My original plan for this month was to get started on the 30's story...but then, in the middle of the night about three weeks ago, I was thinking about "Princess Elena and the Trolls" and that I still had princesses rescuing princes on the brain. Well...does princesses rescuing merman smugglers count? This is kind of a blending of several ideas I had, including the Little Merman story and the medieval story.
I love stories that turn convention on its ear and has the girl rescue the boy, which is probably one of the reasons I love Star Wars so much. Princess Leia Organa is very good at coming to the aid of her men...including a certain prince of a smuggler who drives her crazy...
Saturday, August 6, 2016
Princess Leia and the Merman
Rating: PG (violence; language)
Disclaimer: The franchise belongs to George Lucas and the Walt Disney Company. I just got back into this fandom in January after more than a decade away and decided I wanted to play, too.
Once upon a time, a princess named Leia lived in a beautiful kingdom by the sea named Naboo. She longed for a life of adventure as a sailor, like her twin brother Luke had been. Luke had explored the ocean on the vessel Twin Sunset...until the boat and its cargo and crew were lost in a storm two years before. She loved her father, King Anakin of Naboo, but she wished he'd stop treating her like a piece of sea glass, and she missed Luke terribly. She knew in her heart that he was alive. Father may have given up on him, but she hadn't.
She loved the sea, knew every inch of a boat, just as well as her brother. She could swim like a fish and swear like the officers on her brother's boat. The sailors in her father's navy considered her to be one of their own. She preferred being out on the ocean, speaking out for her fellow sailors' rights, than being trapped in some dusty court.
Leia was Anakin's favorite, and in his eyes, she could do no wrong, but even he thought it was time his daughter settled down. He said as much to her as he lead her down the hall to Naberrie Castle's ballroom.
“Leia,” he began, “I know you claim you're not ready to get married, but Baron Lando Calarissian is the head of the Bespin silver mining colony. They say he's a very wealthy man. We need that alliance with Bespin. Our army will protect their interests, and we could use that silver. Ever since we lost the Twin Sunset three years ago, our treasury has been...unstable.” He frowned. “And we all miss your brother. He was my heir, and I loved him. I already lost your mother. You're all I have left.”
Leia wasn't paying him any mind. She almost seemed to be looking for someone. “I'm sure the Baron is very nice, Father,” she said, “but I already have someone I'm interested in.”
“You do? Whom?”
“I don't know his name.” She scanned the many familiar faces in the crowd. “He's been at every ball we've held for the past six months. I've danced with him many times. He's told me so many things even I didn't know about the ocean, and fish, and sharks, and even mermaids.”
Anakin snorted. “Mermaids? That's just fairy stories.”
“That's what I said, too.” She lifted her white tulle skirts that billowed like foam around her sea-blue satin shoes. “He says they're real. He's seen them. Of course,” she added, “I told him he was crazy, and we ended up getting into an argument...but that was actually almost fun. Most men here never argue with me. They just agree with everything I say to get on your good side.”
Anakin chuckled. “I'm surprised you let him get a word in edgewise. I know how you can get when you're discussing your beliefs.”
Leia took a drink the family's butler Cedric handed her. “Thank you.” She stirred the cool chocolate drink with a spoon. “That's the strange thing, Father. He talks about the sea and the animals and traveling, but he hasn't said a word about himself. I don't know who he is, or what he does. When I ask, he either changes the subject or runs out the door.” She looked thoughtful. “And he won't go near the ocean, for all his talk about it.” She sipped her chocolate. “I won't let him run tonight! I'll find out what's going on.”
“Meanwhile, your date for the evening has arrived.” Anakin looked up as Cedric announced the Baron. “Come on. You'll like him. I've had long conversations about boat races and the latest models of boats with him, and he discusses fashion with the women of the court like he's a designer.”
Baron Calarissian was a tall man, with dark curly hair, a neatly trimmed mustache, and soft coffee-colored skin. He wore a sky-blue uniform trimmed with gold braiding, with navy trousers and the most dashing cape. He swished over to them and took her hand, kissing it softly.
“Hello, Your Majesty. This must be your daughter, Leia.” He smiled, showing off blinding white teeth. “She's more beautiful than all of the goddesses of the heavens.”
Leia curtsied before him. “Thank you, Baron.”
Anakin coughed. “Well, yes, I'm going to leave you two to get acquainted. Besides, Leia, I see your godfather, Bail of Alderaan. Probably wants me to sign some peace treaty.”
Lando gave her that dazzling smile again. “Would you like to dance, Your Highness?”
“Yes, Baron. I'd enjoy that.”
The Baron was a very good dancer, as light as a feather on his toes. “Is something troubling you?” he asked after the third time Leia tripped over her hem. “Your mind doesn't seem to be on the music. Am I really such boring company?”
“It's not you. It's just someone I met a few months ago. He's been coming to our castle ever since, but I haven't seen him tonight.” He took her hand, but she barely noticed. “Baron, do you believe in mermaids?”
Lando chuckled. “I've never seen one, but since I've heard they're amazing beauties with voices like angels, I wouldn't complain if I met one.”
“I don't know if I'd want to. The stories say merpeople use their voices to lure ships into rocks and drag humans down to the sea.”
The baron grinned. “Then it would be a beautiful way to go.”
“Still...” She sighed. “I wonder...”
That was when she saw him descending the gilded staircase. Tonight, he wore a fine black silk vest and cream-colored blouse. The buttons were made from abalone, the flowing red-brown mane pulled back by a circle of frosted sea glass. The tight navy trousers with blood-red stripes amply showed off his long legs. A weatherproof oilskin bag was slung on his hip. A heavy gold collar clung to his strong neck. He had a chiseled jawline, with a distinct scar on his chin.
The tall man tried to hide the wince when he strutted up to Leia and Lando. “I told you I'd come back, Your Worship. I have for six months. Wouldn't miss your old man's parties for anything.”
Lando was giving the man a strange look. “Who might you be?”
He gave him a half-grin. “Han Solo, sir.” He bowed before Leia. “Glad to see you again, Your Worship. Is your old man still trying to marry you off?”
Lando's smile became tighter. “I was dancing with her first.”
“Then give the next guy a turn.” Han took Leia's hand and walked her to balcony that overlooked the garden.
The moment they got outside, Leia yanked her hand out of his. “What are you doing?”
“Taking you out to spend time with a real man.” He sat down, still smirking. “Who was he, anyway? Looked like a jellyfish to me.”
“Lando is a good man.” Leia glared at him. “You have no right to talk. You won't even tell me who you are and what you do.”
“I'm Han Solo. Isn't that enough?”
She turned away. The sea roared, lapping against the sparkling beach. Twilight was falling. There would be a full moon tonight, a good, solid moon. A moon like that can make people do strange things. Old Maz, the lady who sold seashells and told fortunes by the beach, said that when the moon was full, the mer-creatures came out to play, to lure, to dance.
He looked out at the rising moon. “I came to say good-bye. This is my last night here. I have a friend I have to get back to.”
That got her attention. She swirled around, her velvet brown eyes surprised. “You're leaving? How will I find you? Will I ever see you again?”
He smiled at her, a big, playful grin. “Maybe in your dreams.”
Han had such beautiful eyes, large and hazel-green, with gold flecks. She just wished they weren't placed over that cocky smirk of his. “You can be so infuriating. I wouldn't dream about you if they gave me all the pearls in ever oyster in the entire Naboo Sea!”
“So you say.” He slowly took her hands as a muffled waltz struck up in the ballroom. “Hey, Your Highnessness, wanna dance?”
He didn't give her a chance to reply. They slowly moved to the dreamy music. She leaned on his chest, her mind swirling in time with the song. Who was this man? There was something about him that didn't feel...normal. It was all such a mystery. She wanted to know more. He challenged her in a way that no man had before. She lay her head on his shoulder, wishing there was a way the song could last forever.
They were so caught up in the moment, they didn't even realize the music had ended, or that they were now in the ballroom. It wasn't until she heard applause that Leia knew there was anyone else around them and saw the crowd laughing and sighing. Han nudged her. “Looks like we won the door prize, Your Worship. Better take a bow.”
She rolled her eyes but did what he suggested, curtsying for the crowd with flourish. He gave the assembled guests a small, awkward bow and wave. He finally lead her away, back towards the patio looking out at the gardens and the beach. “Sure did the old fi...feet in. Sometimes, I forget I have these darn things.” He kept up the smile, but it was tight and unconvincing. “I really need to get to the beach, and I really need to talk to your dad.”
“I could walk you there.”
“Sorry, sweetheart, but this isn't a job for princesses.” He took her hand, rubbing it gently. His hazel eyes softened as they gazed intently into her warm brown ones.
She frowned. “Stop that.”
“Stop that. My hands are sweaty.”
“So are mine.” He had both hands now, running his rough fingers over the delicate knuckles. “What are you afraid of?”
“I'm not afraid of anything!” She looked away. “I'm a princess. I'm expected to marry someone noble and respectful. You act like a scoundrel.”
He lifted her chin to meet his own face. “Scoundrel? I like the sound of that.”
“I don't! I...” She couldn't resist anymore. His soft, gruff voice was compelling and soothing. “I think there's something about you...when you talk...”
He ignored that. “You're trembling.”
“I'm not trembling.” She moved in closer. “Ok, hotshot, I...”
She never finished her sentiment. They were about to kiss when she saw the moon out of the corner of her eyes. It was full and high and perfectly round and white, looking like she could reach out and touch it. The moment its light fell on them, Han let out a yell of pain.
“Han?” She put her arms around him tightly. “Are you all right?”
“No...yes...” He pushed her arms aside and stumbled to his feet. “I have to talk to your dad. It's important.”
She grabbed his arm. “Han, please. Stay. If your legs hurt, I could get the palace doctor to look at them.”
His eyes looked for all the world like he wanted to, was even considering it...but then she heard laughter. Big, booming laughter that floated out over the water like a cannon. “Thanks, but I can't. I have to get back to Chew...my friend.” He kissed her forehead and gently stroked her neck, then ducked away, pushing through the crowd.
She tried to follow him, but King Anakin blocked her way. “Where have you been?” He touched her neck. “What happened to your pearl necklace? The one your mother and I gave you for your last birthday?”
Leia's fingers went to her now-bare neck. “I don't know. The clasp must have broken.” She was already making her way towards the front entrance. “Father, the man who ran through, his name is Han Solo. I need to talk to him.”
“So do we.” His face looked grave. “We have reason to believe he's a thief. Valuables have gone missing from the palace for the last three nights. Several of our guests have complained about jewelry and cufflinks and purses being stolen. We thought they were lost, but someone saw him taking the silver spoons from the table and stuffing them in his bag.”
“Father, perhaps he's poor. He may have a family he needs to sell that for.”
“That's no excuse. He broke the law. Not to mention, half the nobles in the kingdom no longer think we're trustworthy because we allowed a thief to take whatever he wants for months on end.”
His daughter gave him her most innocent smile. “I could help you, Father. I know these grounds as well as your men, maybe better. I could figure out where he went.”
Anakin was already directing her towards the hall that lead to the bedrooms. “Oh no. You're going to tell your guests that you aren't feeling well, then go to your room. We'll discuss this in the morning.”
She yanked her arm away...but then gave him an exaggerated sigh. “Very well, Father. I am feeling a bit sleepy.”
“Good.” He gently put a hand on her shoulder. “Leia, this is for your own good. You'll find a better man than a criminal.”
She curtsied before him. “Yes, Father.” She started towards the hall...but the moment he turned to his men, she darted in the opposite direction. She had to find out what happened to Han. Why did he run from her? Why was he stealing? Who was his mysterious employer?
As she stepped onto the staircase that descended into the front garden, she saw the top of a reddish-brown head limping towards the shoreline. She followed him, taking off her dance slippers for easier traction in the grainy sand. The trailing tulle skirts of her white ball gown tripped her up as she hurried along.
Han stood on the edge of the beach. Leia hid behind a beach plum bush, watching as the largest, ugliest creature she'd ever seen waddle out of the waves. Rolls and rolls of fat sloshed over slimy, wrinkled mud-brown skin and large yellow eyes. It didn't have legs, though it did have a thick cigar of a tail. A long chain of gold links dangled in its stout fingers. It looked like an enormous version of the slugs Leia often saw in Father's garden.
“Jabba, I have the goods.” Han held out the purse to the slug-like monster. “I brought you what you asked for. Now, about giving me an immortal soul and releasing my best friend...”
The creature inspected every piece of jewelry and every spoon in the bag, including her pearl necklace. “Very good. Very nice merchandise, Solo. Very good quality. However, there's one treasure missing. Where's the girl?”
Han shook his head. “No girl. The jewels should be more than enough to pay off my debts and free Chewie.”
Jabba poked a sausage-like finger at him. “Why do you think I let you keep your voice while you were on land? You were supposed to bring the girl to the water and drown her. I must have King Anakin's daughter's immortal soul. I already have her brother's.”
Han wobbled away from the water that lapped at his feet. His knees shook. The moon was just about at its full height. “I'm not killing her. Not now.” He looked at his booted feet. “I can't hurt her.”
Jabba's hoots boomed over the waves. “You love her. You fell in love with a human.”
The auburn-haired man glared at him. Leia's breath caught in her throat. “So what?”
The slug-thing kept hooting. “You're no more human than I am. You're just a petty sea-crook. You can't even walk on land without feeling like you're running on sharp knives.”
Han gave him his infamous lazy grin. “Now, Jabba, that hurt. If you give me one more chance with Her Worship, I'll forget you even said it.”
“Nothing doing, Solo.” He started towards Han with the chain. “You told me you'd get the girl, and you didn't. I can't give you an immortal soul if you didn't earn it.”
“Jabba, I'll pay you triple, just as soon as I get back to the castle! You're throwing away a fortune!” Han was caught between the slug and the water. Jabba's fat hand shot out, shoving him head over heels into the moonlit sea.
“No!” Leia burst out of her hiding place. “Don't touch him, you piece of overgrown lard!” She reached for a sharp piece of driftwood.
The moonlight wreathed around the lower half of Han's body as he tried to get on his elbows. “Leia, run! Tell...your dad...Jabba will...” His vocal chords stiffened, and his throat became raw. “He...wants...to...” Slender legs melted together, forming a long navy fish tail ringed with red stripes. A white light emerged from his mouth, flowing into a lavender shell in the slug's hand.
Leia's eyes widened. “Han?” She staggered into the water. His hand reached for her hand, putting it against her smaller one. Was he so different, now? Part of him was still like her. “You didn't want me to know you're a merman.” He shook his head.
Jabba moved far faster in the sea than he did on land. He was easily able to block Han from the shocked princess. “Ahh, the fairest sea-flower in all the coastal kingdoms has come for her precious lover. As you can see, you're too late.”
Leia glared at him, drawing the sharp piece of driftwood up to his chest. “I order you to release him at once!”
Jabba chuckled the girl's chin. She shoved his hand away. “Feisty and gorgeous. No wonder Solo was so determined to protect you.”
Leia raised her chin in the most royal manner she could manage. “I can protect myself, thank you.”
The sea slug was not expecting this short human girl to stab him in the arm with her very sharp stick. Nor could he have predicted Han biting hard on the tip of his tail. The merman immediately regretted that. Jabba tasted like the old rubber shoes he sometimes found in garbage heaps near the surface. Leia had to stifle her giggles at his sour expression.
The moment the slug started nursing his sore tail, Han grabbed Leia's hand and propelled her across the water, towards the sheltered cove on the edge of the Naboo peninsula. “Han,” she gasped as they swam at a blistering pace, “Old Maz lives near the cove. She might be able to make you human again.” He nodded, giving her a far gentler and more genuine smile than his flirty smirks at the ball.
They were half-way to the cove when Leia heard the laughter again. Han nudged at her, trying to move her along. “I can't swim any faster!” Her lungs were burning and her legs were cramping as it was. “I don't have the tail for it!”
His strong arm wrapped around her waist. Han gave her another genuine, soft smile as he sped easily over the waves. Somewhere in Leia's bosom, her heart turned into mush.
The cove was one of her favorite places. It was hidden at the edge of Theed Town by the sand dunes and tall grasses that had been planted to prevent erosion. She and Luke used to explore the cove when they were younger. She knew every rock and beach plum bush and cave.
She was breathing heavily when they finally floated to the nearest rock. Han lifted her onto the rough granite as easily as if she were a child, then pulled himself onto the rock next to her. “Thank you.” She smiled as he kissed her hand. “Turning into a merman seems to have improved your manners.”
Her palm ran down his tail. It was beautiful, smooth as a piece of sea glass on the beach. His fin was gossamer red that glimmered like rubies. “I can't believe this is real. You're really a merman.” He grinned mischievously and splashed a little water on her with his tail to prove it was real. She laughed. “Oh, so you want to play?” She splashed him back. They continued their little water war for the next few minutes, until they were out of breath and Leia was laughing so hard, tears ran down her cheeks.
Han was fascinated by her tears. He trailed his fingers down their tracks, even licked one finger to see what they tasted like. “What? Haven't you ever seen someone cry before?” He shook his head. “Why won't you talk to me? You haven't said a word since you turn...since it happened.” She realized, even as she spoke, that he didn't need to. His soft hazel eyes told her everything. “Han,” she whispered as he pulled her closer, still holding her head, “I...”
Black starlight shot between them, just as they were about to kiss. The dusty black mass threw Leia hard into the rock and Han back into the waters of the cove. Pain exploded in her temple as her head met the jagged stone.
She managed to get on her elbow long enough to see Han surrounded by five mermen with silvery shark-like tails, pointing tridents at him. Each had chains looped under their arms. The merman tried to bite Jabba again, but one of the guards shoved a length of sail cloth in his mouth. The remaining shark-men threw chains around Han's arms, wrists, and chest. “No,” she panted, “he's not your servant!”
“That's where you're wrong, Little Beauty.” The defeated look on Han's face as Jabba snapped the leash on his collar broke Leia's heart. “He belongs to me. Soon, so will you.” The round yellow eyes roamed up...and around...her, resting on her considerable bust line. “You'll look lovely in nothing but seashells.”
“You can stop using me for a model right now.” She rubbed her head. “I'm not going with you, and Han isn't, either.”
“Come to the wreck of the SS Alderaan, ten miles off the coast of Naboo, if you want to see him again.”
Leia ignored Han shaking his head. “I'll come,” she puffed. “I won't leave him.”
“We shall see.” Jabba shot another blast of black magic in her direction. The last thing Leia saw was the forlorn expression on the merman's face before she finally passed out.
Han was hauled like a crate of cargo to the underwater cart owned by Boba Fett, Jabba's most feared lieutenant. It was he who ensnared Han and his spotted dogfish partner Chewbacca while they were trying to flee to the Alderaan Reefs. Chewie was being held at Jabba's ship palace as extra incentive for his friend to do the fat sea slug's bidding.
If he still had legs, he'd be kicking himself with them. He had to break out and find Leia. If he could warn her somehow without talking to her, she could warn her father. The king would come and smack Jabba's wrinkly rear, and he could go back to his old life.
If I want to now. Scrounging through old shipwrecks, singing to lure innocent humans to their deaths, doing the dirty work for monsters like Jabba...what kind of life was that? He'd enjoyed being on land, walking on two feet, mingling with the humans. Being part of their world. Leia and her family had treated him with nothing but kindness. They gave him food and drink and seemed to respect him...or at least they had, until they figured out he was just some mer-ruffian. If he could just get back on land, he'd make it up to them somehow. He'd never lure another human to their death ever again.
Two of Jabba's tiger shark guards shoved him into what had once been the ship's brig. Jabba had refitted it into a dungeon for holding prisoners and the occasional mermaid being ransomed for her father's wealth. Small, barred portholes shut out what little light penetrated the deep waters. The room was empty except for a warped wooden bunk and grimy chains.
Han thought he was alone...but then, he heard the snuffle. Two wide spot-covered fins reached out and hugged him so tightly, he gasped for breath for a moment. Chewie! The brown and cream-spotted dogfish nudged and patted him playfully. I missed you too, buddy.
He looked up as a mermaid swam to the bars, carrying a tarnished brass plate of plankton and seaweed. “Here's your dinner,” she croaked. She wasn't exactly what you would call a blushing sea anemone. Her fin looked like a great white shark took a bite out of it; her reddish black tail was rusty. She had pasty skin and black eyes that were little more than craters in a white sea. The keys to the brig dangled on a belt on her waist, just out of reach.
The hungry merman managed to crack open a few plankton before Chewie ate the rest of their meal in one gulp and whimpered that he wanted more. Dogfish ate a lot. Jabba hadn't been feeding him nearly enough to keep his belly from grumbling.
Han patted his friend on the back, then gave the mermaid one of his toothy grins that sent the heart of every female in the Naboo Sea racing. She ignored him. He winked at her. She didn't even turn around. He slowly stretched his long arms and tail across the floor, letting his red fin “accidentally” brush her black one. She slapped his tail away. He pulled the sea glass ring off his hair and put it on her wrist. It would make such a nice bracelet! She threw it in his face.
Ok. Time for Plan B. The moment she turned away, he tried to reach for the ring of keys around her waist. Whenever she turned back around, he'd yank his hand in and look as innocent as possible.
The moment Boba Fett popped his head in, he managed to get the keys off her waist. He slid one key into the hole. No click. The second went in less easily. Still no click. Chewie growled in the background to hurry. Fett and his mermaid friend would be coming back any minute.
It was just his luck that they returned the moment he heard that tell-tale “click.” Fett came at him with his gun-like mechanical trident, only to be met by Han grabbing at his helmet. Chewie swished his tail as hard as he could, knocking the mermaid into Fett.
The dogfish and the merman sped down the hall, trying to make his way to the nearest open window. Chewie found the huge porthole at the tail end of the ship. He was just able to sprint through it. Han could see the light at the end of the passage. He'd make it! He'd see Leia again! He'd be able to warn King Anakin about Jabba! He'd...
His tail never made it out of the porthole. A pair of powerful shark jaws bit into his fin and yanked him back. Boba Fett, surrounded by two very ugly shark men, thrust their rock crystal tridents in his face. The featureless shark man threw the chain leash back on Han's collar and clapped his wrists in irons.
Jabba reclined in an enormous golden chair, among the treasures that came with the wreck. The sea slug chose to live in the deteriorating vessel because, for all its warping wood and tarnished trim, what remained was still quite intimidating.
“Solo,” he hooted as Fett and the mermaid shoved Han into the throne room, “what have you done this time?”
“He flirted with me, or tried to.” The mermaid's croak dripped with contempt. “Bribed me, too.”
Fett tugged harder at the chain. “The dogfish got away, but we snatched Solo before he made it out.”
Jabba snorted. “Forget the dogfish.” The corpulent slug waved them away. “Leave us. I can deal with my slaves.”
Fett handed him the leash and bowed before him, then left with the mermaid. Jabba yanked hard at the chain, forcing Han to the floor on his hands and tail. “Even without your voice, you think you can bring all the little mermaids swimming into your hands with your charm and good looks.” He attached the chain to the side of his throne, then glided to a shelf behind it. The captive merman tried to pry the collar off his neck while Jabba went through the glass bottles, looking for just the right potion.
For you see, Jabba was a wicked sea warlock. He mixed nasty potions and evil-smelling drugs to keep his minions helpless and make his rivals and those who displeased him conveniently die, disappear, or change their appearance in such a way that they'd go mad from looking at themselves. His shipwreck palace was filled with traps and mazes that could ensnare even the most innocent of merfolk.
“Ahh, here it is!” He brought a sickly green bottle as the bound merman tried to draw back. “Let's see how many mermaids you'll attract when you're too ugly to look at.” Thick, stubby fingers wrapped around Han's cheeks, forcing his lips open. Dark green liquid gushed into his throat.
Jabba's booming guffaws filled the air as the merman choked and reared back...and the shadow of a monster replaced him. The rotund warlock stroked the Beast's jagged skin, whispering to it. “Calm yourself. When the girl comes, you'll be ready.”
When Leia awoke, the sun was just starting to peek over the hills behind the castle. Her head still ached, and her limbs were stiff and sore. She forced herself to her feet. Maz. Maz would know what to do. The elderly beachcomber knew everything about the sea and the supernatural beings who were said to live there. She was the one who used to tell stories of merfolk and monsters to Leia and Luke when they were children.
It was said that Maz was a sea witch and a seer. She could see in the future, transform herself into anything. She knew everything that went on in Naboo and in the waters below it. According to the rumors, her potions and magical shells could stop the very tides, calm a storm at sea...or allow a human to breathe underwater.
Maz lived on the outskirts of Naboo, in a shack nestled between dunes. The elderly woman had a small store in town where she told fortunes and sold jewelry and intricate boxes and bags made from shells, quartz, and sea glass. Thankfully, she was at home today. Leia could see her bustling around in her one room, stringing quartz beads together for earrings.
“Maz?” Her small knuckles pounded on the intricate door, probably taken from a shipwreck. “Maz, please, it's Leia. I need your help! It's a matter of life or death!”
The door opened, and Leia found herself staring into a pair of owlish dark eyes, blinking under enormous round spectacles. “Well, child, come in!” The elderly woman shooed her inside. “There's no need to disrupt the neighborhood. You're lucky I always get up before dawn.”
Maz moved aside two cartons of wire and string and shells from a battered old chair. “You can't stay here long.” The old woman was quite spry for her age, moving easily from her work bench to a wide shelf made from driftwood. “Princess Leia of Naboo, what were you thinking, running off like that?”
“I was following someone,” Leia said obstinately. “He's the reason I'm here. Maz, those stories...the ones about the mermaids and the underwater witches and warlocks...”
Maz put up a tiny, wrinkled red hand. “Say no more. I know. You fell in love with the merman who stole the jewels from your father's guests. There's men searching all over the kingdom for both of you.”
“I'll go back to Father and tell him everything,” Leia explained. “But first, I have to get Han back.”
The older witch flung open the top of a heavy trunk. “You do know the risk involved,” said a disembodied voice from inside the wooden box. Maz leaned so far in, she looked like the trunk was trying to eat her.
“I know Han Solo well. He's a merman, to be more specific, a male siren, and a scavenger. He lures ships to their doom, then scavenges the contents and sells them to wealthy sea magicians like Jabba. He ran from his boss after losing one of his shipments. Jabba hates it when merfolk double-cross him.” Her sprightly voice darkened. “I've seen the visions. Jabba is a strong black magic warlock. He cast a nasty spell on Solo. He's not the merman you knew at the ball.”
“I have to find him, Maz.” She leaned over the trunk. “Jabba was treating him like a dog on a leash. Naboo outlawed slavery almost a century ago for a reason.”
“Ocean dwellers don't fall under your father's jurisdiction.” Maz finally popped out from the trunk, holding a necklace made of quartz beads and three small spiral seashells. Leia could see, even with the morning sun shining against them, that they each glowed faintly, one pink, one sea-green, and one blue. “This will allow you to breathe underwater for twenty-four hours, starting the moment you dive in. You have to be out before the light in the last shell fades, otherwise you'll die. Your human lungs aren't equipped to be in the ocean for long.”
“Thank you, Maz.” Leia pulled the trinket around her neck.
The older woman rubbed the bracelet, softly chanting in an ancient language Leia didn't recognize. “Jabba is a warlock. His powers are not unlike mine, but far darker. He creates violent storms that wreck wealthy boats on his reefs. His merfolk salvage the treasures on board and lure the survivors to their deaths.” Maz nodded towards the reefs. “He needs human souls. His magic feeds on them...and your family has some of the strongest souls on land. He wants to get on land himself. The stronger the souls, the stronger his magic will be.”
The princess' brown eyes lit with angry fire. “Luke's ship...Jabba did it. He created that storm. It was out of nowhere.” Her slender fingers gripped the necklace tightly. “He killed my brother and his crew.”
A small red hand took Leia's before she could leave. “One more thing. Beware of the maze. Jabba sends his enemies into it, and even some of his friends, to search for their heart's desire. There's monsters there that will tear you to ribbons. Traps that can suck out your blood in an instant. No one who goes in ever comes out.”
“Then I guess I'll be the first.” She gave Maz a small hug. “Thanks again. I owe you at least two days worth of shopping at your store.”
“Remember,” Maz called over her shoulder as the girl headed across the dunes, “see with your heart, not your eyes! Don't let the magic trick you!”
Baron Lando Calarissian saw Leia hiking to the docks in her stocking feet. The poor girl looked like she'd been wrung out. Her white and blue ball gown was ripped and wrinkled. One of her hair buns had come out entirely. The porcelain cheeks were streaked with sand, and sand and salt coated her arms and legs. A pair of once-white satin dancing pumps dangled from her cramped fingers.
“Leia!” He hurried over to her the moment she strode onto the docks. He'd traded his fine cape and suit for a simpler white and navy sailor's outfit. “Where have you been? Half the island out looking for you and that thief.”
“Han's not a thief!” Lando stepped back at her vehement tone. “He's in trouble. I have to save him.”
“Not in the state you're in, Your Highness.” Lando linked his arm with hers. “Why don't you come to my yacht, The Lady Luck? I'll give you something to drink, and then we can just take you back to your father...”
“I'm not going back to Father. Not right now.” She crossed her arms. “I want to borrow your boat.”
Lando gave her his most charming grin. “It's all yours, my lady. Whatever you wish, it'll be granted.”
“Take me to the reefs ten miles off Naboo. The one where the SS Alderaan went down.”
The charming grin fell quickly. “What? That's a ship graveyard! Those reefs tear out the bottom of your boat before you have the chance to say 'men overboard!'”
“I have to go there.” She was already striding past him, down the dock. “A warlock is holding Han in one of the wrecks. I think he's the one who created those strange storms that have been sinking ships, including my brother's.”
“Warlocks?” Lando had to rush to catch up with her. “Your Highness, I don't want you to get hurt. Going into the ships' graveyard is suicide. Besides, warlocks are fairy tales.”
The young woman turned towards the nearest boat. “If you won't help me, I'll find someone who will.”
The Baron sighed. “All right. I can't let you go running off on some leaky tub. Your father would cut out my spleen, or worse. I'll take you there...but after I do, I'm going to tell your father what's going on.”
She nodded. “Please do. I want Father to know what's going on. Tell him about the ships and the storms. Tell him I know what happened to my brother.”
“But in the meantime,” Lando offered her his arm, “shall we?”
Though her smile didn't quite reach her eyes, she did take his arm. “Of course.”
Lando did treat Leia well once she was on-board. His manservant Laurence brought her lunch and a change of clothing, a brown jacket and trousers and white shirt from a short sailor that were only a little baggy on her. She pulled her hair into a simple braid that swished across her back.
“You are truly beautiful,” the Baron insisted when she joined them on-deck. “Even in trousers. You belong with us in Bespin, where the mountains touch the clouds.” He gave her hand another kiss.
“Thank you, Baron. I appreciate your kindness and your compliment.” Though she spoke to him, her eyes were roaming out over the water.
Lando tied down some rigging. “We should be there any minute. We're making good time.” He looked up at the rapidly darkening clouds. “It's a good thing you're doing this now. As soon as you get off, we'll have to return to land. I don't like the look of that storm.”
A puffed-up older man in a green and gray plaid officer's uniform harrumphed from behind the ship's wheel. “I can't believe you're doing this, Baron. On a day with weather that could break out into thunder and lightning any minute!” He pointed at Leia. “You, girl! Fetch my lunch. It's on the silver tray in the galley. I'll have to eat it up here, I suppose.”
“I can do it, Leia.” Lando clapped him on the shoulder. “We'll eat together, Admiral Ashton.”
“No, I'll do it.” Leia gritted her teeth, but she did retrieve the demanded meal. It was more difficult to get it upstairs. The ocean was becoming more choppy, with waves bobbing the yacht up and down like a toy boat. She barely managed to get it to a barrel before it slipped and dropped on the deck.
“Look at what you've done!” A skinny finger lifted in Leia's direction. “Your lordship, that woman is an idiot! What is she doing on this ship? A boat is no place for a woman.”
Lando was already helping Leia clean up the mess. “She's the reason we're here, Admiral.”
The look the admiral gave her was pure shock. “Are you insane, young lady? Coming out in this storm?”
“No, I'm not insane!” Leia threw the tray on the barrel and went right up to the man's face. “And I'm not an idiot! I didn't have to bring you lunch. You could have let someone else take the wheel while you got your own damn lunch. I'm not your maid. I'm here to help a friend who was kidnapped by a war...a crime lord. I am Princess Leia of Naboo, and I have no time for your ignorance!”
Lando applauded while the Admiral sputtered. “Thank you, Your Highness. Admiral, you may take the rest of your lunch down below. I'll be driving from here on in.” He handed the older man the tray and gently pushed him towards the door to the staterooms.
Leia was already looking towards the sea. “Leia,” Lando began, “I'm sorry about the Admiral. I don't think he ever got used to taking orders instead of giving them. He retired last year, and no one knows ships better than he does. He's just cranky in his old age.”
Her eyes were still focused on the horizon. “I don't take orders well myself. Men like him are the reason I'm stuck dancing in fancy gowns instead of doing something worthwhile, like fighting pirates or rescuing shipwrecked sailors.”
“Well,” Lando added, “at least you won't have to deal with him for much longer. We're coming up on the reefs.”
The coral reefs extended for miles across the waters. The deceptively delicate white ridges could tear a boat's bottom to splinters in minutes. Most boats that came to Naboo knew how to avoid them, but during storms or at night, it was easier to be tossed into their jagged embrace.
The Baron slowed the boat as close to the reefs as he dared. He and Leia threw the rope ladder over the side. “What am I going to tell King Anakin?”
“Tell him I went after a friend. I'll explain the rest when I return.” The young woman nodded at the sun. “I should be back here in exactly twenty-four hours with Han. Hopefully, you'll have two people to treat to biscuits and cheese on the way home.”
“Are you sure about this?” Lando watched as she went over the side and down the rope. “You say you've only known this Han a few days.”
“He did me a favor by not turning me over to his boss.” She gave him a small smile. “I'm doing one for him in return.”
“But...” It was too late. Leia had already dropped into the clear turquoise waters. He sighed. “Good luck, Your Highness. I hope you find what you're looking for.”
The world beneath the coral was spectacular. As Leia dove deeper and deeper, so many amazing varieties of fish and plant life swam before her. She barely paid them any mind. She had one thought now – to find Han and rescue him somehow from Jabba's clutches.
The ship's graveyard was the home to many wrecks in various state of decay, from ones still recognizable to old vessels so sunk in the mud and covered in seaweed, they were more driftwood than ship. Jabba's home was one of the newer ones, the largest in the entire graveyard.
Two more of Jabba's shark men guards greeted her at the door. They were different than the bounty hunters who captured Han. Their tails were spinier, their muscles larger. The princess didn't stop to check if they had teeth like sharks as well. She wordlessly followed them through the winding, still richly-decorated halls.
Jabba's throne room was in the captain's cabin. The bed had been made over into a gilded lounge to hold the weight of the corpulent slug warlock. Bizarre creatures brought him seaweed and red kelp. Their bodies somewhat resembled humans, but they were so coated with slime, mud, and seaweed, she couldn't really tell what they were. They all had collars around their necks like Han's. Two mermen with spiny tails and long, heavy iron tridents floated on either side.
Leia swam in Jabba's face. “Where's Han? What have you done with him?”
The warlock slug indicated the plates of various seaweed and shellfish being served. “Have a seat, Your Highness. Enjoy a meal.”
“I don't want to eat. I want Han back. I want to avenge my brother. You're the one creating these storms, aren't you? The ones that are destroying our ships and our treasury.” Her voice rose to a thunder crack. “The ones that killed Luke and his crew!”
Jabba shoved almost the entire plate of seaweed wraps in his mouth. “Really, girl, you have very bad manners. You're supposed to eat with the host.”
Leia glared at his fat arms shoving every bit of food in reach in his mouth. “You're not exactly one to talk. You have the table manners of a fat spoiled five-year-old.”
One of the slave-creatures brought Jabba another plate of seaweed wraps. “I didn't invite you here to insult me.”
She gave him a wicked grin Han would have loved. “Where do you want me to do it?”
“Ahh, Little Beauty, very amusing.” He let out one of his hoots. “A jest at my expense. You're a clever girl with a strong soul.” One of the sausage arms extended towards the reefs. “I think you'll do well in the maze.”
“I was told about your maze.” One small fist clenched. “You have Han there. You will release him at once!”
One of the slaves brought Jabba a piece of treated parchment and a fish spine with squid ink on its tip. “Before I return your beloved merman to you, I want you to perform a task for me.”
He indicated the reefs outside. “Find your heart's desire at the center of the maze. It won't be easy. It's guarded by the Beast, who's holding Solo prisoner.”
Leia frowned. “The Beast?”
“The Beast is the keeper of the maze. A monster who protects the treasures in the center.” Jabba slurped a whole bed of seaweed another slave brought before him. “If you can kill the Beast and find Solo, you can both go free, and I'll return your father's treasures. If you're unable to, or if you die in the maze, your immortal soul is forfeit to me. You'll become my servant, like these lovelies here.” He stroked the arm of a small, slender being that was oddly familiar to Leia. His appendages looked more like legs than fins. She thought she spied a hint of sandy gold flowing around his head. It was hard to tell, with all the slime on it...
“What about Han?” She couldn't take her eyes off the slave. “Have you already taken his soul?”
Jabba's ho-hos and ha-has were even louder in the water. “Didn't you know, Little Beauty? Merfolk have no souls. When they die, they turn into foam on the waves. Had Solo done what I ordered him to, he would have earned a soul. I can't imagine why you're interested in someone like him anyway, when you could have, say, someone like me.” He sighed noisily. “I suppose there's no accounting for human taste.”
“If I get through this maze,” she said, ignoring his crack, “you have to make Han human, body and soul.”
“And if you fail to find your way through the maze,” Jabba's wide lips turned up in a hideous sneer, “I take yours.”
Leia nodded. “Agreed.”
“Good.” She wrote her name on the bottom of the parchment. The slug warlock handed it to one of the slaves. Two slaves brought what looked to Leia like a giant pearl on a gold base. Jabba rubbed his slimy hand over the lustrous gem. “I'll be keeping an eye on you through my favorite pearl. If you even look like you're even remotely trapped or confused, my court and I will know.”
“My lieutenant Boba Fett will lead you to the maze entrance.” The shark man wore a heavy visor of tarnished armor that made it impossible to see his face...but there was something cruel in the tilt of his head, the way he held his trident at the ready.
“I can lead myself.” She pulled her arm away and followed him out one of the portholes. She swore she saw one of the slaves, the one with the bit of sandy yellow under the slime, duck down a hallway and out a window.
Leia turned so quickly, she didn't see Jabba nod at one of his men, a merman wrapped in old sail cloth that gave him the look of a fish mummy. The creature swam quickly out the window on the other side of the throne room.
As Boba Fett lead Leia to the maze entrance, the sea slug slid off his throne and into a secret room behind his shelf of magic potions. A pair of keen hazel eyes followed him in the inky darkness. “The girl is here. You must destroy her. She will try to take your treasure.”
The spike-covered navy tail swung at the lock. Jabba reached out and stroked the sharp, ridged back, calming the grotesque creature. “Stop trying to break out. You won't get to her in time.” He snorted. “Did you think she could love you? She never wanted you. She wanted her father's money.” The sunken chin, with its crooked scar, bobbed in agreement, even as heartbreak filled the hazel eyes.
“The only way for you to become a merman again is for her tell her she loves you and to give you one of those sappy kisses humans seem to enjoy. If she declares her love to another, you'll remain a Beast and my slave until the end of your days.” The sea slug hooted so loudly, he nearly fell into his potion shelves. “Face it. You're stuck that way. How could anyone love a monster?”
Jabba threw a glowing net over the cage. After a few minutes, the bell shape under it vanished. “You will reappear in the center of the maze, my pet.” He hooted. “Little Beauty will never suspect in a million reefs that instead of rescuing her heart's desire, she's killing it!”
The beginning of the maze was little more than the opening of a cave covered in red and green lichen. Most of the court, including Boba Fett and several of the slaves, watched as she swam into its depths. The crystal was beautiful, glowing purple and soft in the daylight. She followed the walls to the end of the wall. She was trying to find a way out, when she noticed several fish swimming upwards. The princess followed them through a hole in the cave's ceiling.
It took her into the most beautiful aquatic garden she'd ever seen. Rows of sea lilies waved in the turquoise waters. Stunning purple and gold flowers blossomed from delicate, powdery coral fingers. Walls of sea grasses surrounded her. Some of the coral grew as big as trees, with enormous flowers that brushed against her cheek.
She was quite enjoying herself when she came to a section where two paths branched off. One path was beautiful, well-lit and colorful, passing under rows of white and red coral. The other was dark and murky, going past a formation of granite rocks that didn't look stable. The lit path was safe...but there was something drawing her to the rocks...
“Follow the darkness.” The voice was scratchy and low, but...she knew it. “Follow my lead.”
Leia spun around. “Who said that?”
“I did.” Fingers, slender pale appendages, reached out of the rocks. “Come this way. It's safe.” Slime flowed off of them in tiny rivulets of dark green as they beckoned to Leia. She followed them, wondering, watching. Her smaller hands tried to reach for the green ones, but they danced away.
“Who are you?” she asked. A diminutive figure, all mucky green and brown seaweed and sludge, waved at her to follow before vanishing into the rocks. “Your voice...I know that voice.”
“I won't hurt you.” Two mucky green legs kicked out. “You must come.”
The young woman swam after the servant. It was the one with the sandy hair at Jabba's ship. She was certain of it. “Hello?” she called as she wound her way through the granite. “Is anyone there?” Darkness enveloped her. She touched the rough walls, feeling her way down.
Her fingers finally hit smaller rocks that wobbled. Heavy piles of rocks extended to the narrow ceiling. She could see more garden through the cracks. “Well, this is just great. How am I going to get through this?” She sighed. “I guess I don't have a choice.” Her fingers reached for the rocks, scraping them away.
There were a lot more rocks than she thought. “This is taking too long!” One of the shells in her necklace was already flickering. “I could be here all day if I keep on with this.”
Sounds carried longer in water. She'd just looked up as she moved a rock...to see a sail cloth-wrapped hand give the stones a good, hard shove. A flash of murky green yanked her arms, thrusting her backward into the muddy ground. The sound of stones over stones, though muffled by the water, still rang across the stone walls.
Leia sat up as the strange being moved her arms and legs, then his own, checking if anything was broken. “I'm ok.” She gave him a gentle smile. “Thank you for getting me out of there. That was very brave of you.”
His small fingers reached out and touched her cheek, as if trying to remember. Those eyes...they were blue, as blue as the sky above Naboo, blue as the ocean all around them. Blue eyes.... She took the hand, ignoring the ooze that was slowly melting away. “Tell me who you are! I know you! You're...”
The moment the shadow fell over them, the being broke away from her. He waved in her direction, indicating the light. She ducked away as another rock landed in her direction. “Would you stop that?” The trident just barely missed her left arm. “Ok, you're not friendly.” The young woman hurried over the rock barrier and into the light, following the figure just as more rocks landed in the spot she'd just vacated.
She looked down at her neck as she fled. The pink shell flickered, then faded out. “I have to get moving. I only have until tomorrow.”
Jabba watched the whole exchange through his pearl. He glared at the ball. “I gave a simple order.” His hand motioned to another guard, this one an upright-walking orange and green lizard in a diving suit. “Meet the Princess at the edge of the Garden of the Snapping Plants. Eliminate her, or at least keep her there as long as you can.” The lizard growled and snapped its jaws.
“Oh,” Jabba called, “one more thing. I know the slave who came to her aid. Get rid of him.”
The lizard nodded and swam off, picking up a metal spear on his way out. Jabba sighed and leaned against his throne-chair. “You just can't find good help these days.”Leia followed the figure through the cave, past several more turns, and into the light. Her heart thumped when she realized she knew where she was. The cave lead into another shipwreck. The vessel had once been a fine one, painted gold with the flaking emblems of two suns on the sides. The Twin Sunset, she realized in shock before she even read the name under the suns. She hoped Luke wasn't still here. She held out hope that Jabba had him somewhere whole, that he wasn't...gone, or turned into a sea cucumber, or crushed under rocks.
The figure stopped and looked around. His – or its – face was both indescribably sad...and gently hopeful. She followed his slime trail into the former navy vessel.
The back half of the wreck was torn to bits. Most of the barrels and crates had been destroyed, the rusted trunks stripped of their contents. There was no sign of her brother or his crew.
“I guess it was too much to hope.” She felt her brother here. He'd ordered everything stacked neatly, made sure it was all tied down and not moving around when a storm hit. He wouldn't be happy to see the way it looked now.
The rest of the rooms mostly looked like the hold. Anything of value, any rock or metal that could last for a while in sea water and bring a profit, had been taken away months ago. Most of the furnishings were in splinters. It broke her heart to see the beautiful ship her brother loved so much reduced to driftwood and a part of a warlock's insane labyrinth. She could barely keep up with the slime creature as he flitted from room to room.
She was about to go up to the deck when something caught her eye. Old Commander Benjamin Kenobi had given her brother the ship after he and his men secured the vessel from smugglers. It had many unusual hiding compartments. Some were wrenched open, probably found by Jabba's merfolk scavengers. They could not, however be expected to spot everything. The trail of slime lead under the door and to the book case.
The book case at the end of her brother's room was left untouched. She supposed books weren't of much interest to merfolk. Paper didn't last very long after it got wet. She was surprised to see that the books were in the wrong order. Luke liked an organized book shelf. She'd gotten into enough arguments with him about it when they were very little and shared a nursery at the palace. She didn't care how things were organized. He had to have everything just so.
“How would Luke do this?” Her fingers brushed against a copy of a textbook on naval military maneuvers, shoved in with the penny press thrillers her brother loved so much. The naval book went in on the shelf with Luke's books from his Navy schooling. The book of poetry they read as children went with the other poetry volumes, and the one on sea animals went with the aquatic plants and animals titles...
As she moved things around, she realized she was making a pattern. It was starting to look like an arrow. The last book at the tip of the arrow was a collection of their favorite fairy tales and folk stories, including “King Arthur” and “Cinderella.” The moment she moved that book, she heard something in the wall grind. The wall with the bookcase swung open.
Her legs kicked into darkness. As her eyes adjusted, they discovered a narrow, closet-like room. This must have been the pirates' hidden hold at one time. Luke must have turned it into a private sitting room. Along with another bookshelf, there was a table, a chair, a lamp, and several crates and long cases.
One case almost seemed to call to her. It was long, shallow wood trunk. The initials AS were carved into the wood over the lock. “What is this?” she wondered. “AS...Anakin Skywalker? Father?”
The trunk seemed to have been touched lately. The lock was broken and covered in slime. She pushed it open, revealing the most magnificent sword she'd ever seen. The shining steel blade glowed blue against the sapphires inset into the finely-engraved silver handle. There was a scabbard, too, made of soft leather.
“Luke must have been bringing this to Father when the storm hit.” She put the scabbard around her waist, then sheathed the sword. “I'll complete his mission. This was probably part of the treasure. I'll bet it's a family heirloom.” Her face turned back to the box. “But why did he hide it here? He didn't want anyone stealing it?” There was a small knife alongside it, sharp and golden.
Several leather cases were piled on top of each other in a corner. The first held a violin, the second, a trumpet. The third had a flute. “I can't take the violin and trumpet along. They're too much to carry.” She found a long piece of calico cloth that had once been part of the shredded quit on the bed. “At least I can say I brought three treasures back to Father.” The flute and the knife went into the cloth, which she tied on the belt.
There was nothing else to find in the remains of the ship. The merfolk smugglers and scavengers had done their jobs too well. Not a single gold coin or piece of jewelry could be found anywhere. The only thing left that hadn't been smashed and wasn't disintegrating was a sign pointing into a long wall of thick, mossy green sea grass. Her friend seemed to have vanished, too, his figure disappearing into the shadows.
Several left turns took her away from endless walls of thick green and into another colorful garden. The plants were larger here, and even more beautiful. Some of the flowers were the size of a horse. Spiny anemones and ridged white sea stars added more subtle shades of lavender and off-white to the rainbow of sunset reds, peaches, honey-gold, and luminous green. The flowers' wavy petals were hypnotic, drawing her into their grasp.
One flower in particular held her gaze firmly. The glowing red petals extended in all directions, stroking the muddy dark sand like a lover. Fish flowed around it, nudging it and watching its waving arms. The center was filled with pale-pink spines. Petals that flowed like blood caressed her cheeks, her legs, her arms. Watching the way the tentacles danced filled her with a strange sense of calm. The spines in the center beckoned her, glowing softly. She wanted to touch them...to see what they were like...
Teeth. They were like teeth. The teeth opened, revealing a hungry mouth that waited for its prey. Leia screamed and kicked at it. Her boot hit the side of its stem. It reared back, tentacles now bucking wildly. Two blue and gold fish, fairly large in size, were dragged into those spines. The sac devoured them whole, ignoring their squeals. It even managed to spit out the bones.
Leia screamed, reaching for her sword. The tentacle wrapped around her hand before she could grasp the hilt. The young princess struggled wildly as more pink and red limbs squeezed her wrists and ankles. The fiendish creature had a damn good grip for a flower. It hardly expected its prey to fight back.
Bits of tentacles landed on the ground. She thought she could almost hear it shriek through the waters. More plants waved tentacles and spines at her, trying to capture this very large lunch. To her horror, the bones of what were definitely merfolk stuck out through the sandy ocean floor.
Her strong legs moved fast – but the tentacles moved faster. No matter how many her sword and knife hacked away, three more seemed to take their place. She had to stop them at the source. Swiping at another flower, she paddled her way to the center of the largest. The moment its tentacles wrapped around her again, she stabbed it in the center. The tentacles flared and bucked for a brief moment, then fell down, lifeless.
As she caught her breath, she heard the sound of a...a fish? She didn't think most fish made noise. A whale? No, too high. Whales mostly had deeper voices. She followed the sound further into the garden, sometimes fighting off a tentacle or long petal that wrapped around her waist.
She finally came to the source of the noise towards the end of the wall of flowers. Vines and tentacles wrapped around a flat, brown-spotted shark. The poor thing struggled and bit at the vines, but that only made them wrap more tightly. Leia swam as fast as she could, cutting away the vines and tentacles. The shark did his bit, his sharp teeth snapping through vines like they were soft moss.
The moment the shark was free, they kicked off into the garden. Leia grabbed hold of his upper dorsal fin as he wound around the sea floor, ducking under tentacles and barking at any fish who came near him. He pulled into a quiet corner near a cluster of waving sea lilies.
“Are you ok?” She checked him all over, making sure the flower didn't crack any bones. He seemed all right. His fins were certainly in good shape. His fishy hugs nearly knocked her to the sandy floor! “Yeah, you're definitely all right.” The spotted shark nudged her side playfully. “You're a really sweet fellow, for a shark. How did you get caught back there?”
It took a lot of creative interpretation of fin signals, but she finally got the idea that he was looking for a friend who was lost in the maze. He became trapped in the tentacles the same way she did. He saw the wavy, colorful arms, and they hypnotized him until he was too bound with vines to escape. He was in her debt now, just as he was in his friend's debt.
“I could use your help.” She patted him on the back. “Jabba didn't say I couldn't have a friend with me. I don't know my way around this part of the Naboo Sea, never mind a maze! If you help me through the maze, I'll help you find your friend.”
She didn't know dogfish could grin. And she certainly didn't know they could give big, playful licks! The princess laughed, pushing him away. “Ok, ok, I like you, too.” She saw an entrance under a waving line of sea lilies. “Shall we move along?”
They were just about at the end of the garden when the dogfish stopped. She nearly swam into him. “What is it?” The shark let out a low growl and dropped to the floor, its tail out and teeth bared.
Leia barely swam away in time to avoid a long, sharp-tipped metal pole being thrown in her direction. The pole stuck in the coral in back of her. The creature that attacked her walked – or swam – upright like a human, but otherwise resembled a reptile, with a long snake-like snout and bumpy leather skin. The dogfish bit into his rear. He screamed and tried to shove it off.
The distraction gave her enough time to draw her sword. The lizard kicked the flat brown fish away and reached for his spear, just in time to see a flash of gold. She lunged for him, hoping to at least lead him away from her new friend. Her sword stabbed him in the wrist. He hissed and grabbed his hand, dropping the trident.
All three went for the spear at once, but Leia was agile and quick. She scooped the metal spear easily. The lizard looked even angrier now. He came at her, his clawed hands lifted, ready to strike...
He would have clawed Leia's face if a slime-covered body hadn't launched onto him. The dogfish grabbed hold of his tail. They both dragged him around, leading him under a small cave made from a mass of rocks. She grinned when she saw that the large stones on the bottom were loose. Her nimble fingers threw the spear at the heavy pile. He managed to throw the other two off long enough to avoid the smaller avalanche. The very last and largest stone finally hit him directly over the head, knocking him to the floor.
She quickly joined the other two, tossing the spear to the green-smeared slave. “Here. You'll need this.” The young woman started into the cave. The grungy slave was giving the dogfish very wary looks. Her spotted friend was more amused than upset. “Are you two coming, or what?” They finally followed her as they swam under the arbor of coral and flowers that lead into the next part of the maze.
Jabba roared with anger as he and his men watched from the throne room back at the Alderaan. “You know,” Boba Fett adjusted his grip on his trident, “I could take care of that little problem right now, for the right price. Chewbacca, too. That's Solo's dogfish with her.”
“No, Fett.” Jabba's rubbery lips somehow formed a hideous sneer. “The next part is the Mound of Traps and Trickery. No one has ever made it out of those traps alive.” He patted Fett's arm. “You just can't improve on Mother Nature.”
Fett slid his arm out from under Jabba's. “And if she does make it out?”
Jabba's eyes turned to the pearl. “Then you can do what you want with her...but leave her soul to me.”
“As you wish."