The Smart One
by FernWithy

When I was a child, I challenged my teacher to tell me why the graceful spires built by the gamuna birds on Naboo were not art. "Art," he told me, "is never accidental, never a byproduct of more useful projects. Art is created by the intention to create it. There may be beauty in the products of the beasts, but it is not intended. Without sentience, there can be no art." I accepted this as I grew up, and living in the pragmatic and utilitarian galaxy we've been given, I have discovered an even more disturbing truth: Sentience is not inevitable, nor is it permanent. Sentience is a matter of meaning to create. There may be intelligence in our current designs, and there may be some minor truth, but it is meaningless. Without art, there can be no sentience.
--Palo Torezi
From Eulogy for the Arts

"He is an important collector, Palo," Ganfré said for the fifth time, her voice weary, two repetitions past irritation. In the shadows of the studio, her face retained only its sharpest lines, but they were harshly beautiful in the glow of the light painting that Palo was working on. She had been pretty as a young woman, but as she aged, Palo thought she was becoming extraordinary--even when she was annoyed with him. Maybe especially then. She noticed his glance and frowned. "He is particularly fond of Naboo art. His is the largest private collection of Naboo art in the Empire. It is larger than all the public collections outside of Theed. It's an honor that he wants you to bring your work to him to include it."

"Horde it, you mean." Palo daubed a few pixels of blood red into the painting. It was far from traditional Naboo art, and he was close to deciding that he didn't care enough about it to continue. "His personal collection is locked away. No one will see it."

"What is it to you? You'll be paid well. He is not known for cheating artists."

"I don't care. He's not even Naboo. Maybe if Emperor Palpatine were asking... "

Ganfré snorted. "When does he ask for anything? He just takes."

"I know. But I sometimes entertain the thought that he will remember someday that he is Naboo, and begin to behave accordingly."

"That's a bit farfetched, Palo." Ganfré shook her head. "Palo, you really must accept Lord Vader's invitation, and sell him any items he wishes to purchase. I... I have heard things. I don't want my husband to end up a target of his anger. There are only so many temperamental Naboo artists left these days, my love."

Palo stepped back and examined the light painting. "A convincing argument." He wasn't happy with the way the deep red pools at the bottom cast their light onto the light blue pixels that formed an abstract river midway up. Ridiculous art form, really. Art that could be destroyed by cutting off a power supply hardly seemed worth the time it took to create it. But he hadn't yet mastered the form, so he had dedicated this year to the pursuit of it. It was nearly over, and he was glad. He understood it enough to have its methods available to him, but he quite sincerely doubted that a time would come when he would want to use them.

It's not the medium, and you know it's not the medium. You've produced nothing worthwhile since you arrived on this galactic refuse pit. Coruscant will speak as Naboo spoke.

Ganfré's hand tugged at the crook of his elbow on his painting arm, a sure sign that she was not going to let the subject go. "Palo, you're expected. The appointment has been made."

"Why did you make an appointment for me without asking?"

"I wasn't left much choice." She frowned again. "Stop being an idiot, Palo. The spoiled artist routine doesn't suit you."

He sighed and leaned down to kiss her cheek. She wasn't in a mood that invited tweaking. "Very well. I'll go. I know what's necessary. I suppose I just entertain fantasies in which the rebels win this war and I am remembered for bravely refusing to traffic with Imperial officials."

"I somehow doubt the Rebellion will think anyone is brave who won't pick up a blaster. They don't strike me as particularly subtle or given to intellectual protests."

Palo privately agreed, but made it a habit not to speak against the Rebels any more than he would speak against the Empire. Since Palpatine had declared himself Emperor ten years ago, his tightening fist had squeezed more and more systems into rebellion, and Palo had studied political history long enough as a child to know that it was only a matter of time before those rebels became a serious force to be reckoned with. He sighed. "How I hate politics."

"I know." Ganfré brushed some dust from his shoulder--the static from light painting seemed to attract it--then went to unlock the door to the gallery.

The light from the street front window interfered with the light from the pixelbrush, and Palo gave up his effort. He wasn't that good with abstractions anyway. With no tug of regret, he toed the power key, and the painting disappeared. He hadn't bothered to save it.

"Palo! That was beginning to be interesting!"

"It was derivative and unfelt." He followed Ganfré into the gallery. It was a bright white room, with sculptures and paintings arranged prettily in it. That was purely Ganfré's doing; Palo's aesthetic sense had never extended to interior decoration. The old pieces, the ones he had done on Naboo, were eye-catchers, and the few buyers who came in were inevitably drawn to them. The Coruscant pieces sat mutely among them, their prices falling steadily and without fuss.

Outside, the walkway was crowded with young people making their way to the club district two levels down from here. Some spared a glance through the gallery window--Ganfré had set up an attractive display--but not many. Only serious collectors bought Palo's good work, and their numbers were decreasing rapidly. The Empire was not a society that loved art.

Except, of course, for statues of Palpatine or murals depicting his rise. The Imperial District couldn't get enough of those. Palo was glad he hadn't been asked. He feared that he would not have the courage to refuse.

And in case you haven't noticed, no one is asking at all. You know it isn't merely poor aesthetics on their part. Nothing you have done has been worthy of even Imperial notice lately.

The small cargo carrier Ganfré had called for was already waiting at the side entrance. "The driver offered to help," she said.

"Good." Palo scanned the room. "Is there anything that seemed of particular interest to him?"

"He said he was interested in royal iconography--"

Palo's head turned sharply, almost of its own accord. "He knows that was all destroyed in the sacking of Theed. If I brought him royal iconography, it would be my head!"

Ganfré was already waving her hand slightly. "No, no. I reminded him of that. It seems not to be a trap, Palo. He had simply not considered it."

"Why do I doubt that?"

She was quiet, then gave a resigned sigh. "All right. He seemed to think you may have kept some anyway. He was very careful about asking. It didn't seem to me like he was planning to trick you. It sounded like a secret, if you want to know."

"A secret," Palo mused. "Wonderful. The Emperor's minister wants to share a secret with me. That can't be good for my health."

Ganfré smiled nervously. "I don't think we have a choice about that."

Palo snorted. "Well, it's a moot point. My royal iconography was taken with the rest. If that was all that interested him... "

"No. He wanted to see more. His eye was caught by a landscape apparently."

"Which landscape? What medium?"

"Colored crystal. The one that hangs in the Imperial museum. Or did, until he bought it."

"So much for my Coruscant museum display." Palo shook his head. The landscape had been sold eleven years ago, three years before he'd left Naboo. At thirty-one, he'd been one of the youngest artists to make a sale to the great museum. Now, at forty-two, no one would notice if another sale were miraculously concluded. "All right, then. I'll bring more landscapes. And some crystal work."

"He also suggested non-iconographic art of Naboo royalty."

Palo didn't bother answering that. Vader obviously had some kind of rattle in his helmet about Naboo, but Palo couldn't do anything about it. The only non-iconographic image he had of any of Naboo's sequence of kings and queens was a clay mask of Padmé Naberrie, whom he'd known as a child in the youth legislature. She had gone on to become Queen Amidala, then Senator Amidala, but Palo had lost his interest in politics by then, and he had only the vaguest of ideas of what had become of her. He decided to go ahead and pack it, though he doubted Vader would be interested in the work of an untrained sixteen-year-old.

He followed Ganfré out to the cargo carrier, climbed in beside the driver, and leaned down to kiss Ganfré goodbye. "I'll get back as soon as I can."

"Please. Hurry." Her mouth twitched up, and he noticed for the first time that she was more than nervous--she was terrified.

He cursed himself for self-concern and squeezed his wife's upraised hand. "It'll be all right, Ganfré. And when I get home, we'll just spend the evening together, all right? I have no more painting to do."

"Good. I'll cook something while you're gone. Something from home."

Palo smiled. "I go eight years without thinking about Naboo, and now I'll have a whole day of nothing else."

"I could--"

"No. It's pleasant. I had forgotten how homesick I was." He gave her fingers another squeeze, then let go. "I'd best get going."

Ganfré nodded and backed away from the carrier.

The driver pulled away, and Palo watched his gallery retreat into the facelessness of the Coruscant streets.


Bright green memories flooded his inner eyes--sunlit picnics, graceful domes, glittering lakes, vast expanses of pungent swampland. Of course he never thought about it. Thinking of it now was like thinking of ghosts. He and Ganfré had escaped the general destruction of Theed and the violent purging of anti-Imperial factions that had happened three years after Palpatine rose to power, and the horrendous industrialization of the countryside that had begun then--the industrialization that had left it all but an arid wasteland and had always struck Palo as nothing more than wanton cruelty--but in a way he hadn't escaped at all. Everything that he had once been was tied up in the soil of his homeworld, and he had been ruined and despoiled with it in some vital way.

The landscape that had so caught Vader's eye had been destroyed beyond redemption by the man's own minions. And now he wanted to buy it back.

Well, wanting it was something. It was a step in the right direction. Palo thought that he should be raging about hypocrisy and, like a good nonconformist artist, refusing to treat with it. But he needed to eat, and maybe seeing some lovely things would make it harder to do ugly ones. Revolution by art, Naboo style.

The carrier pulled around the outside of a huge but sterile home in a wealthy section of the Imperial government district. A huge hangar door rose silently, and Palo was swallowed by the shadows inside. The driver took them down, far down, below the street level. Palo couldn't guess how far.

When he got out of the carrier, two modified battle droids stood at attention. Each was armed--perversely, Palo thought, considering the Imperial response to the Jedi Order--with a lightsaber. From the deep shadows beyond them, he could hear the slow and steady pace of a mechanical respirator.

A smooth, almost elegant voice reached out to him. "The droids will remove the artwork. Your driver is dismissed. The carrier will be returned to his employer, and I will see to your transport home."

Palo nodded, and realized that his mouth was entirely dry. His heart was beating too quickly and his palms were sweaty. The canvas bag in which he carried the clay mask was absorbing much of it, but it felt damp in his hands. Lord Vader's presence seemed to generate fear in the very air, and being caught in it was like being caught in the rapids above a waterfall. "Thank you," he managed to push out of his parched throat. "There are several large crystal pieces which need careful handling."

The shadow moved in the shape of hand, pointing the droids onward. They dropped from their at-attention position and began to unload the carrier.

The lighting rose slowly, revealing not the hangar Palo had expected, but a richly appointed room. Large opaque panels had replaced what must have once been grand windows, but they had been painted with a geometric design that caught Palo's eye and held it, even with the black-cloaked figure nearby to distract him. He went to look at it more closely, feeling a need to occupy himself while his art was being unloaded. "This is lovely work," he said, and found that his voice was steadier now, with some distraction at hand. "May I ask who you commissioned? I don't recognize the style."

There was a long pause with only Vader's metronomic breathing to break the silence, but when he answered he said simply, "It is a traditional design from a small world in the Outer Rim."

"Which world?"

"You were brought to display art, not discuss it."

Palo forced his eyes away from the design and bowed. "If I have offended, my Lord, I am sorry."

Another long pause. "You have not offended. It has been many years since I have discussed art, and I have little time for a proper discussion now. The world is Tatooine. The artist... was merely a local at one time."

It was obvious that no more information was forthcoming on the subject. A pity--an important collector, but he couldn't be bothered to credit his artists. Still, as Ganfré said, he didn't cheat them, either. "My wife told me you bought the Lake Country landscape from the Imperial museum."

Vader gestured to a far wall and another set of lights came on, reflecting the green and blue crystal that Palo had formed in his workshop in Theed, throwing bright white light across the sharp run of the waterfall, catching a small yellow flower here and a tuft of orange fur there. The display here was actually better than it had been in the Imperial museum. If only there were someone to see it. "It suits the room," Palo said. "I thank you for the honorable display."

Vader did not answer. "You have brought other landscapes?"

"Yes. In crystal and other media. Ganfré--my wife, that is--said you were interested in royal iconography?"

"She has already informed me that you complied with the Emperor's orders in that matter." The disapproval in his tone was clear. Of course, if Palo had not complied with Palpatine's order in that matter, Vader would no doubt have executed him. "It occurred to me that you might have other images, not icons. Simply images."

"I really never paid much attention to the monarchy."

"It was my understanding that you were in the legislative youth program with Padmé Naberrie."

Palo frowned. He had brought the image, but certainly had not anticipated being asked for it, almost specifically. The legislative youth program on Naboo was a lifetime ago, and was not attached to any of the official biographical notes that museums kept on him.

Vader did not call for "a Naboo artist," and he cares nothing for landscapes... except the particular one he already purchased. He called Palo Torezi, youth legislator and one-time political idealist. Why?

Palo shook it off. Vader's motives were his own. "That was before she became Queen Amidala. I brought an image. It's the only thing I have that is related to the Naboo royalty, but it was made when she was twelve. I was only sixteen, and not well trained as an artist. I thought at the time I would be a politician."

Vader was across the room, inspecting the pieces as they were came out of the carrier. "Where is this image?"

"I have it here," Palo said, lowering the canvas sack from his shoulder. He could feel that his eyes had narrowed in suspicion--or maybe it was just puzzlement; he couldn't name what he was feeling--but he seemed unable to do anything about it. "It wasn't with the other pieces in my gallery. I took it from my personal collection at the last minute."

"I see. It would be... difficult to part with, I assume."

Puzzlement swallowed suspicion and even fear. "My Lord?"

"It is difficult sometimes to let go of something beautiful."

"My Lord, we weren't close. Padmé was only twelve when I knew her. A little girl. Pretty, but... "

Vader's stance had not changed, but it had become somehow tense and his presence filled the room. Fear made a comeback in the pantheon of Palo's emotions, toppling puzzlement without effort. Palo had heard things about Vader, few kind, but none had so much as hinted at this mercurial desperation.

"If you were not close to her," he said, his voice deadly, rolling calm, "then why would you have sculpted her and kept the work?"

"I sculpted her because she had an interesting face," Palo managed. "That's all. I asked her to pose for me. When I was finished, I offered it to her, but she told me to keep it. She... I think she was taken with me at the time."

"And you did not return those feelings?"

"She was twelve," Palo repeated slowly, suddenly certain that he was having one of the strangest nightmares of his life. Padmé. Of everything in his life to ask about, Padmé Naberrie. "I was sixteen."

Vader fell silent again. Palo reached slowly into the canvas bag and drew out the clay mask carefully. Padmé's large eyes and delicate nose caught the light from the landscape display. For some reason, he had made her mouth a bit smaller than it really was. Why had he done that? She'd had a wide smile that had taken up her whole face. That had won more elections for her than even her formidable debating skills. Why had he chosen to minimize it? "It's really not very good work," he said quickly to Vader's back. "I was young and unskilled."

Vader turned, his hand outstretched. Palo put the mask into it. Vader stared at it, his finger running down the narrow nose, then over the sworls Palo had made to represent Padmé's long curls. "Her mouth was wider than this," he said. "But it is otherwise an excellent piece. She seems quite happy in it."

Palo didn't know what to say, let alone how to say it. "It was a happy summer," he said finally. "That's why I kept the mask. We were all happy." No comments from Vader. Palo felt a need to fill the silence. "I sculpted that after she had won a debate. I don't remember what it was about." He scrambled desperately into his memory for something further to say. Vader's quietude was hungry. "She won against me, actually. I was in the next older group, but she beat me squarely. We'd bet on it. Her winnings were... " He stopped abruptly, suddenly wishing he had stopped before beginning the sentence. Given Vader's attitude, he didn't think it wise to--

"A kiss," Vader said. "Her winnings were a kiss." The anger and tension seemed to have left his voice, much to Palo's astonishment. He had thought Vader would rage.

Palo nodded. "Yes. It was... it was a chaste kiss."

"She was twelve," Vader mused.


"And it meant nothing to you." Now, Vader sounded puzzled, as though he could not comprehend this simple idea. "It was merely... child's play."

"Affectionate child's play between summer friends," Palo said, hoping that it would strike a balance.

Vader stared at the mask, then walked determinedly over to the landscape. There was a space beside it on the wall, and he placed the mask there, using static binders to affix it. It was at the top of his considerable reach, and now Padmé looked down on the room with youthful good cheer. Vader looked up at her. "I will, of course, purchase all you've brought."

"My Lord?"

"Some of the pieces will go back to the Imperial Museum. It is good work. You should take pride in it."

"I do, my Lord, but..."

"And yet you have failed to produce anything of note since you took up residence on Coruscant. It is the waste of a gift."

"Yes, my Lord..."

"You are dismissed." Vader didn't turn around. His face was still turned up to the mask of Padmé Naberrie. "You will find a speeder and a driver waiting outside the door." He gestured to an archway with a split door in it. I will see to the return of the carrier when it is unloaded."

"Thank you, my Lord. Would you like--"

"You are dismissed."

The tone brooked no argument. Vader still had not moved. Palo backed away from him, unable to take his eyes off the sight of the Dark Lord paying obeisance to a long-silent twelve-year-old girl from a faraway world. The door slid open behind him, and he did not look away from Vader until it closed and shut the strange house away.

He found himself in a garden at the center of the house, looking up for many stories to a privacy shield, above which Coruscant's travel patterns went about their usual business, unperturbed by the strangeness below them. The garden was dead, except for one struggling red flower trying to reach up for the sun. On impulse, Palo went toward it to move away the branches that were choking it, but a strong hand caught his arm. He looked up to see a young Imperial officer with light brown hair and slightly downturned hazel eyes.

"You aren't authorized to tend this garden," the officer said. "I suggest you find something else to occupy yourself."

"I was only trying to help."

"Your help is unnecessary. I have orders to escort you back to your gallery."

Palo nodded and climbed into the speeder that had appeared beside him in utter silence. The officer didn't speak to him all the way back, nor did he wish him farewell upon taking his leave.

Ganfré was waiting at the studio door when he came inside, and she relaxed visibly when she saw him. "You're all right?"

"I'm confused, but all right."

"Confused? Why confused?"

"I'll explain later, if I can get it straight in my head."

Ganfré looked at him for a long time, then smiled ruefully. "Why do I think we will not be spending a quiet evening eating roast shaak and cuddling in front of the holoproj?"

"What do you mean?"

"Go paint. It's in your eyes, Palo. Paint it out." She ducked away from him.

You have failed to produce anything of note since you took up residence on Coruscant. It is the waste of a gift.

But how could any gift not go to waste here? Art was a way to see truth, and truth wasn't welcome in the Empire. Palo didn't dare look for it, let alone express it. It would be his death.

And yet...

There was a truth here. Palo had brushed against it, and now it clung to him like static, like wet fabric... like a little girl with her first crush.

Palo shut the studio door and toed the power key on his light-painting easel. Blank white pixels rose before him in a cube. He took the containment generator from his tray of tools and quickly carved the shape of the mask's edges into the light. Immediately the excess pixels were extinguished.

Padmé. When did I last think of her?

He had lost interest in politics almost immediately after that long and happy summer, after studying political art and seeing how empty it was. He had noted it when she'd been elected queen, even made a joke to Ganfré, to whom he had been engaged at the time, about having once kissed her. But he hadn't particularly thought about her until...

The invasion.

Palo's father had died at the hands of the droid armies and his mother had died in the Federation camps. He had been certain Naboo would be destroyed, but then she had reappeared, and miraculously--or so it had seemed at the time--retaken the planet. Palo had cheered, and had gone to Theed for the celebration. She had stood there on the Palace steps, smiling out at the crowd, and he'd thought, This is what she was made for. We all knew it from the start.

But his attention hadn't been on her entirely. It had been on a small figure beside her, a boy in the beige tunic of a Jedi. Palo hadn't known his name, though he gathered that the boy had distinguished himself in battle. But what he had noticed was the way the boy's head had tilted up, the way his eyes were resting on Padmé's face, the way his whole stance changed when she turned and smiled at him.

It was hard for him to understand, remembering her as a little girl with long curls, but she seemed to have developed a way of drawing people to her. It had worked on the small boy. And it appeared to have somehow worked on Lord Vader.

Palo filled in her features with a series of semi-transparent pixel-washes, but he wasn't interested in simply recreating the mask. It was merely a background. On the right side of her face, he painted the small boy, trying to recall those earnest features. On the left side, he painted Lord Vader, helmet tipped upward to stare into the eyes that hovered above him. Then he concentrated on those eyes, darkening them, brightening the starspots that made them sparkle. Over the arched eyebrows, he drew the outlines of the waterfall landscape that Vader had purchased.

He didn't know how long he had been working when he understood that he was finished. Her eyes dominated the painting, but the rest of her features were muted and unclear. The two figures stood close to one another, each looking up at those eyes, not noticing one another.

It wasn't derivative, and it held some truth that Palo couldn't really wrap his mind around. He had painted it instinctively, and looking at it, he didn't know what it meant.

It means death, something whispered to his mind. It is true, and the truth is your death.

He stared at it, his mind being quiet and still, both trying to find the truth and trying not to.

With a decisive move, he bent to the floor and turned the power key. The image in the air disappeared.

Long shadows had fallen through the studio as night had come outside. A bright square of light marked the kitchen, where Ganfré was cleaning up from her cooking spree. Palo stood slowly, turned his back on the easel, and went to join her.

The truth was forbidden, and in a world where truth was forbidden, art couldn't survive.

It was time, Palo thought, for another career change.

The End