The Art of War – Playing Favourites
This side story to The Art of War takes place quite some years before the main event. Probably it's not canon, but it fits into this alternate universe.
He did not move anything but his eyes and even those seemed unreadable. There was no emotion showing on his face, no awe, no surprise, simply nothing. And yet the aura playing around him did forebode so many things. The way he carried himself reflected the calmness he was feeling inside and in that there was nothing false about him. Still, first impressions always could be misleading. Leaving the security of the shadows Darth Vader stepped out into the open to look down the giant staircase leading into the foyer of one of the Imperial Palace's many meeting rooms. It was a beautiful array, the floor patterned with yellow and orange marble, the pillars off-white. An almost friendly choice of colors. Almost. All the harsher the white, shining armor of the storm trooper escort waiting downstairs seemed to clash with their surroundings. The Dark Lord permitted himself a small smile. Those troopers were not here for covert operations. There were others for these tasks. More efficient and more deadly in any regard. The storm trooper sergeant hurried up the stairs to meet him and managed a small bow despite the rigid armor.
"My lord," was all he said, obviously awaiting orders.
"You and your troops are dismissed. I will take care of this."
"Are unnecessary. Admiral Parck has already informed us in great detail."
"Yes, Lord Vader."
The sergeant turned around half-way to wave at the soldiers left behind in the foyer. In unison they filed out of the room only to be followed almost immediately by their superior. Once the annoying clatter of boots on stone had died down Darth Vader placed a gloved hand on the staircase's smooth railing and resolved to wait. For a long moment both occupants of the quiet foyer were silent. And the game began.
Maybe the thing waiting for him was human, but it was hard to tell. A humanoid, that much was clear. The flowing black robes could not disguise the life-support suit he wore, assuming he was male at all. But from what he had heard and seen of the Galactic Empire, that too was a certainty. Human then. The only sound that filled the chamber was the breathing apparatus fixed to the suit. A steady sound, almost hypnotic. Crossing his hands on his back he returned the masked gaze calmly, unafraid. He had seen worse, after all. Finally his host broke the silence and the distorted voice, sharp as a steel blade, sounded awfully harsh against the backdrop of the grand foyer.
"Welcome to Coruscant, Commander."
Ah, quite the military man. "Thank you, Lord Vader. I take it someone is waiting for us."
"Then let us not keep them."
Turning away the other did not reply or even wait for him to catch up. And he noticed the way the robes wrapped around the man's legs, very reminiscent of a Jedi's attire. Actually, looking closer, it seemed to be just that, only the colors were different. Studying the armor intensely the newcomer checked it against something he had encountered quite some time ago. But there were no similarities there. Yet he knew what this man was: a Sith Lord. No, the Dark Lord of the Sith. Apparently that title implied leadership, and yet this man definitely served the Emperor. The question then was what he was supposed to lead. Dismissing the thought he instead concentrated on his surroundings. The palace was beautiful, no doubt about that, and clearly designed to indulge the vanity of those who roamed the grand structure. It seemed slightly obscene to have someone like that Sith walk these halls. There was nothing vain about the warrior and he looked out of place in the elegant hallways. Just as he himself must look. Quickening his pace he nodded at the red-robed guards that appeared the deeper they went into the heart of the huge complex. Finally they had reached their destination. Pushing the door open the Dark Lord waited for him to enter first.
The room beyond was breath-taking. But far too crowded for his taste. And there, standing next to Admiral Parck, who gave him a reassuring smile, stood the man who had had him brought here in the first place. The Emperor hid his features inside the deep cowl of a floorlength black robe. But it was easy to see in his stance that he must be ancient. Bowing respectfully the newcomer threw a guarded glance at the other occupants of the chamber. The Dark Lord, of course, was standing behind him, but there was someone else, a mere silhouette against the light that fell through the windows. When she took a step toward the men her black hair caught the sunlight, reflecting it like a dark crown. She was easily the most beautiful humanoid female he had ever encountered, but why have her here? Was her presence supposed to be a distraction?
"Syndic, it is an honor to have you here." The Emperor's voice, slightly breezy, as if he had trouble breathing, interrupted his musings. "Admiral Parck here has told me a lot about you and frankly I am very impressed by your abilities."
"Yet I do not put my trust in words, but deeds. I am certain that the Admiral has explained to you why I requested your presence."
"Good. May I introduce to you Lord Vader, my trusted agent."
"A pleasure." The woman remained nameless and in the background, watching everything out of keen black eyes. Just as silent as the Sith.
"Lord Vader is a most adept warrior, but alas not as adept a strategist as you are. Yet he knows the Empire almost as well as I do. Maybe you can learn from each other."
"I take it you want me to stay here then?" A prisoner? He felt his heart clench with uneasiness. Parck had said this would be no more than getting to know the man who had offered his help to the Chiss, but if he remained here... Well, what? He had been exiled from his own people. There was nowhere for him to go anyway.
"I would appreciate it," the Emperor answered amiably. "If our agreement is to benefit each party you will have to get to know your allies."
"Now, it has been a long voyage. I suspect you will want to rest now. Roganda, please show Syndic Mith'raw'noruodo to his quarters."
The woman slipped past the Emperor and Admiral Parck, her small, child-like form gliding across the floor like a ghost. She was dressed in an exquisite dark red robe that was heavily embroidered with gold. Around her neck an intricate collar sparkled with gems and expensive metals. She nodded at him respectfully before she went past the tall warrior guarding the door. He noticed the crass contrast between her fragile beauty and the Sith's martial attire with a sudden revelation. The Dark Lord's presence could only mean that peace was about to turn into war. Which was why he himself had been sommoned here also. He would have to be vey careful indeed.
"What do you think of him, my friend?"
Leaving his post by the door Darth Vader suppressed an ironic smile that, hidden behind his mask, would have gone unnoticed anyway. "So far there was not much to see, was there?"
"But you have read the Admiral's report, have you not?" The Emperor's eyes scrutinized him intently.
"Yes, quite impressive."
"More than that!" Dropping down on one of the chairs scattered throughout the room Palpatine chuckled softly. "You are jealous of his accomplishments, of my praising him and belittling your abilities. Well. You know the deal, Lord Vader."
That he did, indeed. "And yet I do not understand why you called him here just now."
"You really do not understand. A pity." Leaning toward him the Emperor smiled. "The Grand Admiral will be my tool of conquest. He knows the Unknown Regions and their dangers. Expansion, Lord Vader, is the key to greater power."
"And of course to more wealth," Vader commented drily and gave Admiral Parck a long look.
The Emperor's plans would benefit the economy, mostly the weapons industry. But there was a flaw to that design, and that flaw meant that Thrawn would have to be indeed successful in the task Palpatine had selected for him. Palpatine would not pay his suppliers market prizes, no way, and that would reflect back on the wages the workers would be paid. Grimacing in disdain the Dark Lord was again amazed at the man's selfishness. Of course, once Thrawn had unlocked the hopefully endless resources hidden in the Unknown Regions that would change. But that was a long way to go yet.
"Credits are what people live for these days, my friend. The more one has, the more power one commands."
"But let that not be your concern, Lord Vader," Palpatine continued smoothly, as if he had read his mind. "I made a promise to teach you, and I will." The Dark Lord suppressed an angry growl. "Syndic Mith'raw'noruodo will train with the best military advisors we have. That way we can all learn from each other." Reclining in his chair Palpatine sighed. "You, Lord Vader, will perform another task for me. Admiral, you may leave us."
"Yes, Your Majesty. Lord Vader," Parck rapidly made for the door, leaving the two Sith alone.
"What task it that?" Vader asked immediately after the Admiral had vanished.
"Not so fast." Shaking his head slowly the Emperor rose from his seat and walked over to the viewport. "With the war over and the Jedi destroyed one would think that my Empire is safe from unwelcome disturbances, don't you think?"
"I suppose so," the Dark Lord answered softly. Palpatine smiled.
"You seem to be remembering something - unpleasant?"
"You know what it is."
"Indeed I do. But as far as I recall you enjoyed yourself immensely killing your brethren. I distinctly remember your hatred, your fury. Truly impressive. As a warrior, Lord Vader, you are almost unbeatable. Now it is time to move on."
"In what way?"
"I have been made aware of a small community that might become trouble if we leave them unobserved. They call themselves Fallanassi."
"I have never heard of them before."
"Neither have I, nor any of my sources. Fact is, that the Jedi's destruction has disturbed them immensely. One of their kind has approached me. I want you to meet with him."
"What does he want?"
"Apparently this man has decided that his people should not share the Jedi's fate. I want to know if he speaks for the entire community. If he does not you will hunt them down. If he does..."
"If he does we will destroy them anyway. What is it about them?"
Laughing out loud Palpatine clapped his hands in childish delight. "So eager! Lord Vader, you surprise me." He turned serious once more. "The Fallanassi call themselves adepts of the White Current. They are Force-users, different from the Jedi, but powerful in their own way. They believe in balance. If we do not destroy them they might move in to fill the place the Jedi have left behind. I cannot allow that."
"Politics," Vader breathed.
"Exactly. No, we cannot let any of the light survive. You will meet with this man and you will bring me the heads of his people."
Following Roganda he let his mind wander across their surroundings, noticing every corner, every door and every window. An interesting structure, highly intriguing. The great hallways, stretching into the far distance like tunnels, connected every part of the palace with each other on one level. Turbo-lifts made this intricate web complete. He could easily believe that one could get lost in this place or wander around for days, maybe weeks, and always see something new. It was huge. Whoever had ordered it built had had a sense for the beauty of symmetry, but archways, gardens and courtyards broke the strict lines playfully, leading the eye of the beholder into new directions, surprising him at any turn. A masterpiece. As for the interior design... Well. There were gloomy corners competing with bright, garish rooms, stately foyers standing their own against cold glass and metal. But that mix congealed into a style that combined a certain elegance with outright decadence. In that the structure reflected the style of its inhabitants.
Take that woman, Roganda. The shape of her body was hardly visible underneath all that unnecessary jewellery adorning her features. Without all the gold and gems and expensive fabrics she would probably still be beautiful, but in a different way. All that dazzle only served to project an image, just as the entire structure did. The question was: what was hidden underneath?
"Excuse me, Commander, we are here," Roganda said suddenly, her breezy, lilting voice and sweet smile surprising him. She gestured toward a door that looked like any other. Nodding at her he pushed it open.
"Thank you, Roganda. If I may ask: do you have a last name too?"
She giggled in fake amusement. "Please, just call me Roganda."
Stepping into the room he let the door close in her face and proceeded to study his new home critically. Well. It was certainy beautiful and what was more, also very tasteful. There were no unnecessary decorations, nothing that might distract the eye of the beholder. Undoubtedly the design of his assigned quarters had been intentional on the Emperor's part. Interesting.
Walking around the apartment with his hands crossed on his back he felt his tension ease with each pasing moment. Well. Now that he was here he might as well make the most of it. He stopped in front of one of the viewports overlooking one of the inner courtyards, a splendid garden with fresh green of a hundred hues and dazzling colors of flowers and blossoms. Mitth'raw'nuruodo noticed with some surprise that most of the plants were actually extinct in their natural habitats. Briefly he wondered if the Dark Lord too was the last of an extinct species. If so, he had to have been a Jedi Knight once. He chuckled softly to himelf. The Emperor's taste in collecting rare items was somewhat ironic, but then, the man himself was pretty excentric, as far as he could tell from here.
Undoubtedly he was being monitored, and he did not consider himself much of a guest in this giant complex. Still, there was a hint of something, of things to unfold. In his long years of service in the Chiss military Mi'traw'noruodo had never relied on his hunches alone. He liked to back them up with information, as much and as detailed as he could get. What information he had now was sufficient enough to let him guess as to why he was here. It had been at the beginning of what had become the Clone Wars when the Chiss had first encountered what would become the Empire. Back then a fleet of warships had entered Chiss' territory and been destroyed. Almost. Among the survivors Commander Mitth'raw'noruodo had found a mand named Kinman Dorian, and as chance had it that man had also been the leader of that task force. Dorian had explained the fleet's mission to him, and not only that.
Back then a group of Jedi Masters had left the security of Republic space on some sort of scouting trip. A trip that could have imperiled some of Palpatine's endeavors and furthermore, and what was more important, drawn badly needed resources to a far away front in an effort to map out the Unknown Regions. Resources that were vital for the outcome of the Clone Wars. Dorian had been very specific about Palpatine's plans and it had all made great sense too. That was, it had made great sense to Mitth'raw'noruodo. He had taken his fleet and had put a premature stop to the Outbound Flight Project. The Chiss' ruling families though had not shared his view. But they were not the ones guarding the border and fighting nameless threats, not the ones who protected the Chiss. They had not approved of his actions at all.
Smiling to himself he took a seat in one of the elegant chairs and sniffed at a pitcher that contained some liquid or other. Well. Since the ruling families did not want to see the truth he would have to approach them differently. The first step had been getting himself exiled. Ah. Some sort of scented water. Pouring himself a glass and nipping at it he continued his musings. Yes, the exile Admiral Parck had 'rescued' him from. And now he was here, on Coruscant, and up against a more devious adversary than he had ever faced before. First they had to lay down the rules of the game though. Rule number one for himself: don't trust anyone. Rule number one for Palpatine: never underestimate your opponent.
It was about and hour later that someone knocked at the door to his quarters.
"Come!" he called out smoothly and rose from his seat, where he had been studying a datapad laid out for him on the desk at the window. To his mild surprise it was not Roganda, but a tall human, his features almost skeletal and his pale eyes intense. Bowing respectfully Mith'raw'noruodo wondered if this man was another select item in Palpatine's collection.
"Syndic, it is a pleasure to meet you," the newcomer said, his voice totally void of emotion.
"And you are?"
"My name is Wilhuff Tarkin. Please, take a seat." Complying with his curiosity aroused Mitth'raw'noruodo sat back down again. Tarkin followed his lead promptly. "I am certain that the Emperor has made you aware of the reason for your stay here."
"Admiral Parck has debriefed me."
"Parck. Of course." Tarkin smiled thinly. "Very good. I will instruct you in questions on the military aspects of the Empire. Strategy, tactics." He waited for the Chiss to react, but the commander kept quiet. "I assume that you are asking yourself why that would be necessary," Tarkin continued. "The answer is simple. I was told that your people do not condone agressive warfare. That is unfortunate and has to be changed."
"Dorian," Mitth'raw'noruodo hissed under his breath. Whatever had happened to the man?
"Yes." Raising his eyebrows slowly Tarkin gave him a long look. "Kinman Dorian paid for his incompetence and his death should be a lesson to you too: failure will not be accepted."
"His task was to destroy the Outbound Flight Project and he succeeded, didn't he?"
"He did not. You succeeded. He failed. Discipline, that is it what we need."
"Good." Tarkin rose abruptly, then waited for the other to get up also. When Mitth'raw'noruodo had complied he nodded sharply. "We will inspect the military intelligence headquarters first."
"That is where we will train. I understand that you will also be instructed in politics."
"Not your field of expertise?" Another almost-smile was aimed at him, but Tarkin kept silent. Following the other quietly the Chiss commander resloved to wait and be patient.
"How did he react?"
"Polite, considering," Roganda answered calmly as she poured her master another glass of sweet, purple wine. But 'polite' was not really how she would have described the thinly veiled hostility by the Chiss. The Emperor smiled at her.
"I see. Well." He put the glass down and reached out to caress her left cheek tenderly. "Lord Vader will leave Coruscant tomorrow. That is when our game will begin."
"The Fallanassi will vanish from the face of this galaxy very soon and then I will have all but two of the last Jedi in my grasp. Maybe I should celebrate that accordingly."
"Yes," she breathed, forcing a smile on her lips too.
"You do not seem very thrilled by that prospect, Roganda."
"Two are still out there. Are you not concerned about them?"
"It is not your place to question my motives, my dear."
"My aplogies. I meant no disrespect." Averting her eyes she lowered her gaze demurely, making Palpatine laugh softly.
"Of course not. Still. There is a lot you still need to learn."
"I iwll try harder, master."
"Do that," he chuckled softly, "do that."
Once she had been allowed to leave Roganda returned to her quarters in the wing that was reserved for the Emperor's concubines. How she hated this disguise! The other women were getting on her nerves, annoying her with their meaningless talk and petty intrigues. It made it harder for her to concentrate on her primary tasks, living with such a distraction. Roganda was aware of the fact that her master was still testing her loyalty. After all, it had been just two years since the former Supreme Chancellor had declared war on the Jedi. Roganda had been fourteen then. She knew that Palpatine found her impatience with the older women amusing, but she did not care. All she wanted was to survive.
"It is late."
Turning her head Padmé gave the woman leaning in the doorway tiredly a long look. "It is always late," she replied at last.
"Yes." Stepping closer the newcomer smiled at the small girl lying asleep in her crib. "You should get some rest too. It has been a long journey from Tatooine."
"That it has. Thank you, Saché," she sighed and rose from her seat, then bent forward to kiss the tiny girl once more before she walked over to the door. Looking back over her shoulder a slight frown appeared on her forehead when she saw Saché repeat that motherly gesture. And for a split-second her envy became too much to bear. "Well," she said, just the tiniest bit too loudly. Jerking away from the crib the other woman gave her a questioning glance.
"I am sorry?"
Her shoulders fell. "Nothing. I will go to bed then. You should too."
"Sleep well, Your Highness."
"I shall try."
Walking down the shadowy hallway Padmé felt her skin crawl as she imagined unseen eyes watching her. She could not shed the feeling of being followed, of danger always lurking at her back. For two years that well-founded paranoia had been haunting her and it was nagging at her resolve unrelentingly. Quickening her pace Padmé felt cold sweat wrap her body in a clammy embrace. If she could not even feel safe here, with her friends... She keyed the door to her quarters open and immediately called up the lights to drive away the darkness. The windows were shielded already against the night and inside that cocoon of walls she could heave a sigh of relief and shed some of her tension.
Two years ago her worst fears had come true. After having left her husband to follow the Jedi Council's advice and go into hiding, his image had been haunting her. His hatred, his anger. Back then she had kept her pregnancy hidden from him as best as she could and apparently he had been too busy with other things to notice. Busy. They both had been busy, hadn't they? Bitterness returned to her heart once more. Dropping down on her bed Padmé kicked off her slippers and started to undress. Self-consciously she examined her trembling hands and her lips turned into a grim line of determination. No, she would not let him defeat her like that. She had had to leave her baby-boy behind on Tatooine, but Luke should be safe with Obi-Wan and Anakin's step-brother, Owen Lars.
The reaction to Saché's innocent show of affection toward her daughter had been very similar to what she had felt when Owen's wife, Beru had held her little boy in her arms. Padmé had the feeling that her children were not hers anymore, that they were growing apart from their mother. It hurt her very much, but if she wanted to protect them she would not be able to be with them. That simple. Her face was well-known to her hunters, and even though she was skilled at deception and masquerade, she could not be certain if those measures would work anymore.
She remembered the twin's birth clearly. They had been born in a secret location, strange surroundings that had made her feel uncomfortable and unsafe. But Obi-Wan had been with her then, had supported her and had proven a true friend. It had been his unfaltering loyalty that had allowed her to survive. But it could not have lasted. Terrible times had begun just over a year ago, when Chancellor Palpatine declared himself Emperor and had announced the Jedi to be dangerous outlaws, criminals, manipulators, liars and murderers. He even had presented proof, and with what had happened to her husband previous to that event Padmé had had no trouble believing part of it. The Jedi Purge had whisked Obi-Wan away from her to protect his friends, and she had feared for Anakin's safety even though he had seemingly abandoned her gladly. When her friend had come back to tell her of her beloved's death and resurrection she had been devastated.
The memories were with her every day and at night they turned into nightmares. It was driving her insane bit by bit, taking all of her determination and strength. As she slipped underneath the covers of her bed Padmé prepared for another battle against the past.
"You should not have left her like that."
Looking up from the bowl of stew he had been gobbeling down Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi gave the pretty woman seated across from him a tired smile. But Beru did not return it. "What do you mean?" he asked quietly at last.
Putting down her needle-work Beru gave him a long look. "You did not see it, did you?"
"The way she looked at you, at Luke, as if she was expecting not to see you again. She is losing her faith, Obi-Wan. And her hope." She reached across the table to lay a hand on his forearm to emphasize her point. "These are hard times for her."
"For everyone," Obi-Wan answered glumly.
"Yes. But in contrast to the Jedi you can help her."
"The Jedi are as good as gone, Beru. Had Padmé not asked me to act as her bodyguard I might be dead too. But now I have to move on."
"Get yourself killed, more likely," a gruff voice announced from the doorway. Half-turning toward the tall, bulky man standing there Obi-Wan shook his head gravely.
"If I do not interfere..."
"What then?" Owen Lars asked harshly. "You said it yourself: the Jedi are dead. Far as we know you are the last one left. These are dark times, I am telling ya, very dark."
"Owen, don't be so hard on him," his wife admonished him quietly.
"Hard? Where were the Jedi before all of this could happen? Why did they not put a stop to this in time? Maybe then they would still be alive," Owen added in a growl. Swallowing down a reply Obi-Wan averted his gaze, unsure of what to say.
"Perhaps you are right," he addressed Beru once more. Rising from his seat he nodded at the couple. "I will go to Alderaan and meet with her. If I can help her in any way I will."
"I'll leave tomorrow morning, if you don't mind."
"No, no. Take your time," Owen answered, calmer than before. "No need to get yourself killed too, right?"
Turning away the Jedi Master felt a shiver run down his spine. What Beru had said frightened him immensely. He had abandoned a friend to fend for herself, had forced her to leave her children in the care of strangers. Although she had seen the reason behind those actions she must suffer. And he had never considered that. Padmé had always been so strong, had never faltered in her resolve. But the past years had shaken her badly. First Anakin skirting very close to the Dark Side and eventually succumbing to it. The threats she had had to endure form her husband, the constant fear for her life and that of her yet unborn children. All the while the Jedi Master had had his own worries and had shielded himself against her emotions in an effort to concentrate on the events that had happened in such short succession since then. Even now he had to be very careful to not let his grief come too close. Owen had been right: the Jedi were dead. It was unbelievable.
But he had not stayed idle either. Resistance was already forming against Palpatine and if they were quick they might be able to douse the fire before it could grow into a storm. Viceroy Bail Organa of Alderaan was a loyal ally in that endeavor, but they had to move very carefully. Anything that might give them away had to be avoided under any circumstances. Unfortunately that included Padmé. If anyone recognized her on Alderaan... No. She had to leave, and quickly. He felt guilty over having to drive her away from her daughter too, but it was a bare necessity. Tomorrow he would leave for Alderaan and pray that he was not too late.
"Give her back!" She could see the fear in Saché's eyes, but her friend hugged little Leia only tighter to her bosom.
"Padmé, please. Calm down," the other woman said soothingly.
Padmé raised her chin haughtily, unwilling to admit her own nervousness, her fear that every moment she spent with her children might be the last. She had had to leave Luke behind on Tattooine, with Obi-Wan. Shaking her head she turned away, hurting once more, her rage rekindled. Obi-Wan had insisted that Luke should keep his father's name. He had reasoned that no one on Tatooine would question Owen and Beru Lars who the little boy was, or would even bother to ask his last name. With any luck things would have changed again by the time Luke was old enough to be officially registered as citizen of Tattoine under his real name. Padmé did not share his view at all. She had been furious at his decision, that he had made without asking her first. Obi-Wan claimed that Anakin needed a beacon of light to find his way back. But why did it have to be her son?
Unfortunately his reasons were solid.
"I am sorry, Saché," she said at last and closed her eyes in dismay. After a while warm hands started to massage her shoulders in a friendly gesture.
"I understand," her friend and former bodyguard whispered softly.
Squaring her shoulders Padmé made her decision. "I cannot stay with you. I am only endangering Leia."
"What are you saying?" Saché exclaimed, startled.
She turned around and hugged Saché tightly. "I have to leave," she whispered, her voice choked with tears.
"No!" the other woman breathed, aghast. "Don't say that. Please. Padmé, I can feel your pain, and you should not be alone at a time like this."
Wiping a dark strand of hair from her wet cheeks the former queen shook her head with determination. "Thank you. I appreciate your concern."
"You don't mean that."
Padmé ignored the knowing look in her friend's eyes. It hurt too much. Right now she was trying to convince herself that leaving really was the right thing to do. She could feel her resentment growing the more she saw Saché around Leia. Bail was no help either. The Viceroy of Alderaan was too concerned for his people, and Padmé could sense that although he definitely liked her he would rather not have her around. Her presence was too much of a risk. But where was she to go? Whirling away she broke out of Saché's embrace and made for the door. What was left for her at all?
"Gentlemen, may I introduce to you Commander Thrawn," Tarkin announced aloud when they entered the sterile room filled with computers and blinking panels that represented the nerve center of the military headquarters.
They had passed an endless number of security checks on their way here and now Mitth'raw'noruodo refrained from correcting Tarkin at the look the other man gave him. Clearly this was part of the training. Most of the uniformed men servicing the machinery assembled here gave the newcomer blank looks and some even raised their eyebrows in questioning. Of course. He was not human. That had to seem strange.
"Grand Moff, an honor to have you here," an elderly man greeted Tarkin cordially. "We have been expecting you. And this is your new charge?"
"Yes. Commander, this is General Kolana. He heads this department."
"Commander," the General acknowledged him with a nod and an icy expression on his weathered face.
"I assume that being head of the Intelligence Department is a highly demanding job," Mitth'raw'noruodo said politely. Tarkin gave him a sharp glace.
"Very good. Come. Let us have a look around." Waving him on Tarkin strode toward one of the communications panels. The officer manning the board took a respectful step back and stood to attention. "At ease, lieutenant. Take a look, Commander."
Leaning slightly forward to study the display the Chiss smiled. "The Unknown Regions. I see you have already advanced into that territory."
"Yes. But the ferrets never survive for long. I want to know why. General Kolana has established a task force to send in there. Do you recognise this system?"
"Yes. As it is my last mission led me there."
"That unfortunate business that got you here in the first place?"
"I was not informed of the details of that mission." Mitth'raw'noruodo kept politely quiet. "I assume you will not enlighten me?" Tarkin continued, his voice indifferent.
"I was told that this was to remain restricted to a certain circle."
"Which includes me. Good. But you will not keep anything from me, is that clear?"
"Yes." So. Tarkin was informed. And if he lied, Tarkin would know.
"You annihilated the entire population. Why?"
"I had reason to assume that they would try to conquer us soon."
"There was evidence of outside manipulation of that people."
"Of what sort?" Straightening again Tarkin nodded at the lieutenant and proceeded with his round. The Chiss followed again.
"Evidence pointed toward some sort of - Sith."
"A Sith? Interesting."
"Lord Vader is a Sith. But I assume that this was someone else."
"Indeed." Tarkin stopped short and turned around to face Mitth'raw'noruodo again. "A Sith in the Unknown Regions? Highly unlikely."
Again, the Chiss let the obvious doubts in the other's words pass. But he had evidence. Either Tarkin really was not aware of the truth or else this was another test.
"That may be as it is. But the task force will not find anything."
"No. The Chiss patrol that territory. They will not let themselves be seen."
"Good." Tarkin smiled. "Very good. If they guard that perimeter we will let them."
The implicit threat did not escape the commander. But he kept quiet. His own plans were in no way endangered and he would do everything in his power to keep it that way. By learning about the Empire he would gain insight into the benefits and dangers that came with it. As long as Palpatine thought he needed the Chiss, and needed Mitth'raw'noruodo, he would tolerate a certain amount of exchange of information going on. Some things would remain restricted territory, but the commander was confident that they would not remain so for long. To these people it seemed essential to gather information first, and then to understand it. But that was not the way. The first step was to understand and then get the detailed information on the why and how of proceedings. Not to build from small pebbles, but to look at the mountain range and identify threats that might come from there.
Waking from a meditative trance Darth Vader took a moment to again focus on his surroundings. Apparently the Fallanassi had contacted the Empire through convoluted paths. He had first spoken to the Governor of Chandrila, Gorji Tieman. Compressing his lips to a hard line the Dark Lord called up the files he had requested from Intelligence. Tieman originated from Naboo, and if he was not mistaken the man had been part of those who had supported the Cloning Act. So. He had been in office for three years and so far he had been very loyal to the young Empire. Why would the Fallanassi's representative contact him of all people? Well. He would go to Chandrila tomorrow. Palpatine had assigned General Tagge as his liaison. Watch-dog, more likely. Snorting softly in contempt he rose from his seat and hesitated. Then, making a decision, he walked out of his apartments and wandered down the hallways toward the gardens on the next level.
It was a cool evening, but he could not feel the air on his skin. He could not smell the sweet scent of musky orchids, only what had been filtered through his breathing mask. His condition was infuriating.
But the garden eased some of his resentment and anger. Strolling underneath high tress and across soft moss the Dark Lord again felt the childish wonder at the bright range of colors, the nightly blossoms that greeted the moonlight with distant longing. He paused, raising his head toward the stars. He missed his freedom. And so much more.
Squeezing his eyes close in dismay he thought about what he had accomplished so far. Nothing. In essence he still was a prisoner, and if he could not manage to gain Palpatine's trust he would always stay just that. Captive. Rallying himself again Darth Vader walked on, toward the railing of the balcony that overlooked the waterfall that jumped spectacularly over the edge and filled a basin on the lower level. A truly beautiful sight, a straight view toward the Menarai Mountains.
This was a chance to gain Palpatine's approval. If he succeeded in his task, he would be fully accepted. Of course, this might seem similar to what had happened to the Jedi Order, but that it was not. He had hated the Jedi with a passion. For their incompetence, their cowardice, their resentment. For letting him down, not trusting his words, his senses. That was the past though. The Fallanassi were different. He had no emotional ties to that order, and so his committment woud be sincere.
Whirling around briskly Vader stalked back the way he had come. Tomorrow he would make his next move. It did not matter that he might have to wait years to make another one. But he would, in the end.
His hands crossed on his back he was watching the lone figure that haunted the park's expanses pensively. Like a ghost the Dark Lord moved along the pathways, paused to look out over the mountains. Something must be troubling him. Following the Dark Lord with his eyes Mitth'raw'noruodo narowed his eyes slightly. What are you hiding? And what role had the Emperor reserved for the Sith in the future to come? When a soft knock came from the door to his apartment he nearly jumped in startled surprise. His head snapped around and his frown deepened. What was this about? He walked over to the door cautiously and called up a visual of the hallway outside. His eyebrows rose slightly, when he recognized his nightly visitor. Assuring himself that she was alone he opened the door.
"What do you want?"
Roganda gave him a sweet smile. "A message from my master."
Her gaze dropped demurely. "A gift."
Mitth'raw'noruodo held his breath. What did this imply? Obviously Palpatine intended to test him. But there was much more behind this than met the eye. Much more. Inclining his head slowly he stepped aside to admit her entrance. Roganda's smile widened politely. As he closed the door again he made sure that it was locked properly. Then he changed the code, just to be on the safe side. He turned around to face her again, and took his time to study her, searching for clues, and listening devices. Her pitch-black hair hung loosely over her shoulders and, scattered in her dark mane, white moonstones glittered in the harsh lights of the apartment. A silver collar, studded with Corusca gems, adorned her long neck. More jewelry was feautured all over her body, that was clad in a black, velvet dress, the thick fabric richly embroidered with silver thread. She looked like a goddess of some kind, beautiful, yet distantly cold. Mitth'raw'noruodo smiled, then went past her to resume his vigil at the window. To his mild annoyance the Dark Lord had vanished though.
"What gift is that?" he asked at last.
He could feel her come closer, his ears picking up the soft sounds that her dress made as she moved toward him. She stopped, hesitating. "Esteemed allies may be honored with a gift of ....," her voice broke.
"A gift of?" he pressed on, refusing to meet her desperate gaze. Undoubtedly she had been taught this line by rote. Still, why did she not continue? Realizing the truth he grimaced in disdain. Of course. She was untouched.
"Of a night with one of the Emperor's favourites."
"And you are one of them?"
Wincing at the lie he shook his head slowly. "Roganda," he whispered.
"Yes?" she breathed, sounding miserable.
"I cannot accept that gift."
"It is too much."
Suddenly her arms were around his shoulders, her body pressed against his back, her warm breath running over his neck. "Please," she said with a sigh. "I can sense your desire." Her voice took on an urgent tone. "You do desire me, I know it."
"Roganda," he said again.
"Are you a Jedi?" She froze. "You said you can sense my emotions." Immediately her hands and body withdrew. Relaxing a bit Mitth'raw'noruodo turned around slowly to face her once more.
She stared at him, haughtily, almost angry. "The refusal of such a gift is punishable by death," she threatened.
"Is that so?" he replied mercilessly. "In that case I might reconsider." Looking her up and down pointedly he watched her shift uncomfortably under his scutiny. "Take off the collar," he ordered at last.
Her hand flew up to her throat. "I cannot -"
"If I am to take you to my bed tonight I do not want to be reminded of who you really belong to." Her gaze dropped in defeat. Then, slowly at first, then quickening her movements, she removed the jewelry. "Now the rest."
Heaving a sigh Roganda dropped the remaining bracelets and necklaces, rings and brooches. Finally she met his gaze once more. Nodding to himself in satisfaction Mitth'raw'noruodo took a few steps toward her, until their bodies were so close that the hem of her dress brushed the tips of his boots. Running a finger lightly along the neckline of the dress he walked around her leisurely. When he stood behind her he started to unfasten the garment slowly. He could see her jugular vein throb violently, betraying her emotional state with painful clarity. The heavy fabric dragged the dress down and left her standing in the apartment's harsh lights wearing nothing but a silken, white shift that caressed her young body tenderly. Taking her hand Miith'raw'noruodo guided her over toward the broad leather couch that stood opposite from the holo vid. She trembled under his touch and her skin was cold and covered with goosebumps. He smiled at her slender form, bereft of garish adornments, her beauty simple and real.
"Much better. Sit down."
She did as ordered and tried not to meet his glowing eyes. Standing in front of her he let her fear simmer for some time, then spoke in low tones:
"You are untouched and therefore not yet one of the Emperor's favourites. You are a Jedi, and furthermore, Roganda, I am not human. My taking you as a gift would pit the entire Court against me. Not accepting it would affront your master. Tell me, Roganda, what are you afraid of?"
She turned her head away and her black eyes glittered dangerously. "Why do you humiliate me so?"
"I want you to tell me the truth," he hissed. "Don't make me ask again."
Suddenly tears started falling from her eyes, running down her perfect, white cheeks and smeared her make-up beyond repair. "He said that he will celebrate his victory over the Light once Lord Vader returns from his mission. By making me his."
"And you do not want that union? I suppose you are not given much choice."
"I am of the blood of the Jedi," she continued haltingly, her voice dead. "When I was fourteen my brother was killed. My parents were dead already. I did not want to share their fate. The Emperor took me in. Now I am sixteen. He will make me his, body and soul."
"I see. He knew that I would turn that gift down. And you sought to avoid your fate by sleeping with me, an alien. He would have refused to take you then." It was not a question and Roganda wisely kept silent. "What mission is that?"
"I do not know."
He did not quite believe her, but decided not to press her further. "Very well. There are blankets in the closet."
Roganda closed her eyes in shame. He waited for a moment, then turned away. Suddenly uncertain she raised her head to look up at him, but by then the door to the bed-room had closed behind him already, leaving her alone on the couch. It was chilling how he had managed to look right through her, as if those glowing eyes could see straight into her heart. He was right. She had tried to avoid her fate.
But she should have known that it was useless. No one could escape the Emperor. No one. Rubbing her arms to warm them Roganda shivered in the bright lights of the living-room. Finally she rose and went over to the indicated closet. Indeed, in the bottom drawer soft blankets promised some warmth and comfort. Building herself a nest of thick fabrics Roganda snuggled into the blankets and tried to stop herself from shaking.
But she lay awake for a long time. It hurt that he had refused her company, and suddenly her anger over that rejection burned like a bonfire in her very soul. How dare he! Growling softly she drew the blanket further up, until it covered her up to her chin. But she would have her revenge. Her master would approve, she knew, and maybe then she could redeem herself in his eyes. Still, she shuddered at the thought of his aged hands on her body, and quickly tried to think of something else. Glowing red eyes danced in front of her, teasing her, and Roganda heaved a deep sigh of regret. This had been a complete disaster. Well. Maybe she would be able to turn it into a triumph yet.
The man nodded. "Sir."
Striding past him toward the shuttle that would take them up to the Star Cruiser in orbit around Coruscant Darth Vader threw critical glance at the stars that were barely visible in the dusk surrounding the planet and the lights that illuminated the city. It was very early in the morning, but he felt well-rested. They would arrive on Chandrila in approximately four days and he decided to spend those in preparation of the mission. Chandrilan governor Tieman had assured him that he could establish contact with the Fallanassi representative easily and the Sith Lord dearly hoped that this was indeed so.
Turning around he gave Tagge a cool look. "Yes."
"I am sorry, but I just got a call. The Emperor wishes to speak to you before you leave."
Again? Nodding slowly Vader walked back to the turbo-lift he had just exited. "Very well. You will wait for me at the shuttle."
The lift took him a few levels down and opened into a heavily guarded section that housed Palpatine's private quarters. Making his way toward where he could sense the old man's presence Vader was surprised to pick up something else, a mind as sharp as a steel-blade. Who could that be? A guard opened the door for him and the the Dark Lord strode through briskely. There was Palpatine, sure enough. And next to him stood a bulky human, his black curls cut short, startlingly turquoise eyes sparkling coldly.
"Ah, Lord Vader. May I introduce Germyne Urian to you?"
"You are a Dark Lord?" Germyne asked bluntly, his lips curling into a mocking smile.
"He will be," Palpatine answered instead of Vader himself. "So far he is in training."
"Training, I see. Then you will send him to Korriban once he is finished training?"
"Oh yes." The Emperor smiled deeply. "Definitely."
"Well," Germyne commented drily, "I suppose that formality is necessary, although I don't really see why."
"Politics," Palpatine replied. By then Vader was thoroughly annoyed at being talked about like this.
"Korriban?" he asked.
"Yeah, probably one of the most boring planets, aside from Hoth or Tatooine," Germyne shrugged.
"Well, I am about to leave for Chandrila. What was it you wanted to talk to me about, master?"
The Emperor nodded solemnly. "Germyne is also leaving Coruscant. I want you to take him to Wayland."
"Yes. Then proceed to Chandrila. I know this will take longer, but Tieman will help you in finding the Fallanassi."
"I am not worried about that. And what was that about Korriban?"
"This is a test, as you know. If you pass it, you will be officially initiated as Dark Lord of the Sith."
"I see. And what does this have to do with a certain guest?"
"Ah, very observant. You see, Germyne, why I have chosen him?"
"Yes." Those turquoise eyes narrowed a fraction. Undoubtedly the man had just gained a bit more respect for the future Dark Lord. Good. If they were going to make this trip together Germyne had better used to it that Vader did not tolerate any nonsense. Although is seemed clear that the man enjoyed the Emperor's trust this did not give him any right to pick on the other agents. No way. "Well. I will leave you for now. Lord Vader," Germyne nodded at him as he went past.
"General Tagge is waiting with the shuttle. You will join him there," Darth Vader told him calmly, making their respective positions very clear. Germyne gave him a cold smile.
"Yes, sir." Throwing a last, wry glance at the Emperor he left.
"Lord Vader, you seem ill at ease."
"Who is he?"
"A Sith, like you."
"He isn't even Force-sensitive."
"You will find that his skills are quite a match for the Force. Do not underestimate him." Rising from his seat Palpatine folded his hands in front of him slowly. "Your trip to Chandrila is indeed a test, albeit not the last you will ever have to pass. As for Mitth'raw'noruodo... You are right there. He will prepare himself for his role in this scheme, just as you will."
"And what position will that be?"
"If he indeed fulfills my expectations, and I do not doubt he will, Thrawn will become my weapon of conquest."
"Oh yes. As for you, my friend, the Dark Lords of the Sith were battle-leaders, as you know. When Darth Bane initiated the rule of two it was his goal to let the order survive. They did not fight battles anymore. But now times are changing. Very soon the Sith will rise again, and we will rule this galaxy. To do that we need someone like you, a leader, a strategist. Someone to guard the order."
"When you come to Korriban you will understand."
"Germyne does not seem to think much of that planet. Why?"
"He has never been there."
"Yes. Indeed." Walking over toward the window Palpatine rubbed his hands together gleefully. "When you return from that mission you will see. Yes, that you will. And now I do not want to keep you any longer."
"Yes, master." Bowing slightly Vader turned around and left, pondering the implications of the Emperor's cryptic comments. What was on Korriban? As far as he knew the planet had been a graveyard of the ancient Sith. It made some sense to hold his initiation there, but he suspected that there was more to this than he could see right now. Well. He would find out soon enough.
Waking up shivering with cold Roganda looked around wildly, remembering suddenly. She wrapped the blankets around herself tighter and closed her eyes again. No. She had failed on her mission. Or had she? Well. One thing was clear: Mitth'rwa'noruodo was indeed what the Emperor had hoped he would be. A mind as sharp as the blade of a Shiteran dagger.
"Good morning," a familiar voice said softly, startling her. Roganda's head snapped around to look into the pale, cold eyes of Wilhuff Tarkin. His skeletal features were unreadable. A rustle of clothes brought her attention on the Chiss commander who just came out of his bedroom, fully dressed already. His gaze swept over her only briefly as he walked past.
"I am ready," was all he said, and the words were directed at Tarkin, not her.
"So I see. Very good. I bid you a good day, Roganda Ismaren," the man told her coolly, and rose from his seat to join the commander.
They left and Roganda found herself shivering not only from the cold. Getting to her feet quickly she picked up her clothes, her mind racing. That Tarkin had seen her was unfortunate, since it had been very obvious that she had not shared the Chiss' bed. What would he do? Would he keep silent? Growling softly to herself she dressed and made her way back to her quarters. As expected a message from her master ewas waiting for her. A very short message, consisting of just one word. Report. Changing hurriedly the agent gobbled down some fruit and drank some water. He would know. He would know how to interpret this. And she would still have her revenge. Smiling to herself slowly Roganda licked her lips unconsciously. Yes. That she would.
It was late afternoon when Mitth'raw'noruodo returned to his quarters from a day spent with endless lessons on the proceedings of the Imperial military, especially the navy. He was a fast learner, but apparently Tarkin expected him to soak up any fact he was giving him even faster. Now, fairly exhausted, he told himself that this was still worth the trouble. He had even grudgingly accepted that everyone was calling him 'Thrawn' now, or simply 'Commander'. It was a small concession he had made. A more difficult one would have to be made tonight. In passing Tarkin had told him that he was expected to show up at some reception or other. Undoubtedly that was part of the test, and tonight he would see if the Emperor approved of his performance. Well. He was certain that he had done the right thing. Even if Roganda claimed something different from what had really happened Palpatine would know the truth.
Stepping into the living-room he threw at the gardens outside. But today the Dark Lord apparently had other things to do than stroll the park. His eyes averted from the windows again and came to rest on what he supposed would be his evening dress. A dark gray uniform, with a black collar and no insignia. Not that he had any rank in the Empire. Yet. Mith'raw'noruodo suspected that that would change someday, if he could fulfill whatever the Emperor expected of him. Again his thoughts were drawn back to the dark warrior, the Sith Lord. After the fall of the Old Republic the Empire had taken over the government. Yet there seemed to be more ambition behind that deep cowl that hid Palpatine's face. He was planning some sort of conquest, and if he was any judge, the Empire would push into the Unknown Territories sooner than later. Who better to enlist as ally than the Chiss?
The Chiss were a proud people, but also very conservative. They would never agree to accept the Empire's protection, not even if it might mean their total annihilation. It was this stubborn pride that had prompted the commander to take Palpatine up on his offer. He was well aware of the fact that he had given himself into possible enemy hands, but it was worth the risk, had to be. Mith'raw'noruodo had proven his skills time and again, and he knew that without his assistance his people would stand no chance against the Empire's might. They had to concentrate their forces elsewhere, after all. A tricky situation, but not unsolvable. What was required was patience and committment and the commander had both. And if that dedication required that he visit some foolish masquerade he would do that too.
It was two hours later that Tarkin came by to see if he was ready for his first social function. The man's gaunt frame was, as usual, dressed plainly, yet no one would mistake him for anything but a military leader and tactical genius. His sharp, knowing eyes saw everything that went on around him. Right now he was studying his protegé closely, and a small smile was tugging at the corners of his mouth. Mith'raw'noruodo wondered what he found so amusing.
"Ready to face the pack?"
"So sure about that. You know what game is going on, do you?"
"Very good. Knowing the game though is not the same as winning." The commander kept silent. Looking up to meet his eyes Tarkin nodded briefly. "You do well to remain quiet. You must wonder if it would be wise for you to win at all."
"I suppose I do not know all the rules yet."
"Rules are for games, Thrawn."
"If this were no game, sir, I would have lost already."
"So you do not expect to gain any support at the court?"
"For now I prefer to stay pessimistic."
"And you haven't even met your adversaries yet."
Was that statement a question or not? Did Tarkin know more of Palpatine's plans than he let on? Here too Mith'raw'noruodo had his suspicions, and a victory would not serve it well, but who else knew?
"Perhaps I will chang emy mind then."
Tarkin snorted aloud. "I doubt it. Come. We are expected."
They stood side by side at the top of tthe giant staircase leading down into the reception hall. Alderaanian marble, beautiful gray swirls in a sea of pale blue. Unfortunately that stately composition was jarred by the multitude of colorfully dressed people jammed together on the floor. Most of them wore elaborate costumes and had masked their faces. Lord Vader would fit right in, Mith'raw'noruodo thought nastily, but rejected the idea immediately. The Sith would fit like a gundark amidst a horde of pittins. Not that he himself fitted in. He was the only alien, even if he was a humanoid. But his pale blue skin and glowing eyes set him off as surely as if he had worn a mask himself. A different one though.
"Here we are among a sea of peacocks," Tarkin said softly. "Look at them. They probably think us a boring and unimaginative lot."
"Because we do not wear costumes?"
"Of course. And we think them childish fools."
Tarkin smiled coldly. "Do not try to be witty with me, Thrawn."
"My apologies, sir."
"So what do you make of this - assembly - then?"
"I do not know any of them. They may hide their faces, but I doubt they have changed their intentions. To find out about the fractions I would have to learn more."
The other gave him an appraising look. "Good. The best way to learn is to mingle with the crowd. Although in your case that might become difficult." And with that he started walking down the stairs, not waiting for the younger man. Mith'raw'noruodo frowned ever so slightly. Although Tarkin seemed enthusiastic enough about lecturing him there was a something else too. Tarkin did not like him. Not, not at all.
He drew the hood of his cloak deeper into his face and suddenly wished that he had shaven off that beard after all. Sure, he did not wear the traditional garb of a Jedi Knight, only a fool would do that, even here, but he was not unknown. Still, he could discourage any all too nosy passerby who tried to get a glimpse of his face, just by subtly suggesting that there was nothing worth noticing about him. It was a trick Obi-Wan Kenobi had learned to use extensively over the past two years, and it had served him well too. Yet he felt uncomfortable having to employ the Force in that manner here on Alderaan, where he had friends and allies aplenty. But he could not risk their lives, could he? No, he could not know if Palpatine had stationed watchers here too. In fact, the former general was almost certain that the Emperor would not dare leave the opposition to themselves. Fool thing for Padmé to travel here in the first place. He had to tell himself that over and over again, to quell the sympathy he felt for her coming here to visit her daughter. She deserved a bit of happiness, she of all people. And yet he had to be hard on her, as hard as she was herself.
Evening spread over Aldera, the planet's capital, and a peaceful evening it seemed to become. Well, too soon to hope. If he could not convince Padmé to leave with him... But she was a reasonable woman. She would see the necessity of it, and Bail and Saché would support him too. They all knew the risks. Slipping into the palace unnoticed was easy. This was Alderaan, after all. There were not many guards around, and Obi-Wan suspected that this had to do with Bail's current stance on teh galactic government. It was unsafe to stay around a man who opposed Palpatine so openly. Obi-Wan would have to talk to him again. If Palpatine ever had enough of it he would not spare Bail's family either, and that would risk Leia as surely as those whose continued existence the Viceroy kept secret. A brave man, Bail, but even he would not stand against Palpatine's questioning. Slipping through the nearly empty hallways of the palace Obi-Wan extended his senses to search for the familiar presences he had come for. There was Leia, sure enough, a bright little light. Very soon now he would have to hide her completely, before she could betray herself. If he was not mistaken Saché and Bail were close to the girl, but there was not the faintest trace of Padmé. Obi-Wan frowned.
".... told you that this would only trouble her," the former Roal Bodyguard was just saying, as he rounded a corner and stepped into the anteroom of the royal couple's apartment.
"It was a great risk, but I was willing to take it."
"You take too many risks of late, my dear. She must stand back, or else we will lose even that little soark of hope."
Bail Organa sighed deeply. "I could hardly have refused her this visit, could I? You are being too hard on your friend."
"A soft heart can get you killed, my love, but I agree. Sometimes it is worth the risk."
Obi-Wan cleared his throat politely, not quite looking at the couple standing very close by the open fire-place. He could sense their shocked surprise as they became aware of the newcomer. Almost at once though those emotions flickered from fondness to fear and back.
"Another surprise," Bail said drily. Disengaging from his wife's embrace he went forward to meet the Jedi Master.
"A pleasant one?"
"Always, my friend. I can hazard a guess as tow hy you are here. She," there was no doubt whom he meant by that, "told us a bit of the dispute the two of you had."
"Where is she, Bail?"
"Gone. You are too late, by almost five days."
Taken aback, Obi-Wan inhaled sharply. This was unfortunate. If he had to run around searching for her he was at a far greater risk of exposing what he was, of being recognized. Stubborn, foolish woman! "Where to?"
"Not here," Saché hissed, and shook her head. Suspicious, that was what she was, and rightly so. She had been ttrained to protect, and she had kept her habits despite becoming a viceroy's wife. Good. Nodding at her quietly Obi-Wan followed her into her husband's study, Bail on their heels. Saché activated a star chart and skipped over a few coordinates, her fingers drawing a patterned web over the galaxy. Oi-Wan kept his senses alert and he had no trouble sensing her agitation rise when she dipped over the coordinates for Chandrila. Anyone who might be able to trace the patterns she had shown him could not know which planet was the right one, only a Jedi would. Squeezing her shoulders affectionately he nodded in understanding and smiled down at her. She returned that smile weakly, looking weary. Then, laying a hand on his forearm, she guided him into little Leia's room. The girl was lost in play, but she looked up at them quickly, when Saché knelt beside her. Large brown eyes and dark hair heralded her to become a beauty like her mother, and her sharp gaze spoke of intelligence too. Yes. Just like her mother. Dropping down on his haunches Obi-Wan tousled her hair quickly, and his smile widened.
"Hello, little one. What a pretty girl you have become."
"She's so sweet," Bail said with a father's pride, from where he stood, leaning in the doorframe.
"Yes, indeed." He could sense her bright presence in the Force, almost as strong as her father. She would become a powerful Jedi. If she survived. Suddenly his mood grew darker. Too public a life was awaiting her. Too much to risk. He heaved a sigh. Stroking the girl's head gently he reached out to the Force and quietly began weaving a ward that would mute Leia's potential, at least to the prying eyes of other Force-sensitives. It also meant that she herself would probably only become aware of her being different when she was older. Older than usual. But it would protect her, and that was his main goal. When it was done he felt as if he had severed the last tie that held him to the past. He would have to leave, and he could not ever come back.
"It is done," he whispered. Saché's head came up and her dark eyes seemed to bore into his skull with unasked questions. "She will be safe." She nodded in understanding, then rose. Following her lead he gave Bail an apologetic smile. "I regret having to cut this short, but time is against us, as always. I have to find her soon, I can feel it." He was babbling, and they knew it.
Bail clasped his shoulders in a friendly hug. "Thank you. You are a friend and always will be in our hearts. I wish you well on your journey."
"May the Force be with you," Saché whispered in his ear as she embraced him. This was farewell. Forever.
Obi-Wan bowed to both of them quite formally, but he had a hard time to keep his emotions in check.
"Thank you. I will never forget you." He swallowed hard. "And if you ever need my help I will come, no matter what."
They smiled at him, nodded. He was serious, but he was also foolish. The sort of trouble only he could deal with would kill him as surely as it would kill them.
He turned back again, his eyebrows rising quizzically. Bail had gone white in teh face all of a sudden.
"What is it?"
"I almost forgot. This is important. I have heard that Lord Vader has been sent to Chandrila."
"I only just remembered. It learned that only today too." Saché gave her husband a cool look, then her mouth twisted into a grim smile. But she kept silent. "Be careful," the viceroy added quietly.
"Always. I will hurry, and I will be careful."
"You took a great risk, Your Majesty."
She stopped fidgeting with her skirts and gave the man sitting opposite from her a sharp glance. "I told you that this is past."
"Forgive me," he replied drily and shook his head ever so slightly, apparently disgusted with himself.
Governor Gorji Tieman of Chandrila was a tall man, plain-faced, and hard. He had opposed her when she had still been Senator for the Naboo, had argued over the role of their people in the order of things, and had lept to take Palpatine's side once it became clear that the Supreme Chancellor wanted more than the Senate had bargained for. All very good reasons for her not to be here, not to trust him. But Gorji Tieman was not who he seemed. Padmé had known him for years, they had attended the same classes, even, and although there had been some disputes she knew one thing: he was loyal to the Naboo, what little remained of them, and what was more, he supported the opposition that was growing against Palpatine. In secret, of course. Padmé knew all this from her talks with Obi-Wan. He held contact to a great many hidden resistance groups, and one of the ring leaders there was the Senator to Chandrila, Mon Mothma. A stern, intelligent woman. It was said that she and Gorji had been lovers once, although Padmé doubted that very strongly.
"You mentioned help?" she said coolly, reminding him of the real reason for her visit.
"What? Oh, yes." He gave her a startled nod. "Unfortunately circumstances have changed a bit."
"A common," he grimaced sourly, "friend has taken an interest in the political goings-on. Too much of an interest, I fear, since it has attracted the notice of the Navy."
Padmé stiffened. If she had understood correctly his contact, the one who had been supposed to help her disappear for a while, had approached the Empire, and now Darth Vader was on to him. On his way here, maybe?
"Does this endanger my holiday?"
"Perhaps. The contact is not in the best graces with the syndicate. They will certainly move him out, when the time is right."
"So I will have to make my purchases quickly," she mused, already lost in thought.
"Yes. Another thing. As of today, the Chandrilan authorities have claimed that they will cooperate with the Navy."
"Then I shall retire, and leave the authorities to their preparations." Padmé was surprised that her voice wasn't shaky at all. He nodded again, a serious nod, and rose from his seat.
"Before you retire, though, maybe you would honor me with another visit? Tonight?" This time her voice was trembling.
Whatever was awaiting them tonight, she hoped dearly that there would be no more unpleasant surprises.
He stopped short upon entering the ship's training facilities. At this time of the artificial day he had not expected anyone to be here at all. Frowning ever so slightly Darth Vader suspected that the stocky man practising with a droid as opponent was here just to spite him. Germyne Urian was flowing through complex defense patterns as he countered the droid's attacks gracefully. Not a lightsaber but a quarterstaff was twirling in his black-gloved hands. The Dark Lord's frown deepened. A quarterstaff. He snorted softly. The Emperor might claim that Germyne was a Sith, but Vader thought that some traditions should prevail. He started across the smoothly polished floor toward Germyne, determined to teach him a lesson or two. Just as he reached him the warrior whipped around and one end of the staff came to rest at the Dark Lord's throat.
"What a charming surprise," Germyne said with a smile, his turquoise eyes sparkling with amusement.
"It would not pierce the armor, you know," Vader countered mildly and brushed the quarterstaff away from his masked face. He had not made any noise, he was certain of that. How had the man sensed him coming closer?
"Of course." Grounding the weapon Germyne turned serious once more. "You doubt my abilities." It was no question.
"And you think me arrogant."
"Maybe, just a tiny bit."
"Would you care for some practice?"
"Sure," Germyne snorted and took two steps back.
Darth Vader put a hand to his belt to unclip his lightsaber when the staff came down hard on his wrist. He suppressed a surprised yelp and brought his arm up to slap the weapon away, but it was not there anymore. Germyne had darted around him quickly, and the staff hit the small of his back full force. Stumbling foreward the Dark Lord grunted, but caught his balance before the next blow could sweep his feet out from under him. So he was not fighting fair, was he? Well, he could do that too, no problem. Reaching out to the Force he formed an invisible shield around himself. If that was cheating he did not care. A fist of air hit Germyne squarely and threw him back just as he was flying in for another attack.
"You are too slow," the Dark Lord said coldly.
Germyne gave a soft laugh. "Never injure a warrior's pride."
"You street-fighting style is indeed not worthy of a warrior."
"But it works."
"Yes." Admitting it was less humiliating that he had anticipated. Maybe the Emperor was not as stupid as he had thought, when employing this man and raising him to the rank of a Sith Lord. There were more aspects to using the Force than combat, after all. Eyeing Germyne with newfound interest the Dark Lord pulled himself up straighter. The warrior nodded to himself, as if he had just been confirmed in his view of the Sith. Then he flashed Vader a cold smile and said:
"In case you were wondering, the floor was vibrating in response to your weight when you stepped into the room. Most people don't pay any attention to such minor things, but I pay attention to everything."
Vader remembered the feel of the man's mind, all sharp poise and utter concentration, a coiled spring ready to pounce. Amazing. No, Germyne might not have no conscious connection to the Force itself, but apparently he had trained his senses to their natural limit. Of course, a human's senses were inferior to those of many other races, but maybe the combination of all five made up for that. He inclined his head gravely, suddenly very pleased with his master's choice. A very unusual one, for sure, but intriguing. "You know though that I could crush you where you stand, don't you?"
"Only because you are aware of the threat now."
"A lesson for me then. Thank you." He never thanked anyone for a lesson except his master! What had gotten into him? But Germyne accepted that thanks graciously, and his tiny smile was sincere.
"Maybe you are not such an arrogant fool after all," the man answered calmly.
Arrogant fool? He would - No. Reining his temper in sharply Darth Vader sought the calm of anger, feeling his rage like a quivering shield that enfolded his mind. Calm. "You take some unnecessary risks."
"Do I? As I said, you are no fool. I think you have mastered your anger already, so no danger of your giving in to it on impulse."
"I see that you have studied the Sith Lore. Very good. What can you tell me about Korriban?"
Germyne grimaced wrily. "No more than what you know already. It is a graveyard."
There had been something, just a flicker of hesitation, but it was clear that Germyne was holding something back. It would be an easy task to crack his mind, but no sense in depriving his master of this precious tool and risking his wrath unnecessarily. "A true Sith, Germyne Urian, keeping more hidden than what you reveal. I will not press you, since I suspect that you have been sworn to secrecy on this matter." Even though he would not act as he might have under different circumstances, he could still remind the man that he had some teeth left to bite.
"Thank you, Lord Vader." Wonder of wonders, there had been no mockery in that reply at all. No, Germyne certainly was no fool. And his presence reminded the Dark Lord of one of the very first lessons he had learned when pledging himself to the Emperor: never ever underestimate your enemy.
It was flaw almost any Sith seemed to have had, one that had ultimately led to their demise. Too much arrogance, spawned by too much easy power. A very observant tool, this Germyne. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why Urian was being sent to guard the storehouse on Wayland. Palpatine could not abide criticism, not even one as subtle as this man's. Vader himself thought it refreshing and even necessary. To be reminded that there were other skills, more than a match for the Dark Side at times, was vital for his own plans. Pity, for example, or resentment. Take his current mission. Wiping out the Fallanassi could have two possible effects.
One, the Emperor would feel safer once the task was completed, safe from future interference through the Fallanassi. Second, if a tiny snippet of that mission, even a mere whisper, reached the public, outrage and pity would build a basis in the minds of the people, one that would norture the seeds of rebellion far better than the Senators subtle speeches in the Senate Hall. They did grumble, some of them anyway, but they were smart enough not to voice their criticism too openly. All except Alderaan and Chandrila.
Viceroy Bail Organa of Alderaan certainly did not hide his disapproval, but he had a weak voice in the Senate. In contrast to him Senator Mon Mothma of Chandrila had challenged the Emperor's supporters more than once already. She knew the risk, of course, but she also knew that Palpatine would not allow her to become a martyr. Unless circumstances changed quite a bit she was relatively safe.
If rumours of the Fallanassi's demise reached Palpatine he would punish his apprentice quite severely, there was no doubt about that, but the damage would be done already then. Besides, Darth Vader did not believe that Palpatine was tired of playing with him yet. After all, they had only just begun. Only time would tell when he would be granted the opportunity again to further his plans. It might take years. Well. He could not do this all on his own. And believe it or not, the Emperor's unconventional choices in his servants had inspired him to a certain degree. If -
He had completely forgotten about Germyne. Looking at the man he wagered that the Sith warrior would not have let himself be lost in thought like this had the places been reversed. Another reminder. Suppressing a tiny sigh the Dark Lord nodded slowly. "I will leave you to your exercises. Would you care to join me for a game tonight?"
Germyne smiled. "Of course."
The man had exceptional fighting skills. Time to see if he was as adept at handling logic and deception.
Drawing the hood of her cloak deeper into her face Padmé Naberrie supressed another shiver. She was close to shaking inside, but she fought down her fear relentlessly. All they needed now was for her to panic and they would get caught for sure. At her side Gorji Tieman strode along self-assuredly, but he too had his face hidden by the cowl of a cloak. Lucky for them it was raining so hard that no one would look at them twice for that. He must have known, or else he would not have suggested tonight. A clever man, but she had known that beforehand. Hurrying across another street Governor Tieman ducked into a non-descript house and she had to quicken her steps to keep up. A good thing she was so used to running now, Padmé thought bitterly. She had not really hoped that Tieman himself could offer her shelter, and he had explained unmistakably that he could not neglect his duties to the Empire, especially with the Dark Lord on his way. He lead her up to a turbo-lift and they entered together.
"They know me," he murmured in low tones. "They might not help you otherwise." Padmé had chided him for taking unnecessary risks, but he had insisted on accompanying her here. And she had to admit to herself that she was indeed grateful for his company.
The lift stopped and they stepped out into a dark hallway. Seizing her arm Tieman went ahead swiftly despite the poor light and knocked at one of the fourteen doors lining the hall. It opened immediately. No codes? No passwords? Padmé was aghast.
"We have been expecting you," a female voice announced solemnly. "Come, both of you."
Once the door had closed behind them Tieman shed his cloak and Padmé followed his example. In the suddenly all too bright lights of the tiny room four people scrutinized the newcomers critically. One was a human, a native, by her accent. Another female was Falleen, as was one male. The last was a human, tall and broad-shoulered. He looked tough, but his brown eyes held a gentle light.
"I am Arwen," the woman explained, and quickly introduced the rest. The female Falleen was Resha, the male, her brother, as it turned out, was called Shimor and the black-haired human was Kit Nesha.
Since Tieman kept silent Padmé introduced herself. She thought she saw Arwen grimace slightly. What did the woman know? Giving her a suspicious glare the former queen took a step apart from the group.
"How do we know you are who you claim to be?" she asked a bit too harshly. Arwen sighed.
"Please, you must trust us. We mean you no harm, as your companion means you no harm. If you trusted him you must trust us. Why else would you have agreed to this meeting?"
"I asked for sanctuary, but now it seems I came just intime to run again."
"We have heard that the Empire has sent an emmissary," Kit Nesha answered, his smooth voice a surprise, coming from his hard face. "He will not find us."
"No?" Padmé snorted. "I need not remind you that he has found too many already. My friends-"
"Your Majesty, please," Tieman murmured softly.
"Don't call me that!" Padmé felt her eyes widen in shock. She was shouting! Clapping a hand over her mouth in shame at her lack of self-control she shook off Arwen when the woman hurried over to take her in her arms in a soothing embrace. "I am sorry," she breathed, close to tears. "I -." Taking a deep breath she drew herself up to her small height and nodded almost regally. "I am most sorry. I will try to be less excitable," she added with a wry smile.
Arwen nodded slowly. "Very well. You must be calm to survive. You must be tranquil, like a bird riding the gales of a storm."
That sounded too much like something a Jedi would say. She could just imagine Qui-Gon Jinn saying it, with his hands folded in front of him, looking as solid as a mountain, and with all the strength of the montain, all its calm. Tears welled in her eyes as memory overwhelmed her again. Before she knew it she had sunk to her knees, sobbing quietly. She thought she might die with shame, but the images were too strong. Little Anakin, claiming she was an angel, Obi-Wan like a dashing young knight saving the day on Naboo, herself years later, her husband, her children. Her beautiful children. She cried only harder.
"Hush," a deep voice whispered softly in her ear, and gentle hands wrapped around her shoulders in a comforting gesture. Looking up through a curtain of tears she saw that everyone had left, everyone except Kit Nesha. He must have noticed her bewilderment. "They are laying false trails, in case someone followed you despite all precautions Gorji took."
"Is he - gone?" she managed, sniffling a bit.
"His best wishes are with you, I need not tell you that. So no need for good-bye either. Here." Proffering a handkerchief he waited until she had blown her nose. "Better?"
"I am not a child, you know?" she told him with a smile.
"Maybe not that, Padmé, but you look like someone with too much grief to overcome by herself. Doesn't matter whether you're a babe or a grown woman for me to know you need a shoulder to cry on."
Padmé gave him a most incredulous look. There he was squatting in front of her, that bear of a man, taking back the dripping handkerchief as if it were nothing, and the look in his eyes was enough to melt the ice she had built around her heart, vowing never to trust again. No demand that she remember her duty, no insisting that she behave like a queen, like the strong woman she supposedly was. It had been like this with Anakin, for a time, but not anymore. He had grown contemptuous of her weaknesses, had come to hate her for her strengths. The tears came again when she thought of him and that one question that always burned in her mind roared throug her very soul now: why?
"I do not know," Kit began, and she realized that she must have spoken aloud, yet he continued, seemingly seeing nothing out of the ordinary "But there is always an answer to any question and to any answer a question." Again Padmé gave him a disbelieving look. "Come. We need to be on our way." He gathered her into his arms as if she weighted nothing, a delicate flower in his hands. Padmé closed her eyes with a shuddering sigh, and for the first time in two years she felt that she could trust someone with all her heart.
"Good news, my dear," Palpatine purred, a wide. toothy smile making him look even uglier than he was already. Roganda shuddered in disgust. Clearing her throat she made herself meet his gaze.
"What news, master?"
"My spies tell me that Viceroy Bail Organa of Alderaan had a very special visitor. A Jedi Master."
Her eyebrows rose. "Lord Vader-"
"No need to inform him yet. Apparently that Jedi Master is running straight to Chandrila. We shall see if Lord Vader takes his duties seriously enough even when he's out of my reach."
Roganda nodded to herself in understanding. She knew that the Emperor still did not trust his apprentice fully, and before he could not prove himself Tarkin would keep the post as Palpatine's second. A good choice, Roganda thought. Cold as he might be, Grand Moff Tarkin performed his duties excellently. Of course, right now he was burdened with teaching Mith'rwa'noruodo, too. The Commander was learning fast, as far as she knew, but she still had no idea what her master wanted with him. Not that she would dare ask him outright.
"More wine?" she asked instead, trying to mask her uneasiness behind a sweet smile.
His eyes were fixed solely on the scanner panel, and he did not even look up when the door chimed to announce a visitor. "Come in!" he called and noted the door swishing open to admit Germyne Urian. No weapons. The scan came up clear and that was worrying. Vader had been sure that the man would not go anywhere without at least some small weapon. Was this supposed to be a measure of trust or a show of pride? Rising from his seat he made his way toward the anteroom slowly. Germyne's head swiveled around to face him and his turquoise eyes were utterly calm. All the more satisfactory that they widened in shock when the Sith was hurled against the closed door hard. Not breaking stride the Dark Lord walked up to the downed warrior, who stared at him in slightly dazed confusion. "Welcome," Vader said almost pleasantly. Indeed, Germyne's reaction had been most satisfactory. Apparently the man went by the rule that once the threat was clear there was no more danger. Foolish. Just because and opponent did not seize the first opportunity to kill you did not mean that he would not do so eventually. All it meant was that you were of someuse still. Of course Germyne did not see that and would put it down to the usual eccentric behaviour expected of a future Dark Lord of the Sith. He might grumble, but he would never realize the true intent.
"Is that your way of receiving guests?" Germyne asked, as he pushed himself up on his feet again. He had regained his composure quickly, a good trait, that might save him someday.
"My aplogies, Germyne," the Dark Lord replied smoothly. "I was overreacting, maybe."
"I see. Bad news?" Following him into the living-room Germyne let his eyes sweep over his surrounding with practiced ease. Undoubtedly he would be able to recite every detail afterwards. A useful ability.
"I am not certain yet. Please, take a seat."
Germyne did as asked and smiled. "i must admit that I am intrigued. What game is it?"
"A simple one." Calling up the program he had especially created for this get-together Vader nodded to himself. It was perfect. A three-dimensional holo showed two fleets, poised at opposite sides, facing one another. Dates and numbers scrolled over the holo constantly, but they did not disturb the picture much. A battle, or at least the advent of a battle. Germyne sat up and leaner closer, to study the display intently. "This," the Dark Lord began and pointed to one of the fleets, this one boasting fourteen heavy cruisers and twenty agile corvettes, "is the agitator. The Larmas Fleet." There was not a single hint of recognition at that name to be found in Germyne's eyes or his mind. As expected. "The other is the Kolan Trek. A mercenary fleet."
"Should be pretty expensive then," the Sith warrior breathed.
"Yes," Vader answered simply. "I want you to predict the outcome of this battle."
Running a hand through his thick hair Germyne laughed. "Oh my! I should have expected something like this, after-" he broke off, turning serious once more. "A test, eh? Very well. I shall try my best."
Squinting at the numbers again and at the layout of the ships, he pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Let's see. The Larmas Fleet has more power with those heavy cruisers, but I can see that the mercs also have made some modification sto their ships. Plus, they seem to have an impressive array of fighters hidden in their hangars. The Larmas could take advantage of that and punch the mercs so they cannot launch their fighters, of course, but some will slip trough. Enough, I think. The mercs can make good use of their heavier shields, even if their lasers aren't that powerful. If the fighters get clear they'll mellow the big cruisers and will be endangered mostly by the corvettes. But there are twenty of those.... Hm. I'd say Larmas wins, when all is said and done."
The Dark Lord smiled. Deactivating the holo he sat watching Germyne in silence. Finally the man's composure cracked.
"Was I right?"
His face lighting up Germyne bounded out of his chair. "Good! Somehow I find I do not entirely believe you, but I suppose you will not tell me if I am right about that too."
Following his example Vader rose to his impressive height and looked down at the Sith warrior. A warrior, no more. Focused on a mission, not the war. Very well. "Germyne, it has been a pleasure getting to know you. I wish you success on your assignement and bid you farewell. We are arriving at Wayland in under four hours."
"I know." Those turquoise eyes studied him intently for a moment. "You are a devious man, Lord Vader. I think you will make a good strategist too." He gave him a brisk nod and a tight smile. "Well. See you around. I suppose you won't see me off."
"No. I have my own mission to prepare."
"Anyway, thank you for the invitation. By your leave?"
Watching the man leave Vader shook his head ever so slightly. Then he returned to the living-room and reactivated the holo. He rattled off the commands that would initiate the fight sequence Germyne had suggested. "Total annihilation" the computer spat at him. The Dark Lord chuckled softly. It had been a very hard test, true, but it had suited his purposes well enough. Had Germyne paid better attention to the scans and radars, and more, to the supposed date, he might have realized that there was a third fleet approaching. Over a hundred years ago this battle had been fought off Nima, and it had resulted in the merc fleet being nearly destroyed too. The mercenaries had been hired by the Larmas Fleet to aid them against the invading Chu'an forces. Little did the mercenaries know that this was just a ploy to destroy them. well, Germyne had not realized his true intent either. Leaning back in his seat Darth Vader felt content. He could see what uses such a warrior might have, and he was idly thinking about employing someone with similar skills. No Sith though, no one obvious. But the question of who would remain unanswered until he could answer the when. First was his move to ensure the Emperor's trust in him. And that meant the total destruction of the Fallanassi.
She should have known he was a gardener. Sitting in the sunlight, her hands resting lightly on the soft grass Padmé smiled at Kit's back while he planted Oroth lilies daintily. His entire attention went into it, his brown eyes were shining and his lips were pursed in concentration. Watching him almost made her cry. It was simply amazing how he handled the flowers, just as gently as he treated everything else. A gentle man, and a good listener. A friend. After just three days with her new protectors Padmé felt a deep kinship with this man. He might have been from Naboo, for all his talk about plants and living in harmony with the planet. In fact he was Coruscant-bred.
"Why do you put so much effort in this?" she asked at last. "It is not as if you would still be here when they blossom."
"Because Darth Vader is coming here." Padmé shaded her eyes against the sunlight when she gazed up at the blue sky, as if she could already see him approaching the planet.
"So?" Kit did not even look up.
"We will have to flee, am I right? We are leaving."
"Maybe. But the garden will remain." His head turned toward her. "Why do you think I would deem it important to watch the seeds grow?"
"Because you have planted them." She did not know why there were suddenly tears in her eyes.
"I know they will be beautiful," he whispered. "You have children?"
"Two," she sobbed quietly. "Twins."
"A blessing." Kit was smiling now. He rose from his crouch and walked over to her slowly. "I had a son, Andres."
"My wife and son were killed when the Empire thought they had to seize the non-human residents of our neighborhood. I guess they just got in the way."
"You did not swear revenge?" Getting up Padmé dusted off her clothes.
"I thought about it. The Force help me I wanted to take a blaster rifle and kill every one of the squad who had been responsible for that massacre."
"Arwen found me. She could sense my despair somehow. I thought she was a Jedi at first, but I guess she taught me differently."
"What are they?"
"The Fallanassi? They follow the Current. They say it is a different aspect of the Force, a peaceful path, therefore they carry no weapons."
"Then they must be awfully good at hiding," Padmé commented drily.
"Yes. What about you?"
"What do you mean?" she asked suspiciously.
"All I know of you is your name and that you have two children. And that Tieman brought you here, of course. What is behind that name?"
"Really?" Kit's dark eyes narrowed a fraction. "Me, I do not think so. I believe you are a fighter."
"Maybe I was, one day." Sighing, the former queen started walking toward a shady copse of trees. "A long time ago."
"I was not allowed to take the grief personal. Like you." She looked up at Kit almost pleadingly, but he did not seem to notice.
"I did take it personal. But I did not let grief turn into hatred."
"How? How did you manage?"
"Arwen helped me. She was the friend I needed, without any burden of her own. Do you have such a friend?"
Padmé hesitated, then averted her eyes. "I thought I did. But I suppose his own grief took up all of his caring."
"I hope he has come to terms with it."
She laughed. "That I doubt. He is a Jedi Master, and a fugitive like myself."
"A Jedi Master," he repeated, sounding awed. "There are still Jedi out there?"
"Very few. They are scattered and they are hunted. By the very man who is on his way here now."
"You fear him."
Kit smiled at her. "Maybe you will learn that there are more important things than fear." He laughed out loud. "I mean, what's the point in being alive when you can't enjoy it?"
"Now you sound a bit like a Jedi yourself."
"Is that a compliment?"
Hooking her arm underneath his elbow she let him escort her into the shade. "I am not sure yet."
Walking into the plush chambers Mith'raw'noruodo had crossed his hands on his back in an almost arrogant gesture of calm confidence. He ignored the red-robed guards surrounding him completely, their numbers dismissed already. Knowing your enemy's position at any given moment was an advantage he shared with the guards. Mith'raw'noruodo suppressed a smile. This game was being played without the aid of well-trained soldiers.
"Your Majesty." Bowing slightly the Chiss let his eyes sweep over the room again. No, Roganda was not here tonight.
"Did you enjoy the masquerade?"
"That might be an overstatement."
The Emperor chuckled softly. An unsettling noise. "You refused my gift. Why?"
"Maybe I misunderstood."
"A misunderstanding, I see. No apologies?"
Mith'raw'noruodo frowned slightly. "No."
"A capital offense."
"Is it? If I ripped your heart out, would you expect me to apologize?"
"A somewhat drastic example, but I understand, I think."
"You surprise me, Commander. Your bravery is somewhat exceptional."
"No bravery, Your Majesty. Mere speculation."
The old man's head came up sharply, and sickly yellow eyes regarded the Chiss warrior with open interest. "Tell me what you think, Mith'raw'noruodo. And don't dare lie to me."
"Your - gift, Your Highness. I do not believe it was mere courtesy."
"No misunderstanding then. I am pleased, my friend." Palpatine gave him a wide smile. "Continue."
"Had I taken your gift I would have alienated the entire Court, as if that were necessary. Yet I could not send her away either, because then our game would have been ended by my ignorance. And that truly would have been a capital offense."
"I see I did well in calling you here, to my side. You already know how to confuse your enemies, how to use their suspicions against them." Mith'raw'noruodo did not answer. "Sit, my friend, and hear what I am offering you."
Taking a seat the Chiss commander listened. It was just as he had thought. Exactly. Well, they said that great minds think alike, but he had a feeling that there was a great difference between greatness and delusions of grandeur.
Darth Vader was pacing the bridge of his ship impatiently. They had dropped off Germyne two days ago, and were just a day away from Chandrila. And yet he felt something of an urgency, as if something were calling to him. The Force? He doubted it. The Force had been silent for quite some time. Jaw muscles bunching he gritted his teeth. No time for regrets. He had not been able to protect the Jedi, and he had not wanted to protect them either, once their scheme had become clear. They had used him for their own ends, never caring for the consequences to himself and his family. Obi-Wan had admitted as much when they had met back on Eol Sha. Well. They had paid for their foolishness, and the Emperor would not escape him either. No one used him!
The general crossed the bridge briskly to join his side. "Sir?"
"Tell me again where and when we are going to meet the Fallanassi representative."
"Governor Tieman will brief you presently, once we have arrived."
"I want that briefing now. Get him on the line."
"Obviously not. The bridge's conference room will do."
"As you wish, sir." Conducting a perfect about-turn Tagge hastened away to relay the Dark Lord's orders.
But Vader had dismissed the general already as he started walking toward the conference room. What irked him was that Tieman had insisted on keeping probably vital information until the last possible moment. The man was Naboo, and the Sith had some doubts in his loyalties to the Empire. He almost laughed at that. As if his own loyalties were anything but sincere. Still, he needed to know whether Tieman's plans might interfere with his own. For the sake of one move in the game he needed to sacrifice the Fallanassi. It was a dire choice, but necessary. And Tieman would not be allowed to prevent him from executing a move he had been waiting for for almost two years. If the governor planned on buying the Fallanassi more time he would have to come up with a new plan very fast once their little conversation had ended. But one factor was intriguing the Dark Lord. Why had the Fallanassi approached the Empire in the first place? Was the order split somehow? If so, that was a lever he might be able to use in his own favor. Activating the door controls he went into the briefing room and nodded at the general's holimage that was being relayed from the bridge. Tagge looked slightly nervous, but then, he always did.
"The line is almost secure, Lord Vader," he announced.
"Good. Put him through once the checks are done."
The image swirled into existance almost before he had finished the sentence. Governor Gorji Tieman was regarding him out of sharp brown eyes, and he gave him a curt nod of acknowledgement, offering no greeting.
"Lord Vader. What can I do for you?"
"You could start by telling me the representative's name, the date and location of the arranged meeting and why the hell you tried to withhold that information until I was onplanet."
"Security reasons, my lord. The Fallanassi are very adept at hiding. Who knows? Maybe one is with you on board your ship?"
"Highly unlikely," Vader snorted, but Tieman merely smiled a very thin smile.
"Nothing is impossible, Lord Vader. Very well. The contact's name is Indirien. I cannot confirm whether that is his real name or not. The meeting is scheduled for twenty hundred local time tomorrow. I am relaying the coordinates just now."
"Twenty hundred? That would have been a very close cut."
"My forces will arrive at eighteen hundred tomorrow at the earliest, Governor. I am certain that General Tagge confirmed that with you."
"What exactly are you getting at, Lord Vader?"
A very brave man, indeed. And undoubtedly a traitor. The Dark Lord kept silent for a while. Finally though he shook his head very slowly. "I will not resort to speculation, Governor, but I strongly doubt your sense of duty."
"Thank you for your honesty. I shall keep your doubts in mind. Until tomorrow." Tieman paused, his hand hovering above the deactivation button on his end of the line, then threw a questioning glance at his counterpart. "Or was there something else?"
"No," Darth Vader breathed slowly. "That will be all. I will see you tomorrow, Governor Tieman."
The connection broke. A dangerous man. Very dangerous. But maybe, someday, that danger could be turned into an advantage. Laughing softly to himself the Dark Lord called up the coordinates Tieman had sent him and proceeded to plan tomorrow's mission. All figures on the boards could become pawns and whether they belonged to you or your enemy was quite irrelevant. Of course, the best assets were those your enemy knew nothing about.
Hurrying along the generously spaced streets of Chandrila's capital Obi-Wan Kenobi was trying in vain to fight down his anxiety. He dearly hoped that Bail and Saché were all right, that he had not betrayed them accidentially. But that worry paled in comparison to the bone-jarring feeling that something was very wrong. His sole trustworthy contact onplanet was Governor Tieman, and he had no idea how to approach the man without raising suspicion. He could certainly not just make an appointment with his office. No, he had to find another way. Bail had warned him that Vader was coming here, and that made his mission all the more dire. He and Padmé had to leave before the Sith reached the planet. Throwing a look at the chrono at his wrist he grimaced slightly. Eighteen hundred local time, and he bet that Tieman would not leave the office for another hour. Suddenly his mind converged in a black mass of fear and shock, when he heard a very distinct sound rise up from behind him. He did not look back. Hurrying into a side alley the Jedi Master watched cautiously as a trek of five armored transports labored past, toward the Governmental Plaza. Too late.
Groaning softly he retreated further down the narrow street. How could he have missed that dark presence approaching him? Had he been so lost in worry? Shaking his head softly Obi-Wan walked away. He would not be able to get to Tieman now. With the Empire arriving on Chandrila the streets around the plaza emptied miraculously fast and the Jedi tried to get as much distance between himself and the palace as fast as he could. Soon he found himself in another part of the city, the houses looking slightly run down, the people dotting the streets dressed poorly. He frowned. Pehaps the Force was still with him. Padmé knew how to hide effectively, and maybe she had even chosen this neighborhood as her hiding-place. When a tall, bulky man stepped up to him he eyed the stranger up and down suspiciously.
"You look a bit lost," the man began in a pleasant voice.
"Really?" Scanning the faces in the crowd Obi-Wan prepared to make a dash for freedom should this delay turn out to be a trap.
"Yes. Your friend over there asked me to fetch you to her."
That got the Jedi Master's attention. Indeed, snuggled against a crumbling wall a small figure directed a questioning glance at him. She was almost unrecognizable underneath the too large tunic and scarf wrapped around her head, but he knew her eyes well enough. Obi-Wan nodded. "I see she has found someone to help her."
"Yes. Come, we are waiting for you."
Following the tall stranger he could barely suppress a grin, and as he closed in on her he could see that Padmé was smiling too. "I should have known you would follow me," she murmured softly, as she led him through a small gate in one of the formerly white walls fencing into a ragged garden.
"I am happy to see you too."
"Well. You are here."
"Unfortunately I am not the only old aquaintaince hanging around the planet."
"I know, " she bit her lower lip nervously, "Kit just came back with the news."
She gestured vaguely at the tall man still shadowing them, then turned to face the Jedi Master, her brown eyes questioning. "Obi-Wan, what are we going to do?"
He shrugged. "Run?"
"Does he know you are here?"
"I doubt it."
"Then we have a little time. Kit, tell Arwen she has to prepare our departure immediately."
"That is already done, Padmé. No need to worry. Haste only makes trouble."
Leaning against the tall man Padmé smiled. "I know. You are right." Then she wrapped an arm around his waist unconcernedly, to Obi-Wan's shock. "So we will wait until tonight, as we had it planned."
"Padmé? Padmé!" Obi-Wan raised his voice slightly to get her attention and she turned startled brown eyes on him.
"What is going on?"
Padmé gave the Jedi Master and amused smile. "Nothing. We knew they were coming, and we have prepared everything for our flight. Do you need to know more?"
"Yes! Who is Arwen, who is 'we'?" And who is this man you're so friendly with, he wanted to add, but refrained from giving in to that impulse.
"The Fallanassi. Arwen is their leader here on Chandrila. When we heard... Well. Do not worry, we will get you out of here too, no problem."
Gorji Tieman rose from his seat gracefully as the Dark Lord entered his office, General Tagge right on his heels.
"Lord Vader, a pleasure to meet you in person."
"The pleasure is all mine, governor. I hope we are not too late for the meeting?"
"Not at all. Please, if you would follow me?"
Darth Vader nodded gravely. "I have had my fleet spread out over the perimeter, just in case our quarry decides to run after all."
"Very wise." There had been barely any hesitation in the governor's voice, but the Dark Lord had picked up his sudden anxiety nevertheless. More proof of Tieman's betrayal. It rankled immensely, that this man dared lie to him, but the Sith kept quiet, for the sake of the greater game. Walking side by side with the governor he fell back into his own dark broodings. It was imperative that he found the Fallanassi. If he did not succeed here he might as well give up. But that he did not want either. Could not, in fact.
"General Tagge," he said quietly. "Send the squads out to search the city. Any anomality is to be reported to me at once."
Governor Tieman kept a waxen expression on his face, but his uneasiness was growing. What was he hiding? Did he know where the Fallanassi were? Suppressing his anger once more Darth Vader nodded at the man. "I wonder why they made contact on Chandrila of all places."
"As good a place as any, I assume, your lordship."
"Yes. Although, some might think there was another reason."
"Really. I fear I have no idea what you are talking about."
"Tell me something about this - Indirien."
"I do not know much. He came to one of the public audiences and pleaded his case. I informed my superior immediately, which is how the message was related to you."
"How do you know the Fallanassi are adept at hiding?"
"I had some men follow him, to find out more. He vanished without a trace, only to reappear a few days later. We talked again and I agreed to the meeting. He insisted that you would be included in the group representing the Empire," Tieman added wrily.
"Incredible, isn't it? I wondered about it a long time myself."
"What conclusion did you draw then?"
"The guilty seek any reassurance they can get," the governor answered cryptically.
Darth Vader stared at him. Then the truth hit him, His mouth was twisting in distaste behind the mask as he glared at Tieman furiously. So, the governor's men had in truth tried to kill Indirien, to protect whoever it was Tieman protected. This could only mean that this Indirien did not speak for the entire group. Great. And if he had understood correctly Tieman had just tried a very subtle insult. Keeping silent for a while the Dark Lord stopped to listen to what the Force was telling him. There was a familar feel, something he had not felt in a long time. His eyes widened slightly. Of course. If she was here, where better to hide than with the Fallanassi? For a short moment differing emotions were warring in his heart: love and hatred, longing and contempt. Then he had made his decision.
"To the Northeast. Send out a full squad and have a couple of TIE fighters secure the area."
"What are we looking for?"
"Search the entire block. Coordinates should be twelve to seventeen and eight to six. Secure the area tightly. And arrest anyone you find."
At his side Gorji Tieman had paled considerably. "My lord," he managed, "if you would allow my men to lend support to your troops."
"Ah, but no, my dear governor, we have a traitor to catch. Is that not so?"
Tieman nodded glumly. "Yes, of course. If you would care to step this way?"
"Who is he?"
Padmé looked up to meet Obi-Wan's questioning gaze. "Who is who?"
"This Kit Nesha. Who is he?"
She frowned at him. "What do you mean? He's a friend."
"Obi-Wan," she began coldly, "you will tell me clearly what you mean."
He shrugged, but averted his eyes to look out through the open window into the courtyard. "It is your own business, of course. And I understand, in a way. He seems to be a nice man."
"What!" When she caught on to what he was suggesting she felt her mind fly into a mad rage. Striding up to him she jutted her chin out, her lips quivering with anger. "How dare you! He is a friend, Obi-Wan!" She took a deep breath. "And even if he were more, you would have no right, do you hear me? No right to question me!"
"Of course you did!" Standing back again she regarded him very coldly and crossed her arms in front of her chest. "I should have known you would take his side in this."
"I thought he was not your friend any longer, I thought you had written him off. And now it turns out you still think you have to speak in his name, call me to heel for him, if I -" Padmé shook her head in disgust. "You are all the same," she growled and turned away.
"Padmé, no, you misunderstand -"
"I do not believe so, Obi-Wan."
"It was just a surprise, taht you were so friendly with him, even though you don't even seem to trust me any longer..." his voice trailed off into uncertainty.
Padmé closed her eyes, but did not look at him. "We will not speak of this again," she stated coolly.
"All right. I am sorry. I should not have-. All right." He heaved a deep sigh. "Look, Padmé-" Stopping himself he whispered a soft curse. "Damn!"
She whirled around to face him. "What? What is it?"
"They are coming! We need to leave at once!"
He appeared in the doorway, looking worried. "There's stormtroopers coming. They are searching all the houses and it looks as if they are arresting everyone. We need to abandon the stuff. You gotta go now."
"Kit!" she called pleadingly. "You cannot stay behind!"
"I can and I will. Arwen says to spilt up. She says you are to get her out," he told Obi-Wan calmly. "We will provide a distraction."
Padmé shook her head wildly. Not again! She thought she had finally found a safe haven and again he had to come and destroy it. It was not fair! Not fair that others always had to sacrifice themselves for her sake. What was so important about her anyway? If she died her children would be much safer... Suddenly Obi-Wan was standing in front of her, his hands grabing her shoulders, shaking her.
"Don't even think about it!" he explaimed, aghast. "Padmé! Never ever give up. One day you will be with them again, I know it!"
"I am tired of running," she whispered, hanging her head in quiet defeat. "I am so tired..."
"Please, just this one time. We will get away, you'll see. You will find some peace, I promise."
"Don't make promises you cannot keep," she told him softly, but let him wrap her in his arms.
"I will try my best to keep this one," he answered hoarsely. "Kit, do you have a suggestion for us? How we can get away?"
"Yes. I have an idea. Come."
Following Kit Nesha Obi-Wan and Padmé were racing ahead of the storm troopers on their trail. Arwen and her group had indeed provided a diversion, or tried to, but somehow the soldiers had not been distracted by that.
"This way!" Kit shouted and dived into another alley. Obi-Wan had unclipped the lightsaber from his belt, but he did not ignite it yet. Frowning at the weapon Padmé shook her head quickly, then darted after Kit. The Jedi Master watched her go past and gritted his teeth. Activating his laser sword with a loud snap-hiss he threw a look back the way they had come, and hesitated for a second. When the first few troopers rounded the corner he made a dash for the opposite end of the alley Padmé and Kit had vanished in. He was running hard, focused solely on outdistancing his pursuers. With any luck he had managed to gain their full attention. Extending his senses he threw all caution over board. Up ahead he could sense more soldiers coming his way. Damn.
He gave the alley a cursory once over and almost smiled when he saw a flat roof top that was just perfect for his purposes. Picking up speed he ran up to the wall and jumped. A volley of laser bolts slammed into the building as he ran across the roof, and suddenly two TIE fighters dove down toward him. Their heavy cannons blasted the rood mercilessly, but the Jedi Master managed to leave before the house collapsed. Dropping into another street he ran again, his face fixed in a grim mask of determination. Padmé had to get away. He had promised her that, and he was intent on keeping that promise.
Darth Vader was regarding their quarry dispassionately. Wedged in between five storm troopers Indirien looked pretty nervous, but he was not the only one. Gorji Tieman was practically bristling with anxiety, while the Dark Lord was calmly listening to the reports coming in steadily from the squads he had sent out. At his side General Tagge was smiling smugly to himself.
"So," Vader began. "Why did you contact Governor Tieman?"
Indirien gulped loudly. "I -," his gaze flickered toward Tieman, who threw him a very cold glare. "I saw what happened to the Jedi..."
"Your people are supposedly good at hiding. I myself have never before heard of the Fallanassi. So, I wonder, why did you believe your people were in danger at all?" It was a very good question, the Dark Lord thought, and it seemed to have surprised Indirien and Tieman alike. The Fallanassi representative stared at the Sith gape-mouthed.
"But the Jedi thought themselves safe too! It did not help them in the end. I was certain that you knew..." Indiren shook his head slightly, disbelieving. "I -"
Darth Vader smiled behind the mask that hid his face. "You betrayed your people for nothing."
"Betray? I did not betray them!"
"Rest assured that you will, in the end."
"Lord Vader," Tagge interrupted quietly. "We have something for you."
"What is it?"
"Our troops have identified one of the fugitives. His name is Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Jedi Master."
For a second the Dark Lord's mind suffused into a glittering mass of hatred and fury. Obi-Wan, here! Nodding at Tagge sharply he growled: "You are in command, Tagge. I will take care of this personally." He started stalking from the room, but the general's voice held him back.
"Lord Vader, what about him?" he gestured vaguely at Indirien.
"You will question him. Use any means necessary. When you are done, have him executed."
Ten hours later it was all over. Parts of the capital were on fire, victim to the storm troopers' enthusiasm and the pinpoint accuracy of the TIE pilots. Darth Vader knew exactly who was responsible for this mess. But Obi-Wan had gotten away somehow. Amidst the general confusion it appeared that four ships had made it past the blockade. Four! There would be some demotions once he was aboard his flagship again. What was worrying him more though was the fact that the Fallanassi had gotten away. At least this group had. Before he had died Indirien had revealed quite some interesting facts, all useless now, of course. The Fallanassi would go to ground once more, somewhere where no one could ever betray them.
He gritted his teeth in anger. His move had been blunted even before he could make it. It was frustrating, no, devastating. Any time now he would be called back to Coruscant, and his master would receive him with one of his ugly, knowing smiles. Well. It could not be changed, not any more.
Tearing his gaze from the burning city the Dark Lord turned around to face Governor Tieman. They had retreated to the man's office two hours ago, when it had become clear that the mission was a total failure. Facing him calmly Tieman was wise enough not to gloat.
"What is it, Tieman?"
"What will you do now?"
"Should I be?"
"I could put the planet under military order, Tieman, and I could have you executed for treason."
"Is there a 'but'?" Vader asked lightly. Pressing his lips together tightly Gorji Tieman averted his gaze. "Fact is, you did assist our efforts. Unfortunately your behaviour was flawless. But I am warning you. Do not cross me again."
If Tieman was surprised that he made this threat personal he did not show it. "Do not worry, Lord Vader."
The Dark Lord straightened to his full height. "Worry? Governor, it is you who should be worried, not I. Very well. I shall leave you now. There is nothing more I can do here. Chandrila will be recompensated for the destroyed property."
"Why, how generous," Tieman replied wrily and performed a small bow. "Thank you, Lord Vader. I am most grateful for your offer."
Vader did not answer. He walked past the governor wordlessly, lost deep in thought. What was he to do now?
Turning his head quickly Mith'raw'noruodo frowned at the man hurrying down the hallway to meet him. But when he recognized him at last his glowing eyes lit up with a warm fire. Voss Parck. He had not seen the man ever since he had escorted him here, to Coruscant. This was indeed a pleasant surprise. Closing in on him with a few last, long strides the Admiral gave him a sharp nod and a smile.
"It is good to see you again," he stated.
Mith'raw'noruodo did not react at first. Then, carefully choosing his words, he asked: "I suppose the Emperor found your report satisfactory?"
"Yes." Parck gave him an uneasy glance. "And your training is proceeding well?"
"I guess it does. Come, walk with me. It has been a long time," the Chiss told the other man amiably and turned away in the direction of one of the parks. The Admiral hesitated only for a split-second. Falling in step with him he kept silent for a time. Finalöy though he said:
"The Emperor made his offer to you?"
"I suppose I am not given much choice. Considering the circumstances, and considering what may come in the future, this is probably the best deal I will get."
"He needs you."
"But not that desperately. The Unknown Territories might be a nice addition to the Empire, but the risks are high too. He could always decide to drop the project. And where would we be then?"
Voss Parck smiled at him. "I know what you are thinking," he explained. "And I believe you are right."
"Yes. What could motivate me more to succeed than my people's survival? My success, will become his victory."
"That doesn't bother you?" Parck asked quietly as they cleared the entrance to the gardens. It was cool outside, but still birds were singing in the delicate trees dotting the lawns.
"In a way it does. But I entered this deal on my own free will and my decision is still valid."
Nodding glumly the Admiral frowned. "I hope though that he will not push you too far. Once the troops are under your command I doubt he'll regain their loyalty again."
"An intriguing puzzle, isn't it?" Mith'raw'noruodo mused aloud, not bothering to hide his satisfaction. His friend shot him an almost boyish grin.
"Do you think he knows he's lost this one?" he asked.
"Probably. But circumstances can change, Admiral, unfortunately. And I fear I will be too busy out there to keep track of politics."
"Speaking of, Lord Vader is due to return tomorrow."
"Really? So you know where he went?"
"Not exactly. The mission objective was left unclear to anyone except Palpatine and Vader."
They had reached the end of the garden and reentered the building again, through one of the many entrances that led into the park. Walking on in silence the two men were both lost in thought when they met Roganda Ismaren. Mith'raw'noruodo gave the young woman a surprised glance. He had not seen her around for quite a while. Suddenly he remembered what she had told him about Vader's mission, and by the sour look on her face he suspected that the Emperor had indeed followed through with his promise, or threat, however one might see it. She was followed by a muscular guard, his one eye studying the Chiss and the Admiral suspiciously. A bodyguard? Roganda for one ignored all three men. Looking ahead furiously she marched past them without acknowledging the Commander's presence at all. Very strange. He stopped to watch her round a corner, trying to figure out what was bothering him about her sudden reappearance.
Roganda was still fuming inside at the remembrance of her near-encounter with the commander when she entered her master's quarters, her bodyguard right on her heels. Erinin had been introduced to her shortly after the, for lack of a better word, conception. She grimaced slightly. There certainly had been no love in the act itself. Yet she had noticed the look Mith'raw'noruodo had given her, a mix of curiosity and thoughtfulness. What was it about him? She did not know. Not that it mattered any longer. Her hand wandered over her belly unconsciously, as if she could already sense the tiny spark of life growing there. Nothing.
"You are keeping well, my dear?"
Roganda stiffened ever so slightly at the sound of that voice. Not meeting his eye she stood there rigidly in the middle of the room.
"You may leave us," he ordered Erinin softly. "Come, Roganda, take a seat. Here." He patted the cushions at his side with a wide grin. She managed a small smile, then walked over. He did not want her by his side, she knew, he wanted the child close.
Roganda dropped down on the cushions with almost none of her usual grace. Palpatine gave her an amused glance. "I have heard that females are somewhat moody when they -"
"My master wanted something?" she interrupted him coolly.
He gave a low chuckle. "Indeed." Laying a hand on her left thigh he was watching her with curious interest. "Since your assorted tasks have boiled down to just this one I have thought about the future. I need someone to replace you in my srvice."
She was staring straight ahead. "Why did you do this to me?"
"You were the perfect choice, Roganda. Perfect," he purred softly. Running his hand across her cheek lightly he continued: "Not that you accomplished anything else as my Hand, is that not so?"
"True," she answered in a small voice.
"But this, Roganda, will be grand. My child, my heir. And you, my dear .... Aren't you pleased to serve me?"
"Very," Roganda answered drily.
He laughed at that. "Roganda Ismaren, child of the Jedi, carrying the future in her womb. My future, and that of the Sith. Don't you find that ironic?"
"I find it sickening," she whispered and rose quickly. Striding across the floor she did not look back. He did not call her, did not even try to hold her back. Outside Erinin was waiting, ready to escort her to her chambers. Roganda was shaking with outrage and fear. How dare he! How? Oh, she knew who was to blame! She knew indeed! But he would pay for this. Oh, yes.
The Dark Lord could feel Tagge's eyes on him as he made his way across the deck toward the shuttle that waited for him there. Walking slowly, his usual fast pace reduced significanly, he went up the lowered ramp of the small ship and sat down in one of the passenger seats. All the way back from Chandrila there had been only one thought in his mind: He had betrayed Padmé once more. It had seemed that he could do nothing but bring her misery. For a brief moment despair had overcome him as he had told himself that they never should have fallen in love. Ever. The past few days he had been meditating on the power of emotion, the power of memories, and in the end he had decided that he needed to let go of both to be free once more.
Padmé had been declared dead two years ago, and although he had always known that her supposed death was a lie he had only now realized how much his hope of regaining her had meant to him. It had driven him on, had lifted his spirits whenever he despaired over his increaisngly hopeless situation. Now though, having experienced first hand how painful it was to be so close and yet so far from the one you loved, there was just one choice if he still was to win the game. He had to forget her.
The shuttle lifted off the deck smoothly and set cource for distant Coruscant. Vader knew that he could not expect a warm welcome, as if he ever had. Smiling sardonically behind the mask hiding his face he reflected that this mission had produced at least one positive result, namely the discovery of Tieman's misplaced loyalties. Those might come in handy later on, once the game had progressed some more. If there would be a game after this disaster at all.
"Lord Vader?" Tagge asked discreetly and waited for the Dark Lord to acknowledge him.
"What is it?"
"The Emperor wishes to see you immediately upon your arrival."
"Of course. As expected."
They remained silent over the rest of the short voyage and once the shuttle had touched down on one of the Imperial Palace's landing pads Tagge excused himself quickly. undoubtedly the man could not wait to tell his friends of High Command all about the Dark Lord's failure. Needless to say that Darth Vader was in a foul mood when he strode along the corridor leading up to the throne room's giant double doors. A pair of red-cobed Royal Guardsmen stood watch and one of them released the door controls upon the Dark Lord's rapid approach. As usual the chamber beyond was plunged in a depressing gloom, that appealed so much to the Emperor.
"Come, apprentice," Palpatine rasped drily.
The last few steps were the hardest to take, but when he dropped to one knee in front of the throne Darth Vader felt almost relieved. It was always better to face the enemy directly.
"You failed to apprehend the Fallanassi representative and, on top of that, let the entire group present on the planet get away. That comes close to treason, Lord Vader."
"No treason, master."
"No?" Leaning toward him slowly the Emperor gave him a devious smile. "You believe I trust your loyalty that much? There was a Jedi Master on Chandrila."
"Obi-Wan Kenobi," Darth Vader breathed, the anger at his former friend's betrayal flaring from the deepest depth sof his heart once more.
"Ah. Excellent. Your hatred is most exquisite, Lord Vader." Palpatine reclined in his seat once more and folded his hands across his stomach slowly. "Yet the Dark Side without control is a vicious beast that could destroy all of what we have worked for so far."
"I know that, my master."
"You are aware, my friend, but you are still afraid to give yourself over to that control."
"I have learned control."
"Too little," the Emperor snapped harshly. "And too much. I told you that you would be sent to Korriban once you returned to this mission, and now I am doubly convinced that the trip is very necessary, The Fallanassi's mastery at keeping themselves hidden is most impressive. You have yet to learn that subterfuge and deception are the means to unlock secrets, not the brutish methods you used on Chandrila."
For a long time the Emperor said nothing. Then: "You are anxious. You are awaiting punishment for your failure, and rightly so. Then you shall be punished, my apprentice."
Bracing himself with a suppressed sigh the Dark Lord resolved to endure this as camly as he could. he would not surrender to Palpatine, not now, not ever. As long as the other believed that there was something to break in his soul he would keep up the game. So he would continue the battle, and fight to the end.
She looked around, a frown marring her beautiful face, and when she saw him her expression turned into a deep scowl. Nevertheless Mith'raw'noruodo walked up to her, a soothing smile on his lips.
"What do you want?"
"It was merely my wish to inquire after your health," he said.
"I am well," she said at last. "And you? Your training is proceeding well?"
"Oh, yes. Governor Tarkin assigned me to a small battle group under Admiral Parck's command. A concession on his part, I am sure."
"He does not like you much, but he is practical." Now why had she said that? It sounded as if she was trying to reassure him! Scolding herself for that careless comment Roganda made herself appear icy cold once more and drew herself up haughtily. "I am certain that you will prevail though. You are used to worse, I am told."
"Yes, Probably." He gazed at her wordlessly for a long time, his glowing eyes unsettling. In the end Roganda turned away, feeling uncomfortable. It was strange how this alien managed to put her on edge with his infuriating behavior. Rage took hold of her again as she thought about how he, an alien, was being pampered and treated practically equal to one of the court members while she was nothing but a tool to her master. "Roganda," he said very softly, "you should consider that some things are not what they seem at first glance."
"What do you mean exactly?"
"In your current position you are safer than anyone else around here. This is a den of vipers, and you know it. Be glad you have been raised above the rabble."
"Raised above the - ?" Words failed her. "You arrogant bastard! You have no idea-!"
"Ssh, people are watching," he cautioned her.
"So adept already at playing the game," Roganda hissed under her breath. "The Emperor did not tell anyone and already there is speculation that I am carrying your bastard child. I am shamed by you, Commander Thrawn."
He did not say anything, only stared at her. Finally she turned away from him, her fury a white-hot shield against her shame. She wished it really were his child, that would release her from the Emperor's grasp. She would rather be an outcast than endure the others' snickering and painful comments. There was nothing she could do safe to obey her master, though. Yet Thrawn would pay for this. He would, someday.
He did not watch her leave, but instead made his way back to his own quarters to prepare for the mission ahead. Parck had briefed him already, so there was not that much to do, actually. While packing some personal items he would need on the voyage Mith'raw'noruodo could not but admire the Emperor's skill at manipulating those around him. Apparently Roganda did not see it at all, though. By making her the laughing stock of the court Palpatine made sure that no one would dare lay a hand on her. Who knew what attempts would be made on her life otherwise? There were enough who could think of more enjoyable things than the Emperor ensuring his legacy through a heir.
Too much power was at stake and ambition in the court, kindled deftly by the supreme ruler himself, was turning its members into suspicious monsters whose sole purpose in life was to scheme againts everyone else. That they were thus crippling themselves did not seem to occur to any one of them.
Perhaps the Dark Lord realized his master's scheme, and a few others, like Tarkin, but they kept wisely quiet. Power-struggles such as this one were not common on Almashin, the Chiss' primary world, but Mith'raw'noruodo actually enjoyed learning the rules. they could save him well in the years to come. He had no delusion about his career here with the Empire. It would be a hard life, no doubt. Yet the outcome was worth it.
Healing progressed slowly, and Darth Vader had a hard time suppressing his rage on his journey to mysterious Korriban. The punishment in itself had not even been the worst. The worst had been Palpatine's constant lectures, telling him over and over again how worthless he was, how clumsy and inept. Being humiliated by words was far harder to bear than receiving an enemy's blade. Words cut to the heart, and lasted much longer than the pain of a real wound.
For the hundredst time he wondered what exactly Palpatine wanted him to accomplish on Korriban. Had he succeeded in his mission he would have been put through the rituals of receiving the title as Dark Lord of the Sith. Now though that was no longer a possibility and Vader did not believe that a reward was waiting for him on the planet. Rather the opposite.
The pilot guided the ship though Korriban's storm-ridden atmosphere with deft skill, and the Sith Lord himself was awe-struck at the sightspread out before him. Korriban was possibly the darkest planet he had ever seen. A screen of black clouds seemed to shroud the world permanently, and as the shuttle settled down onthe smooth, black stones of a wide valley set between towering mountains, a harsh wind battered against the ship's outer hull mercilessly. Darth Vader remembered what Germyne Urian had said about the planet, that it was possibly one of the most boring places of their galaxy. Yet he could sense something, a foreboding of great things to come. The Dark Side was alive here. like a wild beast roaming the craggy cliffs of the mountain range, and it called to him, too. A powerful call, that
was undeniably drawing him on.
He exited the shuttle almost eagerly, but no one was there to receive him. Whipped up by the wind rain drops began assaulting him from all sides and drenched his cloak quickly. As the ship behind him roared to life again, preparing for lift-off, Darth Vader felt a sudden loneliness hit him full force. The call of the Dark Side had turned into a predator's lure, as it stalked around him curiously. Taking the challenge he went ahead and into its waiting arms
The first beings he noticed were a pair of Imperial guards, there red robes looking decidedly dramatic against the blackness of the storm. They did not say a word as he passed between them, following the rain down into an underground grotto. Silence embraced him all of a sudden. Deadly silence, as if a great being held its breath.
"Lord Vader?" a mewing voice asked softly. The enhancers in his mask revealed a short alien that stepped ot of the shadows stealthily, lantern eyes regarding him with utmost calm. A Noghri. Bowing before him deeply the alien fell silent, obviously waiting for a reply.
"I am Darth Vader, arrived on behalf of the Emperor."
"The Council is awaiting you," the alien answered gravely and turned to lead the way.
Following his nameless guide the Sith Lord felt slightly uneasy. A Noghri? Here? And what Council? Like the Jedi Council? He almost laughed at that. Certainly not! Palpatine would never care for anyone's advice! To his mild surprise though two men were waiting for him. Aside from the alien and the guards they seemed to be the only other living beings inside the labyrithine complex. Seated on well-made wooden chairs each man wore the long black robes of a Sith master, which was another surprise. Darth Vader noticed that one empty chair separated the two Counselors, a fact that made him wonder. Was this seat meant for him? How was he supposed to act? Acutely aware of the short alien standing a few paces behind him, waiting. A general air of expectation filled the low chamber to bursting and was broken so suddenly that Darth Vader almost jumped.
"Finally!" The voice ripped through the silence like the roar of a descending star fighter, with the chiming of a thousand silver bells to accompany it. "About time!"
Making himself turn around deliberately slow the Dark Lord gave the newcomer a level look. He was a tall human, his face lined with age. A mane of thick white hair hung down over his shoulders, contrasting sharply with his black robes. Pale green eyes that sparkled in the light of the torches fixed to the walls of the chamber studied the warrior with interest.
"I see that your master has failed to teach you manners," the stranger said, and his lips curled into a contemptuous smile.
"The failure is yours, I believe," Darth Vader returned coolly. Turning around, his black cloak flapping behind him, he strode over to where the two men were still seated on their chairs and dropped down on the single unoccupied chair pointedly. Immediately the others rose and both gave him a respectful bow, to the white-haired man's obvious amusement.
"Nefta, Sa-Di," he barked, once his mirth had faded. "Leave us." He did not cast even one glance at the Noghri, but the alien vanished along with the others.
"Who are you?" the Dark Lord asked, making his tone just a little bit haughty. Instead of anwering the old man cocked his head to one side to regard the Sith curiosly. Finally he arched his brows meaningfully and said:
"We will talk once you are prepared to listen. Until then I suggest you think hard on why you are here." Whirling around he left again, and Vader found himself staring after him in disbelief.
"What a welcome," he sighed under his breath.
The underground maze of corridors and caves was seemingly endless, but he had no fear of getting lost. After three days spent on Korriban, occupying a cave that had been redesigned into an acceptably comfortable room and seeing no one, Darth Vader had finally been summoned. The Noghri was again acting as his guide, a quiet, deadly presence ahead of him, while none of the others were in sight.
"Who is the old man?" Vader asked cautiously, uncertain wether the alien would deign to answer at all.
"His name is Roj Kell. He has a foul temper, as I am sure you have noticed," the Noghri added drily.
"And what is your name?"
Stopping short the Noghri turned to face him and bowed deeply. "I am Chi'in clan Rim'kai. It is my honor to serve the Dark Lord."
"Chi'in clan Rim'kai, it is an honor to have your service," he replied automatically. About two years ago the new Empire had discovered the planet Honoghr, the homeworld of the Noghri. The warriors of their people were adept fighters, and the Emperor had quickly ensured their loyalty for himself, or rather, Darth Vader, who had led the expedition. So far the Dark Lord had not had the opportunity to really act as the Noghri's overlord, but perhaps he should try to change that. It was clear to him that Palpatine did not want him to have access to the alien warriors' abilities as long as he was not completely satisfied as to Vader's loyalty. The logical path to take. And yet here was a chance to learn more about that race without Palpatine knowing, perhaps. "What has brought you here?" he asked at last.
"The Force." It was a simple answer, and still, there was a certain degree of awe in Chi'in's voice, that Vader had not expected at all.
"But surely someone must have discovered your talent and taken you here."
"Yes. Germyne Urian noticed my abilities and I was presented to the Emperor by him."
"Germyne. I see. And the Emperor sent you here, for training?"
"Yes." The Noghri bowed once more.
"Who is teaching you?"
This time Chi'in hesitated. "I watch, and learn," he conceded, sounding a bit defensive.
"Ah." In short, none of the humans thought an alien worth anything. Hardly surprising.
"It may not be as you think it is," the Noghri explained quietly. "Lord Kell would teach me, but he is not allowed."
"Not allowed? I do not understand..."
"Lord Kell's temper will improve greatly if you do not keep him waiting," Chi'in said, ignoring his question. "He is very keen on timeliness."
"He is waiting for me?"
"Go straight ahead. You will find him easily." With those words the Noghri vanished in the shadows.
Following the stone hallways carved into the rockbed the Dark Lord made his way along the slippery corridors carefully. There was almost no light, save for what the crystals embedded into the rock gave off, but as he ventured deeper into the caves he noticed weathered murals on the walls. Sometimes a flicker of blue, fluorescent light would illuminate the carvings ever so briefly, revealing depictations of archaic scenes. Reaching out tentatively Darth Vader lay his right hand against one of the murals, this one showing a warrior dressed in plated armor, a lightsaber raised high above his head in a defensive position. The moment he touched the figure it seemed to twist in his grasp, and the blue light leapt forward to claim him. He jumped back with a startled yelp, blue electricity crackling over his arm briefly, numbing the artificial limb effectively.
Staring at the mural, which was quiet again now, Darth Vader shook his head in wonder. Then he proceeded further down the hallway and the sensors installed into his helmet noted a rising degree of heat ahead. A pitch-black opening came into view, and white mist was rising from the doorstep, reflecting what little light there was. Stepping through into the room beyond he found himself in a high-ceilinged chamber that sported one sky-light far, far above. He fancied seeing the black storm clouds race overhead. A light drizzle of rain fell into a natural pool in the middle of the chamber. But Darth Vader could see that not the rain had filled that pool, but that it must have originated from some hot springs. The water seemed to be close to boiling, and from his sensor readings he could deduce that the heat in the chamber must be close to suffocating. His breathing apparatus was working hard against the hot, humid air and somehow the entire setting made him feel uncomfortable.
"Lord Kell?" he asked softly, yet his vocoder turned what had been meant to be a whisper into a deep rumble that reverbrated from the walls. The splashing of water alerted him before he became aware of the human head that seemed to float above the pool's surface.
"You took your time getting here," the old man told him coldly. His white hair, now a wet, dark gray, was plastered against his skull, emphasizing his sharp features even more.
To his great shame the Dark Lord felt faintly embarrassed. Not only because he found it quite uncomfortable to be received by his host, who had already proven that he was far from hospitable, in his bath, but also because Kell made him stand there like a fool, undoubtedly payback for Vader's arrogant behaviour three days ago. All he could do now was play the gracious guest, he decided, and thereby put the sting out of the other's words.
"My apologies," he replied with a small bow, "but this place is simply fascinating. I took the liberty to explore it some more." The old man gave him a nod, acknowledging both the apology and the praise for the underground complex, yet Darth Vader could see that he was hiding a smile.
"Korriban is the world of the dead," his host said. Raising one hand above the water he gripped the ledge of the pool and drew himself over to rest his head against it. "Are you one of the dead, then, Vader?"
"Ah, so certain of your fate. Sometimes one does not realize that one's life has ceased already."
"My life is far from over."
"Of course. Then tell me, why are you here?" The old man's voice was truly compelling, and it seemed to cool the air as he spoke, turning the mist into a blanket of frost that gradually covered everything. Darth Vader stared in fascination as the rain drops falling into the cave turned into glittering snow flakes.
"Punishment," he answered at last, tearing his gaze from the unnatural spectacle. "What about you? Are you here of your own free will, because you know that your life has ended? Or are you here for the same reason I am here?"
Roj Kell snorted softly and heaved himself out of the water partly, so his arms rested on the ledge behind him for support. "You are young, and for you it is punishment enough to be cast away by your master." Darth Vader did not reply, but a sly twinkle appeared in the old man's pale green eyes. "Ah? Not your master, perhaps? I can sense your revulsion, my friend, yet you have chosen to submit to the Emperor's rule. It was your decision. Now you have to play the game his way, with all the consequences."
"I am not playing games."
This time the old Sith laughed out aloud. "Excellent!" His eyes focused on the Dark Lord once more. "Then perhaps it is time for you to begin playing."
"Is that why I am here? To learn about games?"
"You are here because Sidious wants you to become his Dark Lord." The faintly amused tone had vanished completely from Kell's voice, leaving nothing but a silver blade with the strength of pure steel. "The Dark Lords of the Sith were warriors, just as you are a warrior. They were the guardians of the Sith order for millennia, and ruled it through their power and insight." Biting off each word he threw the information at his counterpart like ammunition. "You certainly will not rule, since you refuse to play games, but Sidious will still need your skills. Personally I doubt your abilities very strongly. You are hesitant, pathetic, lost in the past and too upright to succeed." A smile curled the corners of his mouth up in a friendly snarl. "In short, my friend, you are a Jedi. Do not worry, though. we might make a Dark Lord of you yet."
Roganda was sitting quietly at one of the viewports that made her new apartment seem airy and light. Never mind that the viewports were made of the thickest transparisteel on the market and required a special security code to open, a code she did not know. She was certain though that Erinin had been briefed extensively on the apartment's safety functions. What a comforting thought, she mused bitterly and a tiny smile flashed across her face at the irony of it all. When Roganda had first approached the Emperor she had hoped to find protection of some kind. Now, though, she found that she had misjudged the situation completely. There was no safeguard against Palpatine's demands, and she knew very well that she would do everything he said, only to survive. Of late, though, she experienced serious doubts whether it was worth it after all.
Well. Now that she was with child matters had changed somewhat. Her master left her mostly alone, and she was content to attend the weekly routine checks on her and her baby's health if it meant that Palpatine would not bother her further. Still, life in a golden cage was no life at all, in her opinion. She was bored and restless. Erinin and the medics assigned to her saw to it that she did nothing that might endanger her child's growth and health. Going for walks was about the only exercise she could undertake.
Two months. Two months since she had returned from Byss. Raising her head she gazed out at the starlanes above the planet longingly.
Byss had frightened her, but on the voyage there she had been elated to finally be allowed to leave Coruscant for once, even knowing what was awaiting her at the end of the journey. A dark frown appeared on her forehead as she thought back on that. Palpatine had been pleasant enough, or as pleasant as the Sith Master could be, but Roganda had almost died from fear and shame when he had called her to him the night after their arrival. She had always despised him, had always known that he was not only ugly on the outside. Having him so close had been revolting and yet she had had no choice but to endure his attentions. Afterwards she had only wanted to die.
Shuddering in remembrance she rose from her seat, unable to sit still any longer. Instantly Erinin was at her side, hovering like an attentive shadow.
"What news?" she asked tiredly.
"Let's see," he began, sounding faintly amused. She had asked him to report the latest gossip every day, since she was forbidden to watch the holonews, in case she got upset by something. Excitement was not good for her, or so the medics said. Erinin tapped a finger against his lips pensively. "Umera almost strangled that other one, Layda, because she thought she had whispered with the others behind her back, which she probably did. Viceroy Bail Organa of Alderaan announced that his planet will not sanction the Senate's plans for Alzoc III and Admiral Parck returned from his assignment today." He paused, clearly waiting for her reaction, and to her own horror Roganda could just barely suppress the question whether Mith'raw'noruodo had also returned.
Looking up quickly she sought Erinin's gaze and found his one eye sparkling with amusement. He was not laughing at her, she knew, he was genuinely amused by her embarrassment, but in a good kind of way. Yet she had never been able to forget who he answered to. Erinin would always remain a stranger to her.
"Has he been received by the Emperor already?"
"His report is due this evening, at 1900."
Roganda gave a dismissive shrug. "I see." Then, pursing her lips thoughtfully, she added. "Perhaps I will go for a walk tonight."
"Fine." Bowing slightly Erinin kept his features carefully neutral. "At 1900?" There was absolutely no expression on his face, but Roganda blushed nevertheless.
"Yes," she answered, slightly breathless, and shooed the man away. "Go, please. I need some rest."
Walking alongside Voss Parck Mith'raw'noruodo mused about what he had learned on his first deployment with the Imperial fleet. It had been a routine mission, and he had assisted the nav and comm officers on the bridge, run errands for the quartermaster and the troop commanders. Parck had even assigned him to duty in one of the Star Destroyer's machine rooms. The Admiral had not given him any clue as to how he had evaluated the Chiss' performance, but he suspected that in the upcoming report he would learn exactly what he had done wrong.
He was amazed how efficient the crews were, how well they responded to their commanders' orders. And yet the Imperial navy seemed terribly flawed in a much different aspect. There was no clear system for reward and punishment. Every commander handled those matters however he saw fit, and that inconsistency was, in the long run, a loophole for inefficiency to creep in.
It did not help that there was rivalry among the officer corps at every level in the chain of command. Some thought they could gain their subordinates' loyalty by being lenient, others were too hard on their troops. Perhaps he should bring that up, if the Emperor asked him to report his impressions of his first assignment. If he asked at all. So deep in thought he almost failed to notice Roganda Ismaren, who was standing at the railing of one of the balconies that looked down over the giant corridor that led to the Emperor's throne room. When she saw him gaze up at her, though, she vanished again.
Why did she always seem to be provoke those almost encounters when she pretended to avoid him at the same time?
"Commander Thrawn," a cool voice said and snapped his attention back to the man confronting him. It was Tarkin. "You have returned from your first assignment, and in one piece, too, it seems," the governor added mockingly.
"Yes, sir." Inclining his head Mith'raw'noruodo tried to keep half an eye on Voss Parck, who was standing behind Tarkin.
"I am not certain why Admiral Parck believed you would attend this debriefing also. There is surely no need for this formality, don't you think, Admiral?"
"Excellent. Perhaps Commander Thrawn would care to accompany me to my office." It was no question and Mith'raw'noruodo merely gave a mute nod before he followed the governor's gaunt frame back the way they had come. "There is something I think you will find interesting," Tarkin said. "I am anxious to hear your opinion, and that of Lord Vader, once he's back."
"Yes, sir." He did not speculate on what Tarkin might want to show him – he would learn that in a few minutes anyway – but he was asking himself what could be keeping the Dark Lord busy for two months.
He brought his lightsaber around in a wide arc and the hologram shivered slightly as the blade sliced through. The holoproj shut down obediently after registrating a mortal blow, and the Dark Lord deactivated his weapon in some satisfaction. The moment the steady hum of the lightsaber had ceased he became aware of the faint sound of clapping. Turning around he frowned at Roj Kell, who was just lowering his hands.
"What are you doing?" the old Sith asked.
"Fencing exercise," Vader retorted curtly and hooked the weapon back to his belt. "Just exercise."
"You did not use the Force."
"Would have been no use against a hologram. One cannot sense its movements anyway."
"Why did you do this at all?"
"Because it is sometimes more rewarding to rely on one's own strength."
"Your strength lies with the Force, Lord Vader. Although I find it laudable that you also practise without it, it is a useless exercise nevertheless."
"Useless? How so?" It was infuriating that Kell recognized solely failure, but never victory.
"It is unrealistic. When will you ever be required to fight a hologram?" the old man added with a smile.
Bristling with fury the Dark Lord squared his shoulders to calm down again. "As I said, it is just an exercise."
"Of course. I heard that the first time, too." Crossing his arms in front of his chest briefly Kell came toward him and stopped about three paces away. "Here's another exercise for you. Since you want to practice."
"What exercise would that be?"
"I am certain you can shut down those sensors in your helmet."
"Then do it." Hesitating briefly Vader studied the old man suspiciously, but in the end he complied, however grudgingly. And all of a sudden Kell's presence vanished. "And now," the Sith hissed, "let us play."
The Dark Lord stumbled back in surprise when something hit his chest hard. But almost immediately he had recovered again and extended his senses, trying to find his opponent. There was nothing. Feeling slightly uneasy he turned his head this way and that, but without the sensors he could hear nothing, and the Force did not render any clues either. Another blow, this one unmistakably resulting from a boot hitting his right shoulder, threw him against the rock wall hard. Fed up with this he charged ahead blindly, trying to determine the other's position from his previous attack.
"Are you using the Force, Lord Vader?" Kell asked coolly.
"What do you think, old man?"
"I think you are confused, because you cannot sense me. But, Lord Vader, I find this somewhat surprising. I thought you had practiced exactly that just a few moments ago?"
"This is not the same," Darth Vader growled, and made another grab for his unseen attacker. He heard what sounded like an exasperated sigh and he could almost imagine Kell shaking his head at him.
"All right. Restart the sensors."
He tried. Nothing happened. He tried again, and again the sensors remained mute. Close to panicking he forced himself to remain calm. He felt claustrophobic all of a sudden. Caught in this damn suit without any way to register his opponent....
"Feeling helpless?" There was a cold edge to the old Sith's silvery voice now, a thin layer of ice covering a black abyss of malevolent intent that flared up like a bonfire and made the Dark Lord tense all over. "Do you regret your choice, maybe? Do you think that you should never have let me goad you into this trap? Advantages are there to be taken, not to be cast aside for a foolish desire to prove oneself." Kell let his voice trail of, the sudden void it left behind filling Darth Vader with uncertainty and dread anticipation.
When the sensors came online again he almost sagged with relief. There was no one there any longer. Roj Kell had vanished. Frowning slightly the Dark Lord leaned back against the wall thoughtfully. A part of him called for vengeance, but he had been through this particular trial already: never, ever charge after your enemy, especially if you knew that it would only lead you into a trap. If he wanted to engage you he had to come to you. It had been a painful lesson, but then, most of the lessons Lord Kell had given him so far had been on the rougher side.
It was true, though. He regretted his misplaced obedience. After all, he should have known that this particular exercise would only lead to another lecture. Now he felt ashamed, his pride bruised quite a bit, but he knew that the lesson had been meant to accomplish exactly that. Never make a decision you would regret later on. As he sat down cross-legged on the floor he realized that there was a long way ahead of him yet. Closing his eyes he focused his mind inward to meditate on pride, regret and humiliation, and found a familiar face floating in front of his inner eye. Padmé. Somehow he found that every single dark emotion he had felt over the previous months had been tied directly to her. It was a frightening thought, to realize that the one person he loved more than everything else was also the one that he hated the most.
She was a bit calmer now and the searing pain of betrayal had faded somewhat. Yet the darkness remained. She did not know if Obi-Wan had been able to escape, although she wished him well, despite everything. Strange, wasn't it, that common danger could make you forget your animosities, if only for a time. When she had left Tatooine she had been furious at the Jedi Master, because he was taking risks with her son's life and at the same time had practically chased her away, for fear of being detected. Obi-Wan had let Luke keep his last name and Padmé was not the only one who felt uncomfortable with that. Owen and Beru Lars, who had practically adopted the child as their own, were as angry at Obi-Wan as she was.
And yet none of them had dared defy his wishes, and so Luke would grow up bearing his father's name. Once again Padmé scolded herself for being such a coward. She was not a good mother, if she did not even manage to protect her child by taking his true name away. Leia for one was just a bit safer, if one could count a child safe that would grow up in the eye of the public, as the daughter of Alderaan's viceroy. Bitterness overcame her again as she remembered the past months. Ever since she had left Tatooine things had turned from bad to worse. Her children were lost to her forever, she knew, and her friends, too. Kit Nesha had decided to stay behind on Chandrila, as contact for the Fallanassi, and the last she had seen of Obi-Wan was him running ahead of a squad of stormtroopers, as he had tried to give them a breach to escape.
She knew who to blame.
"Do not fret so," Arwen told her softly.
Looking up at the Fallanassi Padmé felt her mouth twist in annoyance. Just like the Jedi the Fallanassi promoted defence before attack, but contrary to that almost extinct order they lived by this credo. None of them would take up a weapon to defend himself or herself. They would hide or run, and they were good at it. Padmé had had enough of running and hiding. She knew, of course, that fighting was no option for her, but the prospect of spending the rest of her life like the Fallanassi was eating at her pride, or what was left of it. The other option, to score by manipulation, was tempting, but she shuddered in remembrance of what had happened whan she had sought to circumvent the Senate and suggested a vote of no confidence against Chancellor Valorum. In a way she believed that it was her fault, hers alone, that Palpatine had gained so much power and proclaimed himself Emperor. She heaved a deep sigh.
"I suppose one cannot change the past," she said at last, and Arwen smiled at her fondly.
"Look to the future, Padmé. As long as you can see hope there you will not fall."
"I hope that my children will survive and grow up in love and peace. I hope they will find their way, a good way, and I wish them all the luck I had. Perhaps - " She hesitated, tears stinging in her eyes. "Perhaps one day this horror will end, and maybe I will see them again."
"Hold on to that thought," Arwen told her softly.
"Hard to see the future is," Yoda sighed and raised his head to look at Obi-Wan directly. "Uncertain I am what will come of this."
"It has been two years," the bearded Jedi Master replied, feeling just a bit desperate. After that near fisaco on Chandrila he had decided to spend some time with the ancient Jedi and rest, before he returned to Tatooine. "Perhaps we should give up on him after all."
"Perhaps." The two Jedi stared into the distance pensively. Then Yoda said: "Sense I do that the darkness grow it will. Fear I do that the source Anakin will be."
"Then what do we do? Should I confront him?"
"No. Think you must of young Luke and his sister. Protection both will need. Your task this must be."
"Yes, master. I understand." He pursed his lips in deep thought, then sought Yoda's gaze again. "What about Padmé? She is slipping away from the light, she is desperate."
"Peace she will find, in time."
"Then you do not care what happens to her now?"
"Care I do, but care I must about a lot of things. Strongs she is, very strong. Survive she will, I know."
"I wish I had your confidence. And I wish I knew what Anakin is doing right now."