Most of this chapter was written by Ish (DarthIshtar) as a challenge a while ago. Had to tweak some bits to fit better with my style.
One of the most important parts of a decoy's duties was attending the daily security briefing. The most pertinent part to the decoys, and Handmaidens in general, was the Palace Security status check every morning. Any issues that had occurred within the Palace grounds and surrounding area was brought up-from the mundane (lost tourist, bag left behind), to the more serious (poaching in the royal forest, art theft from the gallery), to the downright weird (nudist on the south portico, Klatooine paddy frog that had somehow taken up residence and spawned in the central fountain). Sometimes these Palace security briefings included instructions to the handmaidens on policy changes to handle some eventuality should it happen again. The second part of the security briefing was the Planetary/System Security briefing. It included a full run-down of any matter of state that had escalated during the last day as well as new concerns that the Naboo Security Bureau felt that the Queen should hear personally. Neither of these things was too bad, but after all of that was discussed, they had to turn their attentions to other systems.
There were certain things that no amount of training could override. Try as she might, Aldé couldn't always summon the necessary enthusiasm to care that the Hutts were planning a goodwill tour of their colonies, no matter how close that tour took the gangsters to the Naboo system. When she had been on guard duty all night, it was even more difficult to pay attention to the daily schedule and she relied heavily on taking notes that were sometimes incomprehensible once she'd had a few hours of sleep. Luckily, the briefing was always first on the Queen's agenda, so she was only required to pay attention for an hour or so. The Queen's private briefings were also held in the foyer of her private apartments rather than the more public security briefing rooms, so Aldé could walk a short distance to her quarters before going to bed. Unluckily, the hour-long briefing always seemed interminable on those days.
Today was worse than usual. There had been a disturbance in the Palace overnight when Aldé had intercepted an intruder less than thirty meters from the Queen's chambers. The verdict was not yet in on what the man's intentions had been and no weapons, lethal or non-lethal had been on his person. The man had been strangely cooperative when Aldé called for reinforcements, but the fact that he had been in the same wing as the royal entourage at all was intolerable. Matters were made worse by the fact that a few visiting dignitaries from the other worlds of the Naboo system were in the Palace at the time; they could have been endangered by Palace Security's failure.
She had fully expected to be pulled aside for a private chewing-out before the meeting, but Panaka let her pass with the usual deferential nod as she passed. The matter didn't even come up until they had finished discussing an upcoming visit from a Trade Federation ambassador, the trade summit that would follow and the sudden abdication of Emmal Soulet's father. There was some question about the reasons for the king's retirement, but she saw a hint of Padme's sense of humor glint in the Queen's eyes when she proposed that Emmal was not politically savvy enough to engineer a coup. For now, they accepted the story that he was stepping down for health reasons.
The rest of the Queen's security advisors had been dismissed after that, but the Queen had not given either Aldé or Sabe permission to take their leave. When Panaka hesitated for a moment and shot a look in her direction, Aldé felt a pang of anxiety. Instead of giving herself permission to go on the defensive, she squared her shoulders and focused her attention.
"Aldé is to be commended," Panaka said at last.
It was bad manners to stare, so she kept her gaze forward, but the pang of anxiety turned into a nervous quiver of relief. Amidala dipped her chin towards the floor in agreement, but her expression was unreadable.
Aldé was at a loss for words at the moment, but that was often the best state to be in. No matter how many times she was asked for an opinion, she was first and foremost a handmaiden, a loyal servant to her Queen. She would not speak out of turn.
When neither of them offered an explanation, though, she spoke a single word: "Why?"
She saw that glint of mischief that reminded her of who was behind the mask of royal makeup. "We have been testing your effectiveness as decoys for some time now," Padme explained. "You have been aware of most of these instances, but we could not complete our evaluation if you succeeded under duress."
That might be an explanation for a few things in the past few weeks. She could remember minor disruptions in the Queen's itinerary. It wasn't unusual for things to go slightly awry, but they seemed to be happening more frequently. Afew weeks after the gala a low-ranking servant had spilled a glass of Alderaanian green wine down the front the Queen's red brocade day gown. A few days after that some tourists had wandered into a garden party the Queen had hosted for the Youth Legislature Program's senior course participants. Then during a short trip off-world, she had nearly been caught in a riot when protesters of the agreement that Naboo had signed had broken past security barriers. Though this last occurrence, Aldé reflected, probably hadn't been an engineered test-too many factors security couldn't control. As always, she had been conscious of the fact that her actions were watched carefully by the people who surrounded her, but she had not guessed that a few of them had been paying more attention to the handmaiden than the Queen she represented.
"And I am to be commended?" Aldé asked cautiously.
"You both are." The Queen's stiff diction had dropped away as it sometimes did in private settings and Padme's earnest, young voice sounded odd coming from the painted lips. "You've both proven yourselves in ways that none of us expected."
"Thank you, Your Majesty," they both responded.
"I believe you are to be commended, Aldé, for your actions last night," Panaka added. "You showed quick thinking and relied wisely on your instincts."
Heat rose in her cheeks and she bowed her head to cover the blush. "Thank you, Captain."
Neither of them needed to know that she had called the Palace Guard on a slightly paranoid hunch. Most of the guardsmen would not look down on her for being overly cautious, but she didn't want to be the girl who cried ripclaw.
"The intruder wasn't a real threat, was he?" Sabe asked after another moment of silence.
"Officially, yes, he was," Panaka replied. "He was released this morning with a verbal warning and none of the members of the press corps discovered the incident. Unofficially, he is an old friend who accepted a challenge."
"Sabe, you acted appropriately," Padme commented. "You neutralized the threat and protected your queen."
Sabe glanced at her, clearly wondering why Aldé was being commended and she was being accused of a proportional response. It wasn't clear who was receiving the higher praise.
"Both of you chose a correct response," Padme continued. "Aldé chose the most characteristic response. If I had been in a similar situation, I think I would have chosen her course of action."
So it was a matter of what was the best choice, not the right choice.
"I want to ask both of you to serve as my decoy. You are capable, instinctive and attentive. You have both proven your loyalty and shown yourselves to be worthy of my trust over and over again." Padme glanced at Sabe for a moment, but looked away just as quickly. "I'd like Aldé to serve as my primary decoy and chief handmaiden."
The Queen had clearly been leading up to this announcement since they first started the conversation, but it was still enough of a shock that Aldé's stomach jolted. It was both an immense honor and an immense shock. When she dared to look in Sabe's direction, Padme's oldest friend looked disappointed, but she looked far from angry.
"I would be honored, Your Majesty."
In response to the formality, Padme's expression seemed to close off and she nodded gravely, her posture regal once more. "You may go," she announced. "I thank you for your service."
With equal formality, the two handmaidens rose to their feet and bowed. Sabe moved immediately to the door, an unusual move for her, and after a moment of thought, Aldé understood why. It was customary for the Queen's most trusted handmaiden to be the last to leave her presence. Sabe had never been named as such, but the other girls had deferred to her by an unspoken consent. She couldn't tell if the gesture was a display of respect for the Queen's wishes or Aldé's new position.
She expected Sabe to have turned left upon leaving the Queen's office, but the other girl had not yet gone to her quarters. Aldé drew up short, momentarily unsure what to do. Finally, she tilted her chin in the direction of the hallway that would take them to the handmaidens' common room.
"Walk with me, please."
The sitting room that formed the center of the handmaidens' wing was deserted at this time of day. It was not early enough in the day that any of them should still be in their quarters, but she knocked on each door to be sure. When no one answered, she made a quick circuit around the room to seal off the entrances so they would not be disturbed or overheard. That done, she turned back to the handmaiden who probably should have had her job.
"It should have been you," she blurted out.
To her relief, Sabe smiled, but the expression didn't erase the sadness from her eyes. "No," she responded. "The Queen is right. It would have been my great pleasure to serve as her chief handmaiden, but I am not here out of ambition and I don't believe you are."
She paused, but Aldé sensed that it was not necessary to agree verbally. Sabe took several deep breaths with her eyes closed and when she looked up again, the misery was gone from her eyes. It was replaced with a determination and she looked more like the Queen in that moment than she ever had before.
"We are both here because we want to serve the Queen's best interests. You do that by knowing her mind and her mannerisms. I do that by knowing that you are the better woman for the job." She tried her smile again and this time, it looked genuine. "I will not let this affect my duty to the Queen or my friendship with you," she declared in a tone that left no room for argument. "I expect no less from the chief handmaiden."
Even though Sabe was her junior, this was one of the times that Aldé found herself looking to the other handmaiden as if she were an older and wiser mentor. While the feelings of inadequacy didn't go away, Sabe's encouragement balanced them out with the feeling that maybe those feelings were unfounded.
Aldé's day-to-day routine barely changed following the Queen's decision. The Queen's decision had not been announced to the other handmaidens, but they were used to following Sabe's lead. When their temporary leader began looking to the newest member of their corps for guidance, they tacitly did the same.
In the past, there had been a rotation when certain meetings required only two or three attendants, but the chief handmaiden was now assigned to all of those meetings. In a more parliamentary government, she might have been labeled as the Queen's chief of staff, but she would most likely be seen as the top aide.
Less than two weeks after Aldé had taken over Sabé's responsibilities as chief handmaiden, she was awakened by a firm rapping on the door. She pulled on a dressing gown and answered the door to find Rabé at the door.
"The Queen requires your presence," she said simply before returning to her usual post outside the Queen's chambers.
It was just after 0200 and Rabé hadn't given further instructions, so she could only assume that formal dress was required. She took a few minutes to plait her hair, scrub the exhaustion from her face and find something less casual to wear. It was only a belted white gown that could be worn under one of their hooded robes, but it was more appropriate than a nightgown.
Padmé was in one of her official gowns, her hair was coiled in an elaborate bun and someone—probably Rabé—had taken care of the makeup, so she had to have come from some kind of official meeting. She was methodically removing the facepaint as Aldé entered and underneath the elegant mask of Naboo royalty, she looked as if she hadn't slept in days.
"Thank you for coming," she said in Padmé's voice. "Lieutenant, please leave us."
The guardsman bowed quickly and shut the door behind him. Aldé immediately went to her Queen and started unwinding the braids that formed the bun. Padmé always seemed to feel better when she wasn't keeping up appearances and letting her hair down was a simple way of helping.
Padmé sighed deeply and her hand dropped to her lap, halfway through the removal of the makeup. Aldé didn't comment, but set to work undoing the plaits and waited.
"The Trade Federation is troubling us again," Padmé said finally. "We thought that dealing with them for the plasma shipments would improve relations, but the Senate seems to have worked against us again."
"The Senate has been imposing taxes," Aldé recalled. "I don't think that's unreasonable."
Padme's hand clenched. "Nor do I. Nor do thousands of merchants. The Trade Federation believes that they should be above such things."
That wasn't surprising. The Federation was a corporate entity with enough sway to have its own seat in the Senate. Of course they would think of tax evasion as their right.
"What's troubling you, Your Majesty?" she asked bluntly.
"I've received word from Coruscant," Padmé explained after another sigh. "The Senate refused their appeal of the tax acts and in retaliation, the Senators from the Trade Federation chose to deal directly with Senator Palpatine."
That didn't sit right. No matter how much respect the Senator commanded, the Trade Federation was trying to circumvent the Queen's authority. Before Aldé could ask what exactly Senator Palpatine had done, Padmé returned to the task of removing her makeup and began speaking again.
"Two months from today, negotiations will end," she announced. "Either we will grant an exemption for our 'friends' in the Federation or they will declare war against us."
Aldé blurted out the first thing that came to mind: "Can they do that?"
Padmé's response was a whisper that Aldé wasn't sure she was meant to hear. "I don't know."
The initial panic of the Queen's statement wore off after a few seconds, but bile remained in the back of her throat. She swallowed several times before trying to continue the conversation.
"What would stop them from declaring war?"
"Our assurances that neither I nor a future ruler of Naboo would expect them to pay trade tariffs when doing business with the Trade Federation," she replied. "We will be discussing the alternatives until the last moment if necessary, so I wanted you to be warned."
It was better than being caught off-guard in a meeting, but not much. "And if it comes to war?"
"If it comes to war, they would generously accept a bribe just to evacuate their armies."
She wasn't as familiar with the Trade Federation as with their political allies, but she could remember holos of battle droids. Unlike sentient armies, the Trade Federation would have no qualms about manufacturing enough soldiers to replace those that fell in battle. The Naboo wouldn't be as lucky. They barely even had an organized military.
"Assurances," Aldé echoed. "They would expect you to enter a treaty with them?"
Padmé straightened abruptly and turned to give her a stern look. "They would expect it, but that is something I will not and cannot do."
Aldé hadn't intended to disagree with her, but it was good to see the Queen fighting back. "I know."
Padmé folded the washcloth neatly over a towel rack to the left of her vanity and reached for the clasp at the top of her gown. Aldé brushed her hands gently away and undid the closures herself. Padmé stood, but did not remove the gown. Instead, she turned and nodded formally. The exchange between confidants was over for now.
"That is all," she stated. "Good night, Aldé."
She wanted desperately to offer something more than a listening ear, but she could not force comfort on the Queen. She bowed as was customary and backed towards the door. "Good night, Your Majesty."
Her hand was on the door handle when the Queen spoke again, calling her name quietly. "Yes, Your Majesty?"
The Queen stood before her like some ancient goddess of justice. "I will sign no treaties," she said firmly. "Do not let me forget that."