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Sweet Cinnamon

by Red (redone@hot.ee)

Disclaimer: The characters of Vader, Emperor Palpatine, stormtroopers and other Star Wars stuff belong to George Lucas. I make no money out of it, I just have the fun.

Setting: before ANH

Warnings: some erotic tension, and a dark story.

Summary: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a young officer fell in love with a young girl who had a crush for Lord Darth Vader... Soon Lord Vader finds himself involved, much to his dismay, when the Emperor orders him to prove his loyalty by killing the girl.

Feedback welcomed at dzohhar@yahoo.com


Sweet Cinnamon


She had had a good day. Happily, she entered the apartment; although it was still early afternoon, the room was dim, as thick ruby curtains let through only a warm red glow from the natural yellow sunlight of the planet. She loved it that way. It made the room so cozy, and at the same time full of mysticism, secrets that she never knew but felt were there.

She stepped to the table and lit an incense stick. Wafts of fragrance permeated the room. It was the bark of a special variety of aromatic desert shrub, sweet mindalean (Mindalea deliciosa), commonly known as sweet cinnamon because of its scent, although not actually related to that evergreen bush. Originally the plant had been imported from the desert planet of Tatooine on the Outer Rim, but now it was also cultivated in other places in the Empire. The girls always used only this incense here — not that they really had agreed to do so, it had just come naturally, it seemed the right thing. It had a pleasant scent that lingered in the room and permeated her clothes and she loved it, although once or twice her mother had actually complained that she used too much perfume. Those mothers!

She peered out from behind the curtains. The streets were still full of people. She felt her heart pound heavy and fast in her chest when she thought about what had happened earlier that day. The imperial delegation had arrived to sign the Agreement. And He had been there. Thousands of people had stood in the streets where the convoy passed, shouting greetings (and obscenities) and waving hands. She had had a special task: she and a dozen other girls were to greet the representatives of the Empire with bouquets of flowers, as was the custom on the planet. She had stood behind the welcoming party of dignitaries at the entrance of the Palace of Congress that housed the planetary government, watching, sweaty hands clutching her bouquet, as He climbed out of the transport and strode past with an elegant sweep of his black cloak. He had acknowledged the welcome with a curt nod, gestured his aide to the flowers, and disappeared into the building, followed by a line of officers. The man to whom she was to give flowers — chairman of some Senatorial Committee whose name she never remembered — had actually given her a friendly smile and thanked, but it was as though he hadn't even existed. All her thoughts had already disappeared behind the double doors of the Palace with Him.

Afterwards, her heart still floating on the clouds of happiness (although her head told her to be a good girl and come down at once, but she wouldn't listen, she thought she could allow herself to indulge in ecstasy just this once), she had sat in a cafι with her friends, discussing the day's events, watching holonews and making plans for the future. They were planning to apply for some imperial service — preferably something that would keep them together as much as possible.

She unrolled a mattress and lied down with a contented sigh. Now she had some hours for herself. Yes, this was a long and beautiful day, and not ended yet. Her best friend Ana's pilot brother had a day off and was coming down on planet, so tonight they were planning to go to Pilots' Club. That should make the day just perfect.

Meanwhile, she stretched herself contentedly and allowed her dreams to wander. Today she imagined herself as a heroine, protecting the Dark Lord with her own body from a group of rebels who came to kill him. Afterwards he would thank her gallantly in his deep, rich voice, and she would kneel before him, and say, "My Lord, to serve you is my greatest pleasure." No. She remade the dream in her mind. She saw herself at the Palace again, at the moment of arrival of the delegation, and Him. She would see a mean-looking rebel in the crowd, aiming a blaster pistol at the Dark Lord. Nobody else would notice the assassin, and he would be about to pull the trigger... She would throw herself in the way of the deadly bolt, taking it straight into her chest, and fall down at His feet... She sighed at the sweet, erotic pleasure of self-sacrifice. Chaos would ensue, people running around, screaming, but there, around Him, would be a pool of calm like in the eye of the storm. He would bend down and touch her with his gloved hand, and she would feel the soft caress of His cape on her cheek, and He would be the last thing she would see.

She fell asleep.

* * * * * * * * *

Lieutenant Vend

I met her at a party. One of us pilots had got upgraded, with the accompanying raise in salary, and as it was, we happened to be sitting over his homeworld, so he brought us to this place. Although it may as well have been any other damn place in this galaxy — the same old faces, the same colorless uniforms, a few girls, a few — too few — bottles of some nondescript beverage that boasted the name Vodka Imperial but tasted like bantha piss. Its only justification for existence was that a reasonable amount could get you reasonably drunk in no time, but apparently the Empire had considered it suitable to economize on off-duty activities of its Navy the Glorious-Victorious.

A worthy end to another drab day in imperial service.

Until I saw her.

I do not know what was so different about her, what made me notice her in the first place. She was no extraordinary beauty, but pretty enough to brighten me up, and I thought, well boy, here's your luck.

I walked over to where she stood and noticed that her glass was empty, so I offered to bring her something. Well, fruit juice — there was hardly anything else left by that time. Filling her glass, I noticed a glimmer of light on her chest. She wore a small badge. It appeared to be a crimson-and-black object, which at first sight I thought to be a type of Corellian freighter. "May I?" I leaned closer to take a better look. What I saw was a crimson V with an all too familiar black mask in it.

"So," I said, to strike up a conversation, "you are wearing the Dark Lord's face."

"Yes. A pretty design, isn't it?"

"Uhmm." I took another look. "An unexpected choice for a pretty girl, perhaps. But well made. I'd rather you'd wear my face, though." I flashed a smile.

She laughed back. "Whatever for?"

"I'd be much better to look at." And tried my best grin on her once again.

She obviously enjoyed this kind of game. "Indeed. Maybe I'll have to change the badge." She gave me a rather playfully contemptuous glance and continued: "You have none of his stature, though."

"And none of his irresistible cloak." — The Sith's cloak was the subject of innumerable jokes in the galaxy.

"Yes, that too." She eyed me, clearly not deceived by my civil suit. I guess nearly everybody round here was military, with the whole fleet sitting up there and half of the boys hanging around in town. "You're a pilot?"

"You could say so, yes. By the way, my name's Vend."

"I'm Mariam." And her eyes shimmered.

Perhaps it was the glow of her eyes that attracted me. She had the most extraordinary eyes I had ever seen – velvety dark green, with golden flecks that seemed to lighten up when she was excited. We danced — or should I say swayed with the crowd. We had to be cheek to cheek to hear each other talking, and her hair had a scent of cinnamon. We danced until it was too hot and I saw small pearls of perspiration on her upper lip. Then we stood at a transparisteel window, looking at the city night, and I held her close and she felt warm in my arms. We drank this damn juice again, pretending it was the best and most expensive old wine from Alderaan, I held her gaze over the rim of my glass and I thought I was really, really happy. Then we danced again. We danced each other into oblivion.

Before I even noticed, it was past midnight. The last shuttle to my ship was gone. No problem, though. The Devastator sat on the orbit, with another week to go before the official business on the planet would be over, and so the officers gave the crew freely permission to go down on the planet to have fun. Some regular transport was even provided. A real holiday. I knew I could take the early morning shuttle and still report at my post in time.

I offered to walk her home. I put an arm around her shoulders, feeling her bittersweet cinnamon scent tickling my nostrils, set a leisurely pace and found myself wishing she lived on the other side of the planet.

"So tell me," I whispered.

"About what?"

"About yourself."

She shrugged. "There's nothing to tell."

"Oh really," I stopped on what was a kind of terrace with some potted plants and a wonderful view over the lower parts of the city. We stood there at the railing. I smiled ran my finger across her chest and grazed it over something hard and sharp-edged. The badge, of course. "So tell me about...this. Wait, let me guess. Vanity? Surely not—" I smiled knowingly, "and you'd never admit it. So what is it? Protest? Vader's Youth Strike Commando or Young Sith League or something?"

I had meant it as a sort of joke, and she smiled when she said, "Almost. This is political self-expression."

"Aww," I groaned. "Here I am with a beautiful girl, on a beautiful terrace in a beautiful night, and she speaks about politics. OK, tell me about your politics."

She turned to look in my face and flashed a smile that was shamelessly ironical. "Somehow I don't think that's what you want to ask."

"Oh never mind my wanting or not wanting. Nobody ever asks a poor pilot what he wants. Just tell me about my boss." Well, that was an overstatement, although not exactly a lie. But at the moment I was trying to make an impression. So I volunteered: "I serve on his flagship, you know." Well, she was impressed. "But mind you," I added with a grin, "he hears everything you say through his black magic, and if he doesn't like it, he'll put a dreadful spell on you."

She laughed, and I felt a strand of her hair tickling my face... and that warm cinnamon. Yes, that was definitely a pleasant way to discuss politics or magic or anything. "Not you too. There's no such thing as black magic," she said.

My father had said something similar about the Sith. I knew they were acquainted, and my father seemed to respect him. However, I had never gotten to see what my father saw in him, as I was invariably banished from all official receptions in our home where I might have met him. I had actually been in the same room with him only once — on the Devastator — and that was exactly as much as I wanted. It had been an occasion that had ended with a serious—... lethal breathing disorder for an officer I knew.

I pulled away from her. "OK. Serious. Let's say I see the Emperor’s chief executive officer, who also happens to be a sorcerer. What do you see?"

We resumed our walk. She frowned in concentration, and finally exhaled deeply. "I see a great leader, a great statesman, a warrior. When I look at the world around me, what I see mostly is chaos, violence, rebellion. And there, in the midst of it, stands a man who fights to put an end to this. The only man who has proven himself capable to do so. I think the Empire, as it is today, is largely what Lord Vader makes it to be, in fact it stands upon Lord Vader. And I think Lord Vader is the greatest man alive."

What schoolbook crap.

"Well, he's big, for sure, but...?" I looked in her face. Gods, she was serious. I did not know what to say, so we walked in silence for a while.

"So, here we are," she said, stopping at a door. "Wanna come in?"

A familiar cinnamon scent greeted me at the door, only this time it was stronger. Mariam saw me inhale deeply and said, flicking on the lights, "It's incense. We burn in here."


"Me and my friends. It's not exactly home, it's... our lair. Meeting place. This is where we gather. My friends. You see," she brushed her hand over her badge, "I'm not the only one who thinks that way. Although I'm actually living here at the moment." She waved me into the living room. "Tea?"

I nodded and she went to the kitchen, while I looked around.

The room was not big, but not too small either. The lights were warm and soft. What I saw was enough to unnerve anybody.

Countless holos and pictures of the Dark Lord were placed around the room, including a life-size image that looked so real that it sent shivers down my spine. It stood with one arm stretched out and a gloved finger pointing. Towards me. Of course, I had seen Sith-infested places like this before. All schools and Imperial Academies had political education rooms — Sith corners or Sith shrines, we called them. These inevitably contained, among other stuff, some Vader holos, with slogans "For the greater glory of the Empire" or something in the spirit. But here. Sith hell, this was supposed to be a private place, not some official imperial church or something.

The shelves on the walls were packed with datapads and extracts from all kinds of sources: recorded news clips, quotations, reports, anything that was even remotely connected with Lord Vader; everything neatly arranged. I switched on the catalogue pad on the shelf and browsed through it: Dathomir insurrection; Deneb reports... Imperial Peace... Personal; Piagraine assassination attempt; Pics; Press releases... Statements...

I almost felt a nervous tingle, as if his eyes were on me. That day when I had seen him when he had... One of the creepy things had been that as we stood there at attention, he just pointed his hand. Captain Tondall had been right there beside us, among us. One of us. And he had been picked out by the Sith. You didn't see it coming, there was just the cold stare. Of course, Tondall had screwed up royally. But man, this was no honorable way. The military had blasters to settle scores, and tribunals to punish criminals. But his had been a vile sorcerer's way, a mean personal revenge. Afterwards he looked at me, as if wanting to, I don't know, put a black spell on me perhaps. And then, like nothing happened, a swish of his black cloak, and he was gone.

There was nothing to sit on except a huge armchair, which didn't really look inviting — among all these Vaders it had the air of being the Dark Lord's personal throne — and so I sank on a rolled-up mattress near the wall. Now I saw the same crimson V and Vader's mask again on the backside of the door. I could not keep my nervous eyes off the Vader poking his finger at me.

And this large holo was almost too much alive. Full life-size images were considered — well, disrespectful at worst. Distasteful in any case. Because some people might find it difficult to detach themselves emotionally from a very life-like image, or so I was brought up to believe. Not that people did not have them, but they were hardly ever displayed so openly. But then again, I had to remind myself, this was hardly an open display. It was a private place. Oh hell, such a private place...

Mariam arrived from the kitchen with two steaming cups. She looked at me. "You are disturbed, I should have known. I shouldn't have brought you here. I'm sorry..."

I took a cup from her and caught her now-free hand to pull her beside me. "Mariam, please, let's not think about him tonight. He's not worth it. He's a murderer, a damn sorcerer."

"That's wrong!" she cried fervently. "They say so out of envy."

"He kills people. He destroys what others have built."

"It's because they have earned it. They have killed before him, they threaten the peace."

"No, Mariam; because they have been less than perfect." I winced as I recalled the chilling sound of someone struggling for breath just a few steps from me. "Or because they believe differently. But gods, that's not the reason why you should kill them!"

"How do you teach people if they would not listen? How do you ensure peace when the only authority they would recognize is violence?" She shook her head. "Oh, Vend, how can it be that you've been so close to him and still not seen what he is? What he stands for? How... how beautiful it all is? It's an honor to serve him, an honor that, somehow, you have earned but cannot appreciate."

"Mariam," I whispered. I regretted I had started this discussion at all, because it obviously was her favorite topic, and I berated myself for having gone along with it. I should have known better. Don't give me that propaganda, I wanted to say. You're madly in love. How else can you let yourself be brainwashed into something like that? What do you see in him, beyond his magnificent black figure and his power? Don't you see a machine, a monster, the Emperor's murder weapon? How can you close your eyes to what is happening around you?

This blind love of yours, what is it and where will it take you? What does it make you?

And where does it put me?

I felt I was drifting dangerously close to the world of the Sith Lord. It was so unnatural. You're wrong, Mariam, I sighed in my mind. You're so beautiful, and you're so, so wrong.

But I saw I had already cut deeper than I had intended to. Somehow, I felt, she had believed I would share her passion, or at least approve. Or at the very least understand. It hurt her; but it hurt me as well, to see all her thoughts, her dreams, her love so utterly misplaced.

So I only said, "Mariam. Mariam, you're so beautiful. You don't know how beautiful you are." We rose. I brushed her cheek with the back of my hand. She wanted to say something, but I pulled her close and put a finger on her lips.

"Hush. No more."

* * *

The bar aboard the Devastator was pleasantly populated, but not overcrowded, as was usual at this hour. I had had a beer or two, my head buzzed, and I began to feel better about the affair of the previous night.

Someone slapped me on the shoulder and I turned to see Rayder and Zhoma, my friends and frequent companions. Behind them were some other familiar faces.

"You seem to have had a busy night," they winked at me. "Didn't seem to catch the last shuttle. Had some luck?"

They sat and ordered beer. "So. Tell us about her. Which one was she? The tall blonde?"

I shook my head. "No, she's brown-haired..." I took another swig. "And you won't believe it. Of all the girls on the planet, I landed on one who had a crush for... ya know..." I pointed with my chin upwards, towards the ship's bridge.

Rayder shrugged. "The Admiral?"

"The Sith," I whispered.

They gaped. "What..." Zhoma snorted. "His Sithship!" Heads turned in anticipation. This was a word that always commanded attention, especially when it held a promise of another anecdote or two — some were always circulating up here. You have to have some sort of revenge for the added stress of his presence while on duty, after all. And I was going to have my personal revenge on him for taking away my girl's heart.

"No kidding. I had to tell her I'm buddies with him before she even considered taking me in. And she had this life-size Sith..."

"What? In her bedroom? I wonder what that was for..." a deck officer behind me guffawed and bought me another beer. The idea seemed too funny, I couldn't bring myself to correct him. I told them about her Sith-worship — that's what friends are for, aren't they, to tell them what troubles you? Her Sith-altar and Sith-library and Sith-badge. We had lots of fun, and I laughed until my cheeks hurt.

Zhoma waved a finger at me. He pointed dramatically and bellowed: "I excommunicate you for the sin of letting yourself be worshipped on my throne..." I grabbed by throat and shrieked, evoking another bout of merriment.

"So that's what playing Sith means," someone quipped.

"Did you borrow his cloak for the occasion?"

Another said, "On the other hand, our Vend here seems to have some obvious advantages. I just wonder how do they imagine..." and he made a very expressive gesture. We all roared again, Zhoma spewing his beer all over the table.

As the talk drifted to other usual subjects, I suddenly felt Lieutenant Rayder's eyes on me. He shifted carefully out of the circle. I got up and followed him. He stepped out into the hall and looked around us cautiously.

He saw me follow and threw me a hurt and angry glance. "With that big poodoo-hole you call mouth," he whispered, "you'll be in shit soon, and so will we, all because of you."

Instantly, my head cleared. A chill settled in my stomach. That was not what I had wanted!

* * * * * * * * *

Darth Vader

Lord Vader was furious.

He was still kneeling before the holoscreen where Emperor Palpatine's face had just flicked out.

Was that a bad joke? He, Vader, risking his head because of some fools? He being sent to deal with them, as if the lowest stormtrooper wouldn't be enough? "See to it, Lord Vader, that I shall hear no more of this," the Emperor had said. "I will not tolerate rebellion." Well, neither would he. He was not one to be ridiculed or toyed with. However, he did not fail to see the humor. An unsatiated female, probably hardly out of her puberty, and a drunken fool causing the Emperor a headache. A rebellion indeed! A herd of rutting banthas are as much a rebellion as this. The idiots! Their mothers should be whipped for not raising their brats properly.

Cursing mentally, he got up. He would have to put off a few of his plans to deal with this affair. But it needed to be dealt with. No doubts should the Emperor have of his loyalty, never, none whatsoever, he just wouldn't allow it. And although he could question the Emperor's means — which he in fact in this case considered absolutely out of proportion — Palpatine was right in that the situation could be potentially dangerous. When you are Emperor, you cannot allow your subjects publicly profess loyalty to others beside yourself. Especially if this other happens to be your heir apparent to the throne, and thus, in a way, your rival.

Yet, he found Palpatine's bloodlust disturbing. On the one hand, of course, it was a weakness, and thus a potential ally for the Dark Lord in his goals; actually he observed signs of it growing stronger with each passing month with a hunger and secret triumph. On the other hand, he saw that Palpatine was powerful enough to bring down the whole Galaxy before his death, and that was not what he wanted. Besides, the Dark Lord had a taste for art and stylishness, and he revolted at the vulgarity of senseless destruction and purposeless murder: a waste of beauty, a waste of lesson, a waste of effort. A waste of Force. He, Vader, should correct the situation. And he would, soon enough.

He stepped into his pod and hit the summons button. Immediately a stormtrooper appeared: "My Lord?"

* * *

The talkative, by now long sobered-up Lieutenant who had been the source of the commotion was not difficult to identify and find. He was cooperative enough, Vader decided after their private talk. Lord Vader could not help being amused at the idea of having a personal "shrine". But the Dark Lord could not forget, or forgive, that the man had failed to report duly, and that as a result (and evidently as a result of having some Palpatine's spies aboard — inevitable, of course, but nevertheless insulting), he had learned about the whole incident from the Emperor. A course of events that he should not have allowed, and a very unpleasant way to get informed, to be sure. He could not afford another such mistake.

Of course, he had recognized the younger man at once. The spoiled son (Force, why do they plague the Navy with such overeducated prigs?) of an Alderaani political figure, Daevas Vend, a respectable man whom Vader had met once or twice — in fact he had enjoyed these meetings. Lieutenant Noorem Vend was reportedly an excellent pilot, his record as squad commander was immaculate, but his frame of mind was definitely unsuitable for military service.

Young Vend had been at this... accident. Vader still felt a flash of anger when he remembered the incident, caused by sheer irresponsibility, inefficiency and carelessness, things that he never tolerated; but the whole affair had been made political, and thus he had been forced to admit publicly that it had been an accident.

One that cost him four men.

Not that much, one might argue — there certainly were those who said so, pointing out that Lord Vader's own actions more often than not had lead to more deaths. Yet, there were these four talented, loyal men, schooled and trained by the Empire to serve, picked specially for Vader's flagship for their skills — my men, he said to himself, who had fallen victim to a criminal failure of an officer to perform his duties. Not to mention a handful of craft and equipment that had been reduced to a pile of twisted steel and wires. Including two experimental fighters. The officer concerned had paid for his failure, of course — he would have, anyway, but Vader had seen fit to take care of it personally.

'This will not happen again, my Lord.' — 'Indeed it will not, Captain.'

It was then, before he turned away, that he noticed the stare young Vend gave him. Horror, disgust, pain of disillusionment. You'd better learn, young man, he had thought. The young man apparently hadn't been able to learn the lesson.

He gave another look at the hapless young Lieutenant who tried to retain what dignity he had.

"Lieutenant, take a platoon of stormtroopers. Have my shuttle prepared."

"Yes, my Lord."

See to it, the Emperor had said. He would, personally. A Death Star's laser against a handful of misguided womprats.

He signaled for his aide, who was hovering somewhere nearby as always. "I shall go planetside. I expect to be back in four hours; reschedule the meeting with the Chief of Government."

"Yes, my Lord."

"I will not require your services. Lieutenant Vend will escort me."

"As you wish, my Lord."

* * *

Finally he found himself in an ill-lit corridor of a large nondescript apartment block. Not one of the best, but not exactly slum either. Absolutely neutral, impersonal, anonymous. The escorting stormtroopers with a Sergeant were lined behind him, their weapons ready.

He could sense a presence behind the door, but it was asleep. A trooper moved forward to open the door; he stepped aside, watching the efficient movements of white-armored black-gloved hands. He stood at the door for a moment, taking in the dimly lit room. The fragrance. Ah yes, sweet mindalean, the cinnamon of Tatooine.

He stepped back, gesturing Sergeant in, then followed, Lieutenant Vend trailing closely behind him.

She stood on her bedroom door, sleep-muddled and confused. "What's going on here? Who are you?"

Then she noticed his huge, unmoving black shadow. A distinct sound of mechanical breathing filled the room. Her eyes went wide and she groped on the wall for the switch. Vader sent a small brush of the Force, and lights went up.

"Lord Va..." she gasped. Then: "This is a private apartment. Unless you have a search order, I must ask you to leave."

Vader admired silently the ease with which she had reined back all shock, fear, surprise. She was young, as he had suspected — barely out of school probably, idealistic and full of fire, as they are at this age. She stood in the doorway, leaning at the wall for strength and assurance, yet with her chin proudly lifted. Vader actually smiled behind his mask. She was brave indeed to address him like that, although she hadn't quite been able to hide the tremor in her voice or dared to look directly into his mask — she had found a convenient place to rest her glance on his breast-plate. Brave to the point of insolence. Commanding him, the second most powerful man in the Galaxy, to leave. Am I not order enough? He watched as Sergeant stepped to her, barking that she was arrested, grabbing her under her arm, so that she almost stumbled.

She blanched, her shocked eyes traveled from one intruder to another, looking for explanation, for help. "What does it mean? I haven't done anything...Vend?"

Before she could say anything more, the trooper started to move towards the door with her.

"Wait." Lord Vader raised a hand. He had been gauging her reactions through the Force. An intriguing specimen. Force-blind, yet... there was something. Suddenly he wanted to take a closer look. "I have some questions to this person. Lieutenant, Sergeant — wait outside. Now, would you sit down, young lady."

Sergeant looked at him nervously, and exited quickly. Vader sensed a hot rush of fear and anger from young Vend: Force, he's not going to... the filthy bastard! Irritated, he turned. "What is it, Lieutenant?"

The other man paled under his stare. A ragged "Nothing, my Lord," and the door closed behind them.

Vader turned back to the girl — she still stood there, shivering. "I told you to sit down," he snapped. She just dropped on a rolled-up mattress. Darth Vader reached out with his senses, feeling for any hidden cameras or listening devices. Not finding any, he set up a Force-wall around them, preventing any unwelcome ears, especially those of the eager Sergeant and jealous Lieutenant, from seeing or hearing what was going on.

"I've been informed that you have accomplices. Who, it would seem, were luckier than you, not being here at the moment. Now, I want the names and addresses of your friends," Vader commanded.

She only shook her head and whispered, "Please don't hurt me."

"I will," Vader said flatly, "unless you co-operate. Believe me, young lady, the latter would make things much easier for both of us."

She paled even more, if that was possible. "No, Your Excellency. I couldn't..."

Vader felt a surge of rage. "Couldn't what? Betray your so-called friends?" He stepped closer, looming now over the crumpled figure of the girl. "So loyal, so true, so honorable, are we? Yet, for all this professed devotion—" he made a sweeping gesture and spat out the words venomously, "you deliberately put me in a position where my honor is compromised! Are you implying that I am less honorable or less loyal than you?"

The girl pressed hands to her mouth in sudden realization, then fell to her knees, sobbing. "No! I'm sorry... I didn't mean to... I'm so sorry..."

Lord Vader stared at her, unmoving. She pressed a handkerchief to her mouth to muffle her sobs. Vader turned away and waited, suppressing his own anger. Why would he bother with her?

After some time, when there was silence in the other corner of the room, he turned. The girl had straightened up into a kneeling position, hands clutched together so hard that her knuckles were white. He saw her scrape together what strength and courage she had left.

And suddenly there it was again — just at the moment before she regained control, there had been a flash of something. Once again it had eluded him, but it definitely was there.

"Shall we be sensible now?"

* * *

He watched, as the girl was taken out between two stormtroopers. Then he threw one last glance at the bizarre collection of his own images, and gestured the remaining stormtroopers in. "I want it all annihilated. Nothing must remain in here." He swept out, a very pale Lieutenant half running at his heels.

* * * * * * * * *

Lieutenant Vend

I wished I had the courage to draw my blaster. Just to make a hole into that damn black cape, as he strode before me.

At least Mariam was alive, and had seemed unharmed. Well, relatively. She had cried, clearly, but there was no visible evidence of physical violence. Yet she seemed suspiciously calm — almost deadly calm, which made me more than nervous. What had the Sith told her? What had he done to her? She gave me a look — was it pity that I saw in her green eyes? — before lowering her glance, as they took her away.

So I was alone with the Sith. An unusual situation, from what I knew. There were always a handful of aides, officers, and some stormtrooper guards around the Sith, because he was a very valuable asset for the Empire. I didn't know why he had dismissed all stormtroopers — must have been a whim. He was known as a very capricious, unpredictable person, giving frequent headaches to those who had to guarantee his safety and well-being. Well, I could have freed them from their headaches forever. I could have shot the Sith here and now, and nothing would have stopped me.

The greatest man alive...The man whom my love loves.

I couldn't do it. For Mariam, for myself, I just couldn't.

I climbed into my seat, feeling dizzy. Gods I wished I could undo what I had done. At first I had hoped that they would question her and then let go: she had done nothing wrong. She had collected the Sith's images, she had collected official material about him, she had declared, in fact in a more sensible and reserved manner than an average girl of her age, that she thought highly of him. Everybody has had a crush for a holovid star or pop idol sometime in adolescence. But adolescent foolishness was no crime in this Galaxy! Mariam had fallen for the Sith — but was that any different in essence?

Yet my heart was heavy. The whole affair had grown too big for such a trivial thing, even ridiculously big. I couldn't imagine what it was that had brought the Sith down here in person, but here he was — and this could only mean that it was a business of top-level importance. A probable death sentence, but torture for sure, from what I knew. And it was I who had brought it all upon Mariam.

There must have been some mistake. I must have misheard. I must have misunderstood.

Or was the Sith — once again I remembered Tondall — after another purposeless cruelty, just to satisfy his vile lust for blood and pain?

"An unfortunate business."

I almost jumped. His black mask was staring at me impassively. Had he said something?

"P-pardon me, my Lord?"

"I said I hope your father is well."

"Oh. Yes, thank you, my Lord." I tried desperately to clear my mind. I was not sure that was what I had originally heard, or whether I had heard anything at all — perhaps it was just the wheeze of his respirator. With effort I kept my eyes on the tips of my boots, pressing my hands deep in my pockets, and felt an oblong object. A box of Mariam's incense sticks. I had rescued it from the destruction — no, let's face the facts, I just stole it. I didn't know for sure why — I had never stolen anything before. Suddenly my hands felt filthy.

His eyeshields gave me a long, hard stare. "Good," he rumbled.

Good. My world had fallen to pieces, and he said good. I was a thief, a — a — grass, a murderer, a slime. Good.

Mariam would die, good.

* * *

I had almost made up my mind as to my goal, although I had not yet decided the means to get there.

Back on the Devastator, I had a quick lunch at the officers' cantina. Then I chatted with my friends. Then I took a shift on duty: two hours in my craft, ready to fly out at first notice. Then some regular maintenance work. Funny, how small things acquire a different meaning, a unique clarity. Then I went to a message center and made a quick call to my parents.

Poor Father. I wondered what they would tell him. They had told Tondall's family that he'd been "killed in action". That was rather standard, although occasionally other reasons of death were given. Well, I thought, they'll think of something.

It's ridiculously easy to smile and small-talk when you know where you stand. No, Father, I'm okay, really. It's just that I did two shifts and haven't got much sleep...

Back in my room, I threw myself into a chair, and fished out the incense box. A familiar bittery-sweet smell greeted me, bringing back memories of how we had stood on the terrace, her hair tickling my face. I lit a stick, watching as the smoke danced and whirled slowly, languidly. Sweet cinnamon. Sweet, sweet Mariam, what have I done to you. You may well despise me now. For a moment I thought of a small bottle of whiskey that I kept in my closet, but then decided against it — too much alcohol had been the reason of my disgrace.

I stared at the blank wall. So, what will it be? Blaster?

There's always the alternative of joining the rebellion. Not that there was much difference, considering the rate at which we... at which Imperials brought down rebel pilots. But at least I could give my little contribution to harry this cursed Sith, and perhaps redeem myself in my own eyes. No, I was filthy beyond redemption. And Mariam, sweet Mariam of Cinnamon Clouds wouldn't approve.

Blaster, then?

The irony of life. I was a TIE pilot, which was suicide itself — so why bother? Force willing, and with a little help from myself, I would be comfortably dead in the next battle. But a blaster would be a more honorable way — it would be a message, a testament, while being simply blown to atoms would be interpreted that you were a lousy pilot, and nothing more.

Gods, what was I thinking — I had no honor left.

So what would it be?

* * * * * * * * *

Darth Vader

Darth Vader pushed the latest report aside and fingered commands to have his breath mask and helmet replaced on him, contemplating his next moves.

The Emperor was furious at the little game his Sith Lord had been playing, letting most of the girls run free. Palpatine had lost a round, and he wanted retaliation. He wanted Mariam dead. Then dead she would be. But the rest would live, for a while at least. Vader had given them a chance. Mariam had given them a chance.

What an extraordinary girl. After her silly outburst she had been quite composed and reasonable. He actually liked her, he had to admit that much to himself. He had enjoyed talking to her, exploring her mind. She loved him, in a way. It was ridiculous, of course, and should have been infuriating, but instead he felt oddly flattered. Rare were beings in the Galaxy who in those days felt anything beyond fear or abhorrence towards the Dark Lord. Yet here was one — like a gift to him. I'm getting old, came a fleeting thought.

He was disconcerted at the contradicting feelings she aroused in him, and he was not pleased. In fact, it made him angry. Yes, he liked her, but that was that. To like someone was to be fettered, to be limited, it was a weakness, it was for losers. He was beyond letting this liking restrain or stop him.

She was nothing. A beautiful nothing.

What a waste. A mind like his, and so loyal. Which reminded him again that he was the last of his kind. After becoming Emperor, he should find and train another one. Even now he was keeping his eyes open. She would never be his apprentice, even if she would live, but she could have eased his loneliness... Curse her, why had she been in a wrong place at a wrong moment! She would pay for this.

And then there would be the matter of young Vend...

* * *

Guards snapped to attention when they saw the notoriously familiar huge black figure approaching, then sank back to ease after he entered the cell.

The girl was crouching on the bunk, but stood up as soon as she saw him.

"Lord Vader."

Vader nodded in acknowledgement. She had definitely changed — she was bolder, calmer. And a heavy sense of finality hung about her: acceptance of death, he realized. No fear. And this curious flash, a sense of touching minds that had intrigued him in the first place, shone out like a beacon.

She looked at his black figure, as motionless as he, waiting for him to begin. Finally, seeing that no questions were forthcoming, her head drooped. You came to me, her mind whispered. But aloud she said:

"I know why you're here."

"And why would that be?" he responded coolly. Yes, he thought back.

"To... end it."

"That's the Emperor's orders," he informed her, "but first, you will be interrogated."

Mariam raised her head and looked at him — this time directly into his eyeshields.

"You cannot let this happen, my Lord. I might reveal what I gave you down there." I'm afraid of pain.

"You forget yourself," he snapped, giving a proper measure of sharpness to his voice; yet smiled, for once thankful for his hideous but conveniently inscrutable mask. This child was trying his own tactics on him! If he hadn't known better, he would have thought that she read him. With proper training, what an agent she would have made! Lady Mariam, Vader's hand. Damn you, Palpatine!

Unfazed, knowing the truth, the girl sat down on the bunk, facing him. She made a perfect gesture of a hostess, inviting him to sit down, as if she were some noble lady and the cell her parlor.

On a whim, he accepted the invitation. The bunk was much too small and low for him.

"You get rid of the only witness of your... treason," she whispered. "Or am I the only one? Well, anyway, my life is all I can offer you."

"I do not make bargains. And I have no use whatsoever for your life," he pointed out.

"Yes, my Lord."

What makes you so eager to die now? He wondered.

The girl's green eyes never moved from his mask. You, my Lord, or some nameless, faceless imperial? The choice is so easy.

He got up, standing over her in his full black-clad height.

She watched every movement, every ripple, memorized every play of light on his shiny armor. She was tense, on the verge of white-hot ecstasy, which made her body shudder; yet her mind was like a tight leash holding her under control, responding coolly.

Then Vader suddenly got hold of that which had eluded him before, a revelation that she gave him. A powerful source of energy, a sweet, invigorating, heady feeling, not mere loyalty or understanding, not even lust or longing, but a tremendous surge of all that, and more, in a unique, blissful combination. Something that belonged to the light side, yet blended magnificently with darkside emotions, not repelling them, but drawing them, merging into a new whole. Light and dark, in a combination, in a perfect balance. A new power. A new love.

He basked in it, he drank it in like a thirsty man in desert suddenly finding a clear fresh spring. Suddenly he felt new strength in himself, new hopes, and he knew he was not as lonely as he thought he had been for long years.

Indeed, this Force-blind, insignificant slip of a girl had given him an invaluable gift. He accepted it gratefully and cherished it.

And there was no other way. He checked the chrono — the guards were getting nervous, he could feel that. It was time. He hated what he had to do, more than ever before.

Then she reached out her hands, palms upward. Don't torture me by making me wait.

Yes, my Lady.

He moved to kneel down before her, so he could look directly in her face. "You will feel no pain."

"Thank you," she mouthed, her gaze locked on him in a desperate grip.

"Close your eyes. Concentrate on your breathing. Empty your mind — it will be easier, if you imagine white light. Just tremendous, powerful white light above you."

Lord Vader reached out with his hand, caressing her cheek. She leaned closer to his touch. Yes, it is as it must be. The last thing I will feel is His touch.

He guided her deeper and deeper into meditation. For endless moments... the Force just flowed. Smooth, silent, limitless.

"Go in peace," he whispered.

* * * * * * * * *


Daevas Vend's house was in mourning: his only son had been killed in action. There was a memorial service, no funeral of course, as there was nothing to bury. The usual fate of pilots. There were many, too many areas in the space where memorial beacons beeped to passing ships that they were flying through the dust of fallen men...

The family only received a formal message, accompanied by a letter of condolences from Lord Vader, saying that Lt. Noorem Vend had served well and honorably, etc., etc., and a box with his things. Among the late Lieutenant's personal belongings his father found a handful of incense sticks and a badge displaying the Dark Lord's mask in the crimson frame of the letter V. He wondered briefly where the badge had come from, and then locked it together with other items in a drawer in the room that had been his son's.


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