Sheev Palpatine should have been at new heights of power since he killed his master Darth Plagueis, but instead he was beginning to think he had a nemesis in one Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Of course, as a well-respected senator, he called Kenobi "friend", but that just meant nemesis to anyone who knew anything about it. Although Sheev still couldn't tell if Kenobi knew anything about anything, really.
That Kenobi had survived the siege on Naboo was not particularly surprising, but that he had not only survived the assassin Sheev had sent but then suborned the zabrak to his own side was infuriating! Sith were known for suborning Jedi to the dark, but Sheev couldn't think of a single other case in which a Jedi had suborned a Sith to the light. It shouldn't have even occurred to a Jedi to try!
Sheev wasn't even sure if Kenobi's thwarting his every attempt to woo the Tattooine boy was even intentional. The Jedi master had simply invited himself along to the first few meetings Sheev had arranged with Anakin and led the conversation so circuitously that Sheev found himself choosing his words carefully to avoid pitfalls, with Anakin most obviously bored.
They drank tea at those meetings. Or at least, tea was served. Both of them made appreciative noises at the tea and picked up and set down the cups frequently.
One of Sheev's spies had relayed that Anakin had once asked what the point was since both cups were always still full at the end of each meeting. Kenobi had apparently explained that it was a combination of ceremony and a demonstration of just how difficult a skill shifting mass unobtrusively was. With anyone less understanding than Sheev, Kenobi had apparently told Anakin, he'd have to ensure that his teacup was empty by the end of the hour. And then suggested that Anakin work on that skill.
Anakin had decided that he was not interested in extra lessons in Force use for a rarely-useful skill, and that the meetings with the Senator were boring and ceremonies were stupid. So now, rather than trying to subvert a young boy of prophesy to the dark side, Sheev found himself somehow having regular 'teas' with Kenobi alone.
Sheev wasn't even sure if Kenobi considered him a friend or an enemy, but he was certainly keeping him close. Thus, after Sheev had given up entirely on Anakin, Kenobi had invited Sheev to the Jedi temple for a luncheon.
Given that Kenobi had been impeding him in new and unusual ways, it was particularly irritating for the man to also be so gracious and accommodating.
"I know that you have had some care for young Anakin ever since he became friends with Queen Amidala, so I thought you might enjoy seeing his progress," Kenobi said without even a hint on his face at the sheer hypocrisy of that statement after preventing just such oversight for over a year.
Sheev somehow managed not to grit his teeth, and instead gave a grandfatherly smile. "I do have fond memories of the boy. And some concerns regarding a child, to whom my people owe so much, living in such close quarters with your own padawan's violent history."
Kenobi smiled serenely back at him. "They've been good for each other. My padawan is a skilled fighter and is becoming a talented teacher of those skills, while Anakin has such ability to keep to the light even in dark circumstances, which he teaches my padawan as well."
"If such lightness can be taught, then that is skill indeed." Sheev hoped the implication was clear: he doubted very much in that ability.
"Come, we will watch them train."
So Sheev found himself standing in one of the desert-terrain training arenas in the Jedi temple, watching his old apprentice train a bright young child who had not a hint of malice in his nature. Clearly there was still plenty of malice in Maul's own nature since he noticed the observers, grinned meanly at his old master, and then went out of his way to show exactly how much he ignored all of Sheev's teachings.
Sheev wondered if Maul was showing particular gentleness and kindness in this training just to rub it in Sheev's face. In this time and place, Sheev could not beat Maul half to death for each kind word or have his flesh stripped from his bones for each gentle correction. Pain and fear and anger were to be taught as well as fighting skills! Not this travesty of skill without hatred.
Sheev turned away from the lesson, refusing to watch it to completion.
Kenobi merely nodded to the two students to continue their training and followed Sheev, casually guiding him along the edge of the sandy training arena.
"Tell me, Sheev, how much of this sand do you think you could hold in your hands?"
"Why do you ask?" Sheev tried to keep the deep suspicion out of his voice, and make it just a mild query. Casual. Between friends.
Kenobi reached down and with both hands scooped up some sand and held a pile of it in his cupped hands. "With open hands, I hold a mountain."
"I think I might call that a molehill at most," Sheev pointed out rather dryly.
Kenobi smiled appreciation at the sally but carried on. "I lose sand as soon as I try to close my hands."
He brought his hands together so that they made a closed capsule rather than an open bowl. The majority of the sand fell back to the ground. "Not a single grain can escape as they did before, but I hold much less."
Sheev found himself snarling at the Jedi in a lack of control that he had thought had been beaten out of him long since. It would have revealed his dark nature as Sith to any Jedi other than Kenobi. Kenobi didn't even let it distract him from his demonstration. And Sheev remained unsure if Kenobi was simply so single-minded that he didn't notice, or already well-aware of Sheev's nature.
Kenobi's hands shifted again so this time he was grasping grains in two closed fists, even as most of the remaining sand fell.
He opened his hands again and offered the remaining grains of sand to Sheev. Snarling once more, Sheev slapped the hands aside, but Kenobi merely smiled and shook his hands out letting the last few grains fall back to the ground.
"The more overt the control, the less success there is. So which method of holding on is the most successful?"
"You have spent too long training simple-minded children and fools." Sheev couldn't even pretend to be pleased with that heavy-handed metaphor.
"Thus it's particularly lovely to have a meal with you, who are neither a child nor simple-minded."
But if the sand metaphor was heavy-handed, the meal was barely less so, for all it was well done. He'd gotten himself at least somewhat more under control by the time he surveyed the table and thus could comment genteelly enough. "This is an interesting selection of foods."
"Yes," Kenobi agreed mildly. "It's amazing what different cultures can make of foods that others would consider too corrupt to consume, much less enjoy."
The spread was of pickled vegetables, aged cheeses, yogurts, charred mold forms, and fermented beverages. Every dish was an exquisite example of nourishing corruption, clarified to high value.
Sheev offered to prepare them both plates and Kenobi blandly acquiesced, as if he had not spent the last year pushing tea and cakes around to avoiding poisoning. It was particularly vexing because Sheev didn't actually have any useful poisons on him at the moment. Darth Plagueis would have been so disappointed in him.
The food was quite good, too. It really just added insult to injury that the meal was both sophisticated and expensive; a spread that Sheev himself might have put together to taunt a Jedi guest with the same message of delicious corruption. And instead, Kenobi turns the whole thing around and delivers it to him. Infuriating. Sheev must find a way to one-up him at their next tea.
After some quiet in which they both just enjoyed the food, Kenobi spoke. "I did have an ulterior motive in inviting you here."
Sheev vaguely wondered what sort of double or triple or quadruple blind that statement was even supposed to be. Of course there'd been an ulterior motive, but whatever he was about to confess to wouldn't be it.
"Ah, you merely want me for my political power." He tried to sound teasing. He wasn't at all sure if he succeeded.
"You are amassing a great deal of it, and I admit that there's a great deal I'd like to see done. It has occurred to me that if you were to become high chancellor," Kenobi spoke casually, just dropping it into conversation as if it were nothing, "then you might be interested in expanding the Republic. I'm sure Anakin would be eternally grateful if Tattooine were brought into the Republic and thus had slavery abolished. But no," Kenobi brushed aside the visions as if they were not everything Sheev wanted: the high chancellorship, a war of aggression, and a debt of gratitude from the Chosen one, all wrapped together.
"No, I wanted to ask you about your plans for the future."
"My plans." Sheev wasn't even sure what to say to this. Kenobi had literally just laid them out.
"Yes. What are your goals? If you're okay with telling me, of course." He spoke with easy humility, as if Sheev could just end this conversation here and did not need, with the need of an addict, to see exactly where Kenobi was going with this line of questioning.
"I would actually like to be supreme chancellor." Sheev attempted to mimic Kenobi's casualness, as if the burning desire were merely a vague pipe dream.
"And if you had a choice," Kenobi started and then trailed off.
"If you had a choice between being the supreme chancellor of an expanding and prospering republic, with all the power but also bureaucracy that entails, versus being the supreme emperor of a shrinking empire, with the absolute but diminishing power that entails… which would you pick?"
And that was the question, wasn't it? The crux of the issue that Kenobi had been building up to for a year, a Jedi consorting with a Sith lord, whether knowingly or not, to lay out the binary option with these heavy-handed metaphors.
He wanted to be the supreme emperor of an expanding empire! And looking at Kenobi's face, the Jedi knew it. Knew that Sheev craved power the way others craved air.
The question was as harsh as anything Plagueis had ever asked him, only lacking the jealous sadism of his former master.
Sheev gave up all semblance of kindly persona as he leaned forward to hiss in this Jedi's face: "I will have a grand and growing empire."
Kenobi didn't even flinch.
"A growing republic," Kenobi held his hands cupped open and then closed them into fists, "or a dying empire."
Kenobi was relentless. "Power or the semblance of power. You must choose."
And Sheev knew the answer.
The answer was what had guided his whole life until now. For decades now, he had hidden what he truly was, in order to achieve power.
He would soon have the power to control the republic as it currently was. He had always thought that would be the end to the deception. That after achieving the High Chancellorship, he'd reveal himself, become Emperor and Dark Lord, raising the Sith to primacy across the universe. He would violently quell the inevitable rebellions that would arise. He would be all-powerful!
It had been his dream. It had never before occurred to look critically at the idea of an all-powerful emperor.
As Kenobi had so bluntly pointed out, power and control could be two very different things. The subtle forms of power that Sheev exceled at had people volunteering to do his bidding. Kenobi himself seemed willing to play along as long as the corruption was at least somewhat nourishing. The complete control of an all-powerful emperor would ultimately have less power, as people and planets attempted to flee his grasp.
As deadly and painful as a lightsaber burn, his planned future was ripped away, and Sheev was trapped by his own avarice. With a few metaphors over a luncheon, Kenobi destroyed Sheev's dream, revealing it for the fallacy it was. The self-knowledge was no help. Kenobi was as cruel as Plagueis had ever been in stripping Sheev of all self-delusion, and looked at him with eyes just as merciless.
Kenobi never even gave him the respect of a physical fight like any other Jedi might have, if they discovered one such as Sheev. Instead, he just offered Sheev his words and a choice that was no choice and watched as Sheev tore himself apart in the decision.
Power must come first.
He would play the kindly ruler who smiled and hide his rage for eternity, rather than willingly lose one drop of power.