she took in his massive frame, his thick fingers, the lips that were made for—

 

Nope. She was not going to think about him in those terms, least of all when her father was in the room.

 

Unfortunately, it wasn't long before Isolder stood up. "I'll leave the two of you to it, then, shall I?"

 

Kylo started from whatever strange reverie he'd been brooding in for the past few minutes. "To it?" he repeated, somewhat faintly.

 

Isolder scowled. "To talk," he stressed, his blue eyes narrowed at the younger man, "about your situation, in your very much separate seats."

 

Rey contemplated pitching herself out the nearest airlock.

 

*

 

Once Isolder had exited the salon, the door sliding shut in his wake, Kylo leapt to his feet with a frustrated hiss of breath and stalked over to the viewport, fists clenching at his sides. It was a while before Rey could bring herself to look at him; he was doing his best to glare a hole into the transparisteel, his posture rigid as the glow of the celestial wastes illuminated the unscarred half of his sharp profile.

 

"I would not be averse to sharing a room," Rey managed to say. "You know, to keep up appearances." She could certainly do that, couldn't she? It was just for a night— the First Order had made it clear during negotiations that they would be staying in-system only until the day after the wedding. Then they would journey back to Coruscant, where Rey would join them a few days later for her coronation. And after that, she had a hard time imagining she and Kylo would be seeing each other any more than was strictly necessary.

 

"I can take the couch. What is one more inconvenience, after all?" He said it without meeting her gaze, his tone layered over with angry sarcasm. It was the anger that puzzled her, the frenetic current wrapped so meticulously around his Force signature that it was almost as if he took refuge in it. It made her own temper spike. Honestly, she was the one who had more right to be upset— none of this would be happening if the First Order had left well enough alone. It was because of Kylo's desire for power and his fanatical devotion to Snoke that they were even in this mess in the first place.

 

Rey was aware that she ought to stay calm, but her crappy fiancé's crappy attitude was making it so difficult. "You don't have to sound like that, like it's my fault," she admonished, keeping her voice neutral but firm. While she might have committed to keeping the peace, she was no doormat, either.

 

"How should I sound, then? Like I'm excited?" Kylo asked snidely, flashing her a thin, humorless smirk. "You're the only one in this room looking forward to our wedding night, Chume'da."

 

The barb shouldn't have hurt her as much as it did. It sank deep into her skin. Maybe there was a part of her that thought he would never say something like that, some tiny, uncertain part that had sparked when he called her beautiful last night. "If you're insinuating what I think you're insinuating, you're wrong!" she snapped. "I wouldn't sleep with you if you were the last man in the galaxy!"

 

"At least now we're being honest with each other," he retorted. "This arrangement is complicated enough as it is without us having any illusions."

 

"I've never had any illusions about you!" Rey shouted, although it was a lie. There had been those brief moments in the garden when he'd seemed less of a monster. She could kick herself for falling for it. "You are exactly who I thought you were from the very beginning— a vile, arrogant, cruel, and despicable jerkass, and when the rest of the galaxy has had enough— when they finally denounce you and your despotic goons— I swear to you, Emperor Ren, I won't think twice before joining them!"

 

She had gone too far. Her words were tantamount to nothing short of treason. Kylo was upon her, quick as a flash, his fingers clamping around her upper arm hard enough to bruise as he forced himself into her personal space so inexorably that she had no choice but to look up at him.

 

"While I share your contempt for this situation in which we find ourselves, do not mistake it as apathy," he hissed through gritted teeth, dark eyes burning. "I hardly expect your disposition to sweeten, but I will be damned if I allow my future Empress to behave in a manner that reflects poorly on me and on the First Order!"

 

"If you allow?" She wrenched her arm out of his viselike grasp, batting his hand away for good measure. "I don't belong to you. I don't belong to anyone."

 

"That might have been the case back when you were a scavenger on that pitiful scrap heap of a planet, but now?" His sardonic gaze flickered over her silk robes and the jewels woven through her elaborate braids. "Now you are the Chume'da, and the Chume'da belongs to her people. Their fate is entirely in your hands. Should you cross the line, it is they who will suffer for it. Am I making myself clear?"

 

"I hate you," she said bitterly.

 

He sneered at her. "See? Already you are acclimatizing so well to married life."

 

"This isn't a marriage." Rey stepped back, towards the door. She had to get out of this room before she made any more tactical mistakes. "It's a farce."

 

"As opposed to all other marriages out there, brimming with devotion and contentment?" Kylo frostily countered. "You have been eight months at court. You should know better. I neither expect nor want your love or your friendship, but I will require your cooperation. Do you understand?"

 

She glared daggers at him, but she nodded. What else could she do? He had just reminded her in his own brutal fashion that the welfare of the Hapes Cluster was contingent on the benevolence of his empire.

 

"Good. Now, I shall spend the night here on my ship, as there are certain matters that require my attention. I'll see you at the palace in the morning."

 

"What matters?" Rey asked suspiciously.

 

"I was in Ta'a Chume'Dan for almost a week. During that time, I have sorely neglected my own affairs of state." He said it like he was blaming her for the backlog, the prick, and she rolled her eyes and turned to leave.

 

"One more thing," Kylo added, and Rey grudgingly came to a stop, staring at the door as she waited for him to piss her off more than he already had. "Regarding what happened earlier with Meridia and Mephala— the Knights of Ren answer only to me. I shall be reminding them that they must afford you the respect due to you as my wife, but they are not your subjects. Is that clear?"

 

"Crystal," Rey muttered. As she remembered the taunting she had endured at the hands of the twins and contrasted it with how she was now being scolded like an errant child for standing up for herself, tears pricked her eyes. She hurriedly blinked them away, determined not to give Kylo the satisfaction of making her cry.

 


 

After dinner back at the Per'Agthra, Rey wandered the halls in a black mood. Despite the First Order's absence, security was still tight and she suspected it was her grandmother's doing. Ta'a Chume had most likely sensed that Rey would scamper off to the Corsair Outback the first chance she got and so had decreed that the hangars remain on lockdown.

 

But Rey knew that she couldn't put off contacting the Resistance any longer. She had to do it tonight.

 

She heard voices from around the corner— a man's, light and teasing, mingled with a woman's soft, dulcet tones. Surreptitiously peeking into the corridor that ran perpendicular to the one she was in, Rey saw Aleson and Lairelosse in the act of bidding farewell to each other. He bowed and she curtsied, and then he watched her walk away.

 

Rey was struck by an idea. It was risky, but it looked to be her best option yet. She waited until Lairelosse had disappeared around the opposite corner and then she made her way to Aleson, after checking to ascertain that no guards were in sight. She'd dismissed her Chume'doro for the evening, firmly stating that she wanted to be alone.

 

Aleson smiled when he noticed her approach, but it was a smile that had a wary edge to it. "Your Grace," he said with another quick bow. "As I understand it, congratulations are in order."

 

"Spare me," Rey bit out. She'd quite had her fill of sarcastic young men for the day.

 

Aleson quirked an eyebrow but wisely changed the subject. "I'm off to Kavan. Ta'a Chume has made it clear that I've outstayed my welcome for now. I suppose the next time I see you will be at your wedding."

 

That surprised her. She knew that all the noble houses had to send a representative, but she'd been half-expecting him to boycott the event. He must have deciphered the bemused look on her face because he went on to explain, "My mother is too ill. I shall have to attend in her stead. I have already sworn to Ta'a Chume that I shall do nothing to disrupt the proceedings, and I reiterate the same to you. You have my word."

 

"And how good is your word?" Rey carefully asked. "How true is your honor?"

 

One could hardly be a Hapan aristocrat without the ability to recognize certain cues. Aleson's amethyst gaze assessed her shrewdly from beneath a mess of shaggy black hair. "Is there something you require of me, Chume'da?"

 

"Yes." Rey's heart was pounding. "I'm calling in your life debt. I need you to take me somewhere."

Chapter Text

As the chronos of Ta'a Chume'Dan struck midnight, the light of seven moons shone down on a slim figure in a hooded cloak, leggings, and jerba-hide boots rappelling the towers of the Fountain Palace, moving swift and sure from one battlement to the next. Rey kept clear of the windows and balconies, using the Force to shroud her presence as an extra cautionary measure. Once her feet hit the ground, she barely had time to zip the fibercord back into her utility belt, next to her lightsaber, before she heard the unmistakable sounds of an approaching patrol. She dove behind the bushes and stayed in a half-crouch as the guards marched past. They weren't Chume'doro and could therefore speak more freely, and she listened over the blood pounding in her ears.

 

"What I don't understand," one was telling his companions, "is why we don't just shoot that destroyer out of the sky. The Emperor is on board so that takes care of all our problems, doesn't it? There would be no need for us to go through with this wedding."

 

"Not all of Ren's high-ranking officers are on the Heresiarch, though," countered another guard. "If we kill him, they're going to want revenge. Besides, I don't even think he's the real power behind the throne. Before all this, the First Order had a Supreme Leader, didn't they? Whatever happened to that guy?"

 

"You have got to stop reading sludgenews. I saw that article, too. A colossal, all-powerful being from the Unknown Regions? Pull the other one, it's got bells on—"

 

"It's not that far-fetched to me. Not after what happened in the Banquet Hall—"

 

"Where the Chume'da proved that she was more than a match for the Emperor," a third guard chimed in. "So let's just rest easy. The Consortium knows what they're doing."

 

"In the meantime, stock up on miriskin," joked a fourth speaker, eliciting a round of muted chuckles.

 

Once all was silent again as the patrol disappeared around the corner, Rey darted out of her hiding spot and embarked on the steep, treacherous journey down the side of the basalt crag. Unlike Coruscant, which never slept, Hapes' capital city lay still in the moonlight, the only significant flares of neon emanating from the night markets scattered throughout the various districts, which in themselves were already winding down. The main street leading from the Per'Agthra's bluffs to the heart of Ta'a Chume'Dan was deserted, but there were people milling about on the public docks, mostly freighter crew barking orders at droids as they wrangled with late-night shipments, and Rey drew her hood further over the face that had been plastered on holoscreens for a solid month after she'd been officially presented as the long-lost Chume'da. Nobody shot a second glance her way as she stole over to Aleson, but she noticed that he was being given a wide berth by everyone else.

 

Rey couldn't exactly blame them. With his leather armor, the blasters conspicuously holstered at his sides, and his dark, windswept hair, Aleson Gray looked more like a bounty hunter than a lord. His ship was a Mandal Hypernautics corvette, sporting the axehead silhouette and sharp edges ubiquitous to the Crusader- class; the hull was painted a frosted green color with a white serpent emblazoned on the aft end— the insignia of Kavan's ruling house.

 

"I was beginning to think you wouldn't show, Your Grace," Aleson remarked.

 

"I said I'd meet you here at half past midnight," Rey pointed out. "I'm early."

 

"It's a lady's prerogative to change her mind, yes?"

 

"Sure, when it comes to things like suitors or what dress to wear. This is important."

 

Aleson laughed. "I concede, then. Shall we?"

 

Rey followed him up the ship's ramp, discreetly tapping into his mindset with the Force. Even though she'd sworn him to secrecy under the terms of the life debt, she was all too aware that he was a wild card, reckless and unpredictable. Fortunately, he didn't seem to be hellbent on rallying the Resistance into an all-out attack on the First Order, but he was excited— no doubt to meet the fabled Leia Organa. He'd quite lost his aristocratic poise earlier in the hallway, hissing, "The Resistance is here?" with his eyes almost bugging out of his head. Rey had slapped his arm, warning him that he wasn't allowed to tell anyone, even Ta'a Chume and Lairelosse, that he knew. She didn't think the Queen Mother would appreciate her making an ally out of this man.

 

"This is a nice ship," Rey observed, looking around the spacious cabin as the main doors closed. "What's she called?"

 

"He," Aleson corrected.

 

"Right. Sorry." Hapans referred to their vessels in masculine terms, something that Rey was still getting used to. "What's he called?"

 

Aleson hesitated as he strapped into the pilot seat, one gauntleted hand hovering over the controls. "Evenstar," he replied at last, in an uncharacteristically soft voice.

 

"Oh," was all Rey could manage. Lairelosse's name in Basic translated to "the star of evening." Rey had been aware that Aleson and the Ducha were childhood friends, but...

 

The young lord gave every impression of not wanting to talk about it, so Rey busied herself with settling into the co-pilot seat, frantically casting around for a suitable change of subject. She remembered something that one of the palace guards had mentioned, and so— "Do you know what miriskin is?"

 

"A scam," Aleson said dismissively. "In the days of the Old Republic, when anti-Jedi sentiment was at an all-time high in the Hapes Cluster, con artists started selling these pieces of cloth to be worn around the neck, claiming that they were made from the skin of ysalamiri and could therefore grant immunity from the Force. It was all a hoax, of course— only a living ysalamir can cast the nullification field and, anyway, the talismans were made mostly from ronto or dewback leather."

 

"And people actually fell for it?"

 

"I think Your Grace will find that fear can lead people to the edge of desperation. The Jedi were seen as monsters with supernatural abilities, who controlled minds and stole children. This was a view encouraged by Ni'Korish, your—"

 

"Great-grandmother," Rey mumbled. She'd seen portraits of the woman— tall and willowy, dark-haired and blue-eyed. While Ta'a Chume wore a crown that looked like it was fashioned from ice, Ni'Korish had preferred the illusion of thorns, jet-black and vicious, woven around her head. There had been a certain savagery to her portraits that Rey had found more familiar than Ta'a Chume's coldness and Isolder's charm, and she'd immediately shied away from that realization.

 

"Now the tables have turned," Aleson concluded, "and it is a Force wielder who will lead us someday. It's funny how things work out, but Hapes will adapt, as she always has."

 

Further conversation was limited to running the preflight checks, and soon the corvette had taken off and was gliding away from the quiet, silver-white city, illuminated by a night that was almost as bright as day.

 


 

Kylo had taken a leaf out of Sheev Palpatine's book and assigned governors to each inhabited sector of First Order occupied space. It was far more efficient than the Senate system, with no room for petty squabbling and corruption— the Emperor commanded, the governors obeyed, and the sectors ran like clockwork.

 

Or, well, most of them did, anyway.

 

In a conference room on the Heresiarch, the holograms of seven Outer Rim governors flickered from various projectors built into the massive communications bay. Kylo stood in the middle, the glow of blue static reflecting off his mask as he listened to reports about clogged trade routes, piracy, breakdowns in the local chain of command, and— in the case of a little green planet called Artorias— uprising.

 

"The former king of that world eluded capture during our invasion," Darius Onneir, the governor of the Myto sector, was saying. "We suspect he is behind the spate of guerrilla attacks that have been targeting our munitions bases and supply lines."

 

"Concentrate your resources on locating his hideout," Kylo growled. "Don't bother arresting him— you have my permission to shoot Caled Galfridian on sight."

 

"Understood, Your Majesty."

 

Onneir's hologram vanished, and Kylo turned to Tol Getelles as the latter detailed the traffic problems caused by the Antemeridian sector's exports being routed straight to Coruscant. But Kylo was only half-listening— he had been in conference with various batches of governors all evening, and the defenses of his overworked brain were now faltering against the pull of other matters.

 

Namely, a very beautiful, very infuriating fiancée who'd had the nerve to show up on his ship in... that dress.

 

Of course, Kylo had been aware— in some distant, logical way—that Rey had breasts. She was biologically female, it was only natural. But today marked the first time he'd had to... confront such a fact. Her gowns prior to this one had been relatively modest, relying on subtle hints rather than outright display. He'd never actually seen her cleavage before and, oh, it was far more tantalizing than he cared to admit. She wasn't overly endowed but that creamy skin had been decorated so prettily by the silver stars and crescents of that low sapphire blue neckline, and her breasts had looked like they were the perfect size for his hands to cup, the smooth valley between them made for his lips to caress. He would be lying if he said he'd never thought about her like this before, but to finally have a visual basis for his fantasies...

 

It's all a ploy, Kylo sternly told himself. You shouldn't fall for it. What was that Snoke had said? Hapan women knew that a little skin could bend a man to their will. Donning that kind of gown had been a calculated maneuver on Rey's part. But, if so, why had she then proceeded to verbally castigate him in the salon? Calling him names, declaring that she wouldn't sleep with him if he were the last man in the galaxy— why would she blow her cover like that?

 

Because his own taunts had gotten to her, he decided. He'd made her lose her temper and expose her true feelings.

 

You know her better than that, some part of him insisted. You know that she stays calm and focused during missions. This is the girl who used to weather Boethiah's Dun M ö ch technique without batting an eyelash. She would never have let you rattle her if she had some endgame in mind...

 

"Emperor Ren?" Getelles' hologram was peering at him in concern, holding a datapad. "I assume you are in favor of implementing this proposal straight away?"

 

Kylo had no idea what the man was talking about. "I'd like to hear more about it before I decide," he hedged.

 

Getelles blinked. "It's the proposal to chart new detours along the Perlemian Trade Route, Your Majesty... You authored it a month ago."

 

"Then obviously I am in favor of it," Kylo coolly replied.

 

Getelles nodded and signed off. Kylo then made a valiant effort to focus completely on what the next governor was saying. Thankfully, this was the last batch and he would soon be able to sleep. And, the Force willing, not dream of Rey.

 


 

It was noon on Stalsinek IV when the Evenstar made planetfall. Again the humid heat, crashing heavily into Rey the moment the cabin doors slid open at the edge of the rainforest. Again the various chattering, shrieking, cawing sounds of unseen creatures, rising up from the tangle of trees. Again the faint siren song of the Force nexus.

 

Rey and Aleson had docked at a spot that was far enough from the military outpost to avoid the prying eyes of Captain Elerron's men; the temple was roughly an hour's hike away. As they began walking, Rey activated the homing beacon on her utility belt— the signal couldn't be detected unless someone knew what they were looking for on an encrypted frequency, and she could only pray that, wherever the Resistance was in the Outback, they were keeping an eye on the comms. Hopefully, once she got to the temple, she wouldn't have to wait too long for Finn to show up. She needed to return to the Per'Agthra before the sun rose on Hapes Prime.

 

"So what exactly is the Resistance's plan, Your Grace?" Aleson asked as they set a steady pace beneath the coilwoods. "I doubt General Organa wants to hide forever."

 

"All information will be dispensed on a need-to-know basis," Rey said crisply. The truth was that she herself had merely a vague idea of what was going on in Leia's head— she hadn't seen the older woman since that long-ago meeting on the Star Home. From the sporadic rendezvouses— mostly with Finn, sometimes with Poe or Jessika— Rey had surmised that the Resistance had spent the past several months mostly just surviving and laying low and gathering as much intel as possible.

 

"Will she launch an attack from the Cluster?" Aleson persisted. "It's doable, you know. We can take the Inner Rim, cut Coruscant off from the major military bases in Fondor and the like—"

 

"No one is attacking anything," Rey interrupted. "At least, not at this point in time. It's too big a gamble—"

 

"Could she kill her son, if push came to shove?" Aleson continued as if he hadn't heard her. "If it's what's best for the galaxy—"

 

Rey had been in the middle of batting aside a curtain of thick vines when he said this. Now, she gave it an almighty push in his direction, letting the tough green tendrils hit him square across the face. "New rule!" she snapped. "You will not speak unless spoken to."

 

"But, Chume'da—"

 

"Nuh-uh. Life debt, remember?"

 

"Fine," Aleson sighed.

 

She shot him her fiercest, haughtiest glare and he lapsed into a grudging silence. Nothing more was said between them for the rest of the trek. And yet a curious thing happened as Rey walked amidst the trees and the undergrowth— perhaps it was the fresh air seeping into her lungs, the damp smell of moss, the way the physical exertion was making her heart race, the prospect of seeing Finn again, or the verdant wilderness that would always be a balm to someone who had grown up on a land as parched as Jakku. Whatever the case, she felt lighter than she'd had in ages. She hadn't realized how much she'd needed to get away from the stifling atmosphere of the Hapan court, even if it was just for a little while.

 

The sun's rays poured like honey into the clearing where the temple was located, causing the milk-white stones to gleam with snowy radiance. Rey heard Aleson's awed intake of breath behind her, and then he was striding forward, inspecting the runes carved into the pillars.

 

"Don't touch anything," Rey warned him. The Hapans weren't religious so she doubted he'd believe there was a goddess watching over this abandoned place, but the deity's ire when Kylo destroyed one of the pillars two years ago was still fresh on her mind.

 

"This is no language that I recognize," Aleson murmured. "Whoever built this temple, they weren't our ancestors."

 

Our. Rey fought down her uneasiness. She still didn't think of herself as Hapan, not really, and she wondered if she ever would. No matter what the DNA tests said, no matter the sense of deja vu that sometimes stole over her when she was in certain areas of the palace or in conversation with Isolder, there was no denying the fact that she'd been gone too long. She'd grown up wholly independent of her father's culture, and therefore felt no connection to it.

 

It wasn't long before Aleson's gaze drifted to the silver fountain in the middle of the courtyard. Recognition dawned on his features but he made no attempt to draw near, squinting at it warily instead. "All this time, I thought it was only a legend. A tale for children and dreamers."

 

"It's as real as you and me," Rey said carefully, "but it's not the Fountain of Youth. It's a wellspring of the Living Force."

 

He took a step back— a small one, but she noticed it, nonetheless. For all his talk of modernization and opening up the borders, Aleson was still Hapan, through and through.

 

Rey sensed them before she saw them, their energy signatures moving through the constellation of forest life with that warm, bright aura she had come to ascribe to her friends. She was already smiling, already running with her arms thrown open wide when they started emerging from the treeline— Finn first, followed by Poe, and then Leia, and then Luke.

 

Finn caught her easily, hugging her so tightly to his chest that her feet were lifted off the ground. I missed you, I missed you, she thought over and over again, burying her face in his neck.

 

"Where have you been?" She could tell that he was trying to sound stern, but the effect was ruined by the joyous, relieved laughter in his voice. "We haven't heard from you in weeks—" he caught sight of Aleson over her shoulder and tensed— "and who's that?"

 

Can he be trusted? was the unspoken question that hung in the air.

 

"He won't be a problem, he's sworn to me," Rey said hurriedly. "We have bigger things to worry about." She let go of Finn and tackled Poe into a hug as well. "I wasn't expecting all four of you to come!"

 

"The cells moved around again," Poe explained, affectionately patting her on the back. "We've been planet-bound a couple days already."

 

Rey untangled herself from Poe and turned to Luke and Leia, and her mind suddenly—

 

went blank—

 

The Skywalker twins were looking at her expectantly with soft, glad smiles on their faces. Smiles that faltered, in sync, when she did nothing but stare at them, at a loss for words as it hit her that she would soon be related to them, oh, kriffing hell, abort mission, abort—

 

Leia was the first to break the silence. "Rey? Are you all right?"

 

"I'm—" I'm fine, no, I'm going to throw up—

 

"I'm getting married," Rey bleated.

 

Finn and Poe were immediately up in arms. "To who?" Finn demanded, followed a beat later by Poe saying, "To him?" And then the two Resistance soldiers glared at Aleson, their hands clenching into fists as they made to walk threateningly over to him—

 

Rey barely had time to block their path. "No," she said, her eyes still locked onto Leia's, "to—"

 

She couldn't say it. She didn't want to say it. She would cheerfully have attempted to reclaim Coruscant all by herself instead of saying it. But every second spent in this forest was another second closer to a lady-in-waiting rousing the Chume'da for breakfast only to find out that she was neither in her bed nor anywhere else in the palace...

 

"I'll start from the beginning," Rey announced. "I don't have a lot of time, so I must ask all of you to refrain from interrupting me."

 

*

 

They took it about as well as could be expected. Which was to say, not well at all.

 

"Kylo Ren?" Finn bellowed. Poe shushed him, furtively glancing around as if Hapan troops would burst into the clearing at any moment. "Kylo Ren?" Finn repeated in a quieter but no less savage hiss. "You're engaged to Kylo Ren?"

 

"Why didn't we know about this?" Leia was looking sharply at Poe. "We knew he was crowned Emperor, we've learned that they've abolished the Senate. How could this have slipped through our intelligence net?"

 

Rey was the one who answered. "Because it hasn't gone public yet, General. Ta'a Chume will make the official announcement tomorrow."

 

"That woman," Leia snarled. She turned to Rey with a shrewd, piercing gaze, the fury in her expression suddenly so reminiscent of Kylo. "Enough is enough, Chume'da. You have to learn how to stand up for yourself. I know you think you'll be endangering us by doing so, but you don't have to be a witless pawn in her games. Believe me, she needs your goodwill as much as you need hers." Leia's hands clamped onto Rey's shoulders, giving her a gentle but firm shake. "The Consortium has no qualms about deposing an heirless monarch— in fact, they were on the verge of doing so before you showed up. Without you, she risks losing everything. It is time you remind her. Do you think you can do that?"

 

"I... I'm not sure," Rey stammered. "Everyone's afraid of her, even Isolder— I'm alone—"

 

"No, you are not," said Leia. "You have my son."

 

Rey blinked, uncomprehending. The ambient sounds of the forest filled the tense space between words, and then Leia leaned in closer, ascertaining that the younger woman was meeting her eyes. "Power is a fluid, ever-shifting thing, dictated by alliances," said Senator Organa, Princess Leia of Alderaan. "Right now, it seems like Ta'a Chume holds all the cards because she is the Queen Mother of the Hapes Consortium. But... once you marry Emperor Ren, what does that make you?"

 

"Empress," Rey whispered.

 

Leia nodded. "Of the galaxy. That beats She Who Has No Equal any day of the week."

 

"You can't seriously mean for Rey to go through with this, General!" Finn protested.

 

"What choice do we have?" Leia countered. "If we take her with us and make a break for it, how far do you think we're going to get with four First Order fleets stationed right outside the Veil?"

 

"This buys us more time," Rey found herself saying. Not only was it easier for her brain to shift into battle mode now that she was back in the company of the Resistance, not only was she desperate to stop Finn from doing anything rash, but Leia's remark about her becoming the Empress had also unlocked an epiphany inside her that had been waiting for the right nudge to blossom into wildfire. "This puts me in the perfect position to spy on the First Order, to learn their weaknesses, to..." She trailed off, hardly daring to give voice to such a thing.

 

Poe finished the sentence for her, his brown eyes widening as he caught on. "To find the way to Snoke," he breathed.

 

"We can cut off the serpent's head, like we always planned but could never figure out how to do," Rey eagerly agreed. "Don't you see, Finn? Snoke is the real power behind the Empire. Once we kill him, it will all come crumbling down. And then we'll figure out what to do with Ren."

 

"Who will by then be your husband," Finn sourly pointed out.

 

"A minor detail," Rey said with rather more confidence than she actually felt. "Let's take things one step at a time, shall we? Right now, our priority should be to get to Snoke."

 

Finn wearily rubbed a hand over his face. "It's just— you are going to be in so much danger," he said in a helpless tone of voice. "You have to promise us that you'll call for extraction if things go south."

 

"I will," Rey said. She gestured towards Aleson. "I'll send him. Not only when I need help, but also when I have important information and can't meet you myself."

 

"Okay, but who is he?" Poe asked.

 

At Rey's nod, Aleson cleared his throat and introduced himself. The others regarded him with suspicion still, and so Rey launched into a summary of the duel that she had, in the interest of saving time, left out of her initial explanation. Once she was done, Finn and Poe were looking at Aleson with something close to respect, while Leia was more tight-lipped and reserved. And Luke...

 

All eyes turned to Luke. He was the only one who hadn't said a word thus far, his head bowed slightly as if he were deep in contemplation. Finally, he peered at Rey. "You have a difficult road ahead of you," he said gravely. "But I see no alternative than for you to walk it. Perhaps this is the path you were always meant to take. So—" he sighed— "if you feel that you are strong enough..."

 

"I have to be, Master," Rey said, lifting her chin.

 

"Then— may the Force be with you," Luke intoned. He let the echoes of the blessing fade into the air, and then he added, "Oh, and welcome to the family."

 

Rey grimaced, as did Finn and Poe. Leia's encouraging smile froze on her face.

 

"Perhaps that was too soon," Luke conceded after a while, with an apologetic shrug.

 


 

Humming to herself as early morning light filtered in through rose-tinted panels of window-glass, Janassa sashayed into the Chume'da' s solar with a vase full of freshly-cut everlily blossoms that she intended to place on the coffee table. She stopped short, however, at the sight of a deathly pale Esli trembling in the open doorway that led to the bedroom.

 

"What's the matter?" Janassa asked. "Is Her Grace all right?"

 

"I don't know," Esli mumbled.

 

"What do you mean you don't know?" Janassa rolled her eyes. "Esli, darling, your parents shipped you off to court so that you'd come out of your shell. Now, since Emperor Ren will be making planetfall in a short while, straighten your posture and march in there and tell Her Grace that it's time to get ready for breakfast with her fiancé."

 

"I can't do that." Esli looked like she was about to faint.

 

"And why not?" Janassa demanded archly.

 

"Because she's not here!" the other girl burst out, wringing her hands. "Her bed hasn't been slept in and I've searched for her all over the palace— she's gone!"

Chapter Text

Kylo realized something was amiss the moment he disembarked from the shuttle that had ferried him back to Hapes Prime. It wasn't just the general uneasiness that he sensed in the Force as he was escorted out of the hangars by a stiff-gaited, pale-faced Daemora AlGray— it was the fact that the Per'Agthra seemed busier than usual, or, at least, too busy for such an early hour. Guards marched to and fro, their steps brisk but lacking the mechanical rhythm of routine patrol; courtiers and servants alike scurried about, exchanging whispers in the Hapan tongue.

 

The jittery atmosphere put his knights on edge as well. They were the only ones with him today— Hux and Daala had returned to their respective fleets for the time being in order to take care of any administrative matters that might have cropped up during their absence. "Stay alert, my lord," Hircine warned in quiet tones. "There's no telling what fresh hell your fiancée's cooked up now."

 

"And how can you be certain that she is involved?" Kylo asked.

 

"Isn't she always?"

 

Hircine was right. Ever since Rey's awakening three years ago, she had never failed to be at the center of every blight to Kylo's peace. He would have snorted at the older man's remark, but he had once again foregone his mask and it would hardly have been dignified.

 

Instead of taking him straight to the Queen Mother's salon where he and Rey were supposed to have their first breakfast as an engaged couple under her grandmother's watchful eye, Daemora stopped at one of the smaller, more discreet doors that Kylo had come to learn usually indicated the kind of private, soundproofed room where politicians committed their elegant brand of skulduggery. His suspicions were confirmed when the Ducha of the Relephon Moons flashed her patented cheerful smile— although this one seemed strained at the edges— and said, "Prince Isolder would like to have a word with you, Emperor Ren. Alone," she stressed with a pointed glance at his black-clad entourage.

 

Kylo wasn't in the mood for whatever new game the Hapans were playing. He'd had a fitful night's sleep, tormented despite his best efforts by yet another spate of dreams about Rey that he blamed wholeheartedly on that blue-and-silver gown. He offered Daemora a curt nod and bid his knights to wait outside before stepping into the room where Isolder was already seated, waiting for him.

 

At the sight of the Hapan prince, Kylo was suddenly overcome by a paralyzing mixture of embarrassment and guilt. The dreams he'd had the night before were still fresh on his mind, and in them he'd been doing unspeakable things to this man's daughter. If Isolder possessed any telepathic skill at all, he'd probably be strangling Kylo with his bare hands right about now and no one would fault him for doing so, because the Emperor was a kriffing pervert.

 

Kylo forced himself to move, taking the seat across from Isolder. The prince seemed agitated, his blue eyes cloudy and his mouth set in a grim line. There was no trace of Rey on his features, and Kylo surmised in passing that she must favor Teneniel Djo.

 

"I shall cut to the chase, Your Majesty," Isolder said at last. "Her Grace is missing."

 

Kylo felt as if he'd been speared through the chest by a bolt of ice. "What do you mean she's missing?" he thundered, the cold shock quickly replaced by the dark red flames of a familiar wrath. He was back in the interrogation room on Starkiller Base, the girl was gone, and all his plans were crashing down over his head...

 

"I mean that she wasn't in her chambers this morning and we don't know where she is," Isolder replied. "We're conducting a thorough search of the palace and the rest of the city before we take foul play into consideration, although the chances of that are extremely slim. It's far more likely that she's run off."

 

Kylo was reeling from the mention of foul play. He had to remind himself that it would be next to impossible for anyone to breach the Per'Agthra's defenses, incapacitate someone with Rey's prowess in both physical combat and the Force, and escape completely undetected, with her in their clutches. "Why the hell would she run off?"

 

"I can think of a few good reasons!" Isolder snapped, his regal composure slipping with startling celerity, as if he'd been holding on to it by a thread. "Let's begin with how she is a woman barely out of her teens who, in the span of two years, learned that her mother is dead, lost a galactic war, got separated from her friends, was thrust into a strange new world that she doesn't know, and is now being forced into a political marriage with the man responsible for upending her life in the first place! Then let's also take into account the appalling treatment she has endured at your hands this past week!" Isolder fixed Kylo with a look of pure contempt. "I seem to recall, Emperor Ren, that you signed a treaty declaring that you would treat my daughter with kindness and respect. However, you scowl at her all the time, talk to her rudely, and allow your subordinates to insult her to her face. I can't claim to know what transpired after I left the two of you alone yesterday, but Rey was visibly shaken on the journey back to Ta'a Chume'Dan and I can only surmise that you picked a fight with her yet again— after failing to defend her from those two knights of yours. Given all this, it doesn't bewilder me in the least that she would be distressed enough to run away. As a matter of fact, I'm surprised it took her this long to get around to doing so!"

 

Kylo struggled not to flinch from the harsh truth behind the prince's tirade. "You are in no position to take that tone with me, Your Highness," he retorted, emphasizing the honorific with blazing sarcasm.

 

Instead of being cowed, Isolder only sighed. "That is not the response of a man who is willing to accept responsibility for his own actions. Neither is it the sort of attitude I would hope for in a man about to take a young wife." He sounded disappointed. "In any case, I've done what I can to explain what Rey is too proud to admit but you sorely needed to hear. We have no choice but to wait for the search to pay off or for her to come back of her own accord."

 

"Is she still even planetside?" Kylo spat out, taking refuge in a kind of low-grade surliness.

 

Isolder shrugged. "All ships in the hangars are accounted for. If she's not within palace grounds, she must have left on foot. Perhaps she's gone into the city for a while in order to clear her head."

 

"At the crack of dawn?"

 

"Who are we to question the whims of She Who Will Come After?" Isolder stood up, a sure sign that the meeting was at an end. "We promised you breakfast, Your Majesty, and Ta'a Chume doesn't believe that the current situation warrants starving an honored guest. Ducha AlGray will escort you to the Queen Mother's salon."

 

*

 

Isolder of Hapes couldn't help feeling a twinge of guilt as he watched Kylo Ren stalk out the door. While he had a pretty good idea where Rey had actually gone, it wasn't something he would be at liberty to share even if he were so inclined. With any luck, though, this little chat would go a long way in softening Kylo's attitude towards his betrothed.

 

Isolder was admittedly not holding his breath in that regard. Stars, he'd never before met such an angry young man in all his life. Had Rey not proven time and time again that she was more than capable of holding her own, Isolder would have done everything in his power to put a stop to the impending marriage.

 

There were other factors, of course. He had been quietly observing Kylo ever since the latter first arrived in the capital city. The Emperor of the First Order was a jumble of contradictions— haughty yet brash, ill-tempered yet aloof. He scowled at Rey a lot, that was true, but sometimes he also looked at her as if he were a cornered animal. The night she jumped into the line of fire, he'd shouted her name in a voice torn by anguish. Surely that signified he didn't hate her.

 

Isolder also couldn't stop thinking about what happened on the Heresiarch yesterday, the awkward manner in which Kylo had reacted to his praise about the wine. He'd seemed so uneasy, wide shoulders hunching as if in preparation for a blow that was certain to follow, and Isolder wondered... How long has it been since anyone sincerely complimented that boy?

 

His common sense kicked in. That boy killed his fellow apprentices and his father, blew up the Hosnian system, strapped your daughter to an interrogation rack, and destroyed the Republic. Now he stands ready to bend Hapes to his will. There can be no room for sympathy in your dealings with him. Kylo Ren is dangerous.

 

"It's all one big mess," Isolder mused out loud. He thought, then, of his old friend. "Ah, Leia, what am I supposed to do with your son? He is too much like his father, but also—" The prince chuckled ruefully, shaking his head— "too much like you."

 


 

At the Resistance camp on Stalsinek IV— which was nothing more than a tangle of dropships hidden deep in the forest— a gaggle of officers saluted, having just received their instructions from Leia, and dispersed to fulfill their tasks for the rest of the afternoon. No sooner had they left the General alone at the base of an enormous grayish-green strangler fig when she abruptly sat down on one of the tree's thick, protruding roots.

 

"Leia?" Luke hurried over, concerned but not particularly surprised. While his twin sister had been all business once they returned to camp after the meeting with Rey, he knew her better than that and he'd merely been waiting for the other shoe to drop.

 

As he bent solicitously over her, she peered up at him, her brown eyes glistening with unshed tears. Leia Organa would never cry in front of her troops at a time like this, not when they were in these dire straits and morale was already running low, but Luke was close enough to spot the slight trembling of her bottom lip. "Oh, Luke," she whispered, "my boy is getting married."

 

Luke patted her shoulder tentatively. She made a sound that was caught between a laugh and a snort. "I'm being ridiculous, aren't I? Just a sentimental old fool..."

 

"We're both sentimental old fools," Luke assured her with a soft smile.

 


 

"I went into the city for a while in order to clear my head," Rey rehearsed under her breath as the Evenstar glided through hyperspace.

 

"At the crack of dawn?" Aleson asked skeptically, which earned him a dirty look from his passenger. "I'm just helping you patch up the holes in your story!"

 

" Yes, at the crack of dawn," Rey grudgingly said, "because I... was upset and couldn't sleep." Ta'a Chume and Isolder would see through this excuse, but perhaps it would be enough to fool Kylo. After all, he didn't know that the Resistance was only a couple of short jumps away from Hapes Prime. "I was meditating," she continued, struck by a burst of inspiration, "at the Starlight Tower... trying to regain inner peace so that I may... properly fulfill my duties as the Emperor's wife."

 

"Very nice," Aleson encouraged. "You managed to say that last bit without gagging."

 

"Thanks." Rey glanced at the chrono on the dashboard and slumped in her seat, burying her face in her hands. "Oh, I am in so much trouble."

 

"They'll be happy you came back at all," Aleson said. " I'm the one who runs the risk of severe punishment if the truth behind this little escapade emerges. What's the penalty for Chume'da- smuggling, do you think?"

 

Rey perked up, her eyes glazing over dreamily as she considered the prospect. "Perhaps they'll sew your mouth shut."

 

"You wound me, Your Grace."

 

Rey had left Stalsinek IV feeling the most centered she'd been in a while, invigorated by her newfound sense of purpose. However, that air of confidence had been promptly shaken by the ion storm brewing in the Rifle Worlds that delayed the Evenstar' s crossing from the Great Rim Route to the Gallinore Reach. As a result, she was now over an hour late for breakfast.

 

An ion storm, she groused. Of all the freak occurrences... She had the worst luck in the galaxy. She could only hope that her crappy fiancé hadn't woken up on the wrong side of the bed but, knowing him, she might as well be wishing for puffer pigs to fly.

 


 

Kylo wasn't exactly sure why he'd insisted on waiting for Rey to come back before partaking in the sumptuous meal spread out before him in Ta'a Chume's red-and-white salon. It could have been the lingering remnants of Leia Organa's etiquette lessons that had so far been serving him well in this new age, or it could have been sheer pettiness. In any case, it had definitely not been one of his best decisions— he was hungry and it was painful to sit across from the Queen Mother with nothing to do but make clumsy small talk and take generous sips of champagne-spiked fruit juice. He normally abstained from alcohol as it clouded the senses, but, the way things were going, his fiancée would make a drunkard of him yet. Perhaps that was her master plan.

 

The sole indication that Ta'a Chume was put out with her granddaughter was the fact that she had already started eating, although she passed it off as how she had several meetings right after breakfast and she was too old to go an empty stomach. After an hour had passed with still no sign of Rey, the Queen Mother appeared to get fed up with social chitchat and proceeded to business.

 

"I will announce the engagement this afternoon," she informed Kylo. "As it will merely be a live recording from my throne room— I do not make speeches in public due to security reasons— you don't need to be there. As a matter of fact, you and Her Grace will be attending a wedding planning session at that time. However, please ensure your presence at the ball that will be held later tonight in honor of—" Her lips pursed— "such a happy event."

 

"Ensure my presence?" Kylo repeated, quirking an eyebrow. "It seems to me that Her Grace is the one you should be worrying about, Ereneda."

 

"Kira will be there," Ta'a Chume smoothly promised, using Rey's birth name in private as opposed to Isolder. "Now, if Your Majesty wishes to transfer any personal effects to Alqualonde, kindly inform Ducha Yliri as she is in charge of coordinating with the steward there. We are almost done fixing up the place and it will be ready for you and Her Grace to move in after the nuptials."

 

Alqualonde, the Reef Fortress, was part of Rey's dowry— a magnificent castle perched on an island in the middle of the Evernight, a sea so named for its mysterious blue-black waters. Traditionally a summer retreat for the royal family, Alqualonde had been ceded to Kylo as his permanent Hapan residence— and Rey's as well, at least until she ascended as Queen Mother and had to hold court at the Per'Agthra.

 

They shouldn't have bothered, in Kylo's opinion. It wasn't as if he'd be spending any significant amount of time in the Cluster once the wedding was over and done with. But Ta'a Chume had another motive, which she proceeded to explain to him. "Kira is the youngest Chume'da in our history to get married. It would be good for her to have experience running a household. In preparation for the future."

 

Kylo nodded, taking another sip of his cocktail. The Queen Mother was in her eighties, still hale but definitely approaching the end of the average lifespan. He felt a twinge of sympathy for Rey— finding her family had been all she ever wanted, he'd seen that in her mind three years ago, and it was unfair that circumstances had decreed that her time with her grandmother would be cut short. But compassion would be his downfall if he wasn't careful, and so he resolutely pushed the thought from his mind.

 

And that was when Rey burst into the salon.

 

She was wearing a sleeveless gown of peach-colored fabric so light it was almost sheer, the high-collared bodice sprinkled with the trademark Hapan embellishments of white-gold floral patterns and the filmy A-line skirt billowing around her ankles. The gown looked freshly pressed, as if she'd been zipped into it mere minutes ago, and, indeed, her face was devoid of all but the simplest makeup and her chestnut-colored hair hung loose around her shoulders in glossy waves, like there had been no time to style it more elaborately.

 

As he stared at her while she dropped into a hasty curtsy before Ta'a Chume, it took Kylo a while to realize what was wrong with his face. Warmth was creeping up his neck, all the way to the tips of his ears. He was blushing. He was blushing because the object of last night's erstwhile fantasies was only a few feet away— no, scratch that, was now sitting down next to him—

 

"So kind of you to finally join us, Your Grace," drawled Ta'a Chume.

 

"I'm sorry, Ereneda." Rey avoided eye contact, nervously smoothing the front of her skirt as she settled into her chair. "I was meditating at the Starlight Tower—"

 

"You may make your excuses to the Emperor." Ta'a Chume's words dripped with icy venom as she rose to her feet. "I have meetings to attend. Do remember to apologize to His Majesty for wasting his time."

 

Rey lifted her chin, her gaze fixed on the wall as the Queen Mother swept out of the room to respectful bows from the servants standing quietly by, like ghosts. She blinked once, twice, before taking a deep breath and assuming a calm expression. Kylo looked down, idly drumming his fingers against his cocktail flute, giving her as much privacy as he could— despite his annoyance that she was late, he knew that it was never easy to be chastised in public. It made one's throat knot up in the struggle for composure, the space behind the eyes stinging with humiliation...

 

The glass was cold on his bare skin. He'd dressed formally for today's events, but he couldn't find the gloves he'd worn to that disastrous banquet. I need to find a valet, Kylo thought, and I still don't have a list of potential political advisors, either.

 

"Are you all right?" Rey asked, and that was how Kylo realized his blush hadn't completely gone away. She looked so lovely in the morning light, and it was only adding to his cursed imagination from the night before. In his dreams he had been kissing those pert breasts as she tugged at his hair and gasped beneath him, her slim thighs wrapped around his hips, the heat and softness of her skin so real that he'd woken up hard and aching, the sheets damp with sweat...

 

"I'm fine." He cleared his throat, then lifted his glass as an excuse. "It's the champagne."

 

Rey appeared conflicted, as if she were locked in a fierce internal debate about whether or not to comment. In the end, though, she glanced surreptitiously at the servants and leaned in closer to Kylo, lowering her voice. "If you can't handle your liquor, then maybe you shouldn't drink."

 

Ah. He knew where this was coming from. That Crolute junk boss on Jakku— he'd valued Rey as one of his best scavengers, but he had knocked her about a few times when he was in his cups. Anger stirred inside Kylo, not only at the memory of those images but also at Rey's insinuation that he would ever be that brutish, and it exacerbated the crankiness brought about by his lack of sleep.

 

"For your information, I only had the refill so that I could occupy myself while waiting for you to grace us with your presence," Kylo sniped. He motioned one of the servants over and thrust his half-full flute into the man's hand. "Water," he ordered curtly, and another servant hurried forward to pour him a glass of the requested beverage.

 

Rey's Force signature wavered. She bowed her head over her empty plate, blinking rapidly. When she peered up at Kylo again, there was an odd determination to the set of her features. "I apologize for being late," she said carefully. "As I mentioned, I went into the city to meditate and time got away from me." Kylo automatically extended his perception towards her, to check if she was telling the truth, but she had her shields up and it was like slamming into a brick wall. "It won't happen again."

 

"See that it doesn't," he muttered, and they spent the rest of the meal in uncomfortable, suffocating silence.

 

*

 

Rey spent the rest of the morning hovering on the precipice of bursting into tears. There was just— so much to process. She was relieved that she'd gotten away with her lie to Kylo but on tenterhooks for the interrogation that Ta'a Chume would no doubt subject her to. She was happy that she'd been able to see Finn, Poe, Leia, and Luke, but tense because of the path that had been decided during that meeting. Plus, her grandmother's cold fury was eating away at her heart, bothering her more than she had expected it would.

 

Then there was what had transpired during breakfast. Rey cringed to remember how she'd basically nagged at Kylo for drinking— after she'd kept him waiting for more than an hour— but hearing him admit to being affected by alcohol had unlocked something dark in her soul, the memory of Unkar Plutt's putrid breath and meaty fists. She could count on one hand the number of times he'd hit her— and she'd always, always fought back— but once was too much, wasn't it? Although that was something she'd learned relatively late. Unkar had done it to everyone, including his thugs, so it wasn't until Rey experienced life on civilized worlds like D'Qar and Coruscant that she found out it was reprehensible to make one's underling a punching bag.

 

Kylo had gotten snippy with her, that was true, but then he'd switched to water, a startlingly considerate act that was so at odds with the sort of person she knew him to be. It was ridiculous, but that kindness so soon after Ta'a Chume's disdainful reprimand had made her eyes suspiciously wet.

 

Rey felt like she was going to combust from all her mixed emotions, and the afternoon's events certainly didn't help matters.

 

She and Kylo had a late lunch— in her salon, this time— and she was so eager to not have a repeat of their painfully silent morning meal that she seized upon the first topic that came to mind.

 

"Did you have a good night's sleep?" she asked him.

 

And, okay, perhaps that was a question she should have asked at breakfast, but surely her bad timing didn't warrant him choking on his soup and then glaring at her! He grunted something unintelligible in response, and Rey promptly gave up on making small talk.

 

After lunch came another round of wedding planning with Daemora and Lairelosse. As Isolder had warned, the subject of consummation soon cropped up. "Her Grace will leave the feast first," said Daemora, "and His Majesty will allot her sufficient time to prepare before following her to her chambers."

 

"Prepare," Rey said blankly.

 

"To freshen up and change into more suitable attire, Chume'da," Lairelosse explained.

 

"More suitable attire."

 

Lairelosse broke into the widest, most mischievous smile that Rey had ever seen from her. "Well, the fastenings of your wedding gown will be very difficult to navigate—"

 

"I think I get the picture," Rey said quickly, willing herself not to flush scarlet as she glanced at Kylo. He looked like he'd swallowed a whole lemon. "My ladies, Re— Emperor Ren and I have already discussed this part of the proceedings, so if we could move on—"

 

"You have chosen your witnesses, then?" Daemora asked.

 

"Witnesses?" Kylo and Rey sputtered in tandem, nearly rising from their seats in dismay.

 

"Don't worry," Daemora assured them, "there will be a partition around the bed, it's going to be very tasteful—"

 

"No," Kylo snarled.

 

"I understand your reservations, Your Majesty," Daemora said slowly, "but this is a royal wedding shored up by a bilateral agreement that encompasses trade, governance, and mutual defense, so there can be no room for doubt as to the legitimacy of the union—"

 

"Ducha AlGray," Kylo said just as slowly, dark eyes blazing with ire, "if the Consortium insists on having people watch as I bed my wife, I will declare war on Hapes."

 

Daemora shifted her beseeching gaze to Rey, who wasn't particularly inclined to offer her any assistance. "I, too, would prefer privacy for such an intimate act," she declared in firm tones. "If the court makes a fuss about it, they can be told that such a practice is alien to the Emperor's culture and therefore offends his sensibilities."

 

" My sensibilities?" Kylo said in disbelief, but Rey couldn't bring herself to look in his direction— both at that moment and for the rest of the meeting. It was all his talk about him bedding his wife. Logically, she knew it would never happen, but to hear him put it in those terms rattled her.

 

Back in the safety of her chambers, Rey grabbed her datapad. She'd missed the live broadcast of Ta'a Chume's decree, but the footage was everywhere, being replayed on various channels all over the HoloNet. She watched her grandmother's arctic visage relay news of the alliance between the First Order Empire and the Hapes Consortium in an emotionless voice and listened to her announce the wedding date, and it felt like the final nails were being driven into her coffin with every word.

 

I won't cry, Rey thought mulishly. I won't. I haven't cried in ages. They can't take that away from me.

 

*

 

By the time evening rolled around, she had sunk into that particular kind of numb gray haze that was a product of exhaustion, emotional upheaval, and lack of sleep. She was docile and unspeaking as her ladies bathed and dressed her for the ball; not even Vanya's humor-tinged recounting of how they'd rushed to get her ready for breakfast that morning— with Rey barreling down the corridors as Janassa struggled to keep pace and powder Her Grace's nose at the same time— could shake her from her stupor.

 

When they were done, the girls cajoled Rey into giving her reflection a once-over. She complied but could take no pleasure in her appearance— not in her long-sleeved white gown with its voluminous balloon skirt of scalloped pleats wreathed in pearls and opals, not in her tiara studded with rainbow gems, each glittering stone worth the price of a Mon Calamari cruiser, and not in the way her eyes were emphasized with gold dust and black kohl and her lips painted the color of sugared rose petals.

 

Rey saw only a fraud. Someone who was currently a disappointment to her grandmother, someone who would disappoint the Resistance because she wouldn't be able to get close enough to Kylo for him to take her into confidence regarding Snoke's whereabouts or sub-hyperspace technology or any of the other pertinent matters they needed access to. Hell, the man would rather declare war than sleep with her.

 

You're not being rational, she tried to tell herself, but it was no use. The bad thoughts kept on coming. She was so tired.

 

*

 

She barely registered anything at her own engagement ball, which took place in a room with golden staircases, massive crystal chandeliers, and walls made of glass, all the better to reflect the throng of lavishly dressed aristocrats. People toasted to her and Kylo's union, marveled at the way the jewels of her tiara changed hues as they moved through the light, and generally simpered and cozied up to her as they calculated the benefits of forging a friendship with the future Queen Mother of the Hapes Consortium. At any other time, Rey would have been able to take it in stride, but, tonight, it was such a far cry from the warm affection she'd experienced amidst her friends on Stalsinek IV that it only added to the lead in her bones.

 

Kylo wasn't much help. He dutifully stayed by her side, accepting congratulations from the slew of well-wishers, but he didn't talk to her and he was careful not to touch her any more than was strictly necessary. At some point during the long, long evening, Rey's gaze drifted to Ysanne and Markus Sevanar across the room, chatting with their circle of acquaintances; Markus had a hand pressed to the small of his wife's back and she was leaning into him, both smiling gaily. They'd married for love, Janassa and Esli had said. Rey would never have that. She would never know what it would feel like to be kissed and to be embraced by someone who doted on her. The most she could hope for was a reluctant kind of friendship over the long term, but Kylo had already told her that he didn't want even that, hadn't he?

 

She was so tired.

 

The breaking point came when Ta'a Chume caught her eye and beckoned her over. Leaving Kylo to his own devices, Rey went to her grandmother and bent down so that the older woman could whisper in her ear.

 

"I have just been informed that Aleson Gray was seen at the public docks last night, escorting a hooded figure onto his ship," Ta'a Chume hissed. "Now is not the time, but tomorrow morning you and I are going to have words. I suppose I can't blame you for wanting to contact your friends, but I expected you to be smarter about it."

 

Despite Leia's advice, Rey didn't argue or even attempt to stand up for herself. She simply did not have the strength for it. She nodded stiffly at Ta'a Chume and made her way back to Kylo—

 

no, she kept walking—

 

*

 

Since most eyes were on the engaged couple, heads began to turn as the Chume'da fled from the ballroom. The Emperor blinked, and then— without sparing a glance for anyone else— promptly chased after her in long, swift strides.

 

As the guests started whispering and speculating, Isolder excused himself from the conversation with Lord Feara and approached Ta'a Chume. "What did you do?" he demanded without preamble.

 

"I thought we agreed that he needs to treat her better," said Ta'a Chume. "Since your little speech didn't work, I had to employ more drastic measures."

 

Isolder stared sharply at his mother, his demeanor stiff with contempt. "If you made her cry—"

 

"It's for her own future happiness— and, in any case, she's been in dire need of catharsis for a while. It won't be in vain," Ta'a Chume replied sternly. "After all, what man is immune to a woman's tears?"

 

*

 

Rey's guards had stationed themselves in the hallway leading to the residential wing. They made to block Kylo's path, but he shot them a withering glare. "This is the only way to my suite," he pointed out, and they begrudgingly let him pass. The Chume'doro were far enough from the courtyard to give Kylo pause, but the reason soon became apparent as he drew nearer to the garden. They'd given Rey privacy. He heard her sobs before he even saw her.

 

The cool radiance of the Hapan night silvered the dewy roses and glinted off the dark waterfall as Kylo stepped down the stone path. Rey was sitting on the grass in a tangle of skirts, crying her heart out as she leaned against one of the agate benches, her expensive tiara haphazardly tossed to the ground. But it didn't stay there for long— as soon as she registered his presence, she flicked her wrist and telekinetically hurled it at him.

 

"What the hell?" The words left Kylo's mouth before he could stop them as he deflected the tiara with his own Force ability. It bounced off the grass with a soft thud. "What did I do?"

 

Rey laughed through her tears, but it was an ugly, bitter laugh. The sound stabbed at Kylo's conscience. "What didn't you do?"

 

"You're going to need to be a lot more specific," he dryly replied, only to regret it when she, against all odds, sobbed even harder.

 

"Stop it!" Rey tucked her knees up to her chest as much as the confines of the white gown would allow and buried her face in the cradle of her arms. "J—just stop it!" she stammered, her slim frame shaking. "Stop being mean to me— I don't know, I probably deserve it, but I can't take it anymore! Leave me alone!"

 

Part of Kylo wanted to do just that, but, before that part could give the rest of him the memo, he was already walking over to her, kneeling down beside her, putting an arm around her shoulders. It's all a trick, whispered that corner of his soul that would never be free of Snoke's perpetual influence. Compassion will be your downfall.

 

But there was another voice— Isolder's, from earlier that day, narrating a list of failures unbecoming of a man who was about to be a husband, summarizing all that Rey had gone through. Was it any wonder, then, that she'd left the palace in an attempt to center herself, and that she'd left the ball to weep after her betrothed had been an absolute prick to her the last few days? Kylo had no clue what Ta'a Chume had said to her but it was obvious that she'd been scolded, and that had been the last straw...

 

"Rey," Kylo murmured. He didn't recognize the sound of his own voice. It was too soft, too gentle.

 

She hesitantly lifted her head to meet his gaze. Her hazel eyes were glassy, her makeup-smudged features contorted in abject despair. Moonlight shone on the tears streaming down her face. She looked so vulnerable that self-loathing roiled within him, sudden and acrid and harsh. In that moment he was starkly reminded of how young she was. Too young to have lost a war, too young to bear the fate of an entire civilization, too young for him and his jaded, broken pieces.

 

Before he knew what he was doing, Kylo lifted a trembling hand to cup Rey's jaw. The pad of his thumb swept across her cheek in a futile attempt to wipe away the copious amount of wetness strewn there. It was the first time in years that he'd pressed his ungloved fingers to someone else's skin. He felt it all so keenly— the heat of her tears, the silkiness of her skin, the fragile structure of the bones beneath.

 

Rey took a deep, shuddering breath, her slender hands clutching at his sleeves. Just as he thought she was going to pull him closer, she pushed him away.

 

"Don't act like you care," she bit out, still crying. "It only makes me wish—" She hiccuped, too overcome to finish the sentence, and then she wrapped her arms around herself and wept even more fiercely than before.

 

Kylo reached for her again— because, in all honesty, he had no idea what else to do— but, this time, she shied away, getting to her feet. For a fleeting instant she stood tall above him, draped in pearls and opals and moonlight, so beautiful and defiant through her tears that the sight of her tore at his heart.

 

And then she whirled around and stormed off to her room, leaving him alone in the garden, where he stayed for what seemed like ages, staring down at the bare palm that had touched her face.

Chapter Text

For a couple of days or so, the court was afire with the Emperor and the Chume'da's premature exit from their own engagement ball, as well as how she'd gone missing at breakfast prior to that. However, even the most stalwart of gossips soon turned their attention to the upcoming wedding. Like other major royal ceremonies, it would take place at the Starlight Tower in the heart of the capital city, and traffic in the area increased as it was spruced up and its perimeters were secured. In much the same manner, a veritable army of designers, event coordinators, and cleaning staff descended upon the Grand Ballroom of the Fountain Palace, where the reception would be held, to make sure that no speck of color clashed, no single ornament was out of place, and no inch of marble floor went unpolished.

 

Rey spent most of her time that week attending fittings for her gown when she and Kylo weren't being walked through each step of the ceremony. Their interactions were civil but awkward, since she was highly conscious of the fact that she'd broken down in front of him and he had, for whatever reason, tried to comfort her. In the days that followed, she could still feel the sensation of his hand touching her face, his large fingers warm and strong and yet impossibly gentle against her cheek.

 

She had expected him to use that night against her, to turn it to his advantage somehow. But that didn't happen— while he wasn't nice by any stretch of the imagination, he did seem to be going out of his way to avoid antagonizing her. She should have been grateful for this respite— instead, it grated on her nerves. Clearly, the only way to get this man to do what she wanted was to sob like a child and practically beg him to act like a decent human being! That didn't bode well for her marriage.

 

Marriage. Stars. She'd never even been kissed, had never so much as held anyone's hand when they weren't running away from TIE fighters, and now she was going to be Kylo Ren's wife. It was a horror show.

 

Two days before the wedding, a slew of First Order officers arrived in Ta'a Chume'Dan. They would act as the Empire's witnesses to the ceremony— Armitage Hux, Natasi Daala, Vilim Disra, Kosimo Westermal, Ephin Sarreti, Gilad Pellaeon, and several lower-ranking lieutenants, among them the man who had served Rey, Kylo, and Isolder the wine on the Heresiarch. High up in a tower room on the fifth floor, Rey couldn't stop her hackles from rising as she watched them disembark from their Upsilon- class shuttles. These people had been her enemies for three years, and her body's fight-or-flight response categorized them as such. A single bomb on the steps of the Per'Agthra was all it would take to wipe out half of the Empire's High Command. Hell, if Ta'a Chume gave her soldiers the order to fire right now—

 

"Too close," Rey muttered. She was hovering too close to the edge of what Luke had always warned her about. She hadn't felt the pull of the dark side this strongly in ages, and she chalked it up to her recent emotional turmoil as she forced herself to calm down. There were other ways to wage war. She'd learned that, hadn't she?

 

Rey continued watching as Kylo strode out to receive his officers. He acknowledged their crisp salutes with a nod and proceeded to talk to them, flanked by his knights while Daemora and a few other courtiers— who had been assigned the unenviable task of shadowing Kylo and attending to his needs for the duration of his stay— waited patiently by. In their dark, austerely tailored clothing, the First Order group stuck out like a sore thumb amidst the pale, ornate armor of the palace guards and the glitzy outfits of the Hapan nobles. There was a certain arrogance to them, and Rey's resentment deepened. For once, she wasn't thinking of the grave threated posed to the Resistance but rather of the fact that this land was her birthright. Where did Kylo and his lackeys get off, barging in like they already owned the place, like everything was theirs for the taking—

 

She would never know if fury had lit up her energy signature like a beacon or if Kylo had felt the weight of her stare in the way all warriors could tell they were being watched. Whatever the case, he broke off mid-sentence and sharply looked up.

 

Right at her.

 

Rey immediately backed away from the window, color flooding her cheeks. Why did you do that? she just as quickly chided herself. She should have held her ground— so what if he caught her staring? This was her turf, she could stare at anything she liked...

 

She had been embarrassed. That was the pure and simple truth of the matter. In that brief moment of eye contact with him, she'd remembered the garden, the moonlight, the callused pad of his thumb clumsily brushing away her tears. Her body had betrayed her then, almost giving in to the urge to melt into his arms before she thankfully regained her common sense.

 

Rey couldn't help but feel that she'd lost yet another round in this strange new battle with Kylo Ren. She had to find a way to level the playing field somehow.

 

Later that day, she saw her chance.

 

They gathered in the usual meeting room— Rey, Kylo, and the original negotiation panels, with Ta'a Chume presiding. Contrary to what she'd promised Rey during the engagement ball, the Queen Mother had not, in fact, cut into her regarding her escapade. It was as if she'd forgotten about it entirely. Rey wasn't in the mood to forgive the old woman, and so she'd been treating her with as much coldness as one could get away with around She Who Has No Equal.

 

They were discussing what would take place on the night before the wedding— namely, the exchange of tokens. In Hapan culture, this was meant to express the couple's regard for one another, and also— as Lairelosse had confided to Rey in private, with an irreverent twinkle in her eye— the high value of the gifts served as a final guarantee that no one would be jilted at the altar the next day. However, in this particular instance, with everything already locked down in an ironclad bilateral treaty, it would be a hollow gesture for formality's sake. Thus, neither panel was very interested in the outcome and Rey's gift for Kylo— a customized songsteel warblade— was settled upon after a few minutes of lukewarm deliberation.

 

"And now for His Majesty's gift for Her Grace," Daala said, only to fall silent, listening intently as Kylo muttered something in her ear. She raised an eyebrow in surprise before recovering her composure, smoothly announcing, "The Empire is pleased to offer the Jewel of Zenda, traditionally worn by the Queens of Naboo."

 

Well, of course you'd offer that, Rey thought sourly. Naboo had been one of the first Mid Rim worlds to fall. It's not like the locals need it anymore.

 

And then she realized...

 

Ta'a Chume, far quicker on the uptake, was already nodding. "We are aware of His Majesty's ties to such a precious gemstone, and we gratefully accept—"

 

"No," Rey said.

 

Everyone at the table stiffened in their seats. The expression on Kylo's face shifted from politely neutral to wary and alert. She held his gaze, unfaltering. She'd already made up her mind what to ask for on the way to this meeting, and she wasn't going to let herself be swayed by the unexpected albeit twisted sentimentality of him offering her the jewel that had once been worn by Padme Amidala.

 

"I have more pretty stones than I know what to do with." Rey's every word was clear and deliberate so as to be understood without question by everyone in the room, but she spoke only to Kylo, watching him as closely as if they were about to spar. "However, a blade for a blade is fair, isn't it? I want my lightsaber back."

 

Contrary to the outburst she was expecting, Kylo remained silent, his dark eyes flicking to Hux and Daala, who both looked perplexed. It was the redheaded general who broke the tense stillness, frowning at the Emperor. "A lightsaber?"

 

Rey's skin... crawled. There was no other word for it, this feeling of foreboding, like she had just exposed some great and terrible secret. For a moment Kylo's features seemed to crumple. Only for a moment, but long enough for her to see it— the fear.

 

What was going on?

 

"Chume'da." The Queen Mother's voice was serene but carried a hint of warning, her nails digging into the armrests. "The Emperor is already being very generous—"

 

"I've made my decision," Rey interrupted. Although she was caught off-guard by the varying First Order reactions to her terms, she stuck to the script she'd rehearsed in her head, using the memory of Leia's words to bolster her confidence. She was the Consortium heir and she would be the First Order Empress and she was finally, finally playing the game. "That lightsaber is mine by right. I won it from His Majesty in combat three years ago and he obtained it via dishonorable methods that involved the death of Hapan soldiers. If he is truly committed to this new peace, he will return it to me on the eve of our nuptials."

 

Wrath flared in the depths of Ta'a Chume's jade green eyes. More than the Queen Mother's desire to not rock the boat any further, she wasn't used to being openly defied in public. What a disastrous couple of weeks it's been for you, yeah? Rey gloated. First Aleson, now me. She'd boxed Ta'a Chume into a corner by bringing up Kylo's transgressions on Stalsinek IV, something that could not be waved away when other Hapans— particularly Beed Thane— were in the room.

 

I might not be so bad at this after all, Rey congratulated herself. Thank you, Leia. It wasn't like she needed the Skywalker blade when she had her own saberstaff, but this was a power play. A clear sign that she wasn't going to be a doormat.

 

Kylo seemed to realize that— and, what was more, accept it. Rey had been expecting a fight— perhaps she'd even wanted one— but, instead, he swallowed, and nodded. "Very well," he said softly. "It's yours."

 

*

 

Time passed too quickly for Rey's liking, and it was Lairelosse who came to her chambers on the night before the wedding to deliver the warblade that would be gifted to Kylo. It had been decided that the exchange would take place in the garden, so that the union could be blessed by the light of the seven moons.

 

"If I could have a moment alone with Her Grace," requested Lairelosse. Rey dismissed her ladies-in-waiting, and they retreated to the solar in a flurry of skirts.

 

The Ducha of Talcharaim carefully set the sheathed sword down on the bed before turning to face Rey, who was seated at the dressing table. "Chume'da," Lairelosse said, biting her lip in a moment of uncharacteristic hesitation, "do we need to have the talk?"

 

"What talk?" Rey asked, her brow knitting in puzzlement.

 

Lairelosse cocked her head to the side as if choosing her words with care. "Regarding what takes place in the bedroom— no, don't be embarrassed—" she hastened to add when Rey promptly turned as red as a tomato— "I just thought that you might not have had anyone to tell you these things, considering that you were separated from her late highness at a young age and you had to grow up in such adverse circumstances."

 

"I know what sex is," Rey said quickly, more than a little offended that Lairelosse would think she was that naive. "I mean, I've never personally... but I know what it is and it's not a big deal—"

 

The other woman blinked. "Then why are you blushing?"

 

Because we're discussing, specifically, sex with Kylo Ren, of all people. "I assure you, my lady, there is no need for the talk," Rey said, ignoring Lairelosse's question. "Besides, there's hardly any point. You and I are both aware that this will be a marriage in name alone."

 

"Your Grace..." Lairelosse was uneasy. "It might be too soon to bring this up since you are young and have not yet ascended, but I believe it's better if you're prepared as early as now for what will be asked of you in the years to come. Once you are Queen Mother, you will need to ensure the line of succession. That's simply the way things are. The longer you go without heirs, the more your reign will be put into jeopardy."

 

Rey had been aware of that, of course, but she'd pushed it to the very back of her mind. It was... too far off in the future. Too nebulous compared to the present reality of her situation. And there were so many possible outcomes of her decision to spy on the First Order. She could get found out, Kylo denouncing their marriage and waging war. The Resistance could triumph, the Empire crumbling long before Rey had to ascend. Kylo could die in battle. She could die in battle. There was no telling what would happen.

 

"Let's cross that bridge when we get there, shall we?" Rey pasted on a smile that she suspected appeared more determined than cheerful. "Right now, the Emperor and I have absolutely no intentions of sleeping with each other, and I intend to proceed on the assumption that that won't change."

 

To her utmost surprise, Lairelosse smirked. "I make it my business to observe, Your Grace. It's what one does at court. And the way His Majesty looks at you sometimes... Well, let's just say that I highly doubt his intentions and yours are in sync."

 

Rey firmly shook her head. "You are mistaken, Ducha. He hates me. To him I'll always be the scavenger who humiliated him on Starkiller Base and the Jedi apprentice he has clashed with on numerous occasions. He wants neither my love nor my friendship— he told me so himself."

 

And yet he held you when you cried, whispered her inner voice. He touched your face. He switched to water when his drinking made you uncomfortable and, before that, before the official engagement, he'd even started teasing you a little, hadn't he? There were times when you thought you'd almost made him smile. In the garden, in the Banquet Hall at dinner...

 

"Men never know what they want," Lairelosse declared. "They're awfully flighty creatures." She glanced at the chrono on the nightstand and sighed. "It's time for the exchange. Should Her Grace wish to broach this subject with me in the future, please do not hesitate. I would be most willing to answer any questions you might have."

 

*

 

Despite the rocky negotiations that had led to it taking place, the exchange went off without a hitch. Ta'a Chume, Isolder, Lairelosse, Daemora, Hux, Daala, and the ladies-in-waiting served as witnesses, gathering around Kylo and Rey as they stood facing each other by the burbling pool. Since Megos, the All-Mother, had reached her zenith, the garden shone almost as white as pristine snow. It hurt Rey's eyes— and the First Order delegation themselves seemed to be squinting— but the full-blooded Hapans were more beautiful, more ethereal than they had ever been, their eyes iridescent like jewels, their skin lustrous, their features smooth and cold.

 

Rey felt— unworthy. She didn't look like them, she would never be a willowy, graceful thing spun from moonlight.

 

Kylo's eyes never strayed from her face. He handed her the lightsaber and her heart jumped as her fingers closed around the metal hilt that was still warm from his touch. The encased crystal's energy seeped into her pores, calling to her as it had on Takodana so long ago. It was with some reluctance that she gave the weapon to one of her ladies— Sayl— who then stepped aside so that Niobe could bring the Hapan warblade to Rey.

 

Songsteel was one of the rarest metals in the galaxy, extremely tedious to forge and shape and used only in the most exquisite of masterwork swords and staves. What Kylo was being given was a blade that had belonged to the Hapan Royal House for generations, the hilt newly inset with shards of ruby and onyx that formed a stylized depiction of the First Order's sixteen-rayed emblem. It was called Telemnar, the Sword of the Morning, and it felt impossibly light balanced flat on Rey's palms as she held it out to Kylo.

 

He wasted no time in unsheathing the blade from its handsome leather scabbard. It sang when he flourished it through empty air, gleaming like an elegantly curved stream of pale fire as the evening radiance brought out songsteel's luminescent properties. "I've heard that this particular metal is resistant to lightsabers," Kylo murmured, his carefully dry tone belying the silver reflected in dark eyes that had just the slightest bit widened in awe.

 

"Shall we put it to the test?" Rey found herself saying.

 

Kylo smirked at her in a way that made her pulse skip a beat, sharpened as his features were by the icy moonlight, the thin scar a roguish slant down one side of his angular face. "But you're wearing such a pretty gown," he said, nodding towards her honey-colored satyn robes with their long, billowing sleeves and the Sormahil fire gems embroidered on the square-cut bodice.

 

Rey snorted. "A fine warrior I'd be if I couldn't even fight in a dress." She stretched out her hand and the Skywalker blade shot out of Sayl's grasp— earning a startled shriek from the teenager— and back into Rey's palm. Her wrist sliced upwards in a flash of silk as she thumbed the emitter and a blaze of deep Adegan blue pierced the tranquility of the garden with a resonant hum as she brought it down over Kylo's head—

 

With the agile reflexes borne of years of training and honed on countless battlefields, Kylo angled his body away from Rey and blocked from the side, elbow bent in front of his chest, silver songsteel clashing against sapphire plasma in a cloud of sparks. Their eyes met over the interlocked blades and, oh, she had missed this, the sheer physicality of combat that was more instinctive to her than political maneuvering would ever be. And, judging from the warble of Kylo's Force signature— the amazement, the disbelief, the something that was almost hunger— he felt the same.

 

Hux cleared his throat, breaking the spell that had descended over the engaged couple. Glancing around, Rey noticed that their audience had taken several steps back while the Chume'doro and the Knights of Ren stationed discreetly at the edge of the garden had rushed forward, preparing to draw their weapons. Sayl, who had experienced the lightsaber being wrestled from her by an invisible current firsthand, was shaking. Even Ta'a Chume appeared vaguely unsettled.

 

I'm not like any of you, Rey thought with a sudden vicious stab of pleasure that contrasted with the niggling inferiority she'd felt earlier. I'm something else, and you fear me.

 

As one, she and Kylo moved away from each other— though, somehow, not as far away as they should have. She extinguished the Skywalker blade and he slid the Sword of the Morning back into its scabbard, and then he leaned in closer to say something meant for her ears alone.

 

"See you tomorrow," he rasped, his voice low and the Force burning all around them in the moonlight, feeding off the adrenaline lingering in their veins, "Jedi."

 


 

As the royal wedding would take place at sunset, the guests started arriving shortly after lunch. For the next few hours, the skies above Ta'a Chume'Dan swelled with all manner of luxurious ships bearing the insignias of noble families from every corner of the Hapes Cluster. There were the interlaced, geometric red-and-white frets plastering the hull of the sleek gray consular shuttle of the Ducha Surrel, whose technology-oriented homeworld, Charubah, manufactured the Guns of Command. There was the golden lion rampant of House Gisk, emblazoned on the fins of a cruiser model unique to the Nantuker system. On the sails of a majestic solar yacht was the black rose of the ruling family of Andalia, cast into shadow by the barge hovering above, its great prow bearing the eagle volant that had for thousands of years been the symbol of the Lords of Stormhold.

 

These ships and many others were directed onto the landing pads assembled around the Starlight Tower, a building made entirely of emerald glass— the Hapan variety that was as durable as transparisteel, if not more so— that jutted out like a thorny scepter from the skyline of Ta'a Chume'Dan. As each guest disembarked, bedecked in furs and feathers and jewels and silks, they were escorted down retractable winding staircases through the sparkling doorway and ushered to their seats in the Hall of Ceremonies.

 

Meanwhile, the bride was in her chambers at the Fountain Palace, trying not to puke.

 

"I can't do this!" she all but yelled at Janassa, who to her credit didn't so much as flinch as she performed the delicate task of affixing tiny specks of diamonds to the tips of Rey's eyelashes. They weren't even her real lashes— she hadn't even known fake ones existed until her arrival at court. They were unnaturally long and thick, and she couldn't kriffing see.

 

"You're getting the wedding jitters, Chume'da, it's completely normal," Janassa assured her. "Why, my older brother climbed out the window on the morning of his nuptials. When Mother's guards apprehended him, he babbled some nonsense about embracing his true calling as a pirate— Your Grace, with all due respect, no," she added firmly when she noticed Rey side-eyeing her bedroom window in desperation.

 

"Is the Emperor still here?" Rey asked. "Maybe I can talk to him and we can turn to a life of piracy instead—"

 

Niobe giggled as she wove the curling iron through the loops of Rey's hair. "If elopement is more Her Grace's style—"

 

"What?" Bile rose up Rey's throat. "No. I didn't mean it like that."

 

Perhaps sensing that Rey wasn't in the mood for jokes, Niobe adopted a more solemn expression. "His Majesty has already left for the Tower. In any case, it's bad luck for the groom to see the bride before the wedding."

 

"Considering that this whole affair is cursed from the start, that won't make much difference," Rey grumped.

 

*

 

She was a mess of nerves and nausea by the time her ladies had finished pinning the tiara and veil to her hair. Rey was on her feet now, uncomfortable and overheated in her heavy gown. Janassa, Esli, Niobe, Vanya, and Sayl stepped back in order to appreciate the full picture, and they slowly broke into wide smiles.

 

"Oh, Chume'da, you look positively dazzling," Vanya gushed. "His Majesty is a lucky man."

 

Still unused to being the center of attention even after all this time, Rey fidgeted under their scrutiny. It was, however, nothing compared to Isolder's reaction— he was waiting for Rey in the solar, and he rose to his feet when he saw her, tears flooding his blue eyes.

 

"My child," was all the prince could manage to say at first, the words choked with emotion, and Rey could only stand there and feel awkward and weird as he fished out a linen kerchief from the pocket of his formal blue coat and dabbed at his cheeks. "Forgive me," he said at last. "It's just that... so much time was stolen from us, wasn't it? I never got to see you grow up. And now here you are, as beautiful as your mother was on the day I married her. If only she could see you now..." He trailed off, seeming for a moment as pained and bewildered as if the loss of his wife had hit like a blow once more.

 

"Perhaps she can," Rey said quietly. If there was one thing she had learned from being Luke Skywalker's apprentice— from meditating with holocrons and walking amongst ghostly ruins and centering herself in the precepts of the light side— it was that no one was ever truly gone, that nothing was ever truly lost.

 

There is no death, there is the Force.

 

Her own eyes were suspiciously wet. She was helpless in the face of all this love— what had been found and what had been taken away. She didn't know what to do with any of it. It took all of her willpower to prevent the tears from falling, because that would mean destroying Janassa's hard work.

 

"Yes, perhaps," Isolder said quietly. He pasted on a smile, although Rey could tell it was more for her benefit than something he actually felt like doing. "We should get a move on."

 

*

 

Royal weddings on Hapes Prime usually involved a grand procession from the Fountain Palace to the Starlight Tower, giving the common people an opportunity to gawk and speculate as they watched from the sidelines. The First Order hadn't been particularly keen on this idea, citing security concerns, and it was in this one aspect that the Consortium had willingly acquiesced. According to the Queen Mother's intelligence network, public reactions to the betrothal announcement had been mixed due to the same reasons that had initially divided the court; the last thing anyone needed at this point was an attempt on the Emperor's life as he paraded through the streets or some form of protest from the more patriotic Hapans. Better to get the ceremony over and done with as quickly as possible.

 

Thus, Rey was ferried to her wedding on a shuttle that reminded her of Coruscant's slender Eddicus-class atmospheric transports— in function and shape, at least. The Hapan version sported a translucent ivory hull and the fractal star of the Royal House emblazoned in gold, and, on the inside, plush ecru leather seats. It was this same shuttle that would carry her and Kylo back to the Fountain Palace as newlyweds.

 

Her ladies-in-waiting were markedly more excited than she was, pressing their noses to the viewports and waving at pedestrians below as the shuttle glided over Ta'a Chume'Dan. Rey, meanwhile, sat quietly, holding her bridal bouquet tightly in her lap. It was a gorgeous confection of lyris blossoms the color of sea glass, frothy snow-white commelinas, pale yellow starflowers, and sprays of tiny velanie buds that gave off a sweet, delicate scent, carefully arranged in a nest of shimmering gold mesh and sprinkled with diamonds and sapphires strung on lengths of thin silver chains.

 

Ta'a Chume had been the one who folded the small fortune into Rey's hands back at the Per'Agthra, before she went ahead on her own shuttle. "These are the same jewels from my own bouquet," she'd told her granddaughter. "I pass them on to you with the sincere wish that they will bring you luck. I did not love my consort, but it was a good marriage as far as these things go." She had paused, staring into Rey's eyes, before gruffly adding, "You are a far more beautiful bride than I ever was. Let us hope that you will one day be an even greater sovereign."

 

The ivory shuttle slowed down as it approached the Starlight Tower, the emerald glass facade blazing beneath the rays of the setting sun. Rey had to make a conscious effort to stop her shaking fingers from crushing the flower stems in their grasp.

 

Here we go.

 

*

 

Too many cameras, Kylo grumbled to himself as he waited for the ceremony to begin in a secluded alcove adjacent to the vast hall where it would take place. He'd furtively poked his head out earlier to take measure of the crowd, and behind the rows of guests were gathered representatives from what seemed like every single news outlet in the Hapes Cluster, armed with datapads and holocams either mounted on tripods or hovering remote-operated in the air.

 

The free press had been one of the first things to go when Kylo took power. There had been no small amount of vindictiveness on his part when he signed the decree that outlawed all media not controlled by the state— he'd spent his younger years being picked apart as Leia Organa's only child and, later on, Darth Vader's grandson. Nowadays he issued proclamations in much the same manner as Ta'a Chume did— in the safety of his throne room on Coruscant, a single cam droid recording his every word.

 

Today, however, every eye would be fixed on him— not just within the borders of the Hapes Cluster but all over the galaxy at large, as they'd coordinated with Coruscant's main news station to receive transmissions from the Hapan broadcast. He wondered if, somewhere out there, the Resistance would be watching him marry their Jedi superweapon.

 

He wondered if Leia would see.

 

Kylo knew that he shouldn't even be thinking about that woman. General Organa was an enemy of the First Order, his unfinished business along with Skywalker and Dameron and the traitor and the rest of them. But it was hard to stop once he got started— memories poured in, alive in the fiery light streaming in through the glass walls.

 

"On Alderaan," Leia had told him once when he was very young, her expression wistful the way it always had been when she spoke of her long-lost homeworld, "when you wanted to propose to the one you loved, you'd take them somewhere with a nice view, some place that had meaning. You'd take both their hands in yours and look upon their face, and you'd tell them, 'The sun rises in your eyes.'"

 

"Is that how you asked Father to marry you?"

 

Leia had snorted. "He wishes! No, little dove, your father was the one who proposed to me while we were, as usual, in the middle of an argument. To this day, I sometimes wonder if he only popped the question to get me to shut up."

 

"I wish the two of you wouldn't fight so much."

 

There was a hiss of hydraulics as the door to the alcove slid open. Uneasiness crawled down Kylo's spine at the sight of Hux. While he could feasibly attempt to wipe the other man's and Daala's memories regarding the gift that Rey had asked for, it was too big a risk; the officers had minds like steel traps. It was a foregone conclusion that either one of them would tell the Regent about the lightsaber, and any botched attempt on Kylo's part to stop it was only going to add fuel to the fires of Snoke's wrath. Kylo would simply have to bear whatever punishment would be heaped upon him.

 

"Emperor Ren," Hux coolly stated, "your bride is here."

 

*

 

Located underneath the Tower's belfry, the Hall of Ceremonies required no mode of artificial illumination due to its glass walls that provided not just a sprawling panorama of the city below but also copious amounts of daylight. It was outfitted with a life support system similar to the ones found on spaceships in order to provide circulation and climate control without the need for open windows, and the room stayed pleasantly cool despite the hundreds of people occupying its gilded pews. More minimalist in design than the marble interiors of the Fountain Palace, the Hall nevertheless sported a breathtaking ceiling strewn with multicolored panels of stained glass that were arranged into flowing celestial shapes, scattering jewel-toned hues of cobalt, rose quartz, silver, and lilac across the floor.

 

But it was the altar on the raised glass platform that was the focal point. Perched atop twelve columns fashioned from pure alabas, an enormous clari-crystalline dragon nearly twenty feet in height stared down the length of the hall with emerald eyes. It was depicted as ready to lunge, its right forelimb slightly raised and its unfurled wings spread so wide that they extended almost to each side of the room. Ceiling-mounted banners with insignias streamed down the wall behind it— the red-and-black rays of the First Order, the Hapes Consortium's blue triangles fanning out from a field of gold, and the white-and-silver fractal star of the Royal House.

 

And Kylo was still thinking about Leia despite his best efforts, because he found himself wondering what would have happened if things had gone differently, if she had been here today and had a hand in the preparations. Would it be up there, too, the Crest of Alderaan? That upside-down triangle made of interlacing curves that was the emblem of the House of Organa? Or would Leia have let him journey into this new chapter of his life free from the chains of legacy?

 

At some point during the long planning sessions over the past week, Kylo had come to the conclusion that, as far as Hapan weddings were concerned, the groom and all the guests were mere accessories. It was really all about the bride, and only Rey and her handmaidens would walk down the aisle. A decorous yet tense silence fell over the assembled guests once the Emperor strode in from the alcove and took his place at the base of the platform, while the officiant— a petite, gray-haired woman clad in rich scarlet robes— waited at the top of the steps, right in front of the altar. She was Lasseya, one of the sages who had dedicated their whole lives to preserving the history and traditions of the Hapes Cluster and only ventured down from their mountain temples on occasions such as this.

 

Willing himself not to fidget, Kylo maintained a blank expression as he surveyed the crowd. His officers— smartly turned out in their dress uniforms— occupied the first few rows along with Ta'a Chume, Prince Isolder, and the sixty-three aristocrats representing each Consortium planet that officially comprised the Royal Court. Everyone looked positively grim, although Pellaeon and Westermal in particular were studying the surroundings with interest, as if calculating the immense riches that would soon be funneled into the Empire's coffers.

 

"I've seen happier faces at funerals," Kylo heard Lasseya remark to the two initiates who were assisting her, and he fervently— if silently— agreed.

 

And then the music started, a lilting, stately hymn courtesy of the orchestra up on the choir loft, and the doors on the opposite end of the Hall of Ceremonies slid open. Rey walked in, and, for several long moments, Kylo ceased to breathe.

 

*

 

All the Knights of Ren were planetside and had been assigned to guard duty, with Boethiah and Jyggalag scouting the perimeter, Hircine and Clavicus stationed at the main entrance, and Meridia and Mephala patrolling the interior levels. The twins were desultorily conversing in the corridor that led to the Hall of Ceremonies when the Royal Guards suddenly snapped to attention, and Meridia trailed off mid-sentence as the vision swept past them, trailed by her ladies-in-waiting.

 

"Huh." Mephala craned her neck to track the new arrival's progress to the great doors. "Had no idea she'd look that good in white."

 

"Oh, is the gown white?" Meridia said flippantly. "Couldn't tell with all those jewels. I think the entire treasury's been sewn onto there. I'd be surprised if Lord Ren doesn't go blind."

 

*

 

Kylo was dreaming. He had to be.

 

There was no way she was real.

 

The Consortium had spared no expense on their Chume'da's wedding gown. Spun from lustrous Dramassian shimmersilk the color of magnolia petals, the gold-trimmed bodice was a snug-fitting affair with a sweetheart neckline that bared Rey's elegant collarbones and the tops of her slim shoulders, with long, tapered sleeves and a V-shaped waist melting into a dramatic full skirt that probably qualified as a feat of architecture. It was layer upon layer of chiffon and organza lavishly embellished with diamonds set amidst constellations of gold and silver gemweb, the back half gently sloping down into a cathedral train that glided whisper-soft over floors made of Hapan glass. Her chestnut hair had been gathered into an updo of loose curls, adorned with a gold-and-diamond tiara from which streamed a veil made of the finest gossamer, shot through with more diamonds and more gemweb to create the illusion of a starry sky. Clutching a jewel-encrusted bouquet of flowers that caught the rain of colors from the stained-glass ceiling, she floated down the aisle towards Kylo to the bright, airy strain of violins, the material of her veil so light that her every step made it fan out behind her as if stirred by a breeze. She was utterly exquisite in the fiery light of day's end, heartbreakingly lovely in white, silver, and gold. She was the sun and the crescent moon and all the stars.

 

And she was going to be his wife.

 

Kylo paid no attention to the ladies-in-waiting who were walking behind her or to the appreciative murmurs rippling through the crowd. He no longer noticed the ceiling or the altar or the view of the skyline. All he saw was Rey.

 

*

 

Shit, I'm going to trip, I'm going to trip.

 

The awful possibility echoed through Rey's mind as she embarked on her long, slow walk down the aisle. Once she started thinking it, she couldn't stop; it filled her head until she was sure that each next step would be the last before her golden heels slipped on the floor or her legs got tangled up in the yards and yards of shimmering fabric that comprised her skirts. She'd fall flat on her ass and the people that were currently staring at her in wonder would laugh... no, worse than them laughing, they'd feel sorry for her...

 

By some miracle, though, she managed to make it to the base of the platform without incident. Her nape prickling with the weight of hundreds of gazes, she numbly handed the bouquet to her nearest lady— she was too nervous to register who it was— and then she looked up at the man she was marrying.

 

Had someone told her a month ago that she would soon be finding Kylo Ren attractive, Rey would have laughed in their face, maybe even kicked them for good measure. But nowadays...

 

At the banquet, she'd chalked it up to the novelty of seeing him in a color that wasn't black. She wondered what excuse she could cling to this afternoon, because his high-collared, long-sleeved tunic— while embroidered with silver curlicues along the cuffs— was definitely black, as were his trousers and formal boots. As if to offset the relative plainness of his attire, he wore a livery collar of obsidian-hued Gerinian star-stones embedded in white gold, from the back of which hung a platinum-and-midnight brocade cape. His hair was— annoyingly perfect, all lush, artfully tousled dark waves and topped with a rather austere pale silver circlet inset with black enamel and wine-red rubies. From afar he looked too tall and forbidding, every inch the despotic king who had lain entire worlds to waste, but once she neared him the look on his face was oddly tender and solemn, the red-gold light of sunset warming his brown eyes.

 

Holding each other's gazes as the music played on, Kylo and Rey moved at the same time— he executed a courtly bow while she sank into a curtsy as far as her gown would permit. This part of the ceremony had been a source of contention between the two negotiating panels; in Hapan culture, the groom had to bow to the bride, but the Emperor of the First Order bowed to no one and the Chume'da curtsied only to the Queen Mother. Daemora had solved the issue by suggesting that both actions be conducted simultaneously as a sign of mutual respect, so that the couple could proceed to the altar as true equals.

 

Once they had righted themselves, Kylo held his arm out to Rey. She tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow and, together, they ascended the platform's steps. A sigh rose from the crowd— Rey knew that at that moment her train and veil were spilling down the stairs like a river of white and gold, an aesthetic effect that had been carefully calculated by a battalion of dressmakers.

 

Due to the fact that she was negotiating a series of glass steps in high heels and a voluminous skirt, Rey held on to Kylo tighter than she would have liked. He seemed to instinctively understand what she needed, slowing his pace and keeping his arm steady to support her. She glanced at him, and his scarred profile was wry with faint amusement.

 

"Oh, you try going up the stairs in these infernal contraptions," she groused, by which she meant both her shoes and her gown.

 

"Honestly, I'd rather take my chances with the shoes," he murmured. "Your dress is so loaded down with diamonds that I'm surprised the floor hasn't cracked yet."

 

"Switch off." But she said it without any real ire, grateful for the brief moment of levity.

 

Once they reached the top of the platform and stood before the altar and the sage, they signed the contract that the initiates brought forward. It was a beautifully embossed document stating that, on this day, Kira Ka Djo of the Hapes Consortium was marrying Kylo Ren of the First Order. Rey had practiced writing her signature with the traditional white feather quill all week, and she was proud of herself for not mucking it up or smearing the gold ink on the cream-colored parchment. Of course, Kylo's signature was a shining example of masterclass calligraphy, and she wondered who had taught him how to write like that. Did political scions have penmanship tutors while they were growing up?

 

"I have not seen this type of script in decades," Lasseya remarked, perusing Kylo's signature with interest. For such a venerable old sage, she was unusually chatty. "And I thought I never would again. How wonderful to know that the ways of Alderaan have not been lost."

 

Kylo's jaw clenched but he said nothing. After raising the parchment to the light to ascertain that the ink had dried, Lasseya carefully rolled it up and secured it with a blue-and-gold ribbon. She then placed the scroll at the altar, between the dragon's claws.

 

Just like they had during countless rehearsals, Kylo and Rey turned to face each other, their hands reaching out across the space between them to, with some hesitation, clasp palms. The sage produced a red silk cord and looped it around the couple's wrists, to signify that fate had bound them together. The music came to a stop, and Lasseya lifted her arms to the celestial ceiling and intoned in a solemn voice that echoed through the room, "We are gathered here today to celebrate the union between two realms, which in itself signifies the dawn of a glorious new age for Hapes. With the blessing of Her Imperial Majesty Ta'a Chume, She Who Has No Equal, these two souls now pledge their troth..."

 

Perhaps Rey would have been more interested in the sage's words if she'd actually wanted to get married. Perhaps then this farce of a ceremony would have meaning. As it was, though, she soon found herself zoning out of the speech, distracted by the audience's close scrutiny and the feeling of Kylo's fingers laced through the gaps between hers. He had been sternly advised that wearing gloves was disrespectful to the significance of the wrist-binding, and so they were skin-to-skin. His hands all but dwarfed hers, his thick, blunt fingers saber-callused and yet somehow cradling hers so gently, like she was some fragile thing. She had never expected gentleness from this dour-faced, hulking specter of a man. She had never expected to deem him... not unattractive. She had never expected to find herself concentrating solely on him as the sage droned on, because his eyes were soft and dark and they made her forget the crowd and he centered her, here and now on this beautiful, treacherous planet, where he was the only one who had known her in the time before, where he was the only thing she could honestly say that she knew. They might have been thrust into new roles, but there was still a war's worth of thoughts and memories between them. None were what could be called good, but the fact remained that they were there.

 

Rey thought, then, of last night, of the clash of blades in the moonlight, of how alive she had felt. She knew Kylo was thinking about it, too— the way their bodies had fallen into that old, familiar rhythm, how the Force had sung. She could see that memory written all over his face as his fingers tightened reflexively around hers.

 

Lasseya made an arcane gesture over their joined hands. "These are the hands that will love you for all the years to come and comfort you in times of sorrow," she told the couple. "These are the hands that will work alongside yours to build an empire." She changed it, Rey thought distantly, the original wording is "to build a home." Perhaps it was only her imagination, but the sage seemed to smile to herself when she said that, as if she were carrying a great secret. "These are the hands that will fight for you and never let go. These are the hands that will hold your children and help you carry the weight of the world. Through thick and thin, these are the hands that will always reach for yours."

 

With that, Lasseya fell silent. Anxiety began to curl in the pit of Rey's stomach. It was almost time for her to speak, to say her vows.

 

Kylo went first, as custom dictated. Custom also allowed for the couple to write their own vows, but in the case of the Emperor and the Chume'da, this would probably have led to the ceremony being ruined by sarcasm and— on Rey's end in particular— a fair bit of cussing. So they stuck to the traditional script, the one that was reserved for royals.

 

*

 

Kylo could only be thankful that his voice didn't crack as he recited the vows. There was a lump in his throat in the shape of the way he wished things could have been— how could there not be, when Rey looked like this now and when she had moved like that last night? How could he not wish that this was real?

 

Perhaps it wasn't even tied to Rey specifically, but just... the thought of having someone in general. The sage's blessing had shaken him to the core. These hands of his could never do any of the things Lasseya mentioned, not when they were so irrevocably stained in blood. He would never even be able to fulfill all the things that he was promising Rey, because Han Solo and Leia Organa were his only blueprint for what made a marriage and a family and look how that had turned out.

 

"Come home. We miss you."

 

He shouldn't have eschewed his gloves. He couldn't marshal his defenses when Rey's fingers were intertwined with his. He couldn't guard against sentiment when she was finally sating the buried hunger for touch that he thought he had overcome long ago.

 

It was all going so, so wrong.

 

Kylo sped through the rest of the vows while trying not to make it obvious that he was in a rush to finish saying them. He told himself not to meet Rey's eyes, but it was impossible to look away. He was trapped within sunset and stained glass, holding the hands of his bride and gazing upon her face as he said words he wished he could mean.

 

And then it was Rey's turn.

 

"I t—take..." She faltered, trailed off, and closed her eyes briefly before trying again. "I take you my heart at the rising of the moon and the setting of the stars." Kylo wished she'd kept her eyes closed. The thing about Rey was that she'd always had an intense sort of gaze, and it made the vows that gradually emerged from her lips all the more fierce somehow, all the more poignant, even if she was merely echoing what he'd said to her scant moments ago. "Blood of my blood, bone of my bone, I would raise my armies in your defense, and I would stand at your back that the world might never overtake us." A dull pain stabbed at Kylo's chest. He knew they were just words— and not even original words, at that— but it had been so long since someone had last told him that he didn't have to fight alone. "I pledge to love you wholly and completely," Rey continued, in a voice that would have been a mere whisper if it hadn't been amplified for the benefit of the guests below, "without restraint, in times of good fortune and in times of trial, in light and in darkness, and in life and beyond, where we shall meet, remember, and love each other again."

 

*

 

Lasseya removed the cord from the couple's wrists and the initiates stepped forward once more, this time with the rings. Rey slipped Kylo's wedding band onto his finger, then stood there with a tremulously beating heart as he did the same to her. There was one last hurdle to overcome, and she wasn't sure if she could bring herself to do it when she was still recovering from the startling intensity of what had just transpired— of promising forever while gazing into someone else's eyes.

 

"I now pronounce you bonded for life," said Lasseya. "Chume'da, you may kiss your consort."

 

I can't, Rey thought, panic setting in. But she had to. She and Kylo might have talked their way out of having witnesses at the bedding ceremony, but there was simply no getting around the kiss. It had, since time immemorial, been the gesture that concluded the marriage rites. And if she didn't kiss him, it would cast doubt on the probability of consummation. The court would eat them alive.

 

Rey inched closer to Kylo, who now looked like he wanted nothing more than to run away. She was grateful for her heels for the first time since she'd put them on, because the added height meant she wouldn't have to tiptoe. However, it was still a bit of a ways up— why did he have to be so tall? She surged onto the balls of her feet, screwed her eyes shut, and—

 

It was supposed to be a chaste peck lasting no longer than a fraction of a second. She'd had it all planned out. However, what Rey hadn't counted on was that Kylo's lips would be so soft, and that the act of pressing her lips to his would elicit such a warm, pleasant spark of electricity at the point of contact. The sensation terrified and intrigued her all at once.

 

She also hadn't counted on Kylo encircling an arm around her waist and returning the kiss. When she could no longer hold her position and lowered her feet back onto solid ground, he was the one who leaned down, their lips still connected, his arm keeping her tight against him.

 

It lasted too long. Or— it ended too soon. Rey didn't know. Her sense of self-preservation kicked in and she broke away first, her heart feeling like it was teetering on the edge of a cliff. Kylo blinked down at her, his plush lips just the slightest bit parted.

 

That was my first kiss, Rey thought dumbly. Her ears were ringing, and it took her an embarrassing amount of time to figure out that it was due to actual bells. The ones in the Starlight Tower's belfry had been activated, sending their brassy musical notes all across Ta'a Chume'Dan. The orchestra was playing again. The guests in the pews were standing up to properly herald the wedding exit. The sun was just about to dip below the horizon.

 

Kylo and Rey stared at each other in the shadow of the dragon altar. They were married.

Chapter Text

It was raining on Stalsinek IV, a somnolent drizzle that spattered the leaves and added to the gloomy atmosphere in the Resistance camp, deep in the heart of the forest.

 

They were gathered around the holotable in the makeshift command center— Luke, Leia, Finn, Poe, Chewbacca, and the droids. The live broadcast of Kylo and Rey's wedding had just ended, the feed blinking out of existence on the image of the Emperor escorting his bride to the ivory shuttle waiting for them outside the Hall of Ceremonies, both looking pale and shaken but unarguably resplendent— him in black and silver, her in white and gold.

 

"That," Finn said after a long, awkward silence, "was weird."

 

"Weirdest goddamn thing I've ever seen," Poe fervently agreed. "And I've seen a lot in my time."

 

Finn grimaced. "She kissed him!"

 

Poe wrung his hands in dismay. "He kissed her back!"

 

"And what, precisely, did the two of you think happens at weddings?" Luke tried to joke, but it fell flat.

 

"General." C-3PO's gold-plated head tilted in concern. "Are you feeling quite all right?"

 

Leia was gripping the edges of the holotable as tightly as if this act was the only thing keeping her on her feet. She looked around the room slowly, giving the impression that she was only just now registering the presence of its other occupants. The expression on her face was too poignant to be joy and yet too tender to be sorrow.

 

It was Chewbacca who moved first, lumbering forward and then wrapping his sinewy arms around the General, patting her back in gentle, clumsy thumps. "Oh, get off me, Chewie, I'm fine," Leia grunted. But her face was hidden in his fur and a slight sniffle marked the end of her sentence, one that her comrades tactfully chose not to comment on.

 

Regaining her composure, Leia stepped back from the Wookie. "It's done, then," she said in brisk, purposeful tones. A soldier once more. "Until Rey finds the way to Snoke, our mission for the time being is twofold— first, we have to develop countermeasures for the Empire's sub-hyperspace technology and, second, we need to start putting together a list of allies that we can reach out to when the time is right. Allies we can trust to help us, and come when we call."

 

"Do we even have any of those left?" Finn asked. "The First Order's seized control of the entire galaxy."

 

"It's impossible to fully control the Outer Rim," said Luke. "If there are any lingering pockets of resistance, they will be scattered through there."

 

"All right, so we have to find them." Poe turned to Leia. "General, I can get a recon team out today—"

 

"Easy there, Commander," Leia dryly interrupted. "I know you're getting stir-crazy but that's no call to act reckless. In case you've forgotten, we're surrounded by First Order dreadnoughts. Let's wait until they fall back to the Core, shall we? According to Rey, my son and his fleet will leave Hapes at some point during the next day cycle. We can make our move then but, before that, we have to call a meeting with the rest of the leadership."

 

"I hate meetings," Poe grumbled. "Too much arguing, not enough doing."

 

"Lots of thinking, though," Leia retorted. "We could always use more of that around here."

 


 

Rey's ladies had detached the cathedral train before leaving her and Kylo alone in the shuttle's private compartment but, even without twelve feet of material dragging behind it, the skirt was still a massive, ballooning tent of a thing that made it necessary for Rey to occupy three seats in the small cabin. Kylo sat across from her, too tall and broad for the cramped space, his long legs all tangled up in the diamond-studded layers of fine silk streaming from her gown.

 

He couldn't help but look at her in such close quarters. Even though he tried to control himself, his gaze kept flickering back to her face as she stared out the viewport while the shuttle glided over the rooftops of Ta'a Chume'Dan. She shone in the gathering twilight, the tips of her lashes spiked with fragments of tiny diamonds that glittered against her smooth, dewy complexion. As beautiful as she was, Kylo missed the freckles that he knew for a fact were underneath all that makeup, dusted across the bridge of her nose and the tops of her cheeks.

 

His eyes drifted to her lips. They were painted a delicate, icy shade that was more peach than pink, and they had felt so incredibly soft pressed to his own. He shouldn't have returned her kiss but, back there in the chamber made of glass, standing before the dragon altar, it had been pure instinct to chase after her mouth, to hold her tight against him. It had felt... oddly blissful, like everything else had been blocked out for that brief moment in time and he was free-falling and Rey, in all her warmth and light, was the only thing anchoring him while simultaneously making his blood sing.

 

In an effort to forget his reaction to what had, relatively speaking, been such a chaste kiss, Kylo looked somewhere else. Unfortunately, he made the mistake of dropping his gaze from Rey's lips and that meant that the somewhere else was lower, past her chin, past the column of her throat, all the way down to the swell of her breasts, enticingly molded by the white-and-gold bodice. While this ensemble bared less cleavage than the blue one had, the sight was still tantalizing— perhaps even more so because of what the gown represented, that she was his and he was hers and all that that implied.

 

Force help me, Kylo thought miserably, resisting the urge to put his head in his hands, I'm attracted to my wife.

 

"What are you doing?" Rey suddenly asked.

 

She'd caught him. She'd caught him ogling her chest.

 

Kylo quickly averted his gaze to the skyline beyond the viewport. "Nothing." His answer came out a bit too snappish and he regretted it almost immediately. He'd resolved to be nicer to her after that night in the garden— distant, but nicer. It was, he figured, the least he could do.

 

"I know you must think I look ridiculous in this getup," Rey huffed, "but it couldn't be helped. Just be glad I talked the couturier out of a twenty- foot train."

 

Kylo turned back to her, surprised at the extent by which she had misinterpreted his actions. Her posture was one of stiff, injured pride, but she was nervously toying with the embroidered star pattern on her gossamer veil. You don't look ridiculous, he wanted to tell her. You are the loveliest thing I've ever laid eyes on. Perhaps you always have been, ever since Takodana.

 

"Stop doing that," he said instead, impulsively reaching out to grab her wrist before she could inflict any serious damage to the beadwork.

 

Rey's hazel eyes widened at the contact. She shifted her wrist in his loose grip and somehow, somehow, her palm scraped along his and their fingers intertwined on her lap, amidst the diamonds and the gemweb, amidst all those elegant, swirling constellations. It was as natural as reflex, as hungry as second nature. It was a moment that carried as much fluid gravity as the time he met his officers on the steps of the Per'Agthra and felt her eyes on him and looked up.

 

Let go, Kylo's common sense screamed at him, but instead— instead—

 

His fingertips traced the edges of the bony curvature of Rey's knuckles. His thumb moved in haphazard circles, skimming the mound of her palm. Her hand was not an aristocrat's hand— there were calluses that had lingered, on fingers that were thin yet strong. It was all fascinating to him, the texture of her skin, the ridges of uncharted territory. All the while he was staring into her eyes, mesmerized by how, in this light, on this near-night, her Hapan blood shone through in the splinters of gold that flecked her darkened irises.

 

"How did you talk the dressmaker out of the twenty-foot train?" he blurted out. Because he couldn't think of anything else to say.

 

Rey blinked. It was as if some spell had been broken by the sound of his voice, by his inane question. And then those tempting lips of hers lifted at the corners in the slightest suggestion of a challenging smile. "I threatened to declare war on Hapes, of course," she quipped, throwing his own words back at him.

 

Caught off-guard by her joke, Kylo felt his own mouth twitch upwards. It was little more than a half-smirk, but it was the closest he'd come to outright grinning since he'd teased her on the night of the banquet. "Clever."

 

She lowered her lashes, peeking out at him through fringes of diamonds glimmering like moondust. "Original, too."

 

It was the beginnings of laughter, this strange thing that thrummed within his chest. It was dangerous, almost frightening. Before he could decide whether to give vent to it or suppress it altogether, the shuttle gently sloped into a downwards trajectory, signaling their approach on the Fountain Palace.

 

Kylo let go of Rey's hand, settling back against the ecru leather cushions. He was, overall, relieved that the moment of camaraderie had passed, even as part of him felt vaguely bereft.

 

*

 

As soon as Rey disembarked at the royal hangar, her ladies clustered around her to begin the delicate process of removing the veil from her tiara. While they did this, she was still holding on to the hand that Kylo had extended to help her out of the shuttle. Perhaps it should have worried her that they couldn't seem to let go of each other every time their fingers interlaced, but she was distracted— and more than slightly amused— by the long-suffering expression on his pale face as Janassa, Esli, Niobe, Vanya, and Sayl squealed and tittered and gossiped about various wedding guests. These girls were Hapan nobility— female nobility, at that— and thus they weren't particularly inclined to act deferential in Kylo's presence. It must have irked him, used as he was to the bowing and scraping of his subordinates in the First Order hierarchy.

 

Entering the Grand Ballroom on Kylo's arm, Rey saw that it had been transformed into a wonderland of sunset colors, as if the sky that had graced her wedding had been used to gild the vast hall. A dozen enormous bronze chandeliers hung from the ceiling, bearing amethyst banners etched with the golden fractal star and what seemed like millions of tiny lights. More than a hundred round tables were bedecked in lush purple cloth, burgundy napkins, ruby-encrusted vermeil flatware, and floral arrangements of cream and dusky pink. On the dais at the end of the ballroom was another table decorated in much the same manner, rectangular in shape and set for two and perfectly positioned to be the focus of curious stares.

 

All the better to be gawked at, Rey thought sourly, but the truth was that the guests didn't even wait until she and Kylo were seated to do that. All conversation and music ceased and people stood up and every eye swiveled to them as soon as they appeared in the doorway.

 

"It is my privilege to introduce," said Daemora AlGray, her voice artificially amplified to echo through the hall, "Her Grace Kira Ka Djo, Chume'da of the Hapes Consortium, and her consort, His Majesty Kylo Ren of the First Order. Long may they reign."

 

The last part struck Rey as odd. She wasn't Queen Mother yet—

 

No, she realized, a chill shooting down her spine, but I am Empress.

 

There was movement all throughout the Grand Ballroom. The lords and ladies of Hapes were sinking into bows and curtsies, the First Order officers saluting. It occurred to Rey that Daemora had phrased her announcement to produce a certain effect— the Consortium appeared less grim upon being reminded that one of their own would now rule the galaxy at the Emperor's side.

 

The music started up again as the royal couple walked into the ballroom, crossing the dance floor to reach Ta'a Chume and Isolder's table. Rey was about to curtsy to the Queen Mother out of habit but Isolder caught her eye, stopping her with a slight shake of his head. The Empress curtsied to no one— that would take some getting used to.

 

"Emperor Ren," Ta'a Chume drawled. "Welcome to the family."

 

"Thank you, Ereneda." Kylo's tone was courteous but Rey could feel the muscles of his arm tense in her grasp, through the silk of his tunic. "The honor is mine."

 

Isolder stuck out his hand, which Kylo— after some hesitation— shook with his free one. "Take care of my daughter," said the Hapan prince, fixing him with a level stare.

 

"I will," the younger man replied in a voice that was, curiously enough, softer than when he had addressed Ta'a Chume. And slightly strained at the edges.

 

Isolder turned to Rey and kissed her on the forehead. It was such a tender gesture that a lump formed in her throat, but it was over much too soon and then she had to face Ta'a Chume, who merely offered her a brisk nod.

 

"It was a marvelous wedding, Empress." Something about the way the Queen Mother called Rey by that title indicated that she was aware of the power shift, but her face was an imperturbable mask, concealing her thoughts entirely.

 

Now that the exchange of greetings was over and done with, there remained one more custom standing between Rey and dinner. Kylo escorted her onto the middle of the dance floor as the lights dimmed.

 

"They have taught you how to dance, yes?" he murmured in her ear.

 

Perhaps it was her frayed nerves, but the fact that he had posed his question mere seconds before they were expected to waltz elicited a startled giggle from her. "What a time to ask!"

 

The line of his mouth relaxed. For a moment, she thought he was actually going to smile. "Just checking."

 

Facing each other in the center of the ballroom, beneath the twinkling lights of a bronze chandelier as big as certain shuttle classes, Kylo bowed and Rey curtsied, and then they assumed the closed position— his right hand on the small of her back, her left hand curled on the jut of his broad shoulder, their other hands clasped together at chest height. The orchestra started up the music once more and they fell into motions that Rey had started learning months ago— she'd needed dance lessons because balls were part and parcel of court life, but she would never in a million years have been prepared for her first official dance being the literal first dance at her own wedding.

 

It did not go as smoothly as she'd hoped.

 

"Rey." Kylo sounded annoyed. "You're supposed to let me lead."

 

"What are you talking about?" she demanded, utterly bewildered. " I'm the one who leads."

 

"No—" He broke off as understanding dawned on his face. "Very well. Apparently they do things differently in the Hapes Cluster."

 

As their dance progressed, she could tell that he was making a concerted effort to adapt. However, old forms were hard to break. "You're still not letting me lead," she said through gritted teeth. It was less a dance and more a tug-of-war.

 

Kylo scowled but obediently readjusted his stance, forcing himself to turn pliable in her hands. That was the moment everything changed.

 

*

 

"Glad they figured that out," an unimpressed Ta'a Chume remarked to her son as the couple on the dance floor overcame their initial awkwardness and fell into the graceful, sweeping rhythm of the music.

 

Isolder was laughing silently, palm cupped over his mouth. "They wouldn't let each other lead!" His blue eyes crinkled at the corners. "This marriage is going to be interesting."

 

Ta'a Chume's lips pursed. "Before the circumstances forced my hand, I had hoped for someone more malleable for Kira. I suppose I shall have to settle for someone who cares for her."

 

"Do you truly think he does, Queen Mother?" asked Isolder, a hint of doubt creeping into his tone.

 

Ta'a Chume smirked. "And here I thought your powers of observation had been much improved as of late." She gestured imperiously at the couple. " Look at him, Isolder."

 

Isolder looked. The Emperor was holding his bride as close to him as her wide skirts would allow. In the silvery lighting, his dark eyes bored into hers. Her gown caught the radiance of the chandeliers, and the illusion was such that the swirling panels of gold were reflected on his face, which was soft with a reluctant, pained sort of reverence.

 

Rey for her part seemed equally entranced. She was gazing up at Kylo, her eyes wide beneath diamond-tipped lashes, her lips just the slightest bit parted. He twirled her around, the silk of her skirts blossoming over the marble floor, and, when she came back to him, her left hand didn't return to its place at his shoulder but, instead, clasped the back of his neck, the curve of her arm bringing his face closer down to hers. They moved together like water and moonlight.

 

"I must counsel that girl to keep a level head." Ta'a Chume appeared far less pleased about the possibility of Rey having feelings for Kylo than vice versa. "Things are complicated enough as it is."

 

*

 

The food looked delicious. It was too bad that Kylo could hardly taste any of it.

 

He felt like a zoo animal as he sat at the head table with Rey. The Hapans were too well-bred to make their scrutiny obvious, but even the subtlest looks and the most furtive of whispers could not escape the net of the Force. He picked at each dish brought out by a never-ending parade of server droids and took sparing sips from each vintage that was served to complement the various courses.

 

Beside him, Rey was faring no better, unenthusiastically prodding at her lamb fillet with a bejeweled fork. Rubies embedded in the flatware, diamonds on eyelashes, sapphires strewn through the bridal bouquet... Kylo was willing to bet that even Canto Bight's most ostentatious patrons would have yelped, "Oh, I say, hold on!" at this show of excess.

 

There was a rustle of silk as Rey tried to cross her legs and failed, thanks no doubt to the voluminous inner layers of her skirts that must have tangled between her legs. Kylo shied away from such a heady visual because he knew that dwelling on that particular image would be his ruin. She huffed, annoyed, and resorted once more to taking out her frustrations on the slice of lamb on her plate, hacking at it with a viciousness ill-suited to her formalwear and their elegant surroundings.

 

"That thing's dead enough, surely," Kylo drawled.

 

Rey's eyes remained glued to her plate. She'd been avoiding his gaze ever since the end of their dance, and he could hardly blame her. Something had passed between them, some smoldering, electric charge. Heat lanced through his abdomen at the recollection of the way they had sailed across the floor, her curves pressed to his frame and their bodies responding to each other in a pulsating tempo that flowed as effortlessly as when they sparred. They hadn't even heard the music come to an end— it had taken a smattering of polite applause from the guests to jolt them out of their reverie, to stop swaying against each other.

 

And now they were sitting side by side, being plied with aromatic, artistically-plated food and unable to enjoy any of it because of the scrutiny from an entire ballroom's worth of people. Kylo wanted to duck his head, shield his face from view somehow, retreat to somewhere private and never emerge again. Was whatever hermit hole Skywalker had crawled into still available?

 

Rey was too agitated to respond to Kylo's quip about the lamb. Her silence rattled him further, and compounding their mutual dilemma was the awareness that they had to be on their best behavior in order to sell the idea that this alliance was truly something they both wanted. But it was impossible to paste on false smiles and chat casually as if nothing were wrong.

 

Kylo's knee started jiggling under the table. Out of pure nerves. The chandelier lights were in his eyes, an uncomfortable glare that made him vaguely anxious, and then there were the ceaseless stares and whispers that reminded him too much of being Leia Organa's son.

 

He felt a slight pressure on his knee and glanced down. Rey's hand was settled atop his kneecap, her wedding band sparkling around her ring finger. She still wouldn't look at him and her touch was perhaps too firm to be considered gentle, but it calmed him nevertheless. He yearned so badly to close his hand over hers, to feel her bare skin again...

 

Stop giving in to your weakness, hissed whatever logical part of his brain was left to him. How do you think this story will end? It's a marriage of convenience and nothing more. Your goal is to secure the Empire's foothold in Hapes and find what remains of the Resistance. You must not let yourself be turned from your true purpose.

 

It wasn't long before Lairelosse Yliri approached the head table, all sophisticated curtsy and pleasant smile and copper robes. "Your Grace, Your Majesty," she said in a low voice, "it's time to make your exit."

 

Unseen by anyone else beneath the table, Rey's fingers suddenly dug into Kylo's thigh. He could feel the warp of nervousness emanating from her Force signature. They were to leave the Grand Ballroom and retire to her chambers for the consummation. Granted, it had already been agreed upon that they wouldn't actually do anything, but still...

 

As if on cue, Ta'a Chume rose to her feet, effectively putting a stop to all conversation. "Honored guests," she said, holding a glass of wine in her hand, "I thank you for celebrating this historic night with us. Through this union, we have engendered a new age of peace and prosperity for the Hapes Cluster and the First Order Empire. Please join me in a toast to the newlyweds as they embark on the next chapter of their lives together."

 

*

 

Rey thought she was holding up pretty well, all things considered. She had managed to leave the reception with poise, had even flashed Kylo a small smile before they were escorted to their respective suites for a change of clothes. Away from the hubbub, finally out of sight from prying eyes, with her hair down and her torturous shoes and false lashes removed at long last, she was feeling more optimistic about getting through the rest of her wedding night with no more added stress.

 

All that changed when Esli marched out of the walk-in closet, bearing Rey's change of clothes.

 

"I am not wearing that."

 

"But, Chume'da, it's tradition—" Janassa started to plead but Rey cut her off.

 

"Look at that thing!" She gestured in dismay at the— well, it was hardly even a dress. It was hardly even a scarf, by her standards. True, it had long sleeves and it trailed past her ankles, but that didn't matter when it was made of material so sheer that she could see through it, with only stylized appliqués strategically positioned to cover her... her bits. "Who in their right mind would—" She faltered, at a complete and utter loss for words.

 

"It's lingerie, Chume'da," Niobe hastened to explain.

 

"I don't care what it's called," Rey savagely declared. "I'm not putting it on—"

 

Her ladies-in-waiting looked disconcerted. She glared at each of them in turn, daring them to argue.

 

The standoff was disrupted by the sound of chimes. Kylo had arrived and was waiting outside her solar.

 

"Your Grace," Vanya said, "the Emperor's here. These are the only sleep clothes we prepared. There's no more time."

 

Rey should have put up a fight. But the girls wouldn't understand because, as far as they were concerned, what would follow was a legitimate bedding ceremony. She didn't need gossip contradicting that spreading through the court. And she doubted Kylo would appreciate being made to stand outside her door for the amount of time it would take to search her wardrobe for a less revealing ensemble. Her only other option was to sleep in her wedding gown, and she was definitely not keen on that.

 

"Fine," she sighed, her shoulders sagging in defeat.

 

Her ladies worked quickly to extricate her from the gown, arrange her hair into a simple braid, and spritz perfume onto her pulse points. The chimes sounded again just as the flimsy excuse for a dress was being slipped over her head.

 

Sayl broke out into a wicked grin. "Someone's impatient."

 

Rey groaned inwardly. Give me strength.

 

At last, the girls bobbed their curtsies and stole out of the room, dimming the lights as they went. Rey was left alone in a kneeling position in the middle of the canopy bed, her hands folded in her lap and her heart hammering in her chest as she waited to receive her husband.

Chapter Text

The door to the Chume'da' s solar slid open, revealing the grinning faces of Rey's ladies. Yes, the infernal teenagers were actually grinning, the effect not dissimilar to a school of dazzlingly pretty, bejeweled sharks.

 

"Her Grace is ready for you, Your Majesty," Janassa saucily quipped before she and her compatriots burst into unabashed giggles, taking their leave in a flurry of rustling skirts.

 

Left alone in the solar, Kylo breathed out an irritated sigh at the girls' antics. He slowly made his way to Rey's closed bedroom door, some part of him still unwilling to believe that this was nothing more than a ridiculous fever-dream. The original plan had been for Rey to exit the ballroom first, as custom dictated, and for Kylo to be escorted to her chambers by the appointed witnesses after some time had passed. However, Lairelosse had pointed out that the bridegroom's continued presence among the Hapan nobles might rekindle questions as to why there would be no witnesses in the first place— better to just duck out of the guests' sight as soon as possible while they were all in their cups.

 

Standing outside Rey's bedroom, Kylo realized that the change in plans had resulted in a certain weighty intimacy that overlaid this moment, the air crackling with expectation. Of course, he vastly preferred being alone with Rey for an entire night to having sex with her while other people watched— the mere idea made his skin crawl— but, now that it was truly happening, he rather doubted his ability to control himself or at least to make sure that his personal feelings stayed hidden.

 

Because the plain and simple truth of the matter was that, even before all this, even before he had seen what she looked like with her face exquisitely made-up and wearing dresses that showed off her alluring curves, Kylo Ren had dreamed of the girl. At some point during the war, in the lengthy intervals between their sparse but intense confrontations, he had started wondering what she would be like in bed, if she would channel all the blazing hatred in her eyes into another kind of passion entirely. He had fantasized more than once about making her scream— not in the heat of battle, but with his kisses and caresses. These were sick and shameful desires that he took care to hide from Snoke, although he feared that his master had been starting to get suspicious before Coruscant fell.

 

A few weeks after encountering Rey on Stalsinek IV, Kylo had visited a brothel for the first time in his life— one of the discreet, expensive places favored by First Order officers. This had been around the time he'd started meditating with the Skywalker blade and it had begun tugging at the splinter of light lodged inside him. It was his desperation to extinguish that light that had led him to try accessing the dark side via carnal pleasure— or, at least, that had been one of the reasons. The other was that he had been so pent-up, so frustrated— so unable to concentrate— due to his thoughts of Rey. He'd had no qualms wholeheartedly blaming her for this lapse in discipline and loathing her more and more for it, even as the courtesan he chose had resembled her in small ways— coltish, more pretty than classically beautiful, brown-haired and doe-eyed. She had been Kylo's first, and he had sought out similar-looking women here and there whenever the need once again grew too great. It hadn't happened very often— when all was said and done, there had still been a war to win— and he'd learned to take it in stride. Practicality, biology, and all that.

 

But things were different now. It was his wedding night, and his bride was Rey and she was waiting for him.

 

Steeling himself, Kylo knocked on the bedroom door. It opened as if of its own accord— Rey had used the Force to grant him entrance.

 

Her chambers were disconcertingly feminine to him, with delicate pastels and lush dreamsilk panels hung on the king-sized canopy bed. The curtains had been drawn against the brilliant Hapan night but the shadows were edged in gold by glow-panels cleverly concealed along the walls, providing Kylo with enough light to see the woman on the mattress.

 

His breath hitched in his throat. Rey was dressed in a nightgown sewn from the sheerest, flimsiest mesh fabric that Kylo had ever seen. Every inch of the long-sleeved bodice clung to her slim torso, accentuating her narrow waist and the slight flare of her hips, and, stars, it was like she was wearing nothing, her sun-kissed skin clearly visible through the transparent material, obscured only in some places by an intricate patchwork of embroidered lace. Powder-blue everlilies dripping from leafy celadon vines curled along her wrists and her ribcage and down her thighs, connecting four larger appliqué pieces— stylized, spread-winged Corosian phoenixes, pale pink in color, stitched over her breasts and the spurs of her hips as if in some valiant, last-ditch attempt at modesty.

 

Rey's face had been scrubbed free of makeup and her chestnut hair gathered into a loose braid draped over one shoulder, trailing past her right breast. She was kneeling on the bed, her hands clasped together in her lap. She looked like a goddess and like an offering all at once. She looked—

 

very, very grumpy—

 

"Do not," she snarled at him, "say anything." Her face was flushed pink due to embarrassment, but it only added to the gorgeous sight so appealingly arranged before him.

 

"Okay," was all Kylo managed to force out. He cautiously stepped further into the room and her gaze flickered over his white linen shirt, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and loose black trousers. He wondered what kind of man she saw, suddenly more self-conscious than ever of his features— the nose that was too prominent, the mouth that was too wide, the graceless asymmetry of his cheekbones and chin and jaw.

 

Desperate to do something— anything— that didn't involve gawking at her, he glanced around her chambers in a futile search for the couch he'd be sleeping on. There was a chaise lounge, but it was a slender, flimsy thing that would barely accommodate three-quarters of his height and half his width. The floor it is, then, he thought with resignation. "Shall I just grab the extra blanket, then?"

 

"W... what?" Rey breathed out, as if in a daze.

 

Kylo turned to her. She was staring at him from the bed, and he experienced a moment of deja vu— the night of the banquet, the altercation in his room, her hands on his chest, how she'd forgotten what he'd asked. The flicker of hope he'd felt that perhaps she was attracted to him, too. "I see that the Hapan court is training her well," Snoke had sneered, convincing Kylo that Rey was trying to manipulate him.

 

But that didn't seem to fit with the other aspects of Rey's behavior that Kylo had witnessed thus far. On the shuttle earlier, she'd had no idea that he was looking at her breasts, and just now she had given every indication of being mortified by her lingerie. These were not the actions of the burgeoning seductress that Snoke had made her out to be.

 

"Sorry," Rey mumbled with a tiny shake of her head, as if she were attempting to clear it. "I'm— tired."

 

"Extra blanket?" Kylo ventured once more.

 

"About that." She fidgeted, looking down at her lap. "I sort of... forgot to take care of our sleeping arrangements. I've been so busy lately with all the meetings and rehearsals and my lessons and it just— slipped my mind."

 

"That's all right," he found himself saying. Him, the man who a few days ago on the Heresiarch had railed at an admiral for submitting a shoddily written, incomplete report. What was happening?

 

Rey bit her lip, which only served to fuel Kylo's already overactive imagination. "We can share the bed," she told him. "It's not a big deal."

 

I beg to differ, he wanted to say— perhaps even to snarl— but at that precise moment she moved, unfolding herself from her kneeling pose and scooting off to one side of the mattress, leaning back against the gilded headboard. He was treated to the stretch of her long, long legs encased in the sheer panels of her nightgown's A-line skirt, with their toned calves and dainty ankles, and all protest fled from his mind.

 

Feeling very far away from his body, as if he were helplessly trapped in one of his torturous dreams, Kylo joined Rey on the bed, mimicking her position. His shoulder jostled hers, a static charge sparking at the point of contact, and he quickly widened the space between them, the mattress bobbing at the shift in weight.

 

At first, he thought this new position was better because her distractingly lovely face wasn't in his line of sight. Much to his chagrin, he soon realized that he had an unparalleled view down her legs. They were slender and they went on for miles beneath the scattered lace dusting of leaves and everlilies, and how often had he imagined what these legs would look like when bared, and how those thighs would feel wrapped around him—

 

Kylo had already been half-hard from the moment he walked into the room and saw Rey. Now he was well on his way to a full-blown erection.

 

Great.

 

Thinking fast, he all but lunged for the edges of the duvet that had been folded halfway across the mattress, drawing it up over his groin. Small talk, he thought in a burst of panic, he had to make small talk before she could dwell on what possible reasons he might have for covering himself so abruptly. "You mentioned you were busy with lessons? Of what sort?"

 

"Politics." Rey hesitated, and then shrugged. "The Queen Mother's brand of politics, anyway."

 

She answered your question and now you have to keep it going, Kylo told himself. It didn't matter that this hardly seemed like the right time and place to discuss governance, both of them sitting up in bed with him in his shirtsleeves and her in a transparent nightgown, their gazes determinedly trained straight ahead, refusing to collide. "You disagree with Ta'a Chume's methods? They're efficient."

 

"Well, of course you would see nothing wrong with one person being in control of everything," Rey muttered.

 

Despite Kylo's uncomfortable situation regarding matters down south, her barb still rankled. "As opposed to a group of people squabbling among themselves and never getting anything done?" he challenged. "Democracy is a thing of the past. Order is the way forward. You need to understand that, not just because you are my Empress but also because someday you will be Queen Mother."

 

"I will not rule through fear," Rey said, quiet yet fierce. "You and Ta'a Chume hold people's lives in your hands. It already backfired on her once and, mark my words, you will suffer the same fate if you're not careful—"

 

"And I suppose you're the epitome of caution, are you?" Kylo sneered, even though some part of him all but howled in frustration at how things could have gone so wrong in the space of a few words, his inconvenient arousal giving way to wrath. "You sit there and issue what may be construed as threats— you who were once rebel scum. Don't think I've forgotten."

 

Rey turned to face him, which meant that he instinctively turned to face her as well. "You're the one threatening me right now," she pointed out, not with anger or apprehension but just a calm statement of a fact.

 

The tactic was far more effective at defusing Kylo's temper than he was prepared for. It wasn't that the fight immediately went out of him— more like that the dark thing living in his head retracted its claws and slunk off, still wary but no longer raring to attack. The way Rey looked now, all shadow-soft, reminded him of the night in the garden, of her rare moment of vulnerability that had brought him to his knees— and, besides, he'd sworn to take care of her, hadn't he? He'd promised her father. Kylo was many things but he was not usually one to go back on his word.

 

"Let's talk about something else," he found himself saying.

 

Rey nodded. Slowly. "All right."

 


 

The meeting with Resistance High Command had not gone over well. Conducted on the Ninka, Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo's Free Virgillia- class Bunkberbuster corvette cloaked in the depths of the Corsair Outback, it had devolved into a mess of accusations and long-buried grievances finally seeing the light of day. Leia had powered through with her usual capable, no-nonsense grit, steering them into a consensus, and now she and her delegation were on their way back to Stalsinek IV on the same Slayn & Korpil transport ship they'd been living in for the past several months.

 

Aware that her brother's opinion would carry weight, especially among the Rebel Alliance veterans, Leia had managed to talk Luke into accompanying her instead of spending the entire day meditating at the white temple as usual. The Skywalker twins sat together beside the viewport, watching the stars go by. They were both reflecting on a proposal that one of the more hotheaded officers had put forward and had garnered traction among like-minded comrades— to attack the Emperor's flagship before it could leave the Hapes Cluster. Leia had wisely decided not to say anything, counting on Holdo to remind them that it was too early to show their hand, that thanks to sub-hyperspace technology the rest of the First Order fleet would be upon them before they could blink, that the true threat was Snoke, that the Resistance's survival depended on the Consortium's goodwill and it would be foolish to put that to the test by blowing up the Chume'da' s new husband.

 

"How do we know the Hapans won't betray us?" someone had cried.

 

That was when Leia had stepped in. "Because of Rey," she'd said. "The Queen Mother won't risk losing her heir. Before we launch an offensive— any sort of offensive— we have to wait for Rey to get us to Snoke."

 

Luke was now regarding his sister solemnly. "I know what you're thinking," he told her. "Or, rather, what you're hoping for— that Ben can still be turned."

 

"That would certainly make things easier," Leia sighed. "I won't lie— after what I saw at that wedding, I'm certainly hoping Rey can be a... positive influence."

 

"I've started hoping that, too," Luke admitted, "although part of me feels it's unfair to put the burden on her when I was the one who failed him."

 

"We both failed him," Leia said, clasping her brother's hand. "It might not be too late to make amends. I need to know, however— what is the reason you haven't told Rey the truth about what happened the night your training temple was destroyed?"

 

Luke was silent for a while, gazing upon constellations as he struggled to find words. "An apprentice must have confidence in their master," he said at last. "I did not wish to break her trust. But lately I've been thinking that, by withholding such critical information, I am unworthy of that trust in the first place."

 

Leia squeezed his hand. "When you came clean to me, I was so furious—"

 

"Oh, believe me, I know," Luke interrupted, rubbing the side of his bearded jaw where his sister had punched him two years ago. "This twinges something fierce when it rains."

 

"But I also realized," Leia continued, "that I was at fault, too, for sending Ben away because I feared his darkness as much as you did and for not telling him the truth about his grandfather. Too many mistakes, Luke. That stops now. Tell Rey what happened."

 

"I will."

 

The silence between the siblings was not broken again until they were almost to planetfall, Stalsinek IV gleaming beneath them in a swirl of blues and greens. Luke suddenly let out a tiny chuckle, causing Leia to raise a quizzical eyebrow at him.

 

"The look on Ben's face after Rey pulled away from their kiss," the Jedi Master explained, blue eyes sparkling with mirth. "Like someone had hit him with a stun blaster." He shook his head with rueful affection, with a fondness that the all the years and all the sins had never quite managed to diminish. "Ah, that kid..."

 


 

The portable holoprojector that Kylo had summoned onto the bed hummed in Rey's lap, beaming a diagram of an old training simulation pulled from Republic archives— X-wings, cruisers, TIE fighters, and bombers were locked in combat as the larger silhouettes of two EF76 Nebulon-B escort frigates looked on. Every once in a while, the frigate that belonged to the Galactic Empire— the Warspite— would vanish into hyperspace and reappear seconds later, unloading more fighters on the other side of the transfer to besiege the other frigate, the Rebel Alliance's primary medical ship known as the Redemption.

 

Since this was a Republic simulation, the A.I. for the Imperial fighters was restricted to a preprogrammed initial run sequence. Kylo and Rey had made the decision to put political baggage aside for the moment and were now figuring out ways for the Alliance side to emerge victorious from the scenario.

 

"See, look there," Kylo was saying, "if the defending X-wings move to intercept the first wave of TIE fighters, they're rendered out of position for the second one. The best strategy is for the Rebel fleet to concentrate their fire on the bombers, while at the same time evading the fighters."

 

"But that leaves an opening for the Warspite to move further in-system and join the attack," Rey argued, wrestling the controls from him. "What you do is send a single X-wing to confront the first wave while the others remain as close support for the transfer. This forces the Warspite to launch subsequent waves from a distance instead of putting herself at risk." As she spoke, the blinking diagrams played out her strategy, red X's marking the destroyed TIE complement.

 

"You do realize," said Kylo, "that this means a lone X-wing will have to deal with two fighters and three bombers all at once before turning around to confront the next wave from a different direction." As if on cue, the aforementioned lone X-wing exploded into smithereens, hopelessly overwhelmed.

 

"All other strategies we've tried so far have been disastrous," Rey pointed out. "This one lasted the longest." And, indeed, they'd been at it for almost an hour now, after the awkward, desultory conversation that had started with Kylo blurting out, "How are you settling in at court?" had somehow turned into her rambling about how it had been much, much easier to navigate flight simulations on Jakku than to even begin to understand what was going on through a Hapan noble's mind.

 

"Fair point." Kylo leaned forward, almost into her lap, as he restarted the scenario. A shock of dark hair fell across his pale forehead and Rey tried to quell the tremor in her heart while she watched him study the holoscreen, its bluish light casting his earnest features into sharp relief. "Perhaps if the lone X-wing pilot initially engages with laser cannons—" A couple of TIE fighters winked out of existence— "and then adds to the cruiser's proton torpedo barrage before the bombers can get into launch range—"

 

"Watch out for that next wave," Rey warned.

 

"Yeah, I see it," Kylo mumbled, swinging the X-wing around.

 

Rey blinked at him. Yeah did not seem like it would be the sort of word that was in his dictionary. He picked off another Imperial bomber, a trace of a cocksure smirk playing at the corners of his lips, and for a moment— for one painful, breathtaking moment— she was reminded of Han.

 

SIMULATION COMPLETE, the A.I. triumphantly announced as the path to the hyperlane was cleared and the Rebel fleet made the jump.

 

Kylo sat back against the headboard, looking both surprised and pleased with himself, his expression affording Rey a glimpse of the boy he must once have been. She switched off the holoprojector and levitated it onto a side table in one corner of the room, and then she was shifting on the mattress, angling the upper half of her body towards him. Earlier, she hadn't registered his question about the extra blanket because she'd been too busy staring at the sinews of his forearms, exposed to her for the first time by his rolled-up sleeves. Now, however, it was his face that she was focusing on— the plaintive dark eyes, the sensual lips, the scar running down his cheek.

 

"Why did you do it?" she whispered, because she wanted so badly to understand, because she couldn't reconcile her memories of the monster with the man in her bed. "Why did you kill your father?"

 

A mask of cold fury slammed over his features. He made as if to turn away from her or to scramble off the sheets, but her hand clamped around his bare wrist and he stilled as if frozen in place.

 

"No," Rey said, a little more forcefully this time. "We are talking about this. Han loved you and you murdered him and I need to know why. What did he ever do to make you hate him so much—"

 

"I didn't hate him." Kylo sounded like he was almost ashamed of that fact. As if not being able to hate his father was a failure on his part. "I told you back in that garrison— to gain strength, I had to gain victory over the self. Han Solo was my ultimate test. To prove my commitment to creating peace and order for the good of the galaxy—"

 

"You mean your commitment to Snoke!" Rey bit out. "He made you kill Han and now you're, what, his puppet on a string? Emperor in name alone?"

 

It was apparent that she'd struck a nerve— Kylo inched his face closer to hers, teeth bared in a snarl. "I'm not the only one who married the enemy at the behest of a superior, Chume'da."

 

"I did this to save my people! From you, from the First Order, from—" Rey broke off as the implications of his retort sank in. "So it was Snoke who told you to marry me." Her mind raced with what that could possibly mean. What did the Supreme Leader want from her? Did he suspect that she knew where the Resistance was? They'd never been safe in the first place but were they in even graver peril now?

 

Kylo looked more irate than she'd ever seen him before, practically trembling at having let such sensitive information slip. But he didn't cruelly shake off her grip on his arm like she'd expected and braced herself for. "We're done talking about this."

 

"You are my consort," she bristled. "You don't get to order me around."

 

"You are my Empress," he shot back. "You answer to me!"

 

"As long as we are in Hapes, where husbands obey their wives, it's my word that's your law!" Stars, she was angry as well, the currents of the Force shivering and warping at the corners, the dreamsilk canopy over the bed rippling in an invisible breeze. "How sad for you," she goaded, "to have two masters."

 

"Shut up." He had gotten so far into her personal space that their noses were almost touching. "Shut up, or—"

 

"Or what?" she shouted. "What will you do, Emperor Ren?"

 

Kylo lunged forward, the gleam in his dark eyes so feral, so dangerous, that the notion flickered through Rey's mind that he was going straight for her jugular.

 

But, instead, he kissed her.

 

It was nothing like the chaste peck she'd given him at the altar or the swift, gentle way he'd reciprocated that she'd thought about on and off as the night had dragged on. This was violent, almost brutal, his mouth slanting over hers with a heated ferocity that she couldn't help but respond to with the instincts borne of an entire life spent giving as good as she got. Her right hand was somehow still clinging to his wrist, but her left whipped up to slap him— or, at least, that was what she had intended to do.

 

Instead, her palm met the side of his face without any real vehemence, her fingers curling at his clean-shaven jaw. His own hands dropped to her shoulders, his large thumbs pressing indents along her clavicle as his tongue licked at the seam of her lips. It was another kind of instinct— one that had nothing to do with battle— that made her open her mouth to him. A low, primal sound rumbled in his throat as he greedily pushed forward.

 

It was not a sweet kiss. But, then again, Rey would have been foolish to think Kylo Ren capable of sweetness. She felt like she was burning up, her heartbeat a wild thing, her stomach in free-fall— no, she was falling, her spine was sliding from the headboard to the mattress like every inch of her had dissolved into a molten blur of heat and light. He followed her down, their lips still connected, his enormous frame covering hers on the bed as he straddled her waist between his legs and she looped her arms around his neck.

 

Rey had never expected kissing to be like this. She'd seen couples locked in a passionate embrace before, of course, but no one ever told her how it would feel to have someone else's tongue tangle with hers, to have someone else's teeth scrape at her bottom lip, to have a pair of hands other than her own wander down her sternum, fumbling and exploring. Some tiny part of her brain was busily trying to figure out how the hell an incendiary argument could have ended with Kylo's tongue down her throat, but all attempt at rationality soon vanished amidst the clamor of sensations as he cupped her right breast and ground his hardness against her belly, all the while still kissing her as if he were channeling every last bit of frustration left over from the war and the past couple of weeks.

 

She gasped into his mouth when the pad of his thumb began stroking her breast through the lace. He muttered a curse against her lips when her nipple pebbled under his touch, his voice so gravelly that the mere unintelligible sound of it added to the growing wetness between her legs. More, Rey thought recklessly, pleadingly, raking her nails down his back while her other hand buried clumsy fingers into his dark locks, touch me some more, touch me everywhere, let me know how it feels, let me have this, I want, I need—

 

Kylo broke the kiss, dragging his lips from her mouth to the slope of her neck as he continued to tease her nipple with his thumb, almost to the point of pain. Rey's eyes fluttered open— when had she closed them?— and, somehow, the sight of the dreamsilk tapestry above her, with its golden stars and crescent moons, jolted her back to reality. Made her aware of the world again.

 

She couldn't do this.

 

They couldn't do this.

 

It would only end in ruin.

 

"Stop." She pushed at his shoulder. "Ren, stop."

 

Kylo lifted his mouth from her neck. At first, he looked bewildered— hurt, almost— and then the common sense that had overtaken her must have returned to him, too, because he rolled off of her, quick as a flash, and scrambled back as far away from her as was possible without actually falling off the bed.

 

For her part, Rey all but dove beneath the covers, pulling them up almost to her chin, staring at him as he stared back, his chest heaving, his lips wet and swollen, his hair sticking up at odd angles from where she'd run her fingers through. What felt like every nerve ending in her body buzzed and throbbed, feverish, unsatisfied, and she crossed her legs in a futile attempt to alleviate the ache between them. Her thoughts were a jumble, scattered and disjointed. The man she had just made out with was a monster, a murderer, an unwilling political ally whom she would someday betray, the husband who loathed her and whom she was supposed to loathe in turn.

 

It was all too much to process. Her lips still burned with the memory of his kiss.

 

"I changed my mind." It was a miracle how steady her voice was, how it didn't falter in the slightest. Rey supposed she should be grateful for small mercies. "You're sleeping on the floor."

Chapter Text

In stark contrast to the grandeur of the reception, the customary post-wedding breakfast was a more intimate affair, attended only by the sixty-three members of the Consortium legislature, the six representatives of First Order High Command, the Chume'da' s ladies-in-waiting, and the royal family themselves. It was held in the east wing of the Fountain Palace, ensuring that copious amounts of newly-risen sun illuminated the pristine white tablecloths like snowbanks heaped with silverware and crystal and all manner of delicacies.

 

Lairelosse was in her element, charming the unsuspecting military officers and filing away data they weren't even aware they were letting slip that could be used as ammunition later on. She knew, even if no one else did, that Ta'a Chume would make her move when the time was right— when that happened, Hapes needed to be holding all the cards.

 

Of course, Lairelosse could never claim to fully keep track of what was going on through her sovereign's head. There was every chance that the Queen Mother would decide that this alliance with the Empire would prove beneficial for the Consortium in the long run. Still, it didn't hurt to be prepared.

 

"Ducha Yliri." Daemora kept her voice low so as not to be overheard by their companions. "Something seems different about our newlyweds. Would you agree?"

 

Lairelosse's topaz gaze flickered to the head of the table, where Kylo and Rey sat with Ta'a Chume and Isolder. While the Queen Mother and the prince seemed to be engaged in the usual chitchat that was appropriate for social events such as this, the Emperor and the Chume'da were both silent as they sat side by side, with dark circles under their eyes. Every once in a while, they would look at each other and then hurriedly look away, cheeks pink and postures stiff.

 

"No," Daemora breathed out in unabashed delight. "They didn't!" She cocked her head, appearing both titillated and scandalized. " Did they?"

 

"My lady, I do not wish to speculate on our Chume'da' s personal affairs," Lairelosse said firmly. She had a feeling she already knew the answer, though. Her value to the Queen Mother lay in how adept she was at reading people, and the way Kylo looked at Rey spoke volumes. Annoyance, yearning, bewilderment, and even a fair bit of crankiness— yes, the man was in the throes of sexual frustration.

 

And— unless Lairelosse missed her guess— so was Rey.

 

"They look good together, though," Daemora said, almost wistfully. "Don't you think?"

 

Lairelosse tossed the older woman a fond yet exasperated smile. "Ducha AlGray, you are an incorrigible romantic. I'd rein that in, if I were you."

 

I doubt there will be any happy endings here.

 

*

 

As Rey and her entourage escorted him and his knights to the hangar bay, Kylo ran his fingers down the side of his neck, using the Force to smooth away the crick that had developed there during the night. I can't believe you made me sleep on the floor, he thought darkly, slanting a surreptitious glare at his wife. It wasn't that he hadn't gotten what he deserved for feeling her up, but he'd had a rough night's sleep and wasn't inclined to be charitable.

 

Today she was wearing a buttery yellow dress with a portrait neckline and billowing sleeves cuffed at the wrist. It was conservative, but that hardly mattered when he already knew what her body looked like and how perfect it felt underneath his. Score one for the Hapans and damn it all to hell. He'd let his emotions get the better of him. It was, objectively speaking, a good thing that she'd slammed on the brakes before they reached the point of no return but, lying on the floor with pillows hastily grabbed from the chaise lounge, he'd had the worst case of blue balls in galactic history, twisting and turning on the duvet she'd shoved into his arms before kicking him out of her bed.

 

And even then, part of him had been worried that she was feeling cold in such skimpy attire. It hadn't been long at all before he'd tossed the duvet back onto the bed, ignoring her faint cry of protest.

 

With Kylo's grumpiness came the same old black thoughts. If Rey's original plan had been to seduce him, then she despised him so much that she'd been unable to go through with it. He tried not to let it wound him too badly— they were both playing the game, after all— but it was hard going. Her hair had still been in its braid when she'd shaken him awake so he could go back to his room to prepare for the breakfast, but now it hung loose past her shoulders, framing her pretty face in a halo of neat curls. In her yellow dress, she looked like a sunbeam, like everything pure and wholesome and good that he was sickeningly aware that he had no right to.

 

In the hangar bay, his shuttle's ramp was already extended and waiting for him to board, as if even the Upsilon- class herself couldn't wait to leave this accursed sector. Kylo and Rey came to a stop and faced each other again, conscious of everyone's gazes on them as always.

 

"I will see you on Coruscant in three days, my lady." He couldn't resist needling her with the reminder that she was now his lady, that they were bound by law.

 

Rey's hazel eyes flashed. "I shall wait on tenterhooks for our happy reunion, my lord," she all but snapped, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

 

Kylo didn't look back as he ascended his shuttle's ramp. It was a small victory, but one that he would have to content himself with for now.

 


 

Luke was meditating at the white temple when Rey arrived on Stalsinek IV piloting the Miy'til starfighter she'd managed to liberate from the hangars. It had been in the dead of night that she'd left Hapes Prime; it was beneath the sun of high noon that she tracked her master's energy signature to the nexus point.

 

The lower half of his body folded into a cross-legged position, palms turned upwards on his bent knees, Luke hovered several inches off the ground, the silver fountain rippling behind him. Rey hesitated only for the briefest of moments before she mirrored his pose, closed her eyes, and let the Force spill through her veins, tapping into the web of life that spiraled from the sap in the trees to the beating hearts of forest creatures to her own luminous, pulsating soul, everything tangled up in the vergence's endless, concentric streams of raw power. Soon she felt herself rise, too, joining her master in the air, fallen leaves and stray twigs whirling around them.

 

"Do you remember," Luke asked, "how you found me?"

 

He didn't say it out loud. They were occupying some shivering, liminal space in the Force— a room with no walls, a house made of mist, a cave that held only truth. It was all of that, and more.

 

"You were a broken man," Rey said. "You had lost faith in yourself, in all that you once believed. You told me it was time for the Jedi to end."

 

"Some part of me still thinks that, you know," Luke admitted. There was no place for lies. Not here. "But I eventually decided to train you because..."

 

A smile tugged at the corners of Rey's lips. "Because I was persistent? Annoying?"

 

Luke chuckled. "That, too. But mostly because Artoo showed me something that reminded me of how it all began."

 

Years ago, you served my father in the Clone Wars. The hologram of a young Leia Organa, draped in white, flickered in the darkness of Rey's closed eyes, a static-tinged communique that had degraded over time. Now he begs you to help him in the struggle against the Empire. I regret that I am unable to present my father's request to you in person but my ship has fallen under attack— This is our most desperate hour— Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope—

 

"One look at your sister was all it took for you to rejoin the fight," Rey mused, "even though you had come to the island to die."

 

"I carried every death with me," said Luke. "Not just my apprentices, but even before that— my master, my fellow rebels... everyone who sacrificed their lives to restore the same Republic that I, through my own failures, ended up destroying."

 

Rey shook her head. "I told you then, as I tell you now, it was Kylo Ren who failed you. He was the one who turned on you and razed your temple to the ground."

 

"And that," Luke sighed, "was my fault. Walk with me."

 

And she did. She widened her connection to the Force and joined her master on the pathways of memory.

 

*

 

Luke Skywalker is troubled. His nephew has grown even more sullen and withdrawn as of late, splinters of the dark side manifesting during training sessions and in the odd, irrational bursts of anger that have increased in frequency as time passed. Luke cannot talk to Han about it, because Han has been giving him and Leia a staggering combination of attitude and radio silence since the enforced separation from his son, and neither can he talk to Leia, busy as she is with combating the rising threat of the First Order.

 

But he can no longer let things lie. Ben almost killed a fellow apprentice today, while sparring, bringing his lightsaber down on his disarmed opponent only to be blasted backwards by Luke's hasty telekinetic push. There had been no remorse in the young man's eyes, only something as fiery as embers, as hungry as the wolf.

 

"Even from an early age, Ben was strong in the Force," Luke told Rey. "Stronger than I could ever hope to be. I knew that. What I didn't realize until it was too late was that I was ill-equipped to deal with such raw power. But I was Luke Skywalker, wasn't I?" He flashed her a self-deprecating smirk. "As far as the galaxy was concerned, I'd never failed anyone before. I let it go to my head— this version of me that people had built up in their minds. And in my hubris I thought that I could anchor Ben's strength in the light, that my guidance would be enough to curb the darkness rising inside him. But I was wrong."

 

A boy sleeps. A man looks into his heart and sees evil so all-consuming that it terrifies him. A green lightsaber is ignited, piercing the shadows of the lonely little hut.

 

"Master Luke," Rey whispered. How young her voice sounded, even in her own head. How confused. "Master Luke, I don't understand, why—"

 

"He would have brought about the end of everything I loved," Luke solemnly replied. "The visions I saw were so visceral, so full of horror, that in the heat of the moment I forgot that I loved him, too. Because I was too weak to govern my fear, I opened myself up to the dark side."

 

The man lowers his blade, his weathered features contorted in sorrow and self-loathing. But it is too late. The boy is awake, peering over his shoulder at his would-be assailant with frightened eyes.

 

The man starts to shake his head, lips forming the shape of his nephew's name—

 

"This is how it all began," said Luke.

 

Blue light meets green—

 

"This is how I created Kylo Ren."

 

The world collapses—

 

"It will always be my greatest shame."

 

*

 

The strangler figs that had overtaken the temple trembled at the root, pebbles and loose forest debris rising into the air on the crests of the Force, surrounding the two figures enveloped in the floating meditation trance like a maelstrom. This was all Rey's doing, her inner turmoil lashing out at whatever was within reach. "Y—you tried to kill him," she choked, there in that realm beyond space and time, even as her physical form remained statue-still and unspeaking amidst the temple grounds. She thought of how the boy in Luke's memories had looked like the one she'd glimpsed when Kylo beat the flight simulation, and also during those rare moments when he had almost smiled. Green light falling on the face of a frightened young apprentice whose master had betrayed him— it had become her memory now, too.

 

It ate at her heart.

 

"Why did you keep this from me?" she demanded, the Force echoing with her rage.

 

In the in-between place, Luke bowed his head. "I did not think you were ready for the truth. When you came to me on Ahch-To, you were the Resistance's best hope for defeating the First Order. You needed to learn all that I could teach you— and learn it fast. It wasn't until I arrived on this planet that I realized the error of my ways. The energy of this temple is... different. Do you feel it?"

 

"Now is hardly the time for another lecture!" Rey snapped.

 

"You asked me a question. I am trying to answer it as best as I can."

 

Clamping down on her impatience, Rey made herself concentrate on the power streaming from the fountain, on how it filtered through the woods in ways that she belatedly noticed she couldn't really understand. "There is light but there is also darkness. Only..." She frowned. "It's not quite either of that. It's more— balanced?"

 

"Exactly," said Luke. "There exists something here that is much older than the Winged Goddess. In the process of reflecting upon its nature, I was able to look more fully inside myself— as if doors within me were being unlocked by this new perspective. At last I understood that I was merely repeating history by denying your right to critical information— as Obi-Wan once denied mine. I think perhaps..." Luke heaved a sigh, sounding for a moment very far away. "Perhaps it was painful for him to relive, just like it is for me now. Should a Jedi be above grief? I no longer know..."

 

"We are supposed to be above fear," Rey hissed. "We are supposed to be above striking in cold blood. We are supposed to give people second chances. But you— you never gave Ben Solo a chance at all!" Her energy signature spiked with accusation. "You failed him by thinking his choice was made, and in doing so you brought about the same future that you sought to prevent!"

 

"And that," Luke grated out, "is the trap of the dark side. You start out thinking you're doing it for the greater good, but in the end you think only of yourself. In the end, all you will ever have is yourself."

 

"Hang the dark side! The Force has nothing to do with this! This is about family, and you were his family and you gave up on him—" And that was the heart of the matter as to why she was so affected, wasn't it? For so long she'd clung to the hope that someone would come for her on Jakku, for so long she'd battled the crippling dread that she'd been forgotten, abandoned...

 

"That ends now," Luke declared. "That's why I'm telling you the truth now. Leia said it herself— too many mistakes have been made, and it's time to start rectifying them. I regret having to place another burden on your shoulders, Rey, you're already doing so much... but you are the only one who has access to Ben. You can find the light that lingers and call it forth."

 

"How?" Rey cried. "He hates me."

 

Luke was silent for a while. And then, "Do you hate him?"

 

"I..." She should have said yes. She wanted to say yes. But given this new information on Kylo's past and all that had happened between them lately—

 

Nope. She was not going to think about last night. Not here, where his uncle— her master— could see.

 

Gritting her teeth, Rey wrenched herself out of the meditation trance. She and Luke gently sank back to earth, their eyes fluttering open to regard each other with the cautious, weighty awareness that things between them might never be the same again.

 

*

 

Master and apprentice did not speak at all on their way to the Resistance hideout, where Finn welcomed Rey with open arms, Poe grinning at her over the other man's shoulder. But it was a grin that lacked its usual cheer— was instead turned sardonic, almost, by some dark humor.

 

"Nice of you to visit us commoners, Your Empressness," Poe quipped, prompting Rey to roll her eyes at him as she extricated herself from Finn's hug.

 

"I can't believe you're married." Finn sounded exactly as disgusted as the situation called for but he was obviously trying to put up a stalwart front so as not to upset her further. "We watched the broadcast— pretty flashy stuff. Rey, I don't know how to tell you this, but—" He adopted a hushed tone of mock seriousness— "your family's, like, really, really loaded."

 

"I hadn't noticed," she snorted, the heaviness in her soul lifting somewhat. Stars, she was so grateful for Finn. Becoming Chume'da had been the only way to save him and everyone else, and she'd do it all over again in a heartbeat.

 

Poe hugged her as well, clapping her companionably on the back, but when they pulled away from each other his gaze lingered on her wedding band with something akin to distaste.

 

"We do what we must," Rey told him quietly.

 

"Seems to me we all could've done without the smooching," Poe replied in kind, and then shrugged. "Sorry, I'm on edge from being cooped up in this quadrant. That changes today, though, yeah? The First Order's gone sidling back to the Core Worlds?" At Rey's nod, he pumped his fist in the air, a live-wire once more. "Excellent. Gotta prep the recon team, then. We're off to the Outer Rim to look for any remaining allies."

 

"Be careful," Rey warned. She remembered something Lairelosse had mentioned earlier, a tidbit that the other woman had finagled from one of Kylo's admirals during breakfast. "There's a resistance on Artorias, in the Myto sector. You could start there."

 

"On it," Poe said, already rushing off, leaving Finn to take Rey to Leia. Luke did not go with them.

 

*

 

Nothing in Rey's twenty-two years of existence— which had already been eventful and far from easy— could have prepared her for this moment, for being left alone in a ship's cabin with the woman who was her mother-in-law. Rey was all too aware that Leia was technically her commanding officer and as such a serious, professional facade was required, but she felt only the keenest embarrassment as she struggled to meet the General's searching gaze. I married your son, I kissed him, I let him touch me— the thoughts played through her mind in a constant loop to the point that she was seized by the paranoia that they were written all over her face.

 

It was Leia who closed the distance between them, tucking Rey's hair behind her ear in a maternal gesture. "Just one bun today."

 

Rey nodded. She'd been in a hurry to leave the Per'Agthra, with no time to bother constructing her preferred hairstyle.

 

"Luke told you what really happened?"

 

Again, Rey nodded. She still couldn't bring herself to speak.

 

"If I'd had my way, you would have been appraised of everything a whole lot sooner. But it was my brother's story to tell." Leia retrieved a datapad from her desk and tilted up the screen for Rey's perusal. "As this is mine."

 

It was a picture of a younger Han Solo stretched out on a bunk in the Millennium Falcon, laughing as he lifted a plump toddler with chubby cheeks and a shock of dark curls into the air above his chest. The child was smiling as well, his own little hands reaching for Han's vest as if he wanted to be brought closer, his eyes peering down at his father with such adoration that it took Rey's breath away.

 

"I didn't hate him," Kylo had said— had sworn, almost, a crack in his deep voice and some long-buried hurt shadowing his features.

 

"He was the sweetest, most loving boy," Leia told Rey. "Too smart for his own good, perhaps, with a rebellious streak a mile wide, but always so very sorry after he got scolded... Han and I were too busy to spend as much time with him as we should have and it tore at my heart, how hungry he was for our affection whenever we were around. I'd promise myself that I'd be a more hands-on parent, but there was forever one more Senate meeting, one more diplomatic visit... I thought I'd have time to make things right, one day." Leia stared pensively at the photograph before returning the datapad to its original place on her desk. "It all took a turn for the worse when Ben came into his powers. He'd always been able to do small things before— levitating his toys, knowing his father had arrived the instant the Falcon made planetfall— but now his Force sensitivity began manifesting on a far greater scale, and with it came the nightmares. Han and I would sometimes wake up thinking there was an earthquake but it was just Ben, screaming and making the foundations tremble in his sleep. Before long, the bright, happy child that I knew was gone, replaced by this gloomy teenager prone to random, malevolent outbursts. Han said it was growing pains, but a rift developed between him and Ben at around this time, too. They started butting heads more often than not and I just... I didn't know what to do. When Luke offered to train him in the ways of the Jedi, I shipped him off despite my own misgivings."

 

"General..." Rey shifted uncomfortably when Leia paused to gather breath. "I don't— look, I know Snoke was the one who manipulated your son, and what Master Luke did was so horrible that I'm not sure I can ever look at him the same way again, but Ren has also done horrible things. Even if the circumstances weren't of his own making— even if you blame yourself— he's still accountable."

 

"I don't deny that at all," said Leia. "I'm not telling you any of this to excuse his actions. But you need to understand what kind of man you married, how he came to be what he is today. And in doing so—" She lifted her chin in determination, her eyes like steel, and for a moment Rey was reminded all too vividly of Ta'a Chume— "perhaps we can finally gain some sort of tactical advantage over Snoke. Now, will you listen to the rest of my story?"

 

An oddly hollow feeling curled electric-sharp tendrils in the pit of Rey's stomach. All of this seemed wrong, somehow, like she was going behind Kylo's back.

 

Isn't that what you've been doing from the very start? she chided herself. Why should you let it bother you now?

 

She pushed this sudden, bewildering attack of conscience to the back of her mind as she met Leia's gaze and nodded resolutely. "All right," Rey said. "I'm listening."

 

*

 

After the meeting with Leia, Rey went off to help Poe and his squadron map the uncharted hyperlane that she discovered two years ago, which would enable the Resistance pilots to sneak in and out of the Hapes Cluster, and then Finn escorted her back to her ship, the two of them chatting animatedly as they disappeared into the undergrowth.

 

The sun was just about to set when some instinct made Luke and Leia raise their heads to watch a Miy'til starfighter break through the treeline in the distance and punch up into the black. The Skywalker twins did not speak for a while, both of them silently going over the respective conversations that they'd had with Rey.

 

"Leia," Luke finally murmured, "I'm sorry." It wasn't the first time that he'd apologized since their reunion, but they both knew it would be the last. Now that the past had been examined in unflinching detail, they could lay it to rest and look towards the future.

 

"I know." Leia rested her head on her brother's shoulder, a bittersweet smile on her face. "I know you are."

Chapter Text

He was wearing his mask when they met again, high up on one of the landing pads that extended from the Citadel's control tower in long, wide strips. Underneath a gray sky overcast with the promise of impending thunderstorms, a cold, vigorous breeze stung Rey's eyes and rustled her skirts as she walked down the ramp of the Express- class ambassadorial shuttle that had ferried the Hapan delegation from the Dragon Queen, Ta'a Chume's personal flagship, to the Imperial City on Coruscant.

 

It used to be called Republic City back when the Republic still existed, but Rey hardly recognized it now. The austere, industrial skyline stretched out hundreds of meters below her feet was nothing like the vivid ecumenopolis she remembered; there were more weapons factories and security checkpoints, less parks and communications towers, and a total lack of airspeeder pilots attempting to circumvent traffic rules— instead, every single repulsorlift vehicle moved at a brisk, orderly pace along the skylanes. And above it all loomed the Emperor's Citadel, an imposing military-grade fortress carved from polished black laminasteel that was all smooth surfaces and sharp, clean lines assembled with a certain harsh grace.

 

"Haven't been here five minutes and I'm already depressed," Janassa muttered to the other ladies-in-waiting as they trailed after Rey.

 

The Chume'da herself was inclined to agree. However, Kylo demanded all of her attention as he stood a few feet away in the same armor he had worn when she first laid eyes on him in the Takodana forest— so long ago now, it seemed. She had no idea what he was thinking behind his expressionless obsidian helm, the hood of his cowl pulled up as it rippled in the breeze, but she could feel the heat of his stare through the silver-lined visor.

 

His intense scrutiny probably had to do with the fact that she was draped in First Order colors, as befitted the occasion. Red lace bedecked the upper half of Rey's torso in a carefully sculpted arrangement of asymmetric neckline, wrist-length illusion sleeves, and empire waist, slashed down the side by a knife's edge glint of black silk that flowed into a stiff overskirt with a short yet elaborately ribboned train. As the wind picked up, the gown's hem fluttered around her ankles, revealing more layers of red fabric that bloomed like pools of blood amidst a backdrop of starless midnight.

 

"You are going to be crowned Empress," Lairelosse had told Rey before she left Hapes. "You might as well look the part."

 

Even though Rey could sense Ta'a Chume and Isolder disembarking from the shuttle behind her, Kylo didn't so much as acknowledge them. Instead, he stepped closer to her until she was forced to look up at him.

 

"Chume'da," he rasped.

 

It had been ages since Rey last heard the low static purr of that artificially modulated voice. It sent a chill down her spine, but she refused to be bested this early on. "Emperor," she replied, using dignity as a shield the way her father's people did with such skill.

 

Kylo tilted his head up for a brief moment, lazily perusing the sky. "You brought your warships," he remarked, acting for all the world as if he could see the Hapan Battle Dragon with its Nova- class escorts hovering in the black above Coruscant, even though he would already have been briefed on their presence by homeworld security. "Perhaps I should take offense."

 

"You're the one meeting me in full battle regalia," Rey pointed out.

 

"I was training with my knights. You arrived earlier than expected." He glanced at the two other royals over the top of her head. " Ereneda. Prince Isolder. Welcome."

 

"What are we, chopped liver?" Janassa said under her breath, and Rey had to fight back a snort.

 

Kylo turned on his heel and the stormtroopers who had been hanging back followed suit and began marching into the Citadel. The Emperor strode forward and then stopped short, as if he'd almost forgotten something. Trailing after him, Rey paused in her tracks as well, confused.

 

"Walk with your husband, Your Grace," said Ta'a Chume.

 

Oh. Right.

 

Embarrassed, Rey hurried over to Kylo's side, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow that he held out to her. He smelled like smoke and leather, and she couldn't help glancing at him from time to time as they entered the dark hallways of his fortress. He looked menacing in his skeletal black armor but the effect was softened, somewhat, by all that she had learned of his past from the people who had known and loved him— and betrayed him, in their own fashions. That was what Leia had done as well, hadn't she, by concealing the truth that his grandfather was Darth Vader?

 

"I did it to protect him," the General had said. "In the end, though, he found out in the most horrible of ways— via scandalous headlines, just like everyone else. That was when I truly lost my son."

 

There was a small, nasty part of Rey that insisted Kylo was a lost cause, that there was no saving someone who had killed his own father and been complicit in genocide. But another part of her remembered the little hints of humanity he'd shown over the past month— the terror on his face as the blaster bolts hurtled towards her, the switch from alcohol to water, how he'd held her in his arms as she cried, and even the way he'd given back her duvet after she made him sleep on the floor. Granted, he'd practically hurled it at her, but now, in the light of Leia's recollections about the kind of child he'd been, Rey wondered if he hadn't wanted her to be cold. Or something.

 

Naturally, this train of thought led to what else had occurred on their wedding night.

 

She'd decided to adopt a more or less pragmatic view of the matter. Hadn't Lairelosse said that hate was just another kind of passion? Kylo and Rey had been arguing, their tempers running high, and he'd kissed her to shut her up. If they'd gotten carried away, well, it was only because she'd been wearing next to nothing and he was the first man she'd ever kissed. She'd been curious, he'd been a typical male, and that was that.

 

He called you beautiful, whispered some mischievous inner voice, that night in his room, against the wardrobe—

 

"You are attempting to cut off my circulation, Your Grace?" Kylo's metallic rumble broke through her reverie, causing Rey to nearly leap out of her skin.

 

"Sorry." She loosened the constricting grip she'd apparently been trapping his arm in for the past... however many minutes.

 

He said nothing in response but, from the way the visor of his mask was angled, it was obvious that he was looking at her. Was he thinking about their wedding night as well? It was the ghost that walked with them, the invisible string pulled taut between their respective awareness of each other.

 

In the end, the Hapan delegation was escorted to a small antechamber where they would pass the time until the coronation ceremony began. There was a table laden with wine and an assortment of finger sandwiches, cold cuts, and cheeses, and Kylo tersely invited Rey, Ta'a Chume, Isolder, the ladies-in-waiting, and the Chume'doro to help themselves before he disappeared to make his own preparations.

 

Niobe took a delicate bite from an already delicate sandwich. "It's horrid," she declared, wrinkling her nose. "The bread is stale, the dressing is bland, the greens are wilted."

 

Vanya was quick to agree. "It will be up to Her Grace to introduce the finer points of royal cuisine to the Emperor's court."

 

Rey blinked at the girls, her cheeks bulging around her third sandwich. They stared at her and she shrugged as she swallowed and reached for the platter of cold cuts without the slightest hint of remorse. Food was food, after all.

 

She eventually had to stop eating because Ta'a Chume beckoned her over to the window, which displayed a sprawling view of Coruscant. "The city covers the whole planet, then?" asked the Queen Mother.

 

Rey nodded. "You've never been here? Even in the days of the Old Republic?"

 

"I have never before left the Hapes Cluster," Ta'a Chume said like it was a point of pride— which it probably was, for her. "So far, I am not impressed by what I find. A most shabby domain." She extended a slim arm dripping with silk and gemstones to indicate several spots with one stiletto-coned finger. "You will need some fountains there, there, and there. A promenade connecting the various districts would not go amiss— perhaps with marble arches and flowering trees."

 

"I don't think beauty ranks very high on the First Order's list of priorities."

 

"It should. The masses appreciate a bit of flair. This world is the heart of your empire, yes? You need to keep its inhabitants happy, and to do that, you need to make it livable."

 

"It's not really my empire—" Rey started to protest, but Ta'a Chume cut her off with an impatient shake of her head.

 

"There's no use thinking like that anymore, Kira. The chips have fallen into place. No one knows what the future holds, but for now—" the Queen Mother gestured to the skyline outside the window once more, this time sweeping her hand as if to encompass it in its entirety— "the Emperor is yours, his galaxy is yours, his power is yours. It's time for you to rule."

 

"You're awfully enthusiastic, Ereneda." Rey narrowed her eyes at the older woman. "This is no longer about making the best of a bad situation, is it? You like the idea of having a granddaughter on the First Order throne!"

 

"And why shouldn't I?" countered Ta'a Chume. "What matriarch would object to her family gaining more influence, more prestige?"

 

This will not last forever. The First Order will fall, Rey wanted to argue, but in that moment Ta'a Chume folded her hands together, her right forefinger tapping on the curve of her left-hand knuckles with painstaking deliberation.

 

Rey froze. She recognized the warning gesture for what it was. Keeping her eyes on her grandmother, she extended her Force perception, scanning the antechamber for tech with the same innate ability that had made her so uncannily skilled with machines even as a child, back when Luke Skywalker had been just another myth. It wasn't long before she detected the buzzing presence of surveillance equipment nestled in various nooks and crannies, hidden from plain sight.

 

The room was bugged.

 

How had Ta'a Chume known...?

 

"Na paid ke, vovina," the Queen Mother said in Hapan. It always is, my darling. Only, it didn't exactly translate to "my darling"— vovina was the word for "dragon," but, when used among the royal family to refer to one another, it served the same purpose as a term of endearment. My darling, my dragon.

 

It belatedly dawned on Rey that Ta'a Chume might have sought to lull whoever was listening into a false sense of complacency by making them think that the Hapans were content to revel in their newfound position and to occupy themselves with superficial, harmless matters such as redecorating— instead of, say, hiding the last chunk of the Resistance fleet within their borders.

 

Don't you ever get tired, Rey wished she could ask her grandmother, of always being two steps ahead of everyone else? She couldn't imagine what it was like to have to live that way. If this was the future in store for her, she wasn't so certain she could handle it. But it was definitely, definitely time to start taking notes.

 

*

 

Her Grace Kira Ka Djo of the Hapes Consortium was crowned Empress of the First Order as a light rain fell from the skies above Coruscant. Sheltered from the drizzle by the roof that hung over the main balcony of the Citadel, from which streamed the Empire's red-and-black banners, she knelt before her husband, the layered skirts and ribboned train of her gown splaying across the polished laminasteel in swirls of blood and midnight.

 

Her crown had been hammered out of Gorothite platinum and studded with Naboo night pearls and nova rubies from the planet Sarka. Downright plain by Hapan standards, but it was a powerful symbol of the First Order's total conquest of the Mid Rim. It was a slender thing, the circular band dwarfed in Kylo's gloved hands as he placed it on Rey's head with everyone watching— from First Order High Command and the Consortium representatives up on the balcony with them to the legions of officers and stormtroopers spread throughout the vast courtyard, raindrops spattering on dress uniforms and white armor.

 

Kylo had removed his mask for the occasion but he was still clad in black— no surprises there, Rey thought, perhaps less waspishly than she normally would have. The only spots of color were the gold brocade on his formal tunic and the red gems on the same crown he'd worn to their wedding, set atop the waves of his dark hair. He'd swapped out his usual leather gloves for silk, the material smooth and cool as his fingers curled feather-light against the sides of her head.

 

"Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the peoples of the Empire of the First Order in accordance with our laws and customs?" he asked her softly, his eyes never leaving her face.

 

"I swear," Rey told him. The First Order had transmitted the script to Hapes yesterday and there had been such a furor among the royal advisors— at least, until Ta'a Chume had stepped in and reminded them that the Emperor hadn't contested the Hapan marriage vows. He'd played his part and now it was time for the Chume'da to play hers.

 

"Will you swear to execute rationality and justice in all your judgments, and to maintain and preserve inviolably the dominion of the Empire in all your actions?"

 

"I swear," Rey repeated.

 

"Will you swear your fealty to my crown and your obedience to my will for as long as you are within the borders of my realm?"

 

This was the part she didn't like. "I swear." She couldn't help the vaguely belligerent note that crept into her tone, or how she came this close to rolling her eyes. Obedience to him— as if!

 

The line of his mouth curved upwards in a faint smirk. For a moment he looked younger than his years, darkly handsome like his father. Something painful and bittersweet tugged at Rey's heart as she remembered the holo that Leia had shown her.

 

Kylo's voice lowered even further when he segued into the last lines of the oath. "Will you stay by my side?" he asked, framed by black laminasteel contours and rain and sixteen-rayed insignias blowing in the wind. "Will you stand with me against my enemies and help me build my empire?"

 

The Force sighed all around them, a silver melody weaving through the patter of the rain.

 

"I will," Rey said.

 

He released the crown on her head, his hands drifting down her face and his silk-clad fingers brushing against her cheeks. Fleeting, gentle, most probably accidental touches, but her pulse sped up all the same.

 

Kylo took Rey's hand and helped her to her feet, leading her to a spot just behind the rails of the balcony, where they could both look out over the assembled troops.

 

Hux stepped forward as well, his wintry features even more pinched than usual in the gray light. "Long live the Emperor and the Empress!" His nasal voice resounded through the courtyard. "Long may they reign!"

 

As one, the military forces snapped their heels and raised their fists in salute. Later, Rey would tell herself that it was only the atmosphere of the ceremony that had gotten to her, but everything about this moment seemed fraught with meaning and tension, as if it carried with it the grim pall of destiny.

 

*

 

Backless.

 

The gown was kriffing backless.

 

As he and Rey stood around nursing champagne and accepting congratulations and plaudits from various high-ranking guests in the Citadel's function hall, Kylo tried his best to ignore the fact that the back of her gown dipped so low that three more inches would have exposed what appeared to be a fascinatingly pert derrière. It was bad enough that the mere sight of her wearing First Order colors did strange things to his system, filling him with a dark, possessive heat; now, every time he blinked, he saw the graceful curve of her spine in the space behind his eyes, like it had been seared into his memory. He wanted to press his lips to that smooth expanse of creamy golden skin between her shoulder-blades, perhaps while his hands reached around to cup her breasts. It haunted his dreams at night, how her nipple had hardened at his touch, how she had gasped into his mouth...

 

Kylo shifted uncomfortably under the pretext of taking another sip of champagne. I am not going to get an erection in the middle of a crowded function hall.

 

"My grandmother seems to be enjoying herself," Rey commented from beside him.

 

Well, if anything could put a damper on Kylo's arousal, it was the mention of Ta'a Chume. He followed Rey's gaze to where the Queen Mother was holding court amidst a throng of sector governors. "They're building diplomatic relations," he surmised, "in the hopes of facilitating the lucrative flow of commerce."

 

"You mean your governors are sucking up to her so she'll give them a good price on the Cluster's exports and a lower import tax rate for their own products," Rey said blithely.

 

Kylo glanced down at her, the corner of his mouth twitching upwards in a brief, reluctant half-smile. Her candor was a breath of fresh air in this kind of environment— and oddly charming. "Not only that," he admitted. "Each sector is vying for that much-coveted first direct trading route to Hapes."

 

"The Core Worlds get dibs, surely?"

 

"Perhaps not. A robust galactic economy would necessitate diverting focus from the center instead of leaving other regions out in the cold. That was one of the problems with the Republic— the majority of businesses dealings benefited a mere handful of systems, while others languished."

 

For a moment he was afraid that she was going to tear into him for even daring to mention the Republic that he'd destroyed. Instead, she nodded— not in agreement, but a polite, thoughtful nod that indicated she'd listened to him and would take his views into consideration.

 

Kylo was suddenly deeply suspicious as to why Rey was being so amiable. He'd spent their three days apart bracing himself for the worst, but here she was acting like nothing out of the ordinary had happened on their wedding night.

 

"Back on Jakku, they'd rant about Core Worlders, the older people," she ventured after a while. "Some were laborers working the cargo routes or criminals, just passing through, but others were settlers who'd thrown in their lot with us junk rats because there were no other options. They'd been fired from mines and factories owned by Coruscanti or Corellians, or work had dried up on their homeworlds because of the monopolies on various industries held by planets closer to the center. So, yeah, there's that," she concluded with a helpless little shrug, and despite her opulent dress and the silver crown perched on her head, Kylo was reminded of the scavenger he'd met in the forest three years ago— almost four now— clad in rags and rough-skinned and sinewy-thin from a hard life.

 

"Things are going to change," he vowed. "You'll see. We'll make it better."

 

"'We'?" she echoed.

 

He nodded, his earnestness surpassing his common sense like it always did because, despite all his bluster to the contrary, he'd never gotten into the habit of learning from his mistakes. "You're my Empress now. You'll rule by my side."

 

Rey's hazel eyes widened slightly and in them Kylo saw a certain tentative fascination, as if she were tempted to give in to the future that he was offering. The ambient noises of the function hall melted away and it was only just the two of them on the verge of— something. Something new that called to mind the concept of promise, and horizon.

 

"Emperor Ren."

 

His brow furrowing in annoyance, Kylo grudgingly tore his gaze away from his wife. "What is it?" he all but snarled at Hux.

 

Hux quirked an eyebrow at his surly tone. "You have an urgent communique from Regent Snoke."

 

*

 

Rey watched Kylo leave the hall. Was she just overly tired, or was it really disappointment, this sinking sensation? Why should she be disappointed that he'd gone to answer Snoke's summons instead of continuing the discussion with her? He'd left so quickly, sparing her only one hesitant glance before walking away...

 

"Apologies for interrupting, Chume'da," Hux said, not sounding apologetic at all. "Regent Snoke doesn't like to be kept waiting, you see."

 

"I understand, General," Rey said, narrowing her eyes at the odious man. And because she couldn't resist getting the dig in— "However, it occurs to me that you're using the wrong address. We are on First Order soil, are we not?"

 

"Of course," Hux replied without missing a beat, "Your Majesty."

 

He placed enough emphasis on the title so as to hint at sarcasm, but not quite enough that she could call him out on it. Rey's instincts warned her that Hux would be a problem in the long run; however, that wasn't anything she hadn't already known.

 

It was Isolder who came to her rescue, smoothly taking her arm and leading her away from Hux. "Goodness, what was Ren thinking, leaving you in the lurch like that," her father grumbled. "The least he could have done was escort you to me and your grandmother first. I suppose you must introduce social graces to his court in addition to better cuisine."

 

Rey spent the rest of the evening taking her cues from Ta'a Chume and Isolder, making courteous small talk and listening, always listening, to what people said between the lines. She kept glancing at the main doorway, but Kylo did not return.

Chapter Text

The TIE silencer was the first and so far the only active-duty starfighter of its kind, a Sienar-Jaemus Fleet Systems prototype noted for its speed and ferocity in battle. It had also been recently outfitted with one of the new sub-hyperspace drives; thus, Kylo's journey from the Core to the Unknown Regions lasted mere seconds when it would normally have taken six days at lightspeed.

 

Snoke did not like to be at the center of the action, Kylo had come to realize. His master preferred pulling strings from the shadows at the edge of the charted galaxy. He's a coward, opined a small, traitorous voice in his head that he hastily stifled as the silencer hurtled through glittering space on the whine of twin ion engines. He needed to be in a stable frame of mind when he walked into the Supreme Leader's presence.

 

There is no more Supreme Leader, the voice insisted, fainter but still present like the aftershock of a migraine. Snoke handed that to you on a silver platter because he thinks you won't turn it to your advantage. The old order is gone. There is only the Emperor.

 

And the Empress.

 

Thinking about Rey was definitely the worst thing he could do upon meeting with Snoke. Kylo took a deep breath, centering himself. To his great shame, this was one of the times Luke Skywalker's teachings came in handy, the ancient mantra helping to focus his mind— There is no emotion, there is peace. It was a crutch, one he'd secretly been relying on more and more this past year despite knowing that it hindered his connection to the dark side.

 

But, for now, it served its purpose.

 

Kylo docked at the Supremacy and took the turbolift to Snoke's throne room. Through the visor of his helm, he surveyed the Elite Praetorian Guards standing as still as statues in red laminate armor. There were eight of them, none Force-sensitive but all deadly fighters wielding lightsaber-resistant melee weapons. They flanked the throne from which Snoke observed Kylo's approach with pale, beady eyes.

 

In life, the regent was not as physically imposing as the gargantuan holograms through which he communicated with his legions across long distances. He was a humanoid of spindly proportions, with wrinkled, doughy skin and features distorted by past injuries— a ruptured cheek, a misshapen jaw, a scar running down the middle of his forehead. When Ben Solo had fled the blood-soaked ruins of the Jedi training temple on a stolen ship with the apprentices who would one day be known as Clavicus, Malacath, Boethiah, Meridia, and Mephala Ren, following the lure of Snoke's call to the brightest clutch of stars in the Unknown Regions, he had been taken aback by the stark contrast between the Supreme Leader's human-like size and the grandly omnipresent voice that had been in his head for so long. However, he'd quickly learned that it was Snoke's power in the Force that was to be reckoned with.

 

Kylo sank down to one knee before his master and waited for him to speak. He had no illusions as to why he'd been summoned out of the blue— he'd been expecting it since Rey asked him for the Skywalker blade in front of Hux.

 

"Take off your mask," Snoke ordered in a quiet, menacing tone.

 

Kylo silently complied, setting his helm on the floor by his feet.

 

"Do you remember when you came to me after the destruction of Starkiller Base? Do you remember what I said?"

 

"You told me I was unbalanced," Kylo woodenly replied. "You told me I had too much of Han Solo's heart in me."

 

"Perhaps you still do," Snoke growled. "I gave you the benefit of the doubt then because a sizable portion of the Resistance managed to escape the siege on D'Qar and I needed you back on the front lines. Now I am thinking that may have been a mistake." When Kylo said nothing, Snoke continued, "Not very talkative today, my young emperor? Perhaps you think you can still keep secrets from me?"

 

"No, master."

 

Snoke's paper-thin lips curled into a sneer. "It is a pity you did not see fit to divulge the information that you had recovered your grandfather's blade. I would have instructed you on how to properly commune with it, to further augment your powers with the darkness. Such a rare, precious gift, now needlessly squandered. Oh, what you could have become..." He trailed off, sounding weary and disappointed like a teacher whose student had failed, but with a mocking edge. "I won't ask why you hid something so important from me. I already know the reason. It all goes back to your father's weakness that you inherited, that I myself have been remiss in snuffing out. That ends tonight."

 

Snoke did not so much as get up from his throne. Instead, he merely crooked his fingers and, for Kylo, the pain began, a debilitating, bone-searing pain painted in Force lightning.

 

"You want to be like Vader, boy?" Snoke roared over the cries that tore loose from Kylo's throat as he crumpled to the floor in both mental and physical agony, currents of white heat scorching his veins, invisible whips of energy lashing at his back. "Then learn how to take pain like Vader."

 

And yet there was a part of Kylo where it seemed like this was all happening from far away. Some tiny part of him was out of his body, wrapped in the light, sheltered somewhere that felt safe.

 

Snoke lies.

 

It was a phantom voice, the one that he'd caught echoes of when he held Darth Vader's old lightsaber in his hands and meditated with the encased crystal that thrummed within it like a beating heart.

 

That blade would never have brought you to full darkness. It was more mine than it was Vader's.

 

Tears of sheer terror sprung to Kylo's eyes. He panicked and thrashed about, making the pain worse. Snoke would see this like he saw everything else, Snoke would punish him even more for it—

 

He won't. I swear to you that he won't.

 

How can you be sure? Kylo asked with the last vestiges of rational thought left to him, lightning and talons surging through his body in never-ending waves as he screamed and whimpered like a child, there on the cold floor of the throne room. He was imagining this voice, this other presence. He had to be. His mind was seeking refuge in false constructs, anything to distract from the torment.

 

Because I love you.

 

For a moment it felt like someone had passed a hand over his brow. A cool, gentle touch in the midst of his master's cruel instruction. The light flickered inside him, small and secret and never completely vanishing. It helped him endure.

 


 

The afterparty had come and gone, most of the guests had departed, and the Citadel was sinking into night rhythms, glow-panels being extinguished in offices and living quarters and stormtrooper patrols changing shift. A black RA-7 protocol droid had shown Ta'a Chume and Isolder to their chambers, and now it was leading Rey and her ladies to the suite of rooms specially prepared for the Empress.

 

While the girls were much better than Rey at stifling their yawns and concealing the droop in their steps, everyone was obviously tired from the long day. However, they all stiffened, as one, at the sight of two masked figures blocking their path.

 

"Leave us, RA-7," purred Mephala. "We'll escort Her Majesty to her royal boudoir."

 

The droid hesitated. "The Emperor instructed me before he left—" it started to whir in its mechanical voice, but Meridia slashed out an arm, telekinetically slamming the hapless protocol unit into a nearby wall.

 

"There's really no need for that," Rey snapped. "You can go, RA-7." She placed herself between the knights and her ladies-in-waiting as the droid scurried away. Unbeknown to everyone else, her saberstaff was holstered at her thigh and she was suddenly glad she'd taken such a precaution, even if she'd have to rip her fine skirts to get to it.

 

"Well?" Rey calmly challenged when the twins didn't move or speak for several long seconds— just watched her with the air of two particularly snide cats watching a mouse. "Weren't you going to take me to my suite?"

 

"You're certainly having a grand time lording it over us," hissed Mephala. "Meanwhile, our master suffers because of you."

 

A chill shot down Rey's spine. "What are you talking about?"

 

Instead of replying right away, the darksiders turned and began walking, leaving Rey no choice but to follow them. She signaled her ladies to keep back a few paces in case the knights lost control as they were wont to do— they were furious, she could sense it now, all the prickling embers in the Force.

 

"The day you negotiated the exchange of tokens," Meridia grimly supplied. "You asked Lord Ren for his grandfather's lightsaber."

 

"So what if I did?"

 

"Snoke didn't know about it," said Mephala.

 

Perhaps as part of their intimidation tactics, the twins had carefully cultivated a habit of taking turns in a conversation as if they were the same person. While that was enough to make anyone's head spin, Rey usually drew on the light side to prevent from being rattled. Tonight, however...

 

Tonight, dread spilled through her in a cold, slow wash. It started from her heart and pushed up her throat at the same time that it sunk like a stone to the pit of her stomach. Where was Kylo? What was happening to him?

 

"Snoke didn't know," Meridia echoed her twin sister as they came to a stop outside a set of black doors, "but either Hux or Daala must have snitched because that's the only reason he would have called Lord Ren away in the middle of such an important event."

 

"Snoke doesn't like it when Lord Ren is disloyal," Mephala continued, "and I'm sure you're aware of how unforgiving darksiders can be."

 

" All of us," Meridia added, and this time Rey could hear the malicious smile in her voice.

 

"What's fair is fair, Empress," crooned Mephala. "We can't touch you but maybe one of your simpering little dolls—" Quick as a flash, she rounded on the silent, wide-eyed ladies, her hand darting into the folds of her cloak to unwind the slicewire from her utility belt.

 

Rey sprang into action, moving faster than Mephala for the sole reason that she had to. She lifted the other woman off the floor with the Force and then did the same to Meridia, who had also been in the process of reaching for her own weapon. "Get inside!" she barked at her retinue, her narrowed eyes never leaving the suspended figures as they struggled for breath and kicked uselessly in the air. It wasn't until the doors slid shut behind Janassa, Esli, Niobe, Vanya, and Sayl that Rey exerted even more pressure on the twins' windpipes, her rage at them and her shocking worry for Kylo coalescing into something fiery and harsh that fueled the maelstrom of energy emanating from her fingertips.

 

"You dare threaten the innocent," she grated out, hardly recognizing the ugly, guttural patina that had slicked over her own voice. "You dare threaten allies granted safe passage—"

 

Inexplicably, Mephala started laughing. It was strained as she fought against Rey's Force grip but it was laughter nonetheless. "See?" she croaked to her sister. "I told you it was her. Told you she had dark in her. Skywalker never could've done it."

 

Rey's arms dropped back to her sides. The twins fell to the floor with the movement, both of them taking deep gulps of air through their masks as they struggled to their feet. Although she was wondering what it was she was supposed to have done that Luke couldn't, the prudent course was to disengage before she completely gave in her tumultuous emotions. She hadn't used the Force like that in a while— she hadn't realized how starved she'd been for it, for the wildness, the raw feeling.

 

She backed away from the twins and entered her suite. Right before the doors closed, she heard Meridia snarl, "Enjoy the rest of your evening, Your Majesty."

 

*

 

Esli was crying as she sat on one of the beds in the dormitory-style room that had been prepared for the ladies-in-waiting. Sayl and Vanya were hovering on either side of her, rubbing her back and offering silk kerchiefs for her to blow her nose on. The poor girl shook from head to toe— in an old life, Rey might have possibly been bewildered or even annoyed by all this carrying on, but she knew that Esli had led a sheltered life, and she was only seventeen. To come from that sort of background, to be that young, and to be threatened with such violence must be hard to bear.

 

Janassa, for her part, was indignant. "This is preposterous, Chume'da!" she railed. "The First Order and the Consortium have an accord— the Emperor's lackeys simply cannot be allowed to get away with this!"

 

"The knights aren't First Order," Rey muttered. "They answer to Ren alone. But I'll talk to him. It won't happen again, I swear, or I'll kill them myself."

 

"Those women are crazy, Your Grace," said Niobe. "Absolutely frothing at the mouth. And they are the Emperor's bodyguards?"

 

"That's darksiders for you. They like to sow fear and chaos. Makes them happy." Rey sighed, willing her own temper to cool. She had to be the calm one in this situation so as to avoid stirring up further panic among her retinue. "Get some rest. You've all earned it. No one's coming through those doors tonight. You have my word." She was going to sleep with her lightsaber clutched in her hand, just in case.

 

Brushing off her ladies' offers to help her out of her coronation gown, Rey went to her own private bedroom. Just before she left, she heard Janassa telling Esli, "Chin up! We are the Empress' handmaidens now. If we are to help her play the game, we have to be strong."

 

"I— I'll try," Esli sniffed.

 

Poor girls.

 

The Empress' chambers were done up in the same gloomy blacks and grays that permeated the rest of the Citadel. Rey was not particularly surprised, but she was pleased to discover that she had a balcony and— after opening the small side door across from her bed— a spacious 'fresher, with a vanity top fashioned from Gallian firestone and, in addition to the shower stall, a crystalline granite bathtub big enough for two.

 

Come to think of it, there were two sinks as well, embedded into the firestone paneling in front of the mirror.

 

And another door, opposite from the one through which Rey had entered.

 

"No way," she said out loud.

 

The door was sealed with an electronic combination but she managed to pick the lock's circuitry with one of the glittering metallic pins that had been keeping her elegant chignon in place all evening. As a section of loosened hair tumbled down her shoulders, she stepped into a bedroom that was as austerely furnished as hers and was, very obviously, Kylo's.

 

It smelled like him.

 

Rey had never developed the habit of associating certain scents with certain people. On Jakku, everyone had smelled like the desert, sweaty and sun-baked, and Resistance members used the same standard-issue soap and shampoo. Among the Hapan court, the mix of various exotic perfumes and scented oils was too confusing to try and make sense of— was downright cloying on occasion, to the point that Rey would sometimes sneeze in a crowded hall.

 

Kylo, though, was different. She just hadn't realized how much until she walked into a room she'd never been in before and instantly knew it was his because of the scents that hung in the air. There was, first and foremost, the warm fragrance of sweet myrrh that formed the base notes of his cologne, mingled with the sandalwood spice of his aftershave and a hint of honey and olives from his pomade. Underscoring all of these, also, was the slightly acidic tang of caf, the earthiness of leather, and whiffs of parchment and ink.

 

Her gaze fell to the desk pushed up against the far wall. Moonlight streamed in through the glass panels of the door leading out to the balcony, glinting off a calligraphy set similar to the one that had been on a young Ben Solo's table the night his uncle almost killed him in his sleep.

 

Rey knew that she should leave, but curiosity made her stay where she was, studying every detail of the room in an attempt to gather more information about the man she had married. And that was why she was still standing there when the main doors opened and Kylo stumbled in from the hallway, the glow-panels illuminating their surroundings in soft golden light.

 

She turned her head and their eyes met, widening in sync with their lips parting in surprise. He had changed into plain black garb and she barely had time to register his pained expression before his shoulders sagged and his body dipped forward in the beginnings of a slow, terrible collapse.

 

Rey hurried over to him, bracing him in her arms before he could hit the floor. "You're injured!"

 

"Your powers of observation are—" Kylo's sentence cut off into a sharp hiss as he pressed one gloved hand over his ribs, as if they'd been broken.

 

It took some effort in her gown and high heels, but Rey was finally able to haul him onto the bed. His face was pale against the black sheets— too pale, a worrying gray at the edges— and his tunic was soaked through with— with blood or sweat, she couldn't tell—

 

Rey didn't ask what happened. Meridia and Mephala had already told her, hadn't they? She wrestled Kylo's tunic off of him, her heart clenching in sympathy as he grunted with each abrupt, jolting movement. Now he was bare from the waist up, save for his gloves and arm-guards, but she couldn't afford to be embarrassed— all of her attention was taken up by the burns, bruises, and lacerations marring his skin like some gruesome star chart.

 

Kylo grabbed her wrist before she could place it over his chest to begin the long process of healing. "Leave it," he told her through clenched teeth, his eyes fluttering shut. "I can take care of myself."

 

"You're in no condition to use the Force," Rey argued.

 

"I can manage—"

 

"No, you can't!"

 

He flinched like a kicked puppy at her harsh, raised voice. What had Snoke done to his spirit to make him this vulnerable? Thoroughly chastened now, Rey cradled his scarred cheek with her free hand. "Let me help you," she pleaded, more softly this time.

 

"Rey." Kylo whispered her name, the shape of it rough and strained in his mouth. He leaned into her touch as if it was something he couldn't help doing, and she thought of the boy in the holo, Han and Leia's sweet, affectionate child. "You shouldn't be here."

 

"But I am, anyway." Rey sat down beside his sprawled form, careful to avoid bumping against the mottled purple blooms over his ribs. "And you're not getting rid of me that easily."

 

He opened his eyes and suddenly she was staring into the liquid dark brown of them, burnished by the room's golden light. Snoke had left his face untouched, but it was that part of him that showed the damage most clearly. Kylo looked lost and anguished and scared, perspiration dotting his brow. It was several long moments before he spoke again— she could see various decisions playing out across his conflicted features and, above it all, the desperate desire for comfort. For relief from his suffering.

 

"My back's worse off," he finally admitted.

 

Rey bit her tongue to stop from scolding him for taking his sweet time telling her. She helped him roll over onto his stomach, and then she had to stifle a gasp at the sight. He had been repeatedly whipped by what seemed like tendrils of both thorn and flame, the striated wounds jagged at the edges and criss-crossing down his spine, weeping drops of scarlet on singed skin. How had he survived this? How could anyone have survived this? What kind of master would subject their apprentices to this kind of punishment?

 

Later, Rey thought. She could ask questions later. For now, she had to concentrate on the daunting task at hand.

 

*

 

The next hour passed mostly in silence, in stillness, in golden light, punctuated by the radiant hum of the Force as it flowed from her fingertips and into the open pathways of his ruined flesh. She was far from the best at this— every once in a while, he would wince when she prodded too clumsily or bent energy the wrong way— and, try as she might, she couldn't suppress the nagging guilt that hovered at the borders of her consciousness like a toothache. Of course this wasn't her fault— she hadn't known that he'd kept the Skywalker blade a secret from Snoke— but it was difficult to not feel like she'd done this to him, because the plain and simple truth of the matter was that she'd set into motion the chain of events that had led to him being tortured.

 

I will try to be kinder, Rey vowed to herself as she sewed up Kylo's wounds and smoothed away his bruised and burned skin with the Force. Stars help me, I will be kind.

 

He seemed dazed when she turned him over again, probably a side effect of the healing skill, with all its anesthetic properties, being administered to him in such copious amounts. His relaxed limbs were as heavy as lead, staggeringly uncooperative, and it took her quite a bit of effort to reposition him on the bed and remove his gloves and arm-guards. The section of her hair that had been dislodged when she removed one of her pins spilled down onto his chest as she bent over him to work on his frontal injuries, and she nearly jumped off the mattress in shock when he reached out to twirl the loose strands around his large fingers.

 

"I always used to wonder what you'd look like with your hair down," Kylo murmured.

 

"What are you going on about?" Rey murmured right back, too focused on mending the cracks in his ribs. "You're delirious."

 

"I must be," he sighed, a wistful catch in his voice. "For one thing, I think you're really here."

 

That made her pause and peer up at him. His eyes were at half-mast, his jaw almost slack. Had she gone overboard with the energy she'd used to dull his pain, or was this unavoidable in all patients put in the healing trance for a considerable length of time? Deciding that there was nothing that could be done about it now, she resumed her work, ignoring the fact that he was basically playing with her hair at this point.

 

It took another hour before the last of Kylo's wounds disappeared, sutured by light. Exhaling in relief, Rey stood up and went to the 'fresher, soaking a couple of towels in hot water so that she could wipe away the blood on his skin. Kylo had tensed up again by the time she returned, staring at the ceiling. When the mattress dipped beneath her weight, his gaze slanted hesitantly towards her, abject terror written all over his face.

 

"I thought you left," he said.

 

And in Rey's memories, Leia was sorrowfully shaking her head. "I never should have sent him away. He must have felt so alone, like he didn't have anyone to turn to. He was only a child."

 

"I just went to grab these," Rey assured Kylo, holding up the towels for his benefit. She mopped up the blood on his chest and ribs, and then coaxed him into turning on his side so that she could clean up his back as well, even though his black sheets had soaked up most of it.

 

When she was done, she made to rise to her feet to toss the used towels into the hamper for the laundry droids to take care of in the morning— but Kylo seized her elbow, despair surging from his Force signature in waves, and pulled her to him. The towels fell to the floor and Rey let out an indignant squeak as she found herself lying on top of his bare chest, her nose inches from his. He wrapped one arm around her, the hand that wasn't clutching her elbow settling over her lower back, exposed by the cut of her gown. His warm fingers trailed static charges along her spine. She hadn't realized she was so sensitive there.

 

"Don't leave me again," he rasped hoarsely. "I don't care if you're really here or not— just don't go."

 

Rey stared into the hollow desolation in his eyes, the utter defeat. She knew this loneliness. She understood it in the marrow of her bones. "I'm here, Ben," she whispered. How strange it was to call him that in gentleness, in an attempt to soothe instead of goad. "I'm here."

 

He looked like he didn't believe her, and it pierced her heart. She wondered if this was a common occurrence, him crawling back to his chambers after Snoke's punishments and nursing his injuries while he dreamed of not being alone. Rey suddenly wanted nothing more than to assure Kylo of her presence, to let him know in no uncertain terms that she was real and that he had someone who was on his side for once, and she could think of only one way to do that.

 

She took a deep breath, for courage, and then she closed her eyes and pressed her lips to his.

 

He didn't move.

 

Am I doing it wrong? Rey asked herself in a burst of panic. After several seconds, she lifted her head to peer cautiously down at him. His eyes were closed, his breathing even, the line of his mouth relaxed.

 

He was asleep.

 

"You're an asshole, Your Majesty," Rey said out loud. But her words were devoid of ire as they echoed through the quiet room, and her touch was gentle as she brushed Kylo's dark hair away from his forehead.

Chapter Text

One standard month later

 

"Emperor Ren."

 

Kylo looked up from the holomap of the Chopani sector that he and First Order High Command were poring over, frowning at the lieutenant who had just entered the conference room.

 

"I gave strict orders that I was not to be disturbed," he snapped at Mitaka. There were rumors of X-wing sightings in the Outer Rim, and he'd scheduled his entire afternoon to be spent determining the best way to investigate.

 

"Yes, Your Majesty. Apologies, Your Majesty." There was a slight tremble in Mitaka's voice as he saluted but otherwise refrained from dissolving into a puddle of nerves. Was the little lieutenant finally growing a backbone? "However, you instructed us to treat all messages from or pertaining to Hapes as a communication of first priority regardless of the situation. The Empress is on the line, Sir."

 

To their credit, most of High Command remained impassive— even if they seemed very, very preoccupied with the holomap all of a sudden— although that was definitely a sneer on Hux's pale, pointed face. "Have the comm routed to my chambers," Kylo told Mitaka. To the others, he said, "When I return, I expect a full briefing on the logistics that trawling the Void of Chopani for the Resistance fleet will involve."

 

He left the room at a brisk pace, telling himself that he was simply in a hurry to get back to business. In a way, this was true because he didn't wish to give Hux— slimy, ladder-climbing snitch that he was— the opportunity to hold court for a second longer than was necessary, but part of Kylo was also eager to hear from Rey.

 

No, not eager... Curious. Yes, that was it. He was curious. He wondered what she wanted. That was all. Nothing more.

 

Upon entering his suite, Kylo's gaze fell upon the neat pile of books on his desk, where he'd carefully tucked away the note he found beside his pillow the morning after Snoke meted out punishment a month ago. Kylo had woken up to freshly-changed sheets and the faintest whisper of lingering pain, with hazy memories of being taken care of by Rey and pulling her into his arms as unconsciousness claimed him. Despite the suspicious absence of injuries, he'd been ready to write the whole thing off as the feverish dream of a pitiful man wracked by agony— at least, until he saw the note.

 

My lord, Rey had scrawled in clumsy High Galactic, the writing alphabet that she would undoubtedly have been given a crash course in as a royal, I must return to Hapes as scheduled but I thought it best not to wake you. Seeing as you hardly stirred when the housekeeping droid and I changed your sheets, you need to have your rest. This sentence was followed by a few black smudges, as if she'd been unsure what to write next and the ink had dribbled while she hesitated. I apologize for helping myself to your calligraphy supplies. Take care. She'd started to sign it with her birth name, as she must have been used to doing, before meticulously crossing that out and writing Rey instead.

 

Kylo had read her note over and over again until it felt like he'd memorized every line of her atrocious penmanship. He'd thought about comming her as the days turned into weeks, but he had no idea what to say.

 

That didn't matter now. She was comming him.

 

There was a blip of static to signal an incoming transmission, and then Rey's face appeared on the vidscreen.

 

"Hey," she said.

 

Kylo would drown forever in those luminescent hazel eyes if he wasn't careful, so he chose to focus on her surroundings, which were unfamiliar to him. "Where are you?" he asked.

 

She arched a brow at his rudeness but didn't comment on it. "Alqualonde," she replied instead. "That's actually what I wanted to talk to you about. I— we are hosting a party."

 

He blinked. "We are?"

 

"This is your place of residence, too, so naturally you are hosting the party with me." There was something different about Rey that he couldn't quite put his finger on. Her demeanor was more firm and matter-of-fact, more like her grandmother's, but her face when she looked at him was— softer. It could very well be that she pitied him after seeing the sorry state he was in last month, and he wanted to lash out at her for that, but she was speaking again. "It's the Marauders' Masquerade, one of the three largest annual Consortium balls. In this case, it will also double as a housewarming."

 

"I have been appraised of Alqualonde's size, Chume'da. It can easily fit ten houses."

 

She rolled her eyes. "A castle-warming, then, Emperor. It will be held this coming Zhellday. Will you be here?"

 

Kylo smirked. Or, at least, he tried to. But instead of his usual caustic twitch of lips that conveyed disdain, his mouth felt like it was curving in a gentler, more teasing manner. "Seeing as I'm apparently the host, I can hardly fail to show up."

 

"Just as long as we are in accord." Rey paused, a bit of her calm assurance dissipating as she seemed to wrangle with some mysterious internal conflict. "If you would like to head over earlier," she said at last, "you're more than welcome. You could bring your things."

 

Miss me already? Kylo held his tongue from wisecracking. He probably should transfer a few personal effects to the Reef Fortress, as Ta'a Chume had suggested back during the engagement period. He had no plans to settle on Hapes but the idea of a vacation home was starting to carry a certain appeal that it had previously lacked. Besides, he could hardly refuse Rey after she'd taken care of him, although he did wonder what her reasons were for being willing to spend more time with him than was necessary.

 

"The court is starting to make noises about how tragic it is that you and I are estranged so soon after our wedding," she said, as if reading his mind.

 

Right. Of course this was about politics. Before he could muster some flippant reply, however, she added, "And I thought it might be good for you to get away for a while, Ben."

 

He stilled. He hadn't dreamed it, then, that she'd called him by his birth name on that night. I'm here, Ben. It wasn't pity that he was seeing in her eyes— it was compassion, the same thing he had felt for her when she burst into his life like a whirlwind and he saw the loneliness hidden away in the gaps of her soul. She was offering him respite— from the Citadel, from Snoke.

 

"I have some business to wrap up," Kylo heard himself say, "but I will be able to join you at the Reef Fortress tomorrow."

 

"I do have one condition," Rey countered. "The last time I was on Coruscant, Meridia and Mephala attempted to inflict bodily harm on the handmaidens. They are not welcome here. I hope you understand."

 

"They're my knights," he reminded her archly.

 

"Yes, and they threatened my ladies," she retorted, a spark of her usual temper flaring into existence. "So, unless you want to fight about this—"

 

"I don't," Kylo snapped.

 

"I don't, either," Rey said just as irritably, before he saw her take a quick, calming breath on the screen. "You can bring whoever you want— stars know we have the space— but not them."

 

He recognized her conciliatory offer for what it was. He tried to see it from her point of view as well. Meridia and Mephala were the most unpredictable out of all his knights, and Rey was simply doing what was in her power to keep her people safe. "Fine," he said grudgingly. "I won't bring the twins, and I'll also have a talk with them about their behavior. I will see you tomorrow?" It came out as a question, because after this brief spat he rather doubted that Rey still wanted him to head to Alqualonde several days before the masquerade.

 

To his surprise, she nodded. "Thank you, Ben."

 

That name again. He should admonish her. He should put up more of a fight. Instead, he only returned her nod, managing to school his expression into a semblance of impassiveness until her image disappeared and the screen faded to black.

 


 

That went more smoothly than expected, Rey thought after ending the comm. As she had discussed with Luke and Leia at a Stalsinek IV rendezvous the other week, the objective was to get Kylo away from the First Order— and, consequently, from Snoke's sphere of influence— as often as possible, for as long as possible. The Marauders' Masquerade provided a perfect opportunity.

 

I'm doing the right thing, Rey assured herself. It all felt a bit... underhanded, like the time she was briefed on Kylo's past. It bothered her for reasons she couldn't exactly pinpoint. However, the circumstances had forced them to resort to these measures. There had been nothing more terrible than the rage on Leia Organa's face when Rey told her what Snoke had done. "How can Ben still be loyal to that monster?" the General had cried.

 

And it was Luke who had answered, "Because he feels like he has nothing left."

 

It would be up to Rey, then, to latch on to the frayed threads of light in Kylo Ren's soul and to pull at them— either gently or with a good, hard tug— until the Empire of the First Order came crashing down.

 

Consulting her datapad, she found— much to her pleasure— that she had nothing scheduled for the rest of the day. She'd spent most of the past month shadowing Ta'a Chume as the latter went about the business of ruling. She liked the mediations well enough— it was the highest form of entertainment to watch feuding nobles struggle not to lose their tempers in front of the Queen Mother— but if she had to sit through another five-hour-long discussion on tax reform she was going to burn the Fountain Palace to the ground.

 

When she wasn't at said palace, Rey was busy learning the ropes of managing the Reef Fortress' staff or accompanying her father on his visits to the heart of the settlements. Ta'a Chume kept the aristocrats in line but it was Isolder who kept a finger on the people's pulse, taking note of their dissatisfactions and doing what he could to help. The prince was well-loved throughout the Consortium worlds while the Queen Mother was deified and the Chume'da was— well—

 

Rey could sense the common folk's apprehension around her. They treated her with all the respect and awe due to She Who Will Come After, and the older ones who had celebrated her birth would often shed more than a few tears upon meeting the long-lost heir, but, when it came right down to it, she was still something of an unknown quantity. A foreigner, who hadn't been raised according to their ways, and a half-blood at that. Not to mention that she could also use the Force, which they had been taught to fear.

 

Then there was the fact that her consort was a foreigner as well. To Rey's surprise, though, people seemed to be split on this— a good number of them lit up when they congratulated her on her wedding. They'd watched the broadcast and they'd found it shudderingly romantic, especially when the tall, dark-haired Emperor had leaned down to keep kissing his bride before the dragon altar. Rey understood now why the whole affair had been so absurdly lavish— the masses appreciated a bit of beauty and spectacle. Keeps them happy, Ta'a Chume had told her as much on Coruscant.

 

The good thing about having one's own domain was the freedom to come and go as one pleased. The Resistance cells had moved around again, Leia and company were no longer on Stalsinek IV, but Rey decided it was high time to attempt another chat with the Goddess. She'd tried before, on several occassions, but the deity had not elected to manifest. "This is a wilder, more unpredictable aspect of the Daughter," Luke had surmised. "The witches of Dathomir are not a cruel people but the goddess that they worship is... harder. More elemental."

 

Of course, that had been back when she and Luke were still on good terms.

 

Rey changed out of her day gown and into leggings, tunic, vest, and boots, clipping her saberstaff to her utility belt. She stole out of the royal suite and down the winding corridors of Alqualonde, the foundations of which were carved from Hapan basalt, dark and glittering as opposed to the Per'Agthra's smooth, white marble. Her Chume'doro were stationed at the castle's ingress points— there was no need for them to be breathing down her neck at this isolated fortress in the middle of the sea, after all, and she'd proven in many a sparring session that she was more than capable of defending herself— and her ladies-in-waiting were going about their usual routines, which these days tended to involve a lot of bickering with the household staff as the date of the masquerade drew nearer.

 

While Alqualonde's main dock was located outside the castle, there was a landing grid on one of the rooftops big enough for Kalessin, the customized Miy'til starfighter that Isolder had gifted to Rey when she moved out of the Fountain Palace. "So that you won't have to commandeer any more ships from our unsuspecting navy," he'd said in a tone of mock sternness, a twinkle in his blue eyes. Rey had been so overcome with gratitude that she'd thrown her arms around him in a tight hug, a gesture which was as alien to the Hapan court as it had been to the embittered scavengers of Jakku. But, for her, it conveyed happiness in someone else's presence. Finn had taught her that.

 

Kalessin was larger than a normal Miy'til starfighter but possessed of the same graceful lines and deadly weaponry— with a few extra missiles and a state-of-the-art stealth package. He also flew like a dream. Rey missed the Falcon, which had reverted to Chewbacca's command, but this was a worthy substitute.

 


 

A few hours later, she was on Stalsinek IV, slogging through the bushes and the bramble as she followed the trail of the nexus point's siren-song.

 

But someone was already there. Rey broke into the clearing and saw Antares Elerron of the Mist Patrol standing in the temple's courtyard. She felt his surprise at the sight of her ripple through the currents of the Force that were always more vibrant here than anywhere else on the rainforest world.

 

He recovered with admirable speed, snapping off a sharp salute. "Your Grace." He hesitated, and then corrected himself. "Your Majesty."

 

Rey waved off the unspoken apology. "I was your Chume'da long before I was Empress."

 

"And before that, you were my prisoner," he said ruefully. "I—"

 

"It's all right," Rey hastened to assure him. It was because of this man that she had been reunited with her father, after all. "You were doing your duty. But what are you doing here?"

 

Elerron gestured vaguely in the direction of the silver fountain. "Your mother, the Lady Teneniel, visited this place frequently, Chume'da. I sometimes come here to remember, and to mourn."

 

"Oh," Rey said, a bit awkwardly. She hadn't known that Elerron and Teneniel had been close.

 

He must have seen the bewilderment on her face and guessed the reason for it, because he continued, "Her late highness was very lonely at court. She detested politics and had no patience for... all the formalities and maneuvering. I was one of her few confidantes."

 

This only served to confuse Rey further. "You were often at court, then, Captain?" And then she recalled something Isolder had mentioned offhand in the garrison's interrogation chamber two, almost three years ago— "Antares is a good man, a fine soldier, if a bit still smarting from his demotion."

 

Elerron flashed a thin, humorless smile. "I am now a captain in the border regiments. I used to be the general in command of the ground forces on Hapes Prime. It was my task to prevent Kalen's rebels from gaining a foothold in the city of Ta'a Chume'Dan, and I failed."

 

Rey's brow creased. "But the rebels were eventually defeated, weren't they?"

 

"Through your father's doing, not mine," said Elerron. "I made many tactical mistakes that necessitated the Queen Mother's retreat from the capital— and yours. In a roundabout way, it was because of my inadequacies that you were lost to us for so long. I can only be thankful that Ta'a Chume deigned to show mercy."

 

There was something hollow in the way he said that last bit, something not quite sincere behind his eyes— not treacherous, but bitter. Rey couldn't bring herself to fault him for it. I will not rule through fear, she found herself thinking, the same words she had vowed to Kylo on the night of their wedding. I will not punish those who are loyal to me.

 

"But I am intruding," Elerron said at last, now appearing deeply conscious that he might have divulged too much information. "I shall take my leave."

 

Rey cringed. She was the one who had barged in on him. It never failed to make her uncomfortable when people went out of their way to accommodate her just because she ranked higher than them. "Captain, there's no need—"

 

"I insist. You are Teneniel's daughter. You have more right to this place than I do." Elerron saluted again and walked away. Just before he disappeared into the undergrowth, however, he looked back at her and said in a somber tone of voice, "Your Grace, I have sworn my life, service, and fealty to the Dragon Throne, but I would be no friend of Lady Teneniel's if I didn't tell you that there was no love lost between her and Ta'a Chume. The Queen Mother was most displeased by Lady Teneniel's refusal to be named Chume'da, and Lady Teneniel in turn did not wish for you to be declared as such before you were old enough to choose for yourself. So— take that as you will."

 

Before Rey could decide whether that had been a warning or simply a statement, Elerron was gone.

 

*

 

Unsettled by the conversation with the Hapan captain, it took Rey longer than usual to center herself as she assumed the meditation pose in the courtyard. Her father had occasionally dropped hints that the relationship between Ta'a Chume and Teneniel Djo hadn't been all smooth sailing, but Rey wondered at the extent of it. Isolder was probably loath to discuss such a thing, but someone else might be willing to provide more information. Lairelosse, perhaps, or even the gossipy ladies-in-waiting...

 

One problem at a time, Rey sternly reminded herself. You came here for a reason.

 

She was eventually able to push earthly concerns out of her mind and touch the Force, which welcomed her with ease. Now she was back in the blackness, that liminal space, untangling the energy streams with a combination of training and instinct, and after a few more minutes— or perhaps it was seconds, or hours, in this place where time was fluid— a pair of snowy wings unfolded, filling the void.

 

"Just you?" The Goddess sounded more amused than snide, more curious than vengeful, even if she seemed to be all of those things. "Where is your handsome, wild-eyed vandal? Have you killed him?"

 

"No." Rey swallowed. "I married him."

 

The Goddess did not laugh, but her lips curved upwards. "I suppose that works, too."

 

"When we first spoke, you told me that the threads of destiny were coming together," Rey said. "What is my destiny?"

 

"Always so impatient. Always asking the wrong questions." A whisper-soft sigh. "If I tell you, would it truly be your own? Some things must be earned." A rustle of feathers. "But, perhaps, a taste... for when you lose your hope..."

 

There was a throne, unlike any that Rey had ever seen before. It could have been white but, then again, moonlight always turned all colors into ghosts of themselves. And it was moonlight, wasn't it, those faint silvery skeins running through the shadows—

 

No, Rey realized. It's the Force. The Force the way I see it in my mind's eye. It flowed from the throne and reached out to her in rivers of energy both light and dark, flickering like the beams of a broken holoprojector. Pulsing like a heartbeat. For a moment, she caught a glimpse— a vague impression— of serenity in the midst of chaos, of purpose in the midst of freedom.

 

For a moment, she understood.

 

And then it was all gone, slipping from her grasp like water, and she was looking upon the Goddess' face once more.

 

"What did you see?"

 

"A throne," Rey whispered. "And... balance. Like what is contained here in the temple but— stronger, somehow. More encompassing."

 

"What else?"

 

"That was all."

 

"Then that means you're not yet ready."

 

"How do I become ready?"

 

"By learning. By unlocking that ocean in your mind. The one I told you about when we first spoke."

 

"Teach me, then."

 

The Goddess shook her head. "You will find no more answers here, so far from the bones of your ancestors. To go forward, you must look back on where your power comes from."

 

"Dathomir," Rey breathed. "Right? I have to go to Dathomir."

 

The Goddess smiled, benevolent and forbidding all at once. "Yes. They're waiting for you."

 

*

 

Rey knew that she couldn't just up and leave. A trip to the Outer Rim would require careful planning, not to mention that she'd have to stay there for a while. It had taken her weeks to master the basics and a smattering of intermediate techniques on Ahch-To; hopefully, she wouldn't have to waste time banging on the witches' doors until they decided to train her, like she'd done with Luke. She'd start making her preparations after the masquerade. Not only would she need to convince Ta'a Chume to let her go, but she'd have to coordinate with the Resistance, ensure their safety while she was off training.

 

On her silent journey back to Hapes Prime, Rey mentally went over her conversation with the Goddess. That works, too, the deity had said after learning of her marriage to Kylo Ren. What was that supposed to mean, especially coming from the same being who had mused that Kylo and Rey would bring ruin upon each other?

 

Rey remembered what had happened in Kylo's room on the night of her coronation as empress. His arms wrapped around her body, his palm resting on her bare spine. Despite the scandalous position and her fussy attire, she had dozed off here and there, cocooned by his warmth, her cheek pillowed on his hard chest, rousing only to readjust a cramped leg or an aching neck. It hadn't been all that uncomfortable— in fact, it had been almost pleasant, especially when he'd moved his head just so, his lips brushing against her temple. It hadn't felt like ruin at all.

 

Now, what had occurred on their wedding night— that was a different story. There had been a fire building inside her, so steady and fierce that she'd been afraid she was going to burn up from within. How could one person be capable of eliciting such a vast range of emotions from her? How could she feel such intense dislike for him one minute and such equally intense... whatever it was... the next?

 

Stars, she was being twisted into knots. Something told her that the next few days with him, in the remote castle on the sea, would be— eventful, to say the least.

 


 

Bristling with spired towers, pointed arches, and flying buttresses, the charcoal-hued basalt facade of Alqualonde rose from its craggy island on the ink-black waters of the Evernight. As the Upsilon- class approached, Kylo noted the large silver-and-white Miy'til starfighter docked on a square-shaped landing pad that had been carved into an eastern rooftop, as well as several light craft on an external grid protruding out over the sea, where several figures had gathered to welcome him and his retinue.

 

Not that he'd brought a lot of people to begin with— aside from the shuttle crew, he was accompanied only by Mitaka, Boethiah, and Hircine. Some of his officers had protested this lack of security, but Kylo was more interested in those who hadn't. After all, if he died, there was going to be a rather lucrative position up for grabs. He would take into his confidence only those whose commitment outweighed their ambition, and find a way to neutralize the rest.

 

Disembarking from the shuttle, Kylo found that Rey was conspicuously absent. He was not hurt, he told himself. He was... offended. Yes. This was a grave breach of protocol.

 

A man dressed in the scarlet-and-azure livery of the royal staff stepped forward and bowed, which was the signal for the rest of the welcoming party to do the same. He was middle-aged and oddly gangly for a Hapan, and Kylo was reminded, ludicrously enough, of C-3PO. "Welcome to the Reef Fortress, Emperor Ren. I am Zan, the castle steward, and it is my honor to be at your service. Her Grace is occupied, so if I may escort His Majesty to his chambers—"

 

"You may escort me to her, instead," Kylo told him, rather more forcefully than he cared to admit.

 

Zan paled. "Emperor Ren, the Chume'da is resolving a delicate matter in the kitchens—"

 

"So take me to the kitchens."

 

Zan opened his mouth to argue, but Kylo's stern glare was an effective deterrent. "At once, Your Majesty," he said instead. "Please follow me."

 

The welcoming party split up at Kylo's behest, some going with Boethiah and Hircine to help them get settled in, others staying behind at the dock while Mitaka oversaw the unloading of a week's worth of luggage. It was Zan alone who accompanied Kylo to the kitchens in the south wing.

 

Alqualonde's halls were narrow, its conical glow-panels shedding amber light that brought out the sparkling mineral veins running through the stone walls. The tapestries here were woven mostly in shades of wine, plum, and cobalt, while the paintings depicted storm-tossed seascapes and all manner of mythical beasts lurking beneath the waves. Kylo thought about someone as vivid— as alive— as Rey dwelling in the midst of all this oppressive grandeur, and he felt a pang of guilt. Should he be around more often? But he had his own empire to see to and, besides, it wasn't as if her mood would be improved by his presence. Something dark and ugly inside him emitted a mocking snicker at how he had the gall to believe otherwise.

 

"Here we are, then," Zan announced, a set of motion-activated doors sliding open at their approach.

 

Whatever Kylo had been expecting when he walked into the kitchens, it was definitely not the sight of his Empress covered in thick, sticky pink liquid as she stood in front of a nanowave stove, her eyes squeezed shut as two similarly-drenched ladies-in-waiting dabbed at her with hand towels while a gaggle of kitchen staff hung back, looking absolutely terrified.

 

"Oh, honestly, it's fine," Rey was attempting to soothe them, blindly gesturing in their direction, "it's all my fault, I'm the one who suggested the recipe, who knew quinberries would be so volatile—"

 

Kylo clapped a hand over his mouth in order to suppress the chuckle threatening to burst from his throat. She was so ridiculous, batter plastering her loose chestnut hair to her forehead, dripping from her chin, trickling down the front of her jacket-style bodice and onto the folds of her skirts, both pieces adorned with gold sequins that were now spattered with the light pink goo.

 

Although Rey's eyes were closed, she was the first to register his presence, no doubt sensing it in the Force. "Ben," she gasped, freezing in place.

 

Something in Kylo's chest began to thaw— an arctic tightness that he hadn't even realized had been there in the first place, having lived with it for so long. He slowly made his way over to her, grabbing a fresh hand towel from a nearby table. Vanya and Sayl immediately stepped back from their Chume'da, somehow managing to curtsy to him in the same seamless movement. Rey was in no position to open her eyes but she must have heard his footsteps, for she seemed to stiffen, holding her breath as he drew near.

 

"Dabbling in the culinary arts now, are we?" he murmured, using the towel to gently wipe batter from her face.

 

"Don't start," she grumbled. "We're testing dessert options for the masquerade. The cake mix exploded just as I was informed that you'd arrived."

 

Kylo frowned as a new possibility occurred to him. "You were not scalded—"

 

"Not at all, we'd barely fired up the stove."

 

By now, he'd patted the skin around her eyes clean, as well as the bridge of her nose. Her lashes fluttered tentatively, and then hazel irises were peering up at him from a face still smeared with pink batter at the sides. Some of her foundation had rubbed off as well and her freckles were visible, fainter now that she no longer stayed out in the sun as much, but lovely still.

 

"Hi," Rey said, sounding just the slightest bit breathless.

 

Kylo's heart skipped a beat, all the stress and isolation he'd felt over the past month melting away as he stared down at his wife. "Hello."

Chapter Text

In hindsight, Rey really should have left the cooking to the kitchen staff.

 

But the culinary arts, as Kylo had so drolly quipped, were a source of endless fascination. On Jakku, Rey had mixed polystarch and water with her fingers and wolfed down the dense, gritty result; here on Hapes Prime, eggs were cracked into pans and seasoned and heated on nanowave stoves to produce delicately flavored omelets, raw meats were soaked in marinades and encrusted with herbs and popped into gassers to undergo some mysterious chemical reaction that turned them into juicy roasts, things were sautéed and and blanched and deglazed and parbaked and fried. And while the kitchens of the Fountain Palace were technically not off-limits, the staff there tended to panic at the possible consequences of Ta'a Chume finding out that her heir apparent was slumming it. Alqualonde, however, was Rey's castle, and so she cheerfully bullied the head chef and the line cooks into letting her assist whenever she could.

 

The quinberry cake had been her idea. They'd warned her that the batter would need careful mixing as it was gently warmed to neutralize the fruit's explosive properties before it was subjected to the high temperature of the gasser, but she'd been confident in her abilities. And it had been going fine— until Zan popped his head into the kitchen to announce that the Emperor's shuttle was approaching the island. Rey's pulse had accelerated and a jolt of nervous excitement had shot through her system, reverberating through the Force and rattling the saucepan. Before she knew it, everything had gone— well— pink.

 

It had been ages since she last lost control of her emotions like that, and it was all Kylo's fault. She couldn't bring herself to be annoyed with him, however, not when he'd so helpfully cleaned her up, not when the expression on his face had been so soft when he returned her greeting. It was strange to see him again in person after a month had passed; as she led him to the royal suite, her gaze constantly flickered over to him like she was drinking in the sight, a tiny part of her curious as to whether he'd changed in some way during their time apart. That was a silly thing to wonder, wasn't it?

 

He kept looking at her, too. Their eyes met, again and again and again, as they traversed Alqualonde's corridors and took the turbolift to the suite, which occupied an entire wing of the castle. Rey had dismissed her ladies and the steward, so it was just her and Kylo— which was a good thing because, by the time they stepped into the bedroom area and the doors had slid shut behind them, they had given up all pretense and were openly staring at each other.

 

"Well, this is your room," Rey said in a brisk, no-nonsense tone that rang hollow. "Our room, actually. Sorry about that. If you're uncomfortable—"

 

Kylo shook his head. "If you—"

 

"No," Rey quickly interrupted him, "it's all right. The bed... the bed's big enough."

 

They both looked at the object in question. The mattress could easily accommodate five people, and it was furnished with a mountain of plump eiderdown pillows, wine-colored silk sheets, and damask hangings trimmed in gold. Rey tried to suppress her blush upon seeing it— how many nights had she lain there all by herself, her mind inevitably wandering to the kisses that she and Kylo had shared and the feeling of his body pressed against hers and the way his hand had fumbled at her breast, before she stubbornly willed those memories away by channeling the light side of the Force—

 

"I'm not to sleep on the floor, then?" he asked wryly, quirking an eyebrow at her.

 

Her embarrassment faded, replaced by the infinitely more sobering emotion of guilt. Given what she now knew of his past, it had been the height of cruelty to banish him as she had. I'm on your side, she wished she could tell him, I want to be on your side, this is your home, this is safe harbor from your master, no one will harm you here. But what came out instead was the first sentence that she could string together in her flustered headspace— "You're always welcome in this bed."

 

It was only when Kylo drew a sharp intake of breath that Rey was struck by the double meaning of that statement. Right. She had to get out of here, clear her mind before she made an even bigger fool out of herself. Fortunately, her pink-stained gown presented an opportunity to do so.

 

"I should change," Rey said, fleeing into the walk-in closet before Kylo could say anything.

 

Without her ladies to help, Rey shimmied out of the dress as carefully as she could and stepped into the adjacent refresher unit so that the sonic could cleanse the batter residue from her skin. There was a far grander 'fresher in the suite, with hot-water showers and a bathtub to rival the one on Coruscant; this stall was for quick emergency changes, although Rey wondered if any Hapan royal before her had ever had to deal with exploding cake mix.

 

Afterwards, she selected the least complicated-looking gown from the row of day dresses hanging from the racks. It was a cap-sleeved number with a bodice that faded from deep sapphire to blue-gray, liberally embellished with metallic gold leaves and belted at the waist with a pale satin ribbon, from which stems of sapphire lilies and more golden leaves trailed down the flared panels of a gauzy skirt the color of an autumn sky.

 

Standing in front of the full-length mirror, Rey gathered her hair into a bun secured with opal-studded pins. She did not have her ladies' deft hand and the effect was somewhat messy, but she decided— after her third attempt— that it would have to do for now. "Why do you care so much, anyway?" she muttered to her reflection, a little irritated that she was putting far more thought into her appearance than she would have if a certain someone hadn't been waiting.

 

Exiting the walk-in closet, she found Kylo sitting tentatively on the edge of the mattress. He'd thrown open the balcony doors and the smell of the sea wafted into the room, as well as the sound of the rushing waves. "Rey," he said in a quiet, uncertain voice, his dark gaze pulling her in with such magnetic intensity that she moved towards him without being fully aware of her actions. He spoke again only when she was near enough to touch, his broad, black-clad shoulders hunched but his pale, narrow face tilted up so that he could meet her eyes. "I haven't thanked you yet for— for that night— in the Citadel—" He stumbled through the sentence, at an uncharacteristic loss for words. "I hope that your departure was not overly delayed by my— my indisposition—"

 

"I didn't want to leave," Rey admitted, surprising him, surprising herself. You, her foolish mind inwardly supplied. I didn't want to leave you. "But people would have asked questions. I—" I hate the thought of you waking up alone after what you endured. She started to apologize, but Kylo shook his head, his gloved hands abruptly flying to her hips as if he could no longer stop himself from holding on to some part of her.

 

It was so oddly automatic, the way her arms wound around his neck when he pulled her close. It was instinct. It was like her body had been made to always touch his, whether in bedrooms or on battlefields.

 

"You have nothing to apologize for," Kylo fiercely insisted. "What you did— that was more than anyone else ever—" He stopped, features strained, fingers digging indents into the wispy material of her skirt.

 

I know everything, Rey had to bite her lip to keep from blurting out. I understand. For nearly all my life, I was alone, too. But Kylo already knew that last bit, didn't he? He'd seen it in her mind back on Starkiller Base. Back when she had thought him a monster and called him as much.

 

"Snoke can't keep doing this to you," she said bluntly, one hand creeping up his nape to bury shaking fingers in the silky waves of his sable hair. "You can't let him. You were half-dead when you came back that night—"

 

"It was my own fault," Kylo mumbled. "It was my own weakness."

 

"No, it wasn't." The words came out too harsh and so, to compensate, she carded her fingers through his hair as gently as she could. He made a strangled noise in the back of his throat before leaning forward, hiding his face in her midriff. "Meridia and Mephala told me why Snoke punished you. It's not weakness to want to keep something safe, and yours. He was wrong to torture you for it."

 

"Pain is instructive." Kylo's voice, though muffled against the fabric of her gown, was clipped and blank. As if he were repeating something that he'd never had any choice but to believe.

 

"There are other ways to learn!" Rey argued.

 

"Not when it comes to the dark side—"

 

"Then maybe you should forget the dark side—"

 

His hands tightened on her hips in warning. "You speak of treason."

 

"T—treason?" she sputtered. "Against whom? Ben, you are the Emperor." This was her chance. She'd found her opening and she was going to follow through with it, come what may. Pulling back, she cupped his scarred cheek, forcing him to look up at her once more. "You are the Emperor," she repeated in deliberate tones, the epiphany dawning on her as well, unfolding with the roar of the sea below as it dashed against the island's rocks, "and I am the Empress, and that means we have no more masters."

 

A shudder rippled through his powerful frame. The gaze that he aimed at her was awed and tensed but not particularly startled, and she realized with a shocking thrill that she wasn't telling him anything he hadn't already thought about. "Look, to say you and I got off on the wrong foot is an understatement," she continued, "but things are going to change— you said so yourself, on the night of my coronation. You said we can make it all better, and I'm taking you up on that. We can work together. I'll stand with you." At your back, they'd vowed before the dragon altar, that the world might never overtake us, and remembering that now caused something secret and rich and electric to bloom in the pit of her stomach, spiking her veins with adrenaline. "I... we can be friends, Ben."

 

Perhaps if they'd been different people, an offer of friendship would have been a pitiful way to conclude such a speech. But it was not an offer that Rey made lightly. She was letting Kylo know, on her own terms, that he didn't have to be alone.

 

Slowly, ever so slowly, he wrapped his fingers around the wrist of her hand that was cupping his cheek. The rough, warm texture of the leather glove made her shiver in her heightened state. His eyes darkened. "I don't want to be just your friend, Chume'da."

 

Oh.

 

There was no doubt as to what he meant, not when he was looking at her like this, his full lips centimeters away from grazing the mound of her palm. There was nothing artful or seductive about the confession— he said it like it pained him, like he already knew, or feared, that it was a lost cause.

 

It would be so easy to lean down and kiss him, like she'd done that night in his room. But there was a voice in her head— perhaps it was Ta'a Chume's, perhaps it was Lairelosse's, speaking with all the elegant cunning of the Hapes Consortium, telling her that men were laughably pliable once one figured out what they wanted and that, if she played her cards right, she could make the Emperor of the First Order bow. Because of that voice, because she'd already thought those things, there was no turning back. If she entered into any sort of relationship with Kylo that went beyond the formalities of the political alliance, she would never be able to shake the implication that she was using him.

 

I can't do that. Not to Ben.

 

Rey stayed silent for far too long, frozen by conflict and indecision. Kylo relinquished his grip on her wrist; for a fleeting second, he looked panicked, and then humiliated, but she must have been imagining things because his tone was flinty when he spoke, his features arranging themselves into the sullen composure that he adopted at meetings of state. "I understand your reservations. I only felt that, given what happened on our wedding night, it would be futile to continue denying that there appears to be some sort of attraction between us. However, if we were to act on it, I would not expect... anything else from you. This is not a proposition," he was quick to clarify, "merely a— possibility. For the future."

 

Rey had no idea whether she should be relieved that he wasn't pressuring her, offended that he thought she would tumble so casually into bed with him, flattered that she apparently had some charms to call her own, or hurt that he had countered her offer of friendship with an offer of sex. It didn't seem possible to be all those things at once, but she was, anyway.

 

It was, however, the hurt that won out in the end.

 

She stepped away from Kylo, fixing a polite smile on her face. "Thank you for being honest," she said, retreating into the airs and graces of the Hapan court. "I suppose it's not completely unheard of for husbands and wives to sleep with each other, and I shall bear that in mind. Now, if you'll excuse me, my lord, I'll go see about lunch."

 

*

 

Kylo's opulent surroundings dimmed considerably after Rey left, like she'd taken all the light in the room with her. Still sitting on the canopy bed, he glared at the far wall as he mentally replayed their conversation.

 

"What the hell was that?" he asked himself out loud, his strident voice bouncing harshly off stone and velvet and silk. He'd sought to thank her for healing his injuries last month, and nothing more— but he'd ended up pouring his heart out and kriffing holding her and leaning into her touch! At the top of the list of grave tactical errors he'd managed to commit in under ten minutes, he'd also told her that he wanted to be more than friends.

 

Kylo's gloved hands fisted in the delicate sheets. Rey's nearness had awakened a memory— she'd been sprawled on top of him, in his bed on Coruscant, and she had pressed her lips to his. He'd been more than half-asleep then, and the sensation had bestowed such a feeling of peace upon him that he'd immediately sunk into the most restful slumber he'd had in years. Perhaps that never really happened and it was only a memory of a dream, but he'd been so sure a few minutes ago, and that was why he'd thrown all caution to the wind and revealed a glimmer of his true feelings.

 

Panic had set in not long after, exacerbated when Rey said nothing in response and continued to stare blankly at him. It had been much too late to recant such a bald declaration, but he'd had some hazy notion of assuring her that it didn't have to be all that complicated. In his turmoil, it had seemed like a good idea at the time.

 

"Isolder is going to kill me," Kylo muttered.

 

He flushed as soon as the words emerged from his lips. What did he care what the Hapan prince thought? What did he care what anyone thought?

 

Stars, why couldn't he have just kept his mouth shut?

 

Because there was no one around to see, Kylo flopped back on the bed, thinking about the long week that lay ahead of him. The mattress was as soft as a cloud and it sank beneath his weight; he was instantly enveloped in the fragrance of honeyed peaches tinged with notes of jasmine, amber, and wild rose. Rey's scent. His mouth watered, which was so absurd a reaction that he shot bolt upright, his heart pounding loud enough to drown out the ambient noise of the waves.

 

It had been a mistake to come here.

 

*

 

After a tense, awkward lunch in the royal suite's private dining area, Rey summoned Zan to give Kylo a tour of the castle. She'd been hoping to do it herself but their conversation earlier had left her thoroughly miffed, and it was in the interest of maintaining the peace that she made sure he was removed from her sight for the rest of the day.

 

Later in the afternoon, a group of noblewomen came calling. They'd just concluded a meeting with the Queen Mother in the capital city and had put in a request for an audience with the Chume'da before leaving Hapes Prime. Ostensibly, they were paying their respects, but all it took was one glance at the list of names for Rey to surmise that this was a thinly-veiled excuse to gossip.

 

She received her visitors in the Grand Salon with an array of small plates and fine teas. Headed by Lairelosse Yliri, they smiled and curtsied as they filed in— Wyllah Novar of Arabanth, Osira Varless of K'Farri, Myn Eriston of Lemmi VI, and Dechen Rhade of the Breakwater. The younger set, Isolder called them, women who were around Rey's age and already occupying important leadership positions on their respective homeworlds. She got along with most of them— even Wyllah, who had been firmly in Aleson's camp on the night of the duel— although only Lairelosse could be truly called her friend. If she was even that.

 

"I see that the Emperor's shuttle is docked outside, Your Grace," Myn said once everyone was settled and the formalities that opened every Hapan conversation were over and done with. "Dare I presume that the long-overdue honeymoon period has begun?" She was so casual, acting for all the world like it wasn't already common knowledge that Kylo was in town, the news of his arrival spreading from one aristocrat's intelligence network to the next like wildfire.

 

"It has, Ducha," Rey lied through her teeth. She had to present the impression of a happy, unified marriage. "My consort was preoccupied with administering to his empire this past month, but he recently freed up his schedule so that he could linger here in Alqualonde for a spell."

 

"You must visit K'Farri," Osira enthused. "The crystals are in bloom. It would be my honor to host you."

 

"That would be lovely, if time permits," said Rey. She couldn't accept any invitations now, or else they would all be clamoring for the privilege to have her and Kylo as their guests. "I shall send you a communique after the masquerade, Ducha Varless."

 

"Honestly, Osira." Lairelosse rolled her eyes at the other woman. "Did it ever occur to you that Her Grace and His Majesty might want some time to themselves? They did just get married." She was being a good ally as always, slyly offering Rey an opportunity to wiggle out of any possible commitments, but the implication brought a flush of heat to Rey's cheeks.

 

Osira huffed. "It was merely a suggestion, Lady Yliri. In my experience, too much time together can be positively disastrous for a husband and wife. We can't all be the Sevanars."

 

The other women tittered. The blatant affection that Ysanne and Markus showed for each other was a source of amusement among the royal court; Rey, however, couldn't help but wistfully remember how happy the couple had seemed at her engagement ball. For a moment she allowed herself to indulge in the fantasy of being loved like that. The arm around her waist in these musings felt too much like Kylo's, but she wasn't very keen on analyzing what that meant. It was all only in her mind, anyway. Harmless...

 

She was jolted back to reality by a flurry of movement around the table. The aristocrats were getting to their feet and curtsying, their gazes trained on the open doors. Kylo was hovering at the entrance to the salon, looking ill at ease to be the object of much feminine scrutiny. Once he caught Rey's eye, he jerked his head to indicate that he wished to speak with her.

 

"Excuse me, my ladies," Rey murmured to her visitors before she, too, stood up and crossed the room to meet him. "Yes, what is it?"

 

Kylo stared down at her, appearing disconcerted. Just as she began to suspect that he had forgotten whatever it was he was about to say, he collected himself. "I was wondering if my knights and I might put the courtyard to use. With your permission." His tone was stiff and the bags under his eyes seemed more pronounced than they had a few hours ago. He did look like a bit of fresh air and exercise would do him a world of good.

 

"You don't need my permission for that," Rey said. "This is your residence as much as it is mine."

 

"Still. I thought I should ask." He fidgeted, his expression rife with conflict even as his eyes never left her face. "Thank you."

 

He walked away before she could respond. Bemused, Rey went back to the table; the Hapans had taken their seats and resumed talking among themselves as soon as Kylo was out of sight.

 

"Is black all the rage on Coruscant, Your Grace?" Dechen inquired. "The Emperor's wardrobe is rather... dull."

 

Rey could understand her confusion. The men of Hapes liked bright colors and flashy accessories as much as the women did. "Beyond the Veil, Countess Rade, not all civilizations prioritize aesthetic as we do," she carefully replied.

 

Dechen sniffed. "Be that as it may, I hope he wears something suitable to the masquerade. It would be most improper otherwise."

 

Rey cast a helpless glance at Lairelosse, who shrugged and fished out a pocket-sized datapad in order to make a note. "I'll have a tailor sent over as soon as possible, Chume'da."

 

"Fashion sense or lack thereof aside," said Myn, "His Majesty is quite attractive for an outsider. It's a shame about the scar, though. How did he come by it?"

 

"It's an old war wound, apparently," Rey told her, which wasn't a lie.

 

Osira paused in the act of bringing a cup of tea to her lips. "Do they not have bacta patches beyond the Veil? Or capable med droids?"

 

Rey frowned. Now that Osira had brought it up, it was indeed strange that Kylo's injury had scarred given the First Order's level of technological advancement. She was saved from having to respond, however, by a skeptical Wyllah remarking, "Handsome or not, I heard he's ten years older than Her Grace."

 

The other nobles' beautiful, perfect features showed no trace of the disdain that Rey could feel in the Force. This was another thing that set Hapes apart from most human-centric cultures in the galaxy, where a man being with a much older woman tended to raise more than a few disparaging eyebrows. Here, it was the other way around.

 

"He's very good to me," Rey found herself saying. It wasn't exactly the truth— his gentleness towards her was a new, fragile thing— but she was suddenly compelled to rush to his defense for some reason. After all, what did these women know of her and the Emperor's relationship, of everything they had ever been to each other? "And, for the record, I like the scar."

 

"Of course, Chume'da," Dechen immediately replied, prompting a chorus of similar assent from her colleagues. One of the perks about being the second most powerful woman in the Hapes Cluster— and, as it so happened, the most powerful woman in the galaxy— was that no one wanted to get on Rey's bad side.

 

*

 

It was late afternoon by the time the guests took their leave. The steward informed Rey that Kylo was still training with his knights, and it was with a mixture of curiosity and restlessness that she rode the turbolift to a secluded tower room overlooking the courtyard. She hadn't seen him fight in a while, and she figured it would be useful to catalog any new techniques he might have learned.

 

Ensuring that her Force signature was under wraps, Rey gingerly peered out the window. The open courtyard nestled within the stone walls of the Reef Fortress was ablaze with the shrieking scarlet beams of Kylo's crossguard, confronted by the white-hot crackle of Hircine's electrostaff and the obsidian gleam of Boethiah's daggers, which were made from sturdy, lightsaber-resistant Mandalorian iron as Malacath Ren's greatsword had been. Rey would put credits on Boethiah gilding the edges of her blades with poison even for a friendly duel— and, indeed, Kylo seemed to be taking greater care to avoid her strikes than Hircine's.

 

It was warm out today. The knights had shed their masks and heavier outer layers, and even though Kylo was still wearing gloves, he was down to a sleeveless black shirt and his usual trousers and boots. Rey had seen him wearing less, but she'd been too busy tending his wounds to pay much attention back then.

 

Now, however, there was nothing stopping her from looking to her heart's content.

 

The shirt clung to his wide, ridiculously sculpted torso. There was not an ounce of fat on him that she could see— or feel, her traitorous inner voice reminded her. He'd been pure muscle beneath her that night on Coruscant, every inch of his body honed into a weapon. A weapon that he was putting to good use as he fended off his two opponents, ducking beneath the arcs of their blows and retaliating with lethal grace.

 

This was nothing like Rey and Luke's contained, oftentimes mechanical sparring sessions. The darksiders gave each other no quarter, fought like they were going for the kill. Strands of Kylo's disheveled hair were plastered to his sweat-stained face, his cheeks were flushed red, and there was a wild light in his dark eyes. The taut sinews cording his pale arms shifted with every thrust and parry, his teeth bared in near-feral snarls as he came within a hair's breadth of cutting Boethiah in half, of slicing Hircine's head clean off his shoulders.

 

Rey swallowed. She'd forgotten somewhere along the way that her husband was a dangerous man. Watching him like this, it was so easy to revert to the old ways and think he was a monster.

 

So what did it say about her, then, that a familiar heat was pooling low in her abdomen, seeping between her legs?

 

Memories of her wedding night flooded through Rey's system, each one so strong that she felt phantom sensations on her skin— Kylo's lips crushed to hers, his hand cupping her breast, his erection rubbing against her thigh. She remembered, too, the staticky warmth of his palm on her bare back when he'd rested it there as he dazedly begged her not to leave, and the burning intensity in his gaze from earlier, the husky timbre of his voice.

 

"I don't want to be just your friend, Chume'da."

 

Rey stepped back from the window, knees trembling together beneath her skirt. Slowly, shakily, she made her way to the tower room's velvet-upholstered chaise lounge and sat down, no longer able to remain upright. Hot. She felt too hot. Too consumed by thoughts of Kylo, her nerve endings itchy with echoes from the month before.

 

Rey leaned back against the chaise lounge and hiked up her pretty blue-gray skirt, the sewn-on flowers brushing against her arms with a friction that was maddening in her aroused state. She closed her eyes, her hand disappearing into her silken underwear, and she could almost smell him, could almost hear his harsh, ragged pants in her ear. Like he was there with her.

 

I'm so lonely, she thought with a lump in her throat as her fingers began to move.

Chapter Text

A jagged beam of red light screeched and sputtered as it collided with the blinding coils of an electrostaff, Kylo's gaze latching on to Hircine's through a sheen of sweat and pure bloodlust. Over his opponent's shoulder he saw Boethiah charging swiftly towards them, her poisoned daggers at the ready, and with gritted teeth he exerted more strength into the blade-lock, overpowering Hircine so that the older man stumbled backwards. Kylo's booted foot drove heavily into Hircine's side, kicking him towards Boethiah, who jumped out of the way at the last possible second, one dagger coming perilously close to nicking the other knight's arm. Kylo didn't give Boethiah time to recuperate, his off-hand shooting out to pummel her with a telekinetic blast that sent her slamming against one of the draconic reliefs carved into Alqualonde's walls.

 

Kylo surveyed his knights while they struggled to right themselves, the crossguard spinning around his wrist as he prepared to launch into a new offensive. However, just at that moment, he registered an acute, heady burst of emotion in the Force, slipping out through shields that faltered like a dam slowly giving way. Shivering swirls of something— hopeful, desperate, painful, wild, higher— unfurled from one of the tower rooms, flickering in and out of existence as its source tried valiantly to keep it hidden.

 

It felt like Rey.

 

Hircine and Boethiah were both still on the ground, nursing various bruised parts of their anatomy. "We're done for today," Kylo told them, extinguishing his lightsaber and cinching it to his utility belt. Their perplexed gazes followed him as he sped indoors. He was no longer thinking rationally, focused solely on the golden thread that beckoned from upstairs. He had been channeling the dark side for hours while he trained with his knights and he was still reeling from its effects, from how it sharpened his baser instincts and made his blood sing as he zeroed in on Rey's light in the Force. What is she doing, let me see, let me feel—

 

He barreled into the turbolift and waited in a barely-contained frenzy as it took him to his destination. The ascent was slow, rendered torturous by the brilliance of Rey's signature overriding her mental shields as she experienced something that felt both terrifying and profound, the echoes of which made Kylo's breath stutter in his chest.

 

He was almost at the tower room when the sensations started to ebb like the tide. A few seconds later, the turbolift glided to a stop and the doors slid open, and he found himself looking straight at Rey.

 

"Oh!" she exclaimed, startled. Her hazel eyes were bright, her cheeks flushed pink. "What are you doing here?"

 

What was he doing here? "I don't know," Kylo mumbled before he could think better of it. "You were— projecting—"

 

Rey was suddenly looking everywhere but at him. "I was going through some new Force techniques."

 

Is that what they're calling it these days? he almost retorted, but some latent self-preservation instinct kicked in. He stepped back to let her enter the turbolift and they descended in silence. Now that the initial urgency had faded, he became conscious of how disgusting he must have looked, drenched in sweat and red-faced from exertion. He didn't even want to think about how he smelled in this enclosed space. With those insecurities gnawing at his pride, the second-guessing began. Perhaps he'd been completely in the wrong and she had been practicing Force techniques, after all— and even if she'd been... having some time to herself, what right did he have to come barging in like a... a nosy idiot? Shame welled up inside him, so great that he physically cringed, hiding it under the guise of moving a courteous distance away from her. At the very least, he should spare her from any offensive odors.

 

She glanced at him, something like hurt flashing in her eyes. "Ben?"

 

"I— I stink," he falteringly explained. "I have just finished training with my knights..." He trailed off. She already knew that. He was being stupid.

 

To his surprise, Rey snorted. "Because I smelled like such a rose when we first met."

 

She had smelled like wind and sand and sunlight, a scent that had followed him into his dreams every night thereafter. Before he could tell her that, before he could tell her anything, they reached the ground level and she scurried out of the turbolift, the embarrassed blush from the tower room still on her cheeks.

 

He decided that a cold shower was in order. For more than one reason.

 

*

 

Stars, he had almost walked in on her.

 

Rey wasn't sure her heart would ever recover from the near miss. Her shields had been in place when she started but she evidently needed to learn how to keep them up when she was... feeling frisky. She didn't have a lot of experience in that matter— Jakku had been a drought in more ways than one, the harsh daily routine leaving scant opportunity for any emotion other than hunger and weariness, and there had been no privacy in the communal Resistance quarters on D'Qar and Coruscant— but, given what Kylo had awakened in her on their wedding night, she supposed it had only been a matter of time before she touched herself again after so long.

 

What startled her, though, was how easily she'd crested. It hadn't been the fumbling, frustrating climb she was used to, capped off by a small, shivery, ultimately unsatisfying release. Imagining Kylo there with her had made her come harder than she'd ever had in her life. And yet... there was still this ache between her legs, an ache that had only worsened in the turbolift. He'd been within arm's reach, bare biceps glistening with sweat and, oh, so sharply defined after an afternoon of sparring. It had required every ounce of her willpower to abstain from jumping him right that second.

 

She didn't think she could take much more of this.

 

*

 

Dinner later that night wasn't quite the drawn-out, agonizing affair that Kylo had been bracing himself for. It was casual by Hapan standards— an appetizer, a main course, a rose-petal sorbet for dessert. Rey's ladies-in-waiting alternated between happily chattering away about the upcoming masquerade and teasing Mitaka, who had a place of honor at the table as the only First Order officer in the vicinity, while Boethiah and Hircine stood guard outside the dining room— secretly relieved, Kylo suspected, that protocol dictated they take their meal with the castle staff and his shuttle crew afterwards.

 

But it wasn't really all that bad. He started to realize this halfway through the roast pheasant. The glow-panels set into the bronze chandelier had been turned down low, gilding the dining room in mellow amber light. Rey sat on the opposite end of the table from him, blinking a little drowsily but exchanging easy smiles with her ladies and intervening whenever Mitaka got too rattled. Kylo almost felt sorry for his lieutenant, who so obviously lacked the strength of character to handle the girls' pretty faces and sharp tongues, but pity was overshadowed by the natural contempt of a man made of sterner stuff.

 

"Your Majesty?" Rey said.

 

Kylo dropped his fork. It clattered against the side of his plate but he ignored it, leaning forward to gaze at his wife with rapt attention. "Yes, Chume'da?"

 

"The tailor will be paying a visit tomorrow morning to discuss your options for the masquerade. Please be available."

 

The array of garish, bejeweled Hapan men's attire that he'd seen so far flashed through his mind in a parade of horror. "I have clothes," he pointed out.

 

"None suitable for the event in question," Rey countered. "Your ensemble needs to complement mine. It's tradition, I'm afraid."

 

He narrowed his eyes at her from across the table with the sneaking suspicion that she was enjoying this; the faint hint of a smirk played along the corner of her mouth. It wasn't the classic smirk of an ambitious, scheming Hapan noble, though— that challenging playfulness, that ill-governed urge to court trouble, that was all Rey.

 

"If it pleases Your Majesty," Janassa spoke up, "I think Her Grace merely wishes to ascertain that you won't wear black."

 

"Janassa!" Sayl and Esli, who were seated on either side of her, quickly hissed. But they just as quickly covered their mouths to muffle their laughter.

 

Unflappable calm was the best way to deal with these children. Kylo raised his glass, giving the impression of toasting Rey before taking a sip of the lemon water that was the only non-alcoholic option that the Hapans cherished with their meals. "Far be it from me to go against the Empress' wishes. Let your tailor do his worst, then."

 

"I'll hold you to that," Rey said, but her smirk appeared to have lost its edge. It was almost a real smile now, aimed at him and him alone.

 

*

 

After dinner, Kylo retreated to the communications bay. He wasn't foolish enough to discuss fleet movements and sensitive political affairs in Hapan space, but there were plenty of minor issues that had cropped up during his absence. He'd left Daala in charge of the Citadel, and they spent a good couple of hours going over Coruscant's domestic affairs.

 

"Any word from Hux?" he asked her once they'd wrapped up. The general had left for the Chopani sector shortly before Kylo set off to Hapes.

 

"The expedition is well under way." Daala was an old hand at this; she chose her words with care, wisely keeping all references to the First Order's hunt for the Resistance vague. "No results yet. According to communiques from the parties involved, there's also a bit of a scuffle pertaining to matters of jurisdiction."

 

That meant the Outer Rim governors thought Hux was being a domineering prat while Hux thought they were being insubordinate. Kylo almost wished he were there to watch the fireworks. "I'm not surprised."

 

Daala grinned. "Neither am I, Your Majesty."

 

After signing off, Kylo remained in the bay for a while to mull over the troubling matter of the Resistance's mysterious whereabouts. If I were Leia Organa, where would I hide? he tried to discern, but such a line of interrogation proved fruitless. His mother had always been something of an enigma to him due to the different, sometimes outright contradictory roles she'd played while he was growing up— it had been one of the hard truths he'd had to face in later years, that as a child he'd loved her but hadn't known her very well at all. She wasn't an open book.

 

Not like Han Solo.

 

With a jolt, Kylo realized that he'd unconsciously touched his gloved fingers to the side of his face. The spot that still burned, sometimes, from the memory of a dead man's touch. He dropped his hand back to his side with a frustrated growl and forced his thoughts to return to more important matters. There was a part of him that understood, deep down, that Rey was the key to the Resistance's location. He would have to bring it up with her eventually— if she wasn't already in the loop, they would contact her in due time, as Snoke had said, and his master was getting impatient...

 

Kylo made his way to the royal suite, his frustration curdling into a single-minded purposefulness. He'd let himself get distracted, let things lie for too long. He was going to confront her right now.

 

But, when he marched into the bedroom, the glow-panels had been switched off. Bright moonlight, a cold wind, and the roar of the waves spilled in through the balcony doors that Rey must have forgotten to close before falling asleep. And she was asleep, curled up on her side under the duvet, snoring away.

 

She sounded like a rusty propeller. Kylo felt a smile tug at his lips, but he reigned it in even as the tension evaporated with some reluctance from his spine. Trust this woman to cause his plans to go awry, as usual.

 

He'd showered before dinner so there was nothing left to do but grab sleep clothes from the walk-in closet opposite Rey's and brush his teeth in their shared 'fresher, deliberately prolonging what should have taken no more than a handful of minutes at most because crawling into the same bed as her when she was already asleep was too nerve-wracking, too intimate a thing. The spacious marble-tiled 'fresher appointed in shades of gold smelled of the white musk, almond cream, and black cherry essence that Rey used in her bath products— not overly sweet scents, but feminine enough for the more unsavory parts of him to start paying attention, to twitch with interest. He quashed the notion of seeking release as soon as it entered his mind and averted his gaze from his reflection, no longer able to meet his own eyes in the mirror. For all Rey's assurances that Alqualonde was his home as well, it seemed like the lowest, most perverse thing to slake his needs in a 'fresher that smelled of her while she was sleeping, completely peaceful and unaware, just a few feet away.

 

He stole out of the 'fresher, telekinetically closed the balcony doors with a wave of his hand, and approached the bed with a trace of grim apprehension. The light of the seven moons shone even more radiantly here in the middle of the Evernight, so far from the neon glow of the cities; it could almost have been morning still, silver-tinted. Rey was a lump on one side of the mattress, nearly hanging off the edge despite the vast space, her back turned to him as she lay hunched in on herself as if trying to be as small as possible. Kylo thought then of the AT-AT he had seen in her mind three years ago, that narrow makeshift cot that had gotten tinier and tinier as she grew older.

 

He eased onto the bed, taking great care not to disturb her and to keep to his half of the space as he rested his head on the eiderdown pillows. She'd hogged all the covers but he didn't mind— his body tended to run hot during the night and the suite's centralized climate control had automatically kicked in when the balcony doors swung shut. He once again reached out a hand to draw the curtains over the glass, plunging the room into darkness, and he closed his eyes and waited for unconsciousness to drag him under like a current pulling him beneath the waves.

 


 

"General Organa." Poe's visage filled the holoscreen of the Raddus' bridge as it drifted through the Jodaka system, having just left the refueling station owned by one of the Hapan royal family's trusted allies. "Sorry it took me so long to get in touch. The Outer Rim's unbelievably hairy right now. It's like navigating a minefield, if the mines were First Order surveillance nets."

 

"I'm just glad you're still with us, Commander Dameron," Leia quipped. They were able to speak freely because the communique was being patched through Venomfang, Aleson Gray's private HoloNet channel that was shielded by layer upon layer of thorny encryption. "I hope you have good news for me."

 

Poe nodded. "Thanks to Rey's lead, we were able to infiltrate Artorias without incident. Caled Galfridian's rebel army is with us— as are most worlds in the Myto sector. Not only that, Galfridian gave us a direct line to other sympathizers spread throughout Mayagil, Elrood, and Jjannex—"

 

"The Jjanex sector lies between the Corellian Spine and the intersection of the Rimma Trade Route and the Hydian Way," Leia murmured. "Very strategic."

 

"We have more friends than we thought, General." Poe looked sallow and haggard but was otherwise beaming. "We've spent this past month touching base with them. Including the Adumari Union."

 

Leia raised an eyebrow. "That is good news." The people of Adumar were revered throughout the galaxy for their skill in combat and their formidable navy.

 

"The bulk of their fleet has retreated deeper into Wild Space, but they're ready and waiting for instructions." Poe hesitated. "There's something else..."

 

"What?"

 

"You're not going to like it."

 

She glowered at him. "Tell me anyway."

 

"Now, before you react, this is just a possibility that the team and I have been discussing, that's all. I'm not a big fan, either, but given the circumstances it's my duty to throw it out there— the Cartel might be willing to help us."

 

A sliver of fury shot down Leia's spine, prying open an age-old wound. "Commander Dameron, if you think for one second that I am going to consent to an alliance with the Hutts—"

 

"They hate the First Order," Poe quietly interrupted. "Paige and I overheard their goons ranting at the casino in Dunari's Rest while waiting for one of our Mayagil contacts. Apparently, Ren has started cracking down on the slave trade and his new policies are making it harder to move contraband around. All the kajidii want him gone."

 

"I killed Jabba Desilijic Tiure myself," Leia snapped. "I strangled him with the chains he bound me in. The Hutts have long memories, Commander, and so do I. If we lose sight of who we are and what we stand for, we might as well give ourselves up to the First Order right this instant."

 

For a moment, Poe looked like he was about to argue, but then he appeared to think better of it. "Understood, General."

 

No matter how much she wanted to, Leia couldn't allow her shoulders to sag when Poe signed off, as all eyes on the bridge were trained in her direction. However, she did let the tiniest of sighs escape from her lips as she settled back in her chair. So, her son was trying to eliminate the slave rings once and for all. She couldn't say it wasn't a noble intention— it was something that she herself had always planned on advocating for once the New Republic had sorted out its messy internal affairs. Why couldn't you have waited, Ben? she mused. If only you had given the world I fought for a chance, if only you had given me more time—

 

But that was exactly the thing, wasn't it? He'd grown into manhood running scared, with shadows peering over his shoulder. It was something Leia had realized too late— that, for her son, time had always seemed like it was running out.

 


 

Rey was ashamed to admit it, but her new life had made her unaccountably lazy. Now that she didn't need to wake up at the crack of dawn to scavenge or to train, she could no longer truly call herself a morning person. Being able to luxuriate in a comfortable bed as sunlight seeped into a beautifully furnished room was still a novelty to her, and she tended to make the most out of it these days. So, when her bladder clamored to be relieved at— according to the chronometer on the nightstand— fifteen minutes past the hour of seven, it was with grudging reluctance that she slowly crawled out from under the covers, wincing as her bare feet hit the cold tiles. Her brain was still fogged up with sleep; that was her only justification, really, for failing to remember that she was no longer alone in the royal suite.

 

At least, until the 'fresher door slid open to reveal Kylo Ren standing at the sink, clad in nothing but a towel wrapped around his hips, his hair still damp from the shower, and his jaw slathered in shaving cream.

 

"Why didn't you lock the door?" Rey demanded, suddenly fully awake. For all her bluster, though, she couldn't quite stop herself from staring at his bare chest.

 

"I forgot," he grunted, lowering the razor from his face. His gaze flickered over her and darkened, and it hit her that the fabric of the pale blue nightgown she was wearing was perhaps a little too thin. She crossed her arms over her chest, trying to be casual, but it was too late, of course. Their shared embarrassment suffused the air.

 

"I— um— nature calls," Rey said.

 

"By all means." Kylo was careful not to let their bodies touch as he skirted past her in the doorway, the towel secured firmly around his lean hips. Some wicked, scandalous part of Rey keened in regret.

 

Down, girl, she sternly admonished herself.

 

*

 

Rey spent the whole morning studying dossiers transmitted from the Per'Agthra, each file containing a wealth of detailed information on each noble who would be in attendance at the masquerade and how they all related to one another. It was an intricate web of blood ties, informal alliances, and nuanced disputes that the Consortium spun, and as Chume'da and host it was her responsibility to keep all of these in mind as she mingled with her guests.

 

It would have been so much easier to commit these facts to memory if she could only stop thinking about her husband. Every time she blinked, she saw Kylo's bare, chiseled frame in the darkness behind her closed eyes, that expanse of smooth, pale skin disrupted by the lightsaber scar that trailed to his shoulder and the bowcaster mark on his abdomen, the beads of water pooling in the hollow of his collarbones, the smattering of dark hair that dusted a tantalizing path from his navel to what lay hidden under the towel. She was— to put it in simpler terms— a mess, and she continued to be a mess until later on in the afternoon, when she finally had enough and called for the Chume'doro to assemble in the courtyard. Perhaps some intensive sparring would help dull the edge of all the pent-up emotions coursing through her veins.

 

*

 

It didn't take Kylo very long to come to the conclusion that he utterly despised the Hapan tailor. The man's name was Belroc Moliere and he was in his mid-forties, slim, tanned, and bedecked in what was quite possibly the most flamboyant getup Kylo had ever seen. The floral brocade on his bottle-green veda cloth coat put even Ta'a Chume's most ostentatious gown to shame, and the emerald-studded gold chaughaine sash around his waist glittered so copiously that Kylo couldn't even look at it in direct sunlight for fear of going blind.

 

Like most other Hapans, Moliere loved jewelry. Several gem-encrusted rings sparkled as they moved through the air on the ridges of the fingers that he was tapping on the armrest after Kylo had submitted to the indignity of his measurements being taken by a couple of assistants, who were now flanking the tailor in his seat, jotting down notes on their respective datapads.

 

"I am sorry, Emperor Ren, but a plain formal jacket simply will not do," Moliere was saying, having no qualms whatsoever about letting his exasperation show. "The Chume'da' s couturier has been gracious enough to send me her design and it is positively lavish. You would look like a butler next to your wife, Your Majesty. I am afraid that I simply cannot allow it."

 

A nerve twitched under Kylo's left eye. Had Rey not given him strict orders to stand down, Moliere would be suffering from a distinct lack of oxygen right about now. "Very well," he stiffly conceded, "as long as it is within the bounds of good taste."

 

"Of course, Your Majesty." The tailor sounded offended. "Now, let's talk about concept. Your costume must strike a delicate balance between complementing the Chume'da' s gown and not stealing her thunder, so to speak. Would you rather personify the resplendence of the peacock, the raw power of the tiger, the virility of the stag—"

 

"This was a mistake."

 

"Perhaps the ill temper of the Pervickian dung camel?" Moliere fired back. "The obstinacy of the common ass?"

 

Kylo smirked. "I'll have to abstain from that last option, Moliere. I wouldn't want to steal your thunder."

 

The two men argued, sniped, and glared at each other for the remainder of the meeting. By the time they settled on a design and Moliere exited in an icy huff, along with his assistants, Kylo was in the blackest of moods. Summoning his knights, he stalked off to the courtyard, desperately needing to let off some steam.

 

But Rey was already there.