Chapter Ten: The Dead Will Be Shrouded In White

GRIEVOUS

There was a monster in the halls of the Jedi Temple. Its clawed feet stamped prints in blood on marmoreal floors, defacing ancient grandeur with the crass revenge of murderous appetite. The monster broke bones. It drank blood. Lightsabers flashed in the shadows, describing new geometries, circumscribing limits between limbs and bodies. Jedi dueled the beast. Knights riding out to slay the dragon. Cauterized meat slapped the floor. General Grievous, cloak hanging scorched and ruined from his shoulders, boiled onward through the darkest recesses of the Temple. The enemy was everywhere. Light drenched whole swaths of darkness, seeking always for some measure of clarity, for a last appeal to the sanity of well-lit places. Grievous walked, wading through tides of blood, and no matter how thin the slivered light became he stood always within its compass. The Jedi cried out. They fled from him, or stood and died. He screamed war-chants at their corpses as he tore their flesh, desecrating the sad offal of their remains for no reason but purest spite. The gods, he knew, were with him.

He was a son of Kalee.

Saliva leaked in ropey yellow strands from the chin of Grievous's mask. He breathed deep, hacking out thick breaths through the spit clogging the artifice of his throat. A rattling growl escaped him to echo down the ornate halls. A Twi'Lek burst from a branching corridor, pirouetting through Makashi's opening forms. Servos twitched in Grievous's mechanical arms as droid microbrains computed angles of attack and possible parries, feeding a welter of information to the General at a speed greater than thought. Grievous crushed the Twi'Lek's hand around the grip of his weapon and drove two sabers through the blue-skinned alien's stomach. He let the dead Jedi drop, storing his saber in his cloak, and stepped over his corpse. He loped down the corridor, swift-footed and mad with the scent of blood. Two teenaged Padawans came at him in a dead rush, sabers flashing. Sluggish. Grievous spun through a mad somersault, a clawed foot slamming into the skull of the older of the two. Teeth shattered. The body flopped back against the wall, blood bursting from its ruptured braincase as Grievous landed in a crouch and, lunging, drove a saber through the other Padawan's mouth. Eyes melted. Brains cooked. Grievous yanked the weapon free just in time to parry the furious assault of a Whipid Jedi. "DIE!" he bellowed as he hacked the Whipid's arms off in a brutal spray of plasma. The alien Jedi howled, stumbling back. Grievous took his head off with a scissored slash.

In the echoing halls he screamed the blood-prayers of Kalee. He saw his mask in the marble walls, saw the gods howling for new flesh behind his callous eyes. He killed those who came for him with the strength of his iron hands and the hate that festered in his heart. Blood and viscera slapped the mosaic floors of the Room of Fountains. Grievous left the lightsabers of the dead where they fell. What need had he for trophies any longer, with death so close at hand? Like a lover it murmured to him, telling him where to find his foes. Look there, Death husked into his long-ruined ears. Find me waiting in the eyes of your victims.

Grievous screamed murder as he charged through blood and gore, skidding in the detritus of his carnal celebration. He blocked the blaster bolts of frightened guards, hair-trigger computers directing the steps of his violent dance. His cloak, a burned and ragged thing, flared around him like the wing of some gross bird. A towering Wookiee dropped down from the vaulted ceiling as he crossed a dimly-lit arcade where fountains muttered softly one to another. There, said Death. Grievous roared, his monster's voice strained by the sheer volume of his hate. He met the Wookiee's overhand blow in the crux of his upper two sabers. Plasma flared sun-white, bleaching the huge alien's dark fur. It skipped back outside the range of his scissoring riposte, roared a challenge and died with his lower left blade buried in its smoking breasts. He withdrew, snapping back into form from his vicious lunge without an instant's hesitation. "WHO CAN KILL ME?" he screamed to no one and nothing.

I can, said Death.

The Temple echoed to the clank of metal on marble. Grievous scuttled between floors, clawing his way up blaster-scarred columns like some gore-draped beetle to dole out butchery and mayhem. He lost count of those he felled. Dozens. Scores. They were cloth. They were rotten leather. They were leprous skin. He was a knife heated to the melting point, a brand meant for the hides of those lesser than he. The only weapon in the galaxy. I am the only weapon.

He hacked through them like murder given will and form, a thing transcending flesh. It seemed he spilled not blood but hate onto the polished floors and aged carpets. His screams ripped at the ruins of his vocal cords, as much for his own loss as for the glory of the slaughter. Blades burned his armored shell. He howled mad laughter and cut a bloody swath through echoing halls and silent meditation chambers. This is well, said Death. And at last, battered and hacking up phlegm with every breath, he lurched through a curtained doorway and found himself in a nursery. Little eyes watched him from the shadows, fearful and teary. Small voices cry out in fear. A Mon Cal boy, older than the others, stood trembling in front of two furry Talz infants. The Mon Cal held a child in his arms. A Kalee female, scarcely old enough to walk, tiny claws waving at the air. The Mon Cal clutched his charge tight against his chest, wide wet eyes alive with fear. Grievous stood framed in the doorway, towering over small and frightened souls. He took a step toward the child, so like his own offspring. The children of his sister-wife, his second heart.

Hesitation.

Paint the way to Heaven with their blood, said Death.

And then, without warning, he was yanked from the floor and dashed against the ceiling. The housing for his organs cracked with a sharp report. He crashed back to the floor, lightsabers biting marble and whirling drapes. Unseen hands closed around his legs and dragged him out into the hall by main force. The strength was impossible, the focus complete. He caught a glimpse of yellow eyes, of green skin worn by time and care, of a drab brown robe and a gnarled cane clutched in clawed hands. His arms snapped outward, rigid and trembling with augmetic musculature. He drifted up from the floor, held like a butterfly in the palm of the little Master's soul. It was an ancient thing, sea-deep and eon-wide. Grievous's lightsabers pivoted of their own volition, facing inward toward the oozing durasteel plates of his chest and thoracic cavity. His body, motivated by a thousand ingrained subsystems and droid augmentations, warred against the crushing omnipresence of the Force. His mind felt the blistering winds of Kalee, the soft touch of a child's hand on his callused palm.

"Terrible, is your hurt," said Yoda, his voice rough with sorrow. "A mercy, this is."

Heartbeat, flutter-quick. The General's atrophied muscles twitched behind his mask. The last miserable inch of Qymaen Jai Shaleel. He closed his eyes. "I wouldn't have killed them," he said. The heat of the plundered Jedi weapons, fruits of his greedy crusade, beat against his Durasteel carapace. Though his body still warred, hydraulics squealing as mechanized joints hissed, his mind raced out and south to the trackless seas of Kalee, where Ronderu drifted. The memory of his lips moved behind scorched metal and his monster's voice rasped out in the silence of the hall.

"Send my soul to heaven."

Stolen sabers flashed, scissoring air. Two plunged toward his eyes, two toward his heart. Burning, fire-bright and noxious. Pain. Open arms welcomed him, holding him close against Ronderu. Skin to skin. Sister. Lover. Wife.

I am home at last.

And then nothing.

ANAKIN

His hand ached. His hand was gone. Constantly, he had to remind himself. Sitting on a sterile cot in the white-walled med bay of the cruiser Salvation. What a sick twist of fate, that it had been the ship to take him away from Tattooine. The holonet recordings of the slaughter in the Jedi Temple played silently before him on a projector plinth. Palpatine was giving a speech. The surgeons had taken his mechanical hand, his false hand, away for adjustment. He could not seem to listen to the words the Chancellor was speaking. He made a fist of the hand that wasn't there.

...thousands dead, civilian and Jedi both, in the terrible tragedy of Qymaen Jai Shaleel's suicidal assault on the Jedi Temple. That their murderer has been brought to justice is a poor balm for their grieving loved ones. Even now, I am told, bodies are being recovered from the crash site where the murderous General's troopships breached the planetary defense grid to lay siege to the temple precincts. In these troubled times, we must look...

Anakin ignored the med droid adjusting his nutrient drip. Its spidery limbs plugged and unplugged diodes connected to the bay's operating computers with calm, arachnid efficiency. Padmé was asleep in a chair beside his bed, curled up like a child beneath a thin white blanket. It was past midnight by the ship's clock, running on Coruscant Senatorial District time. Anakin closed his eyes. He saw the pale woman's face floating before him, saw her lips peel back from her uneven teeth in a scream of agony. He saw her wrists snap like twigs, felt the rotten-wood snap of bones succumbing to the pressure of his will. He had known the Force, as Qui-Gon had said he would, and it had consumed him down to the marrow in his bones.

He was not worthy. He was not the Chosen One, or if he was then the prophecy was wrong. What could he bring to the Force but pain and ruination? What could he be but a plague, a pox on the Jedi Order. No. He had to stop it, to shut himself off from that path. He opened his eyes and the bland, antiseptic walls of the sickbay replaced Asajj's screaming face. Strange, how it was so much clearer in his mind's eye than his mother's. The various readout surrounding his cot blinked without apparent rhyme or reason. On the holo-screen Palpatine was still speaking, exhorting Coruscant's citizens to strength and acceptance.

Palpatine. The realization washed like perfumed water over Anakin's sweat-slicked skin, washing away the scum of worry and paranoia. The Chancellor would know what to do. He always knew what to do. All Anakin had to do was ask. His eyes flicked to Padmé, still sleeping. We'll do such great things, she'd said. Anakin remembered the wet strength of her hips against his, her lower lips around him. He reached out to her in the Force, his mind brushing against hers. Her thoughts eddied slowly in the murk of her dreams. Peace. Love. Satisfaction.

We must face this atrocity with strength. We must oppose Separatist terrorism with the iron wall of this Republic's united, democratic citizenry. You are the strength and lifeblood of this Republic, and so long as you stand defiant no cheap murderer can strike against us and call our spirit broken.

Palpatine, captured in profile by a holo-recorder, looked resolute but weary. His robes were plain, his hair uncombed. Anakin's cheeks burned with embarrassment at the thought of how stupid he'd been, how carelessly he'd handled his assignment to protect the Senator. The barbs of his conscience pricked at him, driving him to distraction as he tried again and again to find solace in the floating embrace of the Force. Meditation would not come. His thoughts were unquiet and restless. With a wave of his hand he turned off the holo-projector and sank back against his pillows, washed in the ceaseless thrum of the Salvation's hyperdrive.

"You look tired, Anakin."

"I am tired," said Anakin.

"We'll be back on Coruscant soon." Her cool, smooth fingers slipped through the fingers of his natural one. "Things will be different. You'll see."

Yes, thought Anakin as the furnace deep in the pit of his stomach snarled and crackled, burning flesh and bone. Things will be different.

OBI-WAN

They lay in sheeted rows in the Temple's echoing repositorium. Forty-seven Jedi, arms folded and eyes closed as though in peaceful slumber. Obi-Wan stood with Yoda, Shaak Ti, Plo Koon and Mace Windu, his ears ringing as the elderly Jocasta Nu read a eulogy the words of which clattered to the floor like tiny weights of lead. Little marbles, mourning wound up in words and scattered over smooth stone to roll away, into the shadows. Between the sheeted lines. The glorious dead. Hundreds of Jedi, some badly wounded, stood in silent rows to either side of the dead. Obi-Wan held the Force close, building of its light a wall to hem the ragged edges of his mind. Too late to help the fallen. Too slow to gauge the Count's plans, or his true character. Why would Dooku strike so brutally against the Jedi? So many dead. At least the children had been spared.

Jocasta Nu fell silent, folding her wrinkled hands. She bowed her head. Nine Masters in black mourning robes moved silently between the dead, anointing each sheeted body with fragrant oils. They bent to press their lips to cold foreheads. Obi-Wan thought of Qui-Gon.

"There is no death," said Yoda, his rough voice echoing in the repositorium. "There is the Force." He knelt by the head of a Mon Cal Padawan, no older than fifteen, and pressed his lips to the girl's cold, greyish forehead. "Rejoice now, we should," he said, "for those who before us have become one with its will. Fortunate, they are."

Maul dead, the Separatists thrown into disarray, Dooku on the run. Obi-Wan passed a hand over his face. The scheming vrelt. I should have seen it from the beginning.

And there was Anakin. The Salvation had sent word of his recovery, and of his maiming. What had happened to him on Tattooine? The distant echo of his pain still resounded from the walls of Obi-Wan's perceptions. He had known the boy, the man, now, for nearly a decade and never had he felt anything so raw, so poisoned with emotion from him. Wildness, sometimes. Like Qui-Gon. Anger more often than was proper. But never hate.

"Rejoice," said Yoda. Tears rolled down his furrowed cheeks.

Grievous's shuttle lay lodged in the teeth of the temple's entrance like an insect half-swallowed by an unfortunate swoop racer. Obi-Wan watched the removal efforts each morning before the day had really begun. Clone troopers labored to disassemble the Neimoidian craft, loading its component parts onto antigrav sleds for transport to the landfills south of the Senatorial quarter. It seemed an age since he had really looked at Coruscant, since he had seen the fliers that blew in the wakes of the ceaseless traffic and the war posters plastered on the walls of high-rises, businesses and tenement slums. Three words lettered in bold Arabesh script under Palpatine's bold profile and the Bendu Wheel of the Republic. Strong. Safe. Secure.

Bread lines stretched down the elevated streets. The people looked gaunt and harried, rushing between destinations with eyes downcast and shoulders hunched as though to ward off blows that might rain down from the sky at any moment. There were millions of them. Billions. How many lives did Coruscant hold within its metal heart? Obi-Wan stood on the steps of the Temple and watched them until long after the sun had gone down and the false twilight of Coruscant's lights had consumed whatever dark the planet had known before its subsumation by the Republic.

Any day now the Salvation would return with Anakin and Senator Naberrie aboard. Obi-Wan could still sense the raw echoes of Anakin's collapse. He would have to stand for inquiry when he returned. Half the Council had felt his rage and desolation, and they were concerned. Concerned and frightened. Anakin's strength was well-known, but the tide of unfettered power they had sensed on Coruscant had been beyond anything they had imagined when Qui-Gon had brought the sardonic freedman before them years before.

"What would you do?" Obi-Wan asked the night. "I was always lost without you, Master."

But the night did not reply.

There was so much left undone. He had failed to uncover the assassins behind the attempt on the Senator's life, had failed to discern Dooku's true purpose when they had spoken, had failed his apprentice, his son, his brother. He had given in to his anger. Alone on the steps of the Jedi Temple, Obi-Wan sat down cross-legged on the cracked, cool marble and closed his eyes. The force closed in around him like air after a thunderclap, filling him with light.

I am a leaf driven by the storm.

Coruscant pounded and pulsed around him.

I am a drop of rain on a child's hand.

The stars murmured in distant voices.

I am the Force.

PALPATINE

Skywalker was changed. It was obvious, just watching the boy limp up the Rotunda's steps, ignoring the holonet reporters that swarmed around him like kreetles. Palpatine watched the Jedi through his private holocam feed. Anakin's shoulders were bent, his head raised in defiance of the pain that smoked in his breast. His false hand clenched and unclenched at his side. It was not entirely as Palpatine had expected. But then, nothing had gone quite according to plan. He should have foreseen that Grievous would disobey his orders and assault the Temple rather than the Senate. The creature's hatred of the Jedi had been lunatic in proportion. Palpatine rubbed at his temple. The roaches never scuttled where you wanted them to. It seemed an immutable law of the universe. He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. It was too early for Skywalker to falter, too early to unleash him on the Jedi. Grievous's slaughter in the Temple had tipped public sympathies back into the Order's camp, for the time being at least. Care had to be taken to deprive them of their momentary gain. The war had almost accomplished everything Palpatine had intended.

The end of the farce, the final curtain call, was drawing near. Palpatine waved the holocam off and spun his high-backed seat back to his desk where the drudgery of modern governance awaited him. Reports from the Outer Rim sieges, materiel memos, Senatorial requests for budgetary amendments, a friendly message from Mace Windu that alluded just short of treason to the expiration of Palpatine's sixth unelected term as Supreme Chancellor in a few months. Palpatine smiled at that. Windu would have to be dealt with sooner or later, but the days of elections and pandering to the starry-eyed masses were over. The Galaxy was emerging from the crucible that he, Palpatine, Dark Lord of the Sith, had constructed for its purification. Beneath his rule it would be strong, secure and entirely indomitable.

The intercom chimed and the bright, clear voice of Palpatine's receptionist said: "Jedi Skywalker is here to see you, Chancellor. He doesn't have an appointment..."

"Let him in," said Palpatine, standing.

Another chime. The doors to the outer art gallery slid open and Anakin stepped through. To any other, save perhaps Kenobi, the young Jedi would have looked composed. His face was unlined, his stride easy. He wore dark robes over a plain roughspun tunic and loose leggings, every inch the meditative Jedi. To Palpatine, though, the misery in Skywalker was obvious. No two beings in the Galaxy's history had ever been more intimately joined, more essentially connected than they two. In a house in the swamps of Naboo, under the hermetic and obsessive eyes of Plagueis, Palpatine had done something unprecedented in the annals of the Force's deepest mysteries. He could still see the woman, Shmi, huddled in her pit beneath the gardens. He could still feel the Force coursing through him as it had years later when he had turned his power on his master, when he had slashed Plagueis's head from his shoulders and ripped out his beating heart. He had eaten it in the driving rain.

"Anakin, my boy," said Palpatine, adopting the fatherly tone he always used with the younger man, layered now with understanding and tender affection. "You look tired."

Skywalker's flat gaze met the Chancellor's. "I met the Sith on Tattooine," he said.

You met a shrieking lunatic, thought Palpatine. Asajj was no more a Sith than he was a fiscal conservative. Dooku's little pet had been through too many clones, too many agonizing rebirths. Whatever potential she had once possessed was gone, now. Palpatine stepped around his desk, but he did not go to Anakin. The boy stood on the threshold between Palpatine's foyer and his office proper. He was tall. When had he grown so tall? "The Sith," he said, tone curious.

"I killed her," said Anakin. Dull, flat declaration.

He means his mother, not the Ventress bitch. "You did what the situation demanded, I'm sure. Your judgment has always been excellent, Anakin."

"I abandoned my mission." His voice nearly cracked. "I put my own selfish interests before the Senator's safety."

Punish me, he might have cried. Set me back on the straight path, father.

Palpatine sighed and let his face fall into an understanding smile. "Anakin-"

The dam burst. An ornamental bust of Darth Revan, a figure sadly lost to most Galactic historians and certainly to anyone with an open invitation to Palpatine's office, standing by the window that formed the eastern wall of Palpatine's office exploded. Papers flew from the Chancellor's desk. A tumbler of half-drunk brandy flew across the room and dashed itself to shards against the wall. Skywalker's face twitched, pale and bloodless. "I let my mother die!" he screamed. "I watched the life go out of her!" His eyes bulged. Spit flecked his lips.

Palpatine walked toward the boy through the rippling air. Random bursts of Force energy upset the delicate organization of his office, but he spared no attention for any of it. Relics and baubles could be replaced. Skywalker could not. Palpatine closed the distance between them and pulled Anakin into a fierce embrace. The room rattled, then fell still. Moments later the boy's shoulders began to shake. "We all lose those we love most, Anakin," said Palpatine. "Your mother is with the Force."

Think of darling Padmé with her big, dark eyes and round little breasts. Think of her, and know the fear of the grave looming behind her.

"My mother is dead," said Anakin, his voice choked and phlegmy. His face was buried in Palpatine's shoulder. "She's dead. I reached out for her, tried to help her, but she slipped...slipped away. I felt her go. I felt her light leave her."

Palpatine hugged the boy more tightly. He had never enjoyed physical contact. So tedious to express one's self with kisses and caresses when the Force waited just beneath the surface, a sea of meaning aching for release. "Everything slips away from us in the end, my boy," he said. "No one can defy death, not even the Jedi."

There. Let that seed fester. Not even the Jedi...but perhaps the Sith?

They stood there together in silence for a while, and then Anakin pulled away from Palpatine's embrace and stepped back. His mask was back in place, his sunken cheeks and unhealthy pallor hidden behind a veneer of iron resolve. "I should report to the Council," he said mechanically. "I came straight here, I don't know why...it wasn't proper of me."

"Anakin," said Palpatine, layering his voice with mild reproach and deep, unspoken love, "you are always welcome here. Come and see me tomorrow, after my morning appointments." He squeezed the younger man's hand. "Until then, may the Force be with you."

The young Jedi nodded stiffly, then left. The doors slid shut behind his trailing robes and Palpatine sank down onto the edge of his desk and crossed his legs. May the Force be with you, he thought. May it whisper a lover's filthy secrets in your ear, may it tempt you with impossible knowledge, may it steal cat-footed after you, hounding your every step until there is nothing but the Force and you are blind and deaf, begging for release from the prison the Jedi have made for you.

Idiots. Blinded and blinkered by tradition. Qui-Gon might have seen it, had he lived, but the Order was far too entrenched in their ancient rituals and self-righteous pursuit of justice to see what was wrong with Anakin Skywalker. He was not like them. The Force did not live within him. He lived within it, and its roaring current would soon consume him.

Unless he had proper guidance. Someone to direct his hand, to shape his thoughts. A teacher.

A master.

My young apprentice...

RUNE

He sat with the others in the open-air conference room of the climate-shielded hacienda perched on the shore of one of Mustafar's famous magma lakes. The hacienda was a long, low building roofed in elaborate cold-cell clay tiles. Its walls were made of tique-wood, varnished to a deep gloss, and screens of ricepaper composed its doors. The remaining leaders of the Confederacy of Independent Systems, seated around a long boma-wood table with an empty seat at its head, looked smaller, somehow, than they had on the day Dooku had led them in declaring their separation from the Republic. Rune Haako, Viceroy of the Trade Federation, still remembered that night. He had been drunk on Corellian brandy and Rodian dreamwine, reeling through the halls of Wilhuff Tarkin's private manse on Eriadu's fanatically-landscaped northern continent, a glorified backyard for the Senator's powerful family. Sometime during the blur of narcotics, dancing girls and fireworks displays he had wandered off by himself to be tastefully sick in the gardens on the manse's grounds. Now even the memory of heaving up alcohol and pickled trill-finches into Wilhuff Tarkin's hedgerows seemed preferable to the prospect of continuing along the path that night had set him on.

Rebellion. Nute really had been an idiot. Who were they to rebel? Rune cast a jaded, hungover glance at his fellow conspirators. Wat Tambor, mumbling quietly to himself as he adjusted the dials on his environment suit. Shu Mai, slender even for a Gossam, her huge eyes darting nervously around the room. Po Nudo, the belligerent, hideous Aqualish delegate. San Hill, a spindly Muun with gold glinting on his nimble fingers and a jeweler's loupe screwed into place over one of his small, beady black eyes as though he meant to assess Mustafar inch-by-inch before selling it wholesale on the Galactic Market. Only Archduke Poggle of Geonosia cut anything like a martial figure, and he was approaching senescence at high speed. We aren't conquerors, thought Rune, feeling queasy. We aren't heroes or villains or soldiers.

We're fucking salesmen.

Grievous and Darth Maul were dead. That was the worst of it brought to a close, but what now? Surrender? It was an appealing idea, but there would be reprisals. Harsh ones. Firing squads broadcast live on the Holonet. Rune swallowed. He pursed his square, lipless mouth and laced his fingers together. Even in the climate-regulated afternoon shade of the hacienda his brocade robes and miter of office were stiflingly hot. Had Nute's extravagant dress not become so symbolic of the Trade Federation's power Rune would have opted for something simpler. Still, sacrifices had to be made.

A pressure door hissed open, releasing a blast of hot air into the room along with the elegant figure of Count Dooku, trailed by his slouched and worm-white apprentice, the shaven female. Ventress looked even less healthy and well-adjusted than usual. Her prominent veins stood out like quartz deposits against her marble skin and her lips were a livid pinkish-white. Her eyes seemed tinged with yellow. Dooku, though, was undiminished. The Count, dressed immaculately in black and with his beard and hair both well-groomed, strode across the room to take his seat the table's head as though nothing in the Galaxy were out of sorts. But wait, no, thought Rune, I seem to remember an assault on our fortress and the undoing of all our plans. Ah, yes, there's the wrinkle in the whole pretty affair.

"Your Excellency," ventured San Hill, squinting at the Count through his loupe, "we had not thought to see you so soon."

Poggle clucked and sputtered something in his repulsive Geonosian tongue.

We had not thought to see you at all.

In truth, Rune would have been queerly relieved had Dooku not made their rendezvous. At least then he would have had an excuse to descend into screaming panic without the misery of false hope and Dooku's charming oration to lead him onward toward the prize that had doomed Nute. Free trade. The hyperspace lanes untaxed, given over to innovation and enterprise. A new government with beings loyal to you at its helm.

Money.

"I was delayed," said Dooku in his honeyed tones. Behind him, Asajj twitched and glowered at the assembled leadership council. He turned to Poggle and replied to the Geonosian's query in the Archduke's own language, his rendition of the tongue's myriad clicks, whistles and hisses surprisingly fluid and natural. Poggle nodded, apparently satisfied. Dooku's iron gaze flicked back to the hushed and waiting council. "We have suffered a setback," he said. "The attack on Hypori cost us many lives and shook this fledgling government to its core.

"But we survived. We endure, and while we draw breath Palpatine cannot rest easy on his throne. The Republic's own forces did not go unbloodied during our exchange, and with the Outer Rim campaigns proceeding so favorably I have taken the liberty of ordering the Rimward fleets deployed in-system. Within the year we will be in a position to strike directly at Coruscant itself, to bring the war to the Chancellor's doorstep and the Republic to its knees. We will triumph, my friends."

Rune felt it, that insistent shhh-ing of his better instincts and impulses Dooku's speeches always seemed to inspire. Of course they could win. The others saw it, felt it. He could smell it in the caustic musk of their pheromones, see it in their flushed hides and agitated postures. As the Count continued with his speech Rune felt his doubts slough away like so much dead skin. Nute had been a fool, too greedy and grasping, but he, Rune Haako, was older and wiser. Cooler heads prevailed, he'd always said. Soon, he would have everything.

Outside the hacienda the lava flowed in sluggish whirlpools, bleeding light into the ash-choked sky where dark clouds churned.

PADME

"I know you loved her," Padmé said to Anakin as she ran her fingers through his dark, sweat-damp curls. They lay together on her bed in an apartment she had engaged in one of Coruscant's less public residence towers. Anakin's head was pillowed on her bare thighs. He had removed his artificial hand and the livid stump of his injury still dripped beads of blood onto the sandsilk sheets. Padmé said nothing, though. He had returned to her broken after his interview with the Council, barely able to stand. "I lost my mother when I was young."

I lost my Queen, and Qui-Gon. Everything dies. Everything leaves.

He kissed her fingers. "I can forget," he said quietly, "when I'm with you."

Padme leaned down and kissed him. He responded hungrily, twisting like an eel to straddle her. His stump disturbed her almost as much as the rest of him enticed, but she ignored it, put it aside in favor of a vision of the future. Anakin's tongue slid past her lips. She moaned.

Soon, very soon, he would rise to the Council. Soon the war would be over, Dooku and the others arrested and brought to trial on Coruscant. No more carnage, no more ruin. The Republic would need new leaders, men and women made for peacetime. Palpatine had had his day in the sun. Let him retire to some villa on Naboo to live out the rest of his days gardening and drinking wine in the sunlight. Let him fade into textbooks.

"I love you," said Anakin as he entered her. His skin fairly crackled with power. She could feel him holding back even as he began to move, to grind himself against her.

A flush crawled up Padmé's neck. "I know," she said, grinning fiercely. Her hips bucked against his first thrust, matching him. "Oh!" she cried, lightning coursing through her veins.

She wasn't stupid. Her brutal taskmaster of a grandfather, a retired lecturer on the Galactic Circuit, and six years at the Royal Naboo Political Academy, to say nothing of her ruthless streak and formidable intellect, had seen to that. Palpatine had placed her close to Anakin for a reason. He'd hoped they'd become lovers, perhaps so he could use it as leverage against them. Well let him have his leverage. Let him think them besotted and blind.

"Oh!" cried Padmé, manicured nails gripping the sheets. "Anakin!"

We're going to change everything.