That would be the last time Padmé would be able to communicate freely with any of her allies without risking exposure. A holo-conference had been out of the question. Artoo had been connected to the hidden receivers that were known only to the Queen and her handmaidens. They had communicated via audio-proj, the channels scrambled and the conversation kept brief to prevent interception. Even then, they had made use of codes and symbols in their language. All in all, the conversation had been only two short lines:

What did it contain?

Decryption will not be completed until the next 48 hours.

Padmé could have wept with frustration. There was no way that Anakin would be persuaded to allow her to stay in Theed longer than before the Second Meal. He had been against her staying overnight at all. And regardless of her stance towards him, she privately dreaded that if they came to loggerheads, he might use his metaphysical Jedi powers to persuade her. He would be perfectly within the boundaries of his mandate to do that. And even without resorting to that, a complaint from him would cause the Jedi Council to inform the Chancellor about her uncooperativeness. And that would be worse. With the extent of the Council's influence on Palpatine, Padmé did not even want to consider the consequences of that action.

If she were honest to herself, she realized that she had already stayed in Theed long enough to be safe. She could only pray that Bail would use his discretion in handling the information he had at hand.

Artoo beeped at her in concern. Padmé sighed and placed a hand on its smooth dome. As usual, the action comforted her. She left Jamilla's private COM room and returned to the Queen's dining chambers.

Jamilla had long retired into her private chambers in order to prepare for the new day and its endless demands on the monarchy. Padmé had told her only enough for Jamilla to be informed. Amidala appreciated all too well that the burden of Inter-Galactic politics should never be placed on the Queen's shoulders. Theirs were two separate spheres. How well she remembered telling that to the then Senator Palpatine ten years ago in Coruscant.

So much had changed since then.

Then the politics of the Republic had sickened and disillusioned her. Then she had been a ruler with a simple (although she had never realized it then) directive: to safeguard her world. Then she had doubted the effectiveness of the Jedi Knights (that had only marginally changed) and then she had taken the adoration of a nine-year-old boy as her due and thought nothing to discourage it.

Padmé shied away from the thoughts that that would inevitably lead to. She walked around the dining room, touching furniture that was once familiar, noting the subtle changes in arrangement. Subtle, yes, but definite changes. Nothing ever stayed the same.

She had wandered over to the balcony. She looked down at the garden and noted that the once-flourishing gojin tree was almost fruitless. It was impossible to estimate from so little observation but Padmé was right in believing as she did that the tree had reached and passed its life's peak. It would not need destroying until another century but the decline had started.

We are born. We grow old. We die.

Beside her, Artoo gave a little hoot of recognition.

Unconsciously, the hands that had been resting on the balustrade clenched. She gripped the stone paving hard.

Anakin was sitting cross-legged underneath the dangling branches of the gojin tree, his back against its bark. He was sharing his First Meal with Dyiné. They were too far away for Padmé to make out what they were saying but it was enough that Dyiné was eating between giggles and her cheeks were rosy under her makeup. Anakin was smiling in a way Padmé had not seen him do since before they arrived at the Palace. His eyes were never steady. They scanned the garden and looked at his food and flashed at Dyiné and glanced up at the balcony.

He was looking at her.

The stones were cutting into her fingers but she could not bring herself to let go. He was paling and she could feel the blood on her own face draining away.


Shh... I'm here.

No. Never.

The glob of black wax was still warm in the Atonement Grate.

But as long as his blue eyes did not lift from her face, she could not look elsewhere.

"Senator Amidala!"

The connection was broken abruptly. Padmé turned her head slightly to acknowledge the flustered looking handmaiden who was now standing and looking up at her in a desperate attempt to re-establish the poise of her office.

Padmé tried to feel sympathetic towards the girl.

She failed.

The handmaidens to the Monarch of Naboo were the closest person to her in court. They were her counsellors, bodyguards, valets, generals and in matters of expediency, deputies. They performed their duties without reminder, consulting with the Queen as equals and not as servants. Courtesy was given to them as courtesy was given to the Queen herself. An insult to a handmaiden – even to a handmaiden in training - was equivalent to an insult to the Queen herself.

What Padmé was about to do would be unpardonable.

Artoo Detoo gave one shrill warning beep.

Padmé had not even realized that she had been about to speak. She closed her mouth immediately and screamed silently in her mind. She had almost - Almost -

How could she have lost composure like that?

The reason was staring at her from underneath the gojin tree, his eyes talking to her the way they sometimes did and telling her they knew exactly what she had been about to say and understood exactly why and there was really no reason to fight this because it was too powerful and it was even more, inevitable and if she would just give in, she need never dream or want for anything or -

Padmé turned so sharply that she almost fell over Artoo. The droid screeched indignantly. Padmé waved a hand behind her in abstract apology.

It was past first light. Undoubtedly, the Temple would no longer be empty; she would wear a shroud and risk it. It did not matter if Anakin was probably already sensing her intentions and removing himself from Dyiné's company in order to join her. It did not matter in the least. What mattered was the black candle that she needed to burn.

A few moments later, two figures were standing motionlessly by the Temple doors. The droid had switched to its standby mode. The Jedi was presumably in his meditative mood.

He was smiling.


author's note: Please if you read this story to the end and liked it, kindly let me know by reviewing.

May the Force be with you always.