ALEXIS VII: The Marble Steps

Light singing spilled through beautifully appointed chambers, drifting over the playing of an ornamental fountain, and enclosed by walls embossed with delicate silver flowers. Lady Moteé Pestage lifted her fingers from the dial, humming along with the recording under her breath, a little off key. Her darkly green silk dress whispered as she moved toward the salon, her glossy brown hair loose and whispering down her back. She smiled softly as a handmaiden entered the room with a silver tray, the only indication of her ladyship's age in the delta of fine lines around each lovely eye. "Thank you," Moteé gracefully seated herself and hands began to twine and shape the long hair carefully into an elaborate coiffure. The lady's opaque, brown eyes met the handmaiden's pale blue gaze in the mirror, before dark lashes eclipsed the exchange. "You've become quite good at this, Julié."

"I used to watch my mother having her hair done," the handmaiden confessed, sliding a bejeweled clip into the tresses.

"I admired Volara very much," Moteé replied, opening her eyes wide and smoothing away their edges with cream, "she never lost faith – never. And your father, what he did to protect his family… it was a noble thing."

"Why didn't you tell me about Alexis?"

Lady Pestage turned away from the mirror and her dark eyes gazed into Iulia's with a steadfast determination that reminded Iulia of both her parents. "I wasn't aware you were related – but you can't deny this is the opportunity we have been waiting for." Moteé's voice was as well-tempered as her husband's, and Iulia found herself continually surprised by it; those same quaintly genteel speech patterns of Chommell provincial aristocracy, overlaid with a long-acquired Coruscanti lilt. Iulia used to think that particular mix unique to the Emperor's speeches. She could recognise the underlying accent now that she had spent some time on Naboo. An oddly subtle, aesthetic, and xenophobic people – that was Iulia's impression.

Iulia's fingers trembled and she took a step back. "I need to find a way to tell him… I…"

"We've discussed this," Lady Pestage's voice softened like shimmersilk over durasteel. "It's too risky. Your father killed himself so that Lord Vader would not learn the secrets his mind held. His Majesty is infinitely more dangerous than Vader in this regard. You cannot risk telling Alexis anything. I have known the Emperor for a long time – if they are intimate, then Palpatine will be constantly monitoring your brother's thoughts. Telling him the smallest detail of your mission could jeopardise everything. We hazard a great deal even now." Moteé reached up and touched Iulia's shoulder, strength deserting her vocal chords, leaving only a hoarse sob remaining. "I'm sorry."

"If it's too risky then how are you still here? If Palpatine and Vader are as powerful as you say, why haven't they seen through you?"

The vizier's wife returned her gaze to the mirror and her fingers dipped into powder. "The secret to keeping secrets from sorcerers is not to draw their attention. A strong will helps – naturally – but hardly anyone is really interested in a trophy wife who doesn't play the game. Ultimately, I fulfil a decorative and domestic function." her lips quirked with what might have been bitterness or humour.

"It must be very lonely," Iulia said softly. In the mirror she watched the cadence of breath in Lady Pestage's slender neck, shifting to the graceful lines of her clavicles and the curve of her small breasts. She admired the contrast of dark hair and pale skin, which suited the silken forest of a gown perfectly, and the consummate grace of the woman – so commanding in her restraint.

"You know how it is with these things, the longer spent establishing one's cover the more valuable one becomes. Surely you experienced something of a similar nature in previous postings?"

"A bit, yes… but there was another operative in the same office – Jejic – we… we kept each other company, it was part of our cover." It hadn't been love, but it had been companionship born of the same burden. Jejic had anchored her sanity in his warmth. She didn't know why she felt the need to share this with Moteé, who was less her fellow Alliance agent and more her superior.

"You must miss him a great deal." Moteé sighed, her earlobe drooping as she inserted an earring of dazzling linked emeralds which dangled low, almost brushing her bare shoulder. Iulia looked away. She felt instinctively that it had been a mistake to mention Jejic to Lady Pestage. The face of her other fellow agent came to mind, inky blood dribbling from his mouth; brave, cynical Ursulba swearing at her and telling her to run. And Iulia had run, as far and as fast as she could. By the time Moteé's people found her she was almost dead from exhaustion and frostbite. That fjord still pierced her nightmares, causing her to wake shivering and feverish with terror in her palace chamber. Palpatine had to be stopped – his icy talons sinking into everything good, twisting the galaxy inside out. She felt sick and almost retched. "Julié?" her ladyship's voice interrupted. That foreign-sounding name that was and yet was not her own.

"He's my brother…" Iulia croaked, barely getting the words out as her face shut down. "My brother…"

Two soft hands took firm hold of Iulia's shoulders. "I know what it is to betray someone you love out of duty. I know. But this is our chance, Julié, possibly our only chance. You will do this. You must do this. Otherwise everything will have been for nothing."

"Mother always told me to take care of him. That's what she said before she left that night. She came into my room and kissed me… and told me to take care of my little brother… I tried so hard, kept him out of everything – and now, I… now… he's… he's - I can't even say it!" She buried her shaking head against Moteé's shoulder and the vizier's wife put her arms around her as Iulia cried, ashamed of her tears but unable to stop as everything which had been contained for so long poured out with an acrid vengeance. She knew she would do as the older woman said. There was no other choice.

Alexis had never taken death sticks. They were illegal, after all. When he'd still been in the Imperial City Security Forces, before his transfer to the Palace Security Division, he'd participated in several arrests relating to contraband substances. He remembered their wild eyes – how pathetic they had been – asking even officers for credits to buy more. One woman particularly: her waxen, scarred, greenish face awful against her limp, dark hair.

He felt like that junkie, curled up in a tight ball in the middle of the Emperor's bed. Palpatine was out, of course. He never stayed over-long in the mornings. Alexis vaguely remembered that there was some ceremony – the cane was gone. That usually meant the throne room. All those steps right up to the top... he couldn't help but worry, knowing the way Palpatine clung when they walked together, leaning heavily on him whenever they went down to the gardens. The Emperor refused to limp in public but when he was alone, except for Alexis, his age and increasing fragility were both painfully obvious. He was getting thin again, too thin and too tired – and Alexis needed him, needed his magic to smooth away all the worms that wound into his heart when the sovereign wasn't there. Shifting his body, Alexis buried his nose in the sheets. He could smell him still: cloying, old-fashioned, spicy cologne, decay, and a strange whiff of ozone that made Alexis shiver and pull away.

There were… blanks in his memory and times when everything blurred as though he'd been drunk. Maybe he hadbeen drinking. That could be it. He stood, naked and trembling, and made his way across the carpet to where the decanter sat, lifting it, feeling the weight of the expensive alcohol swirling inside. It was full. But maybe one of the droids had refilled it? They came and tidied everything away – Palpatine's cloak, the dirty teacups, and the sheets – when Alexis used those things to keep track. The droids made sure that, by the time the Emperor returned in the evenings, everything was pristine. Alexis couldn't concentrate enough to interfere or even notice their silent movements most of the time. He didn't bother to pour himself a drink but drank straight from the decanter, taking pleasure in violating its aristocratic gentility.

Swearing, he wiped his mouth and wandered the apartments aimlessly, ending up running his hands over the Emperor's clothes. Rows and rows of garments worth more than Alexis could possibly earn in several lifetimes. They felt like Palpatine – soft velvet, shimmersilk, brocade, and finely woven wools – but they didn't smell like him; too clean, not like their bed. He muttered obscenities into a swathe of darkly crimson robe. Things he could never say to His Imperial Majesty; filthy words that only came in the Emperor's absence, like bugs and arachnids infesting an empty dwelling. It wasn't their bed, of course. Nothing was theirs.

The distant hiss of the tall doors to Palpatine's apartments made Alexis reel back from the robe in surprise. The Emperor had never returned early before and there was none of the almost electrical clouding of the air that marked his presence. Alexis dived down beside the bed for his trousers and rushed back into the walk-in closet, crossing the large chambers in a flash of naked alarm, silently thanking the architect for placing the Emperor's study and sitting-room between his bedroom and the entrance, while hurriedly pulling on his uniform.

"Alexis…?" his sister's voice rang out. Alexis finished doing up the fastenings on his trousers and stumbled into the lounge where Iulia stood, her face shadowed by the lilac cloak of a handmaiden. She stared at the Emperor's scarlet apartments, her blue eyes taking in the elegant statuary, the high ceiling and the profusion of antique red and black furnishings, probably much as Alexis himself had. It sometimes still caught Alexis unawares, amazed that he was living in the chambers of a will that extended to the furthest reaches of the galaxy; that such a force could be really be contained in a human shell as fragile as any other. That it could be housed, fed, and loved like any other.

"Iulia…" Alexis smiled, slightly bemusedly, his eyes a little glazed over still. "I'm… I'm so happy to see you!" But he wasn't, not entirely. It was strange to have his sister here; she was trespassing on something private – he didn't want her to see him like this. Not in these rooms, the Emperor's sacrosanct retreat from his dominions. Not even the Royal Guard were allowed inside the sovereign's private rooms; they stood outside the entrance, but were never admitted. It was still early, wasn't it? He looked through the wide windows and gauged the position of the sun. "Why – I mean – you shouldn't be here. We could go down to the gardens. There won't be any tourists this early… you really shouldn't be here." The words were awkward and so was he; unwashed and still sweaty from sleep, his blond hair sticking up in odd places, and dressed in a crumpled uniform and still reeking of Palpatine.

"S-sure…" his sister seemed equally stilted – they were like caricatures of themselves in this surreal place – both of them constrained by their surroundings. "I've been given clearance to visit – I was told His… His Majesty would be holding court." Alexis, who now spent a great deal of his time observing features hidden under the shadow of a cowl, saw that beneath her velvet hood Iulia was blushing.

"Yeah…" he gave her another slightly fixed smile, "if you just wait, I'll go and get something clean on and then we can go…"

"Sorry, it's probably a bit early for you…" her flush deepened in mortification.

"No – it's fine! I just um… hadn't bothered getting dressed yet…" he heard his own voice and cringed, rubbing the back of his suddenly itchy neck nervously. "I'll… erm… I'll just… yeah."

It had been real to Iulia before now, but not tangible. There hadn't been those intimate chambers and her brother looking as if he'd just gotten out of bed and thrown something on; her handsome brother standing in the lair of a monster. Everything in these rooms – so much beauty the Emperor's poisonous fingers had corroded. How could he… how could anyone bear to be caressed by something so depraved, so ancient and disgusting? How could he suffer those horrible sulphurous eyes, the touch of a skin which, deformed as it was, could never be as loathsome as the evil soul which lay beneath? How could anyone not shrink away from such a creature?

They walked through the bright, lovely gardens together, Alexis chatting to her almost as if nothing had happened, as if it made no difference that he'd given himself to a demon whose human mask had slipped long ago. Iulia's stomach wouldn't stop turning; guilt, disgust, and despair roiling in her gut. He hadn't even realised what he'd done. Alexis moved as unaware of his surroundings, his reflexes slow, and his eyes sleepy. There were dark circles under his eyes, and to Iulia they seemed to be etched in by Palpatine's claws.

She embraced him under turquoise blossoms, trying to make him her brother once more, attempting to brush away the invisible stain of the Emperor's fingers like so much lint, leaving only Alexis behind. "I missed you so much!" I'm so sorry – I'm sorry I wasn't there – but why didn't you tell me? Oh stars, why didn't you tell me?-! She held the moment for as long as she could, pressing her nose into the curve of his necking, trying to commit it all to memory: the slightly blunt nose, the lips always ready to curve into a smile, the musky smell of him , the comforting closeness they used to share, her little brother.

And when she pulled away he was gone. Still standing there, with his fond, nervy smile, but gone all the same. Beings talked about hearts breaking but all she felt was anger; a tunnelling rush of emotion that pounded against her chest until she couldn't feel anything else, battering her numb.

Ivory fingers laid a silver fork gracefully aside. There was the swirling of wine being poured and a glass offered to those same fingers. The Emperor took the crystal goblet and brought it to his thin, grey lips. The dark alcohol stained his mouth, turning that liminal skin almost pink. There was no one in the dining salon but himself and Alexis, and no one to see the young man lean across the priceless table, pushing aside the exquisite dishes, and kiss the corner of Palpatine's mouth, tongue teasing into its secretive crevices. The Emperor chuckled fondly, before the dry noise was cut off by that same eager tongue.

It fascinated him, this worshipful attention. Alexis had very little control over himself now – his body twining and twisting to the Sith Lord's pleasure, a slave to an aura he could not even sense. Was this truly what he wanted? Even now, Palpatine's desires still had the capacity to surprise him. It seemed so unnecessary, all of this tenderness, surplus comforts he had done without all his long life. Never, it seemed, had there been the leisure to explore such things, nor interest to support them. Not under his master or while training his apprentices, where control had to be so rigidly maintained, certainly not while Supreme Chancellor or during his first ten years as Emperor. Yet now he was luxuriating in it. His apprentice was a full Sith Lord; his plans had reached fruition, everything transpired according to his designs – why should he not assuage his loneliness a little with this simple, affectionate creature?

"Master…" Alexis whispered in his ear, nose nuzzling the Emperor's caved-in cheek. Nothing compared to that honorific; not Excellency, not Highness, not even Majesty – Palpatine wanted to be called Master from almost before he could remember; there was an infinity of longing contained in those two syllables. Memory arched with Alexis above him… He had wanted Anakinlike this. Perhaps the word was only in his imagination, yet he could not help but flinch.

The boy eased off Palpatine's lap, allowing him space to breathe. "Are you all right, Majesty? Shall I call–?"

"No, there is no need." The Emperor's voice was as authoritative as ever, but the lamp-like eyes were filled with an indefinable emotion. Was this what his Anakin had looked like? He couldn't remember. It had been so long ago. Almost twenty years. And he had been old and homely even then, embroiled in the trappings and responsibilities of his office, tired from secretly running both sides of a war, plump and weary from too much time at his desk pouring over state papers and legislation; devoting himself to maintaining his benevolent persona and concealing himself from the Jedi, and in no position to make any such overtures to his possession with risking its loss. And now…? His apprentice would never… and even if, by some miracle, it were possible – Palpatine could not afford such weakness in front of his Dark Lord.

That was why he had the boy, was it not? Alexis had retreated to his own seat, gazing at the Emperor expectantly. "Sire… I haven't had a chance to tell you, my sister, she–"

"It will resolve itself, my boy, have no fear." Had he not ordered Jade to track down the woman? The smoothly reassuring voice was spoiled somewhat by the Emperor's impatient gesture, which silenced Alexis. Palpatine had no interest in Iulia Ts'umin or her whereabouts – she could be a slave in Hutt Space for all he cared… which brought him to the matter of the Hutt dominions in the first place. Something would have to be done about them eventually. After the Clone Wars, garrisoning the Outer Rim had proved impossible. There had never been the resources to support a permanent occupation of the Rim and the Hutt Clans knew it, as did the rebel ingrates who profited by Palpatine's inability the establish a firm grip on the outer systems. Such places had never abided by Republic law and saw no reason to behave any differently toward Imperial edicts. He had hoped that Tarkin's project would resolve that issue, but it had been destroyed. He couldn't stand the idea of those wastrels, pirates, ideologues, and scum laughing at him. Well, he would deal with their pitiful rebellion and then he would breakthe power of the Hutts which had sheltered them. Lancing those boils ought to provide the funds to maintain a proper presence in the outlying systems and, once such a presence was established, it would more than repay itself in tax revenue.

Why is it so difficult for my servants to exterminate one Jedi and a few farmers and deserters? He slipped into a half-trance, his vision traversing the darkness between stars, seeking out that errant sensitive who had thrown in his lot with Mothma's rebels. But his power could not gain purchase on the bright spec which seemed to dance just out of his reach, familiar and yet inaccessible, like a word on the tip of his tongue. This was no Jedi of old, but something else. Something… elusive. Palpatine ground his teeth in anger. He had no fondness for mysteries.

The young man beside him leaned forward, his fingers closing around the frail digits which had begun to clench in irritation, lips lovingly stroking the white knuckles, bringing the Emperor's thoughts back to his immediate surroundings, yellow eyes blinking tiredly. "Perhaps… we should retire, Your Majesty?" Yes, his catamite had no secrets or agenda, plucked from his unimportant existence without consequence, the happy result of some captain's malice. The Emperor affectionately reached his other hand up to brush through that supremely tactile blond hair; a lovely, private pet to warm his cold bed and his aged flesh.

The journey back to the Emperor's apartments was a slow one. Palpatine took Alexis' arm; in a few days it would be his seventy-seventh birthday and he felt those years keenly that evening as they walked the upper corridors of the Imperial Palace. Sunset gilded the marble corridors; the perpetual haze of pollution turned the skies above Imperial Centre to a profusion of splendid colours. When they reached his rooms at last, he was grateful to sit down again, resting his weight against Alexis. And it seemed entirely natural that Alexis should tenderly remove his outer cloak and that his generous mouth should trail down the nape of the Emperor's pale neck, causing Palpatine's eyes to flutter closed as he leaned against his tall, young lover, the two of them sitting on top of the coverlets. Soon the kisses reached his temples and the sovereign sighed into the strong hands which began to gently massage in turn the tender muscles of his malformed forehead and arthritic hands.

"Master…" That word again, sweet and adoring. He had never mentioned it to Alexis, nor – as far as Palpatine was aware – had it been uttered in Alexis' presence. Perhaps Lord Vader had addressed him thus at the opera? No, even if that were so… surely Alexis, well-coached by now in etiquette by Lady Pestage, would never have thought to do so. It was his own desire slipping through Alexis' lips to slice into the Emperor like a knife, and he gasped as if cut.

The boy murmured endearments, reaching around to support Palpatine's collarbone, pulling him closer, and the Emperor felt suffocated, as if he were caught in a snare. "Oh Master…"

It would be so easy, so terrifyingly easy to be seduced into fantasy by those intoxicating words. Strange that he had never considered the possibility; his breath grew laboured, yet he could not summon the energy to escape the intimate ministrations of his affectionate captor. "No, no…" the Emperor all but whimpered, the strength fled from his voice.

"I don't mind," his toy whispered back, his voice muffled as he leaned in to undo the clasps at Palpatine's neck with his teeth. "No one will know… please, Master, you can call me anything you like…" Those captivating blue eyes and wild blond hair; the beautiful, confidant smile… But this was a doll, a pretty, Force-blind nothing. He must put a stop to this, he –

"Anakin…" the name was a ripped scab, open and painful, yet carrying with it a curious sense of release. It escaped into the space between them, mortifying Palpatine with its force – hanging on the air like a spell.

Alexis stared at the Emperor. His thoughts felt heavy and cumbersome, messy and undefined – unravelling as he tried to remember them – and it took him a moment to orient himself. Palpatine was dozing on the silk sheets, the moonlight turning his chalky skin faintly blue. Alexis cast his fingers down the Emperor's chest, planting a fond kiss on his ivory shoulder. Many beings would find the ancient tangle of breath and limbs grotesque, but he was so accustomed to Palpatine's disfigured body, that to see him lying there, in the dark nest of sheets where they had just had surely just had sex, was oddly endearing. It was an accomplishment even to see him so carelessly lethargic. Usually he burrowed under the covers or donned his sleeping robe, or was disinclined to undress at all; always conscious of his ugliness.

One golden eye flickered open, followed by the second. A small, white hand reached up to brush Alexis' face. They weren't like claws at all. They were soft, the nails trimmed and neat; the bones light and delicate, almost like those of a bird. Palpatine's hands only appeared the way they did because of the arthritis which gnarled them. They were lovely, in their own way, definitely his best feature, aside from that hypnotic, sunflare gaze. Alexis vowed he would never give them cause to hurt him again. He would be good. He would be everything His Majesty needed him to be.

"I'll make some tea and bring your robe," he said, kissing Palpatine one last time before climbing off the bed and stretching, pulling on a pair of trousers, and ambling into the other room. He took his time, taking a drink of his own while waiting for the water to boil (the Emperor said it wasn't the same unless you made it the traditional way). He added the dry tisane and went searching for the sovereign's dressing-gown, leaving the pot to steep. It appeared one of the droids had determined the gown needed washing, as it wasn't anywhere obvious, so Alexis went to take a clean one from the dressing-closet.

All of a sudden there was a hiss and the noise of booted feet drumming against the floor. Alexis leapt up, only to duck back in horror when he saw beings with heavy blaster rifles in the other room. There was nothing he could do. Holding his breath, he backed into the rows of imperial garments, trying to make as little noise as possible. He could hear the noise of the intruders checking rooms, the terse, cracking noise of low voices calling "Clear!" His pistol was somewhere back here with his own clothes. If he could just–

"Emperor Palpatine," intoned a woman's voice against an awful thumping and the dull sounds of a scuffle. How did they get in, why did the guards not stop them? "You are hereby placed under arrest for crimes against the free sentients of the galaxy and crimes against the state." He had heard her voice before – why did it seem so familiar? Alexis continued edging backward, feeling for his case. His head felt icy clear for the first time in weeks. "This action is taken under the authority of the Alliance to Restore the Republic as the legitimate representative of the galaxy's peoples. We relieve the Imperial Government of its powers. A provisional, revolutionary government is announced pending free elections to be supervised by the A.R.R. –" Are they transmitting this? Why weren't they all blasted to the floor by Palpatine's sorceries?

There – his fingers closed around the catch and carefully unhooked it, reaching inside for his gun. Thank the stars it was a blaster pistol and didn't need to be loaded with slugs. "What have almost twenty years of your rule brought us, Your Majesty? Near two decades of a government which has shown nothing but contempt for the citizens it nominally serves – decades of oppression, of our once thriving political culture turned into the plaything of one man. You have waged a dirty war against your own peoples: undesirables tortured, murdered or simply made to disappear. The entire planet of Alderaan with all its sentients and non-sentients alike – destroyed– crimes so nakedly heinous as to be indefensible."

There was hissing, liquid noise, like spit. Alexis used the ensuing violence to draw his pistol, crawling closer, muffled by thick, ceremonial garments. "Gag him. Gentle-beings of the galaxy, you look upon the face of evil, see how thin its lips are, how pale, ruined and pockmarked it is up close? How monstrous?" Alexis halted, close enough to see through a small gap between two robes and the blood drained from his face. He couldn't see Palpatine, but he could see the invaders, terrorists disguised in the black of the Palace Security Divisions. And the blond woman who was speaking, her profile cold and bright with vengeance.

It was his mother: Volara Ts'umin stood there, wearing dark regulation slacks and holding – of all things – a large, furry reptile in her arms. The pistol trembled in his hand. There was a way they could have gotten in without alerting anyone. Through passage which led up from the gardens. But that meant… the codes… Iulia… She had promised, she had promised him…!

He unhitched the safety catch, long fingers trembling. For some reason, the contempt of the old Naboo woman swam into his head, Drav attacking her for peacefully sitting under a statue; a weapon which could destroy planets… Alderaan – all of those people gone as if they'd never existed; an auditorium full of clapping beings singing Glory to the Empire. He didn't believe in it any more, he realised – he probably never had. It was just the way things were. But he couldn't bear to think of Palpatine hurt, of that precious being gagged and broken, in the hands of his enemies.

"Have you anything to say before you meet your death and we usher in a new era for the Republic?" I could never betray you, Your Majesty. I'd shoot anyone who did! Tears stung Alexis, leaking from his eyes and down his cheeks as he stepped softly forward, ready to fire. He found it impossible to hate his mother at that moment, too stunned by her physical reality and resemblance after so many years. Years of furious resentment melted in simple amazement that here was his mother. I can't do it… I… can't…

No one was looking in his direction; all eyes were on the Emperor. He looked like a caged, naked beast, his eyes burning in rage, snarling through his bonds and, as a rebel ripped off the gag, he bared his yellowed, rotten teeth at Volara. He did not break his stare, and an awful smile came to his desiccated lips. He was glaring straight into her eyes when he said the words: "Kill the creature."

Alexis fired.

Volara Ts'umin turned her head, blue eyes wide, mouth open as she recognised Alexis, grey-blond hair tumbling loose as the dead reptile fell from her hands. Power roared into the room like water breaking through a dam and everyone was screaming. It poured into Alexis and he kept firing, eyes wild, gunning down the dozen beings curled up on the floor in prostrate agony, as lightning arched through the air, filled with a terrible, inhuman fury that drowned out everything else and painted his vision crimson until his mind slipped away beneath the wrath that impelled him on in a storm of blaster fire.

There was nothing to say afterwards. Alexis could only stare as the bodies were taken away by the Emperor's guards, the congealing blood only a shade darker than their armour. One of them even saluted him. His mother had four laser wounds when her limp form was carried out like a sack of meat. And those rebels he didn't know, they had families, didn't they? People who loved them. Had he really killed them all? He could hardly remember. It seemed impossible. "My sister…" he gasped, falling to his knees beside Palpatine – now dressed in austere black. "Please…!"

The glittering eyes reached into his mind and ripped up his memories of sharing the gardens with Iulia, and scattered them in disarray, until Alexis almost couldn't recall her upturned face or his mother sitting by his bedside, just the ache of their absence that ate him alive. It left him reeling and scared – was his sister dead or missing? He couldn't quite… "She is dead, Alexis." Palpatine said mildly, betraying light surprise. "Or if she is not, she soon will be. It hardly matters." Palpatine was reading the preliminary intelligence reports – more were still coming in. Anyone else would have been distraught after the prospect of being assassinated, but the Emperor only seemed to gain composure from his ordeal. There was a fiery, satisfied pleasure in his mystic eyes, which Alexis had never seen before, especially when he gazed at the corpses of the rebels.

"It – it was my fault… I didn't know… I…" What had he done? He'd done something, an accident – a terrible thing – there had been bodies on the floor, their eyes open and their faces contorted in pain. He'd… the steps… he'd shown Iulia the passage and she'd…

"And it was you who bravely rescued me and executed those rebel traitors," Palpatine patted him fondly on the head reassuringly, yet not really paying him much attention. "I would say you more than made up for your mistake, foolish though it was. You've done well, Alexis – I am not angry with you." And he leaned down and kissed Alexis' cheek affectionately before turning back to the holo-reports as if nothing had happened – is if anything were capable of continuing on as before, and Alexis found himself automatically accepting both the kiss and dismissal, pure habit taking control when every other faculty was paralyzed with despair.

Lord Vader's thoughts were stormy as he strode through the sumptuous halls of the palace. He had almost become Emperor last night – almost lost his mentor. He did not know whether he was angrier at Palpatine's survival or at the assassins who'd dared attempt to usurp a death that was the Dark Lord's to claim by ancient law. He felt cheated of both the throne and the attempt – all the more so since the leader of the assassins had apparently been a woman who'd escaped him years ago. I refuse to feel any guilt in this matter, he growled to himself. He had been assigned different duties long ago; others had taken over that trail. I could have searched harder – I could have… Sith Lord clenched his gauntleted fists. If she had not already been killed by the Emperor, he would gladly have tortured Volara Ts'umin and her associates for daring to touch what was his and his alone.

He did not have an appointment with the Emperor, but he knew Sidious would see him, if only to emphasise his continued supremacy over his Dark Lord. Beneath his mask, Vader smiled bitterly at the thought and slowed his stride. Though often mercurial, there were certain things one could alwaysrely upon Palpatine for.

It was as he stood, casting a pooling shadow on the light marble, that he caught sight of a black-clad figure standing on the edge of a balcony. It was, he knew, a spot where Palpatine was fond of meditating in the evenings, gazing down at the beautiful canyon of the Grand Corridor far below, and – for a moment – he thought it wasthe Emperor, his abyssal aura blurred and distorted as though a carnival mirror. Vader's booted his feet carried him forward, curious.

It was a young man in a non-descript uniform – the servant he had noticed at the opera. The man was not, as the Sith Lord had first thought, standing on the balcony at all, but perched precariously on the ledge, facing away from the long fall, towards Vader. His signature in the Force was fascinating and obscene, like a fly twitching feebly in the deadly cocoon of an arachnid, its life only detectable by muffled, desperate buzzing. It was jarringly wrong and, for the second time, the Sith Lord wondered idly just what the young man was guilty of to deserve such a thorough annihilation of self. He couldn't shake the feeling that he'd seen him somewhere before the opera, that there was something importantabout him which he, Vader, had overlooked.

"How strange," the young man muttered, blue, watery eyes taking in the Dark Lord with an equally dispassionate fascination, "you really are like an orange-tongued lizard, aren't you?"

It was such an odd thing to say that Vader found himself speechless. There was none of the customary fear in the man's voice, nor any suggestion of impudence. Then the Sith Lord took in the implication of that tenuous seat on the balcony's thin, ornamental railing. "I don't follow," he said slowly, feeling no impulse to rush forward, yet unable to leave him to his fate.

"A death omen," the man smiled weakly, his blond hair fluttering in the open air, his gaze glassy and half-unseeing. It was likely he had disappointed the Emperor in some way, perhaps taking his own life rather than facing Palpatine's displeasure one final time. Vader had known his own subordinates to do the same, on occasion. It was considered the more honourable course of action by many of the Core aristocracy. Yes, that was where he had seen this man before… the son of Governor Ts'umin… He ought to have recognised him, with that incident in his thoughts just earlier. It was unfortunate that the son should attempt to follow his father in such a way. Ts'umin shook his head. "I thought that at the opera. How funny."

"That is hardly fair," the Dark Lord pointed out matter-of-factly, "considering my vocation."

The young man nodded. "I suppose so. Could… could you give the Emperor a message for me, my Lord?"

Vader said nothing, merely waited, oddly mesmerised by the spectacle. He realised the Emperor's magic didn't want this young man to die; tugging persistently at Ts'umin's mind. It was taking all of the young man's willpower to remain on the ledge; Ts'umin's shoulders were shaking and his breathing was laboured. Perhaps the Dark Lord ought to stop him? He took two steps toward the railing.

Ts'umin took his silence for consent. "Tell His Majesty… tell him I'm sorry I could no longer be of use to him and that… when I see Anakin… I'll tell him everything that was meant for him and… and not me."

The blue eyes, somewhat dishevelled blond hair, full lips, and tall, athletic build; the way Dangor had glared at him – an ire inappropriate towards someone else's servant – Palpatine's possessive aura, smeared all over Ts'umin until his own spirit was little but a whisper… All of it fell into place just as Ts'umin slipped backwards into the chasm of the Grand Corridor. Vader cried out, rushing forward, trying to pull him back with the Force, but his grasping gloves met empty air and Ts'umin was little but a fast disappearing spec far below and the ghost of a scream.

He clung to the balcony in shock, trying to process what he'd just witnessed. He could sense rather that see when the young man hit the ground, a small blotting in the Force like snuffing out a candle. Far more discernible was the horror and dismay of those below, at the mess of Ts'umin's corpse.

The Dark Lord could hardly credit it. The whole incident was surreal, impossible. Could his Master reallyhave kept such a servant? It seemed ludicrous. Sidious, who never allowed anyone close, who viewed tenderness as a tool; never seeming to require anything for himself beyond the power to which he had devoted his existence. Vader had long supposed his Master's sexuality subsumed by his sorcery; aroused only by the heights of Dark Side possession. He'd never considered that Palpatine could ever be attracted to anything as banal as appearance or gender… that he could feel the same needs as any other being.

Yet he did. And he'd used this young man for that purpose. It explained the encroachment of the Emperor's aura; it didn't have to be pain funnelled into Ts'umin's spirit which took him beyond the suggestible state of weak-minded individuals who associated with a powerful Force-user. How long had this been the state of affairs? Was this the only one, or had the Emperor concealed many such men from Vader? The Dark Lord would never have believed it of him. I'll tell him everything that was meant for him and… and not me

Lord Vader stood on the balcony for several hours, long after what remained of Alexis Ts'umin was cleared away.

"I followed up on your lead," Mara Jade's voice was as collected as ever. Moteé couldn't help but like the young woman for her professionalism, though the river of copper hair was equally attractive. She was useful, at any rate. "It turns out you were right. He didn't know where Iulia Ts'umin has gone to ground, but Jejic started spilling all sorts of interesting things once I turned him over to Isard..."

"I'm glad to have been of assistance to you," Lady Pestage smiled quietly, pouring Jade a second cup of tea. "It helps assuage the guilt I feel about the fact that I was used to get to His Majesty. When one of my handmaidens reported some of her clothes and access ID missing, I'm afraid I didn't take it at all seriously…"

"You won't make the same mistake again," Jade said confidently, but with a blank seriousness beyond her years; a voice which had learned that beings who repeated their mistakes seldom lived long.

"No, you can be sure of that." They drank in silence for a while and then Moteé said abruptly, "You know the thing that shocks me most? The naivety of it all."

"What do you mean?" The Emperor's Hand raised a coppery eyebrow, setting down her cup and leaning back in her chair, listening to the peaceful sound of the fountain playing.

"My husband told me about the message they tried to broadcast: a lot of nonsense about setting up a provisional government and ending the imperial system. They can't really have supposed that the Empire will end with His Majesty, can they?" Moteé frowned, resting his chin on one hand. Jade shook her head, her gaze darkening as she thought about such individuals and what she would do to them given the opportunity. Lady Pestage wanted to laugh – the answer was right there and no one had the wit to see it. "And why attempt it one of the rare times the Emperor's heir is on Imperial Centre? All they would have accomplished would be assisting Lord Vader onto the throne."

"You don't think–?" Mara Jade's eyes were wide, her lithe form suddenly alert.

"Do I believe Lord Vader was responsible? No, I've known him for many years and I feel certain such a ruse is not in his character. I believe it's more likely that beings who would prefer to see him on the throne persuaded the rebels they would be able to do just the opposite and recreate the Republic in the event of the Emperor's death. Either way, I am shocked at their credulity and unsurprised therefore at the failure of their cabal."

She bid farewell to the Emperor's agent and turned on her heel, moving to sit on the rim of the fountain. It had been Lady Padmé's idea to bring the waterfalls of Theed into her Coruscant apartment and the soft noise and cool feel of it always soothed Moteé. She crumpled the skirts of her dress in her hands. There would be other opportunities. Volara's failure was unfortunate. The vizier's wife had told Jade the truth: it was essential to act when Lord Vader was resident on Imperial Centre and not only did an Alliance assassination place suspicion elsewhere, it would also have provided the Dark Lord with strong support and a mandate of vengeance. Moteé believed in the Empire, not Palpatine, and she had known Anakin Skywalker for long enough to know that he still possessed certain of those qualities which her old mistress praised so long ago. And the rebels… the rebels were dead in any case.

Lady Pestage knew that she ought to have disposed with Iulia Ts'umin. It was the sensible course of action. Yet she found herself incapable of doing so, continuing to hide the Alliance agent within her retinue, regardless of the danger and despite the fact that a lie bound them together - Iulia's continued, mistaken belief that Moteé was honest in her contact with the Rebellion. Yes, she had faith in Vader, but watching her husband and Palpatine had taught her much. There was a rustling beside her as the handmaiden seated herself at Moteé's side. Both women's eyes were down-turned, but their hands found each other and it was Lady Pestage's hand which squeezed the tightest.

The Imperial Throne was set atop an immense flight of darkly marbled steps; a great stone gap between subjects and sovereign – such a vast distance that it was only through the eyes of the Force that Palpatine could see those lesser mortals clustering below. Courtiers and suppliants only ascended part way up, with only a favoured few permitted to set foot on the crowning dais from which the Emperor presided.

It was from that remote seat that Palpatine sensed Alexis' death. Nor could he acknowledge it, mid-way through receiving a deputation from Eriadu. His fingers trembled slightly and those observing him might have said he looked truly grieved at the plight of the Eriaduan citizenry being related by its governor – so much so that that proud man would subsequently tell all his acquaintances who would listen, just how movedHis Majesty had been by his courtly speech.

Palpatine kept all of his appointments that day; taking care to show himself capable and uninjured by his ordeal. He received his apprentice later than most: Vader at his best – all raging thoughts and dark desire. And the Emperor welcomed the distraction, reluctant to retreat to his empty chambers. "I am relieved to see you are unhurt, my Master." The Dark Lord's vocabulator rumbled. Palpatine inwardly sneered at the comment, highly sceptical of the merits of its sincerity.

"Thank you, my friend," he nodded, accepting the words with what would once have been considered a charmingly gracious smile – the effect ruined by his blackened teeth.

"Please accept my condolences at your loss." Vader's tone was flat and indecipherable.

The Emperor's golden stare narrowed, "My… loss?" he echoed vaguely, with the unflinching and perplexed stare of the consummate dissimulator he was. The Dark Lord could not possibly know!

"Indeed, Master." There was a laconic purr to those words that disturbed Palpatine immensely. "I refer to the son of the late Governor Ts'umin. He asked me to deliver a message to you, if you wish to hear it?" A dark plume of anticipation rose in the Force.

"Oh?" Palpatine spat the syllable haughtily – utterly disdainful – but underneath it he was reeling with shock. How had they come to know each other, was it Vader who had Alexis killed? But below even that was a deep distress that would surely have shown in his face had not it already been bleached of colour.

"He asked me to convey his apologies to you, Master, for his departure." Vader's visor shone with the same sleek obsidian polish as the throne.

"How thoughtful of him," the Sith Master replied coldly, anger rising around him. He could see Alexis in Vader's thoughts: a bright, momentary presence illuminated by realisation. Oh, what his apprentice must think of him! How pathetic he must surely appear – how weak! But Palpatine refused to show his apprentice an inch of the pain he felt, nor the merest suggestion of attachment towards the dead boy.

"Yes," said the Dark Lord carefully, "and if you have no further engagements this evening, Master, I thought I might keep you company, if such a thing would amuse you?" It would have caused the Emperor overwhelming pleasure at any other time. But now he had to fight the urge to automatically throw the invitation back in Vader's face. He felt sure he was being mocked with this false courtesy. In his distress, it took Palpatine too long to answer and thus he failed to notice the proffering of the leather-gloved hand until it was right under his nose. "I know," the lord said quietly, "that it would please me."

The Emperor's glare softened and, although he did not take the hand, he caressed it fondly with one of his own. With the dissipation of his anger, an exceptional weariness took hold of him, and the thought drifted across his mind that he was far too old for such things. How endearing his Anakin was, even after so many years – his beloved possession still. But Sidious' heart was empty; exhausted and sick. He had no reserves left to him and he was terrified of allowing Vader close when in such a state, for fear of making some great and binding mistake. It might even be a ruse, this affection, his apprentice inspired to continue where Volara Ts'umin left off. "I… should like that, my friend," he replied softly. "But perhaps another evening – I find that in yesterday's commotion I have… neglected a great many things."

"Of course, my Master." The fingers fell sharply, starkly away, and it was only when Vader had gone, and he had retreated to his solitary chambers, that Emperor Palpatine found that he was blinking back tears.