CHAPTER FOURTEEN: The Pyre

Padmé stepped over the threshold of the Palace's galleried entryway and into the yawning throne room. Mace Windu was with her, along with a cadre of clones and a detachment of impassive Senate Guards. The throne room was empty, its defenders fled. Padmé folded her arms as a brisk wind swept in through the shattered window behind the vacant throne where Amidala had died in smoking pieces. Clones poured by to her either side, sweeping the room with their blaster rifles as they advanced at a measured, cautious pace.

"Gunray emptied the city before we landed," said Master Windu as he walked beside Padmé down the long, arcaded hall toward the throne. "Why, I can't say, but Theed's citizens are safe. There's no sign of the Viceroy." He looked disturbed and angry, his smooth face lined with worry. "I don't like it, Senator."

"No," said Padmé. "It isn't right."

"General Windu!"

A clone had appeared at one of the many arched doorway leading off of the throne room. He had his helmet under his arm and his short, dark hair was disheveled and sweaty. "We've found Viceroy Gunray," he said.

Padmé clutched at her arms, fingernails digging into her skin.

"Take us to him," said Mace, his frown darkening.

Nute Gunray was standing at the edge of the Royal Dock, his elaborate robes billowing around him in the wind as at his back the empty husk of the city burned. He shrank back as Padmé and Mace emerged from the stairwell, his fingers tightening on the blaster pistol he held. Four clones stood opposite him on the landing platform, rifles leveled at his chest. "Senator Naberrie," said Gunray, smiling weakly. "And Master Windu. What a pleasure. What an honor. Your citizens are quite safe, I assure you. Our invasion was an economic measure, not one of conquest." His hands were shaking and there was sweat on his oily green skin. He had lost his tall miter. His bald scalp gleamed.

"You're under arrest, Viceroy," said Mace, striding past Padmé. "Drop your weapon."

"No, Jedi," said Nute, his voice suddenly bitter and waspish. "No. You still don't see it, do you? How we've already beaten you. Your Order, your authority, everything is over now."

"I said stand down," said Master Windu.

"Who is the villain here, Master Jedi?" hissed Gunray, inching backward toward the platform's edge. "Who burned the most beautiful city in the sector? Who lead the Republic into illegal war? The Senate will splinter, the Galaxy will bleed...and it will be remembered as your callous fault. You have fallen into a trap from which there is no escaping." He pointed at Mace, a smile curving his lipless mouth. "My own plans may not have ended precisely as I intended, but..." he glanced skyward and then gave a philosophical shrug, "I have no intention of facing arrest."

And before Mace could so much as move, Nute Gunray took a step back, robes flaring in the wind, and dropped out of view. Padmé stared at the empty air the Viceroy had occupied a moment ago, shocked and horrified. A dull crunch reached her ears a moment later and she turned away, choking back bile. The platform was silent. Mace Windu walked to its lip, accompanied by a pair of clones, looked down and then turned back to Padmé. "He's dead," he said, his voice flat.

Padmé didn't need to look. She had seen enough death and destruction, enough of her burning city and the clones who had died in its pointless retaking. Theed's citizens would return to a wasteland of rubble, a wonder of Naboo pounded to slag by the weapons of the Republic's new Grand Army. They would return to a city where clones marched in white-armored columns down ruined streets, where buildings were still burning, where bombs had cratered homes and gardens. The Senator felt like crying. She clung to her composure with an effort of will.

Plo Koon arrived just as Padmé and Mace returned to the throne room. The Kel-Dor's robes were singed and tattered and his left arm was bound tightly across his chest with bacta-soaked bandages. He walked as though he had aged a hundred years. Mace paused, reading something in the masked face that Padmé couldn't see. She glanced at Windu, panic welling up inside her. What could have gone wrong? What more could have happened?

"Qui-Gon is dead," said Plo, his voice harsh with grief. "Padawan Kenobi is with him."

Padmé stood silent for a long moment as Mace stared at the floor, tears glistening at the corners of his eyes. And then she began to cry, hollow sobs that sent sharp pangs through her chest and shook her shoulders. No. I...no. Mace Windu put his arm around her. Padmé pressed herself against the front of the Jedi's robes, shameless and distraught.

"He's with the Force," Windu said quietly. "It's what he wanted. Let him go.

"Let him go."

OBI-WAN

They burned Qui-Gon after sunset on a balcony of the Palace left intact during the battle. There was not enough of Depa left to place her with him. In the distance, Obi-Wan could see the four grounded cruisers that were all that remained of the Federation's blockade fleet. A Star Destroyer hung low above the city, throwing it into deep shadow. Qui-Gon lay on a bier of oil-soaked wood, composed and calm-looking in a white funeral robe that hid the ruin of his chest and stomach. Senator Naberrie stood at the head of the bier in a mourning dress, her hair flowing down her back except where it was braided in a sort of circlet. Her arms were crossed, her eyes red-rimmed but dry.

The Council, less the slain Master Depa Billaba, stood at the margins of the balcony in stately silence. The Chancellor and several Senators, men and women of a dozen races Qui-Gon had known in life, stood with them. Anakin was at Palpatine's side, pale and tired-looking. Palpatine's hand rested on the younger man's shoulder. Obi-Wan could not look at the boy.

"To the Force, Master Qui-Gon has returned," said Yoda from where he sat cross-legged on the bench that ran the circumference of the balcony. "Honor him not with or tears, do we. Uphold we must the things Qui-Gon loved if his memory we would cherish. Treasure we must the causes he gave his life to." Yoda lowered his old head and clasped his clawed hands together.

"Remember Qui-Gon, we do."

"I remember Qui-Gon," said Master Windu. "He was my friend."

"I remember Qui-Gon," said Plo Koon. "He gave me wise counsel."

"I remember Qui-Gon," said Ki-Adi. "He knew the Force, and its will."

Obi-Wan knew it was his turn to speak. The Council's eyes were turned to him. The Senator was crying silently, tears curving down her painted cheeks. Obi-Wan swallowed. "I remember Qui-Gon," he said quietly. "He was my Master."

The tears came then as Master Windu passed him the torch to light the bier. Obi-Wan blinked them back and lit the fire, watched as its orange tongues licked at Qui-Gon's robes and hair. Smoke rose into the darkening sky, obscuring the sun's last light.

"I remember Qui-Gon."

The voice was deep and had orator's practiced timbre, but it was edged with sorrow. Obi-Wan turned, felt the others turn with him, and saw an old man dressed in black standing at the foot of Qui-Gon's funeral pyre. He was distinguished and handsome, his white-silver hair neatly combed, his beard trimmed close to his long, aristocratic face. Count Dooku put a hand on the stone of the bier, heedless of the flames licking around his fingers. "He was my student, and a son to me."

The Council was silent. Dooku stayed for a long while, gazing into the flames as Qui-Gon burned, and then he turned and left the balcony. One by one the others left, the Senator and Anakin last but for the Council and Obi-Wan. Palpatine too remained, looking troubled.

"A Jedi Knight you are," said Yoda. The flames threw long shadows over him, shadows that danced and flickered. He stood and stepped down from the bench, moving easily despite his age. There was a long silence as the ancient Master stared up at Obi-Wan, and Obi-Wan could feel the incredible power, vigor, and vitality of the diminutive being. Yoda looked down at the floor at last. "Qui-Gon's last request, as you conveyed it, the Council grants.

"Your apprentice Skywalker shall be."

PALPATINE

It had gone beautifully, like the opening movement of a flawless composition. Better, even, than Palpatine had expected. Circumstance had favored him, he had to admit as he sat beside Anakin Skywalker on a bench in the Palace Gardens. His Senate Guards were close by, silent and dutiful in their long blue robes and crested helms. He wondered idly if he should have their uniform changed, perhaps a new color to remove their association with the Senate... But no. Now was a time to keep his mind firmly in the present, rooted in events as they unfolded.

"Anakin," he said, putting a hand on the younger man's arm. "We cannot save every person we love. We cannot control the fate of this Galaxy, only our own small place in it. You must learn to let go of Qui-Gon, to honor his memory with your strength and determination. You will be trained as a Jedi, just as he wished. He would be pleased." Incredible that he survived, that his mother lived to raise him. My Master would have been overjoyed to see his experiment in the flesh, and in the process of realizing his potential...

"The Council made a mistake," said Anakin in a dull, quiet voice. He turned to Palpatine with haunted eyes. "I was on the Republic during the battle. The fleet was in trouble. Losing ships. I...I thought of a way to turn it around. Jump a damaged ship's hyperdrive, detonate it as it entered Hyperspace. The Admiral wouldn't listen to me.

"I made him listen."

Palpatine was silent for a long moment. His mind whirled, processing new information. Such raw power. Such potential, and still untrained. "Anakin," he said. "You knew what had to be done, and you had the power to see it carried out. Your methods, perhaps, were...ungentle, but without you the fleet would have been destroyed, Naboo ground beneath the Federation's heel." He rose, hands clasped behind his back, and paced to the low marble wall beside the river that ran through the gardens. "The Jedi Council may not share our sentiments," he said, turning back to Anakin. "But we know, Anakin, the cost of power and authority. Doing what one knows one must can be a heavy burden. Someone, however, must shoulder it, or the Galaxy pays a harsh price."

Anakin joined him at the wall, staring down into the river's turbulent depths. He looked troubled, but life had returned to his eyes. "How...how can I tell Obi-Wan?" he asked, his voice cracking weakly. "They'll never train me."

"It's really quite simple, Anakin," said Palpatine. "You must conceal it. You know the error of your ways, but the Council sees no room for learning, for trials of the self. You have a great future ahead of you. Your training is of paramount importance, and nothing can be allowed to obstruct it. Deception, Anakin, is not always evil. I will see that Admiral Tagge does not spread rumors."

Palpatine smiled, an aging parent advising a young and troubled son. Closer to the truth than he might guess. I wonder how much his mind remembers, in dreams and half-waking. A house in the swamp, my Master's little kingdom in the backwater of a backwater. Perhaps Naboo's best-hidden secret.Do you dream of the night we made you?

"I understand," said Anakin. He looked at Palpatine. "Thank you, Chancellor."

Palpatine clapped the young man on the back. "In time your hurt will fade," he said. In time, you will forget you ever felt it."If you ever need a friendly ear, Anakin, or a word of advice some, I flatter myself, might consider wise, I am at your disposal. For my part I will be watching your career with great interest." He gripped the boy's shoulder, shook it, and departed. He looked back when he reached the Palace. Skywalker still stood at the carved stone railing, gazing into the river.

Dooku stepped from the shadows of the Garden Door, his expression dark. Palpatine dismissed his guards with a flick of his wrist. He and the Count walked together, away from Skywalker and the river, into the lanes between flowering shrubs and trees bearded with moss.

"His death was needless," said Dooku after they had gone a ways from the Palace. "He would have joined us, given the opportunity."

"I foresaw nothing of the sort," said Palpatine. "He was dangerously intelligent, my friend. Lord Maul's actions may have been rash, but the deed is done and we must proceed with our plans. You should be on Geonosis, I believe."

"Our guests can wait," said Dooku.

"Our designs cannot," retorted Palpatine, irritation pricking at his temper. "You must put your feelings on this matter aside, Count, or settle them with Lord Maul. His usefulness, in any event, will soon reach its extremity."Perhaps a last test, for a more worthy apprentice...

"I will have no part in your backstabbing," said Dooku derisively. "Kill him yourself, if he no longer pleases you."

"This discussion is at an end," said Palpatine. "Contact me through the channels we agreed upon, or not at all. We cannot risk discovery. Not yet."

Dooku was silent. He turned, his profile lit by the rising moon as he examined a purple flower at the end of a long, sinuous stalk. At length, he spoke. "Yes, my Master. Forgive my insolence. Qui-Gon was an extraordinary apprentice, and a great man."

"We all make sacrifices, my friend," said Palpatine. He folded his arms and took a deep breath of the rich, wet night air. "It is...necessary."

Dooku departed. Palpatine watched him go. Do I need to kill him? He has his weaknesses. Idealistic, sentimental...but such an orator, and so inspiring. The industrialists might fragment without him. Best...to watch and see.

It was always best to wait. Best to plot, to pull strings in the half-dark. All the permutations were accounted for, every eventuality known and understood. Palpatine glanced at the flower Dooku had admired. He let the Dark Side flood him for a single moment, let himself stand in its dark and thundering waters. And then he closed it away, shut off its psychotic roar.

There was calm. Petals floating on the still, warm air.

Everything, he thought to himself as he plucked the flower from its stem, is proceeding exactly as I have foreseen it.