Part 5:

The Art of War

Disclaimer: The usual.

Big, big thanks to Red for her patience and her input and to Kee for her comments. Preivous parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.

Part 7: Dying Ground

Summary:

Confronted with the past the Dark Lord makes a fatal mistake and it is now that his mastery is truly tested. If he cannot adapt to the situation, conserve his strength and energy and follow his heart he will die. And even if he succeeds his fate is far from certain. There is only one chance to find out: he has to play the game to the very end.

Standing very still, her arms stretching out from her sides Amidala let the rain wash over her face, soaking her in its warm embrace. She had her eyes closed, imagining that she was on Naboo, and that the spring storms were awakening the plains to green life again. She could almost see the mist steaming off the rolling hills and rise from the swampy forests, shrouding the Palace of Theed into white clouds. She would stand at the window, touching them, teasing her nervous bodyguard, and wait for the winds to blow the mist away again, for the sun to burn through the clouds, painting her face in gold.

The queen heaved a deep sigh as she let the memories fade and opened her eyes, looking up at the dark sky over Korriban. She blinked the raindrops away that clung to her lashes, smiling a bit. Once Coruscant was secured she would travel there to see her children. She would take them in her arms again, telling them that everything was alright as she had so many years ago, knowing full well that it was not true. The truth was that her husband had deceived her, had deceived the Jedi and had turned into a killing machine out to destroy everything she had built up, everyone she held dear. But not her children, oh no.

She would protect them.

"Lady Vader."

Whirling around Amidala shot Chi'in a relieved smile. But his earnest expression froze it in place.

"What has happened?"

"Lord Kell wishes to speak to you. Now."

"Of course."

They made their way back in silence and she became uncomfortably aware of her wet dress clinging to her body in all the wrong places. The short warrior did not seem to notice. And maybe he was just being polite. Upon reaching the hidden fortress Amidala excused herself, changing hurriedly. He was still waiting outside when she left her room.

"Now I am ready," she announced, just a little bit flustered.

He simply nodded and led the way. Roj Kell was waiting for her in the dining hall, sitting cross-legged on one of the chairs. His long white hair was hanging loose over his shoulders and when he looked up at her they contrasted sharply with the earnest expression on his weathered face. As she came closer his bright green eyes softened a bit.

"Please, take a seat."

Settling down across from him Amidala studied his face with concern:

"What is it? Any news?"

"Indeed. Just as I feared. Apparently Lord Vader has surrendered to the Grand Admiral."

"What?"

He sighed deeply: "Which can mean two things: either he had no other choice concerning the safety of the Noghri or else it was part of his plan all along. From what Nuron told me I have to assume that it is the latter. Which means that he has indeed betrayed us."

"Betrayed?"

"He will move against us. And when he does we will lose badly. Therefore we have to move first. And fast."

"What is your plan?"

It had been some time since Leia had last been on Coruscant. Years, in fact. But, returning now, she knew that this time her words would be taken seriously, contrary to when she had served her step-father in the Senate of the Old Republic. Although that was not so long ago it seemed to Leia as if she had grown by decades over the past months. And she was not the only one. Luke, standing by her side in the broken-down warehouse that had served Jix and Mara as hiding place on their first mission together, was the perfect picture of calm composure. A far cry from the naive farm-boy craving adventure and excitement. The Princess was proud of what her brother had accomplished in such a short time. How much he had matured.

At his side Nuron was bristling with anxiety and nervousness. She wore her black warrior's outfit defiantly, as if anyone would dare to admonish her about it. Leia smiled at the mere thought of that. The beautiful and deadly alien seemed to have taken quite a liking to Luke and his sister could understand that very well. Nuron was the complete opposite of the young Jedi, but the attraction between them was obvious. And the sight of them together reminded her of how much she was actually missing Han.

"Princess?"

Turning around Leia smiled at Jix:

"Is everything prepared?"

"Yes. Page and his units stand ready. They are only waiting for your signal."

"Good. Then we should go and pay a visit to the Imperial Palace."

Striding ahead of the group Leia was quickly joined by General Rieekan, who was intently studying the display he held in his hands. It showed a layout of the Coruscant underground and mapped out a way for them to get into the Palace virtually undetected while Page's team would occupy the guards and defenses. Once inside Leia and her companions would play off the public sentiments against the government when the first battle group of the Alliance showed up in the system. Right now Captain Needa was conducting the attacks on Duros and Gyndine and Leia was fully confident that he would succeed not only in rattling the near-by capital but also in drawing some of the ships stationed over Coruscant away before joining the ships under General Dodonna's command. If everything went as planned the conquest of Coruscant would be over almost before it had started and with as little fighting as possible. And when all of this was done they could finally start again. A new beginning. Leia had to admit that she quite liked the sound of that.

Han Solo was agitated They had escaped Nar Shadaa and the clutches of the Chimaera only to find Vjun deserted. There was not one single ship in orbit around the planet and noone greeted them as they descended towards the huge fortress looming on its mountain perch over the plains. The Millenium Falcon and the Wilde Karrde touched down on Bast Castle's main landing pad, but noone seemed overly eager to leave the ships, fearing a trap or something similar. Finally Han and Chewbacca volunteered for a scouting trip and to the Corellian's surprise Karrde insisted on coming along. The three of them walked towards the main entrance, their weapons at the ready. An eerie silence had settled over the complex and the blood-red sky arching over the dark, forbidding fortifications did nothing to soothe their anxiety.

The huge doors were open and beyond the darkened hallway was gaping like a black maw, ready to swallow the visitors at any provocation. Suddenly the sound of metal feet clanking across the polished floor rang out into the open, freezing their steps. Han raised his blaster, frowning at the shadows. But then he shook his head with a silent laugh: "Threepio!" he called, waving his companions forward. The golden protocol droid lumbered through the doorway, gesturing wildly:

"Master Solo! Master Solo! Princess Leia left a message for you."

"What message?"

"You are to join her on Coruscant immediately."

"Coruscant? That will have to wait until we can refuel. Come on, let's get inside. Chewie, go and get the others."

When the team had finally settled into the deserted base, enjoying their well-deserved rest, Han busied himself immediately with interrogating Threepio, questioning the droid about all the recent happenings on Vjun. They had found a quiet place in the comm center and Han was lounging in one of the chairs, letting Threepio rattle off his tale.

"So, they've gone and conquered the capital?"

"Well, I assured Princess Leia that the chances of defeating the Imperial Navy–"

"Who is interested in the odds?"

"Oh. I simply thought to–"

"And do you know where exactly Lord Vader has left to?"

"No. Noone knows that."

"Noone, eh? Not even Leia?"

"If she does she did not share that information with me," Threepio told him indignantly.

"Yeah, alright, no need to burn your circuits out. Let's get this straight–"

Next to Han's elbow the radar started beeping wildly.

"What is that?"

"A ship is approaching."

"Yeah, professor, I can see that too. Hailing as the Dominator? That can't be right. You said they were all off to Coruscant, right? All of them?"

"Well, some are involved in the attacks on Gyndine and Duros."

"But there would be no reason for them to return, would there?"

"No, I believe not, sir."

Han stared at the radar a bit longer, then back at the identification of the approaching Star Destroyer that he was pretty sure could not be the flagship of the Alliance's ex-Imperial contingent.

"I think we had better leave."

Standing at the forward viewport on the bridge of the Relentless, Anakin Skywalker had his hands folded on his back, staring out at the planet drawing ever closer as the huge ship glided majestically towards the glowing red ball that was Vjun. By now the Alliance must have pulled out of the system and there would be noone around to disturb them during their preparations for the battle ahead. Although the Grand Admiral had been reluctant to come here he had agreed in the end, if only to find out what exactly the Dark Lord was planning to accomplish by taking such a long way around to their ultimate goal. The reasons for coming back to Vjun were very simple, actually. Anakin wanted to make certain that he knew exactly what and who they were going to face.

"Sir, unidentified freighters are just leaving the planet."

"Do not bother to hail them, lieutenant," came the Grand Admiral's smooth reply.

Sitting in his command chair Thrawn had been keeping very quiet throughout their approach on Vjun, and Anakin had no doubts whatsoever that the admiral had spent the whole time trying to figure out what he was going to do here. He could literally feel Thrawn's eyes burning into his back.

"Karrde and Solo," Anakin sighed finally, turning around. "Undoubtedly looking for some refuge after you scared them off Nar Shadaa."

The Grand Admiral did not reply. By his side Mara Jade gave the Dark Lord a weak smile.

"But their leaving now tells me that the Alliance has indeed succeeded. They will be heading straight for Coruscant."

"Lord Vader, would you tell me what exactly we are doing here?"

"No. Not yet."

A shuttle brought them down to Bast Castle and if Mara or Thrawn were impressed they did not show it. Not that Anakin cared. Walking ahead he made his way straight towards the room Nuron had occupied during her stay. Scanning it closely he frowned when he found nothing out of the ordinary.

Finally he went over to the window, laying a hand against the cool glass to trace the whole length of the viewport, searching for a clue with his mind. There was a lot of worry here, and spikes of anger stabbed through the room at irregular intervals. Still, regret and hurt were the most dominant feelings permeating the air around him. Regret. Concentrating more deeply the Dark Lord conjured a picture of what had happened in these quarters most recently, using his senses to create an image that was almost as sharp and true as a holo-recording. When he had seen it all he Anakin was not sure if he should be pleased, angry or sad. Nuron had betrayed him. That was not unexpected, but it hurt nevertheless.

If she was actually that loyal to the Council, and every fact seemed to hint at that strongly, his children were not safe with her. But he could not warn them. Knowing Luke, he would confront Nuron with the truth and even Anakin was not sure how she might react to that. And Leia? She liked the young Zabrak, but she would do anything in her power to make sure that the Alliance reached its goals. And with what he had taught her he would be surprised if she had not already taken steps to ensnare Nuron, should she choose to betray the Princess' trust. Well. Maybe there truly was no reason to fear for the twins. They could take care of themselves, he knew. Which still left that other matter. The Council might have realized by now what game he was playing at but there was no need for them to know that he had already seen through Nuron's betrayal.

Leaving the deserted quarters again Anakin led the way down towards the comm center. Solo's presence was strongest here, not surprisingly. And if anything went wrong, the Corellian's report on Coruscant would grant the Alliance a chance to interfere and prevent any major catastrophe. This last phase of the plan was the most difficult part now. Roj Kell had not become head of the Sith Council for nothing and playing him off would not be easy at all. But the Dark Lord was pretty confident in his abilities and, furthermore, he knew that he could trust his agents, without a doubt, to do the right thing. And that included everyone, even Nuron. The only one he did not trust was the Grand Admiral himself. Maybe it was time to show Thrawn who exactly he would have to face, should he decide to betray the Dark Lord' confidence.

Motioning for Mara and Thrawn to stand back, out of the transmission field, Anakin waited for the connection to be established and when it did he still had to wait until anyone answered the call. It was night-time on Korriban, but time meant little to the Sith, or the Jedi, for that matter. Finally the image swirled into existence and Roj Kell smiled at him expectantly:

"Lord Vader, what news?"

"Coruscant is secured and the Alliance is taking over. There will not be much resistance."

"Excellent. What about the Grand Admiral?"

"He is under control."

"Yours, undoubtedly," the Sith commented with a small laugh. Anakin merely smiled at him. "There still is the matter of the transition of power."

"It has to come slowly. But we have been patient so far and we can hold out a while longer."

"Indeed. But I fear that time is against us. Are you certain that you can trust your allies?"

"Their loyalty is beyond doubt."

Roj Kell's smile deepened:

"I am fully confident in your plan, Lord Vader. We will speak again soon."

"Yes. Soon."

"Another thing, my Lord: we are well aware of the fact that the past months have been exhausting.

Therefore I would appreciate it greatly if you took some rest from the battle-front. We are awaiting your arrival and report within the next few days."

"Of course, Lord Kell."

Breaking the connection the Dark Lord remained in his place for a while longer, contemplating the conversation. So, Roj Kell knew what he was planning, or thought he did. And he had just relieved him of command. Well, the last part was a bit unexpected, but no real surprise. Had it been the other way round, he would have done the same, or perhaps something even more drastic. Undoubtedly Roj Kell was entertaining similar thoughts, but unfortunately the Dark Lord was still out of his reach. Anakin knew that the confrontation was inevitable, but he preferred to choose his own battle-ground. If he got granted that chance at all.

"Lord Vader?" the Grand Admiral's voice was as cool and composed as ever.

"Yes?"

"This situation requires a thorough analysis. Apparently this Kell knows that you have deceived him and from your conversation I deduce that you both are aware of each other's knowledge. The question remains though: what are you going to do now? You told me that in case they learned of your betrayal beforehand we would stand as good as no chance of defeating them."

"That rather depends on what Roj Kell is expecting. Right now he believes that you and I are the greatest threat to him."

"We are not?"

"No."

"Would you care to specify?"

"Actually I would rather keep that to myself until I can be sure that you will not try to back out of our deal."

"How could I?"

"So innocent, Grand Admiral? Off-hand I can think of at least six ways and undoubtedly you have already found six more. I do not consider our agreement to be more than a truce."

"I see. Thank you for your honesty."

"I expect the same from you, Thrawn. Now let us get down to the business at hand."

As seemed to have become customary the comm fastened at the Grand Admiral's collar started beeping and as the admiral turned away Anakin threw a glance at Mara. The former Emperor's Hand was regarding him critically, as if she were trying to figure out what exactly he was playing at. They had not talked much so far and Anakin intended to keep it that way. She had embraced her new post with a vengeance and he could well understand her fear that he might take it away from her again.

But he truly did respect Thrawn as a warrior and warlord and he would regret having to sacrifice him. Still, that was exactly what he expected would become necessary. When the Grand Admiral faced them again he wore a grim expression on his face.

"I had deployed a team to keep a look-out for your wife on Tatooine. So far they could report no success."

"And now they have found her?"

"Yes."

"Let them report back every hour."

Whirling around Anakin started walking for the door, but Thrawn's voice held him back:

"What are you doing?"

"I am leaving. And you should get on your way too. Don' t forget the Ysalamiri."

"What?"

"This is supposed to be a trap for me, you see? Your team could find no trace of her because she was on Korriban until now. Her being back on Tatooine only confirms what Roj Kell has just told me: time is against us. But it stands to reason that he will split his troops. He wants me alive, which gives me a good estimate of who he will send to capture me. And while I keep them occupied on Tatooine you can begin your assault on Korriban."

"What if their orders are to kill you?"

"Not your problem. Move fast and try to keep out of my way. I am counting on you there," he added with a small smile.

"I am not sure this will work, Lord Vader. It will not only be risky but also doubtful regarding our achieving victory."

"As I said, I am trusting your insight as Grand Admiral."

"Well. I can see that you have made your choice. Good luck to you, Lord Vader."

"Thank you. May the Force be with you."

Anakin winked at Mara, who blushed furiously despite trying to prevent it. Laughing quietly at her discomfort, the Dark Lord left the two of them behind to begin his journey to Tatooine. Even though he was fairly certain that Roj Kell wanted him captured he was also sure that the Sith leader would not risk his best on this assignment. Still, he would nevertheless send at least one of the Council to oversee the mission. For Anakin this meant that he would probably have to face Naas Deron, Puket and Cronn, the three apprentices. As for the commander... Well, if Roj Kell wanted to promote his own image in the eyes of the Sith he would send the youngest Council member, Sedriss. Sedriss had always admired the Dark Lord, but that admiration was tinged with envy and competitiveness. So it would make great sense to give the young Councilor a chance at defeating him. Yes. That was probably the setup he would have to expect. Roj Kell would not be so stupid as to include Chi'in in the group. No, he would probably send the Noghri against Thrawn.

Marching up the still lowered landing ramp of the shuttle that had taken them down onplanet, Anakin checked the fuel and found it satisfactory. He would only have to get to Tatooine after all. Smiling a bit, he settled himself in the pilot chair and powered up the ship's systems. Sealing the shuttle he prepared the lift-off, a feeling of profound peace settling over him. He would see Padmé again. His joy rose to unexpected heights, nearly bringing tears to his eyes as he lost himself in vision of her face, her happiness. Well, not happiness, maybe. She must still be mad at him. But once he had rescued her, they could find a quiet place and just talk. He would explain everything, and he knew that she would understand. Padmé had always understood and she was a politician, a leader. She would realize that his decision had been right and the only one possible in his situation. He would see her again. And that was all that mattered now.

Back on Vjun Mara was watching the Grand Admiral anxiously. He was staring at the door through which the Dark Lord had vanished as if he had just realized something. Something he did not like at all. With a frown he turned back to look at the display-ring where only minutes before Lord Vader had stood, telling Roj Kell that he had Thrawn under control. Mara realized that the conversation which had followed that statement had been so full of hidden meanings and leaden with unspoken threats that the Grand Admiral could not but worry. Roj Kell had made it clear that Vader was running out of time. And the Dark Lord's remark about his allies' loyalty being beyond doubt... Well, if she did interpret that correctly, what he had really meant was that he had no doubts whatsoever that they were not loyal to him at all. As cryptic as that comment might have seemed, Roj Kell had understood and had warned Vader explicitly: we are well aware of the fact that the past months have been exhausting. Mara snorted softly. It should have been: we know that you are weakened. And when you stumble we will catch you.

And now he was heading right into their trap, like a fool. Just because they were using his wife as bait? He had not been so eager when his son had been imperiled on Myrk. In a way Mara found it understandable and yes, it was a different situation. He had known his wife much better and longer than his children, after all. But to lose his head now... As if he did not care for his plan anymore. Mara had always seen the Dark Lord as someone who wanted to control everything, punishing anyone who did not respect his authority. Indeed, he had been like this for all the time she had known him. But apparently that had changed since she had left the Alliance to join the Grand Admiral. Whom he had more or less given all responsibility for the success of this last mission. And that was something else that seemed strange to Mara: did he really trust Thrawn? She doubted it. So far Vader had not seemed inclined to trust anyone, let alone his opponents. Except, maybe, he really did trust Thrawn to do the right thing. Knowing Vader, that could mean that he had taken a possible betrayal into consideration as well. The only question then was who would be the first to deceive the other.

The Imperial Palace was positively crowded with the press. Journalists and newsdroids were bustling throughout the administrative complex demanding explanations, while outside crowds of people were cheering the new provisory government under Mon Mothma's lead. Standing at one of the viewports looking out over the huge plaza in front of the Palace's main entrance, Leia was smiling. The noise was not so penetrating up here, but she could still hear the hum of approving voices, could feel the joy emanating from the crowds. They had won. And they had not even had to fight for it.

Turning around sharply, Leia nodded at the three men seated across from her at the conference table. They stared at her unblinking, but that did not really impress her much. It was an empty gesture of bad losers, a defiance born out of anger and helplessness. Taking her place between Mon Mothma and General Dodonna, the Princess busied herself again with studying the treaties they had worked out together to guarantee a smooth transition of power from the sullen triumvirate sitting over there to the Alliance leaders seated at her side.

"Your Highness."

Looking up she blinked at Jix in surprise. So far he had kept very silent, acting as her bodyguard, and he had not left his post by the door ever since they had started this session two hours ago. Now though he seemed agitated, waving for her discreetly to follow him outside. Excusing herself Leia walked over to him and out of the door.

"What is it?"

"Stuff the meeting, Princess, we have more important things to discuss."

"What?"

Wordlessly he gestured towards the two men standing not far away, wearing grim expressions on their faces.

"Han!" Leia exclaimed, both surprised and overjoyed.

Rushing over to him she wrapped her arms around him and he hugged her back fiercely. He felt so alive, so bright, and for a second Leia was not sure if she did not only imagine this because she had missed him so much.

"I am so glad you are back. How did your mission go? Page told me you wanted to free Needa and then you had to bail Jix out of being shot down by the Chimaera..."

"Yes, the Chimaera," Han began ominously, his solemn tone dousing her excitement immediately.

"Jix says it's important."

"We ran into Thrawn at Nar Shadaa and that is not even the bad news. He let us go, telling us that the Chimaera was only waiting to get her gunners blasting us out of the sky. And that still is not the worst of it. We escaped, went to Vjun. A Star Destroyer dropped into the system fairly soon after we had arrived, and it was hailing as the Dominator."

"Impossible." Leia frowned, trying to make sense of this.

"Yes, that's what we though too. And then Karrde had this really unpleasant idea. Tell her, will ya?"

"Of course," the smuggler chief said smoothly, a thin smile appearing on his lips. "You see, your Highness, there is only one plausible solution: Thrawn was on Nar Shadaa to acquire a very special tool."

"An ID scrambler," the Princess cut in coolly.

"See? I told you she was good," Han stated with satisfaction.

"Check our fleet. See if there are any anomalies. Double-check the crews. Even if he has only out-fitted the Relentless and the Chimaera with fake IDs, he can still wrack havoc with our ships. We don't want them shooting at each other."

"Princess, if I may?" Jix cut in.

"What is it now?"

"I warned you before that Thrawn would not play fair and this indicates strongly that he has indeed betrayed Lord Vader. With your permission?"

"You want to go after him?"

"Yes."

"But if he is here... I would prefer you to wait until we have investigated the fleet thoroughly."

"By then it could be too late. If we knew what he was planning..."

Leia's head came up sharply: "I know someone we could ask."

"Piett and Needa?"

"Those too. Han, Jix, could you two please take care of the fleet? I have some business that cannot wait."

The two Corellians shared an exasperated glance and then Jix threw her a mocking salute before he vanished, Han and Karrde on his heels.

Luke blocked Nuron's underhand blow easily, sliding his blade along hers to get a better pressure point for wrestling the weapon from her grasp with an elegant twist of his wrists. As the handle flew away, she shook her head fiercely, but it was only a half-hearted gesture. He could feel her pride at his victory, at her accomplishment as his teacher too plainly for it to be anything else. "Good, very good," she said softly and retrieved her blade. "Maybe we will try something else now." But the opening of the door to their training quarters forestalled any continuation of the session. The Sith' yellow eyes narrowed dangerously at the sight of Leia's slim form flanked by Needa and Piett.

"What happened?" Luke asked, shutting down his own lightsaber and clipping it to his belt before he went to join his sister. Leia merely nodded at Nuron:

"We have some questions for her."

"What questions?" he asked, surprised, and turned back to face the Sith again.

She had retreated to the far end of the chamber and her nervousness was over-whelming. Walking towards her Luke shook his head soothingly:

"It is alright."

"Alright?" Leia snapped impatiently: "Father is in danger. If we cannot find him before Thrawn does..."

"What? I thought he wanted to meet the Grand Admiral in the first place."

"Thrawn has apparently acquired an ID scrambler on Nar Shadaa. There is no telling what he is planning to do with it. If Nuron could tell us what Father had in mind for the Grand Admiral..."

"He wants him to move against the Sith," came the warrior's hoarse reply. All eyes turned towards her. "He has deceived us, misused our trust. He used everyone."

Luke had never seen his sister as cold as now when she marched up to face the taller woman, planting her fists on her hips unafraid: "You betrayed him?"

Nuron did not answer.

"Tell me you did not," Luke asked her quietly, but knew that it was true. He had warned her back on Vjun, but too late, obviously.

"I could not do anything else. He was going to take everything from me again," she whispered, her yellow eyes blazing. "But I thought - I thought that he would realize - that he would not have treated me the way he did if he had not planned for that to happen."

"And what if he did not? He trusted you. What he taught you I was taught too, in essence. I know that for sure."

"Luke, you do not know him half as well as I do. I grew up around him, around the Sith. I could compare what he taught me to what the Council expected of us."

"And?"

She sighed deeply and then all tension fled from her. Sinking to the floor Nuron sat there very quietly, looking up at him in silent anguish: "I was envious. He had chosen your sister over me. I though that he did not respect me, that he never had. I was wrong. What he taught me was true, but I did not want to carry that responsibility. I–"

"Nuron," Leia interrupted her, gently. "Where is he now?"

"I do not know. But Thrawn will go to Myrk first before moving against Korriban."

"If he does at all," Needa snorted, shaking his head.

"Thrawn is no fool," the Admiral admonished him quietly. "Even if he does not move against them now he knows very well that an encounter with them is inevitable."

"But the Ysalamiri do not work," Nuron said, suddenly agitated. "He cannot defeat them."

Luke gave her a long look: "Nuron, you are very strong in the Force. Are all the others as powerful as you are?"

She shook her head slowly: "No, not all of them."

"And he can raze the planet from orbit, if he wishes to."

"Yes, you are right."

Piett stepped forward, gaining their attention easily:

"Thrawn would not deceive Lord Vader without good reason since I am sure that the Dark Lord has made some explicit threats to ensure his loyalty in the first place. I think it would be best if I joined the Grand Admiral on the Relentless again. This way I can keep an eye on him."

"Take Jix with you. Or else he will go alone. I do not want that."

"Of course, Princess."

"Good. You have to leave as soon as possible."

"At once."

"Thank you. And please be careful."

The Admiral turned on his heels, leaving hurriedly, and while Leia watched him go she had the sudden feeling that they had been over-looking something important. Tapping her lower lip pensively she stared into the distance blankly, thinking. If Thrawn chose to betray his ally, he would do so only if he was certain that the Dark Lord would lose, if the Sith managed to trap him effectively. Suddenly the missing piece fell into place. Whirling towards Nuron she eyed the warrior suspiciously:

"My mother. Was she a prisoner on Korriban?"

"No," Nuron shook her head slowly. "She was Roj Kell's - guest."

Leia took a step back, aghast. Her eyes sought Luke's and the twins shared a pained glance.

"Nuron, I want you and Luke to go to Korriban."

"Korriban!" the Sith exclaimed.

"I would go myself, but I fear that I cannot leave until everything is settled on Coruscant. I trust you to protect my brother, Nuron. Take good care of him, alright? And now I think you should prepare for your journey. Captain?"

Leia waited until Nuron and Needa had left before she flew into Luke's arms, her despair getting too much for her to bear alone. She was hanging on to him with all her heart and spirit, seeking reassurance in his calmness. But she could feel that he was shaken too. "Oh, Luke," she whispered into his shoulder, close to tears. "You cannot fail. Please. Bring him back. Bring them both back."

He stepped into the dark room cautiously, ready for anything. Blue eyes searching the shadows, he deliberately avoided the sight of her standing motionless not three meters away from him to shut out any distractions. Finally Anakin stopped pretending not to see her and sighed deeply. Although the years had left their marks on her, she had not lost any of her beauty. Her round, pale face was framed by long, dark hair and her eyes were like liquid amber, sparkling even in the gloom. "Padmé," he whispered and was astounded by how good that word felt on his lips. Smiling, he walked forward, until they were standing so close that he could feel her warmth on his skin without them ever touching. Shuddering with the memory of times long past Anakin closed his eyes and raised his arms slowly.

He was not sure if she would take that invitation, but when her arms finally wrapped around his waist, hugging him tightly, he thought that his heart might burst with happiness. "I cannot believe this," he laughed, his right hand stroking her head gently, his left wrapped around her shoulder. He never ever would let her go again. "Padmé," Anakin said once more, and there was nothing else he needed to say, except – "I am so sorry, I was such a fool." He buried his face in her soft, thick hair, breathing in the sweet musky scent that he remembered so well. "Oh, Padmé. Can you forgive me?"

Dislodging her arms Amidala stepped back and very suddenly he realized that her expression had never changed at all. "No. And I do not think that you really care," she answered, her voice as hard as durasteel. Anakin stared at her, disbelieving. Taking one step at a time she walked backwards slowly, while he tried to understand why he suddenly felt so cold. She gave him a smile, one that never touched her dark eyes and lifted her right hand towards him, presenting the lightsaber she had taken from his belt. "No," Anakin breathed, shocked. "Tell me you did not do it." He whirled around to face the entrance, the one and only entrance to this room, now blocked by five shadowy outlines.

So. She had really betrayed him. That revelation hurt and confused him more than he would care for right now, enraging him no end. From a certain point of view she had had every right to do it, of course, but this move was so unlike her. That was not the wise, compassionate queen he remembered. Not his Padmé. "People change," she whispered and Anakin could almost see the cruel smile on her beautiful lips, the vision cutting into his heart deeply.

When the shortest of the fivesome moved towards him Anakin did not react at first, still too surprised. And Chi'in hesitated for the merest fraction of a second when his target did not respond. That second was all the Dark Lord needed to find his way back into the present. Aiming a kick at the slight alien he immediately dropped to one knee, letting the Noghri warrior stumble over his body as Chi'in evaded him skillfully. Anakin punched him in the face, his knuckles connecting with the other's sharp teeth. Behind them he could feel Amidala wince in empathy. But he had no time to ponder this sudden emotional outburst. Three more warriors had moved in and the Dark Lord raised his hands in annoyance. Sending the five flying to the ground he took a deep breath. This was not what he had expected at all.

The first one back on his feet was Naas Deron. Regarding the Dark Lord coldly the tall human raised his eyebrows mockingly. Anakin knew that Deron and Luke would be nearly evenly matched in potential, but Deron did not use his fully. Still, he was a formidable opponent all by his own. Until now they had merely been playing. And Anakin was almost sure that he would not survive if he did not call up some extra measures. Holding out his right arm, the abraded skin of his artificial hand revealing part of the machinery that made up his limb, he steeled himself visibly. "Give me my weapon back," Anakin growled softly, without looking at Amidala, his voice one of command, promising instant death to anyone who disobeyed it. "Now." There was a rustle of cloth behind him and he simply waited for her to place the cool handle in his palm.

When his fingers curled around the hard metal cylinder he closed his eyes for a moment, nearly crushing the lightsaber in an effort to control the bleak despair threatening to drive him to his knees. She had betrayed him. He could think of nothing else. Here he was, overjoyed at the prospect of seeing her again at last and she... Anakin shook his head slowly and when his blue eyes opened again he knew that despite reason demanded that he accept her choice he could not do it. She was right: people did change. They both had, apparently. But he could not simply forget what she had done and he had to get his mind off that thought fast before anything happened that he would regret more than everything he had done so far. "Very well, " he said coolly, addressing the five warriors opposing him, "Who wants to be the first to die?"

Amidala crossed her arms in front of her chest and watched the battle unfold. The Sith were cautious in attacking the Dark Lord and no wonder. When he suddenly moved towards them, red lightsaber flashing, his speed alone drove them back in surprise, out of the confined room. She followed slowly. Outside the icy night air caressed her cheeks, painting them red with the cold. Amidala did not mind. Her eyes were fixed on the six warriors engaged in a deadly dance, sometimes too quick for her to follow. She watched Anakin fight with that predatory grace she remembered so well, twisting his body in impossibly beautiful movements, so fast and elegant that she felt herself entranced by the battle despite its deadly purpose.

Blocking Sedriss' underhand blow Anakin fell back a bit, reassessing the others' positions. Chi'in and Deron flanking him to the left, Cronn standing on his right and Puket nowhere to be seen. Of course, she was behind him. Whirling around the Dark Lord aimed a kick at the Twi'lek's midsection as she launched herself at him. Her battle-scream died when his boot connected and then he shoved her aside to jump out of Sedriss' reach. Avoiding the Sith Lord's blade by inches Anakin rolled over the hard ground and came back up a little away from the group. But Chi'in was already moving towards him, a silent shadow in the starry night.

"It would be for the best if you just gave up," Sedriss told Anakin, who fended off the Noghri's forceful attack easily. Slapping the alien away yet again the other shook his head fiercely:

"That would be far too easy, don't you think?" he hissed back, concentrating on the tall human apprentice advancing more cautiously. Deron eyed the Dark Lord warily, but when his eyes flickered for a second to check on his master's condition Anakin struck. Naas Deron raised his blade to intercept him, danced out of the way and lashed out, searing Anakin's shoulder.

Moving out of his reach Anakin fell backwards, feinted a blow at the other man, and simultaneously used the Force to rip his head clean off. Defense was the key to victory. In attacking you only exposed your weak points to your opponent. Deron had been a fool to rely on his lightsaber only. And he had paid for it. Whirling towards the remaining four Sith the Dark Lord frowned deeply, then jumped over their heads, landing very close to Puket. Apparently he had no choice but to push the offensive as Sedriss was slashing at him wildly, charging towards him in a violent attack.

Anakin stepped to the left, seeking to avoid the blade and unintentionally blocked Puket's line of sight. She never saw Sedriss' blade coming. Whirling out of the Sith Lord's way Anakin hammered his own lightsaber down, but Sedriss had anticipated him and avoided death by an inch. Anakin whirled around to fend off any possible sneak attacks while Sedriss recovered on his knees. Feeling a slight pang of guilt at having caused Nuron's apprentice to be killed Anakin knew at the same time that he could not allow himself to become distracted.

But his next opponent had paid closer attention to the Dark Lord's moves. Cronn held out his hands, palms facing the other warrior. Anakin tried to block him, but the Falleen had been prepared. Hit squarely by the other's Force blow Anakin flew backwards and stumbled into the waiting arms of Chi'in. The short alien wrapped his left arm around the Dark Lord's waist, his sharp claws sinking into the other's belly, and held the tip of his lightsaber up to Anakin's throat. Well. With any other opponent he would have had the possibility to knock him out with a blow of his head, but Chi'in barely came up to his breast-bone. Too bad.

Ripping a deep wound into Anakin's flesh the Noghri whirled him around and shoved him forward. Crashing to the ground hard the Dark Lord found himself pressed down by an unseen force. Struggling against the invisible restraints he managed to rise again, but the remaining three Sith warriors were already gathering around him. Sedriss quickly stepped up to him with a cold smile on his lips and struck. Thrown to the ground again Anakin landed on his back, only to find that Sedriss had followed his move and slashed his blade across the Dark Lord's chest, along his right arm, burning through the cloth and searing his body with deadly precision.

Valiantly suppressing a scream Anakin rolled around, seeking to protect himself by moving with the blow, but once the other's lightsaber reached his right hand still holding on to his own laser-sword, Sedriss smiled triumphantly and stabbed down, fusing the artificial limb's wires and steel rods effectively. The weapon's handle fell to the ground and the Dark Lord shook his head slowly, gritting his teeth. He had let his guard down. And now the other two had taken the opportunity to slip through his mental defenses. He could not feel the Force anymore. "Surrender or die," Sedriss growled, baring his teeth in a silent snarl, his blade hovering in front of Anakin's face. Throwing a doubtful glance at Amidala, Anakin forced himself to remain calm. "I surrender," he answered finally through clenched teeth. Maybe there still was a chance. Maybe.

The Sith Lord stepped back and Anakin shot him a hard glance. Pressing his left hand over the bleeding wound across his belly he used his right arm to push himself up, cursing the now useless artificial hand. Its numbness irritated him and it was hard to keep his balance. But in the end he managed to rise once again. Closing his eyes for a moment he paused, fighting down the pain from his wounds, but without the Force to aid him it was a futile struggle. Finally Anakin turned towards his captors, his face a cold mask. "So, what happens now?" he asked, looking straight at Chi'in, acknowledging the other's crucial part in the battle. The short warrior drew a sharp breath, obviously pleased at the Dark Lord's approval. But it was Sedriss who answered his question haughtily:

"We will take you to Korriban."

Again it was Chi'in who moved behind him, pulling Anakin's hands on his back gently to bind them.

As the rest of the group gathered to honor the sacrifices of their fallen comrades the Dark Lord and the Noghri stood a little apart, side by side. But Anakin's gaze was fixed solely on the small woman across from him. Amidala apparently was trying hard to ignore him, but from time to time her eyes sought his and he was not sure what to read in their depths. She had betrayed him and yet she seemed unsure if her decision had been right. There was a hint of defiance in her stance, and fear too. Was she afraid of him or something else? He could not be certain.

"I am glad that you chose to live," the Noghri warrior said softly next to his elbow.

"Why did you come along, Chi'in? I thought that you, at least–"

"My friend, I have pondered this situation for a long time and in the end my being here prevented greater harm from happening to you. You must trust me on this."

"Why?"

"You taught me a long time to use my insight and to trust my feelings. That is what I did and I know it was right."

"I see," Anakin hesitated a bit before continuing: "I am - sorry for killing Deron. He was your first apprentice, I know, and–" The Noghri's low, hissing laughter interrupted him. "You do not believe me?"

"You never liked Naas Deron much and you never tried to hide that."

"True. Still –"

"His death was honorable and although I regret losing him I would have regretted losing you more."

"Thank you."

"No need for that. Take care. Sedriss will not leave you to rest or heal."

"Where are you going?"

"The Grand Admiral will pay for what he has done to my people. Roj Kell may think that I am following his orders, but in this case what he wants coincides with my wishes too."

"Chi'in. You said that you followed what I have taught you, but now you will let revenge lead your actions?"

The Noghri hesitated: "I will consider this. And you should too."

"May the Force be with you, Chi'in."

"And with you. Master."

"If you ever call me that again I shall kill you," Anakin hissed angrily.

But Chi'in merely smiled at him and vanished into the night without another word.

Left behind, the Dark Lord felt just a little bit stunned by the events of this night. He had lost control over his plan, hadn't he? And somehow Chi'in had seen that beforehand and sought to prevent worse from happening. Anakin was not sure he understood his friend's motives though. Had the Noghri not helped defeating him he might have won this battle, regardless of the odds against him. Shaking his head slowly he replayed that thought in his mind: you would have killed them, slaughtered them, lost to vengeance and fury. His jaw locked tight as he remembered cutting down Obi-Wan aboard the Death Star, the countless hundreds of Jedi Knights and Masters he had killed, forgetting himself, forgetting his priorities and everything he had held dear our of sheer desperation. He had been trapped back then, inside and out and the only way to vent his anger and frustration had been to take it out on those he believed had betrayed him. His friends. His mentors. Padmé.

He looked over at her again, calmer than before. Would he have killed her too today, blinded by darkness again, seeking to punish her for deceiving him, for breaking his trust? Probably. No, he was certain of it. Padmé had been the one and only he had never had any doubts in. She had been the Sith' prisoner, or so he had told himself, and by his rescuing her she would have no choice but to forgive him. They would have met not as strangers but as lovers separated for long years, both overjoyed and happy at seeing each other again. Foolishness. He had been naive to think that way. And if Chi'in had not prevented it the shock of that realization and his own rage would have killed her as surely as he was trapped now. Well. He would consider this setback as a warning. Almost he had lost himself again and, remembering Obi-Wan's words, he vowed that he would pass these trials and prove his mastery.

Jix felt just a bit uncomfortable on board the Imperial-style shuttle they had borrowed from the Dominator and there were precisely two reasons for that: first, they were heading straight towards an encounter with Grand Admiral Thrawn, and second, Piett had insisted on piloting the ship. On the other hand, the agent mused as he sat idly in the co-pilot's chair with the Admiral keeping a jealous watch over the instrument panel and the controls, on the other hand Mara was aboard the Relentless. He smiled at the thought of her, always on the brink of action, her fiery gaze and her earnest face, the slight frown seemingly forever imprinted on her forehead as she scrutinized and analyzed everything that went on around her. Thinking about it, he had never met someone quite like her. Well, maybe the Princess came close, but there was something about Mara that made her very special. Something that made him very happy.

"We are about to leave hyperspace. Better strap in."

Awakened from his pleasant daydreaming Jix gave the other man a cool glance, but refrained from replying. This was serious, after all. Abruptly the starlines vanished and they found themselves heading straight for the small planet that must be Myrk. Almost immediately Jix began snapping data at Piett:

"Star Destroyer ahead, hailing as the Chimaera. Two TIE squadrons aiming for us from - down there. Is that the Relentless? Guess so. Wanna take us over?"

The Admiral stared at him, slightly surprised. Jix merely smiled.

"Thank you, Sergeant Jixton," Piett answered finally, the corners of his mouth twitching in quiet amusement when the agent's face darkened visibly.

Jix had not liked his time with the Imperial Military at all, and apparently Piett was well aware of that. Ignoring the other's hidden smile he turned towards the viewport again, watching the TIE fighters close the distance rapidly. A few warning shots raced past their hull, almost too close for comfort, but Piett kept his course steadily. The shuttle was escorted towards the huge starship looming ahead and Jix noticed that the Admiral had powered down their weapon's system. Rolling his eyes he asked himself if he should not be concerned at the Admiral's trusting nature.

"Unidentified shuttle, this is the Relentless. What do you want?"

"Ah, Lieutenant Persh. You may inform the Grand Admiral that we wish to come on board."

"Certainly, Cap– Admiral."

"Thank you," Piett replied smoothly, but Jix could see the concern in his eyes.

"And what happens now?" he asked quietly.

"I am not sure yet. But whatever it is, trust me."

"Okay. As long as you do not try to play me false."

"Jix, if I chose to do so you would not even realize it until too late."

A tractor-beam attached itself to their ship, slowing them down, and dragged them over towards one of the warship's hangars. Piett watched the whole process with growing tension and somehow Jix felt that he should be worried too. A steady stream of transports was descending towards the planet and in regular intervals others would come back up.

"Seems like they are loading up a lot of those Ysalamiri," he commented before the planet vanished from sight and they touched down gently on the polished deck.

Piett did not answer. He was already on his way to the landing ramp. Jix followed him a bit reluctantly, still in the firm belief that they were walking into a trap. As he went to join the Admiral at the already lowered ramp, they shared a glance and the agent saw his own worries mirrored on the other's face. "Last chance," Jix whispered but Piett simply shook his head and left the ship unhurriedly. A contingent of stormtroopers was waiting for them and Jix studied their rows intently, assessing the weaknesses in the layout and the general atmosphere. They seemed pretty confident that their prey could not escape. Not very encouraging. But the Admiral walked past them unconcernedly, his hands folded behind his back confidently, his head held high. And then Jix got it.

They were aboard the Relentless, a ship Piett had commanded for nearly a decade. He could see the troopers follow the Admiral's every move and the man truly did not allow any insecurity to shine through. He was in command, he was in control and what was more important, he was back where he belonged. Falling in step behind him Jix had a hard time suppressing a gin. But his good mood died abruptly upon reaching the bridge. Grand Admiral Thrawn was waiting for them. He had taken a seat in the command chair and did not even look up at them at first. Mara stood behind him and a quick smile flashed across her face at the sight of the two newcomers, making Jix feel welcome despite the circumstances.

"Ah, Admiral. I was wondering where you had vanished. But I can see that you have found your place again," Thrawn added with a cold smile at Jix. "Wrenga Jixton, I assume? It is a pleasure to meet you at last."

And that was it. No further comment, nothing. He simply ignored them. Risking a glance at Piett, the agent was surprised to see the Admiral smile. But he did not say a thing. Every bridge officer though had his eyes on him, their expectation almost palpable, as the tension rose to such an extent that Thrawn could not ignore it anymore. He looked up at Piett and frowned.

"Why are you here?" he almost snapped.

The Admiral nodded at him with a cool smile, then walked past him to stand at the forward viewport to look down at the planet underneath. Again all eyes followed him and the Grand Admiral could not but notice this. After a long silence Piett finally chose to answer:

"I could ask the same of you, sir. Of course I know that you have made a deal with Lord Vader, but I am not sure about your sincerity."

Leaning back in his chair, Thrawn steepled his hands in front of his face pensively, but Jix did not like the look in his glowing eyes at all.

"The last I heard of Lord Vader was that he was trusting my judgement in this matter. And in my mind we cannot win now."

"Why not?"

"They know what to expect."

"Then we will just have to surprise them, won't we?"

"I do not think so, Piett. I had ordered my team on Tatooine to report in every hour. They have ceased their reports almost a day ago. Do you know what that means?"

"No. But I am certain that you will enlighten me."

"Charming. It means that Lord Vader is either dead or a prisoner."

"And you want to just leave it at that?"

"I have no other choice. And even though I regret it, my choices concerning you are also limited."

Rising gracefully the Grand Admiral finally turned to face Piett across the bridge and almost in passing he gave the stormtrooper escort who had brought the two of them in a sign to move forward.

Jix reacted instantly. Launching himself at the soldiers closing in around him he only got a brief glimpse of a silent shadow racing past him before everything broke into chaos. He heard someone scream and to his horror it was Mara. Throwing off the troopers he tried to break through to her, but a low hiss brought his attention to the fight going on not three meters away. Mara was half-leaning over the command chair, her face deadly pale, her eyes shocked. She was pressing both her hands to her belly and Jix could see that she was in pain. Right in front of her the Grand Admiral was valiantly trying to fend off the attacks of a short, gray-skinned alien and the Corellian agent was truly astounded at Thrawn's combat skills. He himself would have not been able to follow even half of the warrior's blows, Jix knew.

Although he was quite certain that only seconds had passed since the battle had begun five troopers were down already, and only two by his own hands. The alien moved in a blur, striking at Thrawn one last time, then whirled around facing the soldiers. He stood there straight-backed, but Jix could see that the warrior was ready to explode back into action at any time if need be. Behind him Thrawn was lying on the floor, his glowing eyes closed, and he was wheezing painfully. The remaining troopers immediately brought up their rifles, ignoring Jix, and aimed them at the intruder steadily. He gave them a contemptuous smile and when Mara jumped straight at him he dove underneath her and with a well-aimed kick sent her flying against the comm console. With a murderous scream Jix was by his side in an instant, but an unseen force brought him up short and he grunted at the impact that sat him unceremoniously on his back. The alien warrior was looming over him, one clawed hand raised ready to rip his throat out.

"Jix," Mara called weakly and out of the corner of his eye he could see her struggle to her feet. Noone else had moved, things had happened so fast. But then a cool voice cut into the tense silence filling the bridge, sending shivers down Jix' spine.

"I would advise you all to stand down your weapons," Piett said. Walking up to the Grand Admiral he helped Thrawn rise and sat him down in the command chair. "Get two medics in here. Mara Jade, are you alright so far?"

She simply nodded. Straightening up and turning towards the alien still bent over Jix, the Admiral gave the short warrior a military nod. The other stared at him curiously, then let go of the downed agent and just stood there expectantly. Piett returned his gaze levelly and Jix had to honestly admire the man's courage.

"Who are you?"

"He is a Sith," Mara hissed viciously as she tried to remain upright.

Jix rose very slowly as not to startle or upset the alien who merely gave him a short glance before turning his attention back to Piett. Walking over to Mara unhurriedly, Jix wrapped an arm around her waist to steady her.

"And furthermore he is a Noghri," Thrawn explained in a hushed whisper, sighing deeply.

The short alien smiled at all of them in quiet amusement, then shook his head slowly. But Piett was not quite finished.

"That still does not answer the question who he is and what he wants. Apart, that is, for making you pay for putting his people in danger," he added coolly with a meaningful look at Thrawn.

"You are right," the Noghri growled softly," that is indeed why I came. But now we seem to have come to an impasse."

"An impasse? In which way?"

"Apparently you are in control and not the Grand Admiral. I wonder why?"

"Grand Admiral Thrawn was just about to make his choices concerning command and the course of action concerning the Sith."

"Ah?" Folding his arms in front of his chest the Noghri turned his head to study the very quiet Grand Admiral more closely: "And what is your decision?"

Pressing his lips together tightly Thrawn glared at him, his glowing red eyes burning. For a second Jix wondered what exactly was going through his head. And when he finally replied it was not what the agent had expected at all:

"You are Lord Vader's confidant, I believe. Which is why you are here instead of Tatooine and I am still alive."

"You truly do deserve the title of Grand Admiral, Thrawn. My name is Chi'in and I indeed serve the Dark Lord. But if I may correct you, I came here straight from Tatooine. Still, you did not answer me. How will you proceed?"

"I hardly do have a choice, Chi'in, is that not so?" Rising unsteadily Thrawn nodded at Piett: "Have the Relentless and the Chimaera set course for Korriban, Admiral. And this is my last order to you," he added quietly with a stern glance at the Noghri warrior.

Piett's smile already foretold his answer: "I will happily issue those orders, but only if you retain the command throughout this mission."

Thrawn gave him a startled look: "Why?"

"You made the right choice, Grand Admiral. And now you have to see it through."

The hot gales whipped at Anakin brutally as he staggered down the landing ramp onto the slick black stones of Korriban. He had not slept during the entire flight and although Sedriss had finally agreed to have his wounds dressed, he was still running a fever. Now he felt as if everything was swimming out of focus and he could barely see. Sedriss grabbed his left arm hard and dragged him towards the small group already waiting for them. Well, Anakin did not really need his eyes to know who that was. Roj Kell's white hair was contrasting sharply with his black robe and his smile was far too friendly to be true. After a short glance at the prisoner he walked past Sedriss to greet Amidala. They talked quietly as they went past again and Anakin kept his gaze straight ahead furiously.

Just beyond the Council he could see three red-robed guards standing in a semi-circle facing the entrance to the underground fortress. His brow furrowed deeply at the sight of that, but then, he had not really expected a trial. Sedriss pushed him forward again and the whole assembly followed Roj Kell towards the marked-off site. The Council took their assigned places, completing the circle and then only Anakin was left in its center, swaying slightly. The sound of boots crunching over stone was his only warning before one of the guards scythed his ceremonial staff through his ankles, dropping him to his knees. Biting off a pained scream, Anakin took care not to lose his balance and hit his head too. He remained there stoically, turning his gaze inward, but he could not shut out the voices. And Amidala's laughter.

"Lord Vader, you are accused of treason. Evidence has been assembled against you, but you may speak for yourself to justify your actions," Roj Kell explained solemnly. "The trial begins tomorrow. Until then you will stay here and prepare yourself."

As the group broke up most of the guards escorted the Council back towards the fortress, but Kell remained behind. Anakin watched Amidala leave, talking quietly with Sedriss and Cronn, then vanish into the darkness of the fortress' entrance. When the Sith' black robe gently brushed against his left cheek he closed his eyes for a moment, trying to regain some of his strength. Smiling down at his grim-faced prisoner the Sith Lord reached out to turn Anakin's head up to face him:

"How much you must have hurt her, Lord Vader. Whatever I told her about you, about what you did, she was so eager to believe everything. I had not expected this to be so easy, you see? She is a queen, a politician, after all. But she never saw the true meaning of my words, never inquired too closely. What lies I told her she saw as the truth and I only had to withhold a few facts here and there, crucial facts that would have slanted the whole affair in your favor, of course. A beautiful, strong woman, Lord Vader. But so easily fooled."

Anakin did not move or answer.

"I hear that you killed Naas Deron and Puket. An unwise move, my Lord. Did you really think that your students would remain loyal to you even though you betrayed them?" Roj Kell shook his head sadly. "Nuron will be too frightened by her failure to come to your rescue. And Chi'in will most probably die aboard the Relentless, valiantly avenging his people." He actually smiled at that. "But that is none of your concern anymore, is it? Your death has been decided already in all but form. But that will change tomorrow. I bid you a good night, Lord Vader. Rest if you can."

Whirling around elegantly Roj Kell walked back towards the fortress unhurriedly and Anakin watched him go with so much venom in his eyes that one of the guards cautiously rested his staff against his neck in a silent warning. Well. He had until tomorrow to think of a plan and by then he would be rested again. For a moment hope returned to him again and Anakin knew that somehow this would turn out alright in the end.

As it turned out he had not taken into account that Roj Kell never truly meant what he said. Whenever he was close to drifting off to sleep, whenever he wavered in his posture the three guards would keep him awake with blows and jabs, hitting his face and shoulders without mercy, and when morning finally came Anakin was barely able to think straight. His anger was all that kept him awake, a slim blade trapped in the fuzzy realms of his mind, sharp but too weak to break through. Finally he though that he could take it no more.

But then, it was approaching late afternoon, a small procession left the fortress with Roj Kell in the lead, The Council took their places again and Anakin, kneeling on the hard ground, bit his lower lip in furious concentration, trying hard to ignore the slim form of Amidala standing next to Kell.

"Your plan has failed. Jedi."

Anakin's head came up sharply and he ignored the increasing pain as the guard standing behind him pressed the staff against his neck warningly. The Dark Lord's eyes were flashing furiously, but he did not reply to this insult. Remember who you are, he heard Obi-Wan's voice whisper in his mind.

"You betrayed us. Did you really think we would tolerate that? You are a traitor, Lord Vader, and will be treated accordingly."

"I could hardly let the Sith rise again, could I?"

"No? Why?"

"They started this conflict. Palpatine did. I have told you so over and over again in the hope that you would listen to the real meaning of my words. A shame that you did not."

"And now you mean to destroy us?" Kell laughed quietly.

"I have no other choice."

"You will die, Vader."

"Maybe."

He eyed Amidala suspiciously when she slowly came forward to meet him. Her pale face was a mask of cold hatred. He tried not to look into her eyes when she finally stopped in front of him. Wrapping her hands around his head gently, she pressed his face against her soft bosom. Anakin tried to break away, loathing her touch, but she held him tightly.

"Oh no," she whispered, "you cannot escape this time."

"I never should have let you go," he hissed back.

"No," she answered mockingly and then her hands pushed his head back sharply, forcing him to look into her cold, cold eyes. She was far too weak to break his neck, but her violent move surprised and shocked him nevertheless. Coughing he jerked back, nearly losing his balance when she let go abruptly, smiling at him cruelly, and walked back to rejoin the Council.

Anakin lowered his head, resting his forehead on the ground tiredly, for once surrendering to the despair and grief he felt about losing her. He should have never let her go like this. He had caused her so much pain, had caused her to turn to the Dark Side too.

Straightening slowly he faced the Council again.

"I am guilty of treason. But I did not betray you more than you deceived me. We are all playing our games, aren't we?" he added ironically. "Or why else did you send Nuron to supposedly save my son?"

"That doesn't matter anymore. I had doubts in your loyalty. Justified doubts as it turned out. Do not try to turn this around. Your fate was sealed by your own words, Lord Vader."

Roj Kell straightened to his full height and the rest of the Council followed his lead. Bowing towards the Dark Lord they accepted his confession. Anakin returned the formal bow with a sharp nod of his own, finally admitting his own defeat with that silent gesture of acquiescence. Kell smiled at him gleefully as he came forward to announce the sentence.

"We are, of course, grateful for your efforts in moving any threats to us out of the way. Coruscant will be ours at last. But nevertheless you have lost your game."

The simple truth of Kell's preposterous comment hit Anakin with mind-shattering force. He had fought so hard and long. Only to lose now, this close to his goal. It was humiliating and painful, but what hurt him most was that he had only himself to blame for the failure. His foolish pride. Looking up into Amidala's smiling face tiredly he felt himself break down ever so slowly, the weeks, months and even years of constantly fighting finally taking their toll.

"Lord Vader, by your own words and actions you have renounced your vows to us. You are no longer of the Sith. Our laws demand that you be punished for your betrayal. Yet you have given us much honor in proving your skills over and over again. You are a worthy opponent and will die as such."

Stepping forward smartly, Roj Kell took the handle of his own lightsaber from his belt, smiling a bit.

Taking his place in front of the still kneeling prisoner he looked down at him with an almost fatherly smile, but Anakin could easily identify the malevolent glee in his eyes. Pressing the handle blade first against Anakin's throat Roj Kell drew a satisfied breath, his right thumb hovering above the activation button.

"Remember, it is only a game," he whispered coldly.

Fixing the Sith Lord with an icy stare Anakin held his head high but did not reply. There was no sense in rising to Roj Kell's challenge. Not at all. And defiance would not help him either. It was true, it was a game, but this time Kell was in control. And he obvioulsy enjoyed it. The roar of landing craft and the whine of twin ion engines broke the atmosphere leaden with anticipation suddenly and brought everyone's attention towards the new threat. Anakin saw Roj Kell's eyelids flutter for a second before a slow smile appeared on his weathered face. Looking down at him again the Sith Lord gave him a mocking laugh:

"I shall take care of this - distraction," he said coolly. "But do not worry. We will continue this discussion afterwards. At length."

And before the Dark Lord could even guess at what was going on, the soldier's ebony staff hit his head with bone-shattering force.

Amidala's eyes whipped back from watching the sky to the three men standing not five meters away. Her left hand flew up to cover her mouth instinctively when the red-robed guard battered his long ceremonial staff against the side of Anakin's head, spraying blood everywhere. The warlord hit the ground hard, face down, his limbs slacking suddenly and then he just lay there, unmoving. For a long moment time seemed to freeze around her. Her heart caught in the icy hands of despair Amidala fell to her knees, trying to breathe. But her lungs seemed to have stopped working.

Finally, when she was almost sure that she would suffocate, tears burst from her eyes and a low, pained moan turned into a howl of deepest grief and mourning. She had killed him! Crying soundlessly Amidala hugged herself tightly, unable to forget what she had just seen. But he has deserved it! she wanted to scream. Hadn't he? Her eyes suddenly hardening Amidala let her hand slip to the knife hanging from her belt. Her fingers curled around the finely carved handle and for a moment she could see Chi'in's earnest face in front of her eyes. For luck, he had told her, when he had presented the dagger to her before she had left for Tatooine. To betray him. To betray Anakin. Rising slowly she drew a deep breath, fighting down a sudden wave of dizziness. This was it then. Time for choices.

Luke Skywalker ran down the landing ramp of the yacht, not even waiting for it to lower itself fully. He jumped easily onto the black, slick stones, his eyes intent solely on the five men moving towards them. Behind him Nuron drew an angry breath. "The Council," she hissed. "Beware." A hundred meters to their left an Imperial shuttle had touched down gracefully and Luke's heart leapt with joy when he saw Jix and Mara stride into the battle, with white-armored stormtroopers at their heels. A small, dark figure dashed between them, hitting the assembly before anyone else could. Almost immediately the red-robed guards turned onto this new threat, while the Sith had identified the more prominent danger in Luke and Nuron. Both ignited their lightsabers, ready to defend themselves and their friends. The Sith leader gave Nuron a contemptuous glare:

"I should have known that you would follow your master's traitorous ways."

"Then you should have acted earlier and accordingly," she shot back and moved in to engage the Sith Lord.

Watching in dismay Luke let her go ahead while he himself assumed a defensive posture, knowing full well that he was only provoking an attack. And that attack came almost immediately. Two of the Sith warriors slipped around Nuron and the tall, white-haired leader to flank the Jedi Knight. He took a step back, prompting them to follow and anticipated the quick slash from his left, dancing out of the way of the other's blade quickly, moving in a full circle to come to stand at the warrior's right side.

Swinging his own lightsaber around, Luke stabbed at the man, then reversed the weapon's arc halfway to catch his opponent off-guard. But the other man reacted swiftly and countered the blow. Retreating again the young Jedi slid to his left when the second Sith moved in to take advantage of Luke's engagement with his companion. Pivoting again Luke put his first opponent in the path of the second and evaded another attack. He continued circling the two, always playing them off against each other, until both wore their frustration plain on their grim faces.

Luke merely smiled at them. Suddenly the one standing right in front came at him in a lightning-quick move, forcing Luke to retreat. Barely able to block the warrior's powerful thrust the Jedi concentrated on the more immediate threat for a second and a second was all the other Sith needed to somersault over their heads and come in at the Jedi's back. Ducking in the last possible moment Luke threw himself out of the way, hoping secretly that his opponents would be so stupid and skewer each other. A deadly blade slicing through the air in front of his face showed him the error of his assumption. A third Sith had joined the fight.

Pushing himself up Luke lashed out at the new threat with the Force, seeking to batter the man down. Staggering back the Sith shook off the attack and moved in again, while Luke quickly climbed to his feet. The sound of mocking laughter filled his ears as he realized that he was trapped from three sides. Setting his mouth in a grim line Luke held his blade in front of him protectively, knowing full well that he would need all of his skills to get out of this alive.

Anakin came to slowly, tasting blood on his lips. Thank the Force for steel implants, he thought wryly and tried to rise. His head and neck were aching horribly from the impact that would have killed anyone else, except maybe for a droid with a similar reinforced skull. Only gradually did he become aware of the noises around him, screams and curses, the whine of laser bolts and the low hum of lightsabers. "Lie still," a voice growled beside his head and then he felt nimble fingers work the binders around his wrists, setting his hands free again. "Chi'in," he whispered hoarsely, trying to push himself up, but his artificial right arm refused to support him and his left hurt too much. "Stop fussing with me, there is a battle to fight," he admonished the Noghri angrily, his frustration at being unable to move getting the better of him. "I know." Raising his head shakily Anakin fixed him with a cold glare: "Then what are you waiting for?" Backing off Chi'in simply gave him a nod and darted away.

The Dark Lord took a careful look around and noted with some satisfaction that his agents were getting the better of the Sith guards. Jix and Mara were engaging the red-robed warriors in close combat alongside Cronn, the threesome moving swiftly through their tight rows and a contingent of stormtroopers took down anyone who escaped the fray. Stormtroopers? Anakin's eyes widened in incredulous surprise. Maybe he had misjudged Thrawn after all. But then his eyes fell on Nuron, who was valiantly trying to fight off both Sedriss and Roj Kell. Nuron. If she was here then Luke could not be far. Hunting around wildly he spotted his son standing amidst the remaining three Sith Lords with nowhere to go.

Anakin issued a low moan and willed his arms to work. He had to help him! But he needn't have bothered. Chi'in was already on his way, forgoing his lightsaber for using his knifes, much better suited for close combat than the laser-sword. Heaving a sigh of relief, Anakin turned to see Nuron fall back, clearly injured. Roj Kell calmly shut down his blade, while Sedriss moved in for the kill, a gleeful smile on his face. Gathering the Force around himself quickly Anakin struck, stopping Sedriss' advance in midstride. The Sith's expression turned from victorious to utterly astounded as his neck was snapped with a sharp sound that could be heard almost across the whole battle-field.

Roj Kell turned towards Anakin, ignoring both Nuron kneeling before him in pain and the Sith' body tumbling to the ground lifelessly. A satisfied smile spread on his lips as he strode towards the downed Dark Lord, who rose slowly, knowing full well that his current condition and the use of the Force had drained nearly all of his strength. His long, white hair playing in the wind the Sith Lord stopped a few paces from where Anakin stood on swaying legs. They faced each other in silence, blue eyes meeting green ones and both knew that only one of them would survive. And somehow Anakin had the feeling that this one would not be him.

Flicking out his right hand almost contemptuously Roj Kell broke through Anakin's feeble defenses easily. The Dark Lord shook his head violently, as if it were possible to physically break the invisible noose that had been fixed in place around his neck, choking him slowly. Letting his hand fall back to his side Roj Kell took a few steps towards his struggling prisoner, standing him up straighter by raising the unseen Force-rope that held the other man tightly. Black spots began dancing in front of Anakin's eyes when his feet left the ground, leaving him hanging two inches above the black stone. His valiant efforts to bring himself back under control and to keep on fighting where rendered moot by the impossibility of keeping his focus against an utterly exhausted mind and body and the lack of oxygen.

"So persistent, Lord Vader, and so stubborn. Why do you still fight it? You have condemned yourself to die when you first started playing the game."

"Wrong," Anakin gasped, shaking his head slowly.

"Then you truly were hoping to win? Astounding. And preposterous."

"It was, in - the beginning. But I have beaten Palpatine, and - Thrawn. As I will defeat you too, in the end."

"In your fondest dreams, Lord Vader. You will die. It is that simple."

Completely intent on the Dark Lord Roj Kell did not even notice Amidala coming up behind him until it was too late. And when he finally caught on and turned around to face her Anakin struck again, slicing through the Sith Lord's mind with a vengeance at the same time that Amidala brought up her knife, burying it to the handle in Roj Kell's chest. Anakin saw the Sith Lord's body stiffen and fall and for a second he regretted that he had not been able to kill Kell himself. Amidala stared down at the white-haired Sith leader sliding to the ground before her for a long moment. But when she raised her head again the look in her amber eyes was frighteningly cold and for a second Anakin felt his mind freeze in panic. But then his knees hit the ground, clicking his jaw shut.

Kneeling there, fighting to remain conscious, Anakin swayed slightly, but could not stop staring up at her, despite feeling dizzy. She was looming over him now, her face torn between anger and despair, her amber eyes flashing in open pain:

"Now tell me why," she hissed, holding the knife's handle in a death grip. Her hands were shaking.

"I had to. I knew what he was planning and if Palpatine had ever found out you would never have survived."

"Stop!" Padmé yelled at him, then tried to calm herself visibly, "You are telling me that you deliberately used me, used my feelings, to push your foolish little game forward, a game you lost, Anakin." Taking a deep breath she closed her eyes and turned away. "You lost."

"No, you misunderstand, I only wanted to explain. You asked me why and I –"

The knife fell from her hands, its blade clattering on the slick stones. When she spoke again her voice was barely a whisper:

"No more, Anakin. You are only making things worse."

Straightening up Luke could not take his eyes from the two people standing too far to overhear their conversation. But when his mother turned away he knew that something bad had happened. Heaving a tiny sigh he started walking towards them, but someone held him back. Nuron's yellow eyes were, as always, unfathomable, but there was something about her that made Luke stop despite himself.

"Don't go," she asked quietly.

Looking back at his parents Luke saw his father rise with difficulty, nearly stumble over Roj Kell's body and follow his wife slowly. Well, maybe he was not needed there after all. Chi'in moved quietly to stand at Nuron's side, touching her right arm where Kell's blade had cut through. "You fought well," he said softly, with fatherly pride and she smiled down at him, nodding slowly: "Thank you."

"Hey, kid, you alright?" Wrenga Jixton did look the worst for wear, his face and arms decorated with cuts and bruises, but then, Mara did not look any better. She was sitting on the ground at his side, breathing hard.

"Yes, I am okay. You two did very well."

"Well, we had some help," the Corellian admitted quietly.

Luke turned his head to follow Jix' gaze. Not far away Nuron had joined Chi'in at Cronn's side. The Falleen was beyond help, the young Jedi knew, and it would not do to disturb his friends' mourning at this time.

"What are we going to do now?" Mara asked finally, her eyes haunted.

She had been through a lot over the past few months. Luke did not envy her, not at all. Sighing deeply he bent down to pick up his lightsaber:

"Maybe we should just go home."

"Padmé," Anakin called softly, close to tears.

To his great relief she stopped, but did not face him again.

"I know what has happened to you. And I know that there is a way for you to overcome it. I found it. And you always were the stronger of the two of us, you can do this too. You must find your inner strength again, regain your balance. I beg you, Padmé." Pausing to catch his breath Anakin fought down a wave of sudden nausea, "Please."

Still, there was no answer. He could see her hugging her arms around her slim body, shoulders shaking. She was crying. And before he knew it tears were flowing down his cheeks too.

"Please," he whispered, "Come back to me."

When she whirled around her eyes were even darker than the sky over Korriban. Two long strides brought them face to face and when she reached up as if to touch his face Anakin flinched back instinctively from the anger and hatred emanating from her very soul. Her lips parted slightly and for a second he thought that she might say something, and his mind leapt forward hungrily to hear any words out of her mouth: an accusation, her forgiveness, anything. But they never came. Instead he felt despair flood her mind and a tiny gasp broke the spell and then she turned again to walk away. Away from him.

Stunned he watched her go. Finally he lowered himself down to sit on his haunches, completely exhausted, his mind tumbling. The sound of boots crunching over the stones behind him caught his attention. But he did not look around.

"Maybe I could talk to her," Luke offered.

Anakin shook his head slowly: "If I cannot bring her back, noone can."

Much later, back aboard the Relentless, Luke sat by his father's side, watching him. "You need some food," he suggested finally, not bothering to hide his concern anymore. Looking at him out of dead eyes Anakin snorted weakly. "Then drink something at least!" His father shook his bandaged head with determination. His face had turned an ashen gray and Luke understood that he was far too exhausted to do anything. "Do you want me to help you with a healing trance?" Again a negative. Luke sighed.

Finally making up his mind he stood and left, only to return a few minutes later holding a cup in his hands. Anakin wrinkled his nose in disgust at the strong smell wafting over to him.

"What is that?" he demanded.

"Something to help you sleep." Their eyes locked in silence. "Come on, Father, you cannot resist me now," Luke told him good-naturedly and held the cup to the other's dry lips.

With a tiny sigh Anakin gave in and took one long sip before settling back on his bunk. Luke frowned a bit, but did not protest although he was quite certain that so small a quantity of the sedative would not really work. When he could feel sleep slowly overcome his father's mind though, he rose again, smiling in satisfaction.

Turning around he saw Nuron leaning in the doorway. "Have you been able to get some rest?" he asked her quietly and left the cabin, prompting her to follow him into the hallway.

She snorted softly and shook her head: "We need to talk. And I am quite sure that noone will be able to sleep tonight. Except for him." Luke shot her a questioning glance:

"Talk? What about?"

She shrugged: "A lot of things, I guess."

"Small talk?"

Nuron laughed: "Maybe."

She had finally fallen asleep. Resting his chin lightly on the top of her head Jix could feel Mara relax in his arms. Her hair was brushing against his neck softly and he hugged her closer, very gently, as to not wake her up again. They had talked for hours, about what had happened back on board the Relentless, about the Dark Lord mostly. And about hurt. Although he was not Force-sensitive in any way Jix had been able to feel her pain as if it were his own and he was bearing with her even now. She had been thrown from one emotional chaos into the other, never knowing who to trust and where she belonged. Her world had been shattered and in its place a darker place had grown. And now Jix was seeking to get her back into the light. He knew that it would take time not only to heal her physical wounds. Sighing deeply he leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. In a way he was better off because he was not only older but also more experienced in the ways of the game. He had worked for Vader long enough, after all. Mara was strong, he knew, but her strength had been tried harshly during the past months. Despite everything though Jix knew that she had come out of the fire even stronger. They all had, in a way.

A soft knock at the door brought his attention back to the present and as he gently dislodged himself from Mara he quietly wondered who would be calling this late at night. Walking over to the door cautiously he rubbed a hand through his long hair, shaking his head a bit muzzily. Waving the nightly visitor in he offered him a chair. The Dark Lord was looking at Mara thoughtfully, but he did not move to take the seat or speak. Finally Jix decided to break the silence:

"It would be just like you to scare everyone like this and then recover within a few hours just to annoy us," he told Vader pleasantly, but his comment apparently went right over the other's head. "Any reason why you came?" he asked when he still got no reply.

"I could not sleep and I wanted to talk to you."

"Talk. Right. Go ahead."

The Dark Lord sighed and dropped into the previously offered chair heavily, gaining himself a reproachful look from his agent:

"I was thinking about what to say all the way here and now I find that there is nothing that would be sufficient to express what I want to tell you."

"How about 'thank you'?"

"Jix. You know what I mean. I have been - selfish - and I did not care what any of you thought or felt. That was wrong. All of you were hurt in some way and had I really been who I thought I was I would never have let it come to that."

"Now you listen here–"

"No, Jix. It is true. There was a lot to learn for me."

"And did you?"

"I think so, yes." His head came up and Jix almost flinched at the look in his eyes. "What about you, Jix? What did you find?"

He glanced over at Mara and found her awake. Her emerald gaze was fixed on the Dark Lord and for a moment he did not dare to disturb that picture. But then Mara rose slowly and he could see tears in her eyes. Jix almost went over to wrap her in his arms again, but something told him that he should stay out of this.

"Who taught you to play this game so cruelly?" she asked finally, her voice barely audible.

"Your master, Mara," Vader replied and Jix wanted to kick him for his unfeeling answer.

But she did seem to take it rather well. Hugging a pillow to her chest she met the other's cool gaze defiantly. For a while none of them said a word. But in the end the Dark Lord rose with a sigh and went towards the door. He threw one last glance back at Mara and smiled:

"Back on Hoth I told you that you were the best for the job of defeating me. Do you know why? Because I was looking to you for an example. I felt the same way you did. I had no place where I truly belonged. And you showed me strength I thought I never possessed. I want to thank you for that, Mara. Sincerely. And for keeping your head in the presence of a Grand Admiral. Not many people are that confident. Except for Jix maybe."

And then he was gone.

Chi'in was standing alone in the lower conference room and planets were whirling around his head in a never-changing dance. He seemed transfixed by the sight, but not so much that he did not sense the presence approaching him. Turning around he calmly looked up at Anakin and smiled.

"What are you doing?"

"Nothing, really," the Noghri replied with a shrug.

"Nothing? You doing nothing? Truly astounding."

"And what are you doing up and about? You should be resting."

"Making amends, I guess. I underestimated you badly, Chi'in. But with everything that was going on I did not even think about that possibility. You never liked the game and you told me once that you may be a hunter but that there is more honor in the chase than in cowardly trapping the prey."

"But I always listened to your teachings, my friend. And when I saw that you would trap yourself I gave you a way out."

"Thank you for taking care of Amidala."

Chi'in shook his head gravely: "It was nothing. She too was caught in her own web of pride and vengeance, like you had been. You are so much alike, do you know that? Try not to lose her again, Anakin."

"Don't you worry about that."

"Have you talked to her since–"

"No. I wanted to take care of other things first."

"You are afraid of her rejecting you again?"

"Yes. I guess."

"Then let her come to you. She will in the end, I am sure."

Anakin smiled down at him, feeling relief pouring into his heart to fill it to bursting. Nodding at the Noghri he left and made his way towards the bridge slowly. It had been a long battle, and even though he had misjudged the whole purpose of the exercise he was quite satisfied with the results. Except, that was, for Padmé. He had asked Luke for advice too, but the boy had been reluctant to answer. Luke probably thought along the same lines Chi'in did. And maybe they were right. He had told her all that he could and now she had to make the next step.

Tomas Piett was watching the minutes click by. Not much longer until they would leave for Coruscant. He was well aware of the Grand Admiral sitting quietly in the command chair, his glowing eyes staring pensively into the distance. And he was also aware of the uncomfortable silence and the tension filling the bridge. Only a few officers were present and they did not need more for the jump into hyperspace. When suddenly he could hear them retreat from the bridge, he turned around curiously. His eyes widened in surprise when he saw the Dark Lord standing there. Apparently he had recovered faster than anyone had expected. Piett gave the tall warlord a quick smile and then left the bridge too.

"It seems that I owe you an apology," Thrawn said smoothly without looking around.

"An apology?" Anakin asked and watched the planet fall away underneath. The rainstorms over Korriban were raging on, but he had found some peace at last.

"For letting you down."

"I understand. You were worried."

"That is truly no excuse, Lord Vader, for breaking my word."

"It is not? I would have thought that your desire to protect your people would be quite acceptable and I was prepared for it."

"And yet you lost."

"Did I?"

The Grand Admiral's low laugh echoed throughout the empty bridge eerily: "You have not changed one bit, Lord Vader. Not at all. And I wonder how long it will take them to find out."

"I think you are mistaken there. I never did change in the first place, I just lost my way for a time. That, I think, will be the hardest part for them to accept."

"Do you think that they will let us live at all?"

"Afraid?"

"No. I am just curious how you think about that."

"I know what you mean. But our choices were valid at the time we made them and they have to honor that. Despite politics and everything."

"I am tired, Lord Vader. And I wish to return to my people as soon as possible."

"We will not keep you."

"Indeed. How gracious," Thrawn replied sarcastically, then, more seriously, continued: "It will be dangerous."

"But you will manage."

"Yes, probably. Still, if you – Well. We can always use someone of your skills with us."

"Thank you. For your confidence in my abilities. It was a pleasure working with you."

"Was it? Somehow I believe that what you say is not necessarily what you mean."

"I mean it."

The arrival of the bridge crew interrupted them and suddenly everything seemed back to normal again. They were peacefully approaching their jump-point and the Grand Admiral was in command. It would take them a few days until they reached Coruscant and Anakin used the sudden commotion on the bridge to slip away into his quarters. Contrary to what Luke might believe he had not slept at all. He had not wanted to. There was too much to think of, to reconsider. Now though he could feel that if he did not take some rest he would break down again sooner or later. And that would just not do when he finally had to face the Alliance and newly elected government again. Sighing deeply he dropped onto his bunk and rolled over on his back, staring up at the ceiling.

Amidala stood very quietly. She had been waiting there in the shadows for some time, undecided. But finally she made up her mind. Cautiously stepping into the small cabin she held her breath, trying to not disturb the man seemingly lying asleep on the single bunk. But even her own heartbeat seemed too loud in her ears.

"Padmé?" he whispered, startling her. For a moment she stood rooted in place, torn between leaving again and throwing her arms around his neck. He pushed himself up on his elbows. She did not move, simply stared at him, transfixed.

"Padmé," he began again, almost timidly, "do you remember what I told you back on Korriban?"

She nodded.

Anakin gave her a tiny smile:

"You are that to me, Padmé. My strength, my power, all that I have, and I need you now more than ever before. And that is the simple truth."

When she stepped up to him Amidala reached out slowly to trace the length of his jaw until her fingers rested lightly against his cheek. She sighed deeply, shaking her head in dismay.

"Anakin," she whispered softly, her anguish too much to bear alone.

Very suddenly silent tears began flowing from his eyes, over his face, covering his scarred cheeks with a wet tattoo. It was, in a way, quite shocking. She had seen him stand his ground today, as he had many times before, always in control and willing to risk everything. That man had been a stranger to her. Now though, as he sat there, bereft of all his strength and energy, she remembered him as he had been before he became a warrior. And, knowing all that she did now, she pitied Anakin for his losses and sacrifices that had robbed him of his innocence.

Still, there was no way he could go back. He had willingly made that choice when he took up the fight against Palpatine. Why did you have to play the game? She shook her head sadly, knowing full well that for Anakin his actions still seemed valid. Even if he had hurt her with them. And that was something she could not forgive. That he had not trusted her with his feelings and with his plan. To be shut out like that, even if he had sought to protect her, was an insult to both her vows to him and her duties to her people. "You always were the stronger of the two of us", he had told her just a few hours ago. And yet he had not been able to let her carry part of his burden. Who did he think he was?

Frowning at him Amidala let her anger seep into the silence permeating the cabin, let it fill her mind to bursting until it evaporated into nothingness in the face of what she truly felt. He needed her. He loved her. And she - . Looking deep into his eyes Amidala found that she could walk those blue glaciers forever without ever tiring of the sight, that there was no end to their depths. And indeed. He was so much more than met the eye. Making up her mind she sat down on the edge of the bunk, and when he reached out to touch her hand wordlessly she could feel the last barriers crumble. Leaning over against his shoulder she curled up next to him and simply closed her eyes. After a while she felt his left hand stroke ever so gently over her cheek, brushing away a few loose strands of hair softly.

Anakin was smiling down at the small, beautiful woman cradled in his arms, unable to speak, his mind filled with a happiness that allowed for nothing else. Just looking at her, his eyes tracing the soft curves of her profile, he felt as if there was nothing he would ever need again. Only her. And to think that he had risked her so boldly, her love, her trust, everything. He sighed deeply. So much had happened and yet... And then he fell asleep. Just like that.

"When you know yourself and others, victory is not in danger;

when you know sky and earth, victory is inexhaustible."

From The Art of War

Epilogue

Five days later.

Leia had held tightly onto Han's arm, almost dizzy with joy and anticipation as they watched the shuttle land on one of the high priority landing pads of the Imperial Palace. Chewbacca was looming behind his friend protectively, but Leia knew that they really had nothing to fear. Of course they were not the only ones waiting. A little apart Mon Mothma stood with her advisors, surrounded by a contingent of Alliance guards. Finally the landing ramp lowered, too slowly for the Princess' taste and then they were there. The first to ascend the ramp was a tall, blue-skinned alien with glowing red eyes whom she knew had to be Grand Admiral Thrawn. He was accompanied by Admiral Piett and followed by Wrenga Jixton and Mara Jade.

Leia threw the Corellian agent a quick smile before she dislodged herself from Han to greet the Grand Admiral. She was careful to arrive a little behind Mon Mothma, honoring the other woman's authority, which the Alliance leader requited with a small nod and a smile.

"Grand Admiral, welcome to Coruscant. Again. There is much we would discuss as I am sure you understand," Mon Mothma said gravely and extended an arm towards the guards, indicating very subtly that he might be welcome, but still a prisoner. Leia froze. What would Thrawn do? His glowing eyes did not allow for any interpretation and he was careful to keep his face blank. Oh he was good, the Princess had to admit.

"A most gracious offer, Mon Mothma," he replied smoothly and walked over to the guards unhurriedly, but Admiral Piett was following him. The Alliance leader gave him a bewildered look:

"Admiral, what is the meaning of this?"

He turned to face her smartly and gave her a small bow: "With your permission, since it is clear that you are going to punish your allies for their past crimes I thought it best to forestall any order on your part."

She stared at him, but her expression turned very grim indeed.

"It is your choice Admiral," she answered finally.

Leia could not suppress a smile. They could not really hold Thrawn in custody for long and the same went for Piett. But apparently those two were just as stubborn and proud as her father. Then the last of the shuttle's passengers had exited the ship and stood waiting a little apart. Luke was wearing a faint smile on his lips and he had an arm wrapped around Nuron's waist which she seemed to try hard to ignore, apparently unwilling to show any weakness. Leia walked over to them and hugged her brother fiercely before giving the Zabrak warrior a nod, not wanting to embarrass her. Finally she turned towards the last three of the group. The short alien was a stranger to her, but the calmness she felt from him put her at ease instantly. At his side her father stood as straight and composed as ever, but there was a look in his eyes that she had not seen there before: he seemed to be fairly beaming with joy. At the very last Leia's eyes sought the gaze of the petite woman at his side. She recognized her mother instantly and for a moment her breath caught in her throat. She could feel tears gathering in her eyes and rushed over on impulse to embrace the woman she had missed for so long. Amidala was stroking her head, pressing her cheek against hers and Leia could feel her mother's tears mingle with her own.

"Oh, Leia," the queen whispered and tiny sobs escaped her lips raggedly. "I have missed you so much. Both of you. Your brother has grown so much, and you have too. Not my little babies anymore at all." She took small a step back, holding her daughter at arm's length, her face flushed red, embarrassed: "Listen to me. I am babbling like a teenager. But it is too good to see you again. I love you," she added in a hushed whisper and then she was crying openly, unable to hold back the long years of separation. Anakin wrapped her in his arms gently, pressing her close to his chest. She tentatively put her arms around his waist, hugging him back and blushed even more, remembering how she had fallen asleep at his side, with his left hand still stroking her face, his blue eyes full of light and warmth.

They had not talked then as there had been no need for words at all. Just to feel him close again and to feel his love had burned away her anger. Only much later they had shared their stories and Amidala had nearly been crushed by how she had been manipulated by Roj Kell. How he had fed her fears and her hatred. But Anakin too had cried when he had told her how he had betrayed the Jedi and failed to protect them, himself being the instrument of their destruction. To be so close again had cost them both and they had felt the barriers fall away, felt protective shields and walls vanish in the face of what they shared. Their children. Their love. They had vowed to never leave the other again. Ever.

Anakin was still holding on to Padmé when Mon Mothma came towards them, a confused look on her face as she eyed the queen doubtfully. But he stood there proudly, daring her to take his love away from him again. She did not know, of course, but when she finally found out the truth... Well. He would let noone get in his way.

"Lord Vader?" Anakin could feel Padmé flinch in his arms. "I would ask you to join us too. Introductions would be welcome," she added more warmly and Anakin nodded:

"This is Amidala Padmé Naberrie of Naboo. My wife."

The Alliance leader took a moment to draw the right connections, but then her face turned white in shock: "What? She is... But the queen of Naboo was married to Anakin Skywalker. Are you saying..." She paused, took a deep breath and suddenly her eyes were very cold indeed: "We are even, your lordship. I told you that you would pay and although I am well aware of what you did for us, we did return the favor."

"By saving my life. I know. And I accept."

"Anakin," Padmé started to protest, but he hushed her gently with a smile.

"I made a promise to you. And I will keep it," he told her softly, ignoring Mon Mothma's glare.

Padmé smiled up at him, shook her head and sighed:

"I love you. And I know what you are doing is right."

The conference room was crowded with guards and minor functionaries, but all eyes were on the three people seated at the far end of the table. Mon Mothma was sitting between the Grand Admiral and the Dark Lord, and even though she tried to hide it Anakin could feel that she was nervous. He risked a glance over to where Padmé had found her place next to the twins and gave her a reassuring smile. At his side Mon Mothma shrugged uncomfortably:

"Fact is, Lord - Skywalker, that I would do almost everything to have you pay for your crimes. You know that, I think. Alas, we owe you too much for that and there are a few additional problems: we are in the middle of forming a new government and reforms have to take place throughout the whole bureaucratic structure. Including the judicial system, naturally. Therefore, even if we were to try you, we could not do so just yet. Nevertheless I want the public to know what has occurred and I want them to decide your fate. Do you have any objections to that course of action so far?"

"A public hearing? Is that what you are suggesting?"

"Yes."

"And then?"

"That depends on the people."

It was the first day of the hearing and public interest was, not surprisingly, very high. Coruscant was overrun by tourists who at least wanted to be able to say that they had been there, even if only onplanet. As Leia was impatiently pacing her quarters, waiting for Luke to finish his little talk with Father, Han was standing at the viewport, frowning:

"Quite a crowd down there," he commented softly.

"Don't tell me. The Senate Chamber would be bursting out of its seams if it had any."

"What are those two talking about anyway?"

"I do not know. But I guess Luke is asking him not to be too cruel," she added with a smile.

"Probably. Who is going to serve as witnesses? Apart from us?"

"The obvious choices: Piett, Needa, maybe Chi'in. I think Mon Mothma is too afraid of Nuron. And Jix, of course. I am sure that they have found some more to speak against him. But the way I judge his course of action they won't be necessary at all."

"Too afraid of Nuron? She doesn't know Chi'in at all!" Han exclaimed, remembering what Luke had told him of the battle on Korriban. Leia smiled coolly:

"Yes. A fatal mistake, don't you think?"

"This hearing will break her neck."

"She won't let it get that far, I am sure. Additionally Luke is bringing in a small surprise."

"What kind of surprise?"

"Can't you guess?"

They sat quietly, the Jedi Master and the Knight, teacher and warrior. Both kept their silence, pondering what to say, laying out their arguments carefully. Finally the ancient one heaved a sigh and shook his head:

"Proven your point you believe you have, do you?" he asked slowly and the tall man tailor-seated across from him frowned. When he answered his tone was as grave as the master's.

"In essence. I know I have failed, but it is true: a guardian manages the problem before it appears. The Council never understood that and it was their undoing in the end. You should have acted on Palpatine much earlier," he added with a slight edge in his voice.

"Bitter you are still, and angry."

"Not bitter. Not angry. But maybe upset a bit by your stubbornness, Master."

"Maybe?"

"It depends, doesn't it, on whether I can convince you or not. Hear me then: I do not mean that we should manipulate anyone to be able to act upon it, by no means. But by manipulation we can manage problems that would otherwise grow into disaster."

"Threats you speak of, lies even. Our place it is not to interfere."

"But to move with the flow and to keep the boat from coming to harm in the wild currents. Nudge it here a bit and it will sail into a safe haven. And there will be no need to throw the anchor."

A tiny smile appeared on Master Yoda's face: "Wisdom you have attained, it would seem, but coldness too. Tell me then, your mistake, what was it?"

"I relied on myself only. And I failed to unite my troops. But there was no way to gain your trust. You had deemed me dangerous already, from the very beginning. Why?"

Closing his eyes for a moment Yoda remained silent at first. Finally he had seemed to come to a conclusion, though:

"Dangerous you were, and proved it. Impatient, angry, and soft. Still a danger you are, even more so, but different are the reasons. Judge you they will by their standards. Afraid I am for them, not you." He smiled at that, opening his moss-green eyes again. "Danger, Anakin, is not what the warrior seeks."

"I know."

"Fear is their ally."

"And I will turn it against them."

As Leia had expected, the Senate Chamber was alive with thousands of people and she could here the newsdroids jabber away in the din. Sitting next to Han in the rows reserved for the witnesses Leia sought Luke's gaze. He seemed pensive, but not tense. Finally the committee entered and the noise of the crowd rose to a deafening chorus. It was nothing compared to what greeted the defendant though. Well, strictly speaking he was not on trial, of course, but the media treated this hearing like one anyway, and Leia knew that it would be seen as such by most of the public too. Why he had ever agreed to something like this she could not fathom.

He strode into the Senate as if entering a battlefield. Once more Leia admired the predatory grace with which he moved, his easy gait and the confidence his whole body conveyed. When he was halfway through the aisle all sound had ceased and an expectant silence had settled over the huge assembly. Taking his place in the stand he gave the committee a cold smile.

"For the record, please state your name," Mon Mothma asked gravely.

"I am Anakin Skywalker, Jedi Knight."

Of course Mothma had expected this, but the crowd was completely taken by surprise and it took the wardens fifteen minutes to calm them down again.

"Jedi Skywalker, this hearing was initiated to discuss your actions under a different name. That of the Dark Lord Darth Vader. Is that true?"

"Partly. If I may, this hearing is in the very first place supposed to give the public an insight into the events that led to the rise of the Empire and ultimately to its end."

"Very well. Then let us begin."

What followed was a gruesome, detailed report of the Jedi Purge, clearly what Mothma would prominently use against him, the various examples that had been made of different worlds, the last of all Alderaan. Leia felt her throat tighten at the thought of what she had lost there, her step-parents, the people she grew up thinking of as her parents. But they were alive, they were here. And although she knew it would take time she also knew that both were willing to make up with the adults they had not been able to care for when they had been children. Anakin had not taken a seat throughout the litany of his crimes and Leia knew very well that he had done so unconsciously, not as a show of strength. Then maybe, he had. When he answered his voice rang strong and clear throughout the chamber, reaching out to everyone:

"I must thank you for so thorough an analysis. This has explained much of the events,

but unfortunately not the motivation. To truly understand those actions one has to go deeper than that."

Leia listened to him elaborate on the beginning of the game and she felt her hands tremble when he explained the misunderstandings between the Jedi Council and himself, the trap his opponent had laid out for him and how he had had no choice but to learn to play by Palpatine's rules. He did not excuse his actions in any way and always emphasized that he should have been more critical, that he should have seen every aspect. Which truly seemed an impossible feat and by laying it open so clearly he was drawing the audience on his side, and many of the judges, Leia was sure of that. But then. His voice nearly broke when he spoke of the dark times, the Jedi Purge. Again he made no excuses.

"There is no way to justify what I did then, even in the light of what has gone before," he said softly and his daughter felt her heart ache, and caught an echoing response from Luke. The twins shared a glance and she could see her own sadness mirrored in Luke's blue gaze.

As Anakin went on to explain his initial plan to defeat first Palpatine and then Thrawn and the Sith, the first witnesses appeared. Not unexpectedly Piett, Needa and Jix were treating the Dark Lord's actions fairly, leaving nothing out. No threat, no punishment, no success and no victory. Leia could hear the rising murmurs of the crowd and smiled a bit. The complexity of the plan was truly quite impressive, if not to say awe-inspiring. She could hear a few disbelieving laughters and her smile deepened.

Finally it was Chi'in's turn to answer the court's questions and a hushed silence fell over the assembly when he was introduced as Sith Lord. He took that title without protest at first, but as he described the Dark Lord's teachings and the subtle manipulations he had insinuated into the lessons he not only made it clear that Anakin Skywalker had not forgotten his own training, but also brought out a more humane side of the warlord. But still, in the end, even after her own testimony and Luke's, Leia knew that the Jedi Purge and the destruction of Alderaan that he had not prevented were still foremost in their minds. Everything else they had to grudgingly accept as the actions of a warrior in a time of war.

"Jedi Skywalker, your crimes demand a heavy sentence and there is in fact only one. We cannot risk you to take matters into your own hands again and the evidence all points towards the fact that no restrictions would prevent you from doing so if you deemed it necessary."

Leia saw her father smile at that, before he answered:

"Of course, the simplest solution would be to execute me. But also the most foolish one."

"Foolish? In what way?"

He gazed at them for a long time, his icy eyes unblinking. When he replied his voice seemed too low to hear at first, but in the deadly silence of the room his half-whispered words reached everyone:

"If you kill me, you have condemned yourself to kill everyone like me. You would kill my children for fear of losing control. You would be no better than Palpatine. No better than myself. Can you justify that? Do you truly think you can minimize your risks by eliminating the obvious root of your problem which you believe to be me? For there are more like us, more will be born each year, each decade. Will you kill them for my crimes too?"

"You yourself stated that a problem should be solved before it can grow into a disaster. Is that not so?"

"Indeed. That is very true. Do not misunderstand me. I do not seek to avoid punishment. I want you to realize that you have not understood at all. Even if you do not act in the future as I have described it, you have spawned fear in the minds of the people already. They will not be able to trust those who seek to shield them from harm. And trust is the one thing you need to rule wisely."

"This is not a Senate discussion," Mon Mothma admonished him harshly.

"I know that. And I understand your motivation, but you have defeated the whole purpose by trying to turn this into justice. I have told you in the very beginning that this would be nothing but revenge."

"What is the difference here then?"

"Justice would be to have me understand the pain of the victims, to understand the grief of those left behind, to suffer with them. To die a million times over and more, to experience the horror my victims felt. My death cannot bring them back though, and you know it. Revenge, on the other hand, would be to have me executed for the sake of an example to others. So that the people understand that the war is over and the monster defeated. It is politics."

Mon Mothma shrugged helplessly: "It is the law."

"Which is made by politicians."

"There have to be rules."

"No. There has to be justice."

"I am not sure I understand," she said, her voice brittle, and the angry frown on her face spoke volumes.

"There is no need. As I said, I cannot make undone what I did. But I can make sure it does not happen again."

"How?"

"There is no solution satisfactory provided by what you interpret as justice and I think of as revenge."

"Then what is the answer?"

"A compromise."

It was three days later and Amidala was just about to push open the door leading into the living-room of the small apartment she and her husband had been given upon their arrival on Coruscant. But she hesitated for a second when she thought she heard voices. Although she knew that there was noone else supposed to be here. She frowned a bit, torn between the desire of hearing the words spoken and honoring Anakin's privacy. Finally she decided to wait until they had finished the discussion.

"That was a dangerous gamble."

"You know what I think about that, Obi-Wan."

"Indeed I do. But you made them look bad by uncovering their true intentions."

"Then they will have to regain the trust of the people. And that too will have to be solved in time. And the only way to heal those wounds is to have the Jedi rise again. Master Yoda agrees that I made the right choice, even though he has a hard time accepting it."

"I still cannot believe that you managed to convince them to let you live."

"They had no choice. In the long run they would have risked their credibility. My death would not have prevented evil from happening again. Besides, the public discussions all went in my favor."

"You know how to play the masses," his friend admonished him gently.

Anakin laughed: "I believe they were just impressed." Sobering again he shook his head, sighing. "Mon Mothma knows that it would have been unwise to get rid of me. Just as it would have been unwise to not let Thrawn go again. Who knows? Maybe I have plotted her downfall too," he added slyly.

"Have you?" Obi-Wan asked, smiling.

"It does not matter. Fact is, that I can deal with problems they do not even see. And that is why they need the Jedi. As guardians of the peace."

"Which should be the major task of the government, don't you think?"

"No. The government has to make it so that the guardians are not necessary by benefiting the people so they have no needs. You and I both know that evil is not born out of need. Evil is selfishness and a lust for power. Which is why the insight we gain through the Force makes identifying evil easier for us than it would be for the government."

"You are slanting the facts in your favor, Anakin."

"But you know I am right."

Obi-Wan sighed: "Of course I know. And I am happy for you. But the task ahead is so much more complex and difficult than anything you have done before."

"True. But this time I will not be alone."

Luke had his arms wrapped around Nuron's shoulders, resting his chin next to her neck, feeling the warm skin of her face against his left cheek. He could hear her breathe evenly and feel her heart beat through her ribs against his chest. They stood on the balcony and both were looking up into the sky. But the myriads of lights emanating from the city center made it impossible to see the stars. Which explained why both of them had a certain longing in their eyes.

"We should be happy," she said suddenly.

"Happy? Why?"

"We are together, you and I, and we both have found a path we can follow without regrets."

"Then you do not object to being a Jedi?"

"I always was, I think." She paused and he could almost see her smile although she was facing the other way. Her amusement though was palpable through the Force. "Well, maybe not always. But I can learn. And you will teach me."

It was late at night and the small apartment was flooded with darkness. Tailor-seated on the floor of the living-room Anakin Skywalker had his eyes closed, concentrating deeply. He could hear Padmé's regular breathing, her stirring in her sleep, could feel the peace she felt. Anakin held on to that feeling a little longer, smiling in satisfaction. He had won her back, heart and soul. The game was over and the battle fought. There was no need for pretense anymore, one way or the other. Throughout the past years he had gone through the fire, learned lesson after lesson and passed the trials in the end. He had accomplished everything he had wanted to, proven everything that needed proving and now there was nothing left that could disturb his peace.

From the beginning he had set himself high goals and a hard course to follow because he knew that he was vulnerable, knew his weaknesses. And playing the game had been the one chance to eliminate the flaws that would have hampered him otherwise. It had, admittedly, been a very high prize to pay, but what he had gained in exchange was more than he had hoped for even in his wildest dreams. Knowledge so deep that it opened his mind to infinity.

There was no past and no future, only the present, only what he made of it. Smiling a bit he opened his eyes and looked out into the night and beyond. Into the void his whispered words echoed away unheard, but the truth of them touched the very souls of those who would be guardians one day:

"By deep knowledge of principle, one can change disturbance into order, change danger into safety, change destruction into survival, change calamity into fortune. There is no end to Life, no end to Death. Let there be balance of the Force and you will find peace. And in the light of the Force evil will vanish like mist in the sun." Rising slowly from his seat he let the torrent raging through him like an icy fire fade away. Knowledge was the key and the results ultimately balance and peace. Forever.

The End

Comments:

This story was greatly inspired by the war manual The Art of War by Sun Tzu and The Six Secret Teachings on the Way of Strategy, a compilation of the strategic advice and tactical instructions by the general T'ai Kung (a honorific title).

What is so remarkable about these books is that they do not promote war. War and battle are seen as last resorts while a functioning and benign government is deemed the true basis for peace and stability. Therefore Sun Tzu describes the perfect battle-leader as very defensive in the following way: "A general must see alone, meaning that he must see what others do not see and know what others do not know. Seeing what others do not see is called brilliance, knowing what others do not know is called genius. Brilliant geniuses win first, meaning that they defend in such a way as to be unassailable and attack in such a way as to be irresistible." (The Art of War, p. 7)

In the story we have actually four such battle-leaders, Darth Vader, Grand Admiral Thrawn, Roj Kell and Chi'in.

All of them have their different views on how things should be done, but they share common traits too. While Chi'in is the only one who refrains from using manipulations, he has perhaps the greatest insight into the happenings, as he proves in the end. Contrary to the other three he has mastered the affairs of the heart. The Sith Lord Roj Kell is a master of manipulation, but his vision is blinded by his dreams of glory for the Sith. Although he has mastered strength and energy to the point of rendering his opponent powerless without doing anything that would weaken himself, he has not understood that this battle is not meant to serve his own ends. No war should. Of course, that is a very naive view and reality teaches us that wars are fought for various reasons and that they seldom, if ever, benefit the people in the way Sun Tzu's Art of War teaches the warrior.

The major players in the game are both accomplished strategists and both have mastered the principle of what Sun Tzu refers to as 'brilliant genius'. By manipulating his opponents, for example, Darth Vader knows exactly what they are going to do and can plan accordingly without ever revealing his true intentions. But, and that is a great but indeed, he is overlooking one essential factor. Sun Tzu defines great leadership by the traditional Confucian and medieval Taoist virtues of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage and sternness. While the Dark Lord is certainly intelligent, courageous and stern he is in no way trustworthy or humane, at least not in the common sense. And although ruthlessness too is part of a warlord's wisdom it puts him at a disadvantage concerningThrawn. The Grand Admiral is a classical leader, contrary to Vader. He cares for his troops and he does respect his role as a tool, a weapon for the government. While Vader answers to a higher calling, he ignores reality if it suits him or uses it for his own ends. That is the greatest difference between them and the reason why the Dark Lord fails in the end, even though he has defeated the Grand Admiral.

As the T'ai Kung stated elaborately: "Do not assume that the Three Armies are large and treat the enemy lightly. Do not commit yourself to die just because you have received a heavy responsibility. Do not, because you are honored, regard other men as lowly. Do not rely upon yourself alone and contravene the masses." (In The Six Secret Teachings, p. 99)

Did I forget someone? Actually I did. Princess Leia, although certainly inspired by her father's teachings, retains her very own personality and it becomes readily apparent that she is a diplomat rather than a strategist when she chooses the civil offensive over the military offensive and achieves victory without fighting, which is the essence of The Art of War.

As you can see, strategy is a very interesting field of study and I invite anyone who enjoyed this story as much as I enjoyed writing it to discuss that subject further.

Djuva

Djuva@yahoo.com

Dying ground:

"Where you will survive only if you fight quickly and perish if you do not, this is called dying ground." (Sun Tzu in The Art of War, p. 150)

Sun Tzu distinguishes nine grounds: ground of dissolution, light ground, ground of contention, trafficked ground, intersecting ground, heavy ground, bad ground, surrounded ground and dying ground. There are different strategies for all of them, and Sun Tzu summarizes them in the following excerpt:"[...] let there be no battle on ground of dissolution, let there be no stopping on light ground, let there be no attack on ground of contention, let there be no cutting off of trafficked ground. On intersecting ground form communications, on heavy ground plunder, on bad ground keep going, on surrounded ground make plans, on dying ground fight." (In The Art of War, p. 150f) Of course these definitions are very abstract and can also be applied to a more psychological plane.

That is actually the difference between The Art of War and The Six Secret Teachings: while Sun Tzu describes the matters of warfare more abstract, the T'ai Kung's advice is always a direct answer to a practical question.

Mastery:

Sun Tzu teaches four kinds of mastery essential to the warrior: mastery of adaption, mastery of energy, mastery of strength, mastery of the heart.

Literature:

Thomas Cleary: Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Shambala Publications Inc. , Boston, 1988

Ralph D. Sawyer: The Six Secret Teachings on the Way of Strategy, Shambala Publications Inc. Boston, 1997