ALEXIS V: The Enchanted Castle

In those next few days, Alexis saw very little of the Emperor. A sweep of robes glimpsed between meetings, a shrouded figure reading holo-documents through a half open door and, occasionally, a warm body slipping into bed beside him in the small hours of the morning. It was both a relief and a torture to Alexis to have Palpatine so occupied. After his frightening episode – which Alexis later realised was connected to the destruction of some military project – that strange aura which always surrounded the sovereign seemed to have increased tenfold. Aides and servants held their breath and crept on silent feet, cowed by the oppression which hung in air like an incipient thunderstorm.

Lonely, and bereft of even Palpatine's scant attentions, Alexis wandered the villa trying to gaze into his lover's past through the furnishings of the empty rooms. Only some of them had been redecorated to the palatial standards of imperial splendour, others still retained the quaint beauty of a provincial chateau. It was the paintings which fascinated Alexis. They had none of the luminous quality of Core artworks, yet the traditional Naboo paintings had a certain richness to them, even if many of those hanging in Palpatine's villa were in desperate need of restoration.

Many aristocratic portraits, presumably of the Emperor's ancestors, stared down at Alexis with their watery eyes. Most of them had fair features and it was a simple matter to trace the path of that impressive beak of a nose down to its present day owner. One painting in particular fascinated Alexis: a family portrait hung above the mantelpiece of an old-fashioned sitting room. A tall nobleman, with the conspicuous blue eyes and avian nose of the Emperor's antecedents, stood beside a seated woman with a river of copper-blond hair coiled up in the fantastical style favoured by the Naboo aristocracy. Her strict expression and thin lips prevented her from being called beautiful, but her round face and creamy complexion were charming. A small child was seated in her lap, clearly their son, his face a familiar mixture of the two faces; blue eyes misty, staring out at Alexis, almost unseeing.

On another wall of the same room was the same face, alone, in a nursery scene. At perhaps seven or eight years of age, the young boy's eyes were even more lost, as if afflicted by some unimaginable tragedy – lost for the words to convey such a thing. The only other painting of Palpatine – for Alexis was almost certain the child was indeed he – had been painted many years later and hung in another wing of the villa entirely. It was a seated portrait, and its subject wore the sash and insignia which indicated his position as the head of the family, as well as the title of senator painted in gold leaf on the base of the frame. At thirty, grey had already begun to steadily encroach upon the copper-blond given to him by his mother. The years had crystallised those lost features into a picture of dignified determination which could not be disguised even by such sleepy, heavy-lidded eyes. Alexis saw too, the slight lift at the corner of the senator's mouth, which he knew from experience to be an indication of some subtle amusement.

What happened between those two portraits?
Alexis remembered the Emperor's story of jumping off a bridge. It hadn't seemed sinister before, but now, staring out at this frozen landscape? If only I had the nerve to ask him. But even if Alexis did ask, Palpatine would likely as not brush the question away, gently guiding the conversation to other topics, or perhaps brush the topic out of Alexis' mind entirely.

When Alexis was little, his mother used to read Iulia and him fairy tales before they went to sleep: stories of angels from far away moons, queens, kings, and powerful sorcerers who roamed the galaxy before the birth of the Republic. Dangerous magicians who could bend any mind to their will with a mere thought; such beings were usually the villains of these tales, eventually defeated by a brave and clever prince or princess, or occasionally by the trap of their own greed. Alexis had no doubt that the Emperor – though obviously not evil – was otherwise a perfect representative of those sorcerers of old. For a moment Alexis imagined himself as a prince lost in the interminable rooms of a darkly spellbound castle.

Reality soon settled back in when Alexis returned to Palpatine's rooms. The doors were bedecked with the crimson-masked human pillars who indicated that the monarch was within. Alexis poked his head into the Emperor's study. The figure which met his eyes could not be more different from the ominous fairy tale sorcerer Alexis had been imagining. Soft winter light poured into the study where Palpatine was lying back in the curve of his deep chair, his thin body slipped into its soft recesses. It was almost impossible to distinguish man from chair – velvety black robes and velvety black upholstery merged seamlessly together – but for the bone-pale fingers which still grasped the sculpted armrests. As Alexis drew closer, Palpatine's breath became audible, tracing the gentle rhythm of sleep.

The Emperor had apparently decided that snatching his rest during the day was preferable to sleeping during the night like everyone else. Alexis, finding the situation oddly sweet, raised a hand to pull Palpatine's hood up so that it shaded his face, which he knew Palpatine would prefer should anyone but Alexis enter the room. As he did so, his fingers brushed up against the Emperor's cheek, causing him to murmur in his sleep and lean toward the hand: "Anakin…"

Alexis drew his hand away, surprised, causing Palpatine to sigh and shift within the chair. Anakin? It sounded like someone's name. In fact, Alexis was pretty much certain it was someone's name and that he'd heard it somewhere before. He just couldn't remember where. However, Palpatine had left his holo-terminal running. Alexis carefully pushed the Emperor's chair around so that it faced away from the terminal. Then, discarding the fact that what he was doing was commonly referred to as treason, Alexis whispered the word "Anakin" into Palpatine's database.

Hundreds of files scrolled up the projection, all of them marked with the Imperial insignia the classified them as state secrets. "Please confirm voice recognition," the terminal happily announced, "Please confirm voice recognition," it repeated in the same loud voice. Kniffing hell! Alexis quickly closed his search and restored the legislation Palpatine had been studying. In the chair, Palpatine stirred with a rustle of heavy material. Alexis moved round to crouch beside the chair, as if he'd just turned the chair away from the desk to face him. Then he forced all thoughts of Anakin to the back of his mind, focusing on his concern for the Emperor.

The yellow eyes which flickered open were bloodshot, the edges of the usually pale irises stained orange with seepage. Palpatine's ancient features looked impossibly tired. "You fell asleep," Alexis softly stated the obvious, resting himself obediently against the Emperor's legs as the expected fingers coiled into his hair. "Pleasant dream, huh?"

Palpatine chuckled, still only half awake, and closed his eyes once more. Alexis had to conquer the impulse to ask the Emperor who Anakin was, but he knew he shouldn't; it would only serve to disturb Palpatine's lethargy, which Alexis intended to exploit for as long as possible.

Mara Jade was waiting for Lady Pestage on the landing platform. The young agent emerged from the alcove just inside the thick doors which separated the warmth of the villa from the chill, nodding to the squadron of snow troopers on guard duty, whose commander snapped off a textbook salute. Tiny flakes of snow were trapped in Jade's bright hair which, swirling in the wind, was the only real note of colour in the bleak vista that met Moteé's gaze as she and her handmaidens walked down the ramp. Moteé herself wore a long, starkly-white fur coat, made from pelt of some vicious animal she couldn't remember the name of that dwelt in the Hoth System. Jewels glittered on her ears and her dark hair was swept up into elegant plaits that wound into an intricate bun. Jade – wearing practical snow camouflage-suiting, with her blaster and lightsaber at her side – treated the Vizier's wife to a perfunctory bow.

"Air Control thought you might be Darth Vader, milady," Jade said by way of greeting.

"How distressing. Is that why you're keeping watch out here in the cold?"

"Something like that… we've also had reports of Rebel agents in the area, so I've sealed all the entrance points except this one. I caught one of them, a Dug, but the others got away and so far he isn't talking."

The walked together out across the platform, looking out at the snowy peaks and down to the dark abyss of the fjord. "It's lovely here in summer," Moteé said absently, "all grass, wildflowers and blue water. The Emperor let Sate and I have the villa to ourselves for several months when we were first married… Are you going to ask Lord Vader to assist with the Dug's interrogation?"

Jade shrugged her shoulders, inhaling deeply the clear mountain air. "I don't think it will come to that. Why are you here?"

"Sate wanted to come himself, but someone has to look after Imperial Centre, and His Majesty appears to be staying put until Vader arrives from the Outer Rim."

The Hand accepted Moteé's avoidance of the question with a professional shake of her copper mane. "So you're the agent of a would-be overprotective mother?"

Lady Pestage laughed, taking the insult to her husband in her stride. Smiling graciously, she echoed Mara's earlier statement: "Something like that."

The Emperor drifted out of a warm haze. The dream lingered on the edges of his thoughts; he couldn't recall it, only that it had been exquisitely comfortable. Now, however, his back began to complain about the not-so-comfortable position he'd suffered it to endure for so long. There was still much to do, but for now – just for a while – he might allow himself to rest. Alexis was gazing up at him with a mixture of concern and curiosity. So much had happened in the past few days, Palpatine had quite forgotten about the boy's existence. Alexis stood up, busying himself for a few moments, and a glass of wine was placed in the Emperor's left hand, its opaque liquid darkly swirling like the tides of destiny upon which Palpatine meditated.

His thoughts immediately shifted back to Lord Vader's imminent arrival and his stomach knotted with fury. Only his apprentice and a handful of other pilots had survived. The Emperor could only thank the darkness for the reckless spirit which seemed to require Vader to dive into the middle of every fight. To lose his heir…the prospect was horrifying. Oh, there were other Force-users who might fill the Dark Lord's place, certainly. Palpatine prided himself on planning for every eventuality, after all. But, after grooming Vader for three decades – virtually from the age of ten – Darth Sidious was unable to visualise having anyone else kneel to him in ritual homage but Anakin Skywalker. In no one else had he found the right mix of Force talent and strategic brilliance.

Developing the man's political acumen had been a challenge, as Vader made a recalcitrant politician at best. The Emperor had been forced to resort to throwing his apprentice into the rancor's den: Xizor continued to be a most useful tool in this regard, and Palpatine was looking forward to the eventual showdown between the two, confident of Vader's eventual success. In any case, the Emperor was sure that, should the worst happen (these things, however unpleasant, had to be considered) there would be a strong successor to take his place as Sith Emperor.

Such morbid thoughts returned Palpatine to his anger at almost losing both apprentice and battle station, as well as ruining his plans for Tarkin's disgrace. It had been a long time since fate had dared oppose the Emperor's will and it filled him with a deep sense of dread. For he was a being with his fingers wrapped tightly around destiny's leash and he knew the signs when he saw them. This was a warning, perhaps the only one he would be given, and Palpatine had to act quickly in order to set in motion events which would ensure the failure of this incursion into his supremacy.

He could feel Vader drawing near, perhaps already entering the Chommell Sector, hastening toward Palpatine with all the blazing impetus of a comet, trailing rage, sadness, excitement and fear in his wake, casting savage light across the icy firmament of the Emperor's soul. He will believe all this is my fault… is it? Events had gone against Palpatine's wishes: such an atypical occurrence would fill Vader with both fear and hope. Hope that his Master was not infallible, and fear that his belief in Palpatine's infallibility was not justified. Or perhaps Vader's ire would fall solely upon the rebel terrorists? There was no way of knowing which way the man's temper would turn. The Emperor could still recall the shock quivering in Tyranus' spirit when he realised that Palpatine could not foresee everything: "No, my lord, but this is… unexpected."That moment every apprentice comes to at last; the realisation that he is the arbiter of his own destiny. The realisation that ended with Darth Plagueis wound in blood-stained sheets, his vaunted wisdom all for naught.

No… Vader might fight the bit occasionally – like the proud, highly strung thoroughbred he was – but he would always belong to his Master. The Emperor made sure long ago that he was without rivals in the possession of Anakin Skywalker's soul. And how it had been offered up! Tender and oh, so very lost – desperate to be acknowledged, to be welcomed finally into the darkness that was his birth right. Yet fear whispered through the Emperor's flesh and he shivered.

Something softly warm touched his cheek and it took a moment for Palpatine to register it as a kiss. Turning his head, he met the blue eyes of the most handsome dream-creature imaginable. The crystal glass was removed from Palpatine's hand and brought to the creature's lovely, full lips. "There – it's not poisoned," Alexis murmured, passing the drink back to the Emperor, "you can stop staring down at it suspiciously."

"Well…" Palpatine smiled, amused despite himself, "if we wish to test your hypothesis, we should wait at least twenty minutes for possible collapse. Besides, it will give the bottle time to breathe."

Alexis laughed, taking a gulp from his own glass, nothing refined, just the unconscious grace of a young colt. It is not unnatural, I suppose, that I am thinking of Anakin Skywalker rather than this strange creature I have who resembles him… The boy had little to no signature in the Force; he floated in the Sith Master's vision like a particle of dust caught in the light. Yet, for a moment, Alexis and Anakin merged and the Emperor blinked, furiously attempting to recall every detail of Anakin to his memory. But almost two decades separated Palpatine from that young Jedi; he could not perfectly imagine the young man he had known so well, upon whom – to the Emperor's acute distress – Alexis' features were beginning to appear. "Your Majesty?" Alexis queried, a hand settling on exactly the spot where Palpatine's neck was beginning to ache. "…Are you alright, sire?"

In one with Force talent, such a thing would indicate an unusual empathy with the Emperor's aura. But this, too, was only a parody of true connection. For the boy lacked the mental barriers of a sensitive, nor was he able to reciprocate through the channel Palpatine had established with him. The emotions the Emperor shared with Alexis' mind were slowly destroying the boy's will, as the Sith Lord's stronger consciousness gradually reduced him to little more than a pliant slave, receptive to nothing but the shifting currents of Palpatine's desires. "Perfectly… merely preoccupied…" He took a sip of the wine: richly smooth and fragrant, it was exactly the vintage he would have chosen. He did not care if Alexis' decision was a conscious one or not. Palpatine found his pride curiously displaced by a hunger for Alexis' ministrations. The derogative thoughts toward both himself and Alexis dissipated as the Emperor, unable to continue to deriding his own misplaced lust, accepted the boy – and the pleasures he brought – as an instrument toward a private necessity.

But not right now. Lord Vader was due to arrive on Naboo very shortly and it was hardly desirable for him to set eyes on Alexis…

Theed, in some ways, felt even lonelier than the Emperor's villa. Alexis wandered at a loss through its bright, bustling streets. Palpatine seemed convinced that Alexis was bored, and arranged for him to spend a couple of days in the capital as compensation for being so busy. This seemed odd to Alexis, since the Emperor was certainly astute enough to realise that Alexis' life now consisted of fitting in and around the margins of Palpatine's schedule. This fact had never bothered the sovereign before, which made Alexis suspicious. If it had been anyone else, he would have suspected Palpatine of being involved with someone else. But that was nonsensical. Alexis knew he was His Majesty's only lover. Not because the Emperor told him so (although he had) but because of what was silently communicated between them through the language of skin. Besides, if Palpatine did desire another, he need not bother with pretence – he would calmly explain the matter to Alexis and Alexis would abide by his wishes. Everyone abided by the Emperor's wishes. His suspicion made no sense. Perhaps the mysterious Anakin…?

Alexis kicked a loose stone. Strolling along, he reached into his pocket to finger a silver credit-chip with a truly ludicrous sum loaded onto it – it was making Alexis edgy just carrying it. In truth, he was barely staving off misery.

The cafes and gardens were teeming with beings – mostly humans. Tables were bunched together under provincial, loudly dyed shade-sails, surrounded by old-fashioned stone architecture; children ran out in front of waitresses and buskers, and around cheerfully splashing fountains which sparkled under the sun. Everyone wore colourful holiday garments, which made Alexis feel very out of place in his stark, ultra-Coruscanti clothing.

At first, it had been fun – a relief to escape his relentless awareness of the absolute supremacy which emanated so effortlessly from Palpatine; away from Alexis' job, although he didn't get paid. He stuffed his fingers back into his pocket, running them around the edges of the chip. This wasn't payment… it was… it was… something else. There was no exchange taking place: the credits had been given to him, like the clothes, because Palpatine considered them appropriate. Neither Alexis nor the Emperor (Alexis was pretty sure) thought of whatever lay between them as services rendered. If that were the case, Alexis would have stuffed the entire six digit number idling in his trouser pocket into his savings account to pay his way through the Academy and buy himself a good commission at the end of his training. And Palpatine…? His Majesty, Alexis guessed, would probably be treating Alexis very differently.

He used the chip to buy himself a pot of tisane (being with the Emperor had weaned Alexis off stim-kaf and gotten him addicted to herbal teas) and some lunch. He wondered if the Emperor had assigned anyone to watch him from afar. He'd been to the Royal Museum and several art galleries – it was all pretty boring compared to the modern galleries on Imperial Centre. If Iulia were with him, it would have been different. She would have dragged him into the boutique shops, enjoyed learning about Naboo's history, and had fun in the galleries telling him he had no taste. And Palpatine would have… Alexis sighed and tried his tea. It was the wrong flavour.


Sending it back would probably be rude...

"Oi! Lex!" Alexis looked up and his mouth drooped open. Wading through tables toward him was Drav. He looked just the same as ever: his strong, kaf-coloured face mostly brilliant dark eyes and wide flashing smile. He thumped Alexis on the shoulder and flung himself down opposite him, signalling the waitress to bring another cup. "Hey, long time no see! I didn't know you drunk this fancy muck." Those cheerful eyes slid lazily over Alexis' clothes. "Well, my pal Lex has gone up in the world! Zao told us you'd been transferred. I've been trying to get hold of you for ages!"

Alexis grappled with his tongue in an attempt to formulate some kind of response. "Y-yeah…"

"Tried to contact that sister of yours, but she was missing too. To be honest I was starting to think one of you might have… done something." He gave a hollow chuckle. "So…?"

"It's classified, Drav. I can't talk about it. What about you? What… what are you doing on Naboo?"

His friend shifted, leaning back, giving Alexis a rather cold, speculative look. Yet it passed so quickly he might have thought he'd imagined it. "Oh, well… my mother's half-Naboo. As soon as she found out there was going to be a municipal holiday, she became obsessed with all of us going to see our grandparents in Theed. I'd been stupid enough to tell her I had some leave saved up." He shook his head, "This place is such a dive. I can't see why the Emperor would want to come back – if that man had just stayed in his palace I wouldn't be in here hiding from my grandmother." Drav complained about the Emperor's decision the way beings complained about the weather, which made Alexis smile.

He just nodded, letting Drav talk. Before Palpatine he'd fantasied about Drav almost every day. He was everything Alexis had wanted to be: careless, confident, successful… happy in his casually dismissive way. Alexis had always cared too much about appearing loyal to ever achieve that kind of confidence of knowing his place in the world. Now Drav was here: almost larger than life, a carefree invitation to forgetting – just for a little while – about the heavy spell the Emperor cast over his senses. There was nothing measured, nothing precious about Drav.

He wasn't sure quite how it happened, but he ended wandering the streets of Theed with his friend giving a dry commentary on the sights and occasionally ducking down another street upon seeing one of Drav's relatives. "They're ridiculous, these people!" Drav complained as they strolled along the side of a canal. "Look at them!"

Alexis stared bemusedly, "Um…?" Children were scooting around on the water in archaic paddle-boats, laughing and splashing each other.

"I mean, they look happy, right? But there's so much going on you won't see because you're not one of them. My mother told me my grandfather didn't approve of me. The old man gave me a hug and told me I was cool, you know? But, apparently, he was wearing dark green – which means he was protesting our visit. I mean – kniffing hell – can't he just say he thinks we're losers? Apparently different shades of green mean different degrees of objection to the status quo. I mean, they're messed up! I can't believe someone as level-headed as the Emperor came from this pile of loons."

Alexis scanned the crowd, interestingly, there was not one person wearing green. "Do you know what black means?" he asked, suddenly worried about the potential meanings in his own attire.

Drav waved a hand dismissively, "Oh, you're fine. As far as I can remember, black is mostly about responsibility and sadness and shit like that." Alexis thought of the Emperor's clothes – so much black. "My mother tried to teach me, but it's the stupidest tradition." What did it mean that Moteé had dressed him in black? Was it because of his uniform or was she trying to give him a message – a message Palpatine would understand?

His companion slapped him on the back, "It's not worth worrying about, Lex, honestly. My grandfather's a nerf-herding moron." Drav left his hand on Alexis' shoulder. "You know… we never had the chance to finish what we started that night…" Drav slid his hand down Alexis' spine to rest comfortably on his arse. But there were none of the sensations evoked when the Emperor touched him. This was just a touch, unaccompanied by pleasure. He wanted Drav to reach him, to prove he was still attracted to normal contact, that he didn't need Palpatine's bewitchments in order to feel anything. To fling something in the face of Palpatine's disinterest. But there was no magic here, no dizzy stars orbiting his brain, just Drav's hand – unsupported and meaningless. Alexis felt a sudden surge of hatred toward both Palpatine and Drav: the one for addicting him and the other for showing up that addiction. He didn't want to need someone who could dismiss him so easily.

He stared out at the promenade and said: "That woman's wearing green."

Drav's hand dropped away as he followed Alexis' gaze. An old woman was sitting on a public bench, doing some kind of needlework. Her bulky figure was concealed by a pale green dress with quilted sleeves. A straw hat perched atop her messy grey hair and she frowned into her embroidery frame. She sat in the shadow of a marbled statue of Palpatine, carved when he was Chancellor of the Republic. The statue was caught mid-speech, one hand eloquently thrust forward, declaiming silently to the holiday-makers along the canal. A bird was sitting on its head with an eye to the lunch that sat beside the old woman.

"That is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about!" Drav exclaimed, striding forward toward the old lady. "I bet she thinks she's so clever too, disrespecting our Emperor! If she'd been flashing a placard she'd have been shot by now! Hey! You! Yeah – you! Old woman!"

The lady in the green dress looked up, blinking at Drav short-sightedly. The bird took off. Drav grabbed her bag and threw it aside, spilling needles, pins and threads across the pavement. Alexis followed his friend's lead and seized her straw hat, tossing it to the winds. It landed in the water. Drav was right; if the woman had tried this on Imperial Centre she would have been shot. No one could be allowed to criticise His Imperial Majesty. The old lady looked up at them and Alexis found himself face to face with a pair of pair of wintery blue eyes. "Leave me alone, you monsters!" she cried, desperately trying to gather the pins still rolling away. Drav ground his boot into her embroidery and grabbed her by her thinning hair.

"How dare you disrespect the Emperor!-?" Drav hissed as she screamed. "How dare you, you old bitch!" He slapped her across the face. She howled and stabbed his hand with a needle, giving him a vicious kick to the groin, which made him stumble back.

She spat at Drav, her spittle landing on his boots, and glared furiously at them both, "You think you're something because of him?" she snarled imperiously, her eyes flashing as she pointed at the statue. "He's nothing! In a thousand years people will laugh at his grand ambitions! And you! You're less than nothing!" Her accent was exactly the same as Palpatine's. There were other similarities too: the odd streak of copper in her loose grey hair and the way she clenched her jaw in fury. They must be about the same age, which disturbed Alexis immensely, making him back away from her.

Drav's hand went for his holster, his face red. "I'll show you nothing, you old hag!"

"No!"Alexis cried, but his friend took no notice. "NO!" he yelled again as Drav took aim, flicking out his own weapon. A blaster bolt burnt through the air and Drav dropped to the pavement, stunned. Alexis – appalled at himself – met the steely eyes of the old woman over Drav's motionless body.

"It is sedition to protest the gracious rule of His Imperial Majesty," Alexis said coldly, feeling awful for not quite believing his own words; words which he had felt so sure of before this moment, just like his attraction to Drav.

"Help me pick up my things," she ordered him and, to his surprise, he found himself gathering up her embroidery. No one was paying them any attention - in fact everyone was studiously ignoring the scene. When it was all back in her bag, she turned to regard him suspiciously. "You should be at home helping your parents," the woman lectured him, "not out here bullying people." He moved to drag Drav away, "Leave him there," she told him. She glanced up at the statue and back to Drav. "He makes a better picture than I did." And she bundled herself off, with Alexis standing at the foot of the marble Palpatine, beside his unconscious friend. The bird resettled on the statue's shoulder, probably wondering if Alexis had any food.

Alexis gazed up at Palpatine's empty stone eyes, feeling even more lost than before. He left Drav lying at the foot of the statue.

When the Emperor's shuttle docked briefly at Theed, on its way back into orbit where Lanvarok was waiting, Alexis rushed to Palpatine's private cabin and into his arms. The Emperor was caught off guard by such a display – apparently genuine. His mind had still been busy dissecting his tense interview with Lord Vader, an unusually cold, brittle affair. His apprentice had been impenetrable. One gift Alexis had given Palpatine, however, was the ability to finally remove himself from the sentiment with which had always clouded his treatment of his apprentice; the legacy of his infatuation with Anakin Skywalker. I have spoilt him, he thought, he believes he has a right to my affections regardless of his behaviour. It had irritated the Emperor immensely and he felt inordinately proud of the chill, professional tone he had taken with his disciple.

Meanwhile, Alexis was embracing him and murmuring honorifics tenderly, as though they had been apart for a year rather than a few days. Bright and affectionate, the boy still had the power to shock the Emperor with his beauty and exuberance. "Can you really have missed me so much?" he inquired, vaguely bewildered at his pet's emotion as Alexis clung to him.

A story came rolling off the child's tongue about loneliness, a friend he'd met, and an old woman. None of it made much sense and, in truth, Palpatine was only half-listening, too focused on those earnest deep blue eyes and the arms around his waist. It felt right to have this again, this warm encirclement, and he realised he had missed it more than he had expected. "And I didn't know what to do because I couldn't let anyone insult you, but she was just this harmless old lady minding her own business and Drav was…"

"Shhh…" the Emperor whispered, running his bone-white fingers through that lovely blond hair. "It is no longer your duty to worry about such fools. Your duty is my pleasure and in this I find myself eminently satisfied." He shared this satisfaction with Alexis, making the boy shiver all over and his eyes sparkle again.

Palpatine was so good at reducing the complexities of Alexis' life down to the simplest of equations.