Leia noted the almost clinical feel of the boardroom as she made a cursory glance at her surroundings. Everything echoed in the vast room, with its high ceilings and minimalist furniture. The decor of steel and glass was stunning, but it gave the room a very detached feel. It was sterile -- colorless, and devoid of warmth and character. It amazed her how different Falor was outside the confines of the Parliament building. Ilden City was truly breathtaking outside. It sparkled green with lush vegetation, and crystal clear lakes, like the kind she loved to swim in as a child. Inside the boardroom, there were no hints whatsoever of the beauty and life outside the bare gray walls that surrounded them. Perhaps they meant for it to be that way, Leia thought. This way, they would not be distracted from their purpose for meeting.
She motioned her bodyguards to stand guard in the corner of the room as she sat down at the long, narrow table to face the two men.
"Now, Madame Ambassador, why don't we get straight to the matter at hand?" Sorbin began, the sound of his voice bringing her back to the reality of the negotiations. His gaze was steady and bold, as if he were well aware of his position of power. A less experienced diplomat might have been intimidated by him, overpowered by the fire in his violet eyes as they met hers with a fervent energy, but Leia held firm.
"We petitioned the Republic a year and a half ago, and the Senate has managed to find one reason or another to delay its approval," Sorbin continued. Leia could sense the faint whispers of fury in his voice, though for all intents and purposes he kept himself on an even keel. It was obvious that he meant to play it cool for Leia, perhaps hoping that she would be the first to crack. "I will tell you I have not been pleased at all that we have been kept in the dark as to the reasons why." He shook his head disapprovingly.
Leia nodded, taking a deep breath before she spoke. She would have to choose her words carefully and deliberately from here on out. She knew she could ill afford to risk alienating him and the Governor. "Minister, I understand your frustration," she told him in her best diplomat's tone. "I acknowledge that the Republic was remiss in not giving you details about the approval. I assure you, the Chief of State regrets that terribly and that is why he has sent me here to make everything as clear as possible."
She watched his reaction, but he barely stirred in his seat. Her eyes went to Milton, whose face remained just as blank as before. She continued. "Minister, Governor, the situation is this: as a system petitioning to join, you were made aware that you must comply with the Constitution we have established. Every wishing to join has been subject to a review in order to ensure that they do not violate anything in our Constitution - there are no exceptions to this review."
She heard Milton release a deep breath, and she turned to look at him, sensing that he was about to speak.
"Ambassador Solo, why were we not informed of this from the very beginning?" he spat out, the hostility that she had sensed in him now starting to surface. "All we have been told up to now was that the vote kept being delayed in the Senate! If there were problems with the review, why were we not told?"
"Governor Milton, I do apologize for that, on behalf of the Republic," Leia replied, trying to appease Milton, who was visibly upset. He was right, of course. They had failed in their duty, not giving enough information to Falor. A part of her couldn't blame him for lashing out at her. She was not going to make excuses for their failure to keep Falor abreast of the evaluation process -- to do so would insult their intelligence, and worse, would make them unreceptive to any gestures of appeasement. "We should have told you about the problems we encountered. The fact is, Falor is in violation of nearly every major tenet we uphold, and that is the reason for the long delay."
She paused to observe Sorbin's reaction. Just as she suspected, he remained as cool as ever, unlike the agitated Governor. They looked at each other in silence for the next few minutes, neither of them moving their gaze from the other. For a moment, he reminded her of Grand Moff Tarkin, causing her to shudder inwardly. Something about his composed exterior belied a cunning mind inside, not unlike her that of old enemy. She watched his eyes narrow for a brief second, before he replaced the look of fury with a beguiling smile.
"Madame Ambassador," he said, his voice smooth yet tinged with an edge just beneath the surface. "Please enlighten me on these 'tenets' you think we violate." His play at false innocence was almost laughable to Leia. They both knew full well what she had meant. Sorbin was too smart not to suspect something in all the months that the Republic had been stalling -- surely he had begun to put the pieces together on his own and discovered why they had hesitated in admitting them.
So he's going to make me do this, she thought... He's daring me...
"Of course," she replied, trying her hardest not to sound patronizing, for she knew he would pounce on her immediately were he able to detect the slightest hint of insult in her tone. "Minister, the first of these violations is the fact that Falor is still a slave-owning system. That goes against one of the oldest laws the Republic has, dating back to the time of the Old Republic. We have been quite firm in enforcing this law since we re-established the government."
Sorbin mouth formed into a cunning smile. "Surely we are not the only slave-owning system in the galaxy, Ambassador. You mean to tell me you have effectively wiped out this ancient practice in all of your systems?"
Leia returned the cool smile. "Of course enforcing this law is difficult," she admitted, "However, we are very commited to it nonetheless. Any system that joins us must revoke this practice immediately, Minister."
"What else do we violate?" Milton interjected impatiently. His face -- raw with agitation -- nearly resembled a tight fist, red and filled with tension.
Leia turned to him once again as she went on. "There are also numerous human rights violations, Governor," she answered him. "For years, we have heard reports of false imprisonments, suppression of free communication, and other such crimes. We've received many requests for political asylum from Falorians wishing to defect to the Republic, and these facts could not be ignored when we investigated your petition."
Sorbin continued to stare at Leia, casually leaning back in his chair as if none of her words had any effect on him. Meanwhile she felt Milton seething beside her. From the corner of his eye, Sorbin saw Milton open his mouth to say something, but with a subtle wave of Sorbin's hand, Milton sank back into his seat without a word.
"Is there anything else, Ambassador?" Sorbin asked, his voice maddeningly calm. His charm was disarming to the last.
She remained steady as his eyes bore into hers. "Yes, Minister," she replied. "Finally, there is the issue of great proliferation of major weapons on this system. This is perhaps the greatest cause for concern with us, the greatest cause for the delay in the Senate."
Sorbin raised his eyebrows as if to ask her why. They both knew that Sorbin knew the answer, but they were still in the midst of an elaborate mind-game, each trying to figure out the other without being found out.
"When we re-established the Alliance, it was under the understanding that we had seen the end of the destructiveness of war." Leia paused for a brief moment, to keep her emotions under control. Her voice was raw, as she reeled from the sudden invasion of memories that swept over her like a riptide. She cleared her throat and continued, once again composed. "As you both know, I was in deeply involved during the Galactic Civil War. I saw and experienced first-hand what it did to everyone -- on both sides. All of us involved had seen too many people die as a result of this war. And when we formed this government, we vowed that that kind of divisiveness and destruction would never happen under this Republic." She leaned in further towards both men, her tone deliberate and forceful as she said her next words. "That is why we have strict provisions regarding the military and weapons when it comes to the systems that join us. This is one provision for which there is no compromise."
Sorbin let out an incredulous laugh, his first outward sign of emotion. His voice bounced off the steel walls. "Oh, come now, Ambassador. You mean to tell me you've stripped your systems of any reasonable means of defending themselves? What happens when a threat arises and no one can defend themselves because you've taken away all their weapons and ships? Surely even you can not be so naively idealistic..." He leaned forward and once again smiled his maddening smile. "Or do you expect your brother's Jedi Knights to provide enough protection for the entire Republic?"
Leia remained unperturbed even at the mention of Luke. She was sure that the sly Prime Minister had deliberately brought him into the conversation to fluster her, but she refused to give him the reaction he expected. Struggling to stay composed, she answered him as calmly as she could. "On the contrary, Minister. I assure you we can adequately defend ourselves. Our military is concentrated in the central capital of Coruscant. Should the need arise, we do have the means to defend ourselves." She gave him her a cool smile of her own, to let him know that she was not intimidated. "And yes, thanks to my brother, we do have the Jedi Order keep stability in the Republic. As you know, we are always working to prevent the eruption of any potential conflict."
"We, meaning the capital, Ambassador?" Sorbin asked her bluntly. "To hell with the systems themselves, as long as the capital thrives, is that it?" He was not able to hide his anger this time. Perhaps Leia's refusal to give in to his verbal machinations had set him off.
But she refused to flinch. "I was raised on a system that had no weapons at all," she countered quickly, "But we were able to thrive and prosper nonetheless. My father believed that it was worth the risk to be weaponless if it meant peace and well-being on our world."
Sorbin shook his head again. "Ambassador, I'm sure I don't need to remind you of your homeworld's ultimate fate," he taunted, "How did your 'ideals' save you in the end in the face of the Death Star?"
It took all of Leia's strength not let her fury get the better of her. There was no denying it -- the words stung and seared into her. This is where my Jedi training comes in handy, she told herself. Be calm. Be calm. Don't let him get to you...
"Minister, it's obvious that we differ greatly on this particular matter," she finally managed to say. "I do understand your concern, and I am not here to force you to comply, only to remind you that these are the laws that must be followed if you wish to join the Alliance. If you don't wish to comply, I am here to negotiate a treaty between our two governments. As a sovereign system, you of course have the right to run your system as you choose. While we cannot admit you under these circumstances, the Alliance does wish to maintain a peaceful contact. I regret that that is all we can offer at this time."
Sorbin inhaled deeply. "Very well," he said, his voice once again returning to its calm state. Leia and Milton looked at him in shock. He was agreeing to the treaty? Milton looked as if he wanted to say something to the Prime Minister, but then thought it best to address his concern in private. "If that is all you can offer, then we shall accept, Ambassador. But be assured, we will not let this matter rest."
"I understand," Leia replied, still puzzled by the seemingly positive response to her gesture. She was relieved that he would accept a treaty, but his earlier outburst had told her that he did not take this development well. Her instincts still told her to be wary of him, despite his outward show of compromise. Perhaps he would agree to cooperate now, but she suspected that this treaty would not pacify him for long.
And she had to make sure she could anticipate the next step before all hell broke loose.
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