Sie sind auf Seite 1von 20

Story written by: lim@merck.

com
In the early morning light, the wide Alderaani forests were
tipped with gold. Danah Antilles, Dowager Princess of Alderaan,
surveyed the dappled pelt of gilt leaves and shadow from high
above. She sat at her breakfast table as if enthroned. Although
she was nearly ninety, her back was sapling-straight, and her
eyes were as clear as the jewels clasped around her throat.
Another strand of gems shone above them, wound into her silver
hair. On the other side of the prismed tower chamber, her son
nodded to the servant droids, dismissing them.
Danah turned away from the view, waiting for the soft drone
of the elevator shaft to diminish and fall silent. "Well," she
said at last, "What is the news from the Senate?"
"Bothersome," Bail Organa said. His pale blue robes flowed
behind him as he walked back to his own chair. Sitting down, he
took a sip of tisane. "Nearly half now support Palpatine's
proposal, and many of the rest are whispering secession. I don't
know which party alarms me more."
"Unfortunately, Palpatine is right. If we do not present a
unified defense, we may soon have nothing to defend. Alderaan was
much like that before you were born. If external arbitration had
not intervened, the noble houses would have torn one another
apart long ago. Imagine what would have happened if invaders had
come from outside, as the Republic now faces." She shook out her
napkin with a sharp snapping sound and laid it across her lap.
"You were hardly innocent of the vendettas, Mother."
"I never said I was." A predator's smile leapt across her
features, vanishing as she bent to examine the fruit. "But I knew
when to halt and make peace, unlike Helice. She never did accept
my alliance with your father; she went to her death accusing me
of having betrayed our house. A pity, really. She and her
daughter might have been useful to us." Selecting a piece, she
began to open it with a small silver knife.
"Yes, well, at present, we have more pressing concerns. Have
you been able to gauge the mood here at court? How do the people
stand on the war?"
"Which party would they prefer to be in, do you mean? Our
people have an easier decision than most; since we have no longer
have armed forces nor legal weapons, they need not fear death,
only taxes. Without the fear of conscription, they seem willing
enough to forward funds to the front, if it proves necessary."
She watched Bail bite into another spiced bun. "So, shall you
declare a necessity?"
"As little as I like to, we may have no choice. The Nechti
have retaken Gefras and are advancing toward the Ikatya system."
"Truly?" With careful motions, she put her fruit rind and
her knife down on her plate. "I think this might be an opportune
time for me to inquire about Castra's health."
"Castra? What has my wife to do with--" Setting down his
half-eaten bun, he wiped his hands on his napkin. "No, she is not
pregnant yet. We've only been married a year, you know. Isn't one
of Liane's children at Academy in this sector?"
"He graduated into the sector fleet this year. His
contingent is being forwarded to Ikatya to appease the Senate. I
had understood the combat front had drawn back from there. I
thought he might enjoy seeing his sister again, but perhaps now I
should recall one of them." Her voice was devoid of enthusiasm.
"Only one?"
"Very well; both if you insist. I would just as rather leave
them there, but if you haven't a direct heir yet, they're all we
have. Unless, of course, you wish Alderaan to dissolve into civic
feuding again. I doubt the Senate will have the patience to spare
us more arbitrators so soon.
"It is a pity about those two, really." Danah chose a small
pastry and daubed it with yeast-spread as she spoke. "I do hope
you and Castra will provide an heir soon so I can put Liane's
children out of the way."
"I do hope you're joking." Bail paused cautiously. "The
vendettas are over, Mother. Assassination as a preventive measure
is no longer considered good domestic policy."
"Scarcely domestic. They're five sectors away." She poured
more tisane into Bail's empty cup, then into her own. Before he
could retort again, she said, "I take it you have forgotten
Liane's manuevering, then."
"She paid the price for her treason. I see no reason why her
children should be forced to as well."
"Your father said the same of Liane, as Helice's daughter.
She killed him."
Bail leaned back in his chair and gazed out through the
glass-paned walls, his cup of tisane in hand. On the sunward
side, the panes were automatically darkening in a latticed
arabesque, screening out daylight as it intensified. Without
looking at his mother, he said, "I know you've been monitoring
Liane's children. Is there anything you wish to tell me about
them?"
"Not yet. The older one, Arcadia, has been a little mouse of
a healer ever since she emerged from Jedi training. I doubt much
danger from her alone. But her brother is of an age to be
delighted with intrigues and secret plans, and if he recruits her
into his schemes, she may become capable of dangerous
subtleties."
"And is he scheming?"
"He may be. I've instructed General Kenobi to keep them out
of trouble. If matters progress...unwisely, perhaps I will ask
him to put them into trouble.
Dipping a spoon into a lapis bowl, she dusted her poached
melon with nut-powder. "If the Organa line should fail, the
Viceregency will very likely fall to the Antilles-- but not
without some dispute, and the vendettas would begin all over
again. I tried to merge the two claims by wedding your father,
but Helice disagreed with me."
Bail turned back toward her fiercely. "Helice has nothing to
do with this. If there is no evidence against them, why even
consider their deaths? You know they're my presumptive heirs."
"Yes, I do. And so do they."
* * *
Lady Arcadia Antilles looked up as the two men entered
emergency medical quarters. She brushed a strand of fair hair
from her face and nodded in greeting, but did not rise from the
cadet she was tending. Her fingers continued to hover over the
unconscious girl's shoulder, where charcoaled flesh was buckling
and flaking away. As fragments tumbled onto the cot, the hollows
left behind were filled by new skin, smoothly flowing up like
water in a spring.
When the process was complete, Arcadia gently blew away the
flakes of debris and stepped back, smoothing down grey healer's
robes with her palms. She signaled a medical droid to monitor the
cadet and joined the uniform-clad newcomers in the antechamber,
closing the door to working quarters. "Well," she murmured, "no
permanent damage this time. General Kenobi, is this the
lieutenant who's been sending me these casualties?"
The lieutenant stepped forward before Kenobi could speak.
"Lieutenant Commander Anakin Skywalker at your service. Is Rouvel
badly hurt?"
Skywalker's broad shoulders towered over both of them; he
stood only a head taller than Kenobi, but Arcadia found herself
confronted with his chest at eye level. She had to move away
several paces to look at him without craning straight up. "She
was. I've reconstructed her arm, but we can't yet test nerve
function. She should revive in a day or two. Are you aware that
she collapsed a few meters out of training bay and was found in
the corridor?"
His dark hair accentuated his pallor. "She said it was a
minor wound. I took her word for it. I came as soon as I'd
finished training session with the rest of my cadets."
"Blaster fire richocheting inside thermal armor can kill
without striking bone, and it passes through so quickly that the
victim may never feel it. If she often reflects the bolt from her
epauliere, I suggest you discourage her, unless she's quite sure
the angle's tangential. But after this, she may not need a
reminder." Arcadia stepped past the officers to a wall console,
where she keyed in a short code. "Lieutenant Commander, I regret
meeting you in these circumstances. Could you tell me what you
see on this display screen?"
"Medical record headings." He studied them for a moment.
"They're all from my squadron since the start of this year-- from
all three rotations so far, in fact."
"Would you name another squadron leader for me?" When he
produced a name, she pressed another sequence of keys, bringing
another, much shorter list beside the first. "This is Commander
Baria's casualty list for the same period. Over the past five
months, nineteen serious injuries have been reported from your
squadron, three of them fatal. Baria had eight casualties, all of
whom survived."
"Baria fusses over his pilots like a mother Nebbit."
"Then name two others," Kenobi countered. The first new list
contained four names; the second, nine. Only the last of these
comparative lists also contained death's red notation. "These
injury rates are typical for every squadron in this division,
except for yours."
"Are you saying I deliberately injure my charges? Come on,
Ben, you know me better than that. I'm just trying to teach them
everything I know."
"We've had this discussion before, I believe." Kenobi shook
his head. "Some things cannot be taught. For example, not
everyone can sense the angle of enemy fire quickly enough to
react. Perhaps you can, but you must respect others' limits.
"I'm giving you a month's leave from your duties as squadron
leader." As the younger man's expression shifted from shock to
anger, Kenobi continued, "I'm doing this for your own good,
Anakin. Believe me, the Republic needs your skills as a pilot and
leader. But if it comes down to a question of losing other pilots
because of you--"
"My squad won't stand for this. They're proud to serve under
me; they know I have higher standards than the others--"
"And you make them pay dearly for it. Remember Ismar Kevvat?
He survived the battle of Gefras, and died in one of your
training drills. Or Asde Varine-- she was killed in combat
attempting some damn fool evasion tactic you taught her, when a
less... spectacular move could have saved her life." The General
pronounced the adjective with distaste.
Arcadia moved away as if balancing on a narrow ledge beside
the wall, and began to add Cadet Maris Rouvel to the casualty
lists. Her usual measures to screen out sensory input were not
working; Anakin Skywalker's anger slashed through the haze like
icy sleet through fog. "Are you asking me to resign my
commission?" he said in dangerously calm tones.
"I'm asking you to reconsider your methods. When the month
is over, I'll return your command to you, but if you continue to
maim and kill good warriors at this rate...."
Skywalker said nothing. "Very well," Kenobi said at last.
"Lady Arcadia, my apologies for our disruption. Anakin, would you
care to dine with me?"
"I would not."
"Then you may tell me your plans tomorrow." The outer door
panels slid together in Kenobi's wake.
* * *
Arcadia completed the record entry and glanced up at
Skywalker. He was gazing at the lists still on the screen, and
the new entry flashing at the bottom. His anger began to fade
from her senses as he traced a hand down the display. As he
neared the end of his squadron's list, he asked, "Did you treat
all of my wounded?"
"Some of them. There are three other Jedi healers on base,
and medical droids and technicians for lighter injuries."
"Did you bring this to Ben's attention, or did he already
know?"
"General Kenobi reviews casualty reports on a regular
basis." She began to key up random file headings, biting her lip.
"Yes, I know, but I didn't think it was time for review yet.
Or has he halved his review period?" He was regarding her with a
cryptic half-smile now, like that of an ancient mask. Arcadia
noticed uneasily that he was resting his right hand very near his
blaster.
"Oh, truly now," he responded. "Do you really think I'd
shoot a healer? I'm simply curious why you might've informed on
me-- unless you haven't."
Switching off the record display, she turned to look
directly at him. "My younger brother has been assigned to this
base. General Kenobi is a friend of the family, and gave him a
choice of squadrons to join. Denis chose yours."
"How protective of you." Skywalker paused, evidently
considering his squadron roster. "This would be Cadet Denis
Colton?"
"Or Antilles. Our naming conventions can be confusing."
"As in the Alderaani Princess-Dowager Danah Antilles?"
"She's my mother's aunt."
"I see." He began to stroll around the perimeter of the
room. "You knew about my squadron's casualty rates before now,
but weren't disturbed by them until your brother thought to join
me? The Alderaani noble houses train their children well in
politics."
"We're no longer a noble house."
"Not even Danah?"
"She was the only one of the Antilles to salvage any status
from the ascendancy dispute. You heard General Kenobi call me
'Lady Arcadia,' but my family has no power on Alderaan. Danah
made certain of that." She looked away.
"Denis and I have no hopes on Alderaan, and the General has
helped us secure positions. I understand he's done the same for
you."
"The two of you appear to be helping me out of my position
at present."
"I didn't want Denis' death on your hands."
"I don't kill my pilots," he snapped. "I train them to be
the best squadron in the Republic. And if you think I--"
The outer door slid open again. "Arcadia, has Anakin--"
General Kenobi began, then stopped. Anakin compressed his mouth
tightly. "Perhaps," Kenobi resumed, "it might be advisable for
you to dine with me instead, Arcadia." He turned back to Anakin
and studied him carefully. "Or have you changed your mind yet?"
Anakin lingered only long enough to outstare Kenobi before
moving toward the door.
"Perhaps not. I'll expect to hear from you tomorrow," Kenobi
said at the closing panels. "Arcadia, are you off duty now?"
* * *
The officers' mess was nearly deserted at this hour. Arcadia
had stayed on duty late, and so service for the evening meal was
nearly finished. She and Kenobi ate quickly, more from a desire
to get it over with than from any real enthusiasm. Most of the
food was the same nondescript dun color as the general's hair.
Taking a second bite of the crushed-fruit paste, Kenobi
reconfirmed his opinion of the first bite. He did not venture a
third. Without looking at Arcadia, he asked, "Have you
reconsidered my offer?"
"I gave it more thought. But I haven't changed my mind."
"So what do you think of him?"
She regarded Kenobi, her brown eyes perplexed. "Lieutenant
Commander Skywalker? In what sense? You weren't matchmaking
again, were you?"
"Again? Heavens, no." His tone of wounded astonishment was
marred only by his grin. Both were abandoned as he leaned closer
over his meal. "You felt his strength in the Force, didn't you?
He isn't aware of it himself, but it's part of what makes him a
brilliant pilot."
"Is he? I wasn't certain where his balance lay between truth
and pride."
"He's the best warrior I've ever known," Kenobi said
quietly. "Almost impossibly proficient, courageous to the point
of recklessness-- if he learned to keep a better watch on
himself, there would be no limit to his career.
"But he is not aware of how strong a role the Force has had
in his success. Many of his combat strategems are only possible
with the help of the Force. I've been reviewing his squadron's
records again, and those members who have survived and prospered
under his leadership have all tested well for Force-sensitivity."
"And those who cannot sense the Force have died." Arcadia
pushed her own plate aside. "How can he not know? And have you
told him this?"
The General's pale eyes were uneasy. "His home system had no
place for Jedi. Not only has he never been formally tested, but
he knows almost nothing of us. At this level, testing is scarcely
necessary; I know he has the strength. But if I tell him of his
powers, he'll ask for training as a Jedi Knight. Now, if you'd
been willing, I could have sent you to Pyret to train with Master
Tegie or Mistress Tamra.
"But as for Anakin--" He broke off, shaking his head. "I
can't transfer him to another base while he has teaching duties
himself, and there are no full Jedi Masters here. I'm not certain
I can keep him under rein, but I fear his actions should I
refuse. His pride would drive him to seek training from another,
and he may not choose wisely.
"But if I tell him nothing, his casualty rates will continue
at their present rate. Neither alternative is ideal."
"I see," said Arcadia, although she was not certain she did.
She picked up an eating utensil and briefly fiddled with it. "But
why tell me of this? There's no advice I can give to you."
"Not to me, no. To him. Anakin does not like to be
instructed by superiors. I thought that you might be better
suited to lend him moderation."
At the far end of the hall, a few more late stragglers
arrived and disappeared into the meal service corridor. Arcadia
absently watched their progress while considering his words. "But
we scarcely know one another, and he does not appear to like me.
Why should he listen to me? Why not use one of his subordinates
as your vehicle?"
"Perhaps I should adjust my earlier statement." Kenobi
grimaced. "Anakin listens to no one, except in cases of military
necessity. He has been known to ignore combat orders when he has
other plans, although I must admit his alternate methods have had
good results so far. But that's irrelevant for now.
"I would like you to befriend him. He knows and likes me,
but I doubt he'll take my advice in this matter. But I think he
might heed you. You're not a fighter pilot, so he'll feel no
sense of rivalry with you. Your military ranks are approximately
equal, so he won't engage in snobbery in either direction--"
She shook her head. "He asked about my family. He didn't
like what he heard, even though I told him about...."
"About the ruin of your house?"
"Except for Princess Danah." The name was imbued with a soft
weariness that surpassed malice. "She could have rescinded our
exile, once she and the Viceroy had an heir for House Organa. And
that condition was fulfilled nearly fifty years past."
"She still has no trust in her sister or her descendants.
Helice was a savage adversary during the Alderaani vendettas, and
your mother--" He surveyed Arcadia's features as he considered
his words. "Liane had certain disputes with House Organa as
well."
"And it gained us nothing." With an effort, Arcadia moved
her gaze from her tightly clasped hands to an indefinite distance
behind Kenobi. Blanking her expression, she said, "It seems that
your friend Skywalker has decided to join us after all."
"Good. I rather thought he might." Kenobi's expression had
certain undertones that disquieted her-- a fractionally raised
eyebrow, a twist to his smile. She suddenly realized how her
appearance had changed since her last encounter with Anakin
Skywalker. She had left her voluminous healer's robes in medical
quarters, revealing the narrow tunic and leggings she wore
beneath them, and she had freed her hair from its coiled plait.
In a quick, nervous gesture, she gathered her hair at one side of
her neck and began to twist it into a loose citrine skein.
Meanwhile, Kenobi had turned about. "Anakin?"
Anakin presented Arcadia with a smile that was astonishingly
sweet and guileless, considering that he was completely ignoring
Kenobi. "I owe you an apology for my earlier remarks, my lady.
How may I best express it?"
Kenobi merely shrugged and resumed eating. After a moment,
Arcadia relinquished her grasp on the rope of her hair, which
promptly unwound again. "Why this change of heart? Did you
consult the records files to corroborate me?"
"Well, perhaps so--"
With admirable economy of motion, she shoved her hair back
over her shoulder, pushed her chair away, and rose. "I decline
your apology. I am sorry you cannot trust my word." She left the
table and the hall. Anakin was on the verge of following her when
Kenobi tapped his sleeve.
"What is it?"
"Forget the quarrel with me for a moment. Do you agree with
what I said of her?"
"No. She'd never make a pilot; she doesn't have the right
bearing for it. May I go now?"
"I haven't formally dismissed you, Skywalker. Now sit down."
The younger man's posture seemed to momentarily crystallize,
bristling with razored edges and angles at every side. "I wasn't
aware I was in parade formation, sir."
"Just sit."
Anakin sat. "Well, sir, I'm afraid your exact words slipped
my mind, sir. But if you weren't speaking of piloting skills,
sir, I don't think I have much to say, sir."
"Oh, stop it," Kenobi said mildly. "Don't try this with
other superior officers, or they'll have your head. I'm sorely
tempted to, despite the fact you're my protege."
"I don't feel particularly protected."
"Do you know what would have happened if your casualty lists
had gone unreviewed until the end of the year? They'd be much
longer by then, and I'm not the only one who inspects them. High
casualty rates are bad enough, but in your first year as squadron
leader? You'd receive a formal reprimand, and possibly be
demoted. As difficult as it may be for you to believe now,
Arcadia and I have done you a favor."
After a moment, Anakin dropped his gaze into Arcadia's
abandoned cup. He lifted it and idly tasted the rim. "One month.
What am I supposed to do for a month? And who'll take over my
command while I'm away?"
"Aren't any senior cadets in your squad fit to lead yet? I
thought you were training them, not taking them nut-gathering."
The return smile was automatic, but like its accompanying
words, it seemed to lack Anakin's full attention. "Oh, Anset
might do, or maybe Damesta." He surveyed the cup in his hand
again before draining it. "So what did you have in mind for Lady
Arcadia? I think I'll have to apologize to her by proxy."
"I was attempting to judge whether she has the potential to
train as a combatant."
"If not a pilot, what sort? She doesn't have the physique
for armored shock troops, and I don't know whether healers have
enough experience with machinery to handle combat walkers."
"Actually, I was considering her for training as a Jedi
Knight."
Anakin slowly put the cup down. It made a hollow clink as it
met the table surface. "A Jedi Knight."
"Yes, I said that."
He leaned over the table, pushing the cup aside. "Ben,
you're an intelligent man, aren't you?"
With a wry smile, Kenobi said, "I like to think so. Why do
you ask?"
"You don't really believe in all this Force nonsense, do
you?"
The general's smile peeled away. "I take it that you don't."
Anakin snorted indulgently. "I've seen this sort of thing
before. The system where I grew up-- there weren't any Jedi, but
there was a priesthood with total authority. The temples had the
most ridiculous rules about keeping this or that goddess happy--
what colors you can wear, how many times to chew your food, what
you can't do with your sister-- but all of them were just ways of
controlling people who don't know any better.
"I got off-planet as soon as I could. The sweetest sight I
ever saw was Leucothea disappearing down that hyperspace funnel,
and I hope I never see that place again. But the entire Jedi
organization reminds me of that priesthood-- a lot of talk about
the supernatural, and not much to show for it except a lot of
rules."
The older man set his utensils down and closed his eyes.
Arcadia's cup popped into the air and hovered in front of Anakin.
After a moment, Anakin shrugged and flicked the cup with a
finger, setting it spinning. Lowering his own lids, he pulled the
cup back down. His hands remained loosely clasped on the table.
Impatiently, he said, "Yes, I know. But I don't see why you
Jedi make so much fuss about a little psychokinesis. All that
talk about center and balance makes it sound like a circus
routine. Why should it make any difference to the universe
whether you pick something up with your hand or your mind?"
Kenobi had opened his eyes and was steadily gazing at
Anakin. "It doesn't, much. But the Force flows through all life
and all matter, and the mind is both. When you use the Force,
your intent can be as important as your actions."
"You're spouting dogma, Ben." Anakin leaned back in his
chair. "And get out of my mind, will you? I thought we could talk
frankly."
"Aren't we?"
"You see, I was thinking about what you said earlier. I
suppose I've never really realized that other people couldn't
sense some of the things I can. It's the Force, isn't it?"
"Yes."
"Well, I was hoping you could teach me how to use it without
stuffing me full of religious propaganda."
Dropping his gaze, Kenobi began to assemble his utensils on
his empty tray. "Do you know, I was going to ask you to train as
a Jedi? But if you don't want to learn about the Force itself, I
don't think we should speak of this matter any further."
"Oh, come on, Ben. You really believe the Jedi doctrines?"
"They're not just doctrines. I'm not a Master, and I don't
know much about Force theory, but I can feel the way it works."
"You mean you've been told they work."
Kenobi stood up, tray in hand. "I don't think we should
discuss this any more. Ask Arcadia about the Force. Maybe she can
convince you." Tardily, Anakin began to gather up Arcadia's tray,
preparing to follow, but Kenobi sharply motioned him back. "No.
If you're ready to listen tomorrow, come back. But no more talk
tonight."
* * *
"But Dia, why shouldn't I come to Ikatya now? Even if
Commander Skywalker is taking leave, I can still use the time to
get settled on base. I'll be able to learn where everything is by
myself, so you won't need to show me around."
Seated before the comm panel in her private quarters,
Arcadia closed her eyes and tipped her head back against her
chair. "Denis, it's not too late to change cadet assignments. Are
you certain you want to join Crescent Squadron? I'll admit it has
the best combat record on this base, but there are starship
assignments that have similar records-- the _Ravage_, the
_Frenzy_..."
When she opened her eyes again, her brother's hand-sized
holo image was shaking its head. Although both siblings had the
fine-boned Alderaani build, only Denis had the dark hair of the
Antilles. He brushed this out of his eyes as he answered. "I
think Ikatya base is the only real option. Both you and General
Kenobi are there, and...." He tilted his head, considering, then
shrugged. "Well, our dear Aunt Danah--"
"Great-aunt, twice maternal."
"Whatever. She's made it known that she'd appreciate the two
of us staying in a single location, so as to both be monitored
with less effort."
"Denis!"
"Well, we both know that Danah's been keeping watch on us,
and she certainly knows it. So," he took on unnaturally emphatic
tones, "I doubt this news will come as a surprise to her when she
reviews this tapped transmission."
"Don't bait her. We're living on her sufferance."
"And that's why I have to train at Ikatya, unless you want
to be on a medical frigate at the battle frontiers." He paused
uncertainly. "Is something wrong with Crescent Squadron? Or with
Commander Skywalker?"
"There was some... statistical irregularity. General Kenobi
is smoothing things out. As for the commander, I only met him
today, and that by accident. He's self-assured, but I don't know
anything about his real skills." Arcadia glanced at the small
state portrait beside the comm panel. "But why has Princess Danah
tightened security?"
As Denis made a vague, noncommittal response, he blinked in
a familiar message-pattern: one blink, two. One blink, two. _I'll
tell you the truth when we can speak in private._
Arcadia sighed. "In private" meant in person, in a location
too public or too distant from Alderaan to be tapped by its royal
house. In this case, it would have to be both. "So when are you
planning to come to Ikatya?"
This time, his reply was undercut by chime-tones from
Arcadia's apartments. "Next week, if the route stays safe," Denis
said. "But someone's at your door. Should I sign off?"
She frowned. "No; I'm not expecting anyone. This should only
take a moment." She stood, lightly stretched, and crossed the
chamber to the entrance portal.
As it slid open, Anakin Skywalker chuckled. "You step away
every time we meet. May I come in?"
"You already have. I'm sorry, but I'm otherwise occupied at
the moment. If I could contact you later--"
Denis could hear the tension in her voice, but was unable to
see anything but the chair on the comm transmission tile. "Dia,
is something wrong?"
"'Dia'? A family nickname, I take it-- is that your famed
brother Denis?" When she reluctantly nodded, Skywalker moved to
the transmission tile, resting his forearms on the back of
Arcadia's chair. "Hello there. Your sister has told me so much
about you."
The boy's voice nearly cracked. "Commander Skywalker? Is
that really you?" Remembering himself, he pulled himself into
some semblance of military posture. "I mean, it's an honor to
meet you, sir. I hadn't expected it until I got to base-- but are
you really going on leave for a month?"
Skywalker cast a sideways glance at Arcadia, who had seated
herself with a data pad on a wall-mounted bench. She looked up at
him, then back down to the pad as he sat down in her chair. "I
will soon, but I may stay on base. Next training rotation doesn't
start for a month anyway, so you'll only have your first few
weeks with my replacement. Your academy records are quite good,
by the way. Do all cadets start multiphase tactics that early
now?"
"A lot do, ever since you used them at Raek Starfall. How
did you ever..." Arcadia closed her eyes again, stifling a yawn
as Denis continued effusing. She had worked long hours today, and
her evening meal, although not especially good, had been filling.
Denis's and Skywalker's voices blurred into alternating washes of
sound.
* * *
Anakin grinned foolishly as he powered down the comm panel.
Even after several years, he still had not lost the thrill of
being a hero. His flight and fighting performance in his first
battle, the seige of Ysdaa, had propelled him into the notice of
General Kenobi, who had been coordinating planetary and fleet
maneuvers there. His squadron's strategy at Raek Starfall had
become legendary. His success had become so spectacular that
Kenobi had transferred him out of danger to a training position,
in hopes of teaching his skills to other pilots.
Leaning back, he steepled his fingertips, still smiling.
When Ben had made him a trainer, he had resisted fiercely,
resentful of being pulled from combat. But he had since learned
the advantages of this post. Granted, it lacked the electric
delirium of real warfare, but he enjoyed shaping the reflexes of
his students. Some were cadets just out of the first-level
academies; some were already veterans of several campaigns. All
of them looked to him as a master of the craft.
His reverie was broken by a small noise behind him. He had
half-forgotten Arcadia; when he turned to look, he saw the data
pad finish slipping from her hand. She lay curled on her side,
her feet still shod and hanging off the bench toward the floor.
She woke after he had already carried her around the room
once, and was considering another circuit. Without moving, she
tried to decipher her situation-- she was bunched up in the air,
her hair smeared across her face. When she opened her eyes and
tried to see through her hair, she could see a broad uniform-clad
chest pressed against her nose. She remembered that vantage point
from earlier in the day. "What are you doing?"
He nearly dropped her. "Oh-- you're awake. I was going to
put you to bed, but I can't find any doors beside the main one.
Where are you hiding them?"
"Put me to bed?"
"I couldn't leave you sleeping on that bench."
"I've only this one room; there are no other doors. And that
is my bed."
He looked at the bench again. It still looked like a bench,
cloth-surfaced and unpadded. "How can you sleep on that thing?"
"Usually quite soundly. May I request that you put me down
somewhere?" He placed her on the bench again, in a half-seated
position from which she immediately slid down the wall onto her
side again. With an effort, she levered herself back up. "Thank
you for your concern, really, but--"
"It's nothing," he said modestly. "But as long as we're
exchanging courtesies, would you like me to apologize for this
afternoon now or tomorrow?"
"Whichever more pleases you."
"In that case, it can wait 'til tomorrow. I'll need a few
more hours to get into a properly groveling state anyway." He
saluted, pivoted with military precision, and left.
She watched the door owlishly for a while, to make certain
he wasn't coming back in. With a sigh, she dropped the data pad
under the bench, pulled a mantle from a wall hook behind her, and
lay down wrapped in it. After a moment, nearly asleep again, she
nudged her shoes off.
On his way back to his own quarters, Anakin whistled softly
to himself, carefully considering what he had learned from Denis.
* * *
"...And if it requires a war to bring the Republic back to
its former glory, then perhaps we should be grateful for war."
Palpatine ignored the shock around him in the Senate, raising his
resonant voice to drown out dissent. "We have spent the last
century bickering and feuding amongst ourselves. Before the
Nechti came to our borders, each system fought against its
neighbor, in armed combat or with economic strangulation. The
galaxy wasted many lives and credits in these struggles for petty
advantage.
"But since the arrival of the Nechti, we have ceased our
internal quarrels. If we can retain this solidarity after the
Nechti are defeated, our combined power will be greater than ever
before."
A gaunt woman near the front said bitterly, "You are quite
blithe about the Nechti. You would be less so if you had seen the
border systems: Avisa stripped to magma; Martelle reft of its
atmosphere-- my diplomatic suite and I are all that remain of the
people of Erenat."
Senator Palpatine lowered his eyes. Knife-edged crescents of
gold gleamed from beneath his lids. "I do not wish us to forget
the many innocents who have lost their homes, their families, or
their lives to the Nechti. But think of all the similar losses
our internal battles have claimed. If we can eliminate such sad
waste from our Republic by remaining united, then the Nechtian
victims will not have died in vain.
"But let us forget the future for now. We must deal with the
present. It is true that relatively few systems have met with the
enemy to date, but is there any doubt we must unite now to drive
them out?"
Castra Gatou yawned flamboyantly. She was a tawny-haired
young woman with pale green eyes; seated in Bail Organa's empty
chair, she was in the first tier of seats, in excellent view of
the council. Almost as an afterthought, she lifted one languid
hand to conceal her mouth. "Why?" she asked.
The Erenatese senator lunged to her feet. "Why? You've seen
the comm holos sent by the Nechti, and you ask why?"
"Why not?"
Palpatine turned a speculative eye on the young princess,
while waving the Erenatese back to her seat. "Your Highness of
Alderaan, do your people have so little compassion on those less
fortunate than themselves?"
Castra smiled, showing all her teeth. "Less fortunate? The
border systems brought this war upon themselves. Avisa and
Martelle were the planets that first met with the Nechti; they
made secret trade agreements with them for their technology. They
willfully violated the laws of the Senate and the Republic by
keeping knowledge of the Nechti civilization a secret. And you of
Erenat--" she gestured at the livid ambassador-- "in fact, your
very family signed the Nechti pact with full intention to violate
it.
"And once you did... well, small wonder that the Nechti
sought revenge on you. What concern are your border squabbles to
the rest of the Republic?"
"The Nechti have advanced far past the border by now,"
Palpatine began, but Castra flicked her nails at him.
"Past the borders of your own summer planet, you mean.
Leaving my own opinions aside, you can hardly expect my people to
support armed intervention in your internal affairs. If you can't
maintain civil relations with your neighbors, why should we
enforce them for you?"
"Civil relations?" Palpatine elevated a dark golden eyebrow,
smiling warmly. "Oh yes, Alderaan has always been known for its
peaceful self-government, especially as carried out by its web of
noble kinsmen who are all--" his smile attained angelic
proportions-- "terribly civil to one another."
"Enough of this squabbling!" In the open center of the
chamber, the President of the Senate lashed the rostrum with her
gavel. She was a stately Twi'lek, whose cranial appendages were
shifting like cats' tails under their wrapping of silk. "Senator
Palpatine, the Alderaani vendettas are not the subject of this
debate. And if I may say so, Your Highness of Alderaan, the
diplomatic failings of the border systems are irrelevant as well.
Avisa and Martelle have already been destroyed."
"And Erenat," the gaunt woman whispered.
"And Erenat. Whatever their complicity may have been, the
Nechti have surely taken vengeance. But now other systems are
being attacked, ones with no prior involvement whatsoever. These
are the peoples whose aid we are determining. The period for
debate has ended. May we call the vote?"
As the Senators drew together in small groups, Palpatine
stepped down from the central dais. A Senate page with two bowls
of pebbles passed through the chamber, giving every Senator a
stone from each bowl, one black and one white. Leaning on the
rail near Castra's seat, Palpatine jounced the pair of stones in
his hand. "Which one do you plan to cast at me?" he asked her.
"Surely you're planning to cast yours first."
"It's the President who gets to throw the first stone of the
season, my dear." They watched a second page approach the Twi'lek
with a tall, opaque urn, into which she inserted her hand wrist-
deep to conceal the color of the pebble she released. The
remaining one was dropped into a disposal chute beneath the
rostrum, for later collection from a common receptacle. "But here
comes the press, I believe."
As the page passed by, they dropped their respective pebbles
into the urn, then the chute in Castra's desk. The remote comm
camera in the corner lingered on Castra and Palpatine after the
page had moved on. In a leisurely fashion, she spat on her hand
and slapped him.
"Your Highness, desist," the Twi'lek snapped. "I will not
permit physical assault of other Senators. If you should become
President, you may change policy to suit yourself. But as long as
I hold office, I will not allow it."
Palpatine dismissed the guards who had hurried to him from
the Coruscanti suite. "I doubt intervention is necessary, unless
Her Highness plans to escalate. Have you any weapons?"
"Regrettably, no." Castra rose, gathering her train over one
arm. "But you may yet persuade me to give a different answer."
Tracked by the comm recorder, she left the Senate chamber before
the tally was complete.
* * *
In his private apartments, Palpatine keyed the holoprojector
to replay the day's events. He leaned back and watched himself
complete his speech. "...But let us forget the future for now. We
must deal with the present. It is true that relatively few
systems have met with the enemy to date, but is there any doubt
we must unite now to drive them out?"
His companion touched her goblet to his. "Marvelous arm
gesture. Think it'll catch on?"
"I hope to gain followers for more than a gesture." After a
few sips, he reliquished his wine for a wafer of mycotal pate.
"How do you think the rebuttal was received?"
They watched Castra flick her nails. "If you can't maintain
civil relations with your neighbors, why should we enforce them
for you?"
Story written by: lim@merck.com
The first guard staggered back and collapsed. As the
intruder prepared to engage the second guard, the doors slid
open. The white luminescence of the corridor tarnished to dark
gold, reflected from the hair and robes of the man who stepped
forward. Senator Palpatine took a sip from the jewelled goblet in
his hand. "Good evening, Lady Arcadia. Would you care to join me
for dinner?"
Backed against the wall, the second guard gasped out, "My
lord, this woman has infiltrated the palace somehow, and--"
"In fact," Palpatine continued, "I was expecting you
somewhat earlier. This excellent Fentaraj vintage has been
warming for a half-hour now. Do come in before its bouquet
deteriorates further."
"But my lord!"
His voice took on a harder edge. "Have the next shift
relieve you from your posts for the night. You are dismissed."
The guards limped away, one half-dragging the other. Before
they had gone two meters, Palpatine drew a blaster from his
sleeve and shot them both. The blade of Arcadia's lightsaber
flashed up like indigo dawn. "What do you want from me?"
The Senator graciously extended his blaster, grip first.
"Your company at table, of course. Once you have obliged me with
that, we may discuss other matters. For example, your reasons for
coming to Coruscant in this way, or at all." She hesitantly took
the blaster from him, shoving it into her belt with a stare of
disbelief.
A momentary shudder of indecision rippled through Arcadia.
Her blade flickered and went out as she dropped out of defensive
stance. "I never wanted to set foot on Coruscant again. But you
refused every petition I sent, and you made it impossible for me
to seek justice in your courts. This was the only way left."
"Yes, I intended it so. But come now, you must be hungry
after your jaunt through my security perimeter." He stepped back
into his chambers, obliging Arcadia to follow him. The bodies of
the guards continued to smolder in the empty corridor.
* * *
The oval table had been set with two places. Palpatine
resumed his seat and filled Arcadia's goblet. She hesitated on
the iridescent tiles, her dusty grey fatigues out of place in the
rich surroundings. He motioned toward a chair so intricately
worked that it seemed made of silver lace. "If I'd wanted you
dead, I'd've called an armed detachment, don't you agree?"
"Perhaps. But that might've denied you the pleasure of
killing me yourself."
He leaned back and smiled. "Ah, but I had far more
entertaining alternatives in mind. Believe me when I say this
meal is unpoisoned and undrugged."
Although she could sense a concealment of truths in his
words, there was no falsehood. She ate slowly, waiting for him to
speak. Instead, he simply watched her, his topaz eyes dark in the
dim light. The tension made the complex sauces and gels taste
like ashes.
When she could no longer bear the silence, she asked,
"Anakin is alive, isn't he?"
"Certainly."
"Then why have you indicted General Kenobi and me for his
murder? And where is he?"
"All in good time. I, for one, find that a short stroll
after dining helps my digestion. Let us walk in the gardens, for
now."
He led her to an enclosed courtyard adjoining the chamber.
Espaliered branches pressed against the walls, vainly reaching
toward the glass dome high above. Palpatine chose a path enclosed
by thick-foliaged trees, their branches interwoven and grafted
together overhead. The darkness would have been near-absolute
without the small utility lamp clipped to Arcadia's belt. "I
would make a bargain with you," he said.
"What bargain?"
"Tell me, have you any interest in becoming Vicereine of
Alderaan?"
She stared back at him, at the pleasant, unreadable
expression on the handsome face. As the implications of his
question struck her, she recoiled. "I don't understand your
meaning, my lord."
"You lie, Arcadia. And do call me Palpatine."
"I would prefer not to, my lord."
He snorted. "Very well. Your kinsman Bail Organa has been
troublesome to me in the Senate. His position as Viceroy gives
him a great deal of authority against me. As I understand
Alderaani politics, the title is hereditary, and is granted for
life. Other than his infant daughter, you are his nearest kin,
and therefore his next heir."
An image of Leia flashed before her. She forced the thought
to the back of her mind. "And what if I am? The rank was granted
to the Organas. If they should perish, the Antilles family has no
greater odds of ascendency than several others: House Gatou,
House Liachne--"
"The odds can be altered. Are you content with your life as
a simple healer, Arcadia? You've travelled with the fleet; you've
seen the damage that the Republic's internal feuds can cause. But
if you were Vicereine, you could join your faction to mine.
Instead of healing mere individuals, you could heal the wounds of
the Republic. The combined strength of Alderaan and Coruscant
could unite the galaxy, and bring peace to all our quarrels. What
is the life of one man, compared to that?" The jewels of his
rings glittered as he spread his hands.
The tiny reflections from the facets etched into her
eyesight; she could feel her vision and her mind beginning to
fade into a dark golden haze. Yet there had been no tampering
with her meal-- with an effort, she said, "But I don't...why not
ally with Bail?"
Palpatine shook his head sadly. "He and his followers dote
on anarchy and call it freedom. But your influence could make
them see reason. The Senate and the Republic have too much of
this anarchy already, and I intend to restore order."
The last sentence slashed through his spell on her, and she
stopped walking. "Your order."
"Not mine alone. As Vicereine of Alderaan, you would be my
equal. Join me as my consort, and we shall rule the galaxy
together."
"Why should I wed you? Anakin still lives--"
"At present, yes."
She caught her breath. "And if Bail is killed, I will know
it as your doing. If you force me to become Vicereine against my
will, you will find no ally in me."
"Not even for Anakin's sake?"
Arcadia's fair hair fell down across her face as she jerked
her head away. "You're holding him prisoner, then. If you harm
him, I'll tell the Senate of your plans, and--"
Almost gently, he said, "But you have no proof. Fully-
trained Jedi might draw the knowledge from your mind, but most of
these are in your kinsman's faction. The majority of the Senate
supports me, and would most likely see your claims as mere
Alderaani slander.
"Furthermore, I am scarcely holding Anakin against his will.
General Kenobi left him near death, and my physicians and healers
have been treating him. But since you are averse to the first
bargain I suggested, I have another you might prefer."
She looked back up at him, her brown eyes bitter. "And if I
do not agree, you'll let him die. What is the life of one man,
compared to the good of the galaxy?"
"Tush. As I said, he was badly injured. A meeting at this
point might be a shock to both of you. But if you will administer
a short test for me, I will let you take your Anakin wherever you
desire."
"What would you have me do?"
"I have recently taken on a new student, and would like to
test his mettle. Cross sabers with him for a time. If you defeat
him, he will be no student of mine, and I will give you Anakin
Skywalker. I will even remove all mention of my previous offer
from your mind, since it so distresses you."
"And if I lose?"
"That depends on his whimsy." Palpatine plucked a green-
petalled flower, twirling the bleeding stem between his fingers.
"I fear that this lad dotes on duelling to the death.
"He may reconsider the matter, if you ask. If he defeats and
spares you, I think I can still arrange for you to join Anakin.
But as for my would-be student, I'll divulge that I've not yet
begun his training, while you've been taught the skills of a Jedi
Knight for...three years now, perhaps? By General Kenobi?" When
Arcadia remained silent, Palpatine tsked and dropped the flower
underfoot.
"May I see Anakin before the duel?"
"Alas, no."
"Then what proof can you offer that he still lives?"
"Lady Arcadia, you surprise me. You can sense the truth; do
I lie?"
"You're holding something back."
"But do I lie when I say your consort lives?" He observed
her with great interest. Her gaze was softly unfocused as she
raked her lips with her teeth.
"You do not," she murmured at last. "I will accept your
conditions, but I refuse to kill."
Just as softly, he replied, "Your vow may not be necessary."
* * *
Having escorted Arcadia back from the gardens, Palpatine
keyed her prospective opponent on the comm, voice only. "I have a
visitor who wishes to bargain for a former comrade's custody.
Come to my quarters through the hidden passage, and be ready for
a duel." He did not wait for a response before keying off. "He
should arrive shortly. I have a suit of protective armor you may
wear, and I do suggest you use it."
"But why? I've never used armor before."
"My student does. I wouldn't want you to accuse me of
setting this duel up on unjust terms."
She put the troop armor on, inspecting each piece for
structural flaws. "Why not test him yourself? And am I to fight
him here?" The sweep of her white-gloved hand encompassed the
wealth of the chamber's furnishings: carved wood and stone,
Cheline mirror tapestries, lamps hung with amber drops, flame
sonnets from Reseau.
"Why not here? As for testing, I prefer to observe combat
from a distance, rather than in flagrante delicto." He watched
her make a face at the helmet, checking the fume filters before
lowering it over her head and carefully tucking her hair inside.
"Is your helmet firmly secured? Good. I believe I hear his
approach now." He moved to the wall mosaic and pressed several
tesserae in sequence. One panel sank a hand's depth into the wall
and slid back to reveal opening blast doors. Unhurriedly, he
moved a chair onto an opaline carpet and seated himself,
arranging his robes in flowing folds.
Arcadia froze as her opponent entered the room, sealing the
blast doors behind him. "What is that?" she breathed.
Even distorted by her helmet, her voice was audible to
Palpatine. His eyes ignited with savage amusement as he nodded
across the room. "Introduce yourself, my friend."
The armored figure turned toward Arcadia, breath hissing
through its black mask. "I am Darth Vader. Whom do I face, my
master?"
Even as Arcadia opened her mouth to speak, Palpatine made an
airy gesture. "The name is unimportant. This person wishes to
spar with you, Lord Vader."
Vader took his lightsaber from his belt, activating it and
holding it ready before him. The red light of the blade spilled
over the floor like blood. He waited.
"This is your student?" Her incredulity survived the passage
through the helmet filters.
"Why, you disappoint me. But if you wish to cancel our
agreement and leave alone, I'm sure your former comrade will
understand." He was answered by the whiplash flare of Arcadia's
lightsaber. Bracing herself, she moved warily toward Lord Vader.
The two sabers crossed, red against blue-violet, barely touching.
"You are the challenger," the obsidian mask rasped.
"Commence."
"Senator Palpatine has said you often fight to the death.
Will you ease your terms?"
"If I find you a worthy opponent. Now will you begin, or
must I?"
She darted forward and swung her blade low, toward his legs.
He blocked the blow easily and carried the motion up to throw her
back. As he lunged in attack, his cloak billowed behind like
black wings.
Vader's reach was greater than hers, she saw. Ordinarily,
she would have had an advantage in speed and agility over this
armor-clad giant, but her own armor impeded her. She stepped
aside more slowly than she should have, and the blood-hued saber
bit into the carpets centimeters from her moving feet.
She evaluated her adversary as they fought. Like herself,
his movements were stiffened by the armor; despite Palpatine's
words, Vader seemed scarcely better-accustomed to it than she
was.
Dodging behind a tall stone screen, she drew him behind it
then leapt over to the other side to wait for his return around
the edge. The crackle of vaporizing amethyst warned her to wheel
about as Vader slashed through the screen and advanced through
the severed halves. She was still able to strike his thigh,
leaving a dull melted smear on the surface of his cuisse, but he
moved away before she could reach the weakened spot again.
He inclined his head. "First blood," he said, and thrust at
her again.
By implicit pact, they both avoided the lethal targets of
head and torso. But the narrow beams of energy could cripple as
well as kill; a blow from Vader skittered down Arcadia's
reflective vambrace and fell aside, removing a thin shaving of
plasteel. It would have taken her arm off at the elbow had she
been unprotected. She parried his next blow, and the next,
turning her damaged side away each time, then drove him back
until he stumbled on a fragment of the felled stone screen. He
fell heavily, jarred enough to lose his hold on his saber. The
blade hissed and winked out as the handle rolled away.
Palpatine stretched out his hand, to which Vader's
deactivated lightsaber obligingly flew. Arcadia lowered her own
weapon, releasing the activation stud. "Have I fulfulled our
bargain, my lord?"
His expression was beatific. "I believe so, my lady--
provided, of course, that Lord Vader agrees. Do you concede the
match, my friend, or do you wish to demand lethal terms? I think
our visitor would like to take her friend back to Alderaan as
quickly as possible."
Vader, who had been regaining his footing, froze in place.
Fleetingly, Arcadia thought the joints of his armor might have
been damaged by the fall. "Alderaan?" he repeated.
"Why, yes," Palpatine said brightly. "Did I neglect to tell
you before?" He tossed the lightsaber back to Vader.
Vader straightened and stood up with savage abruptness. He
crushed his gloves around the saber handle as he spoke, stepping
slowly toward her. "I would yield to an equal, but I will enjoy
your death, Alderaani bitch!" His blade ignited and slammed down
at her as he charged.
She barely reactivated her own saber in time. Crimson
reflections from Vader's glinted on her armored wrists, just
before her eyes, as she blocked the vicious swing at her head. He
forced the blade down at her until she could feel her gauntlets
scrape against the mask of her helmet.
Stunned by the suddenness and strength of his attack, she
dropped to the floor and rolled aside. Scrambling upright, she
ducked under another swing and struck his side. The blow cut away
a great swath of his cloak, but did little damage to his body.
He snarled and kicked out at her shoulder. Arcadia cried out
as the blow connected, flinging her back, but somehow retained
her balance. Out of his reach, she struggled for air and
composure. _He's in a killing rage_, she thought. _He'll
overreact to any moves I make, if he notices them at all. All or
nothing_.
A few feints confirmed her conjecture. She led him forward
into the glass-domed courtyard, then leaped into the shadowed
colonnade. As he followed her, the iolite gleam of her lightsaber
vanished. Enraged, Vader ran ahead into the darkness.
Just around the bend, Arcadia slipped out of the colonnade
between two trees and looped back, reentering behind him. Vader
had slowed, looking before him in the dim red illumination from
his blade, when she leaped up at his back, catching one arm
around his neck and dragging him down. The light for which he had
been hunting now flashed up across his vision.
"I have no wish to kill you. Will you yield?"
He caught her by the wrist, forcing her saber away from his
mask as he spun and struck at her one-handed. "You are a fool,
Alderaani."
She tossed her saber to her free hand, catching it before he
could call it to himself. But she was unable to parry at full
strength; his slash tore partway into her neck armor before she
could stop it. Her flesh was barely touched, but she could hear
the vapor seals giving way. He flung her back, and she fell onto
the paving, saber handle flying.
The loosened helmet tilted up, obstructing her vision. She
threw it off to see Vader's blade poised over her heart. Her own
saber was in his other hand. She closed her eyes, waiting for the
searing blow.
It did not come. When she opened her eyes again, Vader was
still standing over her. His voice sounded as if his breath had
been struck from his body. "Dia. What are you doing here?"
That diminutive, coming from that black skull-mask, struck
her much as his saber would have done. The shock rippled through
her body from the heart outward. "Anakin?" Arcadia levered
herself up on her elbows, but the red blade flicked up to aim at
her throat.
"Why are you here? Was Kenobi not enough to satisfy you?"
Light poured over them as Palpatine approached, a lamp in
hand. "Ah, I see you two have met."
Her fair hair had come undone when she removed the helmet;
it poured down now in a smooth, vermilion-lit flow. "Why didn't
you tell me the truth about him? Anakin, I-- I came to bring you
back from here. I didn't know--" She turned toward Palpatine
again, straining back from the awful soft sound of the
lightsaber, an electric purr like cloth being torn.
"When did I lie to you? Your friend Kenobi fought Anakin
Skywalker and left him for dead. My people found him laid out
like bracken on the edge of a lava pit, and for a long time, his
survival was an exceedingly tenuous matter-- hence the indictment
of you and General Kenobi."
"But I didn't--"
"Anakin was quite emphatic that you'd planned his death with
Kenobi." Palpatine polished his nails against his sleeve. "I just
wanted to ensure justice was done, in the event of his death."
"If he's survived, why haven't you withdrawn the
indictment?"
"Survived?" Palpatine turned wide golden eyes to the
motionless black figure. "Anakin Skywalker no longer exists. You
face Darth Vader now. Is this not so, my friend?"
"It is, my master."
"Well, that settles that. You have lost, Arcadia. And now I
will keep my promise and let you join Anakin. If you would step
back, Lord Vader?" Vader backed away, saber still in hand. When
he had retreated to a safe distance, Palpatine unleashed his
power.
He shaped his hands as if holding a soft, flat box with his
fingertips, and blasted her with pure hell. The lightning wrapped
around her and through her. Through the appalling pain, she felt
her throat shredding raw from the screams forced from it. Her
lungs filled with the thick, corrosive scent of ozone struck from
the air. When the pain stopped, a fine froth of blood oozed from
her mouth as she gasped through it.
"When I am done with you, my lady, my medics will devise
life-support prosthetics for you like Lord Vader's. And you will
infiltrate the court of your cousin Bail for me and do as I bid,
or I will halt your prosthetics by remote and let you drown in
your own blood." The ice-blue bolts licked out again. At the next
respite, she could only whimper, weakly coughing spume onto her
cheek. Her convulsions had thrown her to Vader's feet, and she
looked up to see the impassive mask gazing down at her.
"Anakin, please," she whispered. "If any part of you is
truly still alive, then please kill me. Kill me now."
"Move away from her." Slowly, Vader moved back a pace, still
looking at her. She was curled on her side, her eyes fixed on
him. THe last time he had seen her like that was the morning
Kenobi had confronted him-- no, when Kenobi confronted _Anakin_.
He shook his head to clear it. Inside one glove, on his intact
right hand, he could feel the marriage ring press against his
finger, where it had been moved from the remains of his left hand.
But on that morning, her face and hair had been luminous in
the morning sunlight, not shadowed and flecked with blood. Anakin
would not want her to suffer like this, Vader thought.
"A little farther, if you please." Palpatine gestured
impatiently.
Arcadia looked away from the blank eyes of the mask. Within
seconds, incandescent brilliance streaked back into her vision,
but red instead of blue. She saw the lightsaber slash down across
the white armor over her chest, then nothing.
Palpatine exhaled sharply. "I thought you had learned
obedience. It seems I must remind you again. But first, I must
implement my alternate plan." He stalked back to his main
quarters and keyed the comm. "Guard captain, a Jedi assassin
disguised as a stormtrooper entered my apartments less than an
hour ago. I was saved only by the fortuitous presence of Lord
Vader, with whom I had been dining. I want the Senate informed
about the true aims of these Jedi-- they're dangerous religious
fanatics, and the tools of unscrupulous politicians like my
enemies. Bring holocams to record the scene when you fetch the
corpse from my garden. I will take Lord Vader to have his wounds
treated by my own physicians."
He turned in irritation when he realized Vader had not
followed him. Keying off the comm, Palpatine went to the
courtyard doorway. "If you do not come now, I assure you that you
will regret this day's work even more."
Vader walked out of the colonnade, his rent cloak fluttering
behind him. Palpatine gave his mind a touch like hands shaping
clay. "Forget everything she said. Think only of her deeds. She
colluded with Kenobi against you. She tried to kill you herself."
"Yes. She tried to kill me herself," Vader dully repeated.
In the deep shadows beneath the trees, Arcadia lay sprawled,
half-severed by the saber blow that had killed her. Her body
gleamed twice in the faint, distant light. One reflection was
from her lightsaber handle, which Vader had tucked back into her
hands. The other was from the half-melted ring he had placed on
her finger.