Title: The Wages of Honour
Disclaimer: I do not own any of the Star Wars characters, they belong to George Lucas.
Rating: PG-13
Words: 9,300
Pairings: Anakin/Padmé and Anakin/Palpatine (obviously)
Summary: A general campaigning on the edge of winter is recalled by his emperor – only to be shocked into remembering the past they both share.
Author's Note: This is a semi-historical AU I had to cut down to its bare bones in order to make it not span many chapters. I have had to cut down Obi-Wan and Padmé's tales – as well as not detailing what exactly happened with King Finis and the Cardinal of Serenno in order to focus on Anakin and Palpatine. So just be aware that a lot of the action happens "off screen" as it were. Set to Natalie Merchant's My Skin. It's not tied down to any particular time period, I stole from everywhere! Everything from Napoleon to the Iliad to Dr. Zhivago. Written for an Anakin/Palpatine livejournal song!fic challenge.

Take a look at my body

Look at my hands

There's so much here that I don't understand

The iron-shod hooves of the black horse tore up the ground. Gauntleted hands raised a silver spyglass to an icy blue eye, whilst vicious metal stars on the heels of leather cavalry boots brushed against the warhorse's flanks. His enemies refused to commit to an open battle. It was early and he could hear the birds through the mist – the chill obscured the land, hid its crevices and ridges, revealing only the dark smudges of the trees. A perfect morning for an ambush – and he had no doubt that the rebels had come to much the same conclusion. Poor visibility was not at all to the advantage of his much larger force, nor was the wet ground, which would hamper the positioning of his artillery. Executor was restless, snorting the fog of his breath into the cold air. The general unbuckled a heavy gauntlet and gentled the beast with his leather-clad fingers. The pain was harder to bear in this weather: he could already feel his damaged flesh beginning to stick to the silk interior of his armour. He suspected he was going to have to sleep in his boots again. The chill seemed to burn his lungs as he inhaled deeply, putting his lens aside to look up at the white sky he knew would clear to an almost painful blue by noon.

Yes, he could sense them out there – waiting for him to make a mistake, waiting to pick off more of his stragglers. That Madine thought himself so clever, outwitting the pride of the Imperial army. On open ground, his ill-equipped pack of farmers and deserters would be dead within half an hour. As it was, the fighting was at a standstill, which was why he and his men were still in the north-eastern provinces with winter on their heels. He was beginning to lose more soldiers to frostbite than the enemy guns and although the emperor had guaranteed his supply lines, he was concerned about that too. The emperor… the thought of his sovereign only deepened the general's already bleak mood. If things went on this way, he would be forced to sacrifice his cavalry.

At the sudden patter of hooves, he shut his telescope with a vicious clang. "Lord Vader?" The junior officer's cheeks were red with cold under his tall bicorn hat, its black and white cockade fluttering in the wind. The general was almost glad of his injuries, as his anachronistic armour offered better protection from the northern gales than the officer's greatcoat. "My lord, our scouts report enemy forces to the west our position." Ah, I was wondering how long it would be before they attempted to cut us off. He waited to hear the rest of it. The officer retrieved a message from his saddlebag and held it out to the general, "And… a message from Governor Tarkin…"

He ripped the paper out of the man's hand, scanning it briefly, impassive behind his metal visor, and then crumpling it between thick metal fingers. His deep voice was lanced with dark humour, "…The governor politely assures me of the impenetrability of his fortifications and regrets that he cannot afford to send me the reinforcements I requested. He suggests threatening to set fire to the surrounding villages in order to smoke the rebels out."

The young officer kept his face studiously blank. The general had horsewhipped the last officer to bring him ill tidings to within an inch of his life. Captain Needa had eventually died of gangrene. "There is…" the officer broached tentatively, "… something else, my lord." The officer was a recent addition to the eastern armies and he sat ill in the grey wool uniform of the general's staff. The general continued to assess the terrain while he waited for the boy to find his nerve.

The paper was fine and the brilliant red wax of the Imperial Seal seemed to glow in the dim morning light. He's finally putting an end to this, the general sighed with relief. He didn't open the orders in front of the officer, but stuffed them into his cloak to read later on in his tent. The emperor's orders could wait: he would lure the rebels into "ambushing" him on ground of his choosing before the morning was out. There was no sense wasting a good mist, after all.

Your face-saving promises

Whispered like prayers

I don't need them

He stank of powder and blood. The general's servants had removed the weight of his armour and he sat, stuck in his leathers – the prospect of trying to peel the silk lining away from his raw skin one he could not face. He sat on his camp bed staring at the words on the page, at the sloped, tight handwriting which marked the orders as penned by the emperor himself:

My dear Anakin…

The overly familiar mode of address and the use of his first name would have seen the epistle immediately discarded into the brazier had it been written by anyone else. Lord Vader – chief of the emperor's grand marshals, heir apparent to His Majesty, and the only living recipient of the empire's highest decoration, the Order of the Sith – had not been called Anakin for a long time; he could picture his sovereign's mouth wrapping tenderly around the word, dark affection stretching the three syllables of his name into four. Just thinking about it made the general feel claustrophobic, oppressed by conspiracy. Yet, somehow, he found himself smiling down at his name at the top of the page.

Matters here are progressing quickly and your efforts to stamp out the rebels in our north-eastern dominions are not. In these circumstances, it is our wish for you to return to court. Tarkin is more than capable of commanding our eastern armies in your absence…

His men were not going to be relieved. All elation at this morning's success fled from the general. Ordered to abandon his army to that… to that… his men would hate him for it. Does the emperor fear my soldiers grow too attached to their leader? Is that why he wishes me to go crawling back to him like a coward? It was possible.

… We await your return with great pleasure and are impatient for your council, dear friend.

Since when did Palpatine desire advice? Such words meant nothing. The general growled and committed the sovereign's missive to the fire, watching the words disappear with grim satisfaction as the fine paper blackened and curled into ash along with his hopes.

Because I've been treated so wrong

I've been treated so long

As if I'm becoming untouchable

Well, content loves the silence

It thrives in the dark

With fine winding tendrils

That strangle the heart

They say that promises sweeten the blow

But I don't need them, no

I don't need them

It was rumoured the emperor was a sorcerer. No one said it directly, but the general had seen the way the servants made a subtle sign whenever anyone said the name. When he came across the staked, ashen effigies the rebels occasionally left behind, the remains would be upside down, the ground demarked with chalk – they burned Palpatine as they would a witch. He'd once overheard an otherwise sane officer declare – admittedly while under the influence – that he, Lord Vader, was a demon who hadn't been born, but sprung fully-formed from the emperor's unspeakable cauldron. He very much doubted whether the supremely aristocratic Palpatine had ever seen a cauldron.

And yet… there was something about the emperor that invited superstition. Kenobi had once told him that the Devil was in Palpatine. Vader had given up on God long ago and Satan had gone the same way. But if anyone could bind souls with black magic, that person would be the emperor. All things considered, it would probably be a relief to know Palpatine needed unspeakable pagan rituals in order to bend souls to his will.

The crimson-coated footmen bowed and swung the double doors wide. He walked in. Rich brocade fabrics were draped artfully across the windows, blocking out the sun. The air was heavy with expectation and incense. The general bowed, keeping his head down. "Lord Vader, Your Majesty," a functionary announced, as if it could be anyone else wearing burnished black armour. There were whisperings all around, the shuffling movements of servants and courtiers. The general held his graceful pose; he had nothing but contempt for those whispers.

"Leave us," ordered the only voice the general cared to hear. A rich voice lacquered with decay. The Court made a bustling, lingering, curious withdrawal through the same tall doors through which Vader had entered. A lady's dress brushed past his boot and he couldn't help but glance sideways at the pink lips which muttered an inviting apology before being swept away by the outgoing tide. Finally, the room was silence. "Rise, my friend," the emperor spoke into the silence and the general lifted his head.

The emperor was enthroned upon a dais, wearing a richly embroidered black velvet coat. He wore no crown, but the red sash of his pre-eminence rampant across his white silk waistcoat. The sash was the only touch of colour to his figure – the rest of which might have been etched in charcoal. Below his sombre grey wig, the sovereign's pallor had gone from pale to a deathly white. The slight tinge of red in the cheeks was, Vader suspected, the result of powder. Palpatine's condition had worsened since they had spoken last – what, two years ago? When he last left the capital, he left icy-blue eyes that were obscured, as if by a light sea mist rising off the sea. They had been in the habit of blinking at him suspiciously through silver-rimmed pince-nez. But the mist had thickened in his absence, becoming a thick film of yellow-white fog which left no trace of the icy blue Anakin remembered. The ancient hands were resting, entangled, on his lap. The great prow of a nose angled in Vader's direction and the emperor's thin lips drew a smile the way another man might draw his sword.

Lord Vader moved closer, unable to remove his gaze from those unseeing eyes. "You are shocked, my lord." The murmur laid the stress of the address quite differently to any other man: not my lord, but my lord. "Is it really so remarkable?"

The general stiffened – he had no answer and so changed the subject: "Sir, the campaign…"

"Ah yes… I suppose you would rather be out there hunting down rebel foxes through the snow like a bloodhound?" Would he prefer campaigning in winter to an audience with this ravaged, once-beloved devil? It was a hard choice to make, all things considered. The emperor laughed at his silence: black, creaking mirth that came apart at the seams. "Colonel Skywalker is flattered, I'm sure."

His son… a young colonel in General Madine's light cavalry corps; an idealist who had spat on Lord Vader's beliefs – a hero who should have been fighting with his own father against the Duchies of Mothma and Bel-Iblis; yet another grievance to lay at the feet of that damned Jesuit, Kenobi. He didn't need any more. Vader waited for the emperor to get to the point.

"But I'm sure you understand why your presence has become necessary?" Palpatine tilted his head, a satirical cast to his features, gazing slightly to the left of the general with those terrifyingly misty eyes, leaning back into his throne, as though it were obvious.

"… With all due respect, Majesty, my place is with my men."

Palpatine raised a patronising brow and quirked his thin lips, "And to think…" he muttered disparagingly, "for all these years I imagined you coveted my position. You cannot conceive of it, can you?" The emperor sighed. Vader wished Palpatine would stop toying with him and come out and say whatever needed to be said. Naturally, the general coveted the throne; it was his great desire, that, and to see a son of his succeed him. But he did not want to see his soldiers die due to Tarkin's arrogance. Stop baiting me and get on with it! Talk of Luke wearied Vader, and he wanted to receive his orders and take his leave, to flee Palpatine's bladed tongue.

The emperor shook his head in pitying disbelief. "Anakin…" he whispered, sad mockery in his words, "I am dying."

I've been treated so wrong

I've been treated so long

As if I'm becoming untouchable

I'm the slow dying flower

In the frost killing hour

Sweet turning sour and untouchable

It was a bayonet to the chest – an ice-cold blade into his soul. The emperor couldn't just die. Vader stalked his chambers, paradoxically wishing to murder Palpatine for having the effrontery to be in the grip of death. He paced like a trapped beast. How did Palpatine manage turn even his own death into a torture for him? It was snowing outside and the servants had not yet lit the lamps – only the fire gave light.

He felt exhausted, on the brink of some abyssal emotion. The lord methodically removed the layers of metal, leather and silk which shielded him from the world – so easy in the warm comfort of the palace! At last he began the solitary task of bathing and anointing his abused skin… as Palpatine had once done, so many years ago. To imagine the emperor absent from the world was akin to the vanishing of Polaris; that ever-present guide in an uncertain firmament.

He slammed his fist against the table, breaking the bottle of ointment and swearing as the glass cut deep into his ruined hand. Vader did not want to grieve for his sovereign; he had waited for Palpatine's death, dreamt of the time when he would rule in the old man's stead… and yet… and yet that time had always been far off, a distant moment of triumph – a tomorrow, eternally at one remove from the business of today.

Colonel Skywalker had thrown his inheritance in his father's face; he had preferred death – like his mother. Vader grit his teeth as he teased a large shard out of his flesh…

Oh, I need the darkness

The sweetness

The sadness

The weakness

Oh, I need this

Anakin was reading in the seminary library when he first saw her. The blue and white tulle of her dress against pale skin made her seem angelic in the shade of the basilica. Her dark curls were swept upward in a simple Grecian style. The rector and several guests walked with her, past the windows of the library toward the gardens. Rich benefactors of the church, no doubt; the girl smiled as she passed by, engrossed in the architecture. Anakin set aside scripture and moved to the window, resting his hands on the ledge. He longed to be one of the richly-clad gentlemen beside her – amusing her while they walked.

"Lady Naberrie is quite beautiful, isn't she?" drawled an unfamiliar voice. Anakin flushed, finding himself fixed beneath the penetrating gaze of one of the lady's companions. A nobleman well past his youth and clad in a dark blue jacket, stood in the doorway, giving Anakin a friendly nod. He was not at all handsome but carried himself with an air of supreme distinction such as Anakin had never seen before, and in his pale, sleepy eyes there seemed to lurk some tantalising secret; Anakin had the disquieting sense that those eyes had been observing him for some time.

"Yes, sir," Anakin replied; he'd been caught staring at the lady, what else was there to say? He waited for the reprimand.

But he did not scold the boy, but tilted his head, as though trying to recall an elusive verse. "You're… Skywalker… are you not? Father Jinn's protégé?"

"Yes," Anakin had no idea he was so widely known, "But Father Jinn died last summer, sir. I'm now Father Kenobi's student. With respect, sir, how do you know me?"

"My family have been patrons of this sacred institution for centuries and… I knew Father Jinn quite well. I am sorry to hear of his death." The aristocrat lazily took in Anakin's tall, muscular frame and gauche smile. "I must say, you do not seem to me to be the sort of young man commonly suited to holy orders."

"It was Father Jinn's last wish for me to do so," Anakin tried to sound dutiful. "My mother was a serving maid – I owe my education to his compassion and faith in my abilities. He said it was God's wish for me to be a priest."

The nobleman laughed and sat down, crossing his cream-stockinged legs elegantly. "Forgive me, but isn't that a little presumptuous?"


"Surely not even the most well-intentioned of priests can claim to truly know the wishes of the Divine?"

"Father Kenobi–"

"I'm interested in your opinion on the matter, not Father Kenobi's." he interrupted imperiously, his tone brooking no refusal.

"I… I don't know… sir." Glancing away from that crystalline gaze, Anakin glimpsed the girl again – Lady Naberrie – her dress floating in the afternoon breeze, her features bright in the sunlit gardens beyond the portico. So this was temptation – Anakin faltered, heart yearning. His desires would sound presumptuous to this grand gentleman, yet why would he question Anakin's destiny if he approved of such resignation? He could not imagine such a man being resigned to anything.

"Ambition is not a sin. Indeed, it is the very natural desire to achieve what we consider ourselves fit for. So tell me, Anakin Skywalker, to what do you truly aspire?" No one had ever asked such a question of him before. He had a sense that such inquiries were somehow indecent.

"You would make a fool of me, sir." Anakin said automatically, to stave off the knowledge that the man was not. Lady Naberrie lifted her beautiful face to sample the aroma of a creeping rose. It was near impossible to look away.

"Not at all, dear boy," he replied lightly. "I am something of a philosopher, if you will, and have an interest in the souls of men as avid as that of any priest. And you, I sense, aspire to be something greater than a humble cleric." He eyes strayed to the Latin text before Anakin: no holy scripture, but Vitruvius' De architectura, sitting open on a description of the construction and tuning of Roman ballistae. "Where do you think your destiny lies?" the man purred, now standing beside Anakin at the window, both of their eyes fixed on the lady in the garden, his voice soft and frightening next to Anakin's ear. "Tell me what you wish, young man, not what others expect of you." Surely if the voice of the Adversary were to issue from a mortal throat, he would speak thus. Yet there was nothing teasing in the nobleman's soft tone. He was in utter seriousness.

"I… I want to marry her." Anakin breathed, full of the reverence he should have been giving to the Lord. Yet was Lady Naberrie not God's most beautiful creation? It was only a second later that he realised just how ludicrous he must sound. And to a stranger who so easily overturned all Anakin's hard-won discipline! But the aristocrat only gave another one of his enigmatic smiles and patted him on the shoulder. Something gave a loud clinka-clink behind Anakin, breaking the spell. A fat coin purse had materialised atop his book.

"For your commission," the man explained, blue eyes alight with mischief, bringing a conspiratorial finger to thin lips as he exited the library. A military commission? "I was going to give this to the rector, but you seem to be in more need of Christian charity than he. Good day."

"Hey! Wait – I don't even know your name!"

"Serene Highness…" it was the lady's voice; she spoke with an odd solemnity, her dark eyes fixed on the nobleman, "you promised my father we would be back before dinner." She sounded just as lovely as he'd imagined. Her dark and long-lashed eyes spared Anakin a single curious glance before her gaze reverted to her noble companion.

"I did indeed," he smiled, extending a gracious arm to the lady and departing without a backward glance, leaving Anakin staring at the arch through which they had left, his life razed to ashes in their wake. "Who were they?" he asked Father Kenobi before just before evensong. Could he keep the money? Was it not his duty to renounce it and dedicate himself to his faith…?

"Oh, the rector's guests? The Prince of Sidious and Lord Naberrie's daughter. I understand she has an interest in architecture and wished to view our seminary. Anakin… are you well?"

I need a lullaby

A kiss good night

Angel sweet love of my life

Oh, I need this

The young captain rode through the filthy streets of the capital. His darkly blond hair was tied back in a queue and his handsome features and the noble figure he cut in his white dress uniform attracted much attention. Captain Skywalker was amazed to see how little had changed and did not seem cognisant of the many admiring glances he received. A monkey-faced urchin was hawking pamphlets about King Finis' scandalous affair with the Marquise de Taria. He flicked a coin toward the boy, who passed a paper up into his glowed hand. It wasn't the usual dirty, titillating rhyme he'd expected:

Who is this king who can watch his people suffer and die whilst he cavorts with his mistress?
This degenerate who would see his kingdom starve rather than give up his lover's expensive tastes?

Anakin chuckled and looked at the author's name – a pseudonym, obviously. This "Monsieur Amidala" was looking for a lettre de cachet. He guided his horse's steps toward the more genteel areas of the city – toward the home of Lord Naberrie. Carriages rolled past and Anakin stared longingly through the cast iron gates at the palatial town house. He wished for the gates to swing open for him, to ride proudly down the white gravel with the proof of his honour gleaming silver on his chest and demand to see his love.

But instead Captain Skywalker dismounted and led his horse to the back of the house, to the servants' entrance in the crumbling garden wall. Lady Padmé was waiting for him, warm and welcoming – the scent of her perfume mixing with the flowers. "Anakin…" she whispered into him, crushed against his chest, "we cannot do this any longer… Anakin, I–"

"What? What is it? Padmé, I love you –!" He demanded her lips fiercely, refusing to let her speak as she shook her head as they kissed.

Lady Naberrie finally broke free, tears in her eyes, "Anakin – listen! My father has promised me to Viscount Gunray. The king has endorsed the match. There is nothing I can do. Nothing anyone can do. It's going to be announced tonight."

The captain reeled. It was impossible, to have finally won his angel only to have her snatched away – fate spitting in his eye; a penniless, bastard soldier not worthy of a Naberrie. "Do you love him?" he growled, eyes flashing.

"How can you ask me that?" she hissed. "Is that what you think of me?" her pale cheeks flushed with anger and she made to push him away.

"No…" he closed his eyes, leaning down to rest his face against her soft hair, wrapping his arms tight about her. "No, I… I'm sorry, is there nothing we can do?"

Padmé sank, shivering, onto a garden seat and Anakin sat with her, not letting her out of his embrace. "We… we could elope!" Her eyes glittered, "We could go wherever we wanted… as far as the orient…"

"No!" he was shocked by his own vehemence and had to lower his voice. "I won't steal you away like a cowardly thief! You will be my wife, Padmé." Can anyone claim to truly know the wishes of the Divine? The words floated into Anakin's head and he wondered who had said them. The prince… "What about the prince? Surely, hewould help us…?"

"Sidious?" she gasped incredulously, "are you mad?"

The answer could only be yes, as Anakin found himself standing outside the prince's residence, awaiting an audience. He had passed himself off as an equerry of Lord Naberrie with an important message for His Highness. "Captain Skywalker?" inquired a red liveried servant, glancing disdainfully at his worn dress uniform. "His Serene Highness will see you." The man sounded disgusted at the thought. "Follow me, please."

The prince was chatting with one of his friends. His Highness was seated in an armchair upholstered in beautiful red brocade taking tea whilst his companion – a strikingly rakish young nobleman – sprawled across a matching sofa, his dark coat thrown carelessly over the back of the gilded furniture, red-rimmed, debauched eyes taking the captain in with little interest.

"Well…" Prince Sidious smiled brightly, his sharp eyes taking in Anakin's insignia. "Captain Skywalker. I was informed of your conspicuous bravery at the siege of Naboo. Please… sit." Age suited the prince much more than the middling years he'd owned at their first meeting; its lines leant him a patriarchal authority that had been missing from the distinguished philosopher whose unexpected generosity had been Anakin's salvation. Palpatine signalled to his companion with a cool glance and slight movement of the fingers. The man sauntered across the rich carpet and bowed low to the prince, taking that dismissive hand and kissing it as one would a lady's or a king's. "That will do, Lord Maul." The prince's silken tone was glacial, but his face was alight with satisfaction.

"Serene Highness," Lord Maul hissed, dipping his head once more and retreating, devious eyes on the floor as he bowed himself out.

The prince motioned again for the captain to seat himself, "I have been watching your career with great interest, captain." He took an admiring glance at the decorations on Anakin's coat. "Quite an impressive record a man of so few years… I had no idea you were in the service of Ruwee Naberrie. What message does His Lordship have for me?"

Captain Skywalker shifted nervously, flattered by His Highness' interest – why would he remember the boy whose life he had affected so profoundly? He was embarrassed at his own deception. "Ah… Serene Highness… I…"

"You have no message." The tone was grim, but there was amusement in Palpatine's eyes… and strange tension in the thin lips, but how could Anakin cause a prince to be nervous? He must have imagined it.

"No, I… I've been told that Lady Naberrie is to be married to the Viscount Gunray…"

"Mm…" the aristocrat's eyes crinkled and the tension in the room dissipated. "I see that your ambition has not changed over the years. Good. You have worked your way into the lady's affections, I trust?"

"She loves me."

"Very good," the prince treated him to a paternal smile. "And so… you have come to me to ask His Majesty to remove his blessing from their sacred union." It was not a question.

"Yes, sir," Anakin reverted to the simple military honorific under stress, his spine perfectly straight, uncomfortable under prince's unsettling attention but certain of the nobleman's good intentions.

"And why should I do that?" For some reason, it had not occurred to Anakin that the prince would refuse to assist him. You gave me hope, he thought furiously, you dangled her before my eyes and gave me the means to pursue her. Why would you deny me your help now, when the lady is almost my wife? He stared at Sidious, incredulous. "Lightning does not strike twice, young man. What have you to offer me in return for such a favour?" What had he to offer the king's cousin – the First Prince of the Blood Royal? Sidious gave an indulgent sigh and paused to take a sip of tea.

After returning his cup to its delicate saucer, he continued: "You have to understand – Captain Skywalker – that your request is not a simple matter… unless you wish to kidnap the girl and try your luck as a brigand?" He raised a ginger-grey eyebrow at Anakin's astonished silence. "I thought not. In that case, what you desire would require not only vanquishing the viscount but the title and fortune to merit the lady's hand. Besides which, Gunray is a particular favourite of His Majesty and very popular at Court. Even if you were all that you would wish to be, there would – truthfully – be very little chance that you would become Lady Naberrie's husband."

Anakin wasn't sure quite how to react. The hopes to which he had been clinging to had dissolved under the prince's brutal assessment. He was the bastard son of a servant and that was all he would ever be in the eyes of one such as the Prince of Sidious, no matter what he achieved. Why he had ever thought otherwise was incomprehensible. Rage thrummed in his chest and his hand unconsciously tightened on the pommel of his sword.

"However…" the low, seductive quality which had suddenly entered the prince's voice startled Anakin. There was something cruel in the warm tone, like a cat with its claws into a struggling bird. "Nothing is impossible, dear boy. It's merely a question of… adjusting the circumstances."

"What do you mean… sir?"

The prince laughed and set his tea aside. "I have plans for this kingdom – plans which may include a suitable role for a courageous officer such as yourself, captain." He stood and walked slowly around Anakin's chair, gesturing elegantly. "I will endeavour to defer Lady Naberrie's engagement and give you my word that you will eventually have the lovely young woman as your chattel… and, in return, you will give me… yes… I think…yes, your eternal loyalty and devotion."

"My…?" Anakin couldn't believe what he was hearing.

Smooth fingers angled his chin upward, blue eyes widening in surprise that might almost have been genuine. "Why, captain, is she a trifle to be bought cheaply? I do not believe my offer does your lady any disservice. Are we not both gentlemen of honour?"

The room was silent but for the echoing tick of the clock on the mantelpiece. Captain Skywalker slowly got to his feet, towering over the prince and drew his sword, its steel luminous in the candlelight. He sank to his knees and pledged himself to the service of Palpatine, Prince of Sidious, royal descendant of the Lords of Sith.

Do you remember the way that you touched me before

All the trembling sweetness I loved and adored

Your face-saving promises whispered like prayers

I don't need them

"Anakin…" Lady Vader leaned into her husband's embrace and shivered. It was an hour past sunset and the velvet swathe of her dark gown was one more shadow shifting in the light of the fire, her pale arms turned golden by its glow. "How could you? They were innocent!"

"They were not innocents, Padmé," he told her firmly. "They were Valorumist forces intending to storm the palace. But it's over now." After first firing into the insurrectionists with grapeshot, he had ordered a regiment of dragoons into the crowd. It had been a forest of bloody mayhem. He felt grim satisfaction at his actions – he had successfully defended the crown. Palpatine – the king – had called him a hero. Why did his wife always think differently? "You cannot sympathise with the enemies of the state." It had been so still, afterward, the setting sun illuminating the crimson coats of Anakin's horsemen and the specks and tangled threads of blood in the snow. They had not known in the back of the crowd until it was too late – still pressing forward toward their deaths. And he had ridden over those stains in triumph, liking the fear in the silent faces which watched him from the windows as he rode Resolute forward over the red stains, making the stallion passage as he gave them a graceful display of haute-écolewhich would, he knew, have made Palpatine smile.

Lady Vader clung to him, her chestnut curls tumbling loose from their elaborate coif. "You condone the slaughter of women and children? And to think you were once a student of Father Kenobi!"

"Father Kenobi is in prison awaiting trial for sedition." Anakin replied, voice low, his teeth grinding over the words. "He who breathes out lies will not escape," he quoted the verse darkly.

"Anakin, he was your friend!"

"And he was your confessor! Was it confessions you shared or Jesuit plots?-!"

"This…" she moved a protective hand across her swollen stomach "… this is not... not you. The Anakin I knew would never have condoned what happened tonight." She gazed searchingly up at his scowling face, trying to find regret. She found nothing. "It's Palpatine!" she cried, grasping the front of his coat desperately. "He's changed you – Anakin, please, Palpatine is–"

He slapped her hard across the face. She cried out, almost stumbling backward into the flames. He immediately regretted it and moved to comfort his beautiful wife, to beg her forgiveness. But Lady Vader met his pleas with a furious glare and slammed the door behind her. As he raced into the hallway, he heard the key to her bedroom door turn in the lock with an ominous click. He pounded his fists against the dark wood, shouting her name to no avail.

Padmé didn't understand. She hadn't been the one to drive her sabre through King Finis' body; she didn't understand the sacrifices which had to be made in order to create a new world. She was too tender-hearted to realise that treacherous dogs could masquerade as priests… as friends. She is too good for this world. Anakin sighed, retreating back to the other room and and drawing aside the thick drapes, gazing out into the night toward the lights of the palace.

Oh, I need the darkness

The sweetness

The sadness

The weakness

Oh, I need this

General Lord Vader did not expect to see Lord Maul walking the mirrored corridors of the palace so late. The man's usually athletic stride was curiously uneven and his clothes were dishevelled. Is he drunk? The lord, about a decade older than him, grinned. "Are you visiting His Majesty?" He ground the words in his hoarse voice, as if milling them. Down the hall, Vader could hear the whirling music and laughter of a ball, but there was no one else out here.

"His Imperial Majesty," the general corrected, disgusted by the man's obvious inebriation. With the subjugation of the kingdoms of Nemoidia, Geonosia and Sullustia, the ruler had seen fit claim the title of emperor. And Vader had proved his capabilities as a general in victory after victory.

"Of course… and how is your lady, still thick as thieves with the Jesuits? They tell me she tried to give their general sanctuary. Kenobi… wasn't it? Soon to go the same way as Father Jinn…"

"What do you mean?" Vader's temper flared, "What do you know of Father Jinn?"

Maul gave a bitter laugh and swayed, his mad eyes mesmerising. "I'm going to die too…" he growled, "do you know? I've out-lived my usefulness. So will you… one day… it's… a shame… I won't be there to see it…"

"You're drunk!" Vader spat at him, trying to push the other lord aside.

"I hear he's going to give you the Order of the Sith… for what you did to that crowd." Maul fumbled around in his coat and eventually pulled out a silver medal, a bright ruby at its centre. "It's just metal and stone – another useless trinket." The decoration slipped out of his fingers and clattered to the marble floor under Vader's astonished gaze. "Has he let you sodomise him yet? That's what it's for, you see, that's what it's really for…!"

Vader screamed and flung Maul against the wall. His sword flashed and impaled plaster, mirror, and man. Maul thrashed and his rapier cut a wicked line into the general's arm, making him roar and push the blade deeper. As with the Cardinal of Serenno, he stared at what he had done, amazed at his own actions. At the limp figure hanging like a doll nailed to the wall. Would Palpatine be upset? And had Maul truly slept with the emperor? He had been drinking. All men were liable to spout nonsensical filth under the influence of liquor. The idea of Palpatine and Maul – this kiss he had witnessed planted on those graceful fingers… vulgar, disgusting… why Maul? No, it was impossible. Vader had acted in defence of his sovereign – his friend's – honour. Had the man not goaded him so, it would still have come to a duel. And Vader would have won and Maul would still be dead. He summoned a servant to take down the body and continued on his way.

Palpatine was in his night-gown and robe of russet brocade by the time Vader arrived, his feet encased in soft Turkish slippers. There were only a few candles burning around his great, gilded cherry-wood desk. The sovereign was so preoccupied with his papers that he quite failed to notice the lord slipping into his chambers. The occasional guttering of the candles spilt flickering shadows across the room. The glass doors were open onto the balcony beyond, rattling a little in the breeze, letting in the summer air and odd stirrings of music. The scratching of the emperor's quill and the ticking of the clock mixed with the far off sounds of an orchestra. The emperor was not wearing his grey wig and his short hair was a silvery-white. Vader could easily imagine the thinning hair covered with golden laurels – like the emperors of old.

Has he let you sodomise him yet? The idea of it curled dangerously within Vader. His benefactor, his sovereign, the man to whom he had given his life… He tried to put Maul's lurid insults from his mind and gave a slight cough, bowing low as Palpatine looked up. "Anakin, yes… you are late."

"I was waylaid, sir. A scoundrel insulted your honour."

"Oh?" the emperor brushed the black quill against the underside of his chin. In this new light the gesture took on a dark sensuality as the feather stroked the line of Palpatine's pale jaw. "What did this rogue say to keep you from me?"

Vader felt himself begin to flush. "He intimated… that is to say…" he looked away, unable to say it.
"Go on…"

"He implied that you and I… that we – we had engaged in… naval practices, sir."

Palpatine furrowed his brow and set aside his quill. "I'm afraid I don't quite follow."

"He said that I had… violated you."

"I see," the emperor betrayed no reaction, "who was this individual?" he asked quietly.

"Lord Maul. I killed him for the gross insult to your person, Your Majesty."

"Well…" the emperor considered thoughtfully, "I do not suppose it matters terribly much. He was already showing signs of disaffection." He gave Vader a subtle smile, "But I had no idea you were such a righteous custodian of my honour." It was with breath-taking ease that Palpatine accepted the death of his late courtier. But Vader had come to expect such ruthlessness and felt his spirit to be its equal.

"I would do anything for you, sir." The words slipped out proudly before he could censor them, before he could appreciate the many shades of meaning that could be applied to such a statement – choke them back in mortification. Why had he said that? Palpatine gazed at him curiously, his ever discerning eyes trailing over Anakin. It was an appraising gaze, something thick and congratulatory about it that hung in the air with a curious menace. He liked having those admiring eyes on him, knowing himself esteemed by the product of generations of kings and princes; this aristocrat of aristocrats, this king of kings who had become an emperor.

It was forbidden… it filled him with – with what, oh what? But… there was something so enticing about the way Palpatine stood; utterly regal. Padmé fell away from him; everything fell away except the emperor. It had been Anakin who had made the invitation – it was an invitation. The idea of having that all that majesty writhing beneath him… "Do you believe in hell, Anakin?" murmured the emperor. It was the first time Palpatine had mentioned religion since their first meeting. Two pairs of blue eyes regarded each other attentively.

"Yes," Vader replied simply, "but it's not a land we go when we die."

The emperor nodded in agreement and began to sift through his papers distractedly. The moment was broken and the general felt relief and disappointment in equal measure. "What do you make of this? Monsieur Amidala calls me a tyrant." Palpatine held out a pamphlet to his general. "He does not approve of your annexation of Organa, nor does he like my assuming of the title of emperor." He shook his head, "Someone needs to cut out that man's tongue."

"We live in the modern era, Your Majesty," Vader said dryly, "you would do better to destroy his press."

"I would have you do both," Palpatine sighed and sat back down, "when you find the man. Does not your wife host a salon which attracts all of those enlightened philosophes who equate my reign with that of Nero?" His tone was honeyed with pleasure. It was almost as if he found the idea of dangerous subversives amusing, or was it Vader's sudden unease he was enjoying?

"My Padmé is idealistic… it is a harmless indulgence."

"All the same… we know the Jesuit is hiding somewhere in the city. Your wife gave him aid once before…"

"Padmé is not your concern. I have seen to it that she has lost all contact with Kenobi." Vader laid his hands on the emperor's desk, leaning forward, his eyes dangerous. He didn't like it when Palpatine turned his attention to Lady Vader; they belonged to separate spheres and Anakin was a little afraid of what the emperor's penetrating gaze might spy if he stared too long into Padmé's lovely eyes. He attended palace functions alone these days and his wife stayed behind under the watchful gaze of his servants.

"I trust your judgement, my friend," Palpatine replied, placing a reassuring hand over one of Vader's, instantly diffusing his ire. No one else was so trusted, no one else held in such high honour as he, a fatherless son of a serving-maid turned lord and the confidant of royalty. It had been the proudest moment of his life when Palpatine presented him with the patent of nobility; the lands of Vader for himself and his descendants, the means for him to make Lady Naberrie his wife. He bowed his head, gracefully accepting the emperor's trust – the feel of those soft fingers against his skin – and smiling at the thought of Lord Maul, who so little understood such honour.

I need a lullaby

A kiss good night

Angel sweet love of my life

Oh, I need this

He awoke in agony, his flayed skin covered with wet silk sheets to soothe the pain. Someone was humming above him; a lilting melody he'd heard once before, perhaps. For a moment, he thought it might be his mother returned to him, but the tone was too low for a woman's voice. Cold, soothing ointment was being deftly applied to his shoulders. Anakin tried to open his eyes, finding it difficult, lids stuck together by the same ointment. "Try not to move too much," the emperor advised.

"Padmé?" he whispered hoarsely.

"No," Palpatine chuckled, "I am not she."

"What… what became of… her?"

"I am not entirely sure, dear friend."

"I… I… killed her… I… Padmé…!"

"Your wife was responsible for aiding Kenobi and conspiring against the crown," Palpatine said in a comforting tone, "your actions were entirely appropriate." Of course the emperor was right. But he had destroyed his love; he would never again have Padmé wrapped in his arms, would never lean down press his lips against hers – and he had been the one to do it. "Listen to me, Anakin. You are a hero. You saved my life and this empire from civil war."

Anakin desperately wanted to be left alone with his pain, his grief, but the emperor continued with his relentless panegyric, refusing to listen to Anakin's protests; administering gentle daubs of ointment as his voice drifted between them.

It went on like that for days, until the emperor's soothing words came to his aid even without the sovereign's presence. They whispered over him like a prayer when despair threatened to engulf him. Yet, whether his own conscience or the suspicion that Palpatine had engineered far too much of the tragedy which had unfolded, he could not bring himself to quite believe the words he clung to so desperately.

He thought of Padmé who gave his son to Ben Kenobi. The documents found in her escritoire, the secret printing press staffed by her fellow noblewomen in the name of liberty… and the vision in white muslin, her beautiful hair cascading down her back, who met her death with such courage. Yet it had it not been she who set a trap for him with Kenobi, whose black powder had condemned him to this? The Marquis of Xizor had called him Madame Amidala.

It had been Palpatine who first dressed Anakin in the armour which became his shell, after stoking his heart for vengeance. The emperor had come to him, dressed in light robes, and promised him vengeance. It was no general's uniform, resplendent with gold furbelows, which Palpatine's servants had borne into the lord's chambers. No, this was the armour of another age, made for princely knights; darkly shining plate metal which hypnotised Vader, shimmering like moonlight on black water. "It is the armour of my ancestors," the emperor explained as he slipped whispering black silk over Vader's broken skin, making the lord shiver. The servants set the armour down and none had the courage to look straight at the ancient metal, as if it carried a curse.

Next came the equally dark leather which would rest between the silk and the metal, which Palpatine strapped on with silver buckling, adjusting the fittings with his small fingers. "Legends tell that it was the armour worn by Lord Bane at the battle of Ruusan, which made the Lords of Sith the rulers of this kingdom. Ever since that time it has been worn into battle by his descendants… until such armour fell out of favour with the devious-devising gods of war…" The emperor took the fair sabatons and greaves and fastened them about Vader's legs. He gradually made his way upward and Anakin felt strange in the weight of cuirass, armets, harness and gauntlets. Palpatine seemed like a wicked sprite of war himself, his eyes glittering like sunflare under his heavy lids, and at last he lifted the mighty helm and set it on Vader's bowed head, sweeping the visor down over the lord's eyes.

He stepped away from his general, staring as if hypnotised, and ran his hands along the glistening cuirass, as if unable to keep his fingers from the cold metal. "Aah…" he breathed. "Yes… yes… how do you feel, my lord?"

Like an antique, Lord Vader thought – and yet it was more than that, as if he could feel the ghosts of the lords who had fought in this black metal, who had gazed out the visor just as he gazed now. And the emperor prowled about him possessively, his lips creased with pleasure. Anakin had thought the feelings fluttering in his chest would never return, but Palpatine had found the perfect solution to their problem; he could no longer lead armies clothed in his old uniform, but this…

Overwhelmed, he knelt before his emperor in homage, ignoring the pain as his knees hit the marble. For the first time in many days, Padmé vanished from his heart and the emperor's prayers of glory were ringing in his ears.

Well is it dark enough?

Can you see me

Do you want me

Can you reach me

Oh, I'm leaving

The entire city was ablaze. Vader, who knew first-hand the searing pain of flame against skin, could hardly bear the hot winds that fanned the chaos. All he could do was watch Alderaan burn. The capital of Organa, it had been an architectural jewel. It had never been the general's intention that is should come to this.

But it had been the emperor's. The emperor and his council who had determined that, with regard to the Duchy of Alderaan, an example must be made, something beyond mere defeat. Duke Bail had injured Palpatine's pride, an inexcusable offence for which Vader had been dispatched to extract… reparation.

Bail's daughter stood beside him, tears staining her dark eyes, a hostage to the continued loyalty of Organa. Her lips were moving but no sounds issued from her throat. There is no honour here, the lord thought, glaring harshly at the smoke rising from the spires of Alderaan. It was autumn and he had ordered his men no to take pity on those who fled the burning city – they were to suffer for their duke's mistakes, though his actions had been none of their making. He knew it would please the emperor – would bring a wicked smile to those desiccated lips, and a soft hand to brush against his arm, accompanied by whispered glories – an intimate benediction which would rob Vader of everything but Palpatine's blessing.

He was a slave. More a servant than the mother he barely remembered. But he did not look away from the blaze; he would watch the fire until the sun rose, dazzling, over the still burning city.

You better shut your mouth

And hold your breath

And kiss me now

And catch your death

Oh, I mean this

Oh, I mean this

The snow fell around them, specks of white drifting in the chill darkness. The lord curled his leather-clad fingers against the thick sable fur that protected the emperor from the freezing air. Palpatine sighed and leaned into Vader's cloak, eyes closed. He had been outlining the myriad actions his heir would have to take in order to secure his position. It had been the general who had taken him into the night, away from his cosseting courtiers and the careful ears of the servants.

"… And you will have to execute Pestage, Lord Dangor, Lady Isard, and Marshal Thrawn. They have served me faithfully but their ambitions will work against you, as you do not have the skills to play them against each other. Pestage will aid anyone who aspires to replace you and the other three see themselves as your equal..." Vader nodded and shifted his grip on the reins, saying nothing. The emperor talked on as the sleigh moved easily past avenues of the leafless silhouettes of majestic trees, ghostly tapering claws, curling up into the moonlight, filling the silence with hoarse realpolitik interspersed by a rattling cough and the splutter of blood against silk.

Perhaps Kenobi was right, Vader mused, perhaps there is some spell he casts with his voice, some dread bewitchment? He felt himself to be a naked soul, his armour ripped from him like the bark from winter trees, shivering for human comfort. He halted the horses and wrapped his arms around the emperor, pressing the venerable head against the curve of his neck, oppressed by dark, unconscious, incommunicable grief as he drew Palpatine close. He opened his mask, the cold stinging his face, and pressed his face against the emperor's furs. Small hands gloved in soft kid moved tenderly around the edges of Vader's features and perhaps, once upon a time, the lord might have dared to lean down and kiss that thin mouth and the crinkled lids which might have folded shut in pleasure. In another life, perhaps. It seemed suddenly inexplicable to him that, out of all the impossible wishes he had been granted, it was this secret desire - stronger than any other - which had never been fulfilled.

The cream-yellow eyes stared up at him, unseeing in the darkness as the emperor shuffled closer, his caresses moving across Vader's scarred cheek and across his nose, the tips of his fingers pressing against his heir's lips, his smile seraphic. "My child…" he murmured, his eyes slipping shut exactly as the lord had imagined and he found himself moving closer to press his mouth against the sovereign's.

There was no breath in the kiss. That figure which had always been so redolent with power was still. The emperor did not stir. Vader cried out, his shaking fingers digging into the small shoulders, but there was no more life in Palpatine. He was emperor. Emperor Anakin – it sounded wrong, obscene… it… In desperation, Vader pressed all the affections he had longed for on the motionless sovereign to no avail. He did not wake.

His possessor was dead, without triumph, without fireworks. He was alone. The emperor is dead. Long live the emperor.

The cruellest eight words in existence.