*If you missed the Prologue, click the heading "Fiction Section" above.
"Are you going to kill me?" came the Chancellor's voice. Anakin stared at the back of his head.
His lightsaber quivered inches from the nape of Palpatine's neck. They circled each other warily in the wide corridor between the Chancellor's small private gray office and his grand public one, done in shades of red. No, the Sith lord's offices, Anakin thought, feeling sick to his stomach.
What am I going to do?
A thousand thoughts overwhelmed him. If Palpatine were Darth Sidious, and Count Dooku was his apprentice, then -- then -- the war --
Anakin saw it all, hundreds of Jedi dead, thousands of people killed. The destruction on Kashyyk, the suffering on so many Outer Rim worlds, the deaths of so many right here on Coruscant, only days ago. It all poured over him in seconds.
But -- General Grievous had kidnapped Palpatine! How? It couldn't be true.
And then Anakin remembered the expression on Palpatine's face. Calm, imperious, self-satisfied.
"Kill him. Kill him now." The tone rang in his head.
The stricken look as Dooku turned to Palpatine, then Anakin --
Had he even turned on his own apprentice? Oh, worse -- had he set that up, to kill his own apprentice?
And all Anakin and Obi-Wan had gone through to rescue him! How torn Anakin had been at the very thought that one silver hair on that noble head should be harmed --
Anakin's stomach turned.
The look on Palpatine's face as he said it-- "The only way to save your wife from certain death." Had Anakin actually seen a smile?
Thirteen years flashed through Anakin's brain. The drinks, the chess games, the dinners, the talks, the companionship --
How could Palpatine be doing this to him?
He felt the tears start. The trembling seized him, backing him away.
"I -- I can't. I can't --"
Palpatine turned to face him, held out one hand. His expression was indecipherable. Concern pursed the lips, pleading, even, but something else knitted the brows. Consternation, perhaps?
Anakin cried out from his very heart. "How could you do this to me?"
And the next instant his lightsaber was back on his belt, and he was running. Blind, tortured running, he knew not where.
A million still-lifes of their friendship flew through his head. His breath hurt in his lungs. No, no, no.
The corridors of the Senate Office Building streamed past, people stopping and staring in strobe flashes. He stopped on a landing platform and bent to catch his breath.
He had to talk to someone. But Obi-Wan wasn't here, nor Master Yoda.
He stopped cold. He couldn't go to the Jedi Temple at all.
If he did, they would kill Palpatine.
And what about Padme?
For a wild moment Anakin wanted to
run to her, to tell her. Help me, help me decide what to do --
But he knew he couldn't. If he told her, she'd go straight to the Jedi herself.
She'd kill herself, if she knew. And their baby.
With a sickening jolt, Anakin realized he was alone with his knowledge, utterly alone. There was no one he could tell. Any other time, he would have told Palpatine. The empty place where their friendship had been ached like a wound in his heart.
He stood, desolate, heaving.
Padme. He would go to Padme's. He couldn't tell her, and she couldn't help, but she would be there.
At least she would be there.
Threepio would not let him in. "Master Anakin. Miss Padme is in a very important meeting and left orders that she should not be disturbed."
Anakin fought the urge to Force-twist the droid's shiny metallic head right off of his body.
"Threepio. Announce me."
Threepio's servos whirred as the droid retreated to Padme's sitting room.
"Senator Amidala. Please forgive the interruption --" Threepio's voice lowered to an indistinct murmur.
"Um --" His wife's sense strummed and jangled in the Force. "Tell him half an hour, Threepio. Half an hour."
Another voice, older, patrician. Anakin knew he recognized it, but from where?
"Half an hour?" the voice said. "Senator Amidala, I know you're uncomfortable with this, but we do need more than half an hour."
Who was that? And yes, Padme was uncomfortable, but a part of that was personal, Anakin sensed in the Force, and directed at the speaker. Anakin closed his eyes and probed at his wife's thoughts.
And got a quick image, as it was sometimes possible for him to do with Padme. Queen Amidala addressing the Senate, Palpatine at her side, and the man at the podium --
What was former Chancellor Valorum doing in Padme's living room?
His wife felt flustered to him, in the Force. "Gentlemen -- and ladies -- I'm sorry," she said. "Tell him -- an hour and a half? Threepio, thank you."
Valorum's voice continued. "As most of you know, my wife worked for the current Chancellor for a number of years. She has expressed some concerns to me, and I thought they were good ones. Your Graces, if she may speak, I think she could more effectively explain these issues herself."
A murmuring arose from the sitting room, and someone said, "Lady Valorum." Threepio came clicking and whirring back into view.
"Master Anakin, Miss Padme has requested that --"
"I know, Threepio, I heard."
A woman's voice began to speak. "Gentlebeings. Most of you know me, because I've worked for you, too. Terr. Bail. You know that I know Palpatine, and I have to say that I don't think your approach here is going to get you the results you want."
Something in Valorum leaped out at Anakin in the Force, and with a sudden movement he reached behind Threepio for the off switch.
"Master Anakin, you will have to --"
Silence. Anakin stepped in and let the door close behind him, listening, trying to trace what he sensed in the former Chancellor to its source.
Senator Mon Mothma: "I hope you aren't suggesting we do nothing. Chancellor Palpatine has entirely too much power. If the two of you are disagreeing with that, I don't see how anything you might contribute could possibly be useful."
"I'm not disagreeing with that at all, and neither is my husband. What I'm telling you needs to be modified is your approach. Not what, but how."
Bail Organa: "How many times have you heard that?" A few murmured chuckles.
Lady Valorum's voice grew softer and more intense. Anakin crept forward, straining to hear.
"Follow this through to conclusion. What happens? One of two things. One: You could be wrong about this. Palpatine listens to you, furrows his brow, and says, 'Of course you're concerned. I'm sorry. Here's what we'll do instead --' and then you can negotiate. No hostility, you're on the same side. You part friends.
Fat chance, Anakin thought, putting his hand over a deep soreness in his stomach.
"Outcome two: It doesn't go well. For whatever reasons -- and it doesn't matter what they are -- Palpatine says no. 'I'm not ready, I'm not willing, I'm not going to give up any of these powers at this time.' Where are you then? Can you make him give anything up?"
Silence, and a murmur.
"No," confirmed Lady Valorum. "Exactly. And you've threatened him, and you've made an enemy. And there will be no further negotiation from that point."
Padmé's voice, raised in protest:
"But we're not threatening! We're just
asking -- "
Lady Valorum's voice again. "I know that's how you feel about it. But I know Palpatine. I've known him twenty-two years. I saw him teach his first class in law at Carmona. I ran most of his election campaigns. I wrote his most important speeches. I worked for him and saw him every day for eight years. And I know how he is going to react to this, and it isn't going to be good."
Padmé again: "But I've known him a long time, too, he's my friend! Surely he's not going to react badly to a simple request."
"Palpatine isn't humble like my husband or like Bail, here. Palpatine is high-strung, and touchy, and prideful. He just hides it well. If you do it this way, he's going to feel accused. He's going to feel threatened. He's going to feel unsafe. And then both sides will be angry, and there will be a large deterioration." Lady Valorum's tone changed, darker. "I've known him a lot longer and better than you have. With respect, my lady."
Anakin sensed the former Chancellor again, clearly now.
An unidentified male voice: "So, tell us what you suggest."
Lady Valorum's voice went on, low, urgent, intense, and Anakin crept closer still.
An hour passed. The discussion concluded. The rustles of fabric from the living room and the sudden flutter in the Force signaled everyone's intention to leave. Anakin stirred from his place in Padme's foyer and stealthily backed out.
He waited behind a pillar in the corridor as the Senators filed past him. At last Chancellor Valorum appeared in Padme's doorway, holding a lovely fortyish woman with long, curly, graying red hair by the arm.
It hit Anakin suddenly that he hadn't sensed a thing from this woman the entire time she had held the floor. With so many other beings present, and at a short distance and out of sight, that hadn't been unusual, as he didn't know her, but -- standing there in the corridor, the only beings he sensed in the Force were his wife and Valorum. Even the wall had more feeling in the Force than Lady Valorum. She felt like a hologram.
She wasn't even there.
Chancellor Valorum's sense in the Force hung in the hallway all around him. A trepidation, a kind of despair.
Anakin strode out from behind his pillar and up to the three of them. Padme glowered at him.
A quick bow to Chancellor Valorum. "Chancellor. Senator. Lady Valorum. I am Anakin Skywalker."
Lady Valorum gave him a respectful bow of her head. "Jedi Skywalker, of course. A pleasure."
The Chancellor turned dubious eyes on Padme, who cast a glance at her husband that said, Anakin, what are you doing?
"I'm sorry, Padme." Anakin turned to the older woman. "I was in the foyer and heard everything that you said." He turned back to Lady Valorum. "Before you go to talk with Palpatine, I have to talk to you."
They all stared at him. "Alone," he said. "Now. Please. Padme, may we use your kitchen?"
Padme glared at him, her brows rushing together over her nose. "Anakin --" He got it. She didn't want to be left alone with Valorum.
Anakin said, "I've just come from the Chancellor. It's desperately important."
Padme's shoulders drooped and she said, "All right. Please come in. Chancellor, may I get you anything?"
Anakin rounded on Lady Valorum in Padme's darkened kitchen, pinning her down with his gaze. Night had fallen and the shadows from passing ships outside darkened her features.
Anakin said, "Lights," dispelling the shadows.
The Chancellor's wife ran a hand up her brow and over her hair. "So, you saw Palpatine. I'm not even going to ask why, or how, you eavesdropped on our conversation. Have you heard something there that might help us? Something about the war, maybe?"
"I have to...I have to be careful what I tell you. Help me out," said Anakin. "You were closer to Palpatine than just an aide."
"Well, if you heard everything I said --? I was a student of his when he taught law at Carmona. I worked for him for eight years." She shrugged.
"You were closer than that."
She crossed her arms over her breast. Backed up a step, closed off.
"Please. It's important. I need -- I heard the way you talked about him in there. I need help, I need advice, from someone who won't bolt and betray Palpatine. I don't believe you will. What was your exact relationship to him?"
"You can't possibly know anything about Palpatine and me," she said.
"Tell me. Tell me I can trust you, whatever I say to you. I felt it -- from your husband."
She slit her eyes at him, her voice an angry hiss. "Since you asked. Palpatine and I were lovers for close to eight years. I almost married him. Does that satisfy you, Jedi? What. Do you. Want?"
"To trust you. Do you still care for Chancellor Palpatine?"
Her blue eyes snapped at him. She said nothing.
Anakin gestured with his head toward the sitting room, where Padmé and the former Chancellor were no doubt having an interesting and awkward discussion.
"He thinks you do. You made a lot of sense in there. I'm asking you to advise me, the way you just advised them. If I tell you something terrible, I have to know that I can trust you. Tell me. Do you still love him?"