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Title: Falls the Shadow
Author: Maia (maia@bastcastle.org)
Rating: PG-13
Category: AU, Adventure, Romance, some Angst.
Characters: Vader, OFC, a few other OC’s, and familiar faces.

Disclaimer: I am not making any money from this, and he doesn’t belong to me. Darn.

Summary: The Sith Lord finds himself caught in competition with the Prince Xizor for the Emperor’s favour.

Author’s Note: Immediately follows ‘Departures and Arrivals.’ Some of the dialogue is extracted from Shadows of the Empire (comics and books).


The light of lights looks always on the motive, not the deed, the shadow of shadows on the deed alone. - William Butler Yeats


Imperial Center, Coruscant, Core Worlds, Year 3, Month 9.

DAY 19

I set my hairbrush down with a sigh. Ani is in his office, reading reports again. He’s trying to stay busy, but I know that being confined to Coruscant rankles him. The Sith Lord is too much a man of action to stay in one place or be idle for very long. By the end of the week, I expect he will be practically climbing the walls trying to find things to do. At least when he was stuck on Vjun with me, I was able to keep him occupied much of the time.

Mikal and the twins are happily chasing one another around. They can’t get into too much trouble, so I decide to go see what my husband is up to.

Ani, I find, is at his desk, frowning at the flimsy in his hand.

‘What’s wrong, dear?’ I venture, not really expecting an answer.

‘Zaarin,’ he replies, dropping the sheet onto the stack in front of him. ‘He’s up to something.’

I settle myself in a chair near him and wait. Sometimes my husband will tell me more, if he is having trouble figuring out a vague feeling or can’t quite put his finger on what the problem is. Helping him through a ‘brain lock’ as he calls it is one of the few times he lets me assist him with his work.

‘And?’ I gently prod when nothing is forth coming.

‘I just have a feeling that he is going to try something, and soon,’ Ani admits. ‘It’s nothing substantial, nothing I can prove. Just a compilation of odd little occurrences.’

I nod. He’s had subtle warnings from the Force before, and they are usually a good indication of what is to come. But Ani has also made mistakes in the past.

‘Perhaps you need to talk to someone who knows him better?’ I hint.

That tactic worked the last time he thought one of the Grand Admirals was plotting mischief, and saved Ani a great deal of embarrassment when his suspicions proved to be unfounded. Miltin Takel hadn’t been planning an attack against the Sith Lord - he had been concealing a spice addiction and an illicit affair with a Twi’lek dancer. It’s one thing to indulge in private, quite another when it becomes public knowledge. The scandal once those secrets came out had given the media fodder for weeks afterwards and prompted the Emperor to send Takel to the Outer Rim in disgrace for over a year.

A slow, impish smile emerges. Rats. Now my husband is up to something, and I know I just suggested it to him in some way.

‘The Garret is in system,’ Ani announces. ‘Perhaps I should go see how her crew is performing.’

I give him an odd look. What? There’s no apparent connection between that and what we were just discussing.

‘And what does that have to do with Zaarin?’ I ask, curious.

‘Major Steele is aboard, and he knows Zaarin fairly well, or did at one time,’ he reveals.

The Sith Lord gets out of his chair, comes over to me, and drops a kiss on the top of my head. I take his hand when he offers it.

‘Time to get into my armour,’ he tells me as I am gently pulled to my feet.

My eyes glance away from his to Michael’s prison which is sitting on his desk. I know that letting my brother out while Palpatine is on planet is not a good idea. But Ani still hasn’t spent much time studying it and I am getting a bit concerned. What if my sibling is permanently trapped inside it?

Ani sees where I am looking and turns my face with his hand.

‘I’ll get him out of there, sooner or later,’ he promises, setting his forehead against my own. ‘We should enjoy the peace and quiet while we can.’

I smile at his teasing. Given Michael’s tendency to hang about, cause trouble, and visit Ani late at night, I can see why the Sith Lord is in no hurry to let him loose.

‘I know you will,’ I answer before I kiss him on the mouth, only to be interrupted by our eldest.

‘Mommy!’ Mikal complains from the office doorway. ‘Shmi took my bantha!’

My turn to play mediator, Ani decides.

He lets me go and heads over to deal with the latest skirmish between our children. After a few minutes, our son’s voice has grown quiet, so I go into the kitchen, knowing that the dispute over the toy has been settled. When I peer into the children’s room, I see that all three have their own banthas. Ani must have opted to dig the others out of the toy box rather than make Mikal share his. That was the quick and easy solution, but not necessarily the best one.

A pair of leather clad arms wrap around me from behind, and I feel his chest box poke me in the back. Ani will be gone soon, to do whatever errands he has been ordered to. I turn about in his embrace and wait for the kiss I expect to receive.

This time we are able to finish it.

While he puts his mask and helmet on, I watch silently. If he didn’t have to wear that, he would look like any other handsome, but scarred, veteran. When he catches my eye, I wink at him. I have something special planned for later, and he has no idea what I am up to.

‘I am going to the Garret,’ he reminds me once he is ready. ‘My planetside tasks can wait until tomorrow.’

I sidle up to him and pull myself as close as I can manage. Ani’s surprise at my move is obvious.

‘You might be the Empire’s for today,’ I whisper suggestively into his ear, ‘but tonight you are mine.’

There is a low chuckle in answer before he brushes my cheek with his gloved hand and is gone.

***

Going to the Garret is pushing my master’s restrictions, but he made no distinction between Coruscant, the planet, and Coruscant, the system. And he will be leaving soon to go oversee some secret project of his, so I won’t bother to ask for clarification. Until he tells me otherwise, I will simply assume he meant the system.

While I wait for Major Stele to be brought to me, I stare out at Ulabo, the Coruscant system’s outermost planet and a barren heap of lifeless, icy rock. There is nothing particularly interesting about it, but I find that looking outside the ship makes the crew think I am doing something mysterious. If they only knew that most of the time it was to keep myself from becoming completely bored.

Captain Barich is standing nervously behind me. I can hear him shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He’s worried his crew won’t measure up to my standards, but my inspection will be a cursory one. Checking his ship’s performance is merely a cover for why I am really here.

‘Major Stele, reporting as ordered, my lord,’ I hear an even, baritone voice announce.

Now here is an officer who is not at all intimidated by me. I slowly turn around to face him. Another Imperial poster boy, I decide. He’s the perfect type to go in a recruiting ad. Months ago, I promoted him and had him sent to the Garret to see how he would perform. So far, he has more than exceeded my expectations. I stare silently at him, to see what his reaction will be, and if it were possible for someone to straighten even further, he manages to do it.

‘At ease, Major,’ I finally tell him. ‘I have a few questions for you.’

Even at ease, he is at attention, I note, amused.

‘I want you to tell me everything you know about Admiral Zaarin’s personality,’ I order.

Stele worked with Zaarin on the TIE Defenders Project and was his main test pilot. Surely their daily contact will have given the Major some insights into the Admiral’s thinking.

‘A brilliant engineer,’ Stele begins, ‘but...’

‘But what, Major?’ I prompt, curious.

‘Ambitious, my lord, and unprincipled,’ Stele states, meeting my gaze without a trace of fear. ‘He did not appreciate that I was loyal to the Emperor, first and foremost. I suspect he was relieved when I was transferred to the Garret.’

Forthrightness, fearlessness, loyalty, and honesty. The Major is a rare officer indeed. No wonder Zaarin preferred him elsewhere. Stele’s devotion to my master is becoming legendary among the Garret’s crew.

The Force spikes a warning. Something is wrong or about to happen, and it is centered on the Emperor, who should be on the Majestic and preparing to leave the system.

‘Captain!’ I call. ‘Has the Majestic jumped yet?’

‘No, my lord,’ Barich responds, ‘but the Harpago has just entered the system and the three modified corvettes which came with her are refusing to answer our hails. Our transmissions to the Majestic are now being jammed.’

That’s one of Zaarin’s Interdictors...

‘I think Admiral Zaarin might be attempting a coup,’ I voice my thoughts as they are forming.

The dark look on Stele’s face reveals his opinion on the matter.

One of the crew below us reports that the corvettes have launched an attack on the Garret.

‘Get your men to their fighters,’ I snap at the Major. ‘See to it that those corvettes are disabled or destroyed.’

His salute is as quick as I expect, and as soon as he is off the command deck and thinks I am no longer looking, the Major breaks into a run. Another efficient officer, I decide, pleased. Hopefully he will prove as competent at removing those corvettes.

I spend the next ten minutes watching Stele’s elite TIE Defender squadron ruthlessly destroy those three ships. Each explodes in a rather satisfying manner as its power plant and engines are targeted. So should be the fate of all traitors. As the fighters return to the Garret’s hangar, I consider the available options. The Executor is on the other side of the system, too far away to be of any use. Perhaps eliminating the corvettes has bought some time, but I need to get back to Imperial Center to warn my master of Zaarin’s treachery.

‘Where is the Osprey?’ I ask Barich.

The Garret’s small escort ship should be nearby and she is much faster than the Star Destroyer.

‘Returning from the resupply station, my lord,’ the Captain admits.

‘Then we will have to take TIE Defenders,’ I decide, ‘and meet the Osprey enroute.’

Before he can answer, I spin on my heel and stalk towards the hangar bay. The best of what remains of Stele’s squadron will accompany me.

The pilots, I observe when I arrive, are listening to Stele give an overview of their performances. Some he praises, others he criticizes, but not to excess. A most even handed evaluation is given to all. I don’t wait for him to finish.

‘Major,’ I interrupt him mid-sentence, ‘yourself and the best four of your pilots will accompany me. The Emperor is in danger and must be warned.’

‘Deltas Two through Five, to your fighters!’ he barks out, sending the chosen men scrambling for their ships.

‘Your designation is Delta One?’ I ask as I walk beside Stele to the TIE Defender I will be borrowing.

‘Yes, my lord,’ he confirms.

‘Rather than confuse your pilots, for the duration of this mission, I will be Delta Six,’ I decide. ‘There is no reason to alert anyone listening to our transmissions to my presence.’

My usual call sign, Black One, will be instantly recognized. It’s far wiser to be incognito until I better understand the situation. And I have learned the hard way that practicality should take precedence at times like this.

Stele drops easily into his fighter. Fitting into my loaner ship is a bit more of a chore. The crash couch is not designed for my bulk or to accommodate any armour. I growl a few choice Huttese curses while I struggle with the acceleration straps. Silently, I vow to ensure that the next set of TIE Defenders are more Sith Lord friendly.

For the first few minutes of the flight, I familiarize myself with the controls. They are not that different from my own TIE’s, so this doesn’t take very long. The other pilots say very little over the comm, unlike the chatter I heard earlier, when the corvettes attacked the Garret. My presence has obviously had an effect on them.

The scanner pings a group of approaching ships. Zaarin’s Interdictor, I see, and a few Assault Gunboats which have come with her. We will have to punch a hole through their lines to reach the Osprey.

‘Target the Harpago’s shields,’ I order, ‘then disable her. Do the same with the Gunboats if you can.’

There’s no point in wasting the lives of men who still might be loyal or destroying ships if they can be neutralized instead.

Stele moves into the lead. I follow, allowing him to send the first volley of missiles. The Harpago’s warhead launcher is an easy target. No ship should have such large holes in her defenses, especially in such a critical area. I make a mental note to go over the Executor’s shield configuration myself and make any adjustments accordingly.

A second run destroys the shield generator and costs us Delta Four. Before the Interdictor can escape, I personally disable her engines.

The rest of the battle is more of a mop-up. The Assault Gunboats are no match for a TIE Defender, but one still lands a lucky shot on Delta Three. Four fighters left, I grimly observe as I dock with the Osprey, the Major and the remnants of his squadron following me in. I can only hope that it will be enough.

We are met by the Osprey’s captain who was told by the Garret to expect us. While the TIEs are refitted with missiles, I brief him as best I can on the situation. By the time we reach the bridge, information on further developments is available.

‘The Majestic is still in orbit, my lord,’ I am told by the communications officer, ‘and the Glory has just arrived.’

‘Zaarin,’ I hiss, furious.

Everyone knows the Glory is his flagship.

The crewman tips his head, concentrating on whatever is coming in from Palpatine’s Star Destroyer. His slow, indrawn breath suggests that the news is getting worse every second.

‘The Emperor’s just been kidnapped!’ he blurts out, horrified.

I ignore his lack of proper address. He is too shocked by what he has heard to know how to react and I need more details.

‘What exactly has happened?’ I ask, keeping my voice level and calm.

‘One of his own staff has abducted him, Lord Vader,’ he adds, a touch more in control of himself. ‘They’ve put him on a shuttle and are going to transfer him to the Glory.’

‘There isn’t much time,’ I state. ‘Signal the Mescue and tell her Captain to stand by.’

I know that corvette is in orbit, and that her crew are loyal and can be trusted.

‘There’s too great a risk of accidentally hitting the Emperor’s shuttle with the larger ships’ batteries, so we will go out in TIE’s and rescue him, first,’ I decide. ‘Then, the Glory is to be destroyed.’

With a wave of my hand, I indicate to Major Stele that he is to follow me back to the hangar.

It is a silent trip while I brood and think. This entire situation reminds me of the time General Grievous held Palpatine prisoner at the end of the Clone Wars. That was a ruse, and I can’t help wondering if his easy capture this time wasn’t a ploy designed to draw Zaarin out. It would be just like my master to plan something like this and not let me know about it.

I stifle a laugh.

How ironic.

Once, it was Anakin Skywalker, the Hero with no Fear, to the rescue in the skies over Coruscant. Now, it will be Lord Vader doing the same.

The lift stops and opens onto the hangar, revealing our refueled and rearmed TIE’s.

Time to do my duty and save Palpatine, but with only four fighters, not six. I have faced worse odds before, I wryly remember. The last time it was just Obi-Wan and myself...

‘An alternate designation, this time, my lord?’ Stele suggests, thankfully breaking my train of thought.

‘Use whatever your men are familiar with,’ I reply.

There’s no need to cause confusion, and last minute changes can be fatal in combat.

‘Alpha call names,’ he tells his men. ‘His Lordship will be Alpha Four.’

‘We are on approach vector with the Majestic,’ I hear over the comm.

‘To your fighters,’ I order the two remaining pilots. ‘Major Stele and I will find and disable the Emperor’s shuttle while you provide cover.’

This time, when we leave the Osprey, I make sure I am the one in the lead. It might be Stele’s squadron, but he is not the one in charge.

Three shuttles emerge from the Majestic as we draw closer. That’s an old trick and one which won’t fool anyone using the Force. The shuttle with Palpatine on it is easy for me to identify. I target its engines, disabling it and ensuring that there is no way for it to move. Now, Zaarin will have to pick up his prize somehow or abandon his coup attempt.

‘Mescue,’ I call over the comm, ‘the Emperor’s shuttle will need to be retrieved.’

An errant TIE comes too close to the shuttle I am guarding. I tag it with a glancing shot, just enough to send it spinning harmlessly away. Stele has been busy destroying whatever fighters he can find. He’s taken the kidnapping a bit too personally, I decide, when his next target is one of the decoy shuttles.

The Glory has stayed back, out of harm’s way. Zaarin is not one to take any risks. He will only enter the fray when there is an opportunity to capitalize. But this time, it seems that luck is not with the Admiral. Palpatine’s shuttle is safely gathered in by the Mescue as a familiar voice echoes over the comm.

‘This is the Vanguard. How may we be of assistance?’ Thrawn lets everyone know he has just appeared on the scene.

Ah, yes, he was due in system today, but I had assumed tonight, not mid-afternoon.

Faced with a new adversary, Zaarin turns tail and the Glory disappears into hyperspace.

‘Coward,’ I growl after him, more for show than anything else. ‘I will kill you myself, Zaarin.’

There is, of course, no answer, so I head to the Majestic to greet my master who has transferred back to his flagship. Hopefully today’s events will have improved his current opinion of me.

***

When Ani returns in the early evening, he hurries past me and into his office. Something is definitely going on. So much for my special evening, I decide with a frown. Whatever has come up will take precedence.

‘There’s an awards ceremony tonight,’ he tells me while he checks for messages. ‘Go put on something suitable. We have to leave soon.’

‘Yes, dear,’ I grumble loudly, just to let him know my opinion of that. ‘Right away, dear.’

My attitude prompts a sigh from him. He knows I hate being put on public display and that I don’t like being given no warning for when that is expected of me. This is probably Palpatine’s doing. Every time I want to do something with my husband, he just has to order Ani away or interfere with my plans. I am beginning to really despise that miserable, old coot.

‘It wasn’t my idea,’ my husband confirms what I already suspected.

I don’t bother answering him and start to rifle through the storage compartment with my gowns. Somewhere in here is a plain, boring little number that I only wear when I don’t want to be out in public and am being made to do so.

Regulated breathing warns me that Ani has come up behind me.

‘Maia, don’t be angry at me for this,’ he says to me, trying to defuse my temper. ‘I know you had plans for tonight, but I didn’t expect to be foiling a coup and kidnap attempt, or to be rescuing the Emperor today, either.’

‘You should have let whoever it was keep the old bugger,’ I snap as I find what I was searching for. ‘That would have solved quite a few problems.’

‘And created even more,’ he adds, taking the dress I wanted from my hands and returning it to where it was hanging.

I glare at him as he pulls out another one and offers it to me. Given my mood and cancelled evening, I am not feeling the least bit co-operative. When he sets his choice down on the bed, I know I am in for a lecture.

‘Very well,’ the Sith Lord concedes instead. ‘Go ahead, be obstinate. It won’t change the situation.’

Somehow I resist following him back to his office and growling at him some more. This isn’t Ani’s fault. He’s only following orders, as always. Taking my anger at Palpatine out on my husband is not a fair thing to do.

I look at the gown he selected. It’s one of his favorites, but not the one I wore to the opera two years ago. He’s never let me wear that one outside our quarters again, since in his opinion it exposes too much of my ‘assets’ to public view. With a sigh, I pick the dress up off the bed and finger the heavy embroidery. There’s no point in fighting with Ani about some stupid, boring ceremony. If I need to, I will simply play sick after the minimum amount of time has passed and ask to be sent home.

‘You’re in a better mood,’ my husband notes when I eventually finish dressing and go to see what he is doing.

He’s turning Michael’s prison over in his hands, examining it. When I draw closer, Ani puts it down.

‘I know what it is,’ he quietly states.

My ears perk up. There’s a tale here, if I can persuade him to tell it to me.

‘So,...’ I try leading him into an explanation.

‘Come here, curious one,’ he teases, beckoning me over.

That’s too good an invitation to refuse so I take my spot on his lap and set my head on his shoulder, expecting to hear one of his stories.

‘I spent some time in the Emperor’s private library before I came home,’ Ani reveals. ‘My master was feeling benevolent after today’s events and let me do some research using his personal collection of Sith holocrons. There was a description of a similar device in the oldest of those.’

‘Well, what is it, then?’ I blurt out, impatient for more details.

‘It’s a Sith soul trap,’ he identifies the black and silver pyramid at last. ‘I don’t know how the Jedi learned about them since their manufacture and use has always been a closely guarded secret. Where Tholme found this one, I can’t say for sure, but from the markings, I suspect it was made on Korriban.’ Ani picks the gadget up again and stares at it. ‘The ancient Dark Lords used them to imprison the spirits of their dead rivals, so it makes sense that it would do the same to a Jedi ghost.’

‘If you know what it is, then what is the problem?’ I ask.

He doesn’t reply immediately, and I can sense that he knows the answer is one I won’t like.

‘Imprisoned spirits were never intended to be released,’ the Sith Lord finally admits. ‘I don’t know if it’s even possible to open a soul trap after it has been sprung, and the holocron gave no explanation for how that might be done, only the steps for how to create and activate one.’

I take the soul trap from his hand and hold it close to my heart while I mull over his words. It takes a few minutes for what he has said to sink in.

‘You don’t know how to get Michael out?’ I interpret his explanation in a shaky voice.

‘There is no way to get him out,’ he softly answers.

***

I calmly, patiently reveal to my wife what I discovered this afternoon and have dreaded telling her ever since. Michael is the only family she has from her homeworld. Losing him will tear her apart with grief when I need her to be at her strongest.

Her fingers take the soul trap from mine and she holds it tight, her knuckles going white as she clings to it. It will take a minute or two for her to realize the implications of what I have told her. I carefully adjust my shields in anticipation of her reaction.

‘You don’t know how to get Michael out?’ she says in an unsteady voice.

There’s no point in hiding the truth from her, and Maia deserves to know the worst case scenario. Better to tell her now, rather than later, and be done with it.

‘There is no way to get him out,’ I quietly reply.

She collapses against my chest at that revelation, and I feel her hope for her brother’s freedom shatter. I hold her close and do my best to comfort her.

Damn Jedi, I silently curse as I rock my weeping wife in my arms. I should track down every remaining one of them and inflict the same punishment on them that they have imposed on her. An eternity of having a bondmate there but not there - not dead, not gone - still alive to the senses yet forever just beyond reach. Having the bond to her brother severed completely would have been far kinder than what Maia will be living with.

‘It’s alright, little goddess,’ I try to soothe her. ‘He’s safe in there, no harm can ever come to him, and he will feel it when you are near.’

My words give her no consolation. I pull her closer, stroke her hair and face, and wait for her emotions to run their course. The hormones from her pregnancy are amplifying and prolonging what her normal reaction would be. Her earlier, uncharacteristic temper tantrum probably came from the same source, too.

I try to make the hushing noises which work for the children, but with my mask on, they come out as odd sounding hisses. Her crying starts to slow and when my wife stirs, I know she is listening to me. There is a quiet giggle from her at my next ‘shush.’

‘You sound funny when you do that,’ she blurts out.

I ignore her lack of tact. She’s in no condition to go anywhere, and most certainly not out in public. I will simply give a medical excuse to my master, if he makes an issue of it, as an explanation for why she isn’t at the awards ceremonies tonight.

‘I think it would be best if you stayed at home,’ I tell her.

Maia merely snuggles back into my shoulder in response to that.

She’s definitely in shock.

I activate the comm and put in the code for her doctor. She can stay and watch over my wife while I am away. When Palpatine decides to get a confirmation of Maia’s illness, he will have to deal with her. A chuckle escapes before I can stop it. Hopefully my master will comm Leanan when I am there to hear that conversation.

‘Yes, my lord?’ my call is promptly answered.

‘I need you to stay with my Lady while I am at the palace for a few hours,’ I pause, have a quick debate with myself for how to explain the situation, then decide on what is simplest, and perhaps closest to the truth. ‘She has just heard that her older brother has died and is in shock.’

I close the channel before the doctor can say anything in reply.

‘Up you go, love,’ I warn as I shift Maia about in my arms and pick her up.

The soul trap falls to the floor when I move her. I’ll put that away in a safe place later.

She’s getting heavy again, I note, while I carry her into our bedroom. It won’t be long before I will have to be careful how I handle her.

‘Ani?’ she says when I set her down.

Maia’s voice is drowsy, almost dreamlike. Her mind is distancing her emotionally from the loss of her brother, and making her sleepy as a temporary protective measure. By tomorrow, hopefully, she will be in a state where she can better cope with the situation.

‘Time for bed,’ I suggest.

She lets me help her out of the formal gown and into a nightgown before I settle her under the sheets. I move a couple pillows around to make her more comfortable and pull the covers over her. Her hand catches mine when I go to leave.

‘Ani?’

That quiet, almost childlike, little voice again.

Palpatine can wait.

I lace my fingers with hers and sit down on the bed.

‘I am right here,’ I reassure her.

My Force sense gives a warning. The doctor is in the other room, keeping her distance until I have left my wife’s side. I ignore her and stay where I am until Maia’s fingers slip from my own. She’s sound asleep so I gently set her hand on the pillow next to her face.

‘She’s out cold, doctor,’ I tell that petite dragon disguised as a woman once I am well out of Maia’s range of hearing.

‘You know you should be staying here with her,’ she states, dropping all pretext of formality, and looking past me to where my wife is sleeping. ‘I am no substitute for her husband.’

‘I can’t stay,’ I just as bluntly reply. ‘My presence was ordered, not requested.’

Leanan raises her eyebrow in disbelief. Doctors. They are all alike, and it seems that any who are competent and able to survive working for me have exactly the same insolent attitude.

‘If she wakes and asks for you, I will comm you,’ she warns, pointing a finger directly at me. ‘And I don’t care what or who that happens to interrupt, either!’

Out comes the overprotective mother saber cat. If I wasn’t late already, I would stay a little longer simply to argue and fire her up some more. Palpatine will probably check on what Maia’s status is and hearing Leanan take strips off of him, if he pushes her too far, will be most entertaining. The doctor has quite a temper, and fears nothing and no one.

‘If you feel it necessary,’ I concede, ‘then do so. Just don’t expect an instant response if I am in the middle of something which can’t be disrupted. I may have to return your call a few minutes later.’

I hear Maia stir, so I walk farther away from the bedroom and lower my voice.

‘Cyran has the children and needs to be warned they are not to wake their mother. I should be back before their bedtime,’ I add a few instructions.

I accept her nod as confirmation and hurry to the Imperial Palace. By the time I arrive, I have missed Thrawn’s secret promotion. How unfortunate. Of all the events scheduled for tonight, that was the one I would have preferred to see.

Thrawn emerges from the Emperor’s private throne room. I wait for him to join me. The public award ceremony for Major Stele will not begin for a few minutes, so I will congratulate the freshly minted Grand Admiral before it does.

‘Lord Vader,’ he greets me.

‘Grand Admiral,’ I reply with his new rank.

His eyes flash in response to my recognition of his advancement. His ambitions have been fulfilled, for the moment, and he suspects I helped him reach his goal, which, of course, I did. Someone had to replace Zaarin, and Thrawn was the obvious, and so conveniently on-hand, candidate.

There is the tell-tale, familiar tap of a wooden cane on stone.

‘I expected your wife to be...’ Thrawn begins.

‘...here with you,’ Palpatine finishes as he comes up behind us.

I immediately turn and start to kneel, but he stops me with a gesture.

‘She has taken ill, my Emperor,’ I smoothly explain. ‘Her brother has died, and the shock from hearing the news was too great. She is sleeping, now, and her personal physician is with her.’

His eyes bore into me, measuring the truthfulness of my words. I know he wanted to see Maia tonight, so he could gloat over his ‘prize.’

‘Perhaps she will have recovered enough to attend the opening of the new opera tomorrow night,’ he hints.

‘Perhaps,’ I easily agree, ‘but I will follow her doctor’s advice on the matter.’

Thrawn observes this exchange in silence. He misses nothing and I am sure his analytical mind is filing away every word and nuance of body language for later analysis.

‘Shall we see to it that Major Stele is suitably rewarded for his efforts of today?’ my master suggests.

‘As you wish,’ I neutrally concur.

The largest of the public audience chambers is not far away, and the networks will see to it that the entire galaxy sees the ceremony. Thrawn takes his leave with a snapped salute before we reach the appropriate door. His presence is no longer required.

Sate Pestage meets us. I accept the leather box holding Stele’s medal from him and follow Palpatine inside. My master acknowledges the crowd, which cheers wildly as he takes his seat in the elevated throne. He’s enjoying playing the benevolent grandfather for them.

‘Maarek Stele, come forth,’ I call out, silencing the hubbub.

The pilot, in his dress uniform marches forward, his eyes never wavering from looking straight ahead at the Emperor. Utterly fearless and totally devoted, I observe. He stops the requisite distance away, salutes, and kneels as the ritual requires. I open the box I had received a few minutes ago and offer the red, blue, silver, and gold medal inside to Palpatine.

‘For bravery and honor,’ the Emperor states. ‘For distinguished service to the Empire...’

I tune out his speech and concentrate on those who are around us. Stele is very much an unknown outside of the military sphere. Most of those in attendance are trying to look interested and enthusiastic, but have only come for show. Xizor has managed to perfect the attentive act. I glare at the Falleen standing on the other side of the dais. At least he has enough sense to stay out of striking distance.

Palpatine finally finishes, ‘...and so I present you with the Emperor’s Will, the highest award I can give you.’

The Major bends his neck, letting the medal be placed around it and assuming what has just been bestowed on him. There will be no acceptance speeches here. Nothing which draws attention from the Emperor is permitted.

The public drama is over. For the next act, only a few players are required.

Palpatine rises and leads the way out. Behind him, Major Stele falls into step with me. I hand the medal’s box to him once we have left the chamber, and indicate he is to continue at my side. The pilot’s curiosity is obvious. He’s already a member of the Secret Order of the Emperor, but shifting him to another form of service, one under the direct control of my master, requires another short ceremony, this time in private.

Before I move to stand next to him, I wait for my master to take his throne, again, in the same room in which Thrawn’s promotion was conducted. Stele kneels in front of both of us. For each one who is inducted into the group the Major is about to join, the ritual is completely different. Palpatine varies the wording as he pleases and I never know exactly what to expect. Hopefully he won’t drag it out tonight so I can return home to my wife.

For a few long minutes there is silence. The Emperor likes to play with people in this way. The more someone wants him to hurry up, the longer he makes them wait. It’s a measure of his power over them.

‘I have a job for you, Maarek Stele,’ he finally announces. ‘A unique position where you will serve me as an extension of my will. You will be my hand, the Emperor’s Hand.’

It’s going to be that version this time.

I watch him slowly rise and approach the motionless pilot.

‘You are the only one I can trust in this manner,’ he continues, resting his hand on the Major’s shoulder like a mentor would, like he once did with me, ‘and the only one whose loyalty has never wavered. You proved that to me today.’

His hand falls away and he goes to resume his seat.

‘I need someone like you to act as my special agent - a person who can go anywhere, do anything,’ Palpatine makes his offer at last. ‘You will have whatever you need to fulfill your duties. All that is required is for you to complete your missions successfully.’

Stele slowly nods in acceptance.

‘Yes, my Emperor,’ he replies in a steady voice.

As if the Major would answer in any other way.

‘Failure is not an option,’ the pilot is warned, ‘and your training will begin tomorrow.’

My master motions his newest Hand to his feet.

‘Go enjoy the rest of the evening,’ he says in dismissal before leaving his throne once more, this time to gaze out the window.

Now that’s a major deviation from the usual script.

‘Old friend,’ Palpatine calls me over to his side after we are alone. ‘Your mind has been elsewhere all evening.’

I hesitate. Has my worrying been that obvious?

‘Your concern for your wife is as clear to me as the water in the lakes on Naboo,’ he prods a little when I don’t answer right away.

‘Her brother was her only remaining relative,’ I decide to mix truth and slight exaggeration. ‘She collapsed when she realized she would never see him again. Of course I am concerned.’

‘And so you should be,’ he softly states. ‘I have tested her. Your wife is not as strong as she seems. Losing him must have been a terrible blow to her.’

I consider that for a moment. Does he really think he can fool me into believing he actually cares?

‘She will recover, in time,’ I respond indifferently.

His exasperated sigh breaks through my thoughts.

‘There is no point in wasting our time with this charade any longer, so stop pretending you have no feelings for her,’ the Emperor scolds. ‘You are no better at concealing your emotions from me, now, than you were at hiding what you felt for your first wife twenty years ago. I am fully aware of exactly how you feel about your consort. If you didn’t love her, you wouldn’t be lifebonded to her. As long as that doesn’t interfere with the performance of your duties, it doesn’t matter.’

I take a surprised step backwards.

‘We are Sith, Lord Vader, not Jedi. Slavish adherence to outdated thinking was the downfall of the Jedi Order,’ he continues, ignoring my reaction to his words. ‘I do not intend for the Sith to become as hopelessly fossilized and vulnerable as they were. If loving your wife makes you a more effective commander and a better Sith, then so be it.’

What? Where did all that come from?

‘Go home to your wife,’ he waves me away, suddenly sounding as tired and old as he looks. ‘Consider yourself free of any duties while she recovers from her shock. If she needs to attend her brother’s funeral, take the Executor and go.’

‘Thank you, my master,’ I reply at last, unsure of what else to say.

‘No, old friend, it is I who owe you a debt of gratitude,’ he admits. ‘I know you were the one who foiled Zaarin and rescued me, not Stele, though he has been given all the credit.’

I freeze in place. Now that is something I never expected to hear. He is in a strange and philosophical frame of mind.

‘Now, go,’ he repeats. ‘It’s late and I am exhausted.’

I take advantage of his generous mood and leave as quickly as I can.

***

I feel two strong arms wrap around me, rousing me from my confused dream.

‘It’s just me,’ Ani quietly reassures me. ‘Go back to sleep.’

I am pulled in close as he kisses my neck.

‘Ani,’ I mumble happily into my pillow.

Something happened today, but I can’t remember what it was. Maybe my husband will tell me about it in the morning.

I pull his hand to my chest, hold it tight and let my eyes drift shut again.


DAY 22

***

Thrawn quietly watches Maia leave the public reception area of my castle with the children. I know he’s been waiting for the opportunity to speak to me in private, and this is the first chance he’s had to do it.

‘She doesn’t remember?’ he asks.

‘No,’ I admit, ‘and perhaps that is for the best.’

I hand him a glass of neema fruit juice before taking a seat across from him.

‘She seems to have completely blacked out all knowledge of her brother’s death,’ I reveal. ‘I haven’t mentioned it to her, and I would appreciate it if you remain silent about it as well. When she is ready, that memory will return to her.’

There has been no indication from my wife that she is aware of why her brother hasn’t shown up to make a nuisance of himself. When I asked Leanan about it, her advice was to leave it be until Maia raises the subject herself. I will simply work around it as I need to.

‘The mind can be a strange thing when it comes to grief and shock,’ Thrawn observes.

‘Indeed,’ I politely respond, activating the signal jammer in the room with a wave of my hand as I do so. I want to make sure no one can overhear or record this conversation.

My gesture is acknowledged with a raised eyebrow.

‘This room is now secure,’ I confirm his obvious suspicions. ‘We could have used my office, but I would prefer to discuss this with you where there is no risk of my wife or children intruding.’

I rise to my feet and move to where I can stare out the window, towards the Imperial Palace.

‘You are aware of the construction project at Endor?’ I ask, though I know the answer already.

‘I have been briefed, yes,’ he admits.

‘I opposed it from the beginning,’ I reveal. ‘It is a foolish waste of resources better spent on other, more important and immediate concerns.’

The Grand Admiral gives no outward indication he is disturbed by my words, but I can sense he is unsure where this discussion is going. I rarely let my personal opinions, especially those that disagree with my master’s, be known unless I have a specific reason to do so.

‘It will attract the attention of the rebels exactly as its predecessor did,’ I state. ‘In fact, I know they will attack it before it is complete.’

My one brief foray into Maia’s hidden memories made that plain. The rebels will destroy the second Death Star, but I don’t know exactly when. My only clue to their timing is my presence at Endor.

‘You are certain of this?’ Thrawn finally poses a question.

‘My source for this information has yet to be wrong,’ I admit. ‘The rebels will soon learn of its existence and infiltrate the facility when they think it will be most vulnerable.’

I shut my eyes and pull the image of the Death Star, its incomplete framework reaching towards Endor’s moon like a spider for its prey, from what I had found in Maia’s mind. During my last visit there, it had not yet reached that stage, but within the next few months, it will. And I am still not ready. Time, it seems, will never be on my side.

‘I suspect you require my aid,’ the Admiral shrewdly notes, ‘otherwise you would not have told me this.’

‘It would be useful if you found some reason to keep your fleet within the Moddell Sector,’ I suggest, ‘as a precaution, nothing more.’

‘The Monsua Nebula was once a haven for pirates, and much of that sector has yet to be properly mapped,’ he replies. ‘It will be simple enough to find excuses to keep my ships in the area until you require us elsewhere.’

I nod in answer and allow myself a smile. Thrawn has reacted exactly as I expected him to. He will be there, when I need him.

I repeat my earlier gesture towards the hidden controls. The need for secrecy is done with, for now.

‘Would you stay for dinner, Admiral Thrawn?’ I politely offer. ‘My wife will enjoy hearing about a few of the planets you have explored since we last met.’

From my invitation, anyone eavesdropping and spying will know the Admiral is currently high in my favor. Let them read into it what they will.

‘Of course, my Lord,’ he smoothly accepts, acknowledging that the public political dance has begun once again, ‘and perhaps I might persuade you both to accompany me to the art exhibition which is opening tonight? Venthan Chassu’s Selonian series is being shown on Imperial Center for the first time.’

His favourite Corellian artist, I note, amused, and one who is known for his disturbing imagery. His last work, Palpatine Triumphant, attracted my master’s attention and resulted in the sculptor’s untimely ‘accidental’ death. Fortunately that particular piece is locked away, but I can just imagine my wife’s reaction to seeing a larger than life sized Emperor, enthroned on a pile of bones, with an insane expression on his face.

‘My Lady is not familiar with his work,’ I hint, ‘so it might be wise to give her an explanation of its significance.’ I pause as he joins me in the doorway. ‘I do not think she knows what a Selonian is, either.’

Thrawn doesn’t comment. Maia’s ignorance of what most in the galaxy know and take for granted has come up before. I have always passed it off, truthfully, as a result of her homeworld’s isolation.

***

I look up from the autochef, my hand poised over the start button, when Ani appears, Admiral Thrawn in tow. They don’t head into the Sith Lord’s office, but instead seat themselves at the table. That tells me something unusual is going on.

Ani? I ask, puzzled.

The Admiral is joining us for dinner, he promptly answers, and a private conversation.

I raise an eyebrow. Is he serious? We have never shared one of our family meals with an ‘outsider’ before.

Don’t worry about it, Ani reassures me, just continue as you normally would.

My fingers quickly alter the program, adding what I think will be enough for an extra adult-sized portion. Hopefully Thrawn won’t mind the plain fare I had intended to serve the children.

‘It’s our usual nuna dinner,’ I explain to fill the silence. ‘The children prefer that I keep it simple, and sauces are more work to clean up if there is an accident.’

The Admiral hides his quick smile. I wonder if he has a family. There have been times he has made mention of Chiss customs regarding their children, and his occasional reactions to the antics of my own three suggests he is more than familiar with the mischief youngsters get into.

Turning to open the cupboard, I take a fifth place setting out and lay it in front of Thrawn. Another quick trip, and I have filled his glass with the Endrolian ground-apple juice I had selected for the children. If he wants something stronger, my husband will have to go find it for him. The Admiral sips at his drink, then nods in approval. Somehow, I knew he would prefer that to anything alcoholic.

I give Ani another questioning look as I return the juice to the cooling unit. Is he going to remove his mask with the Admiral present? When he indicates I am to leave his supplement where it is, I know that he intends to keep it on. I guess Thrawn hasn’t earned that degree of trust from him yet.

An insistent chiming tells me that dinner is ready.

‘Mikal! Shmi! Cat!’ I call to my three children, who had been quietly playing in their room. ‘Time to eat!’

My son is the first to appear. He gives Thrawn no more than a cursory examination before climbing into his chair. The twins are slower. They have met the Admiral before, when they were younger, but he hasn’t seen them in months. Unlike their brother, they stop and stare, unsure what his presence means.

‘Come here, Shmi,’ I hear Ani say as I open the autochef.

He’ll put her in the chair next to his own and well away from Thrawn. ‘Mi has a tendency to act up whenever her routine is disrupted, and being near daddy will hopefully dampen some of her high spirits.

I set the first dish down on the table and go to fetch the others. Cat is fussing a bit. She wants to be alongside both her father and I, but to keep our youngest in line, it’s best to put Shmi between us.

‘I’ll sit beside Shmi and Cat,’ I decide.

That will put Thrawn in the middle, between Mikal and Ani. There’s less risk for something to happen that way, like one of the girls dumping her plate onto his lap. Thankfully Mikal has outgrown the playing with his food phase.

Taking my seat, I quickly inspect what I have prepared. It’s okay, I guess, but given that I had no notice I would have company for dinner, Thrawn shouldn’t expect a gourmet feast. My estimate was off, though. There is far more on the table than what we could possibly eat.

‘Serve yourself, Admiral,’ I suggest. ‘We won’t be able to finish it all, so take as much as you like.’

I wait until he has filled his plate, then look after the children before myself. For a few minutes, we eat in silence. Thrawn has impeccable table manners, I note. Even when Shmi gets bored and starts pushing her kibla greens around her plate, he doesn’t comment and merely looks amused.

‘Shmi,’ I warn.

The offending vegetables are promptly dumped onto the floor. I let out a sigh and bend over to pick them up. A sharp kick to my ribs stops me and forces a gasp.

‘Maia?’ Ani asks, concerned and reaching over to me.

‘Son number two,’ I admit as I straighten up with his aid. ‘He’s busy again.’

‘Let me help,’ he offers, taking the hand I had set over my middle, resting his own above it and our son.

Thrawn watches Ani quiet our child, a curious expression on his face. I suspect he knows my husband is using the Force in some way, but doesn’t want to appear rude by asking. Once someone is behaving again, I retrieve the greens from the floor and begin clearing the table. Dessert soon replaces the nuna.

‘Uj’alayi,’ the Admiral identifies the cake I had made earlier. ‘A Mandalorian sweet.’

I blush a little bit. Cyran had suggested I try making Uj cake as a healthy way to satisfy my sweet tooth. It’s mostly made from crushed nuts, fruit puree, syrup, and spices. Mikal and the twins had great fun squishing the dricklefruit for me this morning, too.

Ani lets out a low chuckle and somehow resists teasing me. He knows I have sugar cravings when I am pregnant and tends to bug me about them whenever the opportunity arises.

‘It’s my first attempt at making it,’ I admit as I cut a few small pieces, ‘so if it’s inedible, don’t eat it.’

Thrawn heeds my warning and cautiously chews his first bite. From how fast Mikal’s piece disappears, and how quickly he holds his plate out for a second, I know edibility is not an issue.

‘More mommy? Please?’ he politely asks.

‘One piece more, then I want you to go play with your sisters,’ I tell him.

I have had the feeling during dinner that Thrawn has wanted to say something to me, but has held off, preferring to wait until the children have finished and are gone. As soon as they have run back to their room, abandoning the remnants of their desserts, he leans forward, rests his elbows on the table and steeples his hands. His eyes meet mine before he glances over at Ani, seeking permission to speak, I guess.

‘I made a similar offer to the one I want to discuss with you, once before, to your husband, Lady Vader,’ the Admiral begins in a rather formal manner.

Ani? I prod, completely at a loss for what Thrawn is referring to.

Wait and hear him out, the Sith Lord advises.

My bewilderment must show, since the Admiral looks at Ani again.

‘An explanation, first, then,’ he decides.

I nod in agreement.

‘Among the Chiss, rivalries between the ruling families can be deadly,’ he reveals, ‘and it is not unusual for an entire bloodline to be destroyed as a result. Our society has a means to prevent this from happening.’ He pauses, watching for my reaction. ‘We hide one, sometimes two, of our children - foster them with a family we trust, and give them a false identity.’

I bite my lip. I know what he is going to suggest.

‘The Imperial Court can be just as deadly,’ the Sith Lord reminds me.

My eyes shut as I shake my head. I don’t want to hear this.

‘My wife is a member of the Eighth Ruling family, the Mithh,’ he states. ‘She and her relatives are prepared to foster one or two of your children in return for your doing the same for the youngest of our two sons.’

I drop my fork in surprise. He’s married? With kids? Really? This is news to me. And from Ani’s startled inhalation, I can tell he had no idea Thrawn was going to make this type of proposal.

‘No,’ I blurt out my initial, instinctive response. ‘They are too young.’

My husband takes my hand and gives it a warning squeeze. I instantly shut up. There’s more to this than what I am aware of and he doesn’t want me to cause a rift between the Admiral and himself.

Thrawn is not offering this lightly, he scolds me. Chiss are extremely secretive. To admit he needs help guarding his own family, and persuading his wife and in-laws to extend their protection has cost him a great deal.

‘Of course they are too young right now,’ the Sith Lord smoothly covers my inadvertent gaffe. ‘I will send my eldest daughter to Csilla for fostering in a year, and later, one of the two sons who will be born after my second one. It should be simple enough to stage ‘accidents,’ and have them disappear. The adoption of an ‘orphaned’ Chiss child after that should not raise undue alarm.’

I force myself to stay silent and unmoving as Ani decides the future of two of our children.

When we are alone, Ani, I growl at him, I intend to let you know exactly what I think of this.

Political expediency, he tells me, attempting to placate me. I cannot afford to offend the Admiral, and plans can always be changed.

I pull my hand out of my husband’s and return my attention to Thrawn. Outwardly, he shows no sign that my reaction and refusal has disturbed him, but I can sense that he is rather worried. For him to make such an offer, volunteer to send one of his children to us, when he is obviously reluctant to do so, says a great deal about what is happening on his homeworld.

Neither of us is willing to send our youngsters away, I realize as I meet the Admiral’s concerned eyes, but we are not in a position where we have many alternatives for protecting them, either. Locking Mikal and his siblings away from the world is not an option.

‘If I could send them to my family instead,’ I admit, ‘I would, but that is impossible.’

‘They will be treated as if they were my own,’ he reassures me.

I smile in reply. If his personality holds true, I expect Thrawn is very much the same as Ani is in regard to his children. Overprotective to a certain extent, yet doting when out of the public eye. There is probably not a better candidate for a foster father.

I want to meet his family before we do anything more than talk about this, I warn Ani. If they are unsuitable, my answer will be ‘no.’

Thrawn muses, ‘My youngest will be born in the next month. Chiss mature far faster than humans, so in two years, I think, we will exchange your daughter for him.’

He’s giving me another year with Cat. I look over at Ani, expecting some sort of argument from my husband, but there is none. There is an advantage in delaying this as long as possible, I have to admit.

Much can change in two years.

Or in a month, the Sith Lord adds to my thought.

Or a day, I tease.

Very true.

‘Once my wife has had a chance to meet your family, we will discuss this again,’ Ani decides. ‘There is no need to rush.’

An agreement in principle. I can live with that. Apparently Thrawn can as well since he stands, offers his arm, and allows Ani to clasp it in acceptance, before resuming his seat. I can feel his relief that his proposal wasn’t rejected outright.

‘Now about that art exhibit,’ my husband abruptly changes the topic.

‘Art exhibit?’ I echo, puzzled. ‘Were we supposed to go to one tonight?’

***

I wait for Maia outside the closed doors of my quarters. She will be quick to get changed, so I will only have a few minutes to speak with Thrawn.

‘Your Lady does not want to foster your children out,’ he shrewdly observes, ‘and would prefer to abandon the idea completely.’

‘It is in accordance with her nature,’ I reply, amused. ‘She guards our younglings like a mother sabercat. If she had reacted in any other way, I would have been far more surprised.’

‘You once mentioned fostering was an old custom of the noble houses on her homeworld,’ he reminds me, ‘so I thought there would be no objections on her part.’

‘Give her time,’ I suggest. ‘Practical arguments always win where she is concerned.’

The door slides open, revealing my wife in one of her simpler gowns, a necklace of green stones about her neck and matching ones twisted through her braided hair. She’s made no attempt to disguise her pregnancy since she is far too big to easily conceal that under her clothes. When she takes my arm, she leans on it a little for support.

‘We won’t stay long,’ I decide as I guide her to the castle’s hangar. ‘Once you have had a quick look, I will bring you home.’

Her fingers grip my bicep in answer. She’s going for the sake of show, for my benefit, not because she really wants to. I settle her into the back of the air speeder and pause while Thrawn climbs into the co-pilot’s seat beside me. Etiquette demands that he not be alone with my wife, so I close the cover over us and touch the controls.

The Coruscant Museum of Galactic Cultures, where the exhibit is being held, is only a few minutes away and traffic is light. When we arrive, I gently set the speeder down and help Maia from it. She is shakier on her feet than I like, so I make sure I walk slowly and keep my arm at her waist.

Fortunately, the usual contingent of paparazzi are absent.

Unfortunately, Xizor is here.

I let out an infuriated hiss. Thrawn glances back at me but does not ask what prompted my reaction. My hatred of the Falleen has become common knowledge, and the Admiral is intimately familiar with why I despise Xizor.

A group of jewelled and gowned socialites pass between the Falleen and I, hiding him for a moment. When they move on, he is no longer in view. Good, I think, hopefully he has left.

‘Ani?’ Maia whispers to me. ‘I don’t feel very well.’

‘There’s a place inside where you can sit down,’ I tell her.

I have been to this Museum before. The lobby contains a number of comfortable benches, so I steer her to one. While she recovers from her dizzy spell, I look around for an exhibition datapad to commandeer. Thrawn has already gone ahead, into the gallery, and must have picked up one from the admission’s desk. A dark haired woman wearing an expensive gown wanders by with a datapad in her hand, so I decide to save myself some time.

‘Your datapad,’ I demand, without bothering to be polite about it.

She stops and stares at my wife and I. Her mouth opens, then shuts, and I can tell she doesn’t want to give it to me.

‘Now, if you would be so kind,’ I prompt, holding my hand out to accept it from her.

‘My lord, there are others,’ she tries to deflect me.

This time I don’t ask - I simply take it from her fingers before she can stop me.

‘Then I would suggest you go find yourself a replacement,’ I brush her off.

‘Shas?’ I hear Maia call from behind me.

The woman grows pale and backs away. I turn to see my wife struggle to her feet and try to follow her. Maia manages only two steps before she falls into my arms. I pick her up, lay her down on the bench, pull off a glove, and set my hand against her hot forehead.

‘You are running quite a fever,’ I chastise her. ‘When did this start? Before we left?’

Maia ignores me and I see her eyes searching the lobby for someone.

‘I know that voice,’ she admits. ‘That was Shas, the woman whose speeder I fell into.’

‘That was more than two years ago,’ I remind her. ‘How can you be so sure?’

My wife gives me an exasperated look, so I decide to humor her.

‘Very well, that was Shas,’ I tease. ‘So what am I to do, now? Track her down and arrest her as a rebel spy?’

Her eyes close and I know that Maia is in no condition to argue with me. Shas has disappeared, fading into the crowd and is probably on the run, if Maia’s identification of the woman is correct. I beckon one of the Museum’s uniformed staff over to me. He can go inform Thrawn I have returned home.

‘My wife is ill,’ I tell him. ‘Admiral Thrawn, the officer who arrived with me, needs to be notified that he will have to make his own way home tonight. Go and see to that immediately.’

Ignoring the other museum patrons who have come over to see what the fuss is about, I lift Maia in my arms and carry her back to the speeder. She is asleep when we reach my castle and barely rouses when Leanan comes to our bedroom to examine her.

‘Hesken Fever,’ the doctor announces once she has emptied a hypospray into Maia’s arm. ‘It’s rampant in the population at the moment. She probably caught it from Daini who is also sick. This should bring her temperature down. Keep her quiet for a few days and she’ll be fine.’

I rest my hand lightly on Maia’s forehead, then yank it back when I see that I am being watched. Leanan says nothing more, so I dismiss her with a wave. Tonight I do not feel like trading barbs with the doctor, amusing as that can be.

The datapad I had taken from Shas is in my office, sitting on my desk, waiting to be checked. After the children are asleep, I will spend the rest of the evening searching it for hidden files. If there is anything incriminating in it, I will find it. Then, I will have to track down its former owner.

***


Imperial Center, Coruscant, Core Worlds, Year 3, Month 10.

DAY 2

***

I casually remove part of the dueling ‘droids shoulder with my saber and ignore the sound of the severed metal hitting the floor. It is becoming far too easy to predict their actions.

‘Luke Skywalker has eluded me again,’ I tell my agent who is slouched against the wall. ‘There has been one possible sighting since he last left the rebel fleet and after that - nothing.’

The droid tries another attack which I quickly parry.

‘Stand at attention in my presence, Jix!’ I snap, annoyed by his lack of manners. ‘You are not in one of your seedy dives now!’

‘Apologies,’ he mutters under his breath, but makes no move to straighten up.

‘If you wish to prosper in my employ,’ I admonish him, ‘learn to keep a respectful tongue!’

There is only so much insolence that I will tolerate from him, and Jix keeps deliberately pushing the boundaries. To prompt a better response, I use the Force to brush a warning against his throat.

‘I said sorry!’ he does his best to sound apologetic.

‘Now you mean it!’ I observe, amused, before I turn my attention back to the droid.

‘What is it you want me to do, Lord Vader?’ Jix asks at last.

He knows I only summon him when there is business to attend to.

‘The bounty hunter, Boba Fett, has not yet delivered Solo to Jabba the Hutt on Tatooine,’ I reveal. ‘When he does, his friend Skywalker will no doubt attempt to rescue him.’

My son is very much like I was at his age. Just like at Bespin, he won’t be able to resist going to the aid of his friend. I take another swing at the droid, severing the arm holding the saber this time.

‘The Hutt is not to be trusted to carry out my bidding,’ I state. ‘I require my own agent in his camp.’

Jabba is moody, driven by his baser emotions and greed. He cannot be relied on for anything. If he takes offense at Luke’s rescue attempt, my son could find himself in a great deal of trouble. Jix can go keep an eye on things and intervene if necessary.

‘Ahh! So I go to work for the fat guy?’ he quickly realizes what want him to do. ‘I’ve worked for worse. Not much worse, though ...’

I interrupt his reply by taking the droid’s other arm off.

‘Your best course is to insinuate yourself into the Hutt’s swoop gang,’ I suggest. ‘By all accounts they’re an undisciplined, foul-mannered band of renegades and criminals.’

My next strike decapitates the droid.

‘You should find many like minds,’ I can’t resist getting in a barb.

For a moment I flex my right arm. The light sparring and forms I have been using to keep Maia in shape haven’t taxed it much, but this bout with the dueling droid has. The injury Luke gave me on Bespin hasn’t acted up too badly, yet the increased exercise has made it ache a little.

‘The arm has healed well,’ I quietly note.

My thoughts are interrupted by the arrival of Lieutenant Jir.

‘My Lord, Prince Xizor will be here shortly for your meeting,’ he reminds me.

‘I had not forgotten,’ I answer, dismissing him with a wave as I turn off my lightsaber.

No, I haven’t forgotten what I have been putting off for weeks, using Maia’s health as an excuse to avoid it. Now, the situation is at a critical point and I have no choice but to deal with the Falleen. If I don’t, my master will surely do something about it.

‘A ship is waiting to take you to Tatooine. You will find everything you need aboard. Keep me informed,’ I give Jix his orders. ‘If Skywalker turns up, I want him captured alive.’

‘That might not be easy,’ my agent grumbles a bit.

‘Do not fail me! You have your orders!’ I warn, pointing my finger directly at him. ‘I know you, Jix. No mistakes on this. If Skywalker dies, you die!’

This is one threat I will carry out, and Jix knows it. For once there are no smart remarks or teasing comments, only a snapped salute before he heads to the hangar. He was uneasy during our meeting, I note with a smile. Having the Noghri hide in the shadows must have unnerved him a little.

I ignite my saber again, quickly dispatch the next droid, then shut it off again to consider what else I must do. My spies have told me Jabba has been in close communication with Xizor this last week. The Hutt is not to be trusted where my son is concerned, and his consorting with the Falleen is a dangerous sign. It would be wise to have a back-up plan in place just in case Jix runs into trouble. A few Noghri disguised as Jawas won’t draw any attention, and Maia’s bodyguard could use some time in the field.

‘Kohvrekhar,’ I call to the senior-most of the Noghri.

‘Yes, Lord Vader,’ he answers from the shadows.

‘Prepare your team to travel to Tatooine,’ I order. ‘You know what to do if Jix fails.’

‘Yes, Lord Vader,’ he confirms what I had discussed with him earlier. ‘Protect the one named Skywalker, even if it requires us to dispatch several of Jabba’s followers. Or Jix.’

‘Correct. You are dismissed,’ I tell him, turning away to head out of the salle for my meeting. ‘On your way out, summon your clan-brother. I have other contingencies to plan with him.’

With one of them away, I will need to rearrange my wife’s security.

***

I lead Mikal and the twins towards the conservatory, intending to let them have some playtime where they can run around without disturbing anyone. As we move through the public area of Ani’s castle, I spot an unexpected, unwelcome visitor.

Xizor.

Here, alone.

I freeze in place and stare for a few seconds. What is he doing here? Given his rivalry with and hatred of my husband, he can only be up to some sort of mischief. Thankfully, he doesn’t seem to see me and steps out of my sight into the public meeting room.

There is definitely something going on between the Sith Lord and the crime boss. A shiver goes up my spine before I can stop it. Events are being put into motion - events I once knew something about but can no longer recall.

‘Cyran,’ I call to my aide. ‘Take the children and I’ll be with you in a few minutes.’

I need to find out what is going on.

***

To my surprise, I see my wife waiting for me by the public meeting room. She has her arms wrapped around her and is staring at the closed door, shivering.

Assuming the worst, I immediately go to her.

‘Maia?’ I ask. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘Xizor,’ she whispers.

‘Did he say something to upset you?’ I question, my anger rising. ‘Did he touch you?’

If he has, I will kill him right now, and in the most painful way I can come up with, regardless of my master’s wishes.

She shakes her head ‘no’ as I take her into my arms but her eyes don’t leave the door.

‘He’s going to do something to you, I just know it,’ she confesses.

‘He can try,’ I reply, amused, ‘but he won’t succeed.’

My words don’t comfort her at all. I run my fingers down her cheek in an attempt to soothe her and hold her close.

‘Your odd memories?’ I gently prompt. ‘Something has come back to you again?’

A nod against my chest this time. So, she has a sense of some danger to me which involves Xizor, but no specifics. How frustrating for both of us.

‘It’s just a quick meeting about some business for the Emperor,’ I reassure her. ‘There’s nothing dangerous about that, and I will be careful. Go see to the children. I’ll be with you in a few minutes.’

She rather reluctantly slips out of my grasp and I see my wife’s worried glances over her shoulder as she walks down the corridor. Lately, her peculiar knowledge of my past and future has been returning in unpredictable flashes and bursts. Two nights ago she woke from a nightmare, screaming and hysterical, and was able to describe what happened to me on Mustafar after Obi-Wan left me to die. I quickly blunted that memory for her, shoving it out of her conscious mind. Living through it once myself was bad enough without allowing it haunt her dreams, too.

I touch the door controls and step into the meeting room. It’s rather bare - a polished greel wood table and chairs, holoplate and viewer - compared with what I could have but I see no reason to put on a conspicuous display of my wealth. Anyone who comes here knows who I am and exactly what my resources are.

Xizor is seated comfortably in one of the chairs, leaning back lazily with his legs stretched comfortably out in front of him. He’s been monitored constantly so if I want to know what he has done while waiting for me, I can go review the recordings.

He sees me, stands, and offers a polite military bow.

‘Lord Vader,’ he addresses me.

‘Prince Xizor,’ I respond but don’t return the rest of his greeting.

A Sith Lord does not bend his knee to anyone but his master.

Or his wife, I note, amused, as I remember my proposal on Naboo.

‘You asked to see me, Lord Vader. How may I be of service to you?’ he states, remaining standing.

I step into the room and pause while the door closes behind me.

‘My master bids me to arrange for a fleet of your cargo ships to deliver supplies to our bases on the Rim,’ I reveal my orders.

‘But of course,’ he readily agrees. ‘My entire operation is at your disposal. I am always happy to aid the Empire in any way I can.’

He is busy trying to look good for the holocams, but I know his legitimate shipping business is funded by Black Sun’s illicit dealings.

‘In the past it seems as if your company has been slow to respond to Imperial requests,’ I take a jab at him.

‘It embarrasses me to say that you are correct,’ Xizor admits. ‘Certain individuals who worked for me were lax. However, those individuals are no longer employed in my company.’

They were probably mixed into some duracrete and are now part of several construction projects, I decide. That’s his favourite way to dispose of those who cause him problems.

‘We will need three hundred ships,’ I tell him, ‘Half of them tankers, half dry cargo transports. Standard Imperial Delivery contracts. There is a large ...’ I pause a moment, certain he is aware of why so many are required. ‘...construction project of which you are aware. Can you supply the vessels?’

‘Yes, my lord,’ he replies. ‘You need but tell me where and when you desire them and I will make it so. And Imperial terms are acceptable.’

I stare at him, surprised. Imperial contracts pay less than what his company normally charges. I fully expected him to argue about how many ships and haggle over their price, too.

‘Very well,’ I concur. ‘I’ll have the fleet supply admiral contact you with the details.’

‘It is my honor to serve,’ he responds with a slightly lower military bow than before.

I don’t waste any more of my time on him, turn and leave the room. My master has the shipping agreement he wanted and I prefer to be elsewhere.

***

I look up when I hear Ani’s breathing and let out a sigh of relief. Whatever business he was up to with Xizor, my husband has obviously emerged unscathed.

‘Daddy!’ Shmi happily cries as she makes her way over to him.

My mouth twitches, so I give up trying to hide a smile as the Sith Lord picks up his daughter and carries her to where I am sitting. I fully understand why it was Cat he decided to foster out with Admiral Thrawn’s family when she is old enough. Our youngest is definitely ‘his girl.’

I look over at Mikal and his other sister. They are busy watching the fish eat their dinner while Cyran trickles crumbs into the water. After my son dumped most of a box of fish food in, I don’t let him do that simple chore any more.

Ani takes a spot beside me on the bench, setting Shmi down so she can go play with her siblings. His fingers quickly find mine as he takes my hand and gently holds it.

We could sneak away for a while, he suggests, and let Cyran mind the children for you.

I squeeze his hand in an affirmative and wait to be helped to my feet. Cyran gives Shmi a few crumbs to feed the fish and acknowledges our departure with a nod. She probably suspects Ani needs to speak with me in private since we rarely interrupt our afternoon family gathering unless something important has come up.

The Sith Lord doesn’t say anything until we are safely in our private quarters, away from any possibility of prying ears or eyes.

‘I’ve sent Kohvrekhar on a covert operation,’ he tells me, ‘so you will have only one Noghri on your staff in the interim.’

I refrain from asking what my body guard is looking after for him and why he is the one Ani is using to do it. My husband won’t tell me anyway.

‘You could have told me that without coming down here,’ I note.

Ani is up to something.

***

‘I know that,’ I admit, amused, ‘but I wanted to spend some time alone with you.’

I reach over and touch her face, feel her smile against my hand once she realizes what I intend. It’s difficult to find time for ourselves during the day, with the children to mind on her part and ‘work’ related errands on mine.

The door shuts behind us and I guide her into the bedroom, my arm at her waist, as the air pressurizes. She seats herself on the bed, waiting patiently for my helmet to be lifted away. I set the face mask aside at last, unhook my cloak and let it fall to the floor. There’s time to remove my armour, so I do so, all the while watching my wife look at me.

How shy she once was. At first she wouldn’t even stay in the same room when I stripped everything off. In some ways, I miss that silly innocence of hers. I leave the black fabric bodysuit on and sit down beside her. She blushes a little when her eyes slide down my body, only to quickly glance away again. Not all of that shyness is gone, I note with a low chuckle.

I turn her face back to mine with a light touch of my hand and gently press my lips to hers. She lets me take the lead, as she usually does. Rarely has she ever done so. My dominance in this aspect of our relationship has always been obvious. I run my tongue over her lips, demanding entry which she doesn’t deny to me.

How sweet she tastes, I decide, as I ease her backwards, sliding my hands down her body once she is flat on the sheets. Her curves are familiar ones, and every inch of her is well known territory. I pull back, look into her now flushed face. My wife’s eyes are slightly closed, her breathing faster than normal. She’s completely relaxed, but I want to enjoy this as long as I can. On an impulse, I lean over and kiss her.

I feel her need over our bond. Maia aches for me, wanting me right now, but I intend to resist her for as long as we both can stand it. Her hands slide around my back, digging into my skin and leaving claw marks, as she rips open the back of the bodysuit with her nails and a touch of the Force. I laugh a little at her audacity, breaking our kiss a second time.

‘Aggressive today, are we?’ I tease.

‘Want you now,’ she growls while trying not to laugh.

I touch her face and open our bond, allowing our souls to mesh so that we are not two separate individuals, but one being connected on every level. It has been weeks since we last did this, and I need the relief from stress that this intimate sharing gives to me. My wife is silent, then I sense a flash of confused bewilderment and hurt from her.

She must have picked up on my thoughts, but surely she must know by now that much of our lovemaking is necessitated by my being a Sith Lord. The dark side thrives on unanswered passions, unaddressed desires. If I don’t see to it that mine are met, it will have a far greater hold on me, and I don’t want to run that risk.

‘Maia,’ I softly call her name.

She turns her face aside and doesn’t answer.

I pull her in close to my body. Her tears start to soak my chest before I realize what has just happened. She’s seen in my mind why her brother hasn’t been around. Silently I curse our bond for that. Now I will have to deal with her delayed grief when there are other pressing issues I should be seeing to instead.

Rather than try to comfort her with words, I simply hold her, lightly stroke her hair and face, and wait for her weeping to stop so I can speak to her.

Time is the only thing which will heal this wound to her soul.

***


DAY 4

I slip away from where the children are playing, leaving them in Cyran’s capable hands, and make my way into one of Ani’s nearby, public conference rooms. Once there, I curl up in the comfortable padded chair my husband uses during meetings, rest my arms on the table, and set my forehead down on top of them.

It’s been two days since I remembered what happened to Michael, and that short time has barely dimmed the loss. Anything which prompts a recollection or reminds me of my big brother brings on a spell of sadness and sometimes tears. When it has been particularly difficult, I find an excuse to absent myself. I don’t want the children to be upset or confused by my lack of control.

I stifle a shuddering breath. In slowly, I chide myself, and out at the same rate or you will lose it again. Ani will be back soon and you don’t want him to find you like you were yesterday. He has only so much patience and sympathy to spare when it comes to your crying spells, and from the lecture he gave you, he expects you to use Control to stop it.

My chest heaves again and my throat begins to close off, so I repeat my mantra. If I can stop the worst of it, I should be fine. I am only partially successful. A few tears escape but that’s all.

The door opens. When I look up, I see that Thirsk has come to check on me. I know the Sith Lord had asked his friend, rather than one of the Noghri, to do that whenever I pull a disappearing act.

‘My lady,’ he quietly calls to me.

I simply nod in reply. Talking will just make it worse.

He hovers in the doorway, uncertain of what he should do. Typical male, I note with a wry smile. How to handle a weeping woman is definitely not taught at the Academy.

‘My lady?’ he asks when I return my head to where I had laid it.

This time I don’t respond. I am still not ready to try speaking yet.

His footsteps make their way around the end of the table, across the room, and stop next to me. I feel his hand rest lightly on my shoulder for a few seconds before he removes it. The chair beside mine is pulled back and when the leather creaks a little, I know he has sat down in it.

For many long minutes, the commando says nothing. When I venture to take a peek at him, I can see that he is staring, with a contemplative look on his face, at the holo of Ani which is in the center of the table.

'Credit for your thoughts, Commander,’ I manage to get out in an unsteady voice.

A sigh, then a shake of his head.

‘Nothing of importance, my lady,’ he tries to divert me.

I lift my head, sit back, wipe my face on my sleeve, and raise an eyebrow at him.

‘The Sith don’t have emotions like the rest of us,’ Thirsk states in response to my silent enquiry. ‘That’s what most say and believe, but I know that his lordship does. I know he feels far more than he ever lets on.’

‘Oh?’ I prompt, curious as to what insights I might gain from his observations.

Thirsk has known Ani for years and if anyone can be said to be his friend, it is the Commander.

His eyes stay fixed on the holo.

‘After he brought you from your homeworld, I could see he had changed. Only those who had worked with him for years might have noticed how much he had changed, but it was obvious to me that he was a man in love,’ Thirsk reveals.

A wry smile tugs at my lips. I have always suspected Ani was not as good at concealing what he felt as he claimed.

‘When he left you on Vjun, and for all the months you were there, he grieved,’ the Commander continues. ‘No one else on the ship recognized it, but I did. Until he returned to you, he was in mourning. Heartbroken.’

‘I know,’ I quietly admit, ‘I could feel that.’

Thirsk turns to look at me.

‘His lordship has never said anything to me, but I know he once lost someone very close to him,’ he adds. ‘That’s why he is so protective of you and your children. He’s afraid it might happen again. I also suspect that he has never really dealt with the pain from whatever occurred.’

I slowly nod. This makes sense given what little Ani has told me of his past.

‘His mother,’ I tell him, ‘and ...’

I stop myself short of naming Padmé. The Sith Lord might not want the fact he was married before out in public.

‘...the Jedi forbade emotional attachments,’ I quickly add to cover my almost slip-up.

‘He was probably told to forget his mother and never allowed to mourn for her,’ Thirsk concludes, ‘and that is why he is having trouble dealing with your grief for your brother.’

A surge of sympathy for Ani catches me off-guard. No wonder he is acting the way he is. I am reminding him of his own sorrows which he prefers to not face and would rather ignore. I stare at his holo, thinking of how I should approach my husband.

The Commander touches my hand to catch my attention.

‘His lordship might not be able to help you through this, but I will sit with you,’ he offers, ‘as a friend, whenever you need me to.’

‘Thank you,’ I reply, giving Thirsk’s hand a squeeze in return. ‘Thank you, my friend.’

***

Perhaps it was too early to test Xizor’s defenses, I decide with a frown, but my master is finding the recording from earlier today quite entertaining.

I stare at the holographic projection as the Falleen kicks Hoff in the knee, breaking it and causing his opponent to fall to the floor.

‘You ruined him!’ the young man screams.

‘We were business competitors,’ Xizor calmly states. ‘He gambled that he was smarter than I. A foolish mistake. If you cannot afford to lose, you should not play the game.’

‘I’m going to kill you!’ his downed adversary threatens.

‘I think not,’ the Falleen says as he grabs Hoff’s head. ‘You see, to contend with Xizor is to lose. As far as any reasonable person is concerned, attacking me will also be judged a suicide.’

With a sharp twist, a neck is snapped and a body falls to the floor.

The Emperor smiles as the recording ends.

‘Well,’ my master observes, ‘it seems that Prince Xizor has kept up his martial arts practice, does it not?’

My frown grows deeper. I dislike this game of words and deceptions, so I will stick with the obvious..

‘He is a dangerous man,’ I caution him. ‘Not to be trusted.’

An amused chuckle and smile are bestowed on me. Palpatine prefers to play along with me, it seems, rather than start another argument on this topic.

‘Do not trouble yourself with Xizor,’ he dismisses my worries. ‘He is my concern.’

‘As you wish,’ I concede with a bow.

‘One wonders how that hotheaded young man managed to get into a protected corridor,’ he muses.

I freeze. From his tone, he knows exactly how it happened.

‘I will look into it, my master,’ I offer.

If I am the one doing the investigating, I can see to it that the missing guard is never discovered. And that now dead guard was following my orders.

‘Don’t bother,’ he dismisses me with a wave of his hand. ‘There was no harm done. Prince Xizor was hardly at risk, after all, was he? He seems quite capable of taking care of himself, though I would hate to see anything happen to him as long as he is useful to us.’

I bow again and take my leave from him. That last bit was a pointed warning to me, and the message was obvious: Leave Xizor alone.

For now, I will forego direct attacks. Instead, I will watch the Falleen closely and use any mistakes to my advantage. That creature is an amoral criminal, after all, and ridding the galaxy of him will be doing a service.

To contend with Xizor is to lose?

I let out a snort of contempt.

We will just see about that.

***


DAY 5

I lean back into my seat and close my eyes, though that is unnecessary. The pod is already in darkness, the lighting off, to help with my meditations. It’s easier to tap into the dark side to do what I plan when there is no illumination to disturb my focus.

For a moment, I contemplate my state. I have never been able to heal my body, despite many attempts to do so. Medical science has repaired some of the damage, and I believe the Force can mend what remains. Maia’s short-lived, but successful, attempt years ago showed me it was possible. It’s just a matter of learning the proper technique to do so.

And then - then I will be as I was before. Free to move in public without my armoured prison, physically as I once was.

But, I admit to myself, I am not and never will be the man Anakin Skywalker was - foolish, idealistic, and weak. Knowledge, experience, and the dark side has removed those traits. Like Luke, I was waiting to be shaped into something more. Perhaps my son has more potential than I did. He hasn’t had his head filled with the same foolish Jedi notions I was taught. But he must embrace the dark side, at least on the surface, at least enough to protect himself in the short term, because if he doesn’t the Emperor will destroy him.

And that is something I don’t want to happen.

At Bespin, I tested him - pushed him to see how he would respond. If Luke had failed, I would have left him to live his life as he wished, considered him unworthy and unsuitable as my heir. But my son survived and proved himself far stronger than I had expected him to be. He held his own against my years of experience and skills, losing only his hand in the process.

That meeting brought back old memories and emotions I had thought deeply buried. Many of those were unwelcome and unwanted, yet I felt pride in Luke’s abilities - pride that he was my son, and a most worthy opponent as well.

A smile crosses my face. Obi-Wan was a fool not to tell Luke I was his father. In doing that, he left my son vulnerable. It was a most useful way to manipulate him, too. Luke wanted to kill his mentor’s slayer, and attacked in anger, allowing himself to tap into the dark side. Confusing him with the truth broke that connection and let me drive him to his knees.

Now, it’s merely a matter of time. Once one touches the dark side, its siren call will always draw them back. I simply need to set up a situation where my son must draw on it again, and like a drug, he will soon be addicted.

And then ... then I will add his strength to mine and destroy my master. I will rule the galaxy, as I promised Padmé two decades ago, only it will be with our son and Maia ruling at my side, not her.

Enough musing, I decide. It’s time to test myself again.

I brush my hand over the controls to the pod, opening it with a hiss of escaping pressurized air. The coolness of the room is a bit of a shock against my skin, and I reflexively breathe in a lungfull of it.

Concentrate on what makes you strong, I remind myself. Think of what Obi-Wan did to you and your fury at him. My anger builds. How I hate him. No one should have to live the way I am forced to.

It isn’t fair! I silently cry out. It isn’t right!

The dark side surges through me, and with that my lungs begin to heal. Scarred tissues smooth out, become whole and well again. I breathe in as any normal person can. One breath, then another, then another.

Triumph at last. Joy flashes in my heart and with that the dark side flees from me. The test has given me my answer, though. It will eventually be possible to sustain this - to breathe like everyone else.

I wave my hand over the motion sensitive controls and close the pod again.

The problem is positive emotions, I reluctantly admit. For the healing to be maintained permanently, I cannot allow them. Which means I will have to make a choice. A choice between becoming completely a creature of the dark side and being able to throw away my armour, or keeping my wife, family, and all they are to me. There is no way I can truly be a Sith and still love them.

I will put that decision off. For now, I will continue to practice and experiment. Perhaps there are alternatives to what I have discovered thus far.

A sigh escapes from me. I will simply have to try harder. Where Xizor and my master are concerned, I cannot afford to have any weaknesses.

Weaknesses...

I give my head a frustrated shake. Maia’s grieving and tears have abated a little, yet I wish she would try to exert more self control. At least in public she has managed well enough. At home, though, her sudden disappearances with Thirsk are beginning to be noticed by my staff. I know that he is only sitting with her, keeping her company when I am absent, but she should use the monitored rooms from now on or I will insist she has another of her staff with her as well. The last thing we need is for rumours of impropriety to reach the press.

I pull on my bodysuit and adjust my chest box. Someday I will be rid of both, but for now, they are necessary evils. There are errands to be run and problems to solve, so I reach for my helmet, replace it, and hurry to my office.

The first flimsies I pick up are an overdue report. My agents finally traced Shas and identified who she really was, Shasheva Astopone, but by the time they reached her apartment, she had long since fled. In a way, I am almost grateful she escaped. She saved Maia when she fell from my castle and I owe her a life debt for that.

I set the flimsy down and stare over at the fireplace. How much damage she may have caused over the years is difficult to gauge. Shas moved in the wealthiest circles. She often dined with Moffs and Admirals. I know how easy it is for secrets to be leaked in an attempt to impress a beautiful woman. Fortunately, that source of information for the Rebellion is now gone.

***

I stop in the doorway to Ani’s office and look at him. He’s behind his desk, working. Rather than disturb him, I begin to back up, intending to slip away again, but his helmet tips upwards as he senses that I am there.

‘Yes?’ he asks rather abruptly.

I hesitate, then take the step back I had started to. From his tone, my husband is in a mood where bothering him will result in tears on my part and more frustration on his. Turning away, I head towards the entrance to our quarters. There are other places I can go where I won’t be seen or heard.

‘Maia,’ Ani calls after me.

For a moment, I debate stopping, but don’t. Booted footsteps soon sound behind me, then his hand on my shoulder halts me before I go past his meditation pod. That physical contact is all it takes. I turn about and bury my face in his shoulder as the first sob escapes.

‘Little goddess,’ he soothes, shifting his arms to hold me close. ‘You are going to make yourself ill with this if you can’t get it under control.’

My breaths are more akin to gasps than I would like. That prompts him to rock me a bit. I know his cloak is going to be soaked where my cheek is resting against it. Not just my eyes are watering - my nose is running as well, and I am probably quite the sight.

Ani lets out the odd purr he makes in his throat at times. I suppose that’s better than listening to his attempts to make the hushing noises he uses with the children when they are upset or need calming.

‘If you can’t control it,’ he finally suggests, ‘then it’s best to simply cry yourself out.’

He releases me and sets an arm around my waist. I lean on him as he guides me back to our bedroom. After he sits on the bed, he opens his arms.

‘Come here,’ Ani offers. ‘I will stay as long as you need me to.’

I settle myself on his lap and snuggle in tight. He seems far more approachable today than he has been.

‘Ani,’ I try to talk through my sore throat.

‘Don’t say anything,’ he silences me with a gloved finger on my lips. ‘Just listen to me and be quiet until you are ready.’

I nod my head against his chest and take his advice. It will be a few minutes before I stop crying anyway.

‘I know why this is so hard for you,’ he tells me. ‘Losing a bondmate is not an easy thing to bear and you have had to suffer through that twice now.’

The breath from his mask heats the top of my head as Ani looks down at me.

‘I, too, have lived through such a loss,’ the Sith Lord reveals. ‘Padmé and I were also life bonded.’

A hiccup escapes from me in surprise. This is something he has never mentioned before. Curiosity overwhelms me, finally ceasing my sobs. Ani spoke of his first wife only once, after his duel with Luke at Bespin, and I have not pressed him for more details than what he volunteered then.

He gently pulls back the hair which had fallen into my face, hooking it behind my ear. I stay silent, waiting for him to continue, but he says nothing more. That simple admission, though, has told me exactly why he is finding it so hard to deal with my grief for Michael. It is too similar to what he had experienced himself.

‘Ani?’ I whisper to him. ‘Are you alright?’

For a brief second, I get a distinct flash of vulnerability from him, a sense of just how deeply and for how long he mourned for his lost love, then that is gone. This is obviously one area of his life and feelings he doesn’t want to discuss with me. I decide it would be best to leave it alone.

‘I am fine,’ he quickly states. ‘It is you I am worried about.’

I settle myself back against his chest. My husband can feel my distress and uncertainty about how to manage it. And I can easily pick up his own concern for me as his fingers slowly run through my hair. He’s doing that as much to soothe himself as to calm me.

‘Please hold me, Ani,’ I finally ask of him. ‘Just stay with me.’

He does, until I fall asleep almost an hour later.


DAY 7

Locking my wrists, I watch the dueling droid circle to its left. After the old units proved too simple to dispatch, I ordered a dozen new ones, each faster and stronger than an average man. Each is programmed with more than a dozen fighting styles and the knowledge of a hundred sword masters. No normal human can defeat one of them.

But I am not a normal human.

It steps in fast and aims an attack at my head. I easily block that. The second attempt to strike is at my side, which I parry. It’s fast, but not fast enough.

Next it tries my off-side, swinging its saber in a large circle. This time I parry and follow up with a riposte, slashing at the droid’s head. It blocks me, and steps back, stands a meter away holding its blade over its head, the point towards the floor at an angle.

My shoulder starts to ache a bit. This is definitely turning into a workout, but my injury from Bespin isn’t as sore as it was a week ago.

I step in, aim a feint at the droid’s neck, twisting my wrists at the last minute to make a second one at the same place. The third, I direct at its midsection. It retreats a pace and crossblocks the last of those.

V-stepping to my left, I lift my saber above my left shoulder and swing at the base of the droid’s neck. It blocks, but a fraction too slow, and our blades meet, spark as they make contact. I shove its saber aside as it attempts to backpedal.

The droid’s evasive manoeuver doesn’t save it. My lightsaber strikes it between the neck and shoulder joint, passing through its chest at an angle, stopping in the center of its chest. Sparks fly and smoke begins to curl from destroyed circuitry. Its hand controls fail and the blade it was holding drops to the floor.

As it falls to its knees, I swing my saber in a wide arc, severing its head at last. The body collapses backwards on the floor while the head bounces away.

That was the eighth of the last batch of dueling droids. There are only four left, and they are proving to be far too easy for me to defeat. The next dozen will need to be faster and with better programming.

I shrug my shoulder and move my arm a bit, checking to see how it fared. It definitely feels better.

Shutting down my saber, I turn away from the scrap pile on the floor, meeting Lieutenant Jir in the doorway.

‘Clean up the mess,’ I order as I stride out of the salle.

I am going to spend some time with my family.

***

‘Daddy!’ Mikal cries when he sees the door open to reveal his father standing there.

Our son runs over to him and the twins are soon heading in that direction as well. I hide a smile at the commotion as each of our children insists on being picked up first. Ani has been busy with work the last week, skipping his afternoon visits with them to concentrate on some project of Palpatine’s, and now he will have to make up for it.

Blitzé quickly moves to leave, no doubt intending to excuse herself from our private family gathering, but Ani waves her back into the chair. From what I can sense, he is in a better mood than he was earlier in the day.

‘I spoke with Admiral Piett this morning,’ he tells my friend, ‘ and I have arranged for him to contact you using the Holonet in my castle.’

I give my husband a curious look. The Admiral has probably given him good news about the hunt for the rebel fleet, which would explain why the Sith Lord is being generous.

‘Thank you, my lord,’ Blitzé graciously replies.

‘The Accuser will be in hyperspace within the hour, so I would suggest you take advantage of what time you have,’ Ani not so subtly advises.

He gives in to the various tugs on his hands and the pleas from our three demanding toddlers. Crouching down, the Sith Lord lets each in turn place their arms about his neck, but Shmi is the one he is holding when he stands up. She will always be daddy’s girl, I note, amused.

Blitzé has risen to her feet by the time Ani is at my side. She gives a nod of her head in farewell as she turns to go.

‘Until next week,’ I bid her good-bye.

‘Of course, my lady,’ she replies before the door shuts behind her.

‘Piett’s wife has been visiting you regularly,’ my husband comments as he extracts himself from Shmi’s grasp and sets her down.

‘She is very much like a friend I knew on my homeworld,’ I remind him, ‘and you did approve of her.’

‘True,’ Ani admits, ‘but you need to be careful and not show too much favouritism to any one person. It could be dangerous for them and for you.’

He’s not just referring to Blitzé, I realize. Perhaps I need to review what I am doing and with whom to avoid trouble.

‘Blitzé stops by once every week or so and sometimes brings Wynssa with her,’ I reveal. ‘Her sister decided that she didn’t like Thirsk’s security measures. She hasn’t returned for a repeat visit after the first one.’

I watch Shmi pull at her father’s hand in an attempt to regain his attention. Mikal and Cat are sitting on the bench near the fish pond, impatiently waiting for Ani to finish with me and go to them.

‘And,...’ he leads me into continuing.

‘I occasionally play holochess with Commander Tosack,’ I add, ‘but he tends to transmit his moves by Holonet and was only here in person when you went over how you wanted to reconfigure the Executor’s shields with him.’

Ani shifts his hands to his hips and I can tell he is getting a bit irritated. What does he expect to hear from me? He knows who I see and when because it is always listed on my daily schedule.

‘It’s not like I have a wide circle of friends here,’ I tell him.

No, I admit to myself, I don’t have many friends outside of my staff. The Sith Lord’s reputation has kept people away, and he has openly discouraged any of the Imperial Court’s hanger’s-on and riff-raff from coming near me - not that I would be interested in ambitious political and social climbers anyway. I have no time or patience for those types or their games, and neither does Ani.

‘You still need to be careful,’ he warns, shaking his finger in front of my nose. ‘Reputation is everything. Rumours of impropriety can be dangerous.’

‘Rumours of impropriety!’ I blurt out. ‘Anakin! What do you think I have been doing!?’

‘I know you have not done anything improper,’ he reassures me, ‘but you must make sure that no one can ever accuse you of that.’

My laughter stops in my throat before it has a chance to escape. He’s genuinely worried about this to make such an issue of it. I tip my head up to study his mask. There’s no expression to be read there, but his body language and the tension in his stance are giving away the feelings I can sense from him. Ani is not just concerned. The Sith Lord is suppressing a certain degree of old anger and hurt.

Ani, what’s wrong? I ask him. What’s really bothering you?

There is no immediate response. Instead, he walks over to Mikal and Cat, Shmi in tow. I know he’s done that to avoid answering my question.

Ani? I prod again.

He stops and stands motionless, but doesn’t turn to face me.

Once, I had a friend. A friend who thought of me as his brother, he slowly tells me. I trusted him with my wife and I trusted her.

I push myself up out of my seat and go to him. Before he can move, I am sliding my arms around his waist and resting my cheek against his back.

I know exactly what must have happened and silently vow to never give my husband any reason to worry about Thirsk and I again. From now on, I will have Cyran or Daini come sit with me when I need a few minutes ‘alone’ to compose myself.

I am not her, I reassure him. The only man I love and want is you.

His hands take mine and give them a gentle squeeze.

I know, Ani quietly replies.


DAY 9

***

I stare at the hologram of Xizor’s human security droid while I try to figure out why she has contacted me.

‘Lord Vader,’ Guri greets me.

‘I assume you have a message for me from your master?’ I ask, getting to the point immediately.

‘Prince Xizor wishes to see you, at your convenience, of course,’ she reveals.

I need to find out what he is up to. No doubt it’s more of his games. Certainly whatever it is will be to his benefit, not mine or the Empire’s.

‘Very well,’ I reply. ‘Tell your master I will see him. I have business on the Emperor’s skyhook. Have him meet me there in three standard hours.’

I cut the connection. After Maia’s reaction the last time the Falleen was in my castle, I see no reason to risk her accidentally meeting him here again, and I do have another appointment on the skyhook.

Prowling through the corridors, I head to the hangar and my shuttle. Perhaps it is faster to take the turbolift up to my master’s skyhook, but that route is too vulnerable to attack from within and without. No, I will take my armoured and armed craft rather than expose myself in that way.

As I make my way to the hangar’s level, I consider another issue. My master is deliberately keeping me from personally hunting Luke. Part of that stems from his desire to have Maia on Coruscant and near to him. I also know that the construction of the second Death Star is falling behind schedule and Palpatine is growing tired of the excuses from Jerjerrod. It is only a matter of time before I am sent to hasten the work along with my presence. Only a fool does not fear a Sith Lord and what he can do.

I shake my head. From the start I opposed the building of another Death Star. Despite its designer’s promises, the first one was not invincible or all powerful. It fell to the well-aimed, Force-aimed, torpedo fired by my son, proving that the Force is stronger than any technology. Still, the Emperor did not agree, and so resources are once again going into what I see as a wasteful project.

As for waiting... well, what my master wills, is so.

I pause at the door to the shuttle bay.

‘Is my shuttle ready to launch?’ I ask the guard stationed there.

‘It is, Lord Vader,’ he quickly answers.

‘Good,’ I reply, pleased.

Once, and only once, it has not been, and the example I made of the technicians who failed to have it ready when I needed it has ensured that incident has never been repeated.

I pass the guard and stride towards my ship.

For now, I can’t hunt Luke, but I have sent others out to catch him. The reward I have offered for his live capture, which is substantial, should motivate independent hunters as well.

I settle myself behind the shuttle’s controls and send it skyward. It is a short, uneventful trip. Once it is secure, I go to the first of my meetings.

Unfortunately, Tremayne has no new candidates for me to consider. The pool of Force sensitives is growing smaller as they become more elusive and better at hiding. Anyone with Jedi-like abilities has learned, for their own safety, to conceal them.

I leave that appointment a touch frustrated. Using new trainees to distract my master from Maia has been an effective tactic in the past, but without any suitable prospects, I will have to come up with something else now.

Xizor, I spot on one of the terraces overlooking the Emperor’s gardens with his back to me. I march over to him, determined to keep our meeting brief.

‘Lord Vader,’ he politely offers with a bow.

‘Prince Xizor,’ I get to business immediately, ‘you had something to discuss?’

‘Yes,’ he affirms. ‘The location of a secret Rebel base has come to my attention. I assumed you would want to know of this.’

I stand motionless and silently stare at him. Xizor does not do anything without anticipating something in return, so what does he expect for this piece of information? And why has he chosen to give it to me? Surely it would have benefited him more to tell my master of this directly.

The Falleen’s face is neutral, unreadable. His control is almost as good as someone trained in the Force. He rarely gives his intentions away.

‘Of course,’ I decide to draw him out. ‘Where is this base?’

‘In the Balji Sector, out on the Rim,’ he reveals. ‘The Lybeya System, hidden on one of the larger Vergesso Asteroids. It is my understanding that there is a shipyard full of vessels undergoing repair. Scores, perhaps, hundreds, of Rebel ships, ranging from fighters to troop carriers.’

I wait, hoping he will add more details.

‘Destruction of such a large base would no doubt greatly cripple the Alliance,’ he continues, sounding as neutral as he can.

‘I’ll have my agents check it out,’ I tell him after a moment. ‘If it is as you say, then the Empire....’ I pause again before finishing, knowing that this conversation is being recorded, ‘...is indebted to you.’

Admitting that I might owe him thanks for this information infuriates me. If his allegations are true, destroying those ships will hurt the Rebellion. In bringing it to my attention, he gains credibility in my master’s eyes, raising his stature at the expense of mine.

I just knew he was plotting something.

I say nothing more, turn and stalk past the Falleen’s bodyguards who instantly get out of my way.

He has seen to it that I have no choice in this matter. I will have to verify his report and tell my master of it, if it is accurate, which, no doubt, it is. Palpatine has one rule about such things: you discovered it, you go deal with it. So, I will be the one dispatched to eliminate the Rebel base.

I snarl behind my mask. The Vergesso Asteroids are four days from Coruscant by hyperspace. Xizor has just seen to it that I will be gone for a full two weeks, including the time it will take to destroy the shipyard and confirm that nothing remains of it. Two weeks. More than enough time for Xizor to stir up plenty of trouble.

***

I go into Ani’s office as quietly as I can. He’s off somewhere, in a meeting, and the children are asleep, so I know I won’t be disturbed for a while.

With a touch the hidden panel in the wall behind his desk slides aside. It will only open to my husband or myself. I am sure there are other secret compartments in here, full of Sith artefacts and Ani’s private documents, but I know better than to try finding them. Slowly, carefully, I lift Michael’s prison from the shelf and cradle it close. I can still sense my brother, faintly, within it even though that contact is gradually fading away.

Ani had warned you that would happen, I remind myself. He told you that it was only a matter of time before what was left of your bond with Michael would be snuffed out.

I wander over to the rug in front of the fireplace, settle myself on it and stare at the soul trap I have placed on the floor in front of me.

‘It isn’t fair,’ I whisper to myself, barely able to hold in the tears.

Life isn’t fair, my husband’s usual response to my complaint echoes in my mind.

No, Ani, it isn’t, I silently agree.

My brother should have had a full life back home and was denied that. His second chance at a life, of sorts, if you can call being a Force spirit living, has also been abruptly ended. In his case, life has definitely not been fair to him.

You are upset again, my husband notes. My business is finished. I will be home soon.

Thank you, my love, I reply.

I can sense he has other stuff he still needs to take care of, yet has decided I will take precedence over that. Hopefully he won’t be long. While I wait for him, I pull a pillow closer and let my eyes drift shut. Ani will wake me when he gets here.

His light mental touch rouses me before he comes into the room.

‘Little goddess,’ he murmurs to me as he lowers himself to sit, cross-legged, beside me.

I shove myself up a bit and rest my head on his thigh. His fingers brush my hair while I stare at the flames opposite us and do my best to stay calm and centered. Finally, I let out a resigned sigh. Ani is right that my grieving isn’t helping the situation, but I don’t know how to stop myself. On Earth, when Michael died, it was months before I could look at a picture of my brother without starting to cry. Now, I am dealing with that all over again.

‘I’m sorry for being so difficult, Ani,’ I apologize to him.

‘Difficult?’ he echoes back, sounding amused. ‘You are not being difficult. You are simply reacting as I would expect you to.’

‘But,...’ I try to protest.

I know he has other things to see to besides me.

‘Grief fades and control will come with time,’ the Sith Lord reminds me. ‘You need to be more patient with yourself.’

I do my best to shift a little and his hands move to help me sit up. The flames reflect off his helmet and its lenses, bathing him in a red glow, and triggering another one of my strange memories.

Woods. Darkness. A funeral pyre built of logs. Luke standing before it torch in hand, then setting it alight. Fire licking at, consuming Ani’s armour...

‘Maia!’ I hear the Sith Lord yell at me as his hands grab my arms.

Startled by his actions, my indrawn breath comes as a forced gasp.

‘Ani?’ I ask, a bit shocked and dazed by what I just experienced.

He pulls me in tight.

‘You stopped breathing,’ he tells me.

Rather than answer, I cling to him. That memory had the weight of reality behind it. I’ve seen it happen, I decide. Somehow, somewhere, I watched Luke burn his father’s body.

‘Another one of your peculiar future visions?’ Ani softly prompts.

I nod against his chest.

‘A new one,’ I whisper to him, ‘and a bad one. A really, really bad one.’

‘You can tell me about it when you are ready to,’ he allows. ‘Take your time with it. I will wait.’

After that one instance, my husband has never ventured into my mind without my permission to go looking for what I know of his future. It is too traumatic for both of us for him to intrude in that way unless it is absolutely necessary.

‘Ani?’

‘Yes?’ he replies, humoring me.

I pull myself upright and stare into his mask. Be brave, I scold myself. He’s told you before that you could ask him for this when it was convenient for him to do it. Pretend he isn’t in his armour and come right out with it. My courage, however, despite my needs, runs away from me.

The Sith Lord’s helmet dips nearer, so that the indent above his breath screen is level with my nose.

‘I know what you want,’ he teases, ‘even if you are still too shy to admit it.’

I drop my head in an attempt to hide the blush I can feel spreading across my face. Ani doesn’t let me escape that easily. His fingers touch the center of my forehead, ghost down my cheek before moving under my chin and tipping it up again.

‘We won’t be able to do this for much longer,’ my husband warns. ‘That doctor of yours will forbid it soon, so we should make the best use of what time we have.’

There is no reason to argue with him, so I let him ease me onto my back and offer no resistance to anything he wants us to do. Ani is gentle, careful to keep his weight off of me, and slow and steady with his movements. Once we are both sated, I pull his cloak around me and relax in his arms.

‘You look like a thoroughly satisfied sabercat,’ he notes. ‘One who has just got exactly what she wanted, too.’

I make a half-hearted attempt to purr at him. We rarely fool around while he’s in his armour and when it does happen, he likes to tease me about it afterwards.

A gloved finger traces a path down my bare shoulder to the gold ring on my left hand. Goosebumps rise on my flesh as it goes. All he has to do is touch me with one finger to produce a reaction. Today, though, I don’t have the energy to pursue a repeat of our earlier exercises.

‘Anakin,’ I sleepily say.

‘You sound tired, so I want you to have a nap,’ he orders, waving a finger at me in his usual manner. ‘I have a report on the possible location of a Rebel base I must check before going to the Emperor.’

‘Can I help?’ I mumble at him as sleep starts to overtake my brain.

‘Not this time,’ he decides as he tucks a pillow under my head.

I pull his abandoned cloak up to my chin. He has several spares in our bedroom he can choose from if he needs another one.

‘Alright, love,’ I agree. ‘Just don’t work too hard.’

His low chuckle when he sits down behind his desk is the last thing I hear before I am dreaming.

***

I kneel before my master and wait patiently while Palpatine looks out over the vista he has from the spire’s throne room.

He suddenly turns his throne about to face me and orders, ‘Do get up, Lord Vader.’

I obey.

‘Our agents have verified this report?’ he asks.

‘They have, my master,’ I confirm.

‘A hundred rebel ships? Plus, no doubt, their pilots and officers,’ the Emperor repeats what I had heard from Xizor earlier.

‘Likely, yes,’ I agree.

‘That’s Grand Moff Kintaro’s sector is it not?’ he muses aloud. ‘He has been lax in allowing such a base to become established. We will speak to him.’

Speak to him and then remove him. Palpatine tolerates no such complacency amoung his officials. Kintaro’s fate is already sealed.

I stay silent, waiting for the instructions I expect.

‘Well, you must take part of the fleet and go there immediately,’ he tells me. ‘Destroy the base. The loss of ships and troops will be most damaging to the Rebels.’

‘I thought perhaps Admiral Okins might command the expedition,’ I suggest.

‘Did you?’ he says with a smile.

I decide to back off pushing the issue, hoping he might be more reasonable if I do.

‘But if it is your wish, I shall lead the attack,’ I concede.

‘It is my wish,’ he firmly states. ‘You may take Okins if you like, but you are to personally ensure the assault.’

‘Yes, my master,’ I reply with a bow, taking my leave of him.

His voice stops me before I exit the room.

‘You may take your family with you, since you will be gone for two weeks,’ he allows. ‘We wouldn’t want your wife to become upset at being apart from you this late in her pregnancy.’

I accept his offer with a nod. Ever since Zaarin’s kidnap attempt, he has tended to be generous in regards to my wife. Perhaps his concern is merely an act on his part, but I am not going to question it. Maia and the children will be with me, safe from both Xizor’s and my master’s plotting.

I wait until I am in the Grand Corridor before I start fuming. Of course that base was there, just as Xizor had said. It will be an easy victory, too. Shooting helpless ships is mere target practice for my crew. All Xizor has to gain by this is removing me from the scene temporarily.

At least I kept the source of my information secret. The recordings from the skyhook have been erased, and the only copies are safely locked away in my castle. That’s one small victory over Xizor, but one I will savour nonetheless.

Okins meets me at the entrance to the palace. He must have been called here by Palpatine, who is showing almost unseemly haste in sending me off.

‘Prepare your ships, Admiral,’ I tell him. ‘I will be carrying the flag on the Executor, and will join you once I have my family on board.’

‘At once, Lord Vader,’ he acknowledges with a snapped salute before he leaves.

I stare up at the night sky, what can be seen of it through the lights of Imperial Center. My wife won’t be pleased that we are leaving at this late hour since it will be disruptive to the children’s routine, but she won’t object when she hears that the alternative is to stay here without me.

I will go and crush the Rebel base, and hurry back as fast as I can.

Xizor is up to something which requires my absence.

***

Ani’s return from the Imperial palace was well timed, for once. I set the last of our dinner on the table just as he comes into the kitchen.

‘Good,’ he tells me. ‘You and the children will be able to eat before we leave for the Executor. I shall wait and have my meal once we are on board.’

I stare at him in surprise.

‘What?’ I blurt out.

There was no indication from him at all today that we might be going somewhere tonight.

‘Orders,’ Ani admits with a rueful sigh as he takes his chair next to Shmi. ‘Something came up and...’

‘... Palpatine, as usual, is sending you to deal with it,’ I finish for him, assuming my spot beside him.

I pass Shmi’s plate to my husband and start to dish out Mikal’s meal.

‘I did try to talk my way out of it,’ the Sith Lord reveals, ‘but since I was the one who had the misfortune of confirming that base’s existence, I am the one he insisted should go destroy it.’

‘But he is letting you take us with you,’ I infer the situation from his earlier words. ‘I suppose that is one good thing.’

I stick my fork into a piece of nuna. Tonight’s meal is simple. Tomorrow I had plans for a trip to Ani’s other residence on the shore of the Western Sea, but I have learned to be flexible. There is always something which comes up to change things on a moment’s notice. My life as Lady Vader has most certainly been nothing like what I ever thought it would be.

‘He offered. I didn’t have to ask,’ Ani supplies a few more details. ‘We should be gone for two weeks.’

‘Then we should take the opportunity to enjoy the break from Coruscant,’ I suggest, continuing to make small talk as I eat.

I can sense that something else is happening besides this sudden trip. He’s spent too much time with Xizor and the Emperor of late and that worries me. Forebodings start a shiver which I quickly suppress. Events are rushing forward and are about to overwhelm us - events I once had a knowledge of but am now unable to recall.

I can only hope my husband will tell me what is really going on before it is too late for me to help him.


The Executor, Vergesso Asteroid Belt, Lybeya System, Year 3, Month 10.

DAY 14

***

It’s been almost week since I was sent off to deal with the rebels, I note, as I stand in my regular place at the head of the command deck. I listen impassively to the quiet murmur of the officers and crew working behind and below me. Soon we will be exiting hyperspace at the edge of the Lybeya System. Okins knows better than to try the same foolish tactic Ozzel did at Hoth. There will be no attempted ambush here.

For a moment, I recall my orders. Palpatine insisted I take three other Star Destroyers. Overkill, in my opinion, since most of the ships we will be facing should be immobile and helpless. I will use it as a training run for those crews, for this is a necessary, if tedious, mission. The fewer ships the rebels have, the less resistance they will be able to muster, and the sooner the war will be over. Still, destroying equipment in this way feels far less satisfying than meeting my enemy in battle.

‘We are dropping to sublight, Lord Vader,’ Warrant Officer Bachenkall reports.

I turn and look at him. He has been my flagship’s helmsman since Hoth, and has never given me a reason to discipline him. Today, though, he must have drawn the losing lot because I can sense his fear at having to play messenger. For a few seconds, I let him stand there and worry while his fellow crewmen do their best to ignore us. They are afraid of attracting my attention in case I capriciously chose to punish someone else instead.

‘Very well,’ I finally say. ‘Set a course for the Vergesso Asteroids, using the coordinates for the shipyard. I will be in my chambers. Call me when we arrive.’

‘Yes, Lord Vader,’ he acknowledges my orders with a crisp salute and rushes back to his station.

As he goes, I stare after him. I have better things to do with my time than stand around looking important on a mission any of the fleet’s half-wit admirals could manage. Instead of wasting precious days here or waiting for news from my agents on his whereabouts, I should be tracking my son, myself.

I let out a loud sigh. The Emperor has commanded my presence on this errand. The best thing to do is finish it as quickly as I can.

Without another word to anyone, I head towards my quarters.

***

I look up when I hear the door open. Ani’s back, at least temporarily. How long he will stay is another matter. For the last hour he’s been up on the command deck, waiting for word that the Executor has arrived in the Lybeya System. Since he’s here, we must be there at last.

Patting the spot next to me, I expect him to come and sit with me until he is called back to the bridge, but he doesn’t accept my unspoken invitation to join me. My husband is in one of his moods, I decide as I give up trying to get him to take a seat.

‘The children are napping and I know you have Cyran watching them, so let’s go for a walk,’ he suggests out of the blue.

My exercise for the day, I ruefully note. He’s been careful to see that I follow Leanan’s instructions to the letter despite my opinions about her advice. With a sigh, I put down my datapad and reach over to him. Two leather gloved hands promptly help me to my feet.

‘Where to?’ I ask, curious.

We have a regular walking route which he likes to take. It passes by several of the Executor’s command and control sections so he can check, albeit briefly, on what the crew is doing.

‘Observation deck,’ Ani reveals. ‘I thought you would like to see the system as we approach the outermost asteroid belt. Unless you have another preference?’

‘Nope, I have no objections,’ I reply, pleased that I will have a chance to look at what I have been busy reading about.

He settles my hand on his arm and guides me out into the hallway, so I decide to tease him a little.

‘ “Lead on Macduff”,’ I quote at him.

‘If you are going to quote your homeworld’s plays at me,’ he scolds in return, ‘you should get the words correct. It’s “Lay on, Macduff. And damn’d be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’ ” Though I don’t understand why you think Macbeth’s last words are appropriate for going on a walk.’

He’s been reading my collection of Shakespeare’s plays again. I quickly check the corridor we are in to ensure no one is around, then cheekily stick my tongue out at him. My brattiness has probably been recorded by a security camera, but I don’t care.

‘My version sounds better,’ I tell him, ‘and it’s how most people misquote it at home. It’s a tradition.’

‘I see,’ Ani says. ‘It’s another Earthism.’

I start laughing. Lately, that’s become his favourite way of describing Earth slang or what he thinks is peculiar to home.

‘It’s too bad we can never go back home. Reading Shakespeare and seeing it on stage are two different things,’ I admit. ‘In my apartment I had a collection of recordings of his plays with performances by some of my world’s greatest actors.’

Ani looks over at me while the turbolift takes us upwards, to our destination. Anytime I mention Earth and going home, I get the strangest feeling he’s still keeping something from me. That sensation rarely lasts for very long and I have never bothered following up on it. It’s not worth the effort. He probably did something he’s too embarrassed to admit to when I wasn’t there to see it.

‘I could act as a sponsor and have Henry V performed at the Coruscant Opera House,’ he offers.

I know that’s his favourite play. Once, I caught him reading it to a rather bored Mikal. Our son has yet to develop a sense of high culture, but his father was thoroughly enjoying what he was reciting and partially acting out.

‘You just want to see someone make one of the King’s speeches,’ I prod him.

‘Perhaps,’ he mildly responds, refusing to own up to the truth, but I know that my guess is correct.

He pulls me over to one of the transparisteel windows after we step out of the turbolift and into the observation deck. I settle into his arms, rest my head on his chest, and content myself with staring out at the vista.

There are no planets around the single star at the heart of the system. Instead, it is ringed by several asteroid belts. It is too far from any important trade routes for anyone to try mining the chunks of rocky iron, and few of the asteroids contain enough ore to make it worth the effort involved anyway. The only value this place has is its remoteness. Being isolated, it is the perfect place to avoid being noticed.

‘They could hide ships in among the asteroids,’ I tell Ani, ‘and wait until you were in close before attacking. That’s what I would do.’

My husband lets out a low chuckle. He’s already thought of that possibility and planned for it.

‘I will be surprised if they don’t put up a fight of some sort,’ he replies. ‘Okins expects this will be easier than I do, but he tends to underestimate the enemy.’

I don’t comment on Ani’s evaluation of his Admiral. Discussing tactics can wait for another time. Right now, I just want to be held.

***

I release Maia from my arms and take her hand when I hear the approach of the turbolift. It wouldn’t do to have someone walk in on us the way Tremayne once did all those years ago. Behind us, the lift opens and someone approaches.

‘Lord Vader, we are closing on the Rebel asteroid,’ Lieutenant Commander Ardan states.

I turn away from the viewport. The head of the Executor’s bridge pit crew is taking his turn as the news bearer this time.

‘Good,’ I reply. ‘Have Admiral Okins meet me on the bridge.’

‘At once, Lord Vader,’ he confirms my order and leaves.

‘Time for you to go into battle again,’ my wife quietly tells me.

I pull her back into my embrace. This is going to be hard for her. Every time I must put myself at risk I know she worries. After losing her brother, the thought of something happening to me must be unbearable for her.

‘I won’t do anything foolish,’ I promise her, ‘and I will stay on the Executor if you ask me to.’

‘You will do what you need to do,’ she reminds me, sounding amused rather than concerned, ‘as you always do.’

I brush my fingers down her face and she leans into them in response. My little wife. How well you understand me now. Has it really been only a few years since we first met?

‘Admiral Okins will be calling me on the comm soon if I don’t leave,’ I prompt her to release me, ‘and the children need to be secured.’

Maia’s arms loosen their hold, but I catch her hand in mine before she can step away. With my free one, I touch a control at my belt to increase the flow of oxygen into my mask. I will need that if I choose to fly in battle.

‘I dislike this chore I am being forced to do,’ I reveal to her as the lift doors close behind us, ‘but I will do it to the best of my abilities anyway.’

Her fingers tighten in mine.

‘All will be well,’ I reassure her as I step out at the floor which the command deck is on. ‘You will see.’

***

I watch Ani head away from me to the bridge, his cloak fanning out and sweeping the floor behind him. His words were designed to boost my spirits, but I can’t shake the feeling that time, for us, is running out.

‘My Lady,’ Thirsk greets me.

I know he has orders to follow my husband and I at a discrete distance. When we reached the lift to the observation deck, the Commander waited there for us to come back. Now that the Sith Lord has gone to supervise the battle, Thirsk will play bodyguard and chaperone me back to my quarters. Security has been tight around the children and I, even on the Executor. For a moment, I wonder if something has happened to justify all the extra precautions, then dismiss that notion. It’s just Ani being his usual overprotective self.

‘Let’s go, Thirsk,’ I reply. ‘I need to see to Mikal and the twins.’

‘The usual?’ the Commander asks.

‘Yes,’ I tell him with a sigh as we head down the corridor. ‘And the girls will not be very happy about it, either.’

I know the risks of being on a Star Destroyer going into a combat situation. Despite the protests I will have to listen to, I would rather be dealing with three cranky toddlers than worry about them being injured.

‘Perhaps you and Cyran can distract them until everything is done with,’ I suggest. ‘I will need to lie down and behave myself.’

Leanan doesn’t want me to risk a fall and neither do I, so in this instance I will do as I am told without arguing.

***

‘Admiral?’ I call out from my usual vantage point.

‘We will be in range shortly, Lord Vader,’ he promptly answers my implied question.

‘Good,’ I reply, then order, ‘Commence firing as soon as we reach optimum distance. I want no mistakes.’

There will be no errors here, not when I am in complete control of the situation.

I stare at the large asteroid ahead of the Executor. It’s covered with craters, no doubt from collisions with others of it’s ilk in the ring of rocks surrounding the star. As I watch, two frigates emerge from behind it. So, Maia’s prediction that the rebels had hidden some ships was correct.

‘Two Nebulon-B Escort Frigates,’ Bachenkall identifies.

With an expert eye, I survey the two vessels. Both have TIE decks at the rear, and are obviously recent acquisitions for the rebels. How they fell into rebel hands is less clear. Most likely these are two of the frigates and their crews who defected under Harkov’s command.

‘Our own ships,’ I hiss, furious.

There is silence behind me as those who heard my comment realize we might be firing on those they once fought alongside.

‘At least they won’t have any operable TIE fighters,’ Okins offers.

As he finishes, twelve X-wings emerge from the nearest frigate and begin to rush towards us.

‘I see they have been modified to carry X-wings,’ I dryly observe. ‘It seems the shipyard will not be such an easy target after all.’

‘Scramble our fighters,’ I hear the Admiral order. ‘I don’t want to waste firepower swatting these annoying ... flies with our big guns.’

‘At once, Admiral,’ the TIE operations officer responds.

Another much faster ship appears. A Corellian Corvette, I note with a smile. Perhaps this won’t be as tedious or boring as I expected. I prefer a fight to shooting at stationary targets.

‘Have my Interceptor readied,’ I command the officer in charge of the TIEs as I turn to face him.

Okins looks at him, then at me. Is he going to argue with me about this?

‘My lord, do you think that is ...,’ the Admiral starts.

‘... wise?’ I finish for him. ‘It has been too long since I flew in combat, Admiral. I need to flex those muscles. You can handle the shipyard. I will clear the vacuum of the fighters.’

He inclines his head in acceptance. I know why he raised the objection and will let it pass without comment or reprimand. Okins has a wife and family on Coruscant and he knows mine are here with me. His thoughts were not for himself, but of how to protect Maia and my children.

***

Maia, Ani calls to me.

I shift a bit in bed and rearrange a couple pillows to make myself more comfortable before I respond to him. Soon the shipyard will be destroyed. Just to be safe, I plan on staying where I am until the effect of feeling those deaths through the Force has faded a bit.

Yes, dear, I answer, what is it?

I am going out for some target practice, he reveals.

A snort escapes from me. I just knew he wouldn’t be able to resist getting some time in his fighter if the opportunity arose. Palpatine has had him grounded long enough that the Sith Lord would have found any excuse he could to go out in his TIE.

Be careful, I remind him, and try to stay out of trouble.

I will be back quickly enough, he tells me.

There is a brush against my mind in farewell from him, then he is completely focussed on the task ahead. I leave him be. If he needs to talk to me during the battle, he’ll initiate the contact.

***

The darkness of space entices me as I touch my fighter’s controls and send it after an X-wing. It has definitely been too long since I have flown in battle, I decide.

Without much effort at all, I easily target five of the Rebel fighters in turn. This is no challenge, I admit, a bit disappointed by how simple it is to chase each pilot down. Even though they are skilled, not one of them is strong in the Force.

There is no competition here for me.

None.

While I had mused, an X-wing had climbed below me, intending to attack from beneath my ship. I loop away from it, whip around, and hammer it with my lasers until it is in a billion fragments.

Through the cockpit window I see that one of the Rebel’s frigates has been disabled and the other is being pounded into submission. No Nebulon frigate is a match for the concerted effort of several Star Destroyers.

Another X-wing targets me, so I give it the same treatment as its fellows. As it bursts apart, the shipyard is finally split open. Anyone who thought the asteroid was sufficient protection was a fool. The Executor’s heavy lasers easily cut through the rock. There is a shift, a wrench, in the Force when those inside are killed when the atmosphere vents into space. With a light mental touch I reassure my wife that I am safe. She will have felt those deaths and I will need to see her as soon as I can after I return to my flagship.

An eighth X-wing ventures into my sights. I chase it, following every twist and turn it makes. This pilot is good, very good, but training and talent are no match for the dark side. I let the Force guide my hand, hear the targeting computer lock on ... and hold my fire.

Disgusted, I pull up, break off my pursuit, and allow that X-wing to escape. Shooting ships in this manner is beneath me. It is almost like lining them up in a row and opening fire. The only one who might be close to being my equal as a fighter pilot is my son. I smile at that thought. Luke would be a worthy opponent, unlike the criminal Xizor. A frown erases my previous expression. The Falleen is devious, but he is far too much of a coward to ever face me directly.

The X-wing I let go hurries away. What is left of the battle is merely mop-up. The shipyard is aflame, the ships it sheltered destroyed, and hundreds have been killed.

A great victory for the Empire, I sarcastically note. No doubt that will be played up in the media. I can hear the commentators now. But for myself, it holds no glory.

Anyone who could be my equal is gone. Obi-Wan is dead by my hand. What Jedi from the old Order remain are in hiding and are too weak for me to bother hunting down. My wife will never reach my strength in the Force, nor would she ever turn against me. The only suitable adversary I have left is my son, the last Jedi.

The last of the Jedi who will soon become the next Sith, but it won’t be Palpatine he is apprenticed to.

I send my TIE back towards the Executor, dock and hurry to my quarters. There’s a report to be made before I can do anything else.

I activate the Holonet terminal, but don’t lower myself to one knee until Palpatine’s hologram appears.

‘My master,’ I greet him.

‘Ah, Lord Vader. Your report?’ he asks.

‘The Rebel shipyard is no more,’ I state. ‘They put up a fight, but it was of brief duration. We destroyed hundreds of ships and thousands of the enemy within them.’

‘Good, good,’ he praises, obviously please by this result.

He waves his hand and the view of his throne room enlarges as the camera angle widens. I give a start when I recognize who is there with him.

Xizor.

To cover my reaction, I force myself to allow the automatic breathing cycle to resume. Palpatine will hear any changes in it.

‘Prince Xizor was just telling me how happy he was to provide the Empire with the location of the Rebel base,’ my master reveals. ‘It seems we owe him a debt of gratitude, don’t you think?’

I grit my teeth. There are many things I would prefer to do to Xizor other than offer him any show of gratitude, yet Palpatine is going to insist that I do it. You might be the master now, I think, furious, and be able to enforce your will, but that won’t last for much longer.

I glare at Xizor, and allow my hatred for him to flow out into the Force. Fortunately, they can’t see my face. My eyes have taken on their Sith colours and cold fury is etched into my flesh.

‘The Empire owes you thanks, Prince Xizor,’ I say in as neutral a tone as I can manage.

The Emperor smiles benevolently at me.

Xizor’s smirk is even wider.

‘Oh, think nothing of it, Lord Vader,’ the Falleen brightly tells us. ‘I am always happy to serve.’

Servile, grovelling, boot-licking toady, I apply the appropriate labels in my mind. Thankfully you are on Coruscant and I am here. If I were there, with you within my reach, I would kill you right now, regardless of my master’s wishes.

‘I expect to see you soon, Lord Vader,’ Palpatine reminds me of my obligation to come back to Coruscant quickly.

‘Yes, my master,’ I promptly reply. ‘We are returning even as we speak.’

Not entirely true, but close enough. One of the officers from the command deck should be here soon to announce that the Rebel base and any remaining ships have been confirmed destroyed. I will not leave until I hear that report.

‘Good,’ he praises.

The Holonet connection is abruptly cut without him bothering to give any form of proper farewell.

I should have known that the Falleen’s freely given information was intended purely for his own benefit. In keeping the source of that intelligence secret, I played directly into his hands. Palpatine probably enjoyed humiliating me in front of him, too. With a snarl, I rise to my feet. Maia needs me, but I am in no mood where I can be of any comfort to her. Instead, I will isolate myself in my meditation pod until the worst of my anger has dissipated before I go to her.

The door to my quarters opens.

‘Lord Vader, I...,’ one of my junior officers starts to speak.

I clench my fist, using the Force to cut off his air and shut him up.

‘I do not wish to be disturbed,’ I snap at him as he falls to his knees. ‘Is that clear?’

To release him, I open my hand, and he inhales rather loudly in reaction.

‘C..c..clear, L..lord Vader,’ he stammers.

I leave him to make his own way out, stomp to my meditation pod, and close it over myself.

Time to brood and plot, and imagine the thousand different ways I intend to make Xizor suffer before I slowly kill him.

***


Imperial Center, Coruscant System, Core Worlds, Year 3, Month 10.

DAY 19

***

I watch the progress of one of my spy droids through the holocam hidden within it. The cleaning droid is slowly making its way down the street, removing debris and scrubbing the surface beneath it as it goes. Jir slows its progress as the droid nears the café Xizor is sitting in front of.

The Falleen is calmly sipping on the cup of kaffe he had ordered almost an hour ago, still pretending to read the flimsy in his hand. He looks thoroughly bored, but he is obviously waiting to meet with someone. I doubt that whoever his appointment is with is of concern to me. Just in case, I will have him monitored and his contact checked anyway.

I turn off the screen with a gesture.

Spying in this way is beneath me. It always leaves me feeling a bit tarnished and unclean. However, intrigue is the way of the Imperial court and my master. Xizor and the Emperor enjoy the double dealing and triple crossing they are so fond of, but I do not. For a warrior, for myself, a clean kill, an honorable death dealt to one’s enemy, are to be preferred to shooting someone in the back and then blaming another. Yet I have learned to play their games, by their rules, despite my feelings about it.

Every bit of evidence I can collect will serve to undermine Xizor. Sooner or later he will make a critical mistake and I will act on that, and explain why I killed him to my master afterwards.

Using the nearest comm panel, I let Leanan know I am leaving the command center at last. I am late for Maia’s appointment and the doctor will not be pleased. Rather than speak with her, I type a quick message into the terminal instead and hit send.

Turning away from the bank of monitors my staff are watching, I motion to Jir to come with me. There are a few issues I need to discuss with him and now is as good a time as any.

***

Ani’s been in a rotten mood ever since we left Vergesso, despite the battle’s more successful than expected outcome. I suspect that Xizor has something to do with it, since the Sith Lord has most carefully avoided mentioning the Falleen’s name. When we returned from the Executor today, the first place he went was the command center, since he needed to find out what had happened during our absence. He sent me off to his Castle’s Med Center by myself while he did that, which for him is most unusual.

I shift in my chair while I patiently wait for Leanan to start the ‘lecture.’ My husband should be here, but he is still busy, no doubt going over reports about rebel activity on the Rim. With a sigh, I give up on him.

‘His Lordship is probably stuck in a meeting,’ I explain to my doctor. ‘There’s no point delaying this any longer.’

‘He should unstick himself, then,’ she growls, sounding extremely irritated. ‘This is more important than some report about rebels.’

‘It’s not like we haven’t heard this before,’ I try placating her.

That earns me an vexed look.

‘You heard what your previous physician had to say, not what I have to tell you,’ she warns.

This is just wonderful. Ani and I are probably in for a huge list of restrictions about what I can and cannot do. I bet fooling around with my husband will be the first thing she bans.

Her console chirps after another ten minutes, so she acknowledges the message without telling me what it was about or who it was from. I guess it was Ani letting her know he couldn’t make it from the exasperated expression on her face.

‘Fine,’ she concedes at last. ‘His Lordship will get all of this in a file instead.’

I raise an eyebrow at her. All that will do is prompt Ani to come to her office in person and start an argument about whatever prohibitions she has dictated. He enjoys baiting the doctor whenever she leaves him an opening to do so.

Leanan walks around her desk and stands in front of it, then rests her hands to either side of herself and leans back a bit. At least she’s relaxed. That should be a good sign, I hope.

‘Your predicted delivery date is in two months,’ she reminds me, ‘but you have a history of premature births. You will probably go into labour in four or five weeks.’

This is not the first thing I expected to hear and it does not bode well for the remainder of her speech.

‘So, what we need to do is delay that for as long as possible,’ she adds, ‘and I am fully aware of what has been a trigger for your labour in the past.’

Oh, no. Here it comes.

‘Make the most of the next two days because after that, sex with Lord Vader will have to wait for at least three months,’ she finishes with a finger pointing at me as Ani finally appears.

The Sith Lord stops dead in his tracks, and from how the voices of those who were with him went absolutely silent in the corridor behind him, I know Thirsk, Jir, and Rik heard what Leanan said in the brief seconds before the door slid shut after him. Thankfully, Jixton isn’t with them or I am sure he would have come out with some smart remark which would have earned Ani’s wrath. There is an annoyed hiss from my husband. I doubt that he’s overly embarrassed but I know he must be giving the doctor one of his looks, too.

‘Was it really necessary to announce that in public?’ he snaps at her.

What? I prod him.

I contacted her when I left the command center, he informs me. She deliberately timed her words for when I would get here, and probably so that I would be in less of a position to argue with her about it.

‘If it ensures you follow my recommendations,’ Leanan tells him, ‘then, yes.’

They are going to fight about this unless I do something to prevent it.

Ani steps forward, stops when he draws even with me, and sets his left hand on my right shoulder. I reach up with my own left hand and rest it above his. When he starts to move towards the doctor, I tighten my fingers over his.

Leave it be, love, I suggest. Both of us knew she was going to insist on something like this soon anyway. We will have tonight and tomorrow. That will have to be enough until our son is born and I have healed.

Maia, he starts a protest.

Remember Mikal? I remind him. My brother can’t help us if that happens again. Do you really want to risk it?

A pause.

Then Ani gives in.

‘Very well, doctor,’ he calmly states, before trying to bargain a bit. ‘You win, but it will be four days I have with my wife, not two.’

‘Two days,’ Leanan insists.

‘Three and a half days,’ the Sith Lord lowers his demand a touch.

‘Three days,’ she compromises, ‘and not an hour more than that.’

My mouth drops open. They are haggling over my sex life like it was up for sale.

‘It will be no days,’ I growl at them both, ‘if you two don’t stop it.’

‘Three days,’ my husband agrees before Leanan can change her mind.

‘Very well,’ she concedes, ‘three days.’

‘Let’s hear the rest of it, then,’ I prompt with a sigh.

If this was the first thing she wanted to discuss, whatever else is left must be worse.


DAY 22

***

I approach the throne, kneel, and wait to be motioned to my feet before speaking. This will not be a pleasant encounter given what I feel it is necessary for me to say.

‘Rise, Lord Vader,’ I am prompted to get up at last.

‘I have received notification of your plan for delivery of the Endor Project computer to Bothawi, my Emperor,’ I admit once I am standing. ‘I consider it most inadvisable.’

Rarely have I had cause to question my master’s judgement, but this latest venture reeks of Xizor’s influence. It is both unwise and stupid, as well.

‘You disapprove, Lord Vader?’ he asks.

‘It is not my place to disapprove,’ I retreat a little in an attempt to placate him.

‘Quite so,’ he replies.

I decide to risk a reprimand and see if reason will prevail.

‘With respect, my master, the rebels would trade half their fleet for the information on that computer, if they knew what it contained,’ I push my opinion. ‘It should be under heavy escort! To send it aboard a lone freighter is madness.’

‘The plans are made,’ he snaps at me. ‘I see no reason to revise them. Your advice has not been notably successful in other matters of late!’

I bristle at his not so veiled reference to my failed attempt to catch Luke at Bespin. That was months ago and since then every task he has set me to has been accomplished. Has he so quickly forgotten how I saved him from Zaarin? The battle at Vergesso?

‘If you proceed with this plan, it is against my sternest warning,’ I boldly state.

When this foolishness ends in disaster, I will be able to truthfully say I did not endorse it.

‘Your objection is noted,’ Palpatine agrees, before dismissing me. ‘That will be all, Vader.’

I take my leave of him, and stalk from the throne room, heading to my castle. There is nothing I can say which will change his mind about sending the computer unguarded to Bothawui. All I am able to do is watch and wait - watch and wait as the rebels find out about that freighter and attack it, I ruefully note. No doubt when that comes to pass Luke will be there.

I curl my hands into fists and increase my pace. There are other things I want to do tonight, and worrying about my son is not one of them.

***

‘Ani,’ I softly murmur to my husband as I lean back against his chest.

He came back from seeing Palpatine earlier than I expected him to, and suggested a trip to his Western Sea residence. The children are asleep, in their rooms next to ours, and won’t wake until morning. For once, we should have an uninterrupted evening to ourselves.

‘This will be our last opportunity for a few months,’ he reminds me.

I make a resigned face while I watch the waves break against the shore through the transparisteel window. Leanan had given us her recommendations a few days ago, and I know that while Ani would rather do as he pleases, he will follow her advice to the letter. My husband won’t do anything which will put his son or I at risk.

‘I won’t say it,’ I tease him.

‘Say what?’ he asks.

I feel his lips start to explore my left ear.

‘It isn’t...’ I start my usual commentary on life.

‘... fair,’ my husband finishes with a smile against my skin.

I let out the sigh I had been holding in.

‘What is it?’ Ani prompts.

‘Life in general,’ I admit.

‘For tonight,’ he suggests, ‘let’s pretend that everything outside this room doesn’t exist.’

His mouth makes contact with my flesh again and traces a path down the side of my neck to my collar bone. I shiver in response, so he moves his fingers to loosen the top of my nightgown. Setting my hands over his, I stop him.

‘Wait a moment,’ I insist as I turn about in his arms.

Tucking my head under his chin, I hold him as tight as I can manage. I want to permanently freeze this moment in time. Something tells me that soon, inevitably, our lives will change forever and that thought terrifies me. It’s as if a part of myself knows that once a particular point is passed we will be venturing into uncertain, uncharted waters.

A hand gently strokes my hair then is joined by his other. My husband’s touch gradually calms me, so I listen to his heartbeat and try to let myself relax against his chest.

‘Something really is bothering you,’ he notes.

I nod is response. He always knows when I am upset even if he doesn’t have all the details.

‘Is it that vision you had?’ he asks.

Ani has probably needed to question me about that for quite some time but hasn’t wanted to push me. I debate whether to tell him what I saw or not. It might ruin our evening if he reacts negatively. For another minute or two, I quietly consider my approach.

‘I saw...,’ I start to describe my waking dream but can’t finish it.

‘My death?’ he gently cues me to continue.

I shake my head in a negative.

‘Worse?’

This time I bite my lip and nod. It’s strange that I find his funeral more disturbing than his death. Perhaps it’s the finality of seeing his armour aflame.

‘Take your time,’ Ani patiently instructs.

A few of the things Michael had said to me two years ago pop into my mind. They hadn’t made sense to me at the time, but now I am wondering exactly what he had meant by them.

You aren’t supposed to be here, my brother had told me. Anakin’s fighter bounced too close to a collision between a star about to go nova and a black hole. Time and space ripped, and he ended up on Earth, a place he never could have got to otherwise.

Anakin would have killed Ozzel and I couldn’t let that happen. Not yet. It’s far too early for that yet.

In meddling and trying to repair the timeline, I have made mistakes that I can never fix now, and you have paid and will pay the price for those.

Your being here is causing all sorts of problems.

‘Michael knew what was going to happen to us, when you would be killed and how,’ I quietly reveal, ‘but he refused to talk to me about it.’

‘Yes, he knew far more than he would ever admit to,’ Ani confesses. ‘Whenever I tried to get any answers out of him, he would pull his vanishing act and disappear for several days. It was a useful way to get rid of him if he was being too much of a pest.’

I wait for my husband to add to that, but he says no more about my brother.

‘Now,’ he returns to the previous topic, ‘you still haven’t told me what is bothering you so much about that vision.’

Out comes the interrogator. From past experience, I realize that he won’t let this go until he hears an account of it, despite suggesting I take my time. I’ll start with the location, I decide, and work my way from that to telling him about the funeral pyre.

‘It was in a forest somewhere, at night,’ I describe the scene. ‘Luke and you were there - no one else. The only light was from his torch.’

A shiver goes up my spine as I remember the wood under Ani’s body bursting into flames.

‘He had piled up a bunch of logs in the center of the clearing you were both in,’ I add.

My husband’s hand stops abruptly in the middle of my back. He’s figured out what my vision was about or picked up on that rather vivid image in my mind.

‘You were,’ I begin to choke on my words. ‘You were...’

A hand tips my face up, then his mouth is hard against mine. The ferocity of his kiss is matched by the vehemence of his thoughts.

I am right here, my love, he reassures me, and I swear to you that what you saw will never come to pass.

***

I slip my arm out from under my wife’s head and sit up beside her. She doesn’t stir or seem to notice my absence. Two hours of love making has tired her out completely. It should be morning before she wakes.

Moving away from the bed, I sit on the floor in front of the window and stare out at the water. I know what she saw and why it disturbed her. Somewhere in her subconscious, within her mangled memories, she still understands what happened to me on Mustafar and why I am forced to wear my armour. Any vision concerning fire and myself will provoke the same powerful, fearful response in her.

My eyes shut as I look forward into the future. It is clouded by the unpredictable actions of others, with paths branching out in all directions. One thing remains certain, no matter which avenue I explore - when Palpatine next sends me to the Death Star, I must ensure she comes with me. On this, all depends.

‘Ani?’ I hear a sleep-fogged voice call to me.

‘Stay in bed,’ I tell her. ‘I’ll be right back.’

I rise to my feet, resume my place next to her, and allow her to pull me in close. Within minutes she is sleeping quietly once more, but it is hours before I finally join her in slumber.

***


DAY 24

I shift about in bed, noting my husband’s absence from his usual place next to me when I roll over and try to snuggle up to him. He’s up at an unusual hour, even for him. With a frown, I shove myself upright and cast about with the Force, trying to find where he has gone - which is his office, I quickly discover. Grabbing my robe from the floor beside the bed, I wrap myself in it and go to see why he is awake.

‘... and do use a bit more caution in dealing with Jabba’s...,’ Ani stops his instructions rather abruptly when he senses my approach, before dismissing whoever he was on the comm with, ‘Contact me in two days.’

‘What’s wrong?’ I ask, a bit concerned with his break in routine.

‘I had to comm one of my agents when it would be untraceable on the other end,’ he admits, beckoning me over.

‘Oh,’ I accept his explanation without prying further.

He’s up to something, I just know it, and wants to keep me ignorant of it. Bugging him won’t give me any more information than what he has just told me.

‘I’ve been busy with other projects, too,’ he reveals as I reach his side. ‘There’s three birthdays coming up.’

‘Mikal and the twins,’ I confirm.

So that’s why he’s been getting out of bed early, before the children and I, each morning for most of the past month and going into his office for an hour. I had assumed he was dealing with work, not making presents. My husband opens the largest drawer of his desk and lifts out an almost finished model of his shuttle.

‘You have been busy,’ I tease.

‘It just needs a few more details added to it,’ Ani tells me, ‘but I still haven’t decided what I should give Shmi and Cat.’

‘Something more durable,’ I suggest with a laugh. ‘They are still too small and rough with their toys for anything like that.’

‘Maybe I should leave shopping for their gifts to you,’ he hints, replacing Mikal’s present in its hiding place.

‘Perhaps I would like some company on an expedition of that sort,’ I intimate, giving him a quick peck on the cheek as encouragement to submit.

‘That could be arranged,’ my husband decides. ‘Thirsk could ...’

This time, I shut him up with a kiss on the mouth.

I don’t want Commander Thirsk’s company, I scold him. I want yours.

Then I will make the time to go with you, he promises.

***

I nod at Lieutenant Jir and dismiss him from my office. He brought me another report of Xizor’s movements. The Falleen is at the Imperial Palace, once again meeting with the Emperor.

He’s up to something. Something dangerous to the Empire and designed to discredit me in the process, but he is too much in my master’s favour to easily eliminate without proof. And it must be solid, unquestionable evidence.

For a moment, I consider the other report my aide showed me. The rebels, of course, discovered how, when, and where the computer was being transported and attacked the freighter, just as I expected them to. Now, the plans for the second Death Star are in the hands of those who destroyed the first.

My master is a fool to think that they will not try to exploit that information. They will analyze those plans and find there is no weakness like with its predecessor. The attack, when it comes, will not be against a fully operational battle station. Instead, they will rally their forces now, rather than wait.

I close my eyes and see the image of the Death Star I had found in Maia’s shattered memories, still under construction, and the scene of an intense battle. Despite my best attempts to change things, to steer my path away from that, it seems with each passing day events are driving my future in that direction regardless.

The situation, unfortunately, reminds me of another future I once failed to alter.

Frustrated, I decide to go to the salle for some practice.

‘Bring one of my duelling droids,’ I order once I am there, then change my mind. ‘No, Bring two of them.’

***


DAY 26

‘Ani,’ I whisper in my husband’s ear. ‘Wake up, dear.’

He was up quite late, dealing with his agents, and had intended to sleep in until breakfast today, but now the comm is beeping. That particular sequence of noises is assigned to only one being. I know who is on the other end from past experience, and won’t answer it.

‘Yes?’ the Sith Lord sleepily responds at last.

‘Palpatine wants to talk to you,’ I warn him.

With a growl, he throws back the covers, grabs his robe from the floor, and wraps it around his body as he stalks out of the bedroom. Someone is definitely not happy with having his sleep interrupted.

A few minutes later, he is back.

‘I must go to the Palace,’ Ani announces. ‘He wants to speak with me in person.’

‘So much for our shopping trip,’ I decide.

I give him a rueful smile while I go to fetch his morning meal from the kitchen. Ani hasn’t wasted any time putting his armour on, I note when I return. He’s actually quite fast at getting dressed, if it is necessary.

‘You should at least have something to drink,’ I suggest, handing him the glass.

He swallows it quickly while I adjust his surcoat and tighten his belt. I fill the glass a second time as his chest armour goes on. That one he drinks during the minute it takes me to retrieve and see to his cloak for him. The third glass of his supplement he finishes as he watches me take his vocoder, mask, neck seal, and helmet from the storage compartment. We have done this before, so we both know the routine.

‘I could give you a quick kiss,’ Ani offers.

I sidle up to him in as suggestive a manner as I can manage.

‘Or perhaps not so quick,’ he teases.

Gloved fingers brush my cheek, so I turn my face into the palm of his hand.

‘Temptress,’ he dubs me before he sets his mouth on mine.

Sith Lord, mine.

Stubborn little goddess.

I don’t give him a chance to overly prolong our kiss, and pull back when I can sense his lust levels rising. There’s a limit to how far we can safely go.

‘We should behave ourselves,’ I remind him, ‘and you need to go see your boss.’

‘Unfortunately, the answer is yes, on both accounts,’ Ani admits.

He gives me another fast, chaste kiss, and puts his helmet on. Before he leaves, he touches my face in our usual parting gesture. I watch him walk down the corridor to the lift, then return my attention to the children. They had been playing in their room, but are now in the kitchen demanding breakfast.

***

I answer Palpatine’s summons promptly. Given his mood of late, it would not be wise to provoke him.

‘My master,’ I greet him as I drop to one knee.

‘Rise, Lord Vader,’ I am instructed in turn.

I do so. Hopefully he will keep this to the point and not send me off on some errand. Luke has been captured and is being held by a rather inept group of bounty hunters who have engaged me in a bidding war with another party for possession of my son. My agents have yet to pinpoint their exact location, but when that happens I will need to send someone trustworthy to fetch him immediately. Going to Kothlis myself is impossible. Xizor cannot be left to his own devices on Coruscant, or an even worse situation might develop.

‘You will go to Kothlis,’ he orders, ‘and collect young Skywalker.’

I freeze in shock. What? How did he find out Luke was there? If anyone in my employ has leaked that information, I will see to it that it is the last mistake they ever make.

Perhaps the Emperor is the other bidder? Has he found out about Luke’s location through that means? But that makes no sense. Why would he enter a bidding war which is essentially against himself?

There must be another party involved in this, and only one candidate fits that role - Xizor. He has a rather extensive spy network and every reason to ingratiate himself with my master by offering this information to him.

‘I have already sent my agents for him,’ I admit.

There’s no sense in trying to hide that from him.

‘Agents are not to be trusted,’ he scolds me. ‘Skywalker grows stronger in the Force each day. I remind you that he has within him the power to destroy us. Only you are potent enough to capture him.’

His mind is made up on this issue. There is no point in arguing further.

‘Yes, my master,’ I concede.

This is Xizor’s doing, I decide. He wants me off-planet again so he can stir up more trouble. Regardless of what I intend to do to the Falleen, it would not be wise to press my opinion of him. Not yet, anyway.

‘There is another reason,’ Palpatine reveals. ‘You are aware that Prince Xizor’s scheme to allow the plans for the Death Star to fall into rebel hands has been implemented.’

‘Yes, my master,’ I acknowledge. ‘That plan proceeds over my objections.’

‘Those objections have been noted, Lord Vader,’ he smoothly replies. ‘As it happens, the plans have been transported from the freighter hijacked off Bothawui to Kothlis. Quite a coincidence, don’t you think?’

Coincidence? I think not. Xizor’s manipulations are readily apparent in this.

‘We must appear to make an attempt to recover the plans,’ my master continues, ‘ to convince the rebels that the plans are genuine and that we are distressed by their loss. Therefore, your trip will serve two purposes. You can fetch Skywalker, and you can destroy some of the local scenery so that the rebels will be gulled into believing we are concerned over the theft.’

Somehow I must persuade him to send someone else on this mission.

‘Any of our admirals could go and wave the flag and fire the guns,’ I suggest. ‘I have many pressing matters here.’

‘More pressing than my commands, Lord Vader?’ he asks.

I should have known there was no way to escape from this task.

‘No, my master,’ I yield.

‘I thought not. I will have Skywalker with us or destroyed,’ the Emperor insists, ‘the sooner, the better. And the end of the Rebellion is near. If you personally lead the attack, the rebels will be convinced that we think these plans are of great value.’

‘Yes, my master,’ I accept his orders without further resistance.

I make my way out of the throne room while my anger begins to burn once more. Xizor has yet again managed to use my master to force me off of Coruscant temporarily.

What is the Falleen up to?

I vow to make the journey to Kothlis a fast one.

***

‘Maia,’ I hear Ani call to me from his office door.

I look up from where I had been working on my datapad and let out a resigned sigh. He’s back and with bad news, no doubt.

‘No shopping trip today,’ I fill in the silence.

‘Or for a few more days,’ he reveals. ‘I am being sent to Kothlis to wave the flag, blow up the scenery, and retrieve Luke.’

‘And?’ I prompt.

‘You and the children will stay here,’ Ani tells me. ‘I should only be gone for three, or at most four, days.’

I don’t wait for him to come over to me and instead ease myself out of his chair. It takes only a few steps before I am safely in his arms.

‘Please be careful, love,’ I ask of him. ‘You know what has happened every time you have gone after Luke.’

‘I promise I will be careful,’ he dutifully reassures me.

I keep him in my embrace until he reluctantly extracts himself from that and takes his leave. After he has gone, I silently curse Palpatine in as many languages and ways as I can come up with.


The Executor, Kothlis, Outer Rim, Year 3, Month 10.

DAY 27

***

I stand at the head of the bridge and stare out into the swirls of hyperspace. Soon we will be at our destination. Admiral Okins is somewhere behind me, hovering at attention to answer any command I might give. He can wait, I decide. My meditations are more important.

Luke, where are you, my son? Why won’t you answer me? I know you are on Kothlis, being held captive. If all goes well, you will be with me tomorrow.

I haven’t seen you in months, other than the odd image my spies and agents have sent. Have you changed much since we last met? Have you finally accepted the facts that I am your father and you are my son? Surely you realize the truth, even if you refuse to acknowledge it openly.

My son. Anakin Skywalker’s son. The man I once was is long gone, sacrificed to become what I now am. Destroyed like my former life, my first wife. I curl a hand into a fist. I won’t lose anyone else to my master and his manipulations.

So, my son, I will turn you. It is inevitable. Your anger will lead you down the same path my fear did. Once, you let your rage out, and it will be simple enough to provoke you into doing so again. Each time you do that, it will become easier, more tempting, and your feet will become firmly placed on the dark path.

You have so much power in you, Luke. More than my master, more than I. Do you know this? It is raw, unchannelled, essentially untrained energy. But so much vast potential is there. Waiting to be harnessed, tamed, focussed then unleashed.

But I will still be the master when we meet. You do not have the training to defeat me. I will humble you, conquer you, bring you to the dark side. We will be as one, united as father and son. Unstoppable. Not even my master will be able to oppose us.

With you at my side, my son, I will finally be able to destroy Palpatine.

I let a smile appear and make no effort to remove it.

‘How long until we leave hyperspace?’ I ask.

‘A few hours, my lord,’ Kallic, the Executor’s Captain replies.

‘I will be in my chambers,’ I decide. ‘Send someone to tell me when we arrive at the system.’

‘Yes, my lord,’ he acknowledges my order.

I will be there soon, my son, I send out to Luke, knowing that he won’t answer.

***

‘My wife,’ Ani greets us over the Holonet. ‘My children.’

‘Daddy!’ our three youngsters promptly call back.

‘We went to the zoo!’ Mikal starts describing our morning outing before I have a chance to say anything. ‘I saw a bantha!’

‘Indeed,’ Ani replies to that. ‘And what else did you see?’

I can sense he is finding this conversation rather amusing.

Anyone who thinks they will get any useful information by intercepting this transmission is in for a big surprise, I tell him.

That’s the entire point of it, he reminds me. Let Xizor waste his time and energy looking for hidden meanings in what our children have to tell me.

‘Sabercat!’ Shmi puts in her contribution, waving her stuffed, toy version of the same.

‘Nerf!’ Cat adds, giving her new possession a hug.

‘I kept them away from the exhibits which weren’t suitable,’ I tactfully interject. ‘Nightmares at bedtime are something I would prefer to avoid, my lord.’

‘Can we go to the circus?’ Mikal asks, bouncing up and down. ‘Daddy? Can we? Please?’

‘If you behave and do as your mother tells you to,’ my husband decides, ‘we will go to the circus when I return.’

I let out a sigh. Fifteen more minutes of this to go, and by the time he has to sign off, I expect Ani will have promised to do just about everything they ask him to.

***

I survey the rubble in front of me, surrounded by the elite of the 501st. Thirsk saw to this operation himself as part of the ‘practice in the field’ he insisted on having. Everything went exactly as it should - everything except for the one thing my old friend had no control over.

I don’t bother stepping through the breach in the wall. There’s no reason to investigate. Luke is not here. If he were anywhere nearby, I would sense his unmistakable presence.

Turning about in the darkness, I ignore the stench and smoke from the still burning building. Fungal fronds litter the ground, blown off of the trees by one of the earlier explosions. Thirsk is patiently waiting for his instructions, and he knows, from years of experience, that I am not pleased with the results. ‘Inept’ was a most apt description for the bounty hunters who had, then lost, my son.

‘Bring me the highest ranking survivor,’ I snap out an order.

‘At once, my lord,’ he quickly acknowledges and waves one of the squads into the building.

The sound of laser bolts again echoes through the air. Those who remain free are putting up a fight, but it is a short lived one. A few minutes later, two troopers emerge, dragging a prisoner over the shattered duracrete. When they reach me, the Barabel bounty hunter they have brought is shoved to her knees in front of me.

‘Do you know who I am?’ I ask, intending to get some answers.

‘Y-y-y-ess, Lord Vader,’ she stammers.

She is well aware of exactly who I am. My reputation should be more than enough to get what I seek from her without resorting to anything more excessive than a quick lesson in the consequences of not co-operating.

‘Good,’ I reply. ‘Where is Skywalker?’

‘H-h-h-ee escaped,’ she responds with the obvious.

Annoyed, I clench my fist and growl, ‘I know he escaped, fool.’

For a few seconds I let my prisoner feel the Force’s power and listen to her choke. Then, I open my hand and release her. That little taste of what I might do to her will hopefully be sufficient.

‘I was asleep, my lord,’ she gasps out. ‘I awoke to blaster fire. I left my quarters and saw Skywalker in the hall. It - it didn’t seem real. A dozen of us shot at him and he waved that lightsaber back and forth and blocked the bolts!’

Luke’s skills are rapidly improving. At Bespin, he would have been hard pressed to do that.

‘Continue,’ I instruct, pleased with this news.

‘More of our men arrived,’ she adds. ‘We were sure to overcome him, but then the wall blew in. We were attacked. I couldn’t tell how many there were, fifteen, maybe twenty. We were outnumbered. When the fighting was over, Skywalker was gone.’

I tip my head up and look at the starry sky above. No doubt Luke is off-planet by now. If I hurry back to the Executor, I might still be able to catch him. Returning my attention to the bounty hunter, I decide to get another piece of information I need from her.

‘I understand that someone else wanted Skywalker,’ I note, then question her, ‘Who?’

‘I-I don’t know, Lord Vader...,’ she feigns ignorance.

Another demonstration is required. I raise my hand and start to curl my fingers as a warning.

‘Wait! Please!’ the bounty hunter protests. ‘I don’t know, we - we dealt with agents.’

I reach out and briefly probe at her mind. She doesn’t know for certain who they were dealing with, but something is there.

‘You have a suspicion,’ I state.

‘I - heard some rumors,’ she admits. ‘I don’t know if they are true.’

‘Tell me,’ I insist, not wanting to waste my time rifling through her thoughts for this.

‘We - we heard it was ... Black Sun,’ she reluctantly reveals.

I stare at her. Of course. This makes perfect sense.

‘And this other ... bidder,’ I avoid mentioning Xizor’s name, ‘wanted Skywalker alive and well?’

‘N-n-no, my lord. They wanted him dead,’ I have my own nagging feelings confirmed.

I turn away from her. She is of no more consequence or use to me. Now, though, I will be forced to do something about the Falleen. It’s obvious he intends to kill my son and at the same time embarrass me in front of the Emperor.

‘Back to the shuttle,’ I order Commander Thirsk.

‘What about this scum?’ he asks, indicating the Barabel and the wrecked building with a gesture.

‘Leave them,’ I decide as I walk away. ‘They are worthless.’

There is no point in wasting any more of my energy or time on a few bungling bounty hunters.

The Commander quickly joins me, once he has conveyed my commands to his men.

‘Now what, my lord?’ he asks me.

‘We will return to the Executor,’ I tell him as I send my shuttle skyward. ‘There is still a small chance Skywalker has not yet left the system.’

During the flight, I brood silently, and it isn’t until I reach the bridge that I realize Thirsk hasn’t left my side. He will need to be the one in charge of the next operation I have for the 501st.

‘Prepare a boarding party of your best men,’ I instruct. ‘I want no mistakes with this. When I catch their ship, I want them captured alive and uninjured, even if it costs us some troopers in the process.’

He snaps a salute, then hurries to do my bidding.

I resume my usual place, stare out the transparisteel windows, and stretch out with the Force in an attempt to pinpoint Luke’s presence. He’s nearby and trying to hide himself from me.

‘Send the Executor in that direction,’ I tell the helmsman, pointing to where my impression of Luke is the strongest.

He gives no indication he finds my order odd, and does exactly that. I watch as my flagship nears the remnants of one of Kothlis’ moons. Surely they don’t think that old trick will work? They tried that one at Hoth.

‘Lord Vader?’ I hear from behind me.

‘What is it?’ I respond without turning to Captain Kallic.

‘We are approaching the asteroid field,’ he tells me the obvious.

I spin about and glare at him. Force spare me from fools like this one.

‘Do you mean that asteroid field directly in front of us?’ I sarcastically state, indicating the rocks in question with a wave.

He turns bright red and dithers for a few seconds before continuing, ‘Yes, Lord. Our sensors cannot detect any sign of a ship in that region.’

‘Nonetheless,’ I insist, ‘there is something in the field. I cannot pinpoint it, but there is a locus for the Force in those rocks and I mean to find it.’

No, Luke, hiding will not save you. If I have to destroy every single asteroid in the system to flush you out, I will do it.

‘Certainly, Lord Vader,’ he tries to placate me. ‘Ah, might I suggest that we send out fighters? Entering the asteroid field at a right angle will place a great deal of strain on the ship’s shields.’

‘Very well,’ I concede, more to rid myself of his annoying presence than anything else. ‘Tell them to look for anything unusual, anything at all. If they find something, they are not to engage it but to report back immediately.’

That should keep him busy checking out what the pilots have to tell him, and give them some practice flying in an asteroid field as well.

I turn back to the window and stare out it again. Is this presence I feel myself drawn to my son? The dark side, the Force has no limits, but I do. All I can say for certain is that there is a powerful locus for the Force in front of me, in that collection of rocks.

It can’t be anyone other than Luke, I reassure myself. No one else is that powerful. And I have no choice other than to capture him. For his own protection, if nothing else. Xizor will not rest until my son is dead, and Luke has no idea how to defend himself against the Falleen and his manipulations.

I watch the TIEs streak ahead of the Executor. Good. Perhaps their proximity will prompt Luke and his friends to try making a run for it.

‘Prepare the tractor beam,’ I abruptly order.

Events will move quickly. I want my crew ready.

‘Ship spotted, freighter configuration,’ one of the pit crew relays a pilot’s report. ‘TIEs are moving to follow and identify.’

At last. I focus my attention outside, ignoring the rapid fire of updates from the crew, and reach for Luke. After a wrench in the Force, due to his sudden absence, my meditation shatters.

‘My - my lord,’ Kallic begins.

I stop a sigh. My senses have already given me the news, but I will let him report it to me anyway.

‘The ship left the asteroid field and made the shift into hyperspace as the TIEs approached,’ he admits. ‘There was nothing they could do.’

Another escape due to good luck and timing.

‘And did your pilots identify the ship?’ I ask.

‘It was a small Corellian freighter.’

The Millennium Falcon. Solo’s ship. The next time I have that ship, I swear, I will personally send it straight into the nearest star. Luke was probably on it, likely accompanied by the rebels’ princess and Calrissian the gambler. There’s no point in staying here any longer, I decide. My son has fled and I need to be elsewhere.

‘Set your course for Imperial Center, Captain,’ I order.

‘But weren’t we supposed to...,’ he starts to argue.

Annoyed, I snap, ‘Let me worry about that.’

Then, I remember the second purpose of this trip. Destroy some of the local scenery, my master had instructed. Make sure the rebels think the plans they have are important to us.

‘Very well,’ I concede. ‘There is a suspected rebel base on one of the Kothlisian moons.’

‘I know of no such base, my lord!’ the Captain blurts out in interruption.

I stare silently at him until he shuts up and goes a bit pale. If I say there is a base, there is a base, regardless of whether it really exists or not.

‘As I said,’ I continue, ‘there is a suspected rebel base on,’ I pause a moment, query the Force, then pick one of the planet’s two supposedly uninhabited moons and point at it, ‘...that moon. Before we leave, you will allow your men to display their prowess at pinpoint bombing of that base.’

‘Yes, my lord,’ he agrees, but I can sense he thinks my orders are more than a bit mad.

I return my gaze forward. The sooner this task is done, the better. My aides will see to it that reports of a rebel base and its destruction at my hands appear in the appropriate places.

‘Hurry, Captain,’ I prod, when I sense my officer is still standing motionless behind me. ‘I do not wish to be kept waiting.’

‘No, my lord,’ he replies before finally going to implement my commands.

While an impressive pyrotechnic display erupts in front of me, I brood. I don’t know where Luke has gone, but I am sure he will surface again, and soon. My son will have to wait. At the moment, Xizor is the more immediate worry. Like the serpent in an ancient Sith proverb, you can never turn your back on the Falleen. If you do, you risk death by treachery and slow poison as surely as from the frontal attack of a much larger, and seemingly more deadly, enemy.

‘My lord?’ I am approached again.

‘Yes?’

‘There was a small, illegal spaceport on that moon,’ the Captain reveals and I can hear the admiration in his voice. ‘None of our reports indicated it was there, but it was frequented by pirates, and presumably, rebels as well.’

I smile, amused. The Force as always, guided my choice.

‘The galaxy is well rid of such rabble,’ I tell him. ‘Set course for Imperial Center. I will be in my quarters.’

There’s a comm-call I need to deal with, and agents to set to work. Speculation and rumor will not be enough to incriminate Xizor in front of Palpatine. Even the testimony of that feckless bounty hunter will be useless. I need proof - solid evidence which will convince my master that the Falleen should be eliminated. Somehow I will have to find what I need and quickly. Now, though, I know what I must look for and send my agents in search of.

I barely make it through the door to my quarters before the comm chimes an incoming transmission. Stepping onto the holonet pad, I activate the system with a wave of my hand. For once, he’s precisely on time.

‘Hi, uncle Dee!’ Jix cheerfully greets me.

‘What news do you have?’ I ask, foregoing my usual scolding.

‘I’ll make this quick,’ he tells me, obviously in a hurry. ‘Skywalker was on Tatooine. Jabba sent me and the swoop troops to get him - I mean kill him.’

‘Yes, there is a second reward on offer,’ I advise him. ‘It seems Black Sun has entered the bidding.’

‘Black Sun?’ Jix seems a bit puzzled by this news. ‘According to Jabba, the offer came from you.’

‘I made no such offer,’ I quickly set him straight. ‘I want Skywalker alive.’

‘I know that,’ he confirms, ‘but Jabba and others think differently.’

‘Stay where you are, Jix,’ I reinforce my old orders to him. ‘Sooner or later Skywalker will be back to rescue Solo from the Hutt. When that happens, I want you to protect him and bring him to me, if you can manage that.’

He looks about, then returns his attention to me.

‘Gotta go, uncle Dee,’ he signs off. ‘Jabba doesn’t like his hirelings using his private comm-system to make free calls.’

His holo disappears, leaving me to debate what to do about Xizor.

The Falleen intends to implicate me in the death of my son. How treacherous. While I have been gone, he must have been busy with other schemes, but this one I cannot ignore.

Tomorrow, when I report to the Emperor, regardless of my lack of proof, I will have to reveal what I know. Given Xizor’s current favor with my master, this is one encounter I do not look forward to.

***


Imperial Center, Coruscant System, Core Worlds, Year 3, Month 10.

DAY 28

***

It’s early in the morning when the Executor finally exits hyperspace. Our slow approach to Coruscant annoys me. I need to find out what Xizor has done in my absence, gather what information I can, and present it to my master. Patience might be a useful trait for a Sith Lord, I ruefully note, but it has never been one of my strong points.

As I watch Imperial Center’s moons grow larger, I debate what I should do. Is it too soon to say anything to the Emperor about the Falleen’s plot to kill Luke? Xizor ranks highly in Palpatine’s eyes at the moment. Any criticism might be brushed off, as it has been in the past, as envy, even though my master should know better than that.

But if I say nothing?

I let out a sigh.

If I remain silent, now, no doubt Palpatine will be irritated at me, later, for not informing him. My master wants to know everything about everyone - except when it is convenient for him to remain ignorant.

‘We have arrived,’ Kallic announces at last.

‘I am leaving at once,’ I state before heading away from the command deck to my shuttle.

My flight down to the surface is uneventful, and while I would prefer to go see my wife, reporting to the Palace must come first.

I am quickly ushered into the tower throne room.

‘Do get up, Lord Vader,’ I am told almost as soon as I have knelt.

‘My master,’ I begin my report. ‘The rebels still have the computer. I am sure they consider it to be valuable, given that I destroyed a spaceport on one of Kolthisian moons, as instructed.’

‘From his absence, you were unsuccessful in obtaining Skywalker,’ Palpatine observes.

‘He had already escaped from the bounty hunters before I arrived,’ I admit, ‘and from what I was told when I interrogated their leader, there are rumors Xizor intends to see Skywalker dead.’

From his expression I know he is unconvinced.

‘You disappoint me, Lord Vader,’ he scolds. ‘I sense that your judgement is shaded by something of a ... personal grudge here.’

‘No, my master,’ I protest. ‘I am merely concerned about the criminal’s treachery. If he is in fact trying to kill Skywalker...’

I am cut off rather abruptly.

‘Really, Lord Vader,’ he chastens me, ‘I would certainly need more evidence than a rumor from some bounty hunter to move against so valuable an ally. Did he not give us that rebel base? Has he not put his vast shipping fleet at our disposal?’

I knew he would demand more proof than what I can currently supply.

‘I have not forgotten these things,’ I tell him, keeping my voice as level as I can. ‘But I have also not forgotten my promise to bring young Skywalker to the dark side. Skywalker turned would be much more important to the Empire than Xizor.’

Surely he can see that my son is of more value to us than the Falleen? If not, I will have to persuade him this is the case.

‘Indeed he would,’ Palpatine sarcastically comments, ‘if you can turn him.’

I keep my body still and force myself to not to react to that barb.

‘I can, my master,’ I affirm, ‘but not if he is slain before I can get to him.’

‘Young Skywalker has managed to stay alive this long,’ he notes, almost sounding amused. ‘If he is as strong in the Force as we assume he is, he will continue to do so until you find him, don’t you think? And if he is not as strong as we believe, then we have no use for him anyway.’

I grind my teeth in frustration. His logic, as always, is difficult to disagree with. It doesn’t help that I thought in much the same way at Bespin. Still, I don’t like having this argument used against me.

And the thought that he considers Xizor almost as an equal to my son, that he puts his faith in the Falleen, rankles me.

Xizor has no morals and can never be trusted.

‘Since it seems so important to you,’ he allows, ‘I give you leave to search for Skywalker, but only for a short while, for there are other tasks I would have you perform. Is this satisfactory?’

No, it isn’t, I want to snap at him, but restrain myself.

‘Yes, my master,’ I reply instead.

I need to find Luke and gather the evidence for the case against Xizor. Either one would require much effort and focus, but to do both at the same time? Then there is my wife and family to worry about. It will not be easy to do everything I must.

‘Go, now, Lord Vader,’ I am dismissed. ‘I am sure you are eager to begin.’

His throne swivels and it is obvious he has nothing left to say to me.

***

I sensed Ani’s close proximity hours ago, but I knew it would take him a while to return home. He had to go make his report to Palpatine first, and, no doubt, there was other pressing business for him to deal with before he could come see me. Once, I might have resented anything which delayed him, but I have grown to accept that this is how our lives will be.

With a sigh, I pick up my datapad and look quickly at the new files I have just added to it. There’s not much I am able to do to help my husband. For the moment, he has me looking for patterns in the movements of the Rebel fleet. So far, I have found nothing. Everything they have been up to appears completely random. As if they would do anything easily predictable, I ruefully note. They are too smart for that, and I probably won’t discover anything Ani’s other analysts haven’t already. No, I am sure this is a project he has designed to make me feel useful.

Someone stirs, so I set my hand on my stomach to quiet him. If Leanan’s prediction is correct, it will be about a month before he is born.

‘Behave, you,’ I scold my second son. ‘You will be out of there and keeping mommy busy soon enough.’

I stare into the flames of the fireplace and muse a little. What name has the Sith Lord has chosen for him? Just as with Mikal and the twins, this is one topic he has never discussed with me, and I suspect I won’t have an answer to that question until after our son is born.

‘Your father had better not name you after your uncle Jamie,’ I add. ‘His reputation for being a troublemaker is one you don’t need to live up to. One mischief maker in the family is plenty for mommy to look after.’

‘Talking to him again?’ I hear Ani ask me.

I look up and smile at him. His helmet is off, so he intends to stay for a while, and I can sense he is in a good mood.

‘He seems to like it when I read to Mikal and the twins, too,’ I sheepishly admit, feeling a bit silly that my husband has caught me doing something considered so stereotypical of pregnant females.

The Sith Lord doesn’t tease me about it, merely comes over and joins me on the couch.

‘You must be cold,’ he observes when I snuggle up to him and tug his cloak over my body, adding it to my own which I am already wrapped in.

‘Yes,’ I reply. ‘The children are napping, so I decided to come in here and warm up by the fire.’

‘If you aren’t feeling up to it, perhaps we should stay in,’ Ani suggests, ‘instead of going shopping.’

I consider that option for a moment. He’s been so preoccupied or busy of late that quiet time with just the two of us has become a precious commodity. When he has been free to spend time with me, it’s been as a family, not a couple. At night, he often comes to bed long after I have fallen asleep. I miss talking to him or simply curling up in his arms while he touches my hair and face.

‘Let’s stay here,’ I agree. ‘We can go out to look for presents later today.’

‘You just want to have me all to yourself,’ he teases, knowing full well that’s what I have been thinking.

I reach up, draw his face to mine, and kiss him.

‘Do you have a problem with that, Sith Lord?’ I ask after I lean away from him.

No, he answers as he pulls me in close again and resumes the kiss I had interrupted.

***

I begin to focus my concentration, intending to practice healing my injuries once again. Slipping deeper into the Force, I feel a ripple which should not be there. My curiosity piqued, I reach for it, hoping to identify this unknown individual who has disturbed my meditation. Whoever it is fades away, disappearing back into the grey monotone which characterizes Coruscant. Annoyed, I decide to resume what they had intruded upon.

The dark side still has twists and turns in store for me, but I am far more wary of its allure than I was when I first became a Sith. It far too easily becomes an addiction as powerful as any drug, giving that head long, euphoric rush yet exacting a heavy price in return. For a moment, I consider my master. Physically, he deteriorates faster with each clone body he transfers into. Careless overuse of the dark side continually poisons his body as well as corrupts his soul.

I have no intentions of allowing that to happen to me - cannot allow that to happen to me. And Luke is the key to avoiding that fate. His power added to my own will allow me to heal myself, will let us both channel more of the Force than one of us alone ever could.

Luke. My son. My future ally and apprentice.

A smile crosses my face.

Soon my son will be with me, but sooner still I must see my master off on his retreat to Byss. I lower my helmet with a touch to the controls and leave my meditation pod. Time to run an errand.

‘Maia,’ I call to my wife when I see her in the kitchen with the children. ‘I have a chore to do, but will be back soon.’

I receive a nod and soft caress to our bond in reply. It’s evening snack time for all of them. She’ll be busy until I return and help her with bedtime.

All too quickly I am walking at the Emperor’s side, accompanying him to his shuttle. How short he is now, I observe. This clone body is withered, aged, and almost at the end of its useful lifetime. Soon, he will be assuming another one.

‘I anticipate that I shall return in three weeks,’ he reminds me. ‘I trust you can keep the planet from falling apart while I am gone?’

I bristle at his questioning my competence but simply reply, ‘Yes, my master.’

‘I expect no less,’ he confirms. ‘Any news of Skywalker?’

He expects results in mere hours?

‘Not yet,’ I admit. ‘We will find him.’

‘Perhaps sooner than you expect,’ he cryptically hints.

I stare at him, puzzled by that remark. He is wearing that half-smile he uses whenever he knows a secret his audience doesn’t. Has he seen something in the future? Perhaps his spies have discovered where Luke is? No further information is revealed, so I stop at the bottom of his ship’s ramp. A squad of Imperial Guards flank and escort him up and into the shuttle, to the rhythmic tap of his cane.

I am being toyed with, I decide. Palpatine might trust me more than any other being, but there are limits to that trust. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Luke will seek me out at Endor. This I know will come to pass from Maia’s odd foreknowledge. Even if he doesn’t, his Force presence will mature to the point where my son won’t be able to conceal himself. Once a Jedi’s training begins, their connection to the Force starts to grow, strengthen, and there is no way to easily stop that.

In the meantime, I have other, more important worries. Luke will have to wait. While my master is gone, Xizor will take advantage of that. The Falleen will need to be watched carefully. My agents are already working all hours looking for his past mistakes, and it’s only a matter of time before Xizor makes another one.

And I will be waiting to catch him when he does.

***


DAY 29

It’s not exactly the right day for this, but for once I intend to celebrate a holiday from Earth. Quickly surveying Ani’s office, I decide that all is in place and ready.

‘Satisfied?’ Ani quietly asks.

I reply with a smile and a nod.

‘I suppose that’s the closest we will have to a real fir tree,’ I admit as I lean backwards into his chest and feel his arms wrap around me. ‘The Chief Botanist at the Skydome Botantical Garden did his best to find something to match my descriptions, and Cyran and Daini managed to obtain ornaments which are similar to those used at home.’

‘I still don’t understand what all the fuss is about,’ he teases. ‘It seems to be an excuse to give presents to each other.’

‘It’s an old religious holiday from home,’ I remind him of what I had told everyone yesterday. ‘We are celebrating it a few days late, from my best estimates, but who cares. The children will have a good time anyway.’

‘Perhaps we should go back to bed,’ my husband suggests, ‘and let the children discover what’s in here on their own.’

I squeeze his hand in agreement and let him lead me back to bed. We settle into one another’s arms, pretend to be asleep, and listen for any signs that our three youngsters are stirring.

There’s the door, Ani notes.

It’s Mikal, I confirm.

Our son ignores us and runs through the kitchen into the other rooms. He helped decorate the tree last night, and after my stories about Christmas, can’t wait to see what’s under it. A minute later, he is back and launches himself up and onto our bed.

‘Mommy, daddy,’ he cries, ‘presents!’

‘Yes, son,’ his father confirms, ‘presents for everyone.’

‘Yes!’ Mikal happily shouts.

‘Not so loud,’ I gently scold him. ‘Your sisters...’

‘Are awake,’ Ani breaks in when he sees a blonde head peer in at us.

If Shmi is up, then Cat will soon follow.

The comm chimes. Ani’s expression grows annoyed, and I give him a rueful smile. So much for some family time this morning.

‘My lord,’ Jir quickly says, fully aware he is calling far earlier than normal, ‘one of your agents has an urgent report for you to see in regards to Luke Skywalker.’

I sense the Sith Lord hesitate. He can’t decide what is more important to him at the moment - time with our children or dealing with business related to his eldest son.

‘Go see what he wants,’ I suggest. ‘We won’t open anything until you have returned.’

‘I will be there shortly,’ Ani tells his aide before shutting off the comm.

He receives a quick kiss and a gentle nudge off the bed from me.

‘Hurry back,’ I remind him. ‘You don’t want to miss any of the fun.’

***

I wait impatiently in the conference room for my agent. His message stated he had information for me and that we needed to meet immediately. When he arrives I calmly regard him while he reveals the existence of a recording of someone bribing an Alliance crew chief, using the incentive of credits, to get her to kill my son.

‘You are certain of this?’ I ask him once he has finished his report.

‘Yes, my lord, I am certain,’ he replies.

Proof.

Proof at last that someone is trying to kill Luke, but it is not enough to indict Xizor. He works through layers of agents rather than directly. I allow myself to feel a touch of triumph. That this recording survived shows the Falleen is slipping a little.

‘And you have the tape and documentation?’ I prompt him as a check.

‘Already in your files, Lord Vader,’ he confirms with a smile.

Ready for my review, which I will do as soon as I am able.

‘You have served me well. I will not forget this. Continue your search,’ I dismiss him.

He leaves quickly, but will be back as soon as he discovers anything else I should be made aware of. If he does find evidence of Xizor’s involvement, I will reward him suitably for it.

Unfortunately Xizor is not named in that tape. It will take time to back track from that agent who spoke to the crew chief - to see who contacted him and then who contacted them, and so on. Eventually the trail will lead back to the Falleen. Of that I have no doubt.

And every small clue, every careless mistake, I will pounce on, but for now, I will wait, much as that chafes.

Soon I will have what I need to destroy him.

***

‘Daddy!’ my eldest shouts. ‘Hurry up!’

Ani’s back at last, and not a minute too soon. It was becoming harder and harder to get Mikal to wait. With an amused smile, I watch my son run over, grab his father’s hand, and do his best to tug the unresisting Sith Lord along.

‘Why don’t you open one of yours first, son?’ Ani suggests.

There is no objection from Mikal. He has already sorted the presents into stacks for each of us since I used that task to keep him occupied for a few minutes. Our son takes the one I made for my husband and gives it to his father, instead of selecting one for himself.

‘You first, daddy,’ Mikal insists.

Ani accepts the wrapped package and sits down beside me. Mikal quickly gives his sisters each a parcel, brings one to me as well, then plunks himself down on the floor to work at opening one of his. The twins promptly tear off the paper while my son is more meticulous about removing the wrapping from his. I take my time with mine, using my fingernails to pull off the tape. Whenever one of us is without a present to open, Mikal hands out another. My husband, I note, is finding this all quite entertaining.

‘You will fall behind,’ I tease when the Sith Lord’s stack of gifts remains untouched.

‘It’s more fun watching the rest of you,’ he confesses, ‘but since you insist.’

He opens my gift to him first. It’s a surcoat I made to match the gabal wool cloak he was given on Rhinnal. On the sly, I had contacted Nilsa Kieger, Speaker for the clans, and arranged to have the fabric woven for me. Fortunately, the Speaker was pleased to provide this rare gift along with an explanation of the more unusual properties of the tenticulon ink which was used to dye it.

Ani’s fingers carefully unfold the fabric and stroke it. It’s soft, wonderfully soft to the touch, just like the blanket I received for son number two when we were visiting Rhire.

‘You went to quite a bit of trouble to get this for me, didn’t you?’ my husband asks.

I smile a bit shyly and nod at him.

‘I had to be ... very persuasive,’ I admit, ‘but it wasn’t as hard as you think.’

‘I will keep it with the matching cloak, and the other set you made for me before,’ he decides. ‘It should be set aside for special occasions.’

His hand reaches over to mine, so I take it and give his fingers a squeeze.

‘Now, you need to open my gift to you,’ he prompts.

I turn my attention back to the small box currently on my lap and start to open it.

***

Maia’s with the children, cleaning up the wrapping paper and boxes which were all over the floor in my office. It’s a necessary chore, but I need to spend some time in meditation. I excuse myself and retire to my pod.

I relax, sink into the Force, and allow it to wash over me. My wife’s light presence shines in the room beside me. Mikal and my unborn son are glowing embers next to her, and the girls appear as mere sparks. Nothing surprising in any of that. I knew long ago my daughters would never have the strength that their brothers or my wife does.

Stretching out farther, there are no unexpected disturbances, merely the background I have grown accustomed to feeling when I am on Coruscant and my master is elsewhere. I allow myself to drift, letting the Force take me wherever it wills.

Then there is a peculiar shift in the Force, an eddy created by a presence I recognize.

Luke.

My son is here, on Coruscant.

I reach out and call to him, Luke.

But I cannot touch him - something, no someone, is blocking me. A frown crosses my face. There is no one else left who is as strong as Luke, so what could be happening? I push at the peculiar echo, but it vanishes as does my son’s signature.

It’s time to leave my meditation chamber.

Time to find Luke.

Time to put my plans into motion.

***

The children are busy, happily playing with their new toys. I take advantage of their distraction and Cyran’s presence to slip away, intending to go see what my husband is doing. He’s not in his meditation pod, so I partially retrace my steps and go into his office.

Ani is at his desk, working, but looks up once he realizes I am there. He extends a hand towards me, so I walk over, take it and let him draw me in close. Once I am at his side, he rests his other hand on my stomach. I sense him reach inwards, using the Force to check on our unborn son, before he lets his hand fall away and sighs.

‘What’s wrong, love?’ I quietly ask him.

‘Luke is here, on Coruscant,’ he reveals. ‘I do not know why he is here, but I need to make sure he stays out of trouble.’

I bite my lip. It sounds like there is another confrontation between father and son in the immediate future. Ani brushes my cheek with his hand at my reaction to this news.

‘I expect he will either seek me out, or deliberately avoid coming anywhere near me,’ he reassures me. ‘If the former, then I will have no choice but to capture him. If the latter...’

My husband’s voice fades away. He really doesn’t know how to handle his eldest son. Every time the topic of Luke has come up, Ani has only talked about him as a rebel who needs to be caught. Now, though, I can sense that his feelings for Luke are far more complicated and conflicted, and connected in some way to our second son.

I take both of his hands in mine and hold them tight. The Sith Lord has avoided discussing his plans with me, but he needs to sort himself out.

‘Please talk to me, Anakin,’ I offer. ‘You have been tearing yourself up inside over what to do about Luke for far too long.’

He hesitates, tips his head down to look at where his hands are in mine. His left one he pulls free, then with a light touch traces the rings on my finger - the gold band from our wedding on Naboo, and, beside it, the new gold one, set with a blue diamond, which he had given me this morning.

‘Ani,’ I prompt him again.

A sigh escapes from his mask, then he turns me about before settling me on his lap.

‘I don’t have many choices to pick from, Maia,’ he finally admits. ‘If I leave Luke to his own devices, my master will order me to hunt him down or send others to do that task. At least if I am the one who captures him or who he surrenders to I can protect him a little. He would become my apprentice, and be subject to my control.’

‘But that isn’t what is really bothering you, is it?’ I persist in seeking an answer. ‘There’s more to it than that.’

His helmet turns to look away from me. This is something he doesn’t want to tell me, I decide.

‘To keep Mikal from my master,’ he slowly, reluctantly divulges, ‘I was forced to offer our second son in exchange. That’s why I was determined to delay your third pregnancy as long as possible, but I should have known that Palpatine would never allow that.’

I wait patiently for Ani to finish. He hasn’t told me anything I didn’t already know or surmise from our previous conversations along these lines.

‘There is only one way I will be allowed to keep him,’ my husband reveals, replacing his hand over our son, ‘I will have to give the Emperor someone else in trade - someone he wants more, someone who will be of more use to him.’

It takes a moment for what he has said to sink in, and when I fully realize what he will be driven to do, I slide my arms around his shoulders and pull him close.

No wonder he has been so torn - Palpatine will force him to choose between his two sons, a decision no parent should ever be faced with. I suspect it will be Luke he opts to surrender to his master, not the child I am still carrying.

‘Oh, Ani,’ I try to soothe him as best I can with my touch and our bond.

‘Hopefully,’ he does his best to comfort me, ‘it won’t come to that. If events go the way I intend them to, it will be a decision I will never have to make.’

I give him a squeeze of support and rest my head on his shoulder. Ani will find a way out of our dilemma. He always has in the past.

***

I watch Maia leave my office for the fourth time today. She’s been checking on me regularly this afternoon. From our bond, I know she is still concerned about me, but revealing the source of much of my stress of late has greatly eased my mind. Whatever happens, I know she will always be there to support me, no matter what decision I make in the end.

It’s not yet time for dinner, so I decide to try my experiment, again, as I have so many times in the past month. I leave my desk, seat myself in my pod, remove my helmet, and prepare myself.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

I let the dark side take hold, allowing my anger at my inability to breathe, at the state I am in thanks to Obi-Wan, to fill me. Opening the pod now, I decide to try this without the sealed and specialized atmosphere that’s within it.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Visualize yourself as cured, see your lungs becoming healthy again, I tell myself. I feel the change as it occurs. Scarred tissues smooth out, elasticity returns. Cool air from outside the sphere fills my chest.

Breathe in, breathe out.

I don’t let my other emotions to touch my rage. Every time they do, the healing fails.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Let’s see how long it will hold. I look at the chronometer. Almost two minutes. A new record. Someday I might be able to maintain this indefinitely and rid myself of the cursed armour. I can’t allow Maia to heal me, but perhaps Luke...

A smile crosses my face at the thought of my son at my side.

The dark energies dissipate, my lungs revert to their injured state, so I close the pod to protect myself.

It’s just a matter of time. For now, two minutes will suffice, but one day it will be longer, much longer than that.

***

‘Dinner,’ I call to three hungry children and my husband.

Mikal, as always, is the first to appear. He must be preparing for another growth spurt, I decide, since he has been eating more than usual the last two weeks. Shmi and Cat are slower, and each is carrying one of their new sticker books. Ani thought those would be safer than giving our twins something to color, but more stickers have ended up on the walls, furniture, toys, and our two girls than in their books designed for that purpose.

My husband trails in long after we have started to eat. He leans over and kisses me before sitting down and picking up his supplement drink. His mood has improved considerably from where it was this afternoon. Perhaps talking to me about how he feels has helped him a bit, even though I still don’t know exactly what he plans to do about Luke. I suspect he won’t know that himself, until he is put into a situation where he has to make the decision he has been doing his utmost to avoid.

‘Can we do a puzzle?’ Mikal asks.

‘After you have finished eating,’ I tell him. ‘We will do one of your new ones.’

‘And after you have practiced your shielding,’ Ani adds another condition.

I nod in agreement. Thirsk has seen to Mikal’s physical training on a daily basis, but with how busy the Sith Lord has been, our son’s Force training has become irregular. While I have tried my best to work with my eldest, he always seems to respond better when it’s his father giving the lesson.

I start to stand up, to go get the fruit and nut cake I had made for dessert, but Ani stops me with a touch on my arm.

‘I’ll get it for you,’ he volunteers as he gets out of his chair, ‘and tomorrow, I will cook dinner.’

‘Oh?’ I tease him. ‘Is there a special occasion I am not aware of?’

‘No,’ he replies. ‘No special occasion. I just want to impress my wife with my culinary prowess.’

I start laughing. He knows I still have problems with the autochef and it has been quite a while since he made ‘ice cream’ for me. It’s rather apparent that’s what he is up to.

‘Go ahead and spoil me all you want,’ I accept his offer and the slice of uj cake he hands me with a smile. ‘I won’t say no.’

***

I stand out on my Castle’s balcony, waiting for my wife to join me. She’s putting the children to bed, but knows I want to see her once that task is finished. A soft wind I cannot feel stirs my cloak while I contemplate the skyline.

Luke is here, nearby, but I cannot find him using the Force. He has learned to conceal himself from me when he isn’t tapping into that energy field. Soon, he will do that again and then, hopefully, I will be able to draw him to me.

What has me more concerned is why he is here. After Bespin, he has avoided confronting me, so perhaps he has another purpose in mind. Surely the rebels haven’t sent him to attack the Emperor in his stronghold? Only a fool would attempt such a thing. Still, one man, one small ship can slip through Coruscant’s skynet defenses, strong as they are, and carry out a covert mission of some sort.

What is it my son? I call out to him, trying to locate his presence once more. Why have you come here? Let me hear you, reveal your whereabouts, and I will come to you.

There is only silence in reply. Not that I really expected anything else given our history.

‘My Lord Vader,’ I hear my agent call from behind me.

I had left instructions with Lieutenant Jir to admit him at any time, so he must have more information for me.

I turn and ask, ‘You have something for me?’

‘Yes, my lord,’ he confirms. ‘We have uncovered a pirated copy of certain planetary files for Falleen thought to be destroyed.’

‘Why should I find this interesting?’ I prod, a touch annoyed.

This is not what I am paying him to find for me.

‘It contains some material about Prince Xizor’s family,’ he promptly answers. ‘His father was the king of a small nation there.’

The frown on my face pulls at old scar tissue. What has this to do with anything?

‘I knew his father was royalty,’ I admit, ‘but I understood that Prince Xizor was orphaned at an early age.’

He hesitates.

‘Not precisely, my lord. You may recall a biological experiment on Falleen...,’ he pauses a moment before continuing, ‘went awry a decade or so past.’

How can I ever forget that disaster? It has returned to haunt me repeatedly.

I remember standing on the command deck of the Devastator, looking down at Falleen and having to make my decision.

I remember Captain Bolvan bringing me the projections for how the necrotizing bacteria would fan out through the population, an invisible plague which would wipe out millions if it was allowed to spread to that world’s other continents.

I remember every word of the conversation I had with him.

‘Sir,’ Bolvan had suggested, ‘If we requisition the ordinance from Project X27 in the Outer Rim, we could incinerate the bacteria from orbit...’

‘And annihilate everything on the planet,’ I had broken in. ‘No, the Emperor may still have some use for the Falleen.’

‘Lord Vader,’ he had protested, ‘there is no cure...’

He wanted to take the easy path, use the simplest solution, and destroy the entire planet in the process.

‘Captain,’ I snapped at him. ‘You must learn when it is appropriate to offer your counsel. Now is not the time.’

Thankfully Lieutenant Hilja had approached us at that point. Bolvan was treading dangerously close to earning himself an early retirement.

‘You requested my presence, Lord Vader?’ Hilja asked.

It was then I made my decision - a decision to spare as many lives as I possibly could.

‘Yes, Lieutenant Hilja. Prepare for an orbital bombardment of Falleen,’ I gave him the necessary, orders. ‘Center it on the research facility and everything around it for forty kilometers.’

He left to carry out those instructions, and I stood there and watched thousands die to spare billions.

Curious. The choice between the many and the few. I told Maia that I had never faced the same decision as the leader in her story, yet, ironically, I have. Only the circumstances were different.

‘Yes, I recall,’ I tell my agent.

‘During the, ah, sterilization procedure, some Imperial citizens’ lives were lost,’ he states.

‘A regrettable incident,’ I note, wondering where he is going with this.

He touches the holoprojector on his belt and a blue image appears between us. It is obviously a family portrait, and one of the males is Xizor. A younger version of him, true, but it is unmistakeably him.

‘Prince Xizor’s family,’ my agent confirms what I have just inferred. ‘All of whom were killed during the destruction of the mutant bacterium which escaped from the lab.’

Realization dawns.

‘How did the records of this come to be destroyed?’ I ask.

He shakes his head and reveals, ‘We do not know. For some reason, all references to Xizor’s family simply vanished, shortly after the destruction of the city.’

I was in charge of that project.

It’s personal, very personal. Xizor doesn’t just see me as a rival for my master’s attention - he blames me for the death of his family. And he wants to exact his revenge by killing Luke. Being Falleen, he must have bided his time, waiting for an opportunity. First, he went after my wife using Lieutenant Keol, but Maia and our children are too well protected for him to ever reach them now. So, instead, he has decided to strike at Luke, who is far more vulnerable.

The Falleen are a patient species. A Sith Lord can be equally so.

‘Once again you have served me well,’ I tell him, pleased with what I now know. ‘When you finish this project, you will no longer need to worry about money, such is my gratitude.’

‘My lord,’ he responds with a low bow.

I dismiss him with a wave. My wife is on her way to see me. There will be just a few minutes to think and plan before she is here.

***


DAY 30

***

I give my wife a light kiss on the nape of her neck and get out of bed. It’s a bit early to be awake, but I want to work in my office without the risk of being disturbed.

‘Yes, dear?’ a sleepy voice mumbles at me though she doesn’t open her eyes.

‘Go back to sleep,’ I order in a whisper. ‘I need some private time to finish a few things.’

‘Alright,’ she agrees.

***

I don’t bother opening my eyes when I feel Ani give me a kiss, roll away from me, and get up. He probably has work to do which he doesn’t want an audience for.

‘Yes, dear?’ I ask, just in case I am wrong.

‘Go back to sleep,’ he scolds me in a low voice. ‘I need some private time to finish a few things.’

‘Alright,’ I concede without arguing.

For a moment he stands beside the bed, watching me. As I drift off again, I feel him pull the blankets up over my shoulder and his light caress along my side. I don’t fight the sleep which quickly claims me.

***

I watch her for several minutes, until her breathing resumes its usual sleep pattern. A few stray hairs have pulled out of her braid and her face is relaxed, peaceful. With a careful touch I draw the covers up and over her shoulder. Lately, she tends to get chilled so this should help. My fingers ghost down her arm, pause and linger at her waist. She’s not as big as she was with the twins, but is a bit larger than when she was when pregnant with Mikal. I resist the temptation to reach inwards and check on our son. That will only rouse him and perhaps wake my wife in turn.

‘Little goddess,’I softly say to her, ‘you know what my choice will be, don’t you?’

Choice? As I leave her side, and put my armour on, I weigh that word. There really isn’t any choice in this for me. I cannot hand my innocent, helpless, newborn son over to my master. Luke at least is an adult and able to defend himself, but he is still no match for Palpatine. So, I will have to either surrender Luke, or take the third option and refuse to give either of my sons to him. If I decide on the latter, I can only hope the consequences for my disobedience are not fatal.

Or perhaps there is another alternative?

I give my head a shake at the notion which has just entered it. That won’t be possible until Luke has had some Sith training. My own physical limitations mean that I cannot take the Emperor on directly myself, for to do so would result in instant, lethal punishment. How unfortunate that Luke didn’t see reason and join me at Bespin. If he had, I would be ready now and so would he.

Time, I silently curse, has never been on my side.

I take the soul trap from its compartment and set it down on my desk. While I told Maia there were no instructions for how to open it, that hasn’t stopped my experiments to find a means to do so whenever Palpatine has been off planet. This time, I focus my senses on how and where the ancient seams and joins in the metal plates have been welded together. The Force has been used here, I note, just as the holocron in my master’s collection described. Carefully, I prod at one of the apparent weak points where its door is shut. The energy holding the trap closed shifts to compensate, so I push harder.

After a few more minutes of this, I rotate Michael’s prison with my fingers while I think about what I have just discovered. Any attempt to pry the door open or pull one of the seams apart results in a redistribution of the Force holding the construct together, but there is a limit to how much pressure the trap can resist. I play with the silver and black pyramid, flipping it from hand to hand. With enough Force applied in the right spot, the soul trap should open and, in theory, free whoever is caught within it.

Should I make an attempt at it? I glance towards where my wife is sleeping. Better to try this when she isn’t awake and without her knowledge. There’s no reason to raise her hopes then dash them again if I fail.

I replace the soul trap on the desk and stare at it. It’s been nice and peaceful without the pest hanging about, but if I can free him, he will owe me for that. There are quite a few tasks a Jedi ghost would be useful for, including keeping track of Luke or spying on Xizor.

With a sigh, I prepare myself, then hold my hand above the soul trap. Sending my senses downwards, I select the best, weakest spot, and slam as much of the Force as I can into that location. The pyramid starts to glow as it redirects its stored energy to where I am hammering away at it. Come on, I urge it, give way and yield to me.

Nothing happens.

Frustrated, I draw on more of the Force, channelling it through myself and directly at that spot without any real attempt to control it. The trap becomes more incandescent, but I can sense that it won’t withstand much more of this.

Casting about, I look for other sources of energy I can draw on and quickly find one.

Maia.

Our soul bond will let me tap into her reserves. For a brief second I hesitate. This will wake her up, no doubt, but I can explain to her why I have done this afterwards. I caress our bond, then reach across it, adding what I safely can of her strength to mine.

The pyramid flares even brighter, temporarily blinding me.

***

When I wake again, it’s with a startled jerk. Ani is using the Force, channelling it in an almost wild fashion, and drawing on not just his own strength, but mine as well. Curious, and a bit upset that he didn’t tell me what he was planning to do, I push myself upright. My head spins with that movement.

Somehow, I manage to get to my feet despite how drained and exhausted I am. Each step produces a struggle to stay balanced and upright. If someone were to map my progress, they would assuredly think I was drunk, I decide. My vision blurs as Ani pulls more of my energy into himself. I resort to using my hand against the wall to guide myself, and stagger into my husband’s office.

He’s at his desk, staring straight ahead at someone I can’t quite make out through the haze I am now seeing. My knees finally begin to buckle underneath me and I start to pitch forwards.

The Sith Lord bolts from where he is sitting, grabs me, and holds me secure in his arms.

‘Ani?’ I call to him as my mind goes blank.

***

There is an explosive sounding crack as the point I had been focussing my efforts on fails at last. For a moment, I see spots, so I blink rapidly to clear them. On my desk, in front of me, the soul trap is open, one of the triangular panels rotated sideways on a central pivot to reveal its dark interior. In the ready to use position, I note.

Standing in the middle of my office is Michael, still in his Sith robes, looking around with a shocked expression on his face. At least he seems no worse for wear despite being locked away for weeks.

‘What?’ he blurts out, sounding completely baffled. ‘How’d I get here? Weren’t we chasing some Jedi?’

Behind him, I see my wife stagger drunkenly for a few steps as she walks towards us. My freeing her brother has woken her up, drawn her to me, and obviously left her drained and disoriented. Ignoring Michael, I rush to her and catch her before she can fall and hurt herself.

‘Ani?’ she gasps as I lower her to the floor.

‘Sithspit,’ I curse aloud as her eyes shut and she slips into unconsciousness.

Using our bond the way I just did was a very bad idea. Hopefully she will recover quickly and this will merely be a passing weakness.

‘What have you done to her?’ Michael snaps at me as he drops to a knee next to me.

He’s recovered faster than I thought he would.

‘Your refusal to follow my commands on Rhinnal resulted in you being locked inside a Sith soul trap,’ I explain to him. ‘I couldn’t get you out on my own so I used some of her strength to free you.’

I sense his disbelief.

‘Make yourself useful for once, pest, and help me with her,’ I growl at him. When it becomes obvious he doesn’t understand what I want him to do, I add, ‘Let her know you are here with your bond. If you can share some of your Force potential with her, then do so.’

I return my attention to Maia and carefully lift her up. She will be more comfortable in our bed. Michael silently follows us out of my office and into the bedroom. After I ease my wife out of my arms, her brother sits beside her and takes her hand in his own. His Force presence flickers erratically as he touches their lifebond, so I know that for once he is doing exactly what I have told him to.

Good.

Because he is a Jedi ghost, Michael’s connection to the Force is a more direct and cleaner one than my own, and one without any taint from the dark side. In spite of the twinge of jealousy I feel, I know it’s far better for him to replenish his sister’s reserves in this way than for myself to do so.

Two eyes slowly open and gaze about. Maia’s still only semi-aware and hasn’t realized who is sitting beside her. I kneel next to our bed and look into her face.

‘Little goddess,’ I murmur to her, ‘there’s someone here to see you.’

She seems puzzled by that until her head turns towards the room’s other occupant. Then, there is a slow, indrawn breath.

‘Michael,’ she says as she exhales. ‘You got him out.’

Her fingers seek my cheek, slide to the back of my neck and draw me close.

‘Thank you, my love,’ she tells me before her lips meet mine.

***

Maia, I hear a familiar voice in my head. Little sister, please wake up.

I ignore it at first. It’s merely my brain playing tricks on me again. Michael is gone, locked away within that cursed Sith gadget. He isn’t coming back. When the voice becomes more insistent, I decide to do as it is telling me to. Maybe that will make it go away so I can sleep some more. When I open my eyes, Ani is on the floor, kneeling beside our bed, and peering into my face. He’s quite worried, too, from his expression.

‘Little goddess,’ he quietly says, ‘there’s someone here to see you.’

I furrow my brow in response. What does he mean by that? His quarters are pressurized and sealed. No one could have come in here without my husband putting his helmet on before letting them in. A light squeeze to my hand, which isn’t from Ani, causes me to turn my head.

I breathe in slowly when I see who is there.

‘Michael,’ I state the obvious. ‘You got him out.’

My husband has managed to do what he thought was impossible. I reach over to him, run my fingers across his cheek, to the back of his head, and pull him closer.

‘Thank you, my love,’ I tell him, truly meaning it, before I kiss him lightly on the mouth.

He gently pushes me back onto the pillows, taking hold of my hand when it slides away from him.

‘You need to rest,’ Ani advises. ‘I want you to stay in bed today and behave yourself.’

‘But..,’ I start to protest.

‘Bed,’ he insists, waving a finger in front of my nose. ‘I will explain what happened later, after you have recovered.’

The comm starts to chime in that pattern I always dread hearing. The Sith Lord slowly stands up, releasing my hand once he is fully upright.

‘Your boss wants to talk to you,’ I wryly note. ‘He always has such wonderful timing.’

‘Make sure she stays put and behaves,’ Ani orders Michael. ‘This shouldn’t take very long.’

I watch him put his helmet on and leave, then turn my attention to my brother. We have some catching up to do.

***

Palpatine has atrocious timing, but freeing Michael has caused enough of a disturbance that he has probably decided to find out what I was doing.

‘My master,’ I answer as I kneel on the activated Holonet terminal next to my meditation pod.

‘Lord Vader,’ he acknowledges me. ‘How are things there?’

I debate for a few seconds how to respond, then decide to play ignorant. Unless he asks me directly, there’s no reason for him to learn what I have done.

‘Calm,’ I tell him. ‘There are no problems.’

‘Stay alert, Lord Vader,’ he orders. ‘I have felt a disturbance in the Force.’

I resist the urge to laugh or let my amusement show. Every Force sensitive in the sectors surrounding the Core has, no doubt, felt the wrench which occurred when the soul trap finally opened. None of them, however, will know exactly what happened.

‘Yes, my master,’ I reply.

He signs off rather abruptly, so I stand still for a moment, considering what to do. My master would have felt my successful experiment this morning, and that has my personal Force signature all over it. Perhaps he has sensed something else other than that? Luke is on Coruscant, so maybe my son’s presence is what has him concerned. Or has Xizor’s game playing created future ripples Palpatine has seen which I have not?

At least the Falleen is someone I can do something about. It’s time to let him know I am aware of his plot to kill Luke.

‘Get me Prince Xizor,’ I tell the comm console.

Xizor promptly answers my call and seems a bit taken aback that I have contacted him at this hour. He is awake rather early or stayed up very late depending on how one looks at it. That means he isn’t sleeping.

‘Lord Vader,’ he greets me, ‘what a pleasant surprise.’

I don’t bother replying with the standard, polite set phrases.

‘Perhaps not so pleasant,’ I flatly state. ‘I have been made aware of your attempts to kill Luke Skywalker. You will cease all attempts to harm the boy immediately.’

He doesn’t react, keeping his face an expressionless mask. His spike of anger though, is obvious. I have caught him and he knows it.

‘Your information is in error, Lord Vader,’ he tries to talk his way out of the corner I have just driven him into. ‘And even if it were correct, I am given to understand that the boy is a Rebel officer, all of whom are traitors and wanted dead or alive. Is this sudden change of policy an Imperial decree?’

I ignore his pathetic effort to divert my attention.

‘If Skywalker is harmed,’ I deliver my ultimatum, pointing a finger directly at his hologram’s chest, ‘I will hold you personally accountable.’

‘I see,’ Xizor slowly says. ‘I assure you that if I should come across Skywalker, I will extend to him the same courtesy I would to you, Lord Vader.’

At that, I shut off the comm. There is no reason to prolong our conversation and I have made my point. Regardless of my warning, I expect the Falleen will continue to hunt Luke. Now, though, he has been put on notice. As soon as he makes a mistake, as soon as I can prove his duplicity, I will kill him.

***

I shift about as I watch Ani remove his helmet. It’s lunchtime and I am bored with lying in bed. He was rather insistent that I stay put, which I have complied with because I don’t want to be on the receiving end of one of his lectures. Still, I am very tired, so if he wants me behave, I will.

‘I will bring you something to eat,’ my husband offers.

My ears perk up. He promised to make dinner today. This means ice cream for me! I nod eagerly in anticipation of what my dessert will be and receive one of his rare smiles in return.

While he sees to the children, I let my thoughts wander a bit. Michael has no memory of being locked up. For him, it was if he had jumped in time and location, from Rhinnal to here, without the intervening weeks happening at all. Perhaps that’s for the best. If he had been aware, instead of in a state of limbo, he probably would have started to go mad inside the Sith soul trap.

I tip my head and concentrate. My brother is nearby, but off on an errand for Ani. The Sith Lord is going to take advantage of the debt my brother owes him. He will be an effective secret spy for my husband to use whenever the Emperor isn’t around.

I hear Mikal agree to go play with his sisters for a few minutes. Their meal is finished which means mine should arrive soon. The beeping of the autochef tells me I am correct about this.

When Ani comes in, I move over so he has a place to sit beside me. His drink is on the tray he is carrying, too, so it will be lunch in bed for both of us.

‘I made your favorites,’ my husband tells me once he is settled.

‘You are going to spoil me,’ I tease in return.

‘I should spoil you more often,’ he replies before giving me a quick kiss.

‘You aren’t in a rush to go somewhere today?’ I ask, curious what he might have planned.

‘No,’ Ani admits. ‘Not unless I have a reason to.’

His head tips and I can sense him concentrating on something. I don’t pry and wait for him to start talking again.

‘Luke is still on Coruscant,’ my husband reveals, ‘but he is hiding from me. I am hoping your brother will find him for me before Xizor does.’

I nod in answer while I nibble on my ice cream. It will melt if I don’t hurry, and I want to try something on my husband before he leaves again. The rest of my lunch I will finish after he’s gone.

‘Iced dessert first?’ he notes with some amusement. ‘That’s not very healthy.’

‘Depends on what you intend to do after you’ve eaten it,’ I reply with a wicked smile.

I send the tray to the floor using the Force, and close the bedroom door with a wave to the control panel. Ani merely raises an eyebrow. He has no idea what I am going to do.

‘Down you go, Sith Lord,’ I order as I push him flat onto his back, ‘it’s your turn for dessert.’

He starts laughing, only stopping when I move to kiss him on the ticklish spot behind his ear. Then, I can sense him realize exactly what I am up to. When my frozen mouth contacts his skin, the sharp inhalation and shiver he makes urges me on. His attempts to escape from me are only half-hearted, at best, so I giggle as he continues to squirm. My husband is enjoying my teasing as much as I am. The effects from the cold don’t last very long, but it does give me a few ideas for other things to do to him.

‘I think I will have to try that on you sometime,’ Ani says in an amused voice once I have finished torturing him with ice cold kisses.

‘Enjoyed that?’ I tease, though I know full well that he did.

This is about as much fun as I am allowed to have.

‘Come here, wife,’ he playfully growls.

‘We must be good,’ I remind him as I snuggle up to him and rest my head on his chest. ‘No fooling around allowed.’

‘Yes, I know,’ he ruefully admits, ‘but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.’

***

Leaving Maia behind to rest for the afternoon, I head to my castle’s command center. I need to see what reports have come in since this morning.

Jir stands up and nods when I enter the briefing room.

‘Lord Vader, you asked to see anything regarding this name,’ he tells me.

I stare at him, wondering who he might be talking about. When he hands me a flimsy, I run my eyes down the transcript, stopping when I reach what I have been waiting to obtain. I have you now, Skywalker, it reads.

‘Where did this originate?’ I ask, needing confirmation.

‘An encoded transmission from the ship Virago, my lord, en route to the skyhook Falleen’s Fist in high orbit,’ he verifies what I have scanned. ‘The ship is registered to...’

‘I know who it is registered to,’ I break in as I crumple the printout in my hand.

Finally I have the proof I need. It was only a matter of waiting, patiently, for Xizor to make a fatal mistake.

‘Prepare my shuttle,’ I order.

Xizor was warned to stay away from my son. He chose to ignore me. It’s time for the criminal to pay the price for that error.

I smile as I head towards the hangar and send my ship up to the Executor. There’s no need to play the Falleen’s games any longer. Now, I will play by my rules.

‘Status?’ I snap at Captain Kallic when he meets me in the docking bay.

‘Ready for whatever you need done, my lord,’ he answers, sounding a bit flustered by my unexpected, unannounced arrival.

He half-runs to keep pace as I march to the command deck.

‘How long before we can get around the planet?’ I demand.

‘A few minutes, my lord,’ he nervously answers.

‘As soon as we come within range, establish communications with the skyhook Falleen’s Fist,’ I order. ‘I will speak with Prince Xizor.’

‘Of course, my lord,’ Kallic promptly responds.

I stand motionless and look out the transparisteel windows. The Executor is moving as fast as is safe, given the heavy traffic around Coruscant, but it seems painfully slow. My mind counts off the minutes. Soon, now, we should be in position.

‘We have decoded the transmissions between Prince Xizor and his fleet,’ the Captain reveals as he hands me a datapad.

I quickly read through what is obviously an attack on the Millenium Falcon. Xizor’s own words and actions have condemned him. Returning the datapad, I wave Kallic away and resume my vigil.

‘Coming within range, Lord Vader,’ I hear from the crew pit.

Finally.

‘Good,’ I decide. ‘Deploy your fighters. Protect the Corellian freighter which his fleet is illegally attacking.’

If Kallic finds my commands odd, he doesn’t argue. After Kothlis, he has acquired some common sense and no longer questions what I tell him to do. Perhaps there is some hope for him after all.

‘Send a signal to Prince Xizor. I will use the Holonet terminal off the bridge,’ I decide.

The Falleen answers my call immediately.

‘Lord Vader,’ his hologram chides me. ‘Why is the Imperial Navy attacking my ships?’

I pause, amused by his feigned ignorance. He knows why, but this conversation will be recorded and seen by my master. It’s necessary for me to be absolutely clear in what I say and mean.

‘Because those ships, under your orders, are engaged in criminal activity,’ I flatly state.

‘Nonsense!’ Xizor protests. ‘My ships are trying to stop a rebel traitor who destroyed my castle!’

I smile. Luke has been busy today. Losing much of his wealth is what has driven the Falleen to make the mistakes I will now use against him.

‘You have two standard minutes to recall your vessels,’ I inform him. ‘And to offer yourself into my custody.’

It’s important to be seen as polite and civilized, but I know he will never surrender to me.

‘I will not,’ he refuses, his voice showing some of his anger. ‘I will take this up with the Emperor.’

Ah, yes. Run to my master for protection. That won’t work this time. How fortunate Palpatine is on Byss and has left me in charge.

‘The Emperor is not here,’ I advise him. ‘I speak for the Empire, Xizor.’

‘Prince Xizor,’ he petulantly corrects me.

‘You may keep the title,’ I allow, ‘for another two minutes.’

He pastes a forced, fake smile onto his face.

‘What are you going to do, Vader?’ he sneers, dropping all pretense at being polite. ‘Destroy my skyhook? You wouldn’t dare. The Emperor...’

I cut him off, not wanting to waste any more of my time with this.

‘I warned you to stay away from Skywalker,’ I remind him. ‘Recall your ships and surrender into my custody or pay the consequences. I will risk the Emperor’s displeasure.’ Pausing a few seconds, I add, ‘However, you will not be there to see it, this time.’

I shut off the Holonet terminal, leaving Xizor to make his decision, and return to the command deck. The encryption team has finally unscrambled the transmissions between his skyhook and navy in real time, and is playing them over the audio system.

‘My prince, we are being destroyed by the attackers!’ I hear someone frantically reporting. ‘We are outnumnbered and being slaughtered! I need permission to offer our surrender! Highness?’

There is no response from Xizor as time rapidly slips away. Soon, there will be none left.

‘Prince Xizor, please respond,’ the commander implores his master. ‘We must surrender or we will be blown to pieces! Please!’

Time’s up, I decide.

‘Two minutes have elapsed, my lord,’ Kallic confirms. ‘His fleet is being obliterated, but still Prince Xizor remains silent.’

The Falleen is probably trying to escape, but I know he can’t make it to his ship in time.

‘Commander,’ I order the Executor’s Chief Gunner, ‘destroy the skyhook.’

‘Yes, my lord,’ he acknowledges.

My flagship’s heavy lasers flash into life, touch the skyhook, and shatter it into a billion glowing pieces of rock, metal, and organic debris. It’s nowhere near as satisfying as killing Xizor slowly myself, in person, with my lightsaber, but I can’t help smiling anyway.

Goodbye Xizor, I think, and good riddance.

***


DAY 32

I give Ani a worried look as he ducks into the ‘fresher to have a shower. Palpatine came back early this morning, and my husband has to go report to him. Something tells me that the Emperor might not be very pleased about Luke’s escape and Xizor’s death.

Tossing the covers aside, I slowly get out of bed. My center of gravity has shifted again and if I am not careful, I am a bit unsteady on my feet. This pregnancy had been progressing in a similar fashion to what happened with Mikal, but yesterday son number two decided to move. He dropped downwards. His head is now firmly stuck in my pelvis and he hasn’t shifted from there despite my attempts to get him to. Hopefully he will decide it’s more comfortable back where he was a week ago.

‘You are more stubborn than mommy, aren’t you?’ I scold my stomach as make my way into the kitchen to deal with breakfast. ‘Hopefully you won’t be too stubborn after you are born.’

I open up the cooler and select a jug of supplement for Ani. A few pokes at the buttons on the autochef, and ‘pancakes’ soon appear for the rest of us. My husband is busy getting dressed from what I can hear, so I look in on our children before checking on him. All three are sitting in Mikal’s bed while he tells his sisters a story. The Lost Bantha Cub, I note, amused as I watch for a while. My son has heard it enough times that he can recite it without knowing how to read the words.

‘Hello, beautiful,’ Ani whispers in my ear from behind.

His arms slide around my waist and hold me close. I reach up and touch his mouth with my fingertips. He’s smiling, no doubt from the scene in front of us.

‘They get along quite well with each other,’ my husband says.

‘Just wait until they are older,’ I tease. ‘Once there is something to compete over, that will change a little.’

‘I wouldn’t know,’ he admits. ‘I had no brothers or sisters, and the other padawans in the Jedi temple never really felt like siblings to me. I was so much older than they were when I was admitted for training, so perhaps that’s why.’

I turn around in his arms to face him and kiss his cheek.

‘Trust me,’ I tell him with an amused laugh. ‘Brothers and sisters will always find something to fight about, but when it’s important for them to stick together, they will.’

He raises a questioning eyebrow.

‘I know this from experience,’ I reveal. ‘The bonds between siblings can be very powerful.’

His fingers brush my cheek before he gives me our morning kiss.

‘From what I have seen of you and your brother,’ Ani decides after he pulls back and looks in on our children again, ‘I will yield to your wisdom on this topic.’

***

I go into the audience chamber and slowly approach the throne. Palpatine ignores me and continues to stare out through the window, his back to me. That’s one way he shows his displeasure. He knows I am here but won’t move until he has made his point, I decide, as I kneel and prepare to wait as long as it takes.

Do I have reason to worry? I ask myself that question while I am left to my thoughts in the lengthening silence. The Emperor specifically told me to leave Xizor alone.

My master swivels about to face me at last, but I don’t look up and keep my eyes fixed on the floor right in front of me.

‘You defied my orders, Lord Vader,’ he flatly states.

There’s no point in denying the obvious.

‘Yes, my master,’ I admit. ‘But I hope I have not failed you.’

‘Get up,’ he allows.

I stand immediately and receive a smile in return.

‘I am not unaware that Xizor served his own ends,’ he reveals, ‘and that you were shrewd enough to uncover his plot. I knew about it, of course.’

I stay silent, expecting to hear more.

‘Are we certain he is dead?’ Palpatine asks.

‘I do not see how he could have survived,’ I answer. ‘I watched his skyhook be blown to bits.’

‘Just as well, ‘ he tells me. ‘Black Sun is useful, but it is also like a chirru - cut off its head and another will appear to replace it.’

He leans back into his throne and starts laughing at his own clever comparison.

‘Perhaps its next leader will be equally dangerous,’ I caution.

‘No leader of Black Sun could ever be a match for the power of the dark side,’ he notes, amused.

‘But what of the plan to ensnare the Rebel leaders?’ I prompt, concerned that Xizor’s games may have created a mess I will be told to sort out.

‘The new Death Star will draw them in,’ my master reassures me, ‘and this time, you and I will be there to finish the Rebellion.’

He’s already planning ahead, to what will happen at Endor.

‘Young Skywalker will be there, too,’ he adds. ‘I have seen it.’

At that, I let out a sigh. I know Luke will come to me at Endor since that was in Maia’s mind as part of her strange foreknowledge.

‘All is proceeding exactly as I have foreseen it, Lord Vader,’ he finishes.

Another smile is bestowed upon me and I freeze inside. Has his connection to the dark side allowed him to look into the future in detail? Can he accurately predict what will happen? Does he know with certainty the same things I do?

‘Yes, my master,’ I give my standard response.

I will have time, later, to plan for the future. For now, Xizor is gone and no longer an irritant.

‘Then there is the matter of his destroyed palace,’ Palpatine muses. ‘It would be best if the public remained unaware of the truth behind that.’

‘Imperial Security needs a new headquarters,’ I suggest.

‘An excellent idea,’ he replies, amused at the notion. ‘The destruction can be explained as clearance before the start of a construction project.’

‘I doubt Xizor would have appreciated the irony,’ I tell him.

‘It is of no consequence, my friend,’ he dismisses my concerns with a gesture. ‘Fete Week will be upon us soon, but I have a task for you to finish, first.’

I say nothing, wondering what he intends me to do.

‘The rebels need to think that the falsified plans they have stolen are important enough for me to send you after them,’ my master reveals. ‘You will go assist my Hand, Stele, who has captured a rebel who was involved in the theft. Whatever information he has, extract it from him, and use it. If you can confuse the rebels, and force them to search for the tapes they want, all the better. Let them fall into chaos. Your hunt for them will be purely for show, of course. ’

‘Of course,’ I echo back, annoyed that I am being ordered away on a pointless mission which will separate me from my family yet again.

‘It should only take you a few days. If you hurry back, you won’t miss Fete Week,’ he tells me, his smile widening. ‘You should enjoy that while you can, for I have an errand of some importance to send you on next month.’

I give a quick bow and leave. Soon, I will be dispatched to Endor, to speed the progress on the second Death Star. Surely this is what he is referring to.

***

I can sense that my husband is not very happy about something when he comes back from his meeting, but I wait until he has entered his office before saying anything to him about it.

‘He’s sent you off again,’ I state the obvious.

There is a frustrated sigh in answer from my husband.

‘I am to go deal with the rebels and send them on a wild goose chase,’ Ani wryly admits. ‘I should only be gone for a few days.’

I reach up from where I am sitting on the couch, so he catches my fingers in his.

‘Hopefully I will be back for the New Year’s Fete,’ he reassures me. ‘Palpatine seems to have no interest in seeing you, so I doubt you will be summoned while I am gone.’

‘I don’t think he’s forgotten...,’ I start a response to that.

The Sith Lord silences me with a shake of his head.

‘Don’t tempt him,’ he warns. ‘Stay inside and out of sight. The less he sees of you and the children, the better.’

Confined to quarters, I ruefully note. It could be worse. At least there is more space in his castle to move around in than on the Executor.

‘When do you have to leave?’ I ask. ‘The children are still napping.’

‘Now,’ he answers. ‘Don’t wake them to say good-bye to me. Later, you can explain to Mikal that I had to go do a few things.’

No chance for a kiss or anything else other than a quick embrace, then. A frown crosses my face. It’s not fair, but I won’t complain. I have finally accepted that life with Ani is completely unpredictable.


Imperial Supply Base, Eridan System, Year 3, Month 10.

DAY 34

***

‘Again,’ I order ruthlessly, ignoring the screams which erupt from the throat of the rebel in front of me as a needle plunges into his shoulder a third time.

‘He can’t take much more of this, my Lord,’ Stele warns.

I wave him aside. The drugs the interrogator droid is administering are painful, but not fatal. Tay Vanis will survive this session.

‘That is my worry, not yours,’ I snap. ‘If my methods disturb you, you are free to leave.’

I sense my master’s Hand hesitate before he spins around and stalks out. Stele is far too loyal to protest outside the security cell, but he has not liked what he has witnessed the past two days. Nor have I enjoyed any of it. It is merely the necessary means to reach an end.

‘I know where the tapes you stole are, Vanis,’ I hiss at my prisoner. ‘Your droid has them, and I have your droid.’

His eyes open and I sense his desperation, though he says nothing in response. Fool. Staying silent will serve no purpose. I draw closer and stare down at him. He pulls futilely at the bonds holding him secure in the chair.

‘Oh, yes,’ I reveal. ‘I know all about the tapes you stole at Kothlis. I know what is on them and who you gave duplicate copies to. Yom Argo is already dead.’

His breath is drawn in slowly as he attempts to cover his shocked reaction.

‘The question remains as to what I will do with you,’ I muse aloud. ‘I could kill you, but that is far too easy a punishment. Instead, I will use you.’

I step back and consider my options for a moment. My master wanted the rebels sent on a hunt for those tapes. It should be simple enough to plant rumors which will lead them to Vanis and his droid. A carefully reprogrammed droid, I correct myself, and a trail designed to keep them busy for weeks. Unfortunately, Vanis will not willingly co-operate, so I will have to render him harmless and incapable of providing any resistance rather than risk a successful escape attempt on his part.

Drawing closer to Vanis again, I touch his forehead. His eyes roll upwards as I slam into his mind with the Force. Rifling through his panicked thoughts yields nothing more than what I have already extracted from him.

‘Noooo,’ he screams as I tear mental connections away, rendering him a simpleton.

‘So it ends for Tay Vanis,’ I flatly state, letting my hand fall away from him.

He completely collapses in the chair and will need to be cared for like a child. Perhaps simply killing him outright would have been kinder, but this is a more suitable penalty for one who has been a repeated nuisance to me. When Luke and his friends finally find him, their compassion will compel them to take Vanis with them, hopefully slowing them down long enough to be captured.

I step into the hallway. Stele is waiting for me.

‘I have rendered Vanis harmless and useless to the rebels,’ I tell him as I head to the Command Center. ‘See that he is cared for. His X-wing is to be left where it crashed for the rebels, who will come after him, to discover. His droid, I will also put to good use. The appropriate rumors will need to be planted and a trail laid to lead them here.’

Stele glances over at me.

‘You do not care for my plans?’ I ask, annoyed that my judgement is being questioned.

‘It seems too convoluted,’ he protests. ‘Why go to all this trouble?’

I stop and turn to him, amused by his almost naďveté. He is of much the same military mind set as I am and dislikes the more unscrupulous aspects of his job.

‘The Emperor has ordered me to keep the rebels busy searching for those tapes,’ I admit. ‘I am simply obeying his commands.’

He says nothing to that, merely nods and continues to accompany me. I dismiss him when I reach the Holonet station. This requires privacy.

I know Luke will be one of those who tracks down Vanis, so I will ensure the recording plays once the door to the cell is opened and my son’s voice pattern is recognized.

‘Luke,’ I begin, and after pausing for a few seconds to allow for his reaction, I continue, ‘By the power of the Force, I have foreseen that you will come, following the trail of your fellow rebel, the great Tay Vanis. Only you have the skill, the determination, and the training to follow a path so cold, twisted and dangerous, and ... so pointless.’

I decide to reveal my plans, to let him know how many steps ahead of him I have been and how I have manipulated the situation.

‘As you have guessed by now, I captured Vanis some time ago,’ I reveal. ‘I chose to conceal this from all but my troops in this installation. It suited my purposes to do so. By hiding the truth, I made certain that none of your rebel spies could ever learn it. You were kept very busy, looking for a man I already possessed...’

I pause again, as I realize that a search for Vanis might be a way to occupy a few others as well.

‘... and certain ambitious members of the Empire were kept equally busy and harmless at the same futile task. Now, I bid you farewell, but so that your long weeks of searching will not be in vain, I leave you, as a gift, the contents of this room,’ I sign off, shifting my right hand to rest at my belt, and extending the left one outwards. ‘Accept them, with my compliments, young Skywalker.’

With that, I stop the recording. It takes a few minutes to finish setting the system to play it under the conditions I want met.

Now, to deal with the droid.

I open the door to the maintenance room and look at LE-914. ‘Ellie’ is safely outfitted with a restraining bolt and has been shut down. Everything I need to reprogram her is at hand, but it would be best to limit the degree of tampering to the minimum necessary. Her reactions will be more natural that way. I will hide her in plain sight and put her to practical use, I decide. Until the rebels appear, she will serve as the inventory keeper for the base. Only after they ask about Vanis will her true nature emerge, and it won’t be until they retrieve the recording from his X-wing that she leads them here. As for the tapes, I will leave those with her, where she has hidden them, and let the rebels think she has kept their existence a secret.

Reaching over to the workbench, I select the first of the tools I require. This is the type of work I prefer to be doing, rather than ‘sneaking around’ as Jix would put it. Still, Stele was right. Subterfuge is not always the best way to solve a problem.

***


Imperial Center, Coruscant System, Year 3, Month 10.

DAY 35 (NEW YEAR’S EVE)

It’s early when Ani gets out of bed and leaves my side. I know what he is up to, so I keep my eyes closed, feign being asleep, and wait. He probably made my New Year’s present months ago, just like I have been working on his ever since Nilsa sent me the gabal wool and firehead leather. My husband is in for quite a surprise, I decide as I nestle into my pillow. I was up in the middle of the night for a ‘fresher run, so I have already put his wrapped present in his office.

I listen intently, expecting him to hurry back, but Ani doesn’t. Instead, there is silence for quite a long time. Then, I hear his footsteps and feel him set something down near my feet, before his weight is next to me.

‘There is no point in pretending you are asleep,’ he teases. ‘I know you are awake.’

He is sitting right beside me and can tell I am acting, but I refuse to open my eyes or move.

‘Stubborn,’ Ani calls me.

His lips are firmly pressed against my temple for a few seconds.

‘I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I fell in love with you,’ he notes, amused. ‘You were the first woman in two decades who loved me and was more obstinate than I am.’

‘Oh?’ I finally answer him. ‘How so?’

I hear a low chuckle, but still keep my eyes closed.

‘I have been pursued by the wealthy, the ennobled, political climbers, and thrill seekers,’ my husband reveals. ‘All of them were more interested in what I could do for them than anything else. Only you loved me for who I was, despite all my efforts to shove you away.’

At that admission, I do open my eyes. What he just said doesn’t make much sense to me. My confusion must show because Ani just shakes his head and looks sheepish.

‘I didn’t want to lose someone else I loved, so ...’

‘... you tried to get rid of me instead,’ I finish for him.

‘Thankfully, I failed miserably,’ Ani admits.

‘Good thing, Sith Lord,’ I tease him. ‘There’s no way you can get free of me now.’

‘Nor do I want to be,’ he replies.

His fingers brush down my face so I smile up at him.

‘I think I like spoiling you,’ he adds, glancing to the foot of the bed.

I look to see what he is referring to. He’s brought my present for him from his office, and another much smaller box, which must be his to me, too. Curious, I start to push myself upright and struggle for a few seconds before Ani quickly moves to help me.

‘Your present first,’ I insist once he has me propped up with a couple pillows.

He reaches down and picks it up. Like Mikal always does with his presents, Ani gives the box a shake. There’s nothing inside which will rattle or make a noise.

‘That won’t help you,’ I warn him while I do my best not to laugh.

His fingers rest lightly on top of his present. I know he is trying to figure out what is in it without cheating or resorting to the Force.

‘Another cloak?’ he asks.

I shake my head.

‘That’s one guess used up,’ I tease him.

‘It can’t be a new surcoat, since you just gave me one of those.’

‘Nope,’ I admit, ‘it isn’t, and that’s guess two gone.’

‘That wasn’t a proper guess,’ he scolds.

I cheekily stick my tongue out at him.

‘I know it has to be something you have made for me,’ Ani starts to think aloud, hefting the wrapped box in his hands, ‘and it is heavy...’

I smile at him, refusing to give him any hints. He has one chance left.

‘One guess left,’ I remind him.

‘Two,’ he starts to argue.

‘One,’ I insist.

‘Stubborn,’ I am dubbed.

‘And so are you!’ I give my usual reply.

‘Very well, my stubborn little wife, I will simply open it and find out what it is that way,’ Ani concedes.

He carefully pulls the tape away from the wrapping paper. Delaying tactics, I note. Ani will prolong this as long as he can just to be a brat. Eventually, he folds up the paper and sets it aside. I don’t encourage him to hurry up since that will only have the opposite effect. It’s a good thing I didn’t seal the box shut or my husband would be slow about taking the top off, too.

Finally, and with a bit of a flourish, the Sith Lord lifts the lid away. For a long quiet moment, he stares at what is sitting in his lap.

‘You made this?’ he asks, sounding rather astounded.

I nod while his fingers brush the black leather garment which is still folded and in its box.

‘When?’ he prompts as he lifts the top of his new bodysuit and spreads it across the bed covers.

‘The last two months,’ I admit. ‘I worked on it whenever you were busy with the rebels or Xizor.’

‘I wasted far too much of my time on him,’ Ani growls.

He tosses the box on the floor after laying out the rest of his present.

‘I don’t recognize the type of leather,’ he tells me as he rolls one of the supple sleeves between his fingers.

I glance towards the children’s room. Mikal is stirring. His restlessness is easy to sense. Soon, our eldest will be wanting his breakfast.

‘It’s firehead leather, from Rhinnal,’ I reveal. ‘Nilsa sent it with the gabal wool. I am not sure why she did that because I had only asked her for the wool. Her note was a rather cryptic one, too.’

‘Perhaps she thought it would go with the cloak and surcoat,’ he suggests.

‘Perhaps,’ I agree. ‘Her message simply stated she had a feeling you would need it.’

The Sith Lord freezes, and I know he is considering what I have said. Before he can ask for more information, a door opens and Mikal peers out at us.

‘Daddy!’ our son happily calls.

***

‘Good morning son,’ I automatically answer while I think about the odd message the Clans’ Speaker had sent to Maia.

The Jedi Chapterhouse was on Rhinnal for two reasons - the first was medical and the second practical. Force sensitivity was known to be relatively common among the native population. Keeping a permanent Jedi presence there was a convenient way to find, test, and then send those children deemed suitable to Coruscant for training at the Jedi Temple. Nilsa might be one of those who managed to escape the Order’s notice. She’s far too old to be a problem, I decide, and her gifts are harmless enough. Perhaps she has merely sensed trouble ahead for me and is trying to send a veiled warning to be careful.

Mikal clambers up onto the bed beside his mother and I, and gives her a hug. His eyes spot Maia’s present, so he points at it.

‘That’s your mother’s,’ I state before he can ask about it.

‘You can help me open it,’ my wife tells him when I hand her my gift.

I watch the pair of them as Mikal rapidly pulls the wrapping paper off. A lock of hair falls into Maia’s face so I gently brush it back behind her ear. She looks up at me in response and smiles. Only four years ago I was spending this day, like most of my time, unhappy, miserable, and alone. Now, I find it hard to remember what that was like. My family has filled so many voids in my life.

‘What’s in it, mommy?’ I hear Mikal wonder.

‘Let’s find out,’ Maia whispers to him in a conspiratorial tone, trying to make it sound like it is a big secret.

My wife gives the box a shake while holding it up to her ear. She hands it to Mikal and lets him do the same. I let out a low chuckle. They won’t hear anything because I was careful how I packed what’s inside. No clues can be gained that way.

‘No noise,’ our son admits.

‘Go ahead and open it,’ she encourages him.

Mikal pulls off the tape and removes the lid. The material I had used to keep the present from moving quickly ends up on the floor. He gives the velvet wrapped gift which was buried in the middle of it to his mother. Her fingers carefully feel what is inside, between the questioning glances she sends my way.

‘More jewellery?’ Maia guesses.

I smile at her. That’s not quite right.

‘One guess gone,’ I announce.

She makes a face at me and starts laughing.

‘Open it, mommy,’ Mikal urges.

‘Alright,’ I will,’ she agrees.

Her fingers untie the tasselled cord holding the bag shut. It doesn’t take her very long to carefully pull out the mothsilk enclosed gift inside.

‘You really wrapped this up well, didn’t you?’ she teases me.

‘Now why would I make it easy for you?’ I reply in kind.

The mothsilk is soon unrolled, revealing two hair combs with opalescent gems crowning them. I watch my wife turn them over in her hands, reflecting light from the stones I had twisted gold wire around to hold them in place.

‘They’re beautiful, Ani,’ she tells me. ‘Thank you.’

I reach over, take one from her hand, and use it to hold her hair up and away from her face.

‘Mommy’s pretty,’ our son comments.

‘Yes, she is,’ I agree with a smile.

I hear the sounds of two sets of bare feet running across the kitchen floor. Shmi and Cat are awake. They join their brother on the bed with their mother and I, and my youngest daughter quickly climbs into my lap and wraps her arms around my neck. Daddy’s girl Maia tends to call her. Of all my children, she is the one who constantly seeks my company, even when I am in a foul mood. I settle Shmi close to my chest, allowing her to kiss my cheek before she is off, chasing her brother and sister back towards their bedroom. My eyes follow them until they disappear from sight. They will be back again, in a few minutes, to demand breakfast.

***

The children are having their afternoon naps, and I am in Ani’s office experimenting with different hairstyles, trying out as many ways as I can come up with for how to use the latest of his gifts. My husband has been working at his desk, going over various reports, but every time I asked for his opinion, he obliged, looking up from whatever had his attention to offer his suggestions for what to attempt next.

‘I’m not bothering you?’ I ask at last.

He doesn’t glance up at me, just answers, ‘No.’

‘But,...’ I start.

‘If you were being a pest or I wanted you to leave,’ Ani tells me, ‘I would say so.’

This time, he gets up and comes over to my chair, across from where he had been sitting. His hands cup my face, turning it up to look into his own.

‘In a way, I miss it being only the two of us,’ he reveals, reaching down to take my hand in his. ‘I remember all those nights when you sat beside me on the floor while I worked. You would fall asleep with your head leaning against my side. Somehow you never woke up when I carried you to bed.’

I feel myself start to blush. He must have thought I was silly and foolish.

‘Not silly,’ Ani gently teases me, ‘nor foolish, but hopelessly in love with me.’ Before I can reply to that, he sets a finger across my lips, and adds, ‘Just like I was hopelessly in love with you.’

My mouth opens in surprise at his admission. He simply chuckles at my reaction and kisses my forehead.

‘I was just better at hiding it,’ he admits, ‘and I enjoyed those quiet evenings with you as much as you did.’

‘You weren’t that good at hiding it, Sith Lord,’ I bug him a little bit. ‘Rick and Bill knew what was going on, and so did just about everyone else at the costume party by the end of the night.’

‘Your friends only knew because I made sure my behaviour would let them figure it out,’ Ani scolds. ‘I wasn’t blatant about it until after they went around telling everyone I was going to propose to you that night and elope with you after you told me ‘yes’.’

‘They didn’t!’ I exclaim at this piece of new information.

‘Oh, yes, they did,’ my husband confirms. ‘I overheard them doing exactly that.’

So that’s why the Dean made the comments she did. Bill must have been gossiping with her before she dealt with Nigel. I make a few annoyed noises. My friends, no doubt, had quite a bit of fun at my expense after Ani and I left the party.

‘I can just imagine what they told everybody afterwards,’ I grumble.

‘That we’d run off to find someone to marry us,’ Ani suggests. ‘Rick did say he would cover for us.’

‘It’s far more likely that he said we had left early to go have some fun,’ I decide.

‘Now that sounds more like what Liz would do, given what you have told me about her,’ he replies.

I let out a sigh. Despite all my promises to not get homesick, I still miss my friends and wish a visit back home was possible. Ani stiffens a little and I get the strangest of fleeting impressions from him. What is he concealing from me about home? I have always assumed he had done something too embarrassing to admit to, but before I can say anything more or ask about it, his mouth is hard against mine.

Kiss me, wife, he orders. I now have to put on my armour and go attend the festivities.

I comply, release him when he pulls back, and watch him go. The Emperor won’t be at the New Year’s Eve celebrations tonight and neither will I. Quite a few of the normally scheduled events, like the public executions of a few prominent rebels and infamous criminals, have been cancelled for security reasons. My husband still has to go for appearances’ sake even though he would prefer to remain at home with me.

He’ll be fine, I tell myself. There’s no reason to worry. Ani will stay only as long as he needs to and be back quickly.

***

I hurry away from my Castle, moving as rapidly as I can to the Imperial Palace. The sooner this nonsense is done with, the better.

When I arrive, I stalk past the various advisors and court riff-raff who are waiting in the Grand Corridor. My master has chosen to be absent, even though he is in residence, delegating the chore of being the Empire’s public face to me. Why he has done this, I am not sure, but I will follow his orders, as I always do.

First on my agenda is the military parade. I go to the review balcony, ignoring anyone who tries to gain my attention. Behind me, I hear those who have been invited taking their places. Seeing the New Year’s Eve display from this vantage is considered a privilege, but I can sense that my presence here is an unexpected and unwelcome one. So, the Emperor is using me to play his games yet again. A frown crosses my face. I dislike being treated as a mere pawn in his plots.

Rather than be seen as presumptuous by assuming Palpatine’s throne, I stand in front of it, resting my hands on the railing while I stare down the route the parade will take. In the distance, the first TIEs which will lead the fly-bys are visible. I watch silently as they are joined on the street below by stormtroopers marching in precise formation.

My troops, I observe with a smile. The 501st, from the Executor, are in the lead. Their helmets turn in perfect synchronization as they acknowledge me with an eyes-left command from their Drill Sergeant. I reply with a nod rather than a military salute. They are followed by legions based on Coruscant, AT-ATs, and other ground vehicles, while fighters continue to pass overhead.

For a moment, I wish my wife were with me. Maia’s sarcastic comments and amusing observations would alleviate some of my boredom, but she is too uncomfortable from her pregnancy to really enjoy today’s festivities. Besides, it’s safer for her to stay home, away from potential danger, and any possible risk of an encounter with Palpatine.

The last of the parade goes by the balcony, but I continue to remain motionless and gaze after them. No one will leave until I do because they are afraid of offending me. I sense the anxiety levels rising in those who are behind me. Let them worry needlessly, I decide. Fear is always a potent deterrent, but at the moment I have no pressing reason to harm or make an example of any of them. Even if I did, why create any negative publicity for myself by doing so during a galactically broadcast event?

When enough time has elapsed to make my point, I spin about and retreat inside the Imperial Palace. Palpatine told me to attended the start of the evening’s Fete in an hour. Until then, rather than go home and come back again, I will find a quiet place to meditate.

As I make my way through the gardens, I discover that only the popular ones have any occupants. The one which is my goal is deserted, so I wander around its perimeter before sitting on the same bench Maia once had a nap on, after her first formal presentation to my master. For a while, I close my eyes and try to relax, but a familiar presence hovering nearby is a constant distraction. Finally, I decide to do something about that.

‘I know you are there and I know who you are,’ I tell my stalker, ‘so show yourself.’

I don’t bother opening my eyes, and instead track their approach with my other senses and the Force. Fabric flows around them and rustles as they kneel at my feet. They say nothing, yet the potent mix of confused emotions I feel from them tells me almost everything I need to know.

Looking down, I see the top of my apprentice’s bowed head. She has modelled her armour after my own, covering her face with a mask although in her case that is unnecessary. Her injuries were not as severe as yours, I remind myself, but she will still spend the rest of her days living in much the same way as you, completely dependent on the systems implanted in her body.

‘Lumiya,’ I quietly address her.

A shake of her head in response.

‘Shira, then,’ I correct myself, deciding to humor her for a few minutes.

Some of her emotional turmoil is related to her new identity, and I also sense, to what she expects and wants from me. I hold in an exasperated sigh. We can only be master and apprentice. Any other relationship is impossible. Surely she should have realized by now that there is no point in pursuing what can never be.

‘Master,’she replies without lifting her gaze from my feet.

‘Why have you come to me, my apprentice?’ I ask, deciding that formal mode would be safest under the circumstances.

Silence, then a wave of misery flows out from her. I understand where some of that comes from. Learning to cope with the aftermath of my own injuries and personal losses produced much the same initial reaction in myself, but I will not allow her to wallow in self pity. She will be of no use to me in that state. From my own experience, I know that focus is the answer to some of her problem - focus and turning her attention away from herself until she is better adjusted emotionally.

First, I will confront her feelings for me head on.

‘Would you have preferred that I left you to die?’ I pose the same question Palpatine had once asked me.

Her inner struggle and inability to answer is apparent, but one thought surfaces above all her others.

She thinks I kept her alive because I love her.

‘Master, I ...’ she starts, but I ruthlessly cut off what I expect will be a proclamation of undying love.

‘Do not fool yourself into believing that I saved your life based on any emotional attachment to you,’ I scold her a bit brutally, permanently slamming the door on what she was considering. ‘There has never been and will never be one.’

Her head tips up, and she looks directly at me. Now, I can sense her anger building. Given her personality, I have anticipated this reaction, but instead of preparing myself for a physical attack, I let myself sink into the Force, anchoring myself in the here and now. Lumiya is no fool. She knows I can and will kill her without lifting a finger if provoked into doing so.

‘Love is forbidden to a Sith Lord,’ she finally, sarcastically states, ‘yet you openly flaunt your feelings for your consort.’

I give my head an amused shake.

‘That, my apprentice,’ I admit, ‘is different.’

‘Is it? I was your lover, before,’ she retorts in response. ‘Now, you could make me your concubine, or even your second, lesser wife, if you so desire, so why should I be denied what she has? I am no different than she is.’

‘You think you should have the same status as my Lady?’ I reply with a laugh as I rise to my feet. ‘How little you know of Sith traditions and what I am permitted to do. Tell me, do you know what a merati is?’

‘A merati is a type of female consort,’ she dutifully repeats what must have been in one of Palpatine’s lessons about Sith culture. ‘She is a Sith Lord’s predestined mate, eternally bound to him through ritual and custom, and when he dies, she follows him into death and beyond. They are inexorably drawn to each other, even against their own wills, if the chronicles are true.’ Lumiya glances up at me and adds, probably thinking of herself, ‘The Emperor told me that a Sith Lord’s merati is the only woman he is allowed to love because of the unbreakable Force bonds which bind her to him.’

At least she has learned something of Sith history, but that last bit is new to me. There is nothing in any of the holocrons or records to suggest a Sith Lord is allowed to love anyone, so my master has probably invented this to justify my situation. I look down at Lumiya while I weigh what to say next. Perhaps the truth is the best approach, since it seems to be the only way to rid her of this childish fantasy that I would take her as a mate of some sort.

‘You were my lover because I required one at that time and you were conveniently there,’ I reveal. ‘For myself, there was never any emotional involvement in it. All I needed from you was the physical part,’ I pause, consider what to add, then finish, ‘which, I have to be honest, was enjoyable, but that was all it ever was - a convenient physical liaison.’

There is a hiss of rage from her as she scrambles to her feet and steps back from me. I see her eyes narrow as she contemplates whether to attack me or not. In response, I shift my stance into a ready position as a warning.

“A convenient physical liaison,” Lumiya spits back at me. ‘Is that all I was to you? Is that all any woman will ever be to you? Is that what your wife is to you - a convenient physical liaison and means of breeding heirs?’

Furious at her accusations and wanting to discipline her for it, I impulsively slap her hard across the face, knocking her off balance and down onto her knees again. She has crossed a line I will not allow any apprentice of mine to step over.

‘Never speak of my Lady in that manner again, Lumiya,’ I coldly warn, pointing my finger directly at her chest. ‘She is my merati, my oath-bound, soul-bound mate, and you will give her the respect her position demands. If you do not, I will kill you for your defiance.’

A gasp accompanies the shock which pours out from her at that revelation. Underlying it, though, is as profound a sense of heartbreak as I have ever felt from anyone. The full implications of my words have hit her with an almost physical impact, I note, as I watch her struggle to breathe for a minute. There is no point in trying to comfort her. I will not say any words of sympathy to her nor will she expect to hear them from me. She has brought this on herself by foolishly chasing after a love she could never have from someone she could never possess.

‘Yes, my master,’ Lumiya acquiesces at last, the defeat obvious in her voice as she finally accepts that she will never be anything more than my apprentice. ‘I will respect your merati, and protect her and your children as I am bound by my oath as your apprentice to do. I will not mention my desires for you again.’

‘Good,’ I reply to her promises. ‘I see no reason to discuss this further.’

I leave her there, in the garden, on the ground, only pausing for a few seconds when I am out of her sight and hear the first sob escape from her. Perhaps I have been far too hard on her, but there is no point in going back or apologizing. All that would do is reinforce in her any lingering notions of my having romantic feelings for her.

Love is forbidden to a Sith for good reason, I remind myself, as I abandon her to work through her grief alone. This is a lesson I repeatedly tried to teach her, but she refused to learn it. Now, she will never forget it.

***

Ani’s still gone at bedtime, despite promising me he would be back early. I give up waiting for him, tuck the children in, read them a story, and watch over all three until they are sound asleep. Something must have happened to delay him. Hopefully it wasn’t the Emperor sending my husband off on another errand.

With a sigh, I slip out of the children’s bedroom. I had planned something special for tonight, but it seems that I will have to cancel that or do it alone instead. After a moment’s hesitation, I make my decision.

‘Arfour,’ I quietly call Mikal’s droid over.

He responds by rolling to where I am standing and letting out a soft whistle.

‘I am going up to the observation deck to watch the fireworks,’ I tell him, ‘so would you please keep an eye on the children and call me if any of them wake up?’

A few beeps let me know he will do this, so I pat his dome in thanks. Having him act as a babysitter is a back-up precaution on my part. I will sense through the Force if they stir or get into mischief.

It will probably be a bit cooler where I intend to be than inside, so I grab my cloak, wrap it around myself, and start for the door. Partway there, I stop, turn around and return to my bedroom. If I am up there by myself, I am going to take something to listen to. Rummaging about produces the data chip with some of the pop music I had transferred over from my cds ages ago. Ani hates most of the modern stuff, but he hasn’t heard everything I have.

As I exit into the room with Ani’s meditation pod, I nod at the two Noghri who are guarding the door. They will let their comrades know I have left and two more from my security detail will trail after me once I step into the adjacent hallway. The only place I am truly alone anymore is in the Sith Lord’s private quarters. My husband has made sure I will be safe whenever I am not by his side, even in his castle. I suspect he is worried Palpatine might try to grab me.

The ride in the turbolift to the observation deck is mercifully fast. My bodyguards who came up with me quietly fade into the shadows. Rather than go anywhere near the transparisteel separating the castle from the outside air, I drop myself into one of the comfortable chairs I had sent up here and stare towards the Imperial Palace. There’s a comm panel in the table between the chairs, so push the chip into the reader and set it to random play.

***

I finally make my escape from the palace and rush home. Maia expected me to return several hours ago, but two security incidents and a report of rebel activity had to be dealt with first.

She isn’t in our quarters, I soon discover, when I find our bed empty and peer in at our children who are sleeping soundly, guarded by Arfour. Rather than ask the droid or Noghri where she is, I reach out with the Force to locate my wife. I soon detect her presence up on the roof. That’s strange, I think with a frown. Given her fear of heights, why is she up there? No doubt Maia is up to some sort of mischief or has a surprise planned for me, I decide as I go to see exactly what she is doing.

I stop a floor before the one I need and opt to finish my journey using the stairs. My wife won’t hear me arrive that way, and I will be able to sneak up on her. The Noghri who followed her quickly spot me, but I silence and wave them away with a gesture. They retreat, using the same route I did, giving Maia and I some privacy. After they are gone, I silently watch her push herself out of the chair and stare out at the horizon. The music she was listening to finishes and another song begins, one I haven’t heard before.

‘You ask me if I love you and I choke on my reply. I’d rather hurt you honestly than mislead you with a lie...’

The lyrics prompt me to start thinking. How true those words are in describing my once divided heart and inability to tell Maia what she deserved to hear from me. I have grown past the point where I need to hide what I feel and can be completely honest with my wife.

I carefully, stealthily approach Maia, using the Force to dampen the sound of my breathing. She won’t appreciate my scaring her, so when I am an arm’s length away, I gradually allow her to hear me. Her reaction is the one I expect. My wife turns around and steps into my open arms.

‘Romance and all its strategy leaves me battling with my pride, but through the insecurity some tenderness survives...’

Pride.

I still have far too much of that for my own good. And what has it cost me in the past? Friends. Family. The man I once was. Much of what was important to me. Pride goes before a fall, I admit wryly to myself. My foolish arrogance has led to much of my own misery.

‘At times I’d like to break you and drive you to your knees. At times I’d like to break through and hold you endlessly...’

I’ve already done that, I realize. Broke her, drove her to her knees, and almost lost her as a result. Instinctively, I pull Maia in closer to my chest. There is no way I will ever allow myself to do that again, nor will I ever risk losing her.

‘And sometimes when we touch, the honesty’s too much, and I have to close my eyes and hide. I wanna hold you til I die ‘til we both break down and cry. I wanna hold you till the fear in me subsides.’

Hold her? Once, that’s all she asked of me, and I willingly obliged. It’s strange how that one simple, compassionate gesture on my part has led us to where we are now. The music fades away as I lift my hand to her face and brush her cheek with my fingers.

Fireworks start to light up the sky.

Maia looks at me and says nothing. She doesn’t need to. The love I feel from her tells me everything.

As for death... I have no fear of that any longer.

I know what the next year will bring.



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