Note: Disclaimer in first chapter. Thanks once more for your comments. They are greatly appreciated.
16:3 GrS (19 BBY)
My heel was bouncing a staccato beat against the polished floor of the temple conference room as I awaited Kenobi's arrival. There aren't many times that I've pretty much come out and accused the leader of an entire galaxy of possibly being a Dark Lord. Counting this one I've come to a grand total of one. After checking my chrono for the fifth time in thirty minutes I got up and started pacing in front of the transparisteel window that gave me a good view of the Senate building.
I'd left Asajj to gather some supplies. Restocking the Gimlet was our first order of business. I wanted to make sure if everything went sour that we were prepared to bolt. A few Extension Charms on some shipping crates went quite a way in terms of disappearing for long periods of time. If we found somewhere temperate, we could live off the local flora and fauna for quite some time. A couple of new disguise tokens, a few thousand credits to the right slicer, and a new life could begin. That was a last resort, of course. I had every intention of expressing Asajj's thoughts on how powerful this guy could be, and then keeping my name out of the equation if at all possible.
If they looked into the possibility and Palpatine wound up not being the Sith then I could go back to business as usual. If he turns up being Sidious then I already figured out how to deal with the mess. I'd pop up say hi, release a nice wave of Fiendfyre into his office, and then disappear. Nothing survives that; I don't care how powerful of a Sith he is; all beings bowed to the cursed fire. The only thing someone could possibly do is outrun it or apparate away, and since he wasn't a wizard – well then, problem solved.
Maybe I should use a disguise token if it comes down to that. I'd really hate to change my face on the run.
"Mister Potter," an unfamiliar voice said bringing me out of my musings.
Turning around I spotted a single moderately young Jedi, with blondish colored wavy hair down to his shoulders and an angry vertical scar running above and below his right eye. It looked like he barely escaped having his face cleaved in two. Judging by the black robes and hooded eyes I assumed this was Asajj's nemesis and hero of the Republic, Anakin Skywalker.
"Master Kenobi couldn't make it?" I replied.
"He has an emergency meeting with the Chancellor. Obi-Wan asked me to meet you in his place."
"Pleasure," I said while he looked me over.
"He tells me that you work for the Chancellor."
I short-answered him. "Troubleshooter."
"We have our share of that."
At least I knew we weren't bugged. That didn't stop me from laying down a couple of protections, just in case. He watched me with interest and was probably wondering why I was waving a stick of wood around.
"What did you just do?"
I walked around the table to take what was becoming my traditional seat. "The first charm was to seal the room. Nobody comes in or goes out without me knowing. It's proof against technological eavesdropping as well. The second one was just in case I missed something with the first. Even if someone managed to bypass the first protection, all they would hear would be an annoying buzzing sound."
He raised an eyebrow. "And you did all of this with that…"
"Wand. Think of it as my lightsaber; while I can do interesting things with it doesn't mean I'm helpless without."
Skywalker looked as if I'd lost a few credibility points along the way with that explanation. We weren't going to get very far if he didn't believe what I was capable of selling, so to speak, so I conjured my tea service from the Gimlet and started doling out cups. He looked at the contents with skepticism before I had to reassure him.
"Go on. It's just regular tea. If I poisoned you I think it might ruin my credibility around here."
He took his untainted by sugar or cream. "Are you in the habit of being accused of poisoning people?"
"Not recently." Skywalker paused and looked down at his tea. "I'm kidding; just a little joke to break the tension."
If I didn't know any better, I'd swear he faked a sip at the edge of the cup before setting it aside.
"Obi-Wan mentioned an update on the investigation."
"Yes, um…," I managed to get out before settling on how I was going to do this. "May I ask you a question regarding this Sith Lord you're searching for?"
"You think the person who killed the Viceroy and the Chairman was the Sith?"
Skywalker looked away for a moment in thought. "That would mean he is on Coruscant."
"I believe he is; that's part of my question. Would you be able to sense him if he was?"
His face darkened and I could easily see the frustration underneath. I already knew the answer to this particular question; I just wanted to see how justified Asajj's poor opinion of them actually was, or if it was just her hatred of them clouding her judgment.
"If he was here and we could sense him, then he'd be captured or killed already."
With a nod of understanding I followed up with another, "So, what does that tell you about his power that he can hide from some of the strongest Force sensitives in the galaxy?"
"Do you have a point to all this?" he almost snapped back at me.
Something tells me that certain Jedi didn't like their faults rubbed in their faces, which wasn't my intension with this line of questioning. "Yes. I'm trying to get you to see things from an outsider's perspective, because apparently the Jedi are too single-minded."
Before he had the chance to shoot back, I continued.
"I've got a gigantic list of suspects, most of which are in this Temple."
He blinked and then looked at me as if I was suddenly the enemy. "You can't honestly believe that the Jedi had anything to do with what happened."
Casually pointing my finger at him I leaned back. "That right there is what I'm talking about. The prime suspect has to be someone that is Force sensitive, and to add insult to injury he has to be stronger than anyone here. Now, who does that leave on my list?"
From the look on his face I saw that I was making my point. He was disgruntled, but saw that it was impossible to take the higher echelon Jedi completely off the game board.
"If you're accusing me…"
"What?" Even I had to take a metaphoric step back on that one.
"Me. I'm the strongest Force sensitive at the Temple."
That new information threw me off. Taking my tea cup in hand as a distraction, I palmed the truthstone out of my utility belt. "I didn't know that. You're not on the Council?"
"Well then. I suppose you'll need to be questioned as a matter of course. Are you a Sith?"
He pushed away from the table and stood abruptly. "This is ridiculous. You don't have a clue who the Sith is and you're just pointing fingers."
Setting my cup down, I didn't bother to respond to his accusation. "That wasn't an answer."
"No," he barked. "I'm not a Sith. This is over with."
Seeing no response from the truthstone I watched as he strode over to the door and pressed the activation stub for it to open, but it stayed shut due to my charm.
"I believe you, and we're not finished."
Skywalker jabbed at the stub again and then raised his hand to the door. To my surprise it started to edge open, but not enough for him to leave just yet. I suppose he really was a strong Force user.
"When did it start?" I asked. "The whole Dark Lord of the Sith thing."
He spun on me and I watched as the door slid closed. "What?"
"The Sith? When did you first suspect that there was someone screwing around with the Jedi?"
Skywalker took a breath and then let it out almost as quickly before the frustration he was exhibiting faded back into the darkened façade that he was wearing earlier. Instead, he looked me over and I felt the slightest touch against my mind as if he was using his powers in an attempt to figure me out.
"I was ten. Year three, GrS."
The Great ReSynchronization. The Republic likes to toss up new calendars every once in a while and base them on galactic events. This particular one was only sixteen years old. That would put his age right around twenty-three, give or take a year. Updating calendars always messes around with the months. Sometimes they start the whole thing off in the middle of a year, which just makes it worse.
"I saw my first Sith then. According to my master, things were already clouded at that time."
History wasn't one of my strong suits. I made it a point to note some important events or dates as to not look like a rube, but I never sat down and took the time to actually study.
"Anything big going on at the time: battles, system wars, anything like that?"
Skywalker looked at me oddly. "The Trade Federation invaded Naboo."
Naboo again. That planet was popping up left and right lately: my ship's origins, the Chancellor's home planet, and now the invasion of the Trade Federation. Normally, I'd attribute it to coincidence, but I'd already been spanked recently on thinking about things like that.
"That's where you saw the Sith?"
"He was killed there by Obi-Wan," he said as he approached the table. "What are you getting at?"
I wasn't exactly surprised to find yet another link to my employer, but it was still far too circumstantial. This was the tricky part: getting Skywalker and subsequently the Jedi to think of Palpatine as a suspect without me outright saying he was. It was the only way I could think of to keep my name out of the mix just in case we were wrong and there was blowback.
"Well, we already know the Viceroy was taking orders from the Sith…"
We were interrupted by a chime sounded at the door. Popping my wand out I swiped the charm away and found a somewhat annoyed Obi-Wan Kenobi standing there eying the door like it was malfunctioning. When he spotted my wand he looked as if he connected the two and raised an eyebrow at me.
"I don't want just anyone listening in," I said in my defense.
The door shuddered close; my magic was already starting to play havoc with the operating mechanism. Having Skywalker forcing it open earlier probably didn't help, neither, I assume, did my reapplying it directly after.
"How is the Chancellor?" Skywalker asked.
"The emergency was related to Grievous," Kenobi said. "We'll speak of this later."
In other words, out of my earshot. "We were narrowing down the field of suspects, if you'd like to jump in with your thoughts."
He smiled genially. "Of course. What have you deduced up to now?"
This was almost too easy of a set up. I couldn't have timed Kenobi's arrival any better.
"Someone that's been around in some authority since year three on the GrS. He has been on Coruscant at least that long since he has had an effect on clouding your abilities to sense him. He'd have to have the ability to move the chess pieces around the board, so to speak. So probably someone of some political power, either here at the Temple or at the Senate would be a logical assumption."
Skywalker's lips firmed before he stared down at the table, while Kenobi started stroking his close cropped beard in thought.
It was Kenobi that added to the evidence next. "A Force user, obviously. Access to the Viceroy and Chairman would be next, though it wouldn't have to be physical as we once assumed. Perhaps knowledge of the conference room or the route we would typically escort prisoners."
I nodded in agreement. "After talking with Jedi Skywalker here, I'm coming to the conclusion that the person we're looking for has connections with Naboo as well."
Kenobi's attention left the windows and sharpened right on me. "Why Naboo?"
"Years ago. Why would the Trade Federation, who we already know was taking orders from the Sith, invade Naboo? Why would a Sith appear at that particular moment in time after all these years? In hindsight we can assume it wasn't solely based on monetary reasons. It has to be connected in some way and it has to be very important to reveal their involvement."
"He didn't just appear on Naboo," Kenobi said. "He first fought Master Qui-Gon Jinn on Tatooine before I encountered him."
This was starting to get irritating. "What was he doing there?"
"Padme," Skywalker said just above a whisper.
Kenobi nodded. "He was sent to assassinate Queen Padme Amidala of Naboo. Our ship was damaged and we acquired parts at Mos Espa, along with a fledgling Anakin Skywalker as well."
Okay. Fine. There is no coincidence. I can only be bashed upside the head so many times before I accept some mystical Force is screwing around with things.
Leaning forward, I rubbed at my face. "Okay, what's all this add up to? Who's benefiting from all this? Did anyone here gain any power, or maybe suddenly added to the Council or something?"
Kenobi eyed Skywalker until it was returned, then the younger Jedi look askance.
"You can't be serious, Obi-Wan!"
At that point I wondered if telepathy was a Force trick as well, but Kenobi dissuaded me from that notion.
"It isn't out of the realm of possibility, Anakin. After all, I did not say a word. You came to the same conclusion I did, and it would explain a number of issues over the years."
Hopeful that they were of like mind I intruded on their interplay. "What conclusion?"
Kenobi turned to me already looking apologetic. "This is only speculation. Due to the volatility of the situation, it is a matter for the High Council. Thank you for your help, Mr. Potter. Anakin?"
They headed toward the door, and I dispelled the charms in the room before leaning back and exhaling a breath of relief.
"From the ridiculous grin on your face, shall I assume that your meeting with Kenobi was successful?"
Asajj really knows how to make a guy feel welcome when he arrives back on his ship after a long morning. It was almost like being married except for the notable lack of a sandwich waiting for me on the table.
"Hook, line, and sinker."
She looked at me blankly. "I have no idea what you are babbling about."
"You've never fished before?" I waved it away as a silly question. "They bought it. Once I brought up Naboo, they all but jumped on board."
With a confident nod Asajj seemed the tiniest bit relieved. "They immediately suspected Palpatine."
I shrugged. "Well they didn't come right out and say his name, but when I asked who had anything to gain from the invasion of Naboo and topped it off with a mention of politics, that was all that was needed. Kenobi mentioned it being a situation that only the High Council could handle."
When she closed her eyes and released a frustrated breath, I knew that just wasn't enough for her. "You do realize that several people have benefited politically from that skirmish. With my ever failing luck they will probably behead that idiot Jar Jar Binks and declare victory."
Something told me I really didn't want to know, but I asked anyway. "What's a Jar Jar Binks?"
Her eyes fluttered open in annoyance and pinned me with one of her more angry glares. "A Force-blessed incompetent Gungan who is also a Senate Representative from Naboo. He travels with Skywalker and Kenobi's wench Amidala, forever tripping over his own ineptitude at precisely the right moment in time to create the most chaos imaginable… usually to my detriment. I can picture those Jedi congratulating each other with a pat on the back for a job well done by defeating the Dark Lord of the Sith Jar Jar."
Having never even seen a Gungan, I'd have to take her word for that one. "Right, well… give them a chance. Skywalker seemed out of sorts when they figured out what I was trying to tell them."
"Hmph. He's Palpatine's lapdog; I'm not surprised."
"Lapdog," I said warily. "How so?"
"Try turning on the HoloNews whenever they have specials on the life of the Chancellor. They're always side by side at social events, state dinners. It is well known that…" Asajj trailed off with an odd look on her face.
"Skywalker… It is well known that Skywalker is the protégé of the Chancellor."
"Why do you have that weird look on your face when you say that?"
Asajj didn't bother to respond and instead started pacing the deck looking deep in thought over that little bit of news. The longer it took for her to say something, the deeper a lead weight started settling in my stomach.
"Are you saying that he's been grooming Skywalker to be his apprentice?"
She stopped and looked at me, trying to decide something. Exactly what? I had no idea.
"My very first assignment from Dooku was to assassinate Anakin Skywalker. He kept throwing me at him over the last few years. Time and again I was the only one talented enough to challenge him. I was someone that was expendable. I never had any delusions of that fact. Until I was officially a Sith I always would be."
Recalling what Asajj told me the previous evening, I nodded. "You think he was testing him like he did you and me."
"Yes. Molding the perfect apprentice from virtually the very first moment they met." When she finally sat down I could see the intense concentration on her face. "I have performed countless hours of research on Skywalker. He was the deciding factor in the Trade Federation's defeat over Naboo. Even so young the Force was with him."
"So, you're saying he's like a Super-Jedi or something?"
I received an angry glare for that one. "One on one there were many times I could have defeated him, but Kenobi was always there making me split my attention between the two of them. During our most recent duels I could feel the anger and frustration from him at not being my equal. I even gifted him with a mark from my lightsaber."
Asajj traced a line above and below her right eye and I was sure that's where Skywalker received that nasty scar.
"The one thing holding him back has always been Kenobi. If not for him Skywalker would have turned to the Dark side, releasing his hatred, giving him the strength to possibly defeat me."
One thing I've never done was underestimate her talent with the lightsabers hooked on her utility belt. I've seen Holovid footage of her fighting both Kenobi and Skywalker at the same time and they aren't as inept as Asajj lets on; she was just that good. For her to say Skywalker could best her in a duel if all he could do was hate her awakened my awareness of just how strong a true Sith could be. That's just their lightsaber skills. What else could they do with that hatred?
I know they could zap people with that freaky blue lighting they call from their fingertips. It might as well be some sort of wandless Cruciatus, if that was possible. I've never had a chance to test my Shield Charm against something that powerful, but I doubted I'd be able to hold it back long, if at all. My idea of popping my head through the Chancellor's door and tossing in some uncontrolled Fiendfyre to solve all our problems didn't reassure me as it should have.
"Maybe we should just cut our losses and go."
Asajj frowned. "Run you mean? Why? The Jedi haven't even had a chance to bungle their advantage as of yet."
"Because I'm not seeing a clean way out of this. Look," I said as a shifted forward to impress my point. "Say that Palpatine is Sidious. The Jedi confront him and since he's as overpowered as you think he is, he wipes the floor with them. What then? You say that Skywalker is walking the edge – and after talking to him face to face I can actually see that. He wasn't exactly the model of patience and stoicism during our meeting. What's to stop them from teaming up?"
She looked at me as if I was blowing the whole thing out of proportion. "You're assuming the entirety of the Jedi Order couldn't bring down two people. Sith or not, they aren't that incompetent."
I shook my head. "No, you're not seeing the big picture here. Palpatine is the Supreme Chancellor of the Republic. He's been working this angle for years, possibly decades. You actually think he's going to be pooling all his credits on just one guy?"
"Of course not," Asajj threw back. "He has a massive droid army headed by a competent commander."
With a nod, I conceded that point. "Yeah, but why? There's something that I've noticed about the Temple on my visits over the last few days – the total lack of Jedi around. The place is running bare bones."
Her mouth opened to shoot something else back, but she stopped and actually considered what I was saying. "You think he's thinning them out."
I shrugged. "It could be any number of reasons. How many have died because of this war?"
"What better way to dispose of your enemy and draw attention away from yourself?" she whispered. "We're missing something."
The obvious I assumed. "The triggering event."
"I think that would be apparent; a confrontation."
"With the Confederate fleet on the Outer Rim?" I replied before I remembered something from earlier. "Oh, Kenobi said something was going on with Grievous. He was late to the meeting, because he was with Palpatine."
"Details?" I shook my head and Asajj started getting frustrated. "We need more information."
"We need to get the hell out of here."
Asajj stopped pacing and stared me down. "Do not lose your nerve, Harry Potter."
"Pfft! This has nothing to do with nerve. It has to do with protecting my ass. I've had enough dealing with Dark Lords to last me a lifetime. It was one thing when he was personally screwing around with me by sending those bounty hunters, but this is something different. I'm just a little pawn on his chessboard. My presence doesn't mean anything in the long run."
"What difference does that make?"
"All the difference!" Jerking up off the seat I faced her. "If he was personally coming at me then I'd throw everything I had at him and hope for the best, but I don't have to do that. In the long run I'm nothing in his eyes; a morally ambiguous wild card maybe, and one that's supposedly on his side with this Hand business."
Asajj sighed and ran a hand over her mouth as she turned away. Pacing up to the forward viewport she looked out at the Residence Building. "I've run before. After the Battle of Boz Pity I ran, not knowing what else to do, constantly looking over my shoulder, not knowing what the next day will bring. I want this over with, one way or the other, and then I will disappear, not before."
I was afraid she would say that. If I was younger, there wouldn't be any question about what I would do. I was an idiot back then. Running face first into adventure was part and parcel in being a Gryffindor, but at this point in my life I had a tendency to think things through a little more. It comes with age and experience I suppose.
Leaving her on Coruscant to deal with this by herself was one option. Asajj was the one with the axe to grind after all. I didn't care one way or the other who was in charge of the galaxy as long as they left me alone. Of course that was before I saw that Jedi healer pulling that worm thing out of Gunray. Nobody should die like that; I don't care who they are.
The whole thing had the scent of Evil tagged on the label with a capital E. Walking away from something like that wasn't in me either. There was no two ways about it; I was involved whether I wanted to be or not. That meant I need to do something about the situation or get the hell out of the way, ideally both.
"I'll contact Kenobi and let him know the rest," I said.
Asajj looked back at me, paused for a moment, and nodded.
Rounding the holoprojector I punched up his personal comm number and waited for the connection. It only took a few seconds before he answered.
"Mister Potter, I am in the middle of a meeting with the High Council…."
"Yeah," I said, cutting him off. "I have more information."
"You do? Hold a moment."
Cocking my head to the side I tried to stretch out the tension that was building in my neck, but it wasn't doing much good.
"I have secured this channel," he said. "Are you capable of providing a holopresence?"
I glanced up at Asajj and she was already halfway across the deck, heading toward me. "Uh, yeah. Hold on a second."
Flicking the mute setting I said, "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"How else will he take the information seriously? I told you they would argue this subject endlessly before coming to a decision."
With a mild smirk I punched in the proper sequence to show the both of us before going back online.
"Oh dear," Kenobi remarked. "How wonderful to see you again, Miss Ventress. May I assume you are the source of all Mister Potter's amazingly accurate information in regards to the Invisible Hand's location?"
Asajj didn't even crack a smile. "Assume what you wish, Obi-Wan. The Sith you are looking for is in the Supreme Chancellor's office, Darth Sidious. Palpatine and he are the same person."
"We think," I added.
Asajj scowled at me. "I find it rather amazing that you or any of the other supposed Masters of your Order that have visited him in his office have failed to notice all the Sith memorabilia just lying around – on second thought, I don't. This is typical of your kind. Unless an opponent is waving a red-bladed lightsaber in your face, they simply must be an innocent bystander."
Closing my eyes, I cringed. "Do we need to do this right now?"
I was promptly ignored by Kenobi. "It was you that killed Count Dooku."
"It was," she said.
"May I also conclude that you feel over-matched in your vengeance against this particular Sith?"
She scoffed and waved the question away. "Do not make the mistake of underestimating Sidious. He has hidden himself away directly under your very nose for how long now? If only the public was aware of how incompetent the Jedi really are."
"Okay," I joined in. "That's enough. Master Kenobi, I'm washing my hands of this. We've warned you, so do with it what you will. I highly suggest bringing in a couple of dozen of your best people and find out for yourself."
"Suspicion isn't enough to arrest him," Kenobi said.
"Just having the Sith artifacts is enough; you already know this. I suspect that if you go through his things, under the pretext of searching for more, you'll find evidence for the creation of those worm-spawn things. Hell, just holding him for questioning should be more than enough to expose his intentions if he is actually Sidious. He's bound to put up a fight, and now is the time to do it, before he sinks his fingers into Skywalker's brain even further."
Kenobi blinked and Asajj grinned with the small triumph.
"You never realized Palpatine was grooming him, did you, Obi-Wan? Oh, how far the vaunted Jedi have fallen."
The holo connection broke then dissipated as I leaned back. "There. Can we go now?"
Asajj stared up at the ceiling with a satisfied expression. "Be still. I want to remember the look on his face when you revealed Skywalker's part in the plan. Did you notice the slackened jaw and the beginnings of panic in his eyes? This is almost better than seeing him impaled on the end of my lightsaber – not quite, but almost."
With a roll of my eyes I clicked on the comm. "Mikki, we're leaving. Haul your butt up here."