by Karen Winter
Leia sat on her chair of estate and watched the dancers below. The tall throne with its carved symbol of the New Republic towered over her, bit into the backs of her knees and the bones of her spine. She was too thin. Her slim fingers tightened over the armrests, gripping wood worn familiar with years of her presence. She felt as if she had grown from a child into a middle-aged woman in this chair over the years, since the final surrender of the Imperial fleet. Old? No, she did not suppose anyone would call her old yet. There was no more than a little gray in her hair, a few lines to mark her sharp features. No one would call her old, surely until they saw her eyes.
She noted, with a vagrant part of her consciousness, how the great throne seemed to suck all the heat out of her. She never could get warm any more. The courtiers, representatives from all the planets of the galaxy under the Republican Peace, were flushed and breathless in the ballroom's dazzling light. She could see the flicker of the ladies' fans and the sheen of perspiration on the gentlemen's faces above their high dress-uniform collars. They weren't cold. But they were all so much younger than she, and perhaps they had fewer memories.
There was a figure bowing in front of her now: the ambassador from...where was it? Oh, yes Tatooine, birthplace of the hero who was already half a legend to this new generation who had never known him. The ambassador would be here tonight, of course. How insufferably smug this little man and his worthless planet were.
"Allow me to congratulate your Highness on the twentieth anniversary of the victory of the Alliance."
Leia swallowed her irritation and smiled as she thanked him, remembering Luke, the shooting star who had blazed briefly across the battlefields of that Alliance. He had died young in the last campaign of the war. Behind her eyes, Leia saw again the searing brightness as Luke's X-wing became glittering fragments in space. It was a fit death for a hero. At least he had not sunk slowly into darkness and obscurity. Aren't we poetic tonight, she thought sourly. She hummed an ironic ballad-line under her breath as she gave the ambassador a courteous dismissal: "...and he died for the love of a lady...." After all, it would have been tactless for the hero to linger after the war was won and the fairy-princess had chosen another lover, and Luke had always been the preux chevalier. Leia twisted her fingers together under cover of a fold of her skirt, as her heavy signet ring bit painfully into her flesh. Had Luke died because after the victory he had nothing to live for?
"My lady Mother? Are you quite well?"
Leia looked up at the tall young man in front of her. It was a stranger's face with nothing of her in it. "Thank you, my son. Quite well." The young man was her younger sister's child, her adopted heir. There was none of her own blood in him. And nothing of Han, she thought with a sudden pang that faded into the old dull regret. Han was probably dead now, too, on some nameless world in some pointless smuggler's accident. It had been so long ago.
I did love him. She recalled with cold detachment as if it were something in an old tale the fierceness, once, of that passion. She ought to have gone with him when he left. The princess of the story-tapes would have gone with him, gone with the dashing scoundrel-lover, and thought the world well lost for love.
What happens to the princess when the commoner who has fulfilled the quest and won her turns down half the kingdom and the hand of the king's daughter in marriage? Half the kingdom, Leia thought, and flinched inwardly at the old memory of Alderaan shattering into bits of light against the dark. Some wounds never heal. One can only learn by long practice to ignore them. She breathed in, steadying herself. Lost princess of a lost planet, what was there to hold her to cold duty and a meaningless sacrifice after the victory was won and the Alliance's rule secured? Someone else could have stayed. She could have trusted Willard, Dodonna, Rieekan. With the victory won, they didn't need the Lady of the Alliance any longer. There was nothing to hold her but her honor.
Honor, Leia? Bitterly, she raked hurtful claws across that old wound too, as if to punish herself with even unnecessary pain. She was in a strange mood tonight. Was it honor or was it pride? To be the Lady of the Alliance, the symbol of victory, the living monument to the cause so many brave men had died for... Love and Death... if she could not feed on the one.... Leia swallowed hard. Was there something that twisted in her? The moment of doubt passed, thrust down among the unanswered questions she could not afford to examine except in the long hours alone before dawn, when she could not sleep. She would meet the questions again. There were always too many nights when she could not sleep. Now she had her duties. She smiled and directed polite small-talk, with half her attention, to the nephew seated beside her.
I could have gone with him. She thought back to their last conversation.
It started innocently enough, when she walked into their apartments shortly before they were due at a conference of the Council of the New Republic, to find Han in his Corellian vest and jeans instead of the resplendent uniform of Admiral of the Alliance Fleet he officially - was.
"Must you wear that scruffy nerfherder outfit?" Her tone was teasing, an echo of the playful exchange of insults that had sustained them through endless crises. "Go change. We're due at the Council meeting in half a timepart."
"I'm not going to the Council meeting, Leia."
"I'm not going to the meeting. I'm leaving." Han walked to the wide transparency overlooking the bustling capitol. A muted roar of traffic filtered through the sounddamped window as Han paused to watch a shuttle arcing gracefully toward orbit. "I need space, room to breathe. Something to do."
"Something to do?" Leia repeated, bewildered. "There's so much to do, Han. Conferences, diplomatic meetings, audiences with all the new ambassadors, reorganizing the Senate, setting up procedures for the elections"
"That's your job, not mine."
"We need you, Han. You can't just walk out on the Alliance."
Han came over to take her gesturing hands in his and silence her. "Leia, the Alliance doesn't need me, not anymore. I'm up to here standing around in a pretty uniform, playing protocol droid."
Leia stared up at him for along moment before she said, "What about me. I need you."
"I'm not any lady's fancy-man, not even yours, Princess." Han paused. "You'd make a great Corellian smuggler's woman. Come with me, Leia."
"Don't be ridiculous! I have obligations, promises, things to do here. I can't"
"You mean you won't."
"I can't, Han. I owe it to"
"Don't you owe me something?"
She still remembered the look he gave her, daring her to deny it. The longing she felt for him was so sharp she thought it would tear her apart, and she wavered, but pride held her silent; pride, and long-cultivated habit. She remembered that, too: that long that lying silence, as the moment of decision passed before she could really grasp it, and was gone.
Neither of them had been willing to admit it was a lie, then, when he took it with him. He had his pride also. "See you around, your Worshipfulness," he said, and he was gone.
Leia came back to the present to hear the musicians beginning, and see her nephew offering her his hand to lead out the last dance of the evening, a slow, stately dance that would not tax an... old... woman unduly. She rose and laid her thin hand on the young man's. From somewhere in the brightly-clad crowd a voice was raised: "Princess Leia! The Lady of the Alliance!" Other voices took up the cheer. She inclined her head graciously as she looked out over their upturned faces. Habit straightened her spine, turned her mind to the comfort of old patterns. She was the Lady of the Alliance. A symbol has no options, only duties.
The cheering rose higher, to lap around her and enfold her in its warmth. The decision had been made, and made again, day by day, in the inevitable process that made her what she was, the Lady of the Alliance. No, Han, she told the ghost as she went down to join her people, my silence was no lie. And there are many kinds of love. And she was almost satisfied.