He was coming to bargain for Senator Amidala's life.
Palpatine had not doubted that the boy would go in search of the young Senator, particularly once he was again armed. Skywalker quite obviously had felt empowered the moment he had held the dead Jedi's lightsaber in his hand. As indeed he should.
And of course, steps had been taken to ensure that the Senator was easily found.
Palpatine had anticipated that there would be a rescue attempt. He had predicted that it would be dramatic, clever, quick and powerful – and of course, ultimately tragic. He had pictured vividly the untimely death of the popular Senator, perhaps in her lover's arms; the anguish, the grief, and ultimately the white-hot implosion of rage and despair in Anakin.
And then the boy would have had no one, and nowhere to go, and no purpose to his life.
And he, Palpatine, would have stepped in, as comforter, savior, and ultimately, Master.
All too easy.
But instead, he had received that unexpected request for a meeting.
Under different circumstances – in the aftermath of tragedy, for example – they would have met in cozier, more intimate circumstances, as indeed they had this afternoon.
But Skywalker had chosen to take a different approach to his otherwise predictable goal. He was apparently prepared to negotiate, rather than acting independently and rebelliously. To give and take, rather than simply taking.
The boy's strategy didn't seem in character. It struck Palpatine as studied. Deliberate. Well-thought out. That was the way Skywalker operated when he worked; but after the boy's emotional conflagration earlier today, he certainly would not have expected him to take such a rational and cautious approach when his personal stake in the outcome was so high.
There is something else behind this.
And so he had arranged the meeting with Skywalker in the grand, symbolic surroundings of the Throne Room. It was a setting that would leave the boy in no doubt of their respective roles – a setting that would not allow Anakin to misconstrue the depth of their intimacy, or to presume on the relationship Palpatine had so carefully cultivated with him.
The doors opened and Skywalker entered. Palpatine felt a faint stirring of interest. The boy's entrance was novel, to say the least.
Evidently Skywalker had defied the rule of law and Palpatine's personal orders, not to mention having probably killed some of his personal guards, to extract the Senator from the Republic's custody. And now he was walking into the Throne Room arm-in-arm with her, as though they both had every right to be there.
They had dressed for the occasion. The Senator was as perfectly turned out as she would have been for a formal Senate function; and Skywalker – well, Palpatine had never seen him looking so grand. So resplendent. Down to the mirror shine on his boots.
Anakin had planned his approach well. By having freed the Senator and boldly brought her here he had demonstrated strength; by having dressed formally, he had bestowed gravity and importance upon the occasion of their meeting.
Palpatine allowed the pair to walk all the way across the huge room before he acknowledged their presence.
"What is the meaning of this, Anakin?" he said severely, when Skywalker and the Senator had arrived before him and bowed. "Surely you are aware that Senator Amidala is a prisoner, awaiting trial on the very serious charge of treason against the Republic!"
"I am, Your Excellency," Anakin replied calmly. "But what I have to say concerns Senator Amidala directly. I prefer to speak with you with her at my side."
The woman stood as pale and still as one of the marble statues in the foyer, but her terror was palpable. Good.
"I could have you arrested and imprisoned for this, Anakin," Palpatine said coldly.
The boy didn't flinch. Instead, he replied evenly, "That is of course well within your authority, Your Excellency. If, at the end of our conversation, you believe that to be necessary, by all means, have me arrested. I won't resist."
Well played. He concedes my superiority. Now he will ask for my benevolence.
Palpatine saw the Senator shoot her companion a quick, surprised glance. She doesn't know why she is here. And yet she had gone along with Skywalker's illegal act. Interesting.
Palpatine allowed a few moments to go by before he replied. The Senator looked as if she might faint. Skywalker did not waver, inwardly or outwardly. He merely waited respectfully.
"Very well, Anakin" Palpatine agreed. "I will hear what you have to say."
"Thank you, your Excellency," Skywalker said with a small, correct bow of acknowledgement.
Palpatine nodded slightly in return. Get on with it.
"You made me a very generous offer this afternoon, Your Excellency," the boy declared. "That offer included your assurance of my personal safety, as well as considerable authority."
Palpatine took note of the young Senator's startled glance at her companion.
"As generous as your offer is, I could only accept it provided that…" Skywalker paused, while the Senator's eyes became wider and wider.
Not a plea, then. A demand. Palpatine's look grew darker. "Provided that…" he prompted, without sounding the least bit encouraging.
Skywalker turned to look into Amidala's eyes. Their gazes locked for a long moment. Then the boy turned back to Palpatine and said, "Your Excellency, I need your assurance that your offer of protection extends to my family as well."
"Your family?" Palpatine repeated. His momentary bafflement was not feigned.
"You already know Senator Amidala, Your Excellency," the boy went on boldly. "Now I would like to introduce her to you as my wife."
"Your wife, Anakin?" Palpatine snapped. "The wife of a Jedi? Do you actually expect me to believe that?" He stared into Skywalker's eyes, searching for the slightest hint of deceit. There was none. Amidala, too, returned his stare with a bravado that matched the boy's.
What a clumsy, contemptible effort to draw her into my good graces. I had expected something cleverer from him.
"You will understand if I point out that this all seems exceptionally convenient, given the dire circumstances in which the Senator finds herself," Palpatine said coldly. "How long ago, may I ask, did you undertake this… this union?"
It was Amidala who answered – clearly and steadily. "Anakin and I have been married for over a year, Chancellor. We were married here on Naboo. The records are available."
Now this was interesting. Could Skywalker really have pulled off something like that?
"I suppose the Jedi know nothing of this?" Palpatine enquired.
"No, Your Excellency. I'm certain they don't," Skywalker replied.
"And now that you are no longer a member of the Jedi Order, you are willing to reveal your deception," Palpatine observed. Amidala sent another brief, shocked glance Skywalker's way. Apparently she hadn't known that he had left the Order, either. This initiative appeared to be entirely Skywalker's, and Amidala was going along with it blindly.
That was very unlike her.
Amidala appeared professionally composed on the outside, but it did not escape Palpatine that she clung to her companion's arm with something akin to desperation. Odd. He had never known her to be so afraid – not even for her own life.
There is something more behind all this.
In the meantime, he had to decide quickly what to do about Skywalker.
The fact that the boy had deceived the Jedi for so long was one thing. That showed that he had the right instincts – and considerable skill. On the other hand, Anakin had not confided in him. He had kept his own secrets and his own counsel, demonstrating quite clearly that he was loyal only to himself. That was a dangerous trait in a servant. Particularly the kind of servant he intended Anakin to be.
Perhaps I should just kill him now, Palpatine speculated. I should kill them both.
"Not only do I require a guarantee of my wife's personal safety, Your Excellency," the boy was saying, "but I ask that all charges against her be dropped, that she receive a formal apology for the error of having been falsely accused of treason, and that there be no impediment to her taking up all of her duties and responsibilities as before."
"I see," Palpatine said in a voice that cut like shards of glass. "And what am I to receive in return?"
"I will work for you," the boy said simply. "I will fight on behalf of the Republic. I will undertake any other tasks that you deem fit to assign to me. I will serve you."
Palpatine's eyes narrowed. "You place a very high value on your services."
Skywalker looked at him steadily. "No, Your Excellency," he said. "You do."
And there it was.
The single attribute that, together with his incomparable presence in the Force, would make the boy such a valuable instrument: his boldness. His audacity. Without his fundamental weakness – his deplorable tendency to form attachments – Anakin Skywalker would be completely fearless. Had the Jedi succeeded with him, he would have been a formidable opponent indeed.
This was the reason that he had invested precious years in cultivating the boy. The reason that he had taken such care to draw him in, to lure him, rather than simply taking possession of him as he could have so easily. A gifted, creative, and bold and willing tool had a value beyond any treasure in the Galaxy. It really would be a waste to destroy him now.
However, he was disinclined to grant clemency to Amidala. Her usefulness in separating Anakin from the Jedi Order had ended. She was a traitor and a rebel, and dangerously popular, and would serve his purposes best by being held up as an example for all to see.
"No, Anakin," Palpatine said decidedly. "I will not agree to your terms. Senator Amidala must be dealt with by the rule of law. If I try to circumvent that, the Republic becomes no better than a dictatorship."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Your Excellency," the boy said, unable to keep the hollow tones of disappointment from his voice. "I see now that I have either overestimated my value, or underestimated your power." And with that the boy reached under his ceremonial robes with his free hand and pulled out the lightsaber Palpatine had given him only that afternoon. "I won't need this any more."
Palpatine glared at the boy. Insolence wrapped in humility. What a trial he must have been for the Jedi.
But not for me.
He did not accept the weapon. Instead, he stared appraisingly at the unnaturally silent and withdrawn Senator from Naboo.
I offered him power. And glory. And riches. And this…this is what he wants.
Why was the boy willing to give up everything for her? It didn't make sense. She was nothing. And yet it seemed that she was the key to the boy's willing compliance. Skywalker would give up his life, his freedom, and yes, his soul for her.
Palpatine addressed Amidala directly for the first time.
"This is a real departure for you, Senator Amidala," he said with thinly veiled contempt. "I have never known you to hide behind the broad backs of others. Have you nothing to say for yourself?"
The woman appeared to grow even paler, if that was possible, and instantly the Force, directed by Skywalker, surged around her protectively.
He protects her at all costs.
"I am not myself today, Chancellor Palpatine," Amidala said faintly. "Our daughter was killed this morning. Anakin speaks for us both."
Palpatine compressed his lips into a thin, hard line as he contemplated the pair. Our daughter. Surely not. There hadn't been enough time… then he remembered the child whom Anakin had brought to the Senate and introduced as Amidala's daughter. Not Anakin's blood, and therefore unimportant.
But it did raise an interesting idea.
What if Skywalker were to have offspring of his own? What if Amidala were pregnant now? It would explain why Skywalker had been so deliberate in his actions. Why he was so protective of her.
Palpatine reached out surreptitiously with the Force to probe her a little, but then backed away just as quickly. Amidala's Force presence was somehow permeated by Skywalker's. Apparently the boy had found a way to mingle his own Force presence with hers, thereby creating a very effective shield. He would react instantly to any invasion of the woman's Force energies, as though they were his own.
But not as fascinating as the prospect of a new generation of Skywalkers. That alone was worth a short-term change in his plans. He wouldn't lose anything by waiting a little longer to complete Skywalker's training. In fact, he would have the boy even more firmly in his grasp, because Skywalker would have so much more to lose. Especially if this union were to result in a child.
And of course, he could alter any bargain they made whenever he saw fit.
Either way, he will be mine. But he must learn to fear me.
"I see that you have made a choice after all, Anakin." Palpatine said smoothly, in a voice that he augmented deliberately with just enough dark shadows to get the boy's attention, and to stir his memory. He was gratified to see a momentary flicker of recognition, a flash of alarm, in the boy's eyes. It almost made him smile.
"I do place a high value on your services," he went on dispassionately. "But I will not exonerate Senator Amidala entirely from her traitorous actions." He took care to speak only to Anakin, ignoring Amidala again.
"As a favor to you, I will agree to withdraw the formal charges against your wife, but they will not be expunged from her record. The Government of Naboo is in chaos. If your wife can persuade the new government to allow her to continue to represent this system despite her record, I will tolerate her presence in the Senate." He ignored the audible gasp that came from the woman. "And Anakin, I will hold you personally responsible for her activities in the future."
"Chancellor!" the Senator suddenly found her voice. "I don't think…"
Palpatine cut her off with a wave of his hand. He had made his final offer. There would be no further negotiation. "Well, Anakin?" he asked, completely ignoring Amidala.
Skywalker turned to look at the woman who clung to his arm. Again, their eyes met. After a long, long moment, and with his eyes still on hers, the boy sealed his fate.
"Agreed, Your Excellency," he said.
And it was done.
Palpatine shifted his glare to the young woman. "Your husband's fate is now linked to your actions, Senator Amidala," he said coldly. "And yours to his." He deliberately moved one threatening step closer to her and said pointedly, "I suggest you conduct your political life with greater care from now on."
The Senator from Naboo only stared at him with wide, shocked eyes. Skywalker leaned down and murmured something in her ear. She dropped her eyes, and bowed slightly to Palpatine.
"Thank you, Your Excellency," the boy said hastily, bowing as well. "We will take our leave now."
Not before you understand the true nature of your bargain, young Skywalker.
Palpatine allowed the pair to walk all the way to the heavy doors of the Throne Room before he called out to the boy again.
The boy stopped, and turned.
The room filled with dark energies. The Force leaped and boiled and surged.
"I'm certain that you will serve me well."
The boy froze. Horrified recognition dawned on his face. Palpatine could feel his potent shudder of despair reverberate through the Force.
Satisfied, Palpatine waved Skywalker away.
He was a patient man, he reminded himself. He could be patient a little longer.
* * * * *
Looking back, Padmé couldn't remember how she and Anakin made it from the Throne Room all the way back to her Palace apartment after that soul-wrenching meeting with the man who held their lives in his gnarled, twisted, malevolent hands. They had walked, surely, clinging together like frightened children. She remembered passing through hallways and doors. There had been pillars and statues and stairs, but they had all gone by in a blur. She only remembered Anakin, stumbling, collapsed inwardly, and slumped over like someone who had taken a beating. She remembered trying to hold him upright despite her own weak state. She remembered urging him on, somehow keeping them both moving forward, until they finally reached her apartment. Sabé and Dormé had helped her to drag Anakin to a chair, where he had sat, silent, with his face in his hands.
"What happened?" Sabé kept asking.
"He saved my life," Padmé said to her Handmaiden, just to make her stop asking questions. "The warrant has been dropped. But the price was very high."
Sabé looked as though she were about to begin a detailed cross-examination when Dormé mercifully pulled her away with a muttered comment that sounded like "leave them alone." The two Handmaidens disappeared out the terrace doors.
Padmé slipped down to the floor next to Anakin's chair, rested her head on his thigh, and waited. She had seen him like this before – on the Defiance – when he suddenly and unaccountably had disappeared inside of himself, presumably to fight some unknown inner battle.Obi-Wan's words returned to her, unbidden. …he is under the influence of forces for which you have no frame of reference….
The meeting with Chancellor Palpatine had been gruesome enough. But evidently something else had happened – something that had affected Anakin so deeply that he had disappeared again. And so Padmé watched and waited for him to come back to her. And while she waited, she wondered how she could ever atone for all the horrors she had wrought with the series of choices she had made. In the end, she had even cost Anakin his precious, hard-won freedom.
I will always protect you, he had vowed. And he always had. And each time, he had paid a terrible price.
She didn't understand how he could love her. All she ever brought him was suffering.
"Anakin," she whispered after what seemed like a long time.
She was rewarded for her patience when she felt his hand on her hair. She looked up, and he seemed to be present again. He was stroking her hair, and looking down at her with…with love.
Padmé scrambled into Anakin's lap and tried to hide in his neck.
"I'm sorry," she moaned desperately. "I'm sorry."
His arms came around her. "You're safe," he murmured. "That's all that matters."
"None of us are safe, Anakin," Padmé sighed. "We've just gotten a brief reprieve."
Anakin loosened his hold on her, leaned back in his chair, and took a deep, long breath. "Sometimes," he said, "one opening is all you need." He no longer looked crushed. His eyes were coming back to life. He even tried out the ghost of his crooked smile. It almost broke Padmé's heart.
"Are you all right?" she wondered out loud.
"I will be," Anakin said. Padmé tried hard to believe him.
A sudden, stiff breeze blew open one of the terrace doors, startling them both with the crash. It gave Padmé an idea. She slid off Anakin's lap, and tried to pull him up by the hand. "Come with me."
He followed her out onto the wide, breezy balcony. The wind had blown away the last of the clouds, and the sky was covered with stars. Naboo's twin moons were in the third phase of their cycle, and hovered close together high above.
Padmé's two Handmaidens were huddled together at the far side of the balcony. Ever tactful, Dormé tugged at Sabé's sleeve when Padmé and Anakin appeared on the terrace, and pulled her toward the door.
Sabé was having none of it. To everyone's surprise, most of all Anakin's, she threw herself on him and gave him a hearty hug.
"Thank you," she said. "For whatever you did. Thank you." Still startled, Anakin mumbled something inarticulate in return.
Dormé yanked at Sabé, hard. "Come on," she hissed.
"I'm going, I'm going," Sabé said irritably, and then she announced, "I'm going out. I have to see someone." The two Handmaidens disappeared into the warmly lit apartment, leaving Padmé and Anakin alone in the sparkling night.
Padmé grasped Anakin's living hand in hers, tightly, and gazed up at the stars. They seemed smaller, colder, and much, much further away than they had in space.
"Husband and wife," Padmé said thoughtfully into the long silence that followed. "Openly. But it isn't exactly the way we had imagined it would be."
"I know. Still, it's done. You are my wife for the entire Galaxy to see. Finally." Anakin pulled her closer.
They stood silently for a while longer, their faces turned upward to the far beyond.
"If only…" Padmé began.
"Don't," Anakin said quickly. "Please. Just don't."
"Not talking about it doesn't change things." Padmé couldn't keep the deep sadness out of her voice. In response, Anakin slipped behind her and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, enfolding her in warmth.
"I know," he said again. "But things tend to change so quickly all by themselves. Nothing ever stays the same anyway. What is true today won't necessarily be true tomorrow."
Padmé leaned back into him. He held her tightly.
"Some things are always true," she said after a while. "They are as constant as the stars. Some things can't be changed."
"I love you," Anakin whispered into her ear. "That doesn't change."
"And look what I have done to you. Look what I have done to us all."
"Things happen," Anakin murmured, rubbing his cheek against her hair. "They happen no matter what we do."
Padmé twisted around in his arms so that she was facing his chest, and buried her face against his shoulder.
"It's all my fault. To save me, you have become that man's slave…" She stopped to take a terrible, sobbing breath. "I'm so afraid for you. I'm terrified of what he will make you do in the name of the Republic."
A deep shudder passed through Anakin. His chest rose and fell a few times, as though he were deliberately steadying his breathing.
"It's not going to be easy," he admitted. "For either of us. I'm… I'm sorry I couldn't do better."
Padmé shook her head violently against his chest. Oh Gods, she thought desperately. What awaits us?
"I used to think you could do anything," she mumbled sorrowfully. "That nothing could stop you. And so I let everything rest on your shoulders." She shook her head again. "I was so wrong."
"No," Anakin protested. "I wanted to spare you all this. Never let it touch you. But I couldn't." His voice wavered a little, and Padmé hugged him harder. It seemed like such a feeble gesture, but it was all she could do.
"The thing is, Padmé," Anakin went on from inside her fierce embrace, "I'm going to do what I have to. I won't have a choice." He leaned down closer to her face. "You have to know that."
Padmé felt the tears come. She was so everlastingly tired of tears. She nodded, once, and it felt as though every last good and fine and noble dream or aspiration slipped away in that one gesture, leaving only grim reality and the living, breathing, tormented man in her arms.
"Maybe we shouldn't have done it," Padmé ventured. "Maybe we should have let go."
"You're alive," Anakin said, nuzzling her hair and what he could reach of her cheek. "You're alive and so am I, and so is our child. As long as we're alive, there's always hope that things will change again." With a little more nuzzling, he found her lips. "Maybe we'll be able to change things," he whispered against them.
"How?" she whispered back.
"I'll never stop looking for a way out."
"I don't know why you love me," Padmé murmured against his mouth. "Why you would take on all this."
Anakin abruptly helped himself to the kiss he had evidently been waiting for but that had not been forthcoming. He took his time about it. When he was done, and Padmé was beginning to remember some reasons why being alive was worthwhile, Anakin took her by the shoulders and looked straight into her eyes.
"You really don't understand, do you? You're part of me. You're the best part of me. You're the thing that keeps me going. The two of you now. As long as you're with me, I actually do feel as though I can do anything."
Padmé shifted a little, and bit her bottom lip. "We're in this together, Anakin. You're mine, remember?"
"I always have been," Anakin said solemnly. "And I always will be."
Let that be true. Padmé wished fervently. Please let that be true.
For Anakin's sake, Padmé managed a very faint imitation of a smile. "Magnificent apology accepted, by the way," she said.
"At least that's something," Anakin said, stooping down to scoop her legs out from under her. "It's a start, anyway." He straightened up again and Padmé found herself being carried effortlessly back inside the apartment, as though she weren't a burden at all.
A start. A beginning. Padmé prayed that's what it was.
But it felt as though somewhere, far away, a star had died.