Despite the direness of their circumstances, all the citizens of Theed who were able showed up to hear their Queen speak. As was the case with celebration parades, they filled the huge square to overflowing, coming from every corner of the city. This time, however, the gathering brought no cheers or laughter despite the brightness of the new morning sun.
Padmé watched the people of Naboo from the right of Queen Jamillia's podium. Stony anger set the features of many, while others wore blank, stunned expressions. All shed tears, especially during the reading of the endless, but still-incomplete list of victims. Although they bravely applauded the Jedi Knights Skywalker and Kenobi as they were introduced, their obvious gratitude did not overshadow the solemnity of the occasion.
Their sorrow was reflected in the visage of their monarch. The Queen wore a new mask today and Padmé silently applauded Jamillia's insight at making the change. In one day Naboo had been changed forever and it was right that a time-honored tradition would show it. Her Majesties face now carried a representation of the collective grief of her entire planet.
Her features were still painted white, but somehow they seemed translucent, even ethereal. The traditional Scar of Remembrance, long a part of Naboo's history, still marked the center of her lower lip, though now it was deep blue instead of red. Two thin vertical lines of the same blue bisected her dark eyes, running from forehead to mid cheek to terminate in elongated circles. Inside the corner of each eye rested a single shimmering teardrop of paint. It was a simple and poetic death mask, meant to honor those lost and mirror the grief of those who survived.
Jamillia's advisors, including Governor Sio Bibble, had long-since emerged from the safety of the cliff-face bunker and now stood to Padmé's right. Their expressions were stern in an attempt to project strength and assurance in the midst of chaos, but one had only to look in their eyes to see the true extent of their sadness. Padmé knew her own face bore a similar haunted look.
Two handmaidens stood to the left of the Queen, their usually bright garments eschewed in favor of dark gray hooded robes. As the only surviving attendant of Jamillia's court, Noalé took the place of honor by her side. Next to Noalé was Sabé, who had agreed to serve temporarily, until a new retinue could be selected. Rumor had it Rabé was on her way here from an outlying village to do the same.
Just past the handmaidens Anakin and Obi-Wan waited quietly for the address to end with solemn expressions. Padmé knew her husband had probably been embarrassed by all the fuss, though nothing on his face had betrayed it. On the contrary, he appeared every bit as gracious and mature as the more experienced Knight at his side.
For a moment Padmé's thoughts lingered on the absent Danel and Dormé Panaka. The concussion that had kept Danel unconscious had been surgically treated by medical droids, but he was still shaky and weak. With Sabé now coordinating royal security, it hadn't taken much to convince him to make the journey to Alderaan so he could rest and recuperate under the watchful eye of his very relieved wife. She couldn't quite suppress the uncharacteristic flash of jealousy that the thought inspired. Just to have a day or two with Anakin, making sure he was rested and healed…
Padmé turned her attention back to the Queen's speech. Having spent the pre-dawn hours of the morning listening to Jamillia practice, she could tell it was drawing to a close.
"It is easy for other worlds to mistake our love of peace for fear or weakness, but Naboo is far from weak or afraid." Jamillia's deep alto carried over the courtyard. "Our enemies wish to incite us to hate, perhaps even to retaliate. We will not give them the satisfaction. We are a peaceful people and we will remain so even in the face of overwhelming provocation. Our cities and homes can be rebuilt. Our families are strong and will carry on despite their tragic losses. We will not allow this war to change the very beliefs that define our culture. Yesterday we lost much, but look around you! There is much that still endures." She paused dramatically, waiting as every eye followed the wave of her hand to scan the horizon. When their attention once again came to rest on her she concluded. "Naboo's strength will not be found in military power, but in the love that resides in the hearts of her people! With that might to motivate us, we will rebuild!"
She bowed her regal head to show that she was finished and sporadic applause broke out around the square. It began softly, but soon built to a crescendo, with every citizen applauding furiously. Padmé watched, praying all the while that Jamillia's words would prove true. She had to admit that her own heart still held an element of doubt. She couldn't explain it, not even to herself, but Naboo felt changed somehow, and not for the better. Perhaps when her parents arrived tomorrow she would be able to gain a healthier perspective on things. Her father's unalterable ideals and her mother's quiet strength had re-centered her world on more than one occasion.
Padmé looked back at the crowd. The anger and despair visible earlier was slowly being replaced by determination and relief. Evidently they'd been expecting more bad news, possibly even temporary relocation. Queen Jamillia had made no such drastic suggestions. Instead she had wisely set her focus on rebuilding and on optimism for the future. Padmé's eyes misted as she recalled the inspirational words. So many of those gathered here had lost so much, but hope had not been a casualty. Maybe things would be all right in the end.
The Queen acknowledged the tapering applause with a formal nod before turning to go back in to the palace. Sabé flashed Padmé a small wink before following her regal charge. Yes, now it was time for the hardest work to start.
She glanced back at Anakin. He had not been among those applauding. Rather, he was intently watching the faces of those in the crowd. It was almost as if he were studying them, seeking the measure of their resolve. Obi-Wan leaned in close to him and whispered something before taking off down the steps.
As if feeling her eyes on him, Anakin glanced up, misery evident in his face. Misery that had nothing to do with Naboo's tragedy. It was time for him to go.
He turned as if to walk away, then he glanced back over his shoulder and motioned with a barely perceptible tilt of his head for her to follow. She assumed he was headed to his starfighter and replied with the slightest nod to let him know she understood. In fact, she was already manufacturing excuses in her mind. Refusing was not an option. Her newly knighted Jedi husband was going back to war and she would see him off!
Half an hour later she was slipping into the private docking bay. The dark cloak she wore was heavy and annoying, but it had been a necessary evil to get her here without constant delays. She pushed the offending hood off her head and looked around for Anakin.
She spotted him next to the silver and blue starfighter, working intently on one of the upper wing electrical panels. He appeared to be finishing up as she crossed the duracrete floor.
The little ship, already fired up and ready to go, sat humming loudly while Anakin loaded tools back into the cargo hatch. It was obvious he had taken a few precious minutes to clean up. His Jedi attire was fresh and clean, and his hair lay in dark, damp curls against his neck.
Her heart twisted painfully in her chest. Their conversation from several days ago had been replaying in her head since the moment she'd seen Obi-Wan sever his padawan braid – especially the part about battlefield ceremonies and how newly knighted Jedi often didn't live long. New awareness of his mortality, and her own, weighed heavily on her consciousness.
She'd give anything if he could stay here on Naboo and work at her side to rebuild.
Cold fear was gnawing at her insides. This trepidation she felt at his leaving was new to her and most likely a consequence of the last 24 hours. Never before had she realized how much she had to lose - how quickly Anakin and the life she planned to build with him could be taken away from her. Simply put, her husband had come to be her past, present and future. Without him everything else was pointless.
She stopped quietly behind him, certain he had sensed her presence the moment she walked in the door. He closed the cargo compartment with a click but didn't turn around. Instead, he stood with his back to her, head bowed, his black-gloved palm resting on the cool metal hull of the starfighter. Reluctance to leave was evident in every angle of his body.
"If I turn and look at you I don't know how I'll ever be able to leave." His voice was gruff.
"If you don't look at me, I won't let you go." She neatly turned the tables on him. He was not leaving without a proper good-bye and she didn't care how hard it was on either of them.
Slowly he turned, raising his eyes to hers as he spread his arms wide. She rushed into his embrace and they clung to each other tightly, finding a greater resolve together than either had been able to muster separately. Anakin was first to pull back, dropping a gentle kiss on her trembling lips. She tasted salt, but couldn't tell if the source was her tears, or his, or both.
"I love you." She whispered, forcing her eyes open.
"And I love you." His reply was fervent, adoration for her shining in his crystal-blue gaze. "So much." He wrapped his arms around her tighter. "I will see this war ended Padmé. I don't care what it takes." Something in his voice reminded her of another time, another promise made at the side of a sand-covered grave. A chill skated down her spine.
"You'd better be concerned with staying safe!" She leaned back to peer up at him solemnly as she wiped away her tears with the edge of the rough cloak. "I mean it Anakin. No diving out of perfectly good hovercrafts. No zipping along on swoop bikes at the speed of light. And no more lightsaber duels! I swear, I've never been so scared in my life - "
He cut her off with a firm, passionate kiss before answering. "I'll be careful. I promise. I won't leave you alone in the universe." He flashed a devilish grin. "I've never in my life had so much to live for. You can bet I'll be back just as soon as I'm allowed! Maybe before."
Their eyes locked. He had to go now and they both knew it. Duty was calling them both.
Reaching out, he stroked her cheek before sliding his hand to the curve of her neck. He pulled on the satiny cord he found there until he drew the japor snippet over her collar.
"You won't take it off?" His eyes sought hers for reassurance and for a split second the newly Knighted Jedi became the little boy she'd met all those years ago on Tatooine.
She could feel her own eyes filling with tears again and blinked them away furiously. "I won't. It will stay next to my heart every second until you come back."
He nodded then, as if satisfied with her answer. "Take care, my love."
With a gesture meant to comfort he folded her hands in his own. A growing sense of unease gnawed at her and Padmé couldn't help noticing the contrast between the cool leather that covered his right and the warm skin of his left.
Anakin rubbed his thumbs over her knuckles in a soothing caress, then made it sweeter by raising her hands to his lips and pressing soft kisses along the tops of her fingers. Their eyes met and he reluctantly backed away by small degrees, holding her hands until the last possible second.
Too quickly he turned away, hopping onto the wing of the fighter before climbing easily into the cockpit. She watched as the transparisteel canopy lowered over his golden head. It locked with a smart click. Only when he was securely settled in did he look back at her.
Slowly she backed away from the landing pad, her eyes glued to Anakin's face until the blur of her tears made it impossible to make it out. She raised her hand in a silent, heartfelt wave, knowing Anakin would be pressing his own palm to the canopy window. Slowly the fighter began to rise from the floor and turn towards the open blast doors. Seconds later its sublight thrusters ignited and it soared out into the sun.
Dropping her hand, Padmé wiped the tears from her face once more before squaring her shoulders and tilting her chin up in a gesture that could only be described as queenly. Yes, there was much to do and no time like the present to get started.
After an uneventful flight Anakin dropped out of hyperspace and into an easy orbit over the Jedi Temple. He had barely managed to plot his landing path before the com light flashed on his display panel. It read as an encoded communication…on Supreme Chancellor Palpatine's private frequency.
Checking his chrono, he discovered that it was only mid-morning here on Coruscant. Strange. By all rights the Chancellor should've been in session with the Senate. Pressing a flashing key on his access panel he answered with genuine enthusiasm.
"Good morning, Your Excellency. What can I do for you?"
Static crackled a moment before the Chancellor's eager baritone came through. "Welcome back Anakin! I wanted to be among the first to congratulate you on your elevation to Knighthood!" The approval in Palpatine's voice was obvious. "I know you've waited a long time to see this day, and so have I."
The words brought to Anakin's mind a memory of the day they'd met so long ago on Naboo - the same day he'd become a Jedi padawan. Since then, Palpatine had been a constant and loyal presence, always offering wise counsel or an encouraging pat on the back. As always, his words never contributed to the emotional turmoil he had so often labored under in the years between then and now. Palpatine always knew the right thing to say and could help him put things in perspective like no one else. Their talks brought a welcome peace that was almost meditative. Such fleeting moments were rare and Anakin had come to cherish Palpatine's friendship.
"Thank you, Chancellor. Your support has meant so much to me over the years. I don't think I would have made it without you."
"Nonsense, my friend." The Chancellor replied, "The strength to become a Jedi has always been within you. I never doubted that." Static crackled again before the channel cleared. "I'm so terribly sorry about the devastation on Naboo. It was a relief to hear that both the Queen and the Senator are well - thanks to your intervention. There aren't words to express my gratitude for your efforts on behalf of my homeworld."
"I think of it as my home now too." Anakin alluded to his marriage, an event of which the Chancellor was well aware.
"Who could have known when we made arrangements for your trip that you would be needed so desperately?" Palpatine's question was gently spoken and rhetorical. Anakin nodded in silent agreement. Considering the severity of the attack and Count Dooku's presence, the timing of his visit had been nothing short of fortuitous.
"Well, enough of that." Palpatine redirected the conversation, his tone bland. "It just goes to show that even unfortunate circumstances have their uses." His voice brightened considerably. "Your promotion to Jedi Knight, for example." Anakin could sense his friend was smiling. "It could not have come at a better time, but what a shame that it took such a great tragedy to prove your worth to the Jedi Order."
The Chancellor cleared his throat before continuing, "Speaking of the war, I have a few ideas that may turn the tide in our favor. Perhaps we can sit down together and discuss them some time soon." Palpatine's tone turned gravely serious. "I believe there is a way to end this conflict, Anakin, a way to bring order and control to the galaxy. I'm curious to find out if you agree."
In light of the promise he'd made to Padmé only hours ago, Anakin felt certain he would concur no matter what the plan entailed. If anyone could propose an idea to end the chaos rampant throughout the galaxy, it would be the Supreme Chancellor. Even now it seemed nothing short of unbelievable that this man – a leader respected throughout the galaxy – wanted his input on such critical matters. His resolve strengthened.
"You know that you'll have my full support. In fact, I can come to your office later this afternoon, after I've given my full report to the council," he replied, "if that works for you."
"Perfect, my boy. I'll see you soon then." The com went silent as Anakin set the landing coordinates for the Jedi Temple.
A figure robed in black strode purposefully down a dark, empty corridor. The building, once a busy hospital, was now deserted save for two humans and a handful of state-of-the-art medical droids. Bright light spilled defiantly from the room at the end of the hallway only to be quickly absorbed by the gloomy darkness outside.
Within that room, a small surgery suite, a medical droid was working diligently. With detached efficiency it tested the cybernetic arm it had implanted only scant hours before.
As the robed man entered the room, the droid didn't acknowledge or even seem to notice his arrival. His patient, however, straightened from his reclining position.
"Master Sidious." Count Dooku's welcome was respectful, almost reverent. From his seat on the surgery table he was unable to bow formally to his visitor. Nevertheless, he gave a courtly nod and cast his eyes downward, waiting for acknowledgement.
"Lord Tyranus." The Sith master returned his apprentice's greeting with a hint of a smile that was barely visible from under the black hood obscuring most of his face. "I am pleased to see you doing so well after the unfortunate turn of events on Naboo."
Dooku raised his head, acknowledging his master's pleasure in his quick recovery.
"Leave us." He had no sooner uttered the command than the droid gathered up its tools and shuffled off to another corner of the room. Dooku tested his new arm by leaning on it fully as he pushed himself to his feet.
"Naboo went well, I think, despite the unanticipated complications." His unconscious gesture – gently massaging the juncture of flesh and cybernetic limb – only emphasized his words. "Of course, young Skywalker refused to take the bait. That came as no surprise." He picked up his lightsaber and cloak from a nearby chair, clipping the former to his belt and casually tossing the other over his shoulder gracefully.
"Indeed." Sidious concurred, "I would have been disappointed had Anakin Skywalker fallen so easily. Still, he cannot not remain a Jedi. As long as he does we are in danger. He alone holds the power to destroy all we have worked for."
Together Sith master and apprentice walked out into the shadowed corridor.
Tyranus glanced sidelong at his mentor. "You don't believe he will, though." It was more a statement than a question.
"No." Sidious responded matter-of-factly. "I have forseen that he will not. We simply need to persevere. He can't be turned by coercion and he has no political aspirations to use to our advantage. He is strong in the Force, and his insight must not be underestimated. As you must now realize, Skywalker requires seduction into darkness."
"Yes, I've seen your point." The Count's voice was uncharacteristically wry. "One of our objectives was achieved. He was given the rank of Jedi Knight, yes?"
"Yes." The Sith master's reply was a bare affirmative hiss. "He is now out from under Kenobi's sheltering influence; free to become all that young Jedi are in these times – arrogant, opinionated, self-important."
Dooku chuckled outright at this before a frown marred his regal features. "I apologize, my Lord, for failing to destroy Queen Jamillia and Senator Amidala."
"No matter. The death of the Naboo Queen would have been useful, but Jamillia is no real threat to us. She is not the ruler that her predecessor was. Meanwhile, Amidala will be kept quite busy rebuilding her poor, shattered homeworld. One thing can be said for the Senator: alive or dead, she has always had her uses." Darth Sidious looked up, stopping in front of a window that looked out upon Coruscant's industrial district. "She must die soon, though. Her continued existence has the potential to bring complications that truly could destroy us. I have foreseen this possible outcome and, if need be, I will see to the task of ending her life myself."
"That won't be necessary, my Lord." Tyranus's voice held great conviction as he joined his master gazing out the window. The steady stream of cargo vehicles below did not interest him. Instead, he studied their reflections. Next to his own considerable height Sidious's cloaked form seemed far less menacing – almost frail. He could easily have laughed aloud at the fallacy of that thought. A more powerful master of the Force's dark arts this galaxy had never known. Before all was said and done, Sidious would ensure that no one would ever again underestimate the power of the Sith.
"About Skywalker, I sensed rage in him in those last moments." Tyranus volunteered, his focus turning back to their duel on Naboo. "His connection…it was quite unlike any sense of the Force I have ever known." He turned away from the window and was now looking at Sidious directly. His brows drew together in a concerned frown.
"Yes." Sidious's voice was distracted, unconcerned, but his gaze was still cast out the window, toward the general direction of the Jedi Temple. "The so-called 'Chosen One' is powerful, but he has allowed himself a weakness in Amidala and she will be his undoing."
"Are you certain he should be turned?" Tyranus was hesitant to ask, but the question had been plaguing him since his arrival on Coruscant. "Perhaps destroying him would be the safer alternative."
"It is not for you to question my decisions, Lord Tyranus." The rebuke was laced with steel. It was clear that arguing this point was not an option.
"Yes, my Lord." Unquestioning obedience had returned to Dooku's voice.
"Console yourself, my apprentice, with the knowledge that he will find no peace in the days ahead. He has tasted the darkness and will find its intoxicating power irresistible."
Dooku thought back on their duel. There, at the end, he wasn't at all certain Skywalker would have captured him alive.
"Ah," Sidious raised his head and turned to his apprentice, "You want to know if Skywalker would have taken your life, given the chance." Apparently Sidious found this type of speculation amusing. Dooku did not. He had no sense of what Skywalker would have done in those last few moments, only that the boy's anger echoed throughout the Force.
"It is not the Jedi way." He turned a question back to Sidious. "What do you think?"
"I think, my friend, that is a question we cannot answer." The dark Master of the Sith put his hand on Tyranus's shoulder companionably. "Come now, you have important business to attend to." They resumed their walk. "As do I."
- Finis -