Title: Empty Crowns

Characters: L/M, H/L, Pellaeon, Imperial OCs

Timeframe: This story takes place a approximately one standard year after the events of Champions of the Force, putting it roughly eight years after the Battle of Endor. It is a sequel to Dust of Empire but can be read on its own.

Genre: Drama, Adventure, Romance

Summary: The newly crowned Empress of the Imperial remnant is doing everything in her power to pursue her own vision of peace between the Empire and the New Republic. But forces are at work in both governments to make sure she does not achieve her goal...

Disclaimer: I do not own the Star Wars universe, nor the canon characters of the films and novels, but all other characters and worlds depicted in this work are mine. This is an AU version of the Imperial remnant; it's canon up to the point of the Jedi Academy trilogy, but after that it diverges slightly from the world of the profic EU authors in terms of who's in power in the Empire.


Prologue

Luke Skywalker sat surrounded by darkness and suffused with light. Although the chamber in which he meditated was dark and warm as a mother's womb, he floated in the brightness of the summer day that surrounded the Jedi Temple on Yavin. The damp heat of the jungle moon's air seemed to drape itself against his skin; he could feel the movements in the undergrowth of both predator and prey, locked in their eternal struggle, yet fulfilling their purpose in the Force. The entire world around him surged with life.

His students he could sense as well, the flickering of their presences like shimmers of molten metal in the sun. A group of them -- Kyp, Streen, Kirana Ti, and Kam Solusar -- worked at their lightsaber figures in the courtyard, sleeves rolled up against the heat or, in Kyp's case, tunic abandoned altogether. Fifty meters or so away, he could perceive the calming waves radiating outward from Cilghal's chamber as the Mon Cal healer sought refuge in meditation as well.

But through the placid brightness, which gleamed in the Force like the surface of a still pond reflecting the rays of the sun, Luke suddenly distinguished a surge of agitation. He sensed the mind briefly -- Tionne -- even as she came to a stop outside the door to his chamber.

Her voice, hesitant. "Master Skywalker?"

Not allowing himself a sigh, Luke gradually drew back into himself, then unfolded his legs and stood. He knew that Tionne would not have disturbed him at his meditations without good reason. A brief stretch to bring the blood back to muscles cramped from hours of meditation, and then he went to the door and looked down into his student's odd, opalescent eyes. "What is it?"

"An urgent message from Chief of State Organa Solo," Tionne replied. "I told her you were meditating, but she wanted to speak with you immediately."

"That's fine, Tionne," he said, but a slight edge of worry touched his mind. The past few months had been quiet, a precious span where for once the troubles of the galaxy hadn't touched the Jedi Academy here on Yavin, but even as Luke had enjoyed the unaccustomed tranquility he had known it couldn't last.

"Do you want to take the message in the comm center, or should I patch it through to you here?" Tionne's own image in the Force shimmered with anxiety. Luke wondered what, if anything, Leia had said to her.

"Here," he replied, after a brief pause. Whatever was going on, it was probably better to hear about it in the privacy of his own chamber.

"Of course, Master Skywalker." Tionne gave him a brief nod of respect, then turned and made her way down the hallway in the direction of the comm center. Of course she could have always just patched the message straight through without coming to see him personally, but the singer, immersed in the codes and rules of Jedi glory long past, would have considered that rude. If it was necessary to disturb Master Skywalker at his meditations, then at least one should do him the courtesy of doing it in person.

He palmed the door shut, and brought the lights up to half-level. The chamber around him was sparsely decorated, but the fabric that covered the one large chair soothed in shades of blue and green, and the furniture itself had been constructed of native blond woods in simple, uncluttered shapes. It was easy enough to meditate in a space like this. One could almost overlook the sleek, modern comm station built into the desk at the far side of the room.

But not now. Just as he glanced toward it, the red light came on, and a soft chime sounded. Luke went to the comm, and pulled up a wooden X-backed chair as he did so. Somehow he had the feeling this wouldn't be a brief, "how are things with you?" sort of conversation.

When the holo of Leia's face sharpened as the comm station locked down the signal, he was somewhat worried but not surprised to see his sister's slender brows pulled down in a frown, her mouth taut and grim. Her large dark eyes looked shadowed, as if she hadn't been sleeping well.

Still, it never hurt to start things off on a casual note. "So what's up?" he asked, even though he knew she wasn't about to waste time on preliminaries.

"Did you know about this?" she asked. In one hand she held what looked like a sheet of yellow flimsiplast.

"Know about what?"

"This!" Leia lifted up the flimsy so that Luke could see the words and images printed there. The resolution was poor, but he thought he could make out a flat picture of a dark-haired woman standing next to a blond man who wore the black uniform favored by COMPNOR, that feared branch of the Imperial armed forces. The headline was easy enough to read, however, since it trumpeted in bold type: Emperor Palpatine II to Marry Shelarne Viraess in Capital! Dimly he noted that the newsheet seemed to have originated on Viraess' home world of Lanarsk Prime.

Unexpected, yes, but perhaps not quite the catastrophe Leia seemed to think it was. He wasn't exactly sure how to convince his sister of that fact, however. "We're a little off the beaten path out here, Leia," he said.

"Obviously," she returned, and her scowl deepened. "'Harmless! That's what you told me when you got back from Kessel. 'No future threat' were your exact words, if I recall correctly."

Of course she remembered what he had said, word for word. Leia was too brilliant to have let something that important pass from her memory. "And it was the truth," he said, his tone mild. Of course Leia hadn't been on Kessel, hadn't seen the loss and despair in Admiral Viraess' eyes, the pain that had settled like a mask over her lovely features. Leia hadn't touched the loneliness and fear Luke himself had felt surrounding Viraess in a dark cloud. Whatever the admiral's motives might have first been when she first began chasing after Markus Klem, they had been utterly changed by the time she'd seen the man she once loved die in her arms. He'd read in her mind her disgust for herself and what the Empire had forced her to do and had known that no matter what the future course of her life might be, the New Republic had nothing to fear from her.

Luke considered his words with care before he continued. "Of course I can't speak for Grand Moff Kezler -- or Palpatine the Second, if that's what he's calling himself these days." An empty title, he thought, considering that the current Imperial remnant comprised barely a thousand star systems, when once the Empire had claimed millions. "But I do know that Shelarne Viraess had no malice in her toward the New Republic."

"Really." Leia's voice was neutral, the carefully schooled tones of the diplomat, but Luke could almost feel the tension radiating out from her, even over the light-years that separated Coruscant from Yavin.

"Really," he repeated. "Like I said, we're a little out of the loop here, so I have no idea what led up to this marriage, or why Viraess agreed to it -- if she was even given the choice -- but believe me, claiming that sort of power was the last thing on her mind when she left Kessel."

His sister was silent for a long moment. Then she said, "You're absolutely certain of that."

"As certain as I can be of anything."

Leia still looked far from convinced, but she only replied, "Then I suppose I'll have to trust you on this one."

For the briefest second Luke wondered if he were giving his sister false reassurances, but although he had no way of knowing Viraess' current state of mind, somehow he knew his trust in her was not misplaced.

"You may not believe me now, Leia," he said, "but I really do think that Shelarne Viraess becoming Empress is the best thing that's happened -- for both the Empire and the New Republic -- in a very long while..."