: Good day, gentlebeings, and welcome to Chapter 26 of Heir to the Empire, wherein…
This is one of those chapters for which The Site That Eats Afternoons has coined the term “Wham Episode.” Whereas all the previous chapters which took place wholly on Myrkr have changed scenes and viewpoints (except the very first one, staying focused on Luke), this one stays in the forest and has only one viewpoint shift, from Mara to Luke, and even that’s a forced shift of sorts–it happens at a point where Mara briefly loses consciousness. What struck me in this readthrough is how tight a package this chapter really is: It needs to hit hard, it does hit hard, and gets some part of its power from how tightly bunched the fist is.
: Not unlike Mara herself, in that way.
: Good point.
Most of the power, however, comes from what happens–or rather, what is related–therein, of course.
Mara is clearing vines from the path of Artoo’s travois. I safely assume that the lightsaber is more convenient than even a machete, although Mara professes some concern about how far the hum of the lightsaber can carry–they are nearing the edge of the forest in her estimation.
: But now I do have the image of Mara in safari khakis and a pith helmet. Heh.
: Knowing what is to come, that concern makes me laugh this time. But just as she’s returning the saber to her belt, Artoo squeals in alarm and a vornskr jumps on Luke (again) from a branch. Luke manages to dodge while Mara transfers her blaster to her now lightsaber-free right hand, somewhat clumsily, and shoots the animal. Luke voices something that sounds vaguely like a complaint for the first time: he wishes she’d reconsider giving him his lightsaber back because she “must be getting tired of shooting vornskrs off me.” Which implies that there has been more than one attack between this one and the first one we witnessed. Mara snarks back, asking if he’s afraid she’ll miss, and Luke seriously responds that no, you’re an excellent shot, but you also haven’t slept in two nights.
: Which is to say, yes, she might miss, but it would be by true accident and not a reflection of your skills. Luke knows about ego–he used to be a fighter jock, after all–but he knows better. And he knows how to separate out skill from circumstance, hence, “you’re a fantastic shot but you’re not at your best and you know it.”
: Mara predictably still snaps at this, saying that she’s all right, but admits to herself that she is feeling the effects of sleeplessness: She almost missed the blaster catch, her heart is thudding constantly–
–which is a detail I identify with instantly, because that’s exactly what happens to me whenever I have one of those 36-hour-door-to-door trips especially if I can’t sleep on the cross-Atlantic flight–
: I learned some of that myself, though I was usually able to knock off for a few hours on trans-Pacifics last year. Still, not nearly as much experience as you have with those.
: –and her mind keeps drifting. But she is stubborn, even to herself, and wants to see this through “if for no other reason than professional pride.” Which, when you think about it, is another Weird Mara Thought (TM), because what profession would have the kind of pride which demands you escort a prisoner through a dangerous forest by yourself without sleep for multiple days?
: What, indeed. Another bit here has Luke stumble–Mara isn’t the only one who is feeling the effects of the forest, even if Luke has been able to sleep–but not rise to Mara’s bait. Like I said. Luke knows about ego, but he has a lot more experience with his.
Also the note that Mara had, “once, long ago,” been able to go six days without sleep. Here’s a question for you: think she still could if she wasn’t on Force-dead Myrkr?
: …good point, didn’t think of that. I think she might have.
They come to a clearing through which they can send up a sonde balloon and try to see if any response messages have been deposited onto the X-Wing’s computer in Karrde’s camp. Luke sits by a tree and to all appearances immediately falls asleep. Artoo doesn’t want to start communicating while Luke’s asleep, but Mara insists, so he takes a message dump from the X-Wing… and when he gets back the message, he gets really excited. He doesn’t want to play the message back only for Mara–I laugh–but Mara tells him that if there’s anything Luke needs to hear, Artoo can always play it back for him later, thinking “Assuming there wasn’t anything in the message that suggested she needed to come out of the forest alone.”
I laugh again, because of course Artoo has already analyzed the message, and knowing the shenanigans he’s got up to with holographic messages before (again, that scene in Luke’s workshop in Star Wars: A New Hope has Artoo as a master psychologist and manipulator), it’s very naive of Mara to think that Artoo would play out anything remotely like that for her alone. Bets are now open on whether he’d play back the old “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope” loop if the message had been Karrde saying “get rid of Luke and come back,” but I don’t expect any takers.
: Not that Karrde would as such, knowing that Artoo was the relay. But he could have a code.
Zahn likes codes, especially hidden-in-plain-sight codes that rely not on technical whizzery (he acknowledges those, but it’s better for everybody that he not try to explain the technical aspects of encryption in the Galaxy Far Far Away), but knowledge codes that use context. Han’s code (or lack thereof) with Winter here, for example. And there are a lot of those in his original fiction too.
: But what Artoo does play–somewhat gleefully, I like to imagine–is Threepio talking. Mara considers his voice “remarkably prissy.” Heh.
: One wonders. Leaving aside Threepio’s putative (read: prequel) origins, we do know that other droids a lot like him existed. In fact, it’s clear that Mara recognizes him as a protocol droid on sight. So how typical is Threepio’s kind of voice, for protocol droids? Are they all that prissy, and his is turned up to 11? Or is the priss an anomaly? (I suspect the former.)
: What Threepio says is very not-funny to Mara, however: Greetings to Master Luke, and, oh, yes, Mistress Mara, from Captain Karrde and Captain Solo. (“Karrde’s told Solo about Skywalker?!”) Captain Karrde says that there are stormtroopers waiting for you two in Hyllyard City. (“So Thrawn hadn’t been fooled.” Mara, fatigued, almost panics at that, but calms herself by thinking Thrawn has no proof or there wouldn’t have been anyone left at the camp to send this message.) Captain Karrde told the Imperials that a former employee stole stuff and ran away and an associate named Jade went in pursuit. He never specified that Jade is a woman, so when you come out of the forest you can change roles and names to confuse things? (“If Karrde thought she was going to cheerfully hand her blaster over for Skywalker to stick in her back, he’d better try thinking again,” which, heh.) Anyway, Captains Karrde and Solo are working on a plan to intercept you before the stormtroopers or to rescue you from them. (Mara doesn’t react to that, but I’m sure she felt very reassured, oh yes.)
: It has some interesting generalities, with Karrde and Han trusting Mara and Luke (respectively) to fill in any missing pieces.
: Threepio finishes by asking Artoo to take good care of Master Luke and of himself, and no that’s not a lump in my throat hush now.
: Probably hit Mara too, more of the difference between fealty and loyalty.
: Luke murmurs that the role shift is a good idea. Mara is surprised and “not entirely truthfully” says that she thought he was faking. He says (again seriously) no, he’d just been drifting in and out, but it’s still a good idea. Mara is on the nope-path: “We’ll try going a couple of kilometers north instead, circling out and back to Hyllyard from the plains.” She wants to start setting up camp. Looks like Luke’s fallen asleep again. She gets up, favoring her injured ankle–Artoo screams–she tries to reach for her blaster and turn around to see the danger–and a heavy weight slams into her back, hurting her badly, throwing her face-first into the ground. She loses consciousness, wishing she’d killed Luke when she had the chance.
: Pleasant last thought, huh?
: Artoo’s scream jerks Luke awake just in time for him to see a vornskr jump on Mara’s back. He leaps up; the vornskr’s standing on Mara’s back and is about to bite into her neck. Artoo’s rushing that way now, but he won’t be able to get there in time in this terrain. Luke screams, loudly, horribly: The same scream that Obi-Wan Kenobi used on Tatooine to drive the Sand People away from Luke himself, the call of a krayt dragon. (…and to think that Mara was worried about the lightsaber’s hum carrying.)
: Zahn must have read the novelization of the original movie at some point before writing this. It’s not explained on screen, but in the novel (“authored” by George Lucas, but ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster), Luke is shocked at Ben doing that, and Ben says it’s all in the practice and a good set of lungs, and if Luke was an Imperial bureaucrat (full of hot air) he could learn in no time…
: But even that doesn’t scare the vornskr off, just distracts it. Mara twitches. Luke screams again. The vornskr shifts its weight again. Mara half-yells, twists under the animal, and reaches to grab its throat. Luke doesn’t wait, just charges to attempt to knock the animal off her, but fails–the vornskr’s whip-like tail catches him across the face and shoulders, and knocks him to the ground. He just gets up and advances again, and this time the vornskr wards him off with claws. Artoo gets there and sends a spark from his welder; the vornskr snaps the welder off with a paw and whips Artoo with his tail, almost knocking him over. Luke tells Artoo to try to grab the tail as it whips the android again and again; Artoo attempts that, which… rips his grasping arm off too–but the moment for which the vornskr was immobilized is enough for Luke to dive in and snatch his lightsaber from Mara’s side.
At first he only taps the vornskr on the nose, trying to drive it away from Mara. The vornskr shies back a bit, then jumps off, then leaps straight back at him, at which point Luke cuts it in half.
…somehow I don’t think that was messy, even though reason tells me it must be: The action is written so economically and cleanly.
: Lightsabers are cauterizing, aren’t they? I mean, yeah, it’s still unlikely it would manage to cauterize the entire body at once, I guess. But the below is pretty true:
: Oftentimes, I find myself repeating the same action verbs Zahn himself used (“catches across the face… snatches… rips…”) precisely because I can’t find anything better or shorter that conveys the same meaning. Good writing, is what I’m saying, but even that is a distraction now, so back to the action.
Mara pushes half of the vornskr which landed on her (…ew) off of herself, refuses Luke’s offered hand, rolls herself to hands and knees and gets up “tiredly”, but turns to face him with her blaster in her hand again, and tells him to drop the lightsaber and back away.
: Even that comes after she complains about how long it took Luke to kill the thing.
: Luke’s finally had it, because he’s had a massive adrenaline jolt which is now receding, his face and shoulders hurt a lot, and seriously now: “I don’t believe you… didn’t you notice that Artoo and I just saved your life?” “I noticed. Thanks. I figure that’s my reward for not shooting you two days ago. Get over there and sit down.” Luke asks if it’s OK for him to check on Artoo instead, who’s basically whimpering. Mara looks at the droid, and–maybe for the first time conceding that yes, there’s a personality there, and Luke wasn’t being hyperbolic when he included Artoo in the voluntarily-saving-your-life list–says “sure, go ahead.” The welder and grasping arm are both broken off cleanly; Luke seals their compartments.
: And Zahn has one of the most fantastic notes in the book, how droids are useful because you can damage them and they can be fixed mechanically, whereas damaging fleshy humans is more complicated. He mentions that the screenwriters in Disney’s Aladdin (which, amazingly, came out the year after the book was published!) had a philosophy that they could hurt Iago, the parrot, for excellent effect…
Not that I would ever deliberately think that way about R2. Of course not.
: …yeah, I glared at that line.
Mara, putting some salve from the survival kit on the claw marks on her arms, asks about the droid, and says “sourly” that she’s glad to hear it when Luke says Artoo will be OK. Then she looks at him more carefully and remarks that the vornskr got him bad, too. Luke says “I’ll be all right,” and for once I have to agree with Mara when she snarks “of course you will, I forgot, you’re a hero too.” Because seriously, wouldn’t you at least ask if the tail which left a mark all across your face was poisonous?
But Luke is once again impressed with how quickly Mara’s put her durasteel armor on and porcupine quills out again: Her hands are still shaking with reaction (and fatigue (and fear)) and yet she’s still not going to show any weakness. And again, he wonders… Mara is discomfited by his gaze and asks if he wants a medal along with the thanks.
No, Luke says: “I just want to know what happened to you.”
The mask slips, the quills scatter, and the durasteel armor cracks and falls off:
For a moment, those green eyes flashed again with the old hatred. But only for a moment. The vornskr attack, coming on top of two days of laborious travel and no sleep, had taken a severe toll on her emotional strength. The anger faded from her eyes, leaving only a tired coldness behind. “You happened to me,” she told him, her voice more fatigued than embittered. “You came out of a grubby sixth-rate farm on a tenth-rate planet, and destroyed my life.”
Oh my skies, where to begin. Take your pick: How that kind of burden tires you out, and how it becomes a physical tiredness that can overflow with the addition of literal physical stress; the coldness–emptiness–that will be nearly the only thing left if you carry that kind of anger and hatred within for so long; how this is not Mara laying down that burden to rest voluntarily but dropping it out of fatigue; and then the weight of the actual statement she makes. Ouch.
: And that’s just the start. We don’t yet know anything more than we did before, but this time, we’re going to find out at last.
: Luke can only say “How?” Mara asks, you really don’t know who I am, do you. When Luke says sincerely that he’s sure he’d remember if they’d met, Mara goes back to the old unfair pattern again: “right, the omniscient Jedi.”
: One wonders. Luke is sure he’d remember if they ever met (and Zahn did do some fancy footwork in his later Allegiance to make sure that they never did meet)…but how much of that is colored by her reaction to him here? You’d remember, too, if someone wanted to kill you so much you could tell on sight without the Force. But before that?
: I was there, but you didn’t notice me, she continues: “I was a dancer at Jabba the Hutt’s palace the day you came for Solo.” Luke takes the obvious wrong turn for a moment, thinking he put her out of a comfortable job when he killed Jabba–which, hey flyboy, who killed Jabba actually? Credit to Leia for that please thanks–but only for a moment: No, she was no mere dancer, not with how she can fly and shoot and oh, use a lightsaber too. Vader knew I’d go after Han, so he sent you there to capture me, he theorizes.
: A semi-understandable misstep. Vader had used cat’s-paws, to capture Han for example. But to Vader, by then, it was personal. I get that any attempt to get at Luke there would have used an undercover agent (you can’t have Vader himself showing up), but Vader wouldn’t have subcontracted this one out.
: Ah, so close yet so far. Mara ridicules that: “Vader was a fool, and skating on the edge of treason along with it. My master sent me to Jabba’s to kill you, not to recruit you.”
“And your master was the Emperor.”
“Yes, and you destroyed him.”
Luke doesn’t seem to think that telling her about how it was actually Anakin Skywalker who did so is a very good idea…
: Whoa! Never noticed that before. Nicely caught.
: …and instead points out that Palpatine did try to recruit him. Only after I failed, retorts Mara, and “only when Vader had you standing right there in front of him. What, you don’t think he knew Vader had offered to help you overthrow him?”
…well, if we’re going to split hairs, that wasn’t exactly what Vader offered now was it. I seem to recall the helping and overthrowing roles would be reversed, etc.
: Depends whether you read it as a partnership or a mentorship.
: Luke’s understandably not too solid about any that himself (also, his arm hurts when he thinks about it) and murmurs that he didn’t think that was a serious offer. (Really, now. That’s weak, Skywalker, try again. If one word describes the duel on Bespin, “serious” has to be it.)
: The duel, yes. The offer…at that point, I think Luke didn’t know which way was up. Though he figured out down pretty quick.
: *tries to look innocent*
: Anyway, Mara’s got no doubts on that score, because–and here comes:
“The Emperor did,” Mara said flatly. “He knew. And what he knew, I knew.”
Her eyes filled with distant pain. “I was his hand, Skywalker,” she said, her voice remembering. “That’s how I was known to his inner court: as the Emperor’s Hand. I served him all over the galaxy, doing jobs the Imperial Fleet and stormtroopers couldn’t handle. That was my one great talent, you see–I could hear his call from anywhere in the Empire, and report back to him the same way. I exposed traitors for him, brought down his enemies, helped him keep the kind of control over the mindless bureaucracies that he needed. I had prestige, and power, and respect.”
Slowly, her eyes came back from the past. “And you took it all away from me. If only for that, you deserve to die.”
Zahn has a two-page-long margin note here about how the Emperor’s Hand came to be; I’ll let Will handle that. I could write a two-pager myself about the loss of purpose in one’s life and the attendant trauma but I… will skate right by that I think. In the meantime, hello, emotional climax of the novel. I hope we haven’t made you wait for too long.
: OK, about that footnote. What I find interesting is that it was born out of Zahn’s feeling that the start of Return of the Jedi was disconnected from the movie…this after he opened his novel with Luke remembering that every life is important, and big-picture vision is not always a good trait in a Jedi. Yes, it was personal, but it was also important.
Though in retrospect, what, the Rebellion couldn’t have sent a couple of agents to help free the man who kept Leia alive?
In general, though, the idea that the Emperor would have Mara as his “Hand” is interesting. “The Hand of the King” has reentered people’s awarenesses thanks to Game of Thrones, but by that logic, the Emperor’s Hand would be Vader himself, the recognized speaker-for-Emperor. Mara would be the “other Hand,” the left (sinister) hand, maybe, which the right doesn’t know about. Well, maybe not doesn’t know about, since Vader had known/known of Mara, but doesn’t get to keep tabs on.
And there will be a suggestion later that there were others. But the point is, this is entirely appropriate and in keeping with the Emperor–and the Sith, as we’ll learn later.
: As a first time reader, I remember that I had completely missed the implications of Mara’s statement that she could “hear his call from anywhere in the Empire,” and never put it together with her strong belief that it was Luke who destroyed the Emperor, until it’s spelled out explicitly somewhat later.
: Which is, as I said, why I think it’s interesting that Luke didn’t correct her when she first accused him.
: Luke does not argue or even mention her “deserve to die” point; instead asking what went wrong at Jabba’s. Jabba was mind-control resistant, remember; Mara couldn’t convince him to let her on the Sail Barge; that’s all. Luke acknowledges to himself that the cave on Dagobah was showing him the image of a possible past this time, instead of a possible future. He knows from his vision that had Jabba not had that caprice, Mara would have succeeded in killing him there. He tells this to Mara, who–interesting, that–takes that as an attempt to console her on failure.
(He’d be consoling her. On her failure to kill him.
: Jedi. But it’s more from the perspective of Mara dealing with her pain and loss.
: She says that she only told him because he wanted to know, not because she wanted sympathy.
(Or she would have asked for sympathy from him. Because she is suffering. Due to her failure to kill him.
(She’s by now really mixed in her messages to herself, let alone to the reader, is what I’m getting at–but at least 62.9% of that is also due to fatigue.)
: Lowball estimate. But, again, there is a difference between her failure to kill him, and the consequences to her, the loss of her life.
: Luke asks the remaining question: Why isn’t she back with the Empire? Once a flyboy always a flyboy; it’s almost endearing how naive he’s about all this “shadow agent” business. Mara points out the obvious: To the majority of the Imperial bureaucracy she didn’t exist; to the majority of the Imperial court she was a bit of mobile decoration around the palace; return to… what, exactly?
She’s being a bit disingenuous here, as we shall see, but I’ll let Will handle that too and forge on ahead. She says that she struggled for four and a half years in the galactic underfringe doing whatever she could, until she got in with Karrde’s group and worked very, very hard to get to where she was. And “You’re not going to ruin it for me. Not this time.”
: I think the real answer to why she couldn’t go back is that she lost the Emperor. Mentor, father figure, support structure. Because Mara could have gone back once Thrawn returned. She knows him (and now we know why), he knows her (as we’ll learn later but we can assume now). But she didn’t really serve the Empire, as an institution. To go back and serve anyone other than the Emperor is…not serving the Emperor. She’ll say in a second that she wants the old Empire back, and you know what she means.
(No wonder Zahn had to play silly buggers with the “resurrection” stuff in Dark Empire.)
: Luke’s turn to point out the obvious: “I don’t want to ruin anything for you… All I want is to get back to the New Republic.”
Something I didn’t realize until this reread is that in her fatigue, Mara’s non-sequitur “you won’t ruin it for me again” is very revealing: In the depths of her psyche, Luke is the monster under the bed, the thing that goes bump in the night, the Thing that destroyed her world and actively wants to destroy it again. You’d think he’d been hunting her relentlessly, high and low, and pounced on her in the middle of nowhere… …wait.
: Nicely spotted.
: Mara retorts reflexively that “we don’t always get what we want,” but when Luke soberly agrees with St. Jagger’s Axiom too, she abruptly tosses the tube of salve to him for the welts on his face and tells him to get some rest, since the next day is “going to be a busy day.”
: The idea of Mick Jagger being a saint made my week. Maybe a saunt, if this is Stephenson’s Anathem, but I digress.
: I have only one more general remark, which: This chapter reminded me of Tolkien a couple of times. Even though the allusion is not fitting and almost definitely not intentional, it is hard for me to read the sentence “…you deserve to die” and not flash back to Gandalf’s words to Frodo about Gollum. Mara almost definitely unconsciously expecting understanding and sympathy from Luke remembers me of the phrase “looked into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding,” which: It’s too early for the one, but the second is there, even though Mara is not yet looking.
: I’m not even sure Mara is expecting sympathy from Luke, she is just tired of not telling someone. Secrets weigh you down, and she’s kept this one for years. And Luke is one of the only people in the galaxy she can tell, oddly.
But yes, Luke understands. It’s a Jedi thing.
Though the Tolkien resonances…I agree, not intentional, more them pulling from the same well of the idea of humanizing (so to speak) the enemy.
Z’s right when she calls this the emotional climax of the novel, maybe sharing the prize with the previous chapter. So it’s interesting, and fitting, that it should be about Mara, not Luke. She’s the one with the emotional journey this trilogy. Not that Luke and Han and Leia (especially Leia) don’t have their own journeys to go on, but Mara’s is central.
And I like how, much like the last chapter, the action scenes prepare the ground for the emotional revelations.
Come to think of it–as Z said, Mara’s personal bogeyman is Luke, complete with his lightsaber shining as he attacks…and this would be the first time Luke had his saber active since Mara set eyes on him. Just how badly must have the view of the Avenging Jedi scared her before she had her blaster leveled?
: …wow, that’s a good catch, too. That I hadn’t cottoned on to.
: That’s about all they wrote for this one. Next up, a short chapter, where Zahn uses the pause from the last two actions to line up a literary flank attack (as it were), and our favorite mauve shirt pops up doing his job, as he does so well.
: Our favorite mauve shirt, wha—
Heh. OK, that one is actually funny.
: Not mine, that’s from that Site That Eats Afternoons.
Until then, may the Force be with you.