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Chapter Six

She took his breath away.

The cream bodysuit and cloak seemed to draw in the sunlight to wreathe her in a golden glow, highlighting lustrous, dark brown hair tied up in an intricate series of coils gathered at her nape. He couldn't stop staring.

Padmé didn't look too composed herself. In fact, she looked like he'd floored her. As always memories swirled. Then she snapped back to awareness, flushing. "I'm fine," she said, dropping her gaze. "But my friend isn't. Excuse me."

Yanked back to reality, Anakin stepped aside. Padmé strode past him to hunker down beside a large, dark-skinned human and Tenku. Feeling out of place, he kept his distance. The two women were glancing between Padmé and him, obviously having seen something unusual in their reaction to one another. That thought made him feel even more uncomfortable. He dropped his own gaze to the floor, hoping that his face hadn't betrayed every wretched emotion.

Why in Chaos had he come here? He should have stayed away. He should have tried harder to meditate instead of giving in to the need to do something: reach out to someone, distract himself somehow. He'd made an impetuous decision and all it had done was bring him before Padmé again.

This meeting was the last thing he'd needed. After last night, he'd needed time to calm down, adjust and accept.

Also, he didn't need to be told that his coming here had caused a starshipload of trouble that likely wouldn't have occurred without his presence to incite it. A penchant for trouble had always plagued him as Skywalker—and one he thought he'd long since been rid of.

Apparently not.

Trying not to look as if he was watching her every move, Anakin saw Padmé gently examine the fiery, raw weal marring her friend's forehead. It looked to be the only wound. A white turban had also suffered damage from the blaster bolt, falling into singed folds around her neck. Reaching out, he found the woman's lifeforce to be strong. There was no fading here: Padmé's friend was still fully enmeshed in life. If things were different between him and Padmé, he would have knelt beside her and assured her there was nothing to worry about.

As it was, he hung back.

"Two millimetres to the left and you'd have a hole in your head," Padmé joked, shakily, raising a wan smile from the invalid. "Can you stand?"

"To get out of here, absolutely" the other woman declared with a grimace. "Just don't blame me if I lose the distressingly ample breakfast I ate this morning. If that looks likely, I'll try to aim elsewhere."

"You'd better." Padmé grinned to bolster her. "These boots are new."

Not a small woman by anyone's standards, the manoeuvre was tricky until Anakin said, "Here, let me help." Smoothly replacing Tenku, he placed his fingers around the other upper arm, offering effortless support as he raised her to her feet. Despite the painful-looking wound, dark eyes ringed with gold eyed him with deep curiosity as they made the transition to upright.

He was thanked warmly for his assistance. Stiffly, Padme performed the introductions. "Councillor Oboné is a very dear friend of mine as well as a colleague. Oboné, may I present—"she faltered as if unsure what title to use, then seemed to reach a decision. "—Master Skywalker."

"Just Anakin Skywalker will do fine," he corrected, stepping back and failing to hide a wince. His reaction was knee-jerk. He'd never attained the rank of 'Master'. The Jedi Council had been too suspicious of him—rightly suspicious. He added it to the list of those he wasn't comfortable with. The mental list now consisted of two-Jedi and Master.

Now if only people would stop foisting them on him.

Oboné seemed to approve. Despite being a little unsteady, she held out a large, callused hand to be shaken, saying, "Simple is better. Personally, I have fifteen names, which is why I only ever use one."

"I agree. Who needs that headache?" Relaxing, Anakin decided that he liked her, and not just because the woman had the courage to put herself between a friend and danger. Courage and loyalty were two traits he'd always admired—directness was a third, and he sensed that gift in this woman. He didn't wonder that Padmé considered her a friend. He found comfort in that.

In the middle of his musings, he was distracted by the familiar whine of a repulsorlift engine. Glancing up to the sky, Anakin saw a small freighter bearing an insignia he didn't recognise hovering overhead. Snub-nosed and compact, it was small enough to land in the courtyard and began to lower. The air around them churned, forcing them back. His hand went automatically to the lightsaber he'd clipped back on his belt.

"It's one of Lyonides' security scouts. They've been looking for you since last night," Padmé told him. Her beautiful face was expressionless, but he knew the nuances of her voice well enough to recognise a mild loathing. Alerted, he wondered about it.

"So I've heard," he replied, lightly. "I was thinking of letting them find me … sooner or later."

The slight figure of Tenku shuffled over to stand on his left, saying dryly, "Brace yourself; I think sooner has just arrived. Probably some snake in The Hole thought they'd earn a reward by reporting your latest antics. It's not exactly a secret in Roth that the Premier wants a chat."

It seemed she was right. The freighter landed and the ramp lowered, disgorging two of its contingent.

o~o~o

"He's very handsome isn't he?"

The question jolted Padmé. Her first thought was an acknowledgement. He'd always been beautiful. She was careful to keep her voice too low to carry. "Yes, I suppose he is."

Laid flat on a hoverstretcher and pumped full of painkillers, Oboné was too blissed out to worry about anybody overhearing. "Oh, hush! 'Suppose.' Bah!"

"Oboné, please!" Padme didn't need to look to the opposite bench where Anakin sat to know that he could hear every word. Mortified, she wished she'd refused the offer of a more comfortable flight to the medcentre. Then she felt guilty. The speeder would have been horribly cramped, and the onboard first aid kit didn't include the type of drugs available on a military transport.

She just had to get the topic off Anakin, that was all. She latched onto the first alternative that came to mind. "I'll be coming in with you to wait until you've been treated and then take you home."

Raising her head off the stretcher a touch, Oboné's eyes sharpened enough to prove that she wasn't out for the count yet. "You can't do that. You have to be there when Lyonides tries to pour on the honeyed charm, slathering it all over our new hero so that he gets the sweet-smelling fallout."

"I—you…what?" She finally managed to frame a sentence. "You think Lyonides has honeyed charm?"

Oboné's dark eyes crossed comically and she closed them, lowering her head again and sighing, "Never mind, you get my drift."

Unfortunately, she did.

Frowning, Padmé focussed on a manacled Greesh seated on another moulded plasto bench, sandwiched between two guards on the port side of the cramped transport freighter. The security detachment differed greatly from the more decorative Rothian Guard: instead of a uniform, they wore full body armour the colour of dull bronze. With their deceptively stubby E-33 carbine rifles, they reminded Padmé strongly of the clone troopers. She tried not to hold that against them.

"I don't see what my presence there will accomplish."

"You could try cosying up to him first." Oboné's attempt at a conspiratorial whisper seemed loud enough to create an echo.

"Cosy up—!" Padmé shot upright so hard the top of her head almost connected with an overhanging storage compartment. She broke the conversation with a terse, "Why don't you try going to sleep?" Red-cheeked and stiff, she risked a glance at Anakin and found him in casual conversation with the trooper on his right. Relief swamped her. It also occurred to her to wonder if he'd done it deliberately. It didn't matter, she decided, frantically clinging to the hope that he hadn't heard Oboné's suggestion.

Gods! Apart from the impossibility of such a thing, she remembered all too clearly his revulsion for the underhand tactics of some politicians. It had been a point of view they'd shared, like so many things. Until opposing opinions on Palpatine's emergency powers had started a rift: the first cracks.

Like so many, the memory was a painful one. Stop it! She admonished herself, clenching her fists and staring fixedly at a point on the ceiling. Stop thinking about the past. You keep doing it, and yet you hurt no-one but yourself.

Obligingly, Oboné did as she suggested and dropped off to sleep. A moment later, Padmé forced her thoughts to travel elsewhere, turning to the exchange she'd witnessed between Anakin and Tenku.

If only it had been illuminating instead of confusing.

She'd had to stand aside as the onboard medtech trooper had seen to Oboné. Her retreat to give the man room had taken her within hearing distance of Anakin and Tenku. She'd overheard the old woman ask him what had been so important that he'd gone in search of her.

Interested despite herself, Padmé had turned enough to see him shrug, embarrassed, saying, "I wanted to thank you for helping me."

"You did that already."

"Yes, but I didn't mean it. Now I do."

Solemn faced, he'd held out his hand. Squinting suspiciously, Tenku had held her own out too. Anakin pressed a bag of credits into the tiny, dry palm, closing the old woman's fingers over it. "Thank you."

Even in retrospect, Padmé's heart clenched. It had been an oddly compelling scene: the tall, powerful young man and the tiny, wizened old scrap of a woman. Even the Anakin of old, before Vader, wouldn't have noticed such as Tenku—-seeing her as neither threat nor ally. He had always been so focused on goals that the little things had passed him by. Not so now, it seemed. She didn't have a clue how to interpret that, so zeroed in on the question uppermost in her mind. What could they possibly have in common? Blankly bemused all over again, Padmé could only wonder how the two had met, and what Tenku had done to earn Anakin's gratitude.

Only one thing was certain: nothing was going the way she'd expected.

o~o~o

The gulf between the technology rich core and the backward outer rim was striking. The landing bay in central Roth marked the beginning of Anakin's second visit to the core, and the differences were immediately obvious. Once they stepped off the ramp onto the smooth grey floor, their escort surrounded them in an efficient perimeter. Padmé was forced to walk at his side. Her thoughts must have been running parallel to his own.

She waved a hand at the pristine and efficient terminal, thick with ships of all sizes, busy droids, uniformed troopers, speeders and bikes. "It's like two worlds in one city, isn't it?"

"It certainly seems a lot more automated in the core."

Anakin eyed a thick cluster of flat view-screens attached to the ceiling in the very centre. It looked like a giant, black, three-dimensional eye alternately scrolling data or showing ships departing and arriving. Squat droids were monitoring them constantly and updating a series of consoles underneath.

"We've run out of living accommodation in safer districts of the city, so rather than face that issue, Lyonides had been importing more and more droids to the do the work."

"So much for bettering yourself and getting a core job that lets you leave the outer rim."

"Exactly."

Anakin sensed that she wanted to say more, but was holding herself back. It bothered him enough that he didn't let is slide. "There's more isn't there? What aren't you telling me?"

Reaching a turbolift, they stepped inside along with their escort. She didn't look at him. "Lots, but I've decided to let you find out for yourself. Don't worry. I'm sure you won't have to wait long."

She didn't trust him with her opinions. It hurt, peeling back fresh wounds. He could so easily recall a time when he would have been able to push her, refusing to accept secrets. That memory goaded him. "Do you trust me so little that you won't even share your opinion?"

The lift began to ascend smoothly. In contrast, Padmé's glance was laser sharp. "Have you forgotten that the last time I gave you my opinion on politics, you hinted at treason?"

That reminder hurt even more. "I was wrong."

Looking at him, she relented. "My opinions are public record, so I suppose it can't hurt. I refuse to support a government that enforces the rule of one unilateral leader. I've been fighting for a democracy in Junga Roth for years, but with limited success." She paused, adding significantly, "I don't expect you to feel the same."

"Why?" he asked. "Because I've supported a dictatorship before?"

"That," she agreed, "and the fact that you've been enforcing that same dictatorship for decades. You can't deny it Anakin."

The condemnation in her eyes forced him to look away. "I wasn't going to try."

There didn't seem to be anything left to say. He'd lost her trust. Remorse wasn't anywhere good enough. In uneasy silence, they exited the turbolift—to blindingly bright, flashing lights. If it wasn't for the lack of menace, Anakin might have thought they were under attack. Well, they were in a way. Un-squinting his eyes with one hand lifted to shield them, he saw it was a media crew, or, more accurately, a gaggle of them. The more aggressive elbowed their way to the front. Holocams bristled in the throng. All persons present were human. The only thing that stopped a stampede was the presence of heavy-duty cordons. Still, questions came thick and fast, hurled through the air.

An exotic looking female with glossy hair swept up in a series of dark knots got in the first question. "Anakin Skywalker, are you related to the Jedi Knight who was known as the 'Hero Without Fear' during the Clone Wars?"

After that, it was little more than a cacophony of sharp, demanding voices, with only a few rising above the rest enough to heard.

"You fight with a lighsaber, a Jedi weapon. Are you a Jedi?"

"What made you decide to take on the Narzgh single-handed?"

"What offer is the Premier preparing to present to you?"

Seeing Padmé, some directed their questions to her.

"Councillor, has the Premier authorised you to make an offer to the 'Hero of the Outer Rim'? If so, what does it involve?"

"No comment."

"Councillor Amidala, you've come to the palace together. Do you know each other? Have you met before?"

Padmé pushed through, using the small gangway left for them to pass and deftly avoiding grasping hands. "No comment."

A persistent male wearing triangulated face paint grabbed Anakin's arm as he went to pass by. "What is a Jedi doing in Junga Roth? The current belief is that the Jedi are extinct."

"I'm not a Jedi. Now excuse me." Having said all he was willing to say, Anakin pulled free and followed in Padmé's wake, before he was tempted to shove some of those recorders into various bodily orifices.

He caught up with her shortly after she'd disappeared down a short, spotless corridor. "That was just the first gauntlet," she warned him as he drew up. "Brace yourself for more. Lyonides is aiming for full publicity."

"I appreciate the warning."

A short skyride later, they were stopped at a security checkpoint. The questions were tedious and the double-checking extensive. Even the troopers had to have their hand prints verified. Next came the search. It was a tense moment while Anakin wondered if they would try and take his lightsaber off him. Strangely enough, they didn't try.

"Be glad that you're human," Padmé told him when they finally cleared. "Paranoia over terrorism makes them brutal to non-humans."

"Terrorism?"

She shook her head, refusing to be drawn. "You'll find out."

There was no time for more anyway. On the other side and through an archway, they were met by a delegation headed by a tall, thin human draped head to toe in black. With the exception of the leader, the group of four were wearing lavish ornamental robes. Two wore headdresses. Despite it all, they were easily out-shone by the vista behind them. Lush scenery tamed into geometric patterns led up to a sprawling stone palace. Anakin was strongly reminded of Theed. The sun was setting, washing the scene with a heavy reddish-gold glow. At the top of stone steps leading to those verdant gardens, their welcoming committee stood watching as Padmé and Anakin were brought before them.

The commander in charge of their escort snapped off a salute to the man in black. "Anakin Skywalker as requested by the Premier, Minster."

A thin-lipped smile crossed a gaunt face. "Very well, and about time."

Deep set, colourless grey eyes turned to the pair. "Welcome, Anakin Skywalker. I am Security Minister Guil Natar. You're a hard man to track down." A beat later, Natar bowed stiffly to Padme. "Councillor. How nice—and surprising—to see you arriving with our guest."

Making a snap judgement, Anakin decided he really didn't like the man. "We were in the same place and caught the same ride here."

"Oh, and where was that?"

"Whores Hole," shot back Padmé. "You might know it."

"I see, and no, not intimately. I don't normally have occasion to go there."

"Of course you don't. It's an oasis of peace and filled only with law-abiding citizens. Why would a man dedicated to the security of the city's people need to visit such a place?"

The thin lips pinched, souring, "I see you're well after your … escapade, and as sarcastic as ever?"

"Not at all, I merely call it as I see it."

Wisely deciding not to continue the confrontation, Natar bowed again and gestured to the palace behind them, saying, "Perhaps you would like to go on ahead. I'm sure the Premier will forgive your casual attire this one time. You really must hurry. The rest of the council and guests are already gathered and seated, barring yourself and the injured Councillor Oboné. You don't want to lose your place."

Inclining her head, Padmé consented to go with only a brief glance at Anakin.

"A headstrong young woman with passionate opinions," said Natar, seeing that Anakin was watching her go. "It's a great pity when people die young don't you think? Maturity might have given her more realistic perceptions and ambitions."

Anakin flicked his eyes at the man without turning his head. "I think you mean jaded."

One of the other delegates tittered. Red spots of furious colour washed in, and then out, of Natar's pasty cheeks. He recovered well. "You yourself are forty five, I gather. Forgive me, but you don't look it."

"So I'm told. But that doesn't change my date of birth." Fed up of the man and his pointed barbs, Anakin got moving, once again following in Padmé's wake. He wanted this 'meeting' over with. If Lyonides was anything like his minion, then he figured it was going to be … unpleasant.

With no choice, the others followed him.

"Oh quite, quite," said Natar, obligingly, falling back into step. He coughed, then continued, "By the way, I was impressed by your remarkable performance last night—we all were. You're quite the hero. Yet, regrettably, we have very scant information on you. Perhaps after the audience you would consent to an interview so that we may…pad out our records a bit."

Just because he could, Anakin increased his stride, forcing the others to flap after him like distressed hawk-bats. "I sincerely doubt it. I'm not big on interviews. What does the premier want to see me about?" He tossed in the last to see if he could surprise out an answer.

Unfortunately it didn't work. "Ah, I think he'll want to bring that up himself. We'll be there shortly. It's just this way."

o~o~o

Padmé felt everyone in the packed audience chamber sit up and strain to see Anakin as he strode through the heavy wooden double doors. She had to admire his aplomb. There was no sign of nerves anywhere on his face or body. Frowning, she realised that was another change from the man she'd known. Previously Anakin had frequently shown agitation or tension, or at least tension when pushed into an arena he abhorred-primarily politics. Not so now.

She was nervous enough for the both of them, she realised.

Lyonides had adopted his usual stance of legs spread and hands behind his back. Behind him, his heavily carved 'throne' perched unused. As the holocams of the assembled media elite whirred, he smiled expansively. "Ah, the hero of the hour, at last. Welcome, Anakin Skywalker …" he paused, cocking his head, " … or is it Jedi Knight Skywalker? I'm afraid we're a little bit confused on that topic. Perhaps you could start off by enlightening us."

Padmé sucked in a shocked breath at the barely concealed challenge, but if she'd been expecting Anakin to become flustered, she was proved wrong. Stopping dead centre of the floor, he didn't so much as glance at the throng encircling him. It might have been only him and Lyonides. Giving a brief bow, he said, "As you wish. It's very simple. I'm not a Jedi."

It wasn't the words, but the composed, succinct reply that had her gaping. A wave of mutters passed among the ranks, passing over and around her like ocean spray.

Lyonides' brows rose. "I see, and you haven't been one in the past, perhaps?"

Anakin gave a cool smile. "I was given some training, but the Order and I parted ways many years ago—not on the best of terms."

"Many years ago?"

"Yes, many years ago."

"I see. And these rumours about you being some celebrated General from the Clone Wars, are those similarly incorrect? I should warn you that there are those who can clearly recall an Anakin Skywalker from that volatile time. Such fantastical tales are being told all around the city—some swear that you are the very image of him." Lyonides held up his hands in a strong hint of mockery. "The 'Hero With No Fear', or so they say."

Like many, Padmé actually held her breath, waiting for the reply. Anakin folded his arms lightly across his chest; still the picture of unfazed calm. "I was a General in the Clone Wars, but that title was always inaccurate. I was full of fear then—just not of dying."

The mutters grew substantially louder. Heads nodded enthusiastically. There was even a smattering of applause. More cam lights flashed, preserving the moment. Live feed was already been fed to the city-wide holonet. The whole of Junga Roth now knew who the mystery man was, or would by nightfall thought Padmé. Lively debates would already be beginning over the fact and fiction of the one-time Clone Wars hero.

The stage is set, she realised with a sinking feeling. Now that he'd established who Anakin was—or thought he had—Lyonides would move in for the reflected glory.

"How very interesting." Lyonides took a moment to consider Anakin carefully. Padmé wished she could divine what conclusions he drew. "Yes, very, very interesting. We're honoured to have you of course. An ex-Jedi, a hero and a general to boot. We'll be the envy of many who hear about it."

Anakin merely inclined his head. "I'm pleased that you're pleased, Premier, but you haven't told me why I've been sought out and escorted here."

It was said reasonably, even respectfully, but it didn't mask the subtle challenge. Lyonides' eyes narrowed. His smile was less expansive as he moved to prowl the edges of the circling seats. "I can see that I'm dealing with a direct man with no taste for the subtleties of politics. Very well, I admire that, as we all admired your handiwork of last night. It's all over the holonet news. Have you seen it? You're a hero all over again—with or without the fear." Lyonides stopped just to the left and behind Anakin. "That being the case, what else could we do but meet you, and offer you our thanks, as well as something a little more tangible."

Instead of turning to find Lyonides, Anakin found Padmé's eyes, making her stomach lurch sickly. Those bright blue eyes were unreadable, secretive. "And by tangible you mean…what exactly?"

This was it. Curling her fingers into her palms, Padmé jerked her gaze free. She desperately wanted to be somewhere, anywhere, else. Next to her, Saber shifted, sucking in a breath, echoing her thoughts and fears. "This is it. With a man like that in his personal employ, Lyonides will never be dislodged. We may as well give up."

Clasping her hands together to hide their clamminess, Padmé felt icy cold from the inside out. Gods! No, she couldn't give up. The fight would go on, it had to. But, if he did join Lyonides, how far would Anakin go to make sure she got nowhere?

Anakin finally turned to face Lyonides, his expression waiting, inviting.

Lyonides relaxed, reassured of success. "A man with your talents and history could make a huge difference to our poor, beleaguered city. I can offer you the means and opportunity to put all of your skills to work. Junga Roth can offer a great deal to people who are willing to give something back in return. Think of it as a symbiotic relationship where we all work together for the greater good."

Getting into his stride, Lyonides started to prowl again. "For a long time now, I've wanted to improve the security of this great city. I know Security Minister Natar is already looking forward to working with you. I've spoken with him personally on it. I too have a great deal of work for someone such as yourself."

The invitation was there, ready to be snatched up.

"I'm honoured, but his anticipation, and yours, is premature."

Such simple words, almost silkily spoken, but they fell like cluster bombs. Four-hundred assorted councillors and media persons reared back in shock: gasping, denying, no surely…

No one was more shocked than Lyonides himself. "I understand. You want to know more about what is on offer. Where to start? Influence and power, safety, security, comfort and productivity are all essential ingredients to a fulfilling life even after death. These are all on offer. The Narzgh are not our only enemies, you would hardly be bored. And, of course, we would find you accommodation in the core, perhaps the Transvision Tower where Councillor Amidala is quartered. You two have met so I hear. I'm sure she can tell you how comfortable it is there."

"Once again, I thank you, but I've already found accommodation that suits me."

"In the core?" Lyonides snapped, reddening.

"No, in the outer rim."

This time the reaction was even more extreme. Anakin over-rode it with ease. "Don't misunderstand me, Premier. I'm more than interested in hearing these plans you have for improving the security of the city. In fact, I have many questions and opinions to put to you and your advisers. Would you care to hear them?"

Lyonides was almost beyond pretending civility. "Another day perhaps—"

Anakin's voice rose, commanding attention. "Just one then. Give me a thousand men, and I can stop the Narzgh from pillaging the outer third of your city and its population." Now it was he that paced, dominating the space and every eye. "Allow me to design some defences and I would need even fewer troops. Either way, I can defend the Outer Rim and save tens of thousands from being dragged down into darkness and chaos. Surely that is what you want?"

Anakin had the room spell-bound. Padmé felt bizarrely disembodied. One half of her wasn't surprised—the other half was dumbfounded. It was almost as if the last day of her living life had been wiped out and her husband—a good man—was standing there. Disorienting her further was a strong fear. Anakin, Anakin! What are you doing? He'll kill you for this. She had to shake her head to dispel the dizziness.

"Do you think it's that simple?" growled Lyonides, all pretence gone. He was vibrating with fury. The council became restive in the charged atmosphere, looking to each other with deep unease.

Natar rose to his feet, coughing to gain attention. "If I may interject?" he said to Lyonides.

The reply was grated out. "Please do."

From his lofty seat, Natar's smile was gracious, and condescending. "It's a lovely idea, but do you think we haven't considered such tactics many times in the past? I assure you that we've debated strenuously on this very topic." He spread his hands, the picture of woeful helplessness. "We simply don't have a thousand men to spare from the core. Not to mention that it would have to be on a voluntary basis and you wouldn't even get a tenth of that number."

"Why?" asked Anakin, bluntly.

"Why, what do you mean 'why'?"

"Why are your troops willing to defend the core, but not the Outer Rim?"

"Because of the rain barrier, of course…"

Padmé would swear that grim triumph flashed across Anakin's face. "In that case," he said, slowly and succinctly, "the answer is simple. The barrier must be extended to cover the whole city. Not to do so is tantamount to murder."

The silence was deafening. A feather dropping would have resounded. While the rain barrier was brought up frequently during closed council meetings, it was strictly banned from being mentioned to the media—never mind put so brutally. Lyonides had set himself up by inviting them to attend and insisting on a live broadcast. Only, instead of gaining himself an ally that the public could love, admire and perhaps fear, he'd been ambushed. Everyone present realised it.

Simmering, Lyonides recovered enough to step-in, if not graciously. "Another wonderful dream," he dismissed. "Unfortunately, the barrier would collapse entirely if any attempt is made to extend it. The public know this. Only the terrorists refuse to accept that we are already running it at full capacity and can do no more."

"On the existing energy cells we're fully extended, yes." Padmé stood, too, voice ringing. "But more could be bought—must be brought. The technology is already in place. Let us not forget that the barrier did once cover the whole city."

Lyonides whirled on her, fury threading his voice until it was little more than a strangled whisper, it still carried though. "Ancient history, Councillor, as you well know, and energy cells are not easy to come by—also as you well know. What would you have me do, make everyone defenceless in a useless and vain attempt to protect the misfits, terrorists and scum? Is that your idea of a solution?"

He didn't let her reply.

"Of course, I understand. You're delighted to have someone come along to support your idealistic campaign to have us all dragged down into hell. Fair's fair, isn't that right, Councillor?"

"That is hardly what I wish for—"

"Is anyone else glad that an election is due?" asked Lyonides of the crowd, playing them—and her—with thwarted viciousness in every line. "I have to wonder, my dear if you've consulted with all of your constituents on these radical plans of yours."

Padmé stiffened her back and lifted her chin, pointing out, "An election that doesn't include yourself, of course."

"The people don't need to elect me. They already know that I have only their best interests at heart. I am their father, indulgent and protective. For the greater good is my byword, and through me, the same for Junga Roth." His snarl took in both Padmé and Anakin. "This is my city, Councillor. Never forget that. This session is over. You're all dismissed. Get out!"

o~o~o

"Did you prep him?" asked Saber, shakily, as they exited the council chambers. The mass exodus had been swift and silent.

"No, I didn't." And, she hadn't! She hadn't trusted him. "We talked, but not about anything like that." Padmé sympathised with Saber's shock. She was still feeling it herself.

She'd never seen him like that. Anakin had always had presence. His power had always been palpable, but today had been different. He'd been so controlled and calculating. Even his voice and the way he'd spoken had changed. Every word had punch and was delivered in a voice precise enough to draw blood. Pilas Lyonides had been outwitted, outsmarted and dwarfed today. Anakin had both impressed and scared her. She couldn't help but wonder if this 'assurance', for want of a stronger word, was the result of his experiences as Vader?

"There will be repercussions," warned Saber, darkly.

"Yes, of that I have no doubt."

"Lyonides banked too heavily on any sane person wanting to get away from the Outer Rim. He assumed that a few days there would convince this Skywalker of that so that he'd leap on the chance of getting out. Most people would have. I suppose it's hardly surprising that our beloved Premier would make such an assumption—nobility of spirit is hardly a forte of his."

Padmé could only make a non-committal noise. She didn't have a clue what Anakin's motivations were. A wrong guess could be catastrophic, she told herself, no matter what the little voice in her heart was starting to whisper about earnest attempts at redemption. Wishful thinking was an indulgence she couldn't afford.

Clasping shaking hands in front of his robes, Saber changed the subject, asking her, "Are you worried about the elections?"

"Aren't you?"

Saber's Adam's apple bobbed, all the answer she needed.

"If we don't re-win our seats then all public opposition to Lyonides' rule will cease," she pointed out. "A fact of which he is well aware."

"Maybe we should align ourselves with this Skywalker. He seems to have the same objective, and the benefit of a positive public profile."

Padmé wanted to dismiss the idea as swiftly and determinedly as she had Oboné's notion of 'cosying', but the problem was, the idea had merit.

o~o~o

Pilas Lyonides controlled everything he surveyed. He ruled Junga Roth. The council was only in existence because he let it exist. Tonight, simmering still, he watched as hundreds of passenger skiffs sailed between the towers of the core. The hoi polloi running their errands, hurrying to meet lovers, returning home after shift,watching the debacle that shouldn't have happened earlier. Everything in him tightened with fury. A red mist descended to haze his mind. The window was extensive, covering almost one complete wall. Behind him were priceless works of art. His apartments were sumptuous and spacious as befitted the Premier.

None of it soothed him.

"I want him dead," he announced in a harsh voice.

"And who would you use to accomplish such a feat?"

The enquirer had a voice that raised every hair on Lyonides' arms. "There are plenty of bounty hunters in Roth. I'd have my pick."

"And they would be killed," the voice dismissed. "I told you, he will have powers that a mere bounty hunter cannot possibly hope to overcome. Just by trying you would incite a public outcry, and Skywalker to retaliate. You're no good to me dead."

Lyonides stayed where he was. He could barely stomach to look at his visitor. "I could expose him as Darth Vader. Even I've heard that name. There must be a good number here who would hold him responsible for their death. I know the Falleens of Xarac would be interested. Didn't he kill millions on their home world?"

"A failed biological experiment required sterilising." The explanation was followed by a chuckle, a dry rasping sound. "Vader was ruthless, a useful attribute in those days. However, there will be time for such revelations later. Let Skywalker rise up on a swell of hysterical public popularity. It will make his eventual fall all the harder—and sweeter."

"And Amidala?"

There was a rustle and a creak as the creature that had once been an emperor sat at Lyonides desk. "Ah, yes. Sweet Padmé. It is an unexpected bonus to find her here. I will have to think about what to do with her. Such things should never be rushed."

"I don't see what the point is in waiting." Lyonides braced himself to turn and relaxed at finding the hideous, blackened visage hidden in the depths of a cloak. "Why let him, them, solidify their position?"

"Patience had its own rewards, Premier. Find some. It was your own pride that led you to make such a disaster of things today. You weren't subtle. You challenged when you should have appealed. It is a great pity that you couldn't draw him in. But, no matter, we can turn this to our advantage."

Lyonides watched, revolted, as long, skeletal fingers picked delicately at a dish of entrails still swimming in blood. "And you're sure that he can't sense you as you sense him?"

"I fooled hundreds of Jedi over decades, including my foolish, treacherous apprentice. Don't be concerned. Hiding what and where I am is a particular skill of mine. I admit my powers are weaker—whilst his are stronger—but he is not expecting me to be here." The sigh came out as a wheeze. "It is also, regrettably, true that I'm having to expend most of my energy to prevent myself from slipping back into the pit, but I will grow stronger again: which is why we need time."

"Something is telling me that you haven't confided all of your plans to me."

"You know enough. I owned Anakin Skywalker's soul in life and I want it in death too." The malevolence in that statement sent an icy skitter down Lyonides' spine. "Only together will we both prevail."

Finally making his selection, slender, dribbling flesh was dangled over the tipped back hood of Palpatine, revealing the rotten chin and jaw. Lyonides stomach turned again and he turned back to the window, asking, "You're sure you can break this man Skywalker?"

"Consider that another particular skill of mine, and a reward for offering your allegiance to me."

TBC