PROLOGUE: Revenge of
-Midway through the Clone Wars-
Jedi knighting ceremonies made insular affairs, Chancellor Palpatine -- the Sith Lord Darth Sidious -- reflected. Only Jedi knights were allowed to attend -- knights, and anyone close to the graduating padawans whom the padawans wished to invite. And Jedi padawans were never close to anyone except other Jedi. Palpatine was the first Supreme Chancellor to attend a knighting in many decades -- and the only practicing Sith to attend one, ever.
Padmé Amidala Skywalker had run into him at the entrance to the Jedi Temple's great Convocation Hall. Together they stood through interminable singing, chanting, lighting of torches, and various processionals down the center aisle. The ceremony did not allow for anyone to sit -- some foolish Jedi custom intended to Honor The Force We All Serve. And to discourage attendance by non-Jedi, no doubt.
Lady Skywalker had obviously been cautioned to discard her ornate headdresses and pounds of petticoats in favor of something more comfortable. Her green velvet gown, appropriately somber, showed off her tiny waist to perfection. Even so, after about an hour she started shifting from foot to foot, and Palpatine -- Master Sidious -- having been through more trials of physical privation than this tender little creature could even imagine, gazed respectfully ahead and managed to hold back a smile. Just.
The vast marble hall, dark except for evenly spaced torches on the walls, sloped gently down to a softly lit stage on which the padawans, one by one, now lit candles and recited a name, for each candle, of a person they felt had been instrumental to their success, a form of thanks before the ritual severing of the braid.
The technology of the ceremony seemed deliberately simple, perhaps in deference to tradition. Anakin had told him that the ritual shears were fifteen hundred years old, kept in mint condition, and used only for this ceremony. Each padawan walked on from stage right, lit his candles among a forest of them preplaced on the stage, knelt for the braid cutting, was dubbed a knight, and then exited stage left.
Palpatine spied Anakin next in line, and this time could not keep the smile from his lips. Once and for the last time in the history of their wretched order, a Jedi would receive his knighthood after publicly thanking a Sith.
The padawan ahead of Anakin was dubbed a knight. While he knelt on the stage and his master severed his braid, Anakin looked in Palpatine's direction, caught sight of someone, and smiled. Probably me, Palpatine thought. No one could see little Amidala from that distance. Anakin started across the stage as the previous padawan left, bowed his head with appropriate gravity as his name was announced, then walked to the candle stands and lit a lucifer from the last candle lit.
He began lighting his own candles, a small grouping of five.
One. "Master Obi-Wan Kenobi," he said. Two. "Master Yoda." Three. "Master Bant."
Palpatine was becoming annoyed.
Four. "Senator Padmé Amidala."
Five. "Master Qui-Gon Jinn."
And Anakin Skywalker blew out his lucifer and knelt on the stage. Obi-Wan Kenobi approached him bearing the ritual gold shears.
A slow heat suffused Palpatine, sweeping from his very toes to the tips of his hair. Blackhearted little -- How did he dare?
Just for the sheer man-hours he'd spent consoling the padawan's whining, Palpatine deserved more than anyone else to be mentioned on that stage. Where could Anakin be counted upon to show up when he was unhappy? It certainly wasn't Senator Amidala's. Abruptly Palpatine remembered himself, and endeavored to keep his anger from showing on his face.
Anakin Skywalker was no Jedi, that was certain. Gratitude was so far from that selfish little heart that, when Palpatine willed it, the dark side would come pouring in.
And then, Sidious thought, glancing at all the Jedi standing packed around him, he will help me murder every one of you.
Late that evening, Palpatine sat at his computer console in his private office, scanning the day's headlines. A time-consuming task, but until he was able to place the entire holonet under the control of the Supreme Chancellor's Office, a necessary one. He had staffers whose job it was to cull the most interesting items for him.
He flipped rapidly through the stories until a familiar face stopped him. One finger absentmindedly covering his top lip, he slowly sank forwards toward his holoprojector.
As beautiful as ever, he thought coolly, except for that hideous gray in her hair.
Palpatine certainly would never have tolerated that.
She had only given one interview in her life, and that one to help advance the career of a journalist friend. Oddly enough, she used this one to say the most laudatory things about Palpatine, his performance as Chancellor, and his conduct of the war. As he watched, the reason became more and more difficult to discern. Was this a shrewd means of pleading with him for her husband's life -- or did she really believe what she was saying?
If she did, the picture that sprang to the Master's mind of the resulting state of her married life gave Palpatine his first good laugh of the week. He turned off the holovid feed, chuckling to himself.
The only reason Finis Valorum could ever have married her in the first place was that he, Sidious, had allowed it.
Lord Sidious pushed a button on his armchair console.
His door chime rang and Sate Pestage, his trusted aide, stepped in. "Yes, master?"
"This matter of the Star of Iskin freighter crash. I'm afraid that the one passenger we intended to eliminate survived."
"I apologize, master."
"No, no apologies. Just make certain this gets done. He's had entirely too much contact with Mothma and Organa lately to suit us.
"Former Chancellor Finis Valorum must not leave that hospital alive."
"Master." Pestage bowed. Then he said, "I was about to message you in any case, my lord. Anakin Skywalker is here to see you. He sends you an apology for the lateness of the hour."
Palpatine frowned. How much more would this brat put him through before it would all pay off? He checked his chrono, hesitating, then heaved an exasperated sigh. "Show him in."
He put his forehead briefly in his hand as he waited, and shook his head. Now what?
Skywalker's voice startled him. "Chancellor?"
Pestage had left the door open. Palpatine jerked his head up. "Anakin. Welcome."
"Are -- are you all right, sir? You looked tired."
Palpatine forced a smile. "I am, a bit, I suppose. Allow me to congratulate you again, my friend. An honor long overdue."
"Chancellor," said Anakin, biting his lip. "I'm sorry I'm here so late. When I thought about this, I had to -- I had to apologize."
"Apologize?" said Palpatine, a distinctly uncomfortable feeling stirring in his gut. "Why, whatever have you done to give offense?"
"I think..." The boy could hardly look at him. "I think I mentioned everyone of importance to me on that stage today, but you. When Padmé pointed it out, I just -- I don't know what I was thinking."
Palpatine tried to stop the boy by holding up a hand. "Anakin, please. There's no need, especially at the twenty-second hour."
"Please, sir." The boy's voice sounded strained. "There is a need. You do so much for so many, and you're so tired, and -- I know I have to be a burden to you."
A spark of satisfaction. A true Sith, indeed. He can't even apologize without asking me for something!
The lie rose easily to his lips, as lies so often did these days. "Now, Anakin, you've never been a burden to me. You musn't -- "
"No, sir, please, just listen."
Palpatine stopped and waitied, peering across his holovid projector while the boy squirmed in front of him. Anakin, Anakin. Couldn't Kenobi at least have taught you some manners?
And then Anakin dropped his gaze to the floor, quieted himself, wet his lips, and looked up.
"I may have forgotten you, sir, but only for a moment -- that's all. You, more than anyone else, know how hard my training has been for me. There were times, if you hadn't been here to talk to, I don't know what I'd have done. You're the one who really got me through all this, not Obi-Wan."
Were those actual tears in Anakin's eyes? Now Palpatine wanted to squirm -- and couldn't.
"I really love you, sir," Anakin burst out. "You're the closest thing I have to a father. And I -- I want you to have this." His voice quavered. "I'll never forget what you've meant to me these past, almost twelve years, sir. That's a promise."
Anakin approached, laid something on the desk, and backed away again.
Palpatine scarcely noticed what it was. Anger and irritation writhed like eels in his gut; heat broke over the nape of his neck and poured sweat down his back. He forced himself to sit stock still, forced back that angry narrowing at the corners of his eyes that his former campaign manager had often chided him about. Only one finger belied his tension, tracing fitful circles on the arm of his chair.
He bit the words out. "Thank you, Anakin Skywalker. Thank you." Keep it short. He could tell the boy wanted to leave, too.
"Good night, sir." Anakin bowed from the waist, and left.
Palpatine's thoughts scattered like so much scrambled eggs, with absolutely no control. Anger was of the dark side, but sometimes, without warning, control left him, even though the dark side was still very much present.
Thank Darkness it wasn't very often. All Palpatine understood was that it was awful, and that he must regain control of the wild anger that howled in his mind as quickly as possible.
He was angry at Skywalker. Yes, that was it. The boy was much too attached to him. No, it wasn't strictly forbidden, and yes, Sith had done it, but -- those Sith had never amounted to very much. Those Sith were lowly Scholars who had never amounted to anything.
Palpatine got up and paced around his study. That was the problem with apprentices, they always tried to attach to the person training them. Maul had done it. Sidious had tried to prevent it, but he had failed utterly. Approval, approval -- Maul had bent himself over backward for his approval, which was really, Sidious realized now, nothing more than a disguised form of that bastard light. Sidious had been as cruel as he knew how, and still Maul had craved it.
He had thought he could do better with someone he hadn't raised. Yan Dooku was old enough to be his father, and still the blasted attachment was there. This time it was a shadow of that infernal Jedi training that stubbornly refused to die, no matter what Sidious tried. He foresaw that, somehow, the old man would have a clear chance to kill him and would pass it up, electing to save Sidious's life instead. A student who felt that kind of devotion would never reach his full potential as a Sith. Failure to progress, Lord Bane always called it with a sneer, and he was right.
That that very failure would preserve his own life posed a conundrum Palpatine had yet to answer.
Palpatine paused by the window. Perhaps only he and Lord Bane had solved the attachment question entirely. No -- only Sidious had. Lord Bane had founded the Sith Order and thus had had no one to attach to. Sidious used Lord Bane's opinions as a guide, and he did crave his approval, but only as a means to tread the correct path. Bane himself could leave the Burial Temple and be lost to the dark side, for all Sidious cared. Not that he would actually try to bring about such a thing, out of respect for the Fallen Masters who had trained him...but then Sidious would never suffer entrapment in that accursed place, to begin with.
And if he ever should, he would reign over them all. That would be akin to grinding the great Bane under his boot heel, and that was enough for Sidious. Some things were sacred, even to a Sith.
He smiled. His breathing fell quiet, and his limbs had stilled their trembling. He was back in control. He felt better.
And then his gaze fell upon his desk. There lay a length of braided hair, tied neatly at both ends -- the severed padawan braid of Anakin Skywalker.
What it must have cost the boy to leave this here with him! A Jedi padawan owned nothing, the ritual braid severed at his knighting his most precious gift. Usually the new knight's former master was its recipient. Kenobi must certainly be wondering where it was right now. And young Lady Skywalker, too.
Palpatine's fists clenched reflexively as the twin eels began their dance in his gut again. He itched to do something, anything. A couple of MagnaGuards had just arrived in the Works; he had ordered them sent from the Invisible Hand. No master should ever be out of practice with the lightsaber.
He stalked through his rooms to collect the appropriate garments and one of his lightsabers, took the lift into the subbasement, and let himself out into the night.
Two days later Sate Pestage reported to the Chancellor's private office.
"I bring you...unfortunate news, master. It seems that upon regaining consciousness, former Chancellor Valorum had his wife move him...somewhere. I've searched for two days, and I can't find him."
Palpatine scowled. "Continue your search."