AND this, Your Highness, is the dining hall," Spencer said confidently.
She was only half listening. The architecture of the palace in Theed delighted her. It was beautiful, with soft colours and lovely gardens. That she could look out one window and see the town, and another window and see a sharp drop and rolling mountains in the distance was delighting in it and of itself, for she could not do such a thing on Alderaan.
"It has been over twenty-four years since this hall has been used. Since the inception of the Clone Wars, if I am not mistaken."
Gods, it was weird. Twenty-four years this, twenty-four years that. Everything seemed to coincide with when she had been born. It shouldn't have given her chills, but it did. She had never seen democracy, her highest role model, but she had been born while it took its last heaving breaths and then fell into dormancy.
Dormancy. Democracy would be awakened before her generation was gone. She hadn't worked so hard to see her efforts whither away.
"When the empress was queen, invaders managed to destroy a section of this famous dining hall. If you'll look, you'll notice the scar in the corner, by the window…"
The material from which the palace was made was much bolder, much deeper in colour than that of the surrounding materials in that corner by the window. It must have cost a fortune to repair it; one of the support beams had been cracked, she noticed, glancing towards the ceiling.
The hand-painted ceiling.
Feeling ridiculous, she tilted her head back, studying the painting. It was a painting of what she supposed was all of Naboo, complete with rivers, mountains, deserts, drylands, lakes, people, Gungans among them. Beautiful.
Spencer, noticing the direction of her gaze, said, "Thirty six years ago, Queen Amidala made peace with the Gungans, the first of such an agreement in centuries, and after the Battle of Naboo, she commissioned a man named Paolo to paint that section."
Yes, this was a fine gilded cage, this palace on Naboo, filled with art and history. Although, if Padmé had spoken the truth, the palace was merely her part of her house, and the whole planet itself would be her playground. She doubted what Padmé had spoken.
She wondered when fresh air would grace her lungs again. Six months? After the empress vowed to release her? Standing on her balcony did not count.
"And that throne," Spencer began, but his comlink sounded. "Excuse me," he said politely, and answered it, listening for a moment, then vowing to "be right there."
He placed it back on his belt. "I'm needed to help with-"
A soft throat clearing stopped him, and he flushed. "I'll see you around, Your Highness. If I may…" He waited, and without thinking, she inclined her head, silently dismissing him to attend his duties.
Then, as she watched him retreat, a woman stepped to her side silently. She had been the one to clear her throat, urging him into silence.
Leia blinked, and a pit gathered in her stomach. She knew, deep in her gut, that this woman had been with them the entire time, and she hadn't noticed.
And that meant she was good at her job.
Leia turned to get a better look at her new "companion." She was met with a red hood, and a red robe. No distinguishing features were visible.
One of the handmaidens.
Instantly, her situation slapped her in the face. She had been momentarily distracted by the tour, the architecture, but now that one of the empress's most loyal servants faced her, the joy seeped into the cold stone beneath her feet.
She gritted her teeth, then stopped herself, cursing the habit she had managed to adopt. Quietly, she demanded, "Who are you?"
"They call me Cordé," she replied, her voice even and steady. Even having known Padmé for such a short amount of time, she could tell that the handmaiden's voice resembled the empress's. "I am to be your escort for the duration of your visit, Your Highness."
"Oh, are you now? How kind and thoughtful of Her Majesty." The last words were almost snarled.
There was silence for a moment; Cordé then said, "I'm to be watching you for the duration of your capture, Leia."
She didn't know if it were intended to be funny, but she laughed anyway, wanting to see the handmaiden's response.
The woman chuckled as well, albeit more softly, and gestured towards the far side of the Hall. Leia obeyed, falling into a slow step, more due to her lack of practise with long heels than reluctance.
As they walked in silence, the princess's mind was racing. She doesn't sound as though she agrees with the empress? A potential ally, maybe? "How did you come to serve the empress?"
Cordé glanced at her, or at least the hood shifted in her direction. "I served her when she was a senator."
"A tender subject?" Leia prodded, softly.
"No, not at all! She was a kind, respectful mistress. I do not, however, relish the memory of being blown to pieces in her name. Or the memory of dying in her arms."
Leia snapped her mouth shut, a myriad of emotions flooding through her. First and foremost was shock. The handmaiden still served, even after being roasted? Second, irritation, for the empress was "kind" and "respectful," and third because—
She voiced her third emotion, because she couldn't name it mentally. "How did you die in her arms if you had been 'blown to pieces'?"
"What a morbid thought."
"Perhaps you should end it, then."
"We were travelling to Coruscant; she in a fighter, me in the actually ship. We landed, ka-boom, and then I was being cradled. Her security officer, gods, Typho, I think his name was, was begging her to leave the area, she assured me I hadn't failed her… and that was it," Cordé said matter-of-factly.
No potentially ally here. Whoops.
"Oh," she said, and they walked in silence for a moment.
What kind of woman was this Padmé, to inspire such loyalty in her followers? What kind of woman is she now?
"I'm sorry I asked," she said, and the handmaiden chuckled. "I figured you would ask, Highness. I'd been preparing for that question since Padmé - Her Majesty, excuse me – gave me this assignment. If anything, I am delighted that you asked so bluntly. You know now. No potential allies, at least for your escape, in me."
"Am I that predictable?"
"No. It's what any rational person would do in this situation. Did you see all that you wanted to see?"
A guide in this cage, hmm? "I want to see Theed."
"I want never gets, Princess," the woman said, and Leia could hear the amusement in her voice.
"I would like to see Theed. I was planning on visiting when I was so rudely interrupted."
Silence. Finally, Cordé sighed. "Very well. You like ice cream, I trust?"
Perrine's had the best ice cream Leia had ever tasted, but she refused to say as much.
Granted, she hadn't had much ice cream; she wasn't fond of sweets under most circumstances.
"Well?" asked Cordé, who had gotten herself a fruit flavour that Leia didn't know.
"It's okay," she answered.
They were sitting at a booth in a dark corner of the store — a store that, to Leia's amusement, seemed to double as a bar as well as an ice cream parlour.
Seeing Cordé look at something over on the other side of the store, she began to search for an escape.
"Don't even think about it, kiddo."
Leia jumped back at the deep, masculine voice, and she lifted her gaze into the barrel of a blaster. She stiffened, and lifted her gaze higher. The man before her had dark skin, a shaved head, and wore an apron. He carried a tray with drinks, balanced on the hand that held the blaster. "I'm not a child."
"Call it an endearment," he answered. "Every imp that comes in here gets one."
"I am not with the empire!" she snarled, slamming the cup of ice cream on the table. She could feel her cheeks flaming with anger, and she gripped the cup so tightly her knuckles were white.
He held up his hands placatingly. "You are with Her Majesty's handmaiden; what was I to assume?"
"Jenks," grumbled Cordé.
"Hey, handmaiden, she was trying to escape."
"I know that."
"Oh." He looked closer, trying to peer under the hood. "Who are you?"
He nodded, his handsome features adopting a satisfied expression. "You're an oldie."
Leia lurched to her feet. "Who," she demanded, not caring that she was interrupting, "is he?"
Cordé stood as well. "Jenks is the son of Her Majesty's most loyal advisor, Sabé. He owns this place. Every single employee here is pro-empire. All of them can fight, wield weapons, and would die in the empress's name." She leaned closer. "You can't get out of here." She turned to Jenks. "This is Princess Leia, of Alderaan."
He holstered the blaster, peering at her curiously. He then bowed, deeply, graciously, without facetiousness. "I should have known. You look like your ma. It's a pleasure to meet you, Your Highness."
Leia felt the fury inside her quickly replace itself with dread. That comparison made her cringe. From members inside the palace, she had expected it, but here? Even if it was run by the imps, it was different.
THIS is life threatening," Mace Windu said. "If Padmé convinces her to train under Vader, they will be unstoppable.
"We think she would be stronger than you if versed in the Dark, Luke," he added, seeing the youngest Jedi open his mouth. "You have known anger, fear, sadness, but you have never truly used it. Leia has, for her entire life, controlled every emotion she felt, and when she would feel them, and how much she could feel. The Dark Side is all about controlling such emotions. She would learn, very quickly, and her power would, potentially, be greater. Inversely, if she were a Jedi, her power would be weakened by her constantly fighting such emotions."
Obi-Wan said, "This is a theory, of course. Hopefully nothing will happen."
"And nothing will!" Bail Organa said emphatically. "She is emotional, of course, but she has excellent self control, and she knows when she is being manipulated. She handled the Senate, for gods' sake, she can handle one empress!"
Obi-Wan glanced at him. "People once called Amidala the voice of the senate. If Leia once bowed to that, chances are she will bow again."
"Not if she doesn't want to," Luke interjected.
But Bail seemed to be considering that statement. "Padmé always managed to get under everyone's skin," he murmured. "You didn't know you were being manipulated until you were manipulated, basically. I-"
His comlink sounded. He glanced at it. "I don't know who this is," he murmured, "so if you gentlemen will excuse me for a few moments…" He stepped away, and said, "Hello?"
Luke, Obi-Wan, and Mace all could hear the soft, feminine voice answer him. "Hello, Bail."
Instantly, the Jedi stepped closer, gesturing for the thunderstruck Bail to respond.
"Padmé," he answered, eventually, once he'd gathered himself. "How-how did you find-"
"I'm the empress. Do you have any idea how many resources I have at my fingertips? Especially without any restrictions, or at least people stopping me from violating the laws. Anyway, how have you been?"
"How have I-!" He struggled to stay calm. "I'm fine, fine. You?"
"I'm well, thank you. I wanted to discuss Leia with you-"
"There is nothing to discuss," he snapped, his anger finally setting in once the shock had faded away. "You will give my daughter back now." The second he finished speaking, he knew he'd misspoken. He waited for her snap back.
"Six months," she said, quietly, almost sadly — the exact opposite of what he had planned. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the expression of wonder on Luke's face, and the expression of distrust on Obi-Wan's. Windu was emotionless.
She continued: "Six months, and you can pick her up. She agreed to that."
She got to her already?
"Well, I suppose 'agree' is a relative term," Padmé added, almost as an afterthought. "I informed her, and she threw another fit, but I will let her go in six months."
"I don't believe you." The words slipped out before he could help it, but he could see the Jedi nodding in agreement, Luke included. "Why would I trust you now, Padmé?"
"I wish, Bail, that I could answer that. Nothing I can tell you will ease your mind."
"Let me speak with Leia."
"She's not with me."
"You expect me to believe that?"
"Believe what you wish, Bail. I can only give information; how you interpret it is your choice. She's in the town, with a few of my handmaidens, eating ice cream. I suppose I can have her call you later." She paused, hummed, and added, "Six months from yesterday. I shall speak to you soon. Evening, Bail, Master Kenobi, Master Windu. Luke."
And the line fell silent.
BACK on Naboo, Padmé smiled.