Palpatine's modest home was roughly an hour from Theed by transport. The distance likely contributed to Palpatine's unpopularity in politics, but it couldn't be helped; his second life required privacy and solitude, things that were of great rarity in the capital. From the window of the transport, Palpatine could just spot the hills that ringed the little town of Ecar. His home was nestled at their base, on the sparsely-populated western edge of town.
I wish this transport were faster, he thought, just as he had every day since he'd moved to Ecar. In many ways, life had been easier when he and his master had lived together in Theed. It had been an ideal home for the two of them, its wealthy families the perfect support for the distinguished, little-known teacher that had been Master Plagueis' public face. Unfortunately, the capital was a poor home for a lone Sith Lord, especially one forced to learn much of his art by trial and error. I killed him too soon, Palpatine thought. Even so, his plan held little time for waiting, and so he'd betrayed his master early.
The transport slid to a stop, interrupting Palpatine's memories -- the darkness of the sleeping-chamber, his master's increasingly feeble struggles beneath his knife -- and he left along with most of the other passengers, heading toward the station exit. His airbike was parked on the side of the street by the front gate. He undid the stout chain running between its chassis and rear repulsor, and started it up.
The trip from the station to his home usually took half an hour; today, Palpatine cut it to twenty minutes, weaving through the side streets at speed. The new Judicial Aide would be elected in the morning, and Palpatine had much to do before accepting the position.
In the years since achieving his independence, he had run for everything from mayor of Ecar to animal control officer in Theed. He had been soundly defeated each time. He was much too short, the people said, his nose too large, his pedigree unknown. Altogether too ordinary. At twenty-six, he was past the age of mandatory civil service, but not yet old enough to command respect. General elections were beyond him, but this position was different; decided by the vote of the forty Planetary Judges rather than by open election, the Judicial Aide was an influential position, but not a particularly powerful one.
As befit the honorable world of Naboo politics, all of the judges were devoted to the well-being of the people. Fortunately for Palpatine, there were a few who were glad to see to their own well-being while they were at it. He had easily discovered them -- like attracts like, his -- master always used to say -- and each of them had been visited by a cloaked figure, one who spoke of the virtues of a little-known candidate from Ecar. These virtues were perfectly legal, if not exactly moral, and carefully engineered to raise the interest of judges whose careers were similarly dubious.
Sidious' scheming had won him key allies, and Palpatine's earnestness had made him a few more, enough to make his election likely. As he parked his bike in the corner of his garden, he was already plotting his rise from Judicial Aide to Senator. He picked his way along the stone path that wound through the riotous growth of the garden, pushing thorny branches and flowering vines aside as he did so. He never trimmed them; the stronger they were, the stronger the Force was, and the easier it was to hide within its flow. This was doubly important now, as he was no longer hiding alone.
The door of his small stone house was secured with three physical locks and five different Force wards, but it opened easily to him. He left his keys on the low table beside the door, hung his cloak on its peg, and headed for the living room.
"T-341?" he called, glancing down the hallway as he passed. The nursemaid droid didn't answer. Palpatine found it collapsed in the corner of the living room, its optical sensors darkened. Maul broke it again? He sighed, mentally tallying the cost of repair. His young apprentice's powers were still developing, but they were already strong enough to damage electronic devices -- Palpatine had done without a working vibrosanitizer for a month, and the droid was constantly breaking down.
Come here, he commanded, using telepathy rather than speech. Maul toddled in from the kitchen. Both his utilitarian jumper and the dark skin of his face were smeared with jam. Palpatine frowned, scooped him up, and began to wipe his face clean with a handkerchief. The child greeted him with a wave of affection, one mixed with a jumbled series of images: a broken jar on the kitchen floor, the warm, lively presence of Palpatine's many houseplants, and Maul's favorite Force-toy.
"A busy day, hmm?" Palpatine nestled Maul in the crook of his arm, keeping up a one-sided conversation as he cleaned up the mess in the kitchen. He'd stolen the little Zabrak from his home planet eight months ago, just after birth. In the months that followed, Maul had learned to express himself mentally, but like many Force-sensitive children, he did not bother to speak. Nonetheless, the flow of his thoughts was calming to Palpatine, who had longed for the company of another who could use the Force. Sith are not meant to be solitary, he thought, rinsing his hands in the kitchen sink. The sooner you can join me, the better. Time for your lessons, young one.
He sat down in his favorite chair, settling Maul against his chest. Maul squirmed a little, his mind sparking with foreboding. Palpatine paid it no heed; he fixed Maul's eyes with his own until the boy stopped struggling. He paused, opening himself to the flow of the Force, and then invaded the boy's mind with a concentrated stream of anger and hatred. He glutted himself upon the galaxy's corruption, channeling images of murder, of torture, of depravity, sharing the rich flavor of each with Maul's tender mind. Maul cried out, quaking with pain, and Palpatine redoubled his efforts. Until now, his apprentice had always broken beneath his assault. According to the holocron he'd found in the Sith Archives, Maul would eventually strike back with anger. On that day, he would be Sith.
This time, though, he broke again, sobbing miserably. Palpatine calmed him, holding him close. He stroked the tan spots on the infant's head, where his horns would one day be, and murmured quiet encouragement into his ear. "You are strong, my apprentice. Such a strong one... you'll be a magnificent warrior, you'll see. You'll kill for me, my dear one, my heir, and all the galaxy will be ours." Maul watched him cautiously, his hurt beginning to fade. His mind swirled with conflicting emotions: affection and fear, agony and comfort. It seemed to Palpatine that something momentous was beginning to coalesce there, the birth of a new understanding. He smiled, and Maul smiled back, showing his jagged little front teeth.
"Would you like to go for a run?" Palpatine backed it up with an impression of cool wind and the scent of kelar trees, and Maul echoed it eagerly. Both master and apprentice loved the hills, the apprentice so much so that he struggled in Palpatine's lap, his stubby arms waving in the direction of the closet by the door.
Palpatine put Maul down and watched as he dropped into a swift crawl, popping the closet's door open with a clumsy mental blow. Palpatine praised him as he retrieved his pack from the closet. It was woven of tough artificial fibers, and held enough supplies for two weeks of survival in the wild. A harness was sewn onto the front for Maul. Palpatine secured the straps around Maul's arms and legs, chuckling at his obvious enthusiasm. "Come along, then," he said, shouldering the pack. He leaned it against the bedroom door long enough to change into a loose shirt and pants, both of a soft brown fabric.
He didn't leave by the front door, lest someone see him with Maul. Instead, he went out through the back garden, which was little more than an overgrown thicket. The exit was shrouded by a large thorn bush. Its dense branches parted for him, dipping low to allow him to pass. This part of the hills was a dark place; others rarely came there, and the very earth served him as if it were his own.
As he began to run, darkness filled him, making his chest swell with pride and power. He dashed forward, rushing along the path, his shadow slicing the light as he passed. The trees and brush along the path became an indistinct blur of color, whirling strangely. His footfalls were swift and loud in his ears, like his heartbeat, like his and Maul's heartbeats together, and fear and triumph exploded on his tongue. It was more than just running, more even than flight, it was --
Palpatine saw stars. The galaxy's expanse spread out before him, and his greedy heart claimed it. Every planet, every star, and the infinite dark matter in between, all of it was his. Huge ships guarded his treasures, thousands of them, staffed by men whose wills were guided by his hand, down to the most insignificant of ensigns. The darkness itself bowed before him, making him immortal, feeding him with ever-increasing power.
Beside him something stirred. He turned away from the stars, the change in perspective dizzying, and beheld a shadow nearly as deep as his own. It was glossy black, shining as his galaxy did, and gloriously strong, a beast made of cruelty and whirring machinery. Yours, it told him, and he exulted. "Mine," he shouted, his voice echoing with joy and pain.
All, all mine!
When he came back to himself, the moon shone high overhead. He lay on his back in the mud by the side of the path, the pack sitting neatly beside him -- at least he'd had the presence of mind for that. It felt late, but not later than the same day, yet his legs and chest ached as if he'd run for twenty-four hours.
Maul looked tired, too. His eyes were half-closed, and his arms and legs hung bonelessly from their straps. Palpatine was sure that the headlong run would've killed an ordinary child, but the Force was with Maul. The boy responded to Palpatine's mental query, sending an indistinct image of milk and warm blankets.
Palpatine loosed his apprentice from his harness, and Maul lay down on the path, asleep almost instantly. Palpatine set out to find fresh food, extending his mental presence about him. His violent passage had frightened away nearly all the local fauna, but he found one terrified young geejaw, its talons clutching a branch some one hundred meters away. He stopped its heart with a thought, then pushed through the brush until he reached the spot where it had fallen.
By the time he returned to the path, Maul was awake and very hungry. Palpatine slit the geejaw's throat, drained its blood into a lidded sipping cup, and mixed in a liberal dose of powdered milk from his pack. This he gave to Maul, who sucked at it greedily, growling softly. Palpatine gathered sticks, spitted the bird whole, and built a fire to roast it over -- a bit frivolous, perhaps, but he didn't feel like eating it raw. As the fat began to crackle, he turned his mind back to his vision.
Such power, he thought, licking his thin lips. He was fascinated by the shadow that had been by his side. How great must his power become, for such a mighty being to willingly serve him?
Stronger than death, he thought, and shivered with delight.
Just then, Maul began to sniffle, his cup empty. Palpatine took him up in his arms, rocking him gently, muttering soft, meaningless words. He paced back and forth before the fire. Presently, its flickering light caught Maul's attention, distracting him from his hunger. He stared at it as though mesmerized; Palpatine wondered if he might be lost in a vision of his own. Taking advantage of the quiet moment, Palpatine set himself down, turning the bird with a stick. Before long, it was as he liked it, and he pulled it off the fire.
Maul reached for it immediately, flashing his teeth, his growls becoming deep and insistent. Palpatine held the bird away from him -- a little lesson for the boy, privation before the feast -- but in answer, Maul bit his arm hard enough to draw blood. Palpatine heartily approved, and fed the little Zabrak scraps of hot birdflesh as a reward. Once Maul was sated, Palpatine crunched what was left of the geejaw, guts and bones together. It wasn't much, but it was more than enough to see him back to his home.
Even so, Palpatine felt reluctant to leave. The night was fine, the fire warm, and the richness of his vision had left him feeling lazy and full. Maul shared his mood, dozing quietly in his arms. Maul's mind was open and welcoming. There was a new awareness of Palpatine in him, a closeness that hadn't been there before. With a start, Palpatine realized what it must be, and prodded the boy awake.
Maul blinked up at him with serious brown eyes. Palpatine gathered his strength, and struck Maul with the force of his hatred, battering his mind. Maul recoiled, and Palpatine thought briefly that he would break as before, but then his small face contorted with rage. His tiny hands curled into fists, his head lowered as if to impale with horns he did not yet have, and he snarled, a sound Palpatine had never heard from him. With his snarl came anger, came hatred, came aggression and hostility, striking at Palpatine's mind. Maul's clumsy attack was nothing to the master, of course, but its sinister portent resonated in the Force like a hammerblow.
"Good," Palpatine breathed, a broad, cold grin on his face. "Tonight you are Sith, my boy. Darth Maul, my own apprentice." Maul sighed, his struggle finished, and reached for him, seeking comfort. Palpatine offered a finger, which Maul clutched tightly in his hand. As they touched, the nearness Palpatine had sensed in Maul closed the gap between them. For an instant, they were one, united in the Force.
The intensity of the moment faded. This cannot be, Palpatine thought, and broke the connection between them. It hurt him to do it, so much so that he was surprised by his long-thought-dead capacity for heartache, but it was necessary. There are always two Sith, he thought to himself. Never one.
Maul immediately reached for him again, craving his touch. Palpatine did not provide it. Instead, he put Maul down on the cold ground, pushing him away with his thoughts. Maul didn't understand his master's seeming transformation, and reached for him desperately.
"No, Lord Maul. You're a Sith now. You must learn to stand alone by my side, to be strong and proud."
Maul felt neither strong nor proud, but he was very alone. He curled into a little ball on the path, sobbing quietly. Palpatine merely watched. The boy's suffering was exquisite, but Palpatine's heart was strangely heavy.
So this is how it is to be a master, he thought. Idly, he wondered if his own master had ever held him. Perhaps someone might have, once, but surely not Master Plagueis, who still manifested in Palpatine's mind as a sharp voice and a heavy hand. Surely not he. Plagueis' gift to him had been far greater than that -- to pass on the wisdom of the Sith was the highest honor Palpatine could imagine. That duty falls to me, now.
"I'll make you strong," he told Maul, who sobbed anew in response, his face smeared with mud and tears. "I'm going to teach you everything."
By the time they reached home, the sun was coming up. Maul had long since ceased his crying, and the mud had crusted on his face. He still stayed close to Palpatine, but his eager affection had vanished, its warmth extinguished. Tomorrow he would begin his training, taking his first steps on the road to power. It would be a challenge to train him, especially since Palpatine would be busy with his new position in the capital, but Palpatine felt perfectly calm. Everything would work out, somehow.
He had foreseen it.