Midnight in the Garden
Two evenings later Anakin contacted the Chancellor at home, in secret. He was no longer sure what he wanted or where he stood, but before he could begin to decide, there was something he had to know.
“May I come over sometime soon and talk to you? I’m sorry to invite myself to your home, but I…I don’t want Sereine to know.”
“Anakin, of course. Of course you may.”
Anakin hadn’t entered the Chancellor’s private apartments since he was nine. Perhaps Palpatine had feared that any private visits to his home would have been more than the uneasy Jedi could allow.
He had changed it very little from the wall-to-wall crimson that Anakin remembered. A few more statues. Plusher, more comfortable furniture.
“All this red,” said Anakin. “Red at home, red at your office. Don’t you ever get tired of red?”
“Red is the color of passion, Anakin. The color of life’s and heart’s blood…the color of the soul.”
Palpatine led him into his sitting room. Lined on both sides by soaring skyline views, it glowed like a red jewel in a case of midnight velvet. Anakin felt the Sith master’s consciousness brush the edges of his own as the older man waved him to a chair and settled himself on a couch opposite him.
Palpatine didn’t bother with pleasantries. “I sense you need something from me. What is it, Anakin? A question to ask me?”
Anakin nodded. He forced himself to meet the Sith lord’s gaze and hold it. “Please don’t lie to me about this. I’m not going to let my wife and baby die, even if — even if — “ He had to stop. “Even if your answer to this question isn’t one I want to hear.”
A light glowed in Palpatine’s eyes that disturbed him — an eager, waiting look.
“Is it — “ Anakin began, and started over.
“The Jedi believe that the power of the dark side takes over a Jedi’s mind. That it starts to control a person. That when you use the dark side, it possesses you — and you become someone else.”
Palpatine leaned forward, his gaze intense.
“When I — if I — if I do as you ask, will I — “ His voice caught. He couldn’t hold that look, and stopped, lowered his eyes, and swallowed.
He looked back up at Palpatine. “Will I still be me?”
The intense, hungry look softened into a thoughtful one. Then Palpatine furrowed his brow in consternation. “Anakin, what have the Jedi taught you? Surely you knew that all this teaching of ‘sides,’ of different aspects of the Force, is all only a metaphor. There were never two aspects of the Force. Only two aspects of the nature of man.”
The Jedi speak of the ‘will of the Force,’” his mentor scoffed. “As if it were a person who can somehow get into you and take you over. The Force is not a person, Anakin. It is created in part by people, but it is not a person. And the Jedi teach you that, too, don’t they?”
“So there you are,” Palpatine shrugged. “They are as confused as they’ve made you. Anakin, the Force moves at our command, not the other way around. That may not provide much of an excuse for the Jedi who wishes to say, ‘The Dark Side made me do it,’ but there is a wonderful aspect to that.”
“It means that you are in control. It puts you at total choice.”
That sounded good, but it wasn’t quite what Anakin really needed to know. The questions tumbled over one another.
“If I — if I become your apprentice, will I still love Padme? Will she still love me? Can you be a Sith, and still have love in your life at all?”
The low light had darkened the Sith’s ice blue eyes to sapphire. They darted toward the window with a quick furrowing of the brow as Palpatine answered. “Well, it’s been done. What writings those masters who tried it have left us, I’m afraid I haven’t perused at much length. Darth Avarice and Lord Sage managed it, for some twenty years. Theirs was a tempestuous affair, from what I’ve been given to understand.”
“Was your relationship tempestuous?” Anakin ventured. “Yours with Sereine, I mean.”
Palpatine’s eyes snapped angrily back to him. “I’m not answering questions of a personal nature tonight.”
Anakin lowered his eyes, and they sat in silence for a moment.
Finally Palpatine said, “I think that the eventual rupture of our…arrangement…had more to do with timing than anything else. Although I will say that you may need to edit some of the facts of your life for your beloved, if she is anywhere near as stubborn as Sereiné.” Anakin heard that extra syllable again.
A ghost of a smile crossed Palpatine’s lips, and Anakin took the moment to ask. “Why do you call her that?”
Two wheaten-silver brows rose in surprise. “Why, she’s from Naboo, of course. It is only her name.” Palpatine paused and shook his head slightly. “A pity that she’s Force-blind. She would have made a formidable Sith.”
Anakin reflected on her latest displays of love and devotion to the master, and thought, I don’t think so.
Palpatine got up suddenly, put his hands behind his back, and stood looking down at Anakin with something like apprehension mixed with pity. “Anakin,” he said in a fatherly tone, “whether you elect to become my apprentice or not, allow me to caution you about this addiction of yours.”
Anakin’s eyes snapped up to him. “Addiction?”
“Don’t think I don’t know how you feel. The Universe is darkness, but there are only few places that have never seen light. What no one realizes, while they’re being seduced by these lovely, warm, weak feelings” — Palpatine turned and began to pace — “is that they are ephemeral.”
He turned at the far end of the room and paused for a moment before resuming his walk. “Light is delicate, and gone in a moment. It can’t be made to last any longer than starshine. And one should never, never trust it.”
Anakin’s mouth fell open. Before he could gather his thoughts into a coherent rebuttal, Palpatine continued.
“The other side, Anakin, is like the Singers of ancient myth. The song is indeed beautiful, but it only lures one to one’s death.”
“Palpatine — !” Anakin burst out. No matter how Sereine urged him to use the name, it still felt wrong. “Sir…”
Palpatine spun to face him. “Think about it. Think of all the times that shining spectre promised, but didn’t deliver. How many times have you sat in my office with your head in your hands, telling me how you’d been wounded? By the Council? By Mace Windu? By Obi-Wan? By — “ Palpatine waved a hand and spat the name — “Master Yoda? Aren’t these people supposed to care about you? They did until you got there, until they had you, and then all that sweetness and light was gone, wasn’t it?”
“But — “
Anakin sat, gaping, because he knew he couldn’t argue. Palpatine had him there. But then he thought of something.
“Sereine says you’re going to do the same thing. She says you’re all sweetness and light until you have me, and then you’re going to be just like them.”
Palpatine stopped pacing and turned back to him. “And she’s correct. She is. I will do what I must to make you a strong and capable Sith, Anakin. But I will not lie to you about it.
“The Jedi like to scoff at us and tell you that our way is easier, as if calling us ‘lazy’ would pull you back to their false path. But I am here to tell you that it is not. Becoming a Sith master, a proper master, impervious and invincible, has been a hundred times harder than I ever imagined. I believe that in some cases, a semblance of what you want may be had, but it is going to be damned difficult, and more dependent on the vagaries of fate than I think you’re going to prefer. And that is the truth, young one. You may aspire, but you may not achieve.”
A kind of despair overtook Anakin. “But…but…if there’s no love to be had here, and no love there, then…” He looked helplessly up at Palpatine. “Then there’s no love anywhere, if you’re born a Force-user. It never works! It doesn’t exist at all!”
Palpatine’s voice dropped to a tender murmur and then a whisper. “Exactly!” he said. “Exactly. Now you understand.”
“But…but if there is no love, no light at all, then why do we still want it?”
Palpatine ruffled his long black robe about his neck, as if he were cold. “The wisest among us don’t. But, I must confess that I don’t know. Some cruel quirk of fate, of genetics, perhaps? But that is the universe we live in, my friend. I know you trust your beautiful bride, but only because she hasn’t wounded you yet. She will one day, Anakin. She will.”
This was insane. Anakin fixed Palpatine’s eyes with his own and said, “As you will?”
“Not if I can help it.”
With a sigh the master Sith turned and resumed his pacing. He looked little and old. “You want my assurance that I won’t force you from your precious Padme, as the Jedi have done. And you have it.” He stopped again, and his eyes met Anakin’s. “No Sith will make you renounce anything, but know that too much play with the other side is not recommended. It weakens you, and it is ultimately painful.”
He came back and settled onto his couch, regarding his pupil with a regretful sigh. “All the advice in Coruscant never replaces the learning.” He shook his head. “Every Sith experiences this lesson sooner or later, and comes to the same conclusion. I’d give anything to spare you from discovering this the hard way, child, but I can see that you’re going to rush headlong into it no matter what I tell you. If you must, then you do so with my blessing, and my fondest wishes for your happiness…as well as my gravest warning.
“You are indeed passionate — it’s what makes you so perfect. But you will find, as the rest of us have, that those good feelings you call light are only an illusion.”
Anakin fought the impulse to say, But if you’re selfish and deceitful and you hurt people, then of course they’ve got to turn away. Palpatine wouldn’t have listened now. Maybe another time.
He left the Chancellor’s apartment intending to go straight to Sereine’s and tell her what he’d heard. Sereine, you won’t believe this one…
But as he walked in the direction of 300 Republica, he realized that he didn’t have to pull her from bed at half past midnight. “He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand.” She had said it several times.
She already knew.
Anakin sat alone in his room in the Jedi Temple, trying to think. How sad, how utterly, unbearably sad that Palpatine could stand in his living room and say those things, believing in every word, while less than half a click away a being who had loved him for twenty-two years surely paced her room, plotting, scheming, struggling with all her wits to save him from a Force she couldn’t even feel. If Palpatine could only have been different, what kind of life could they have led? What kind of Chancellery could Palpatine’s have been?
Anakin tried to imagine living the way Palpatine must. He pictured Padme, her long dark curls framing her velvet eyes, coming to the door to meet her husband every night, and felt so very lucky. What if, every time that beautiful girl put her arms around him and turned her face up to kiss him, all he could see was sickness and self-interest? And he knew, despite what Palpatine had said, that although Obi-Wan had been hurtful many times, it was not out of malice.
Mentally he retraced his life, place by place, year by year, the trials he had been through, the people who had helped. He remembered his mother’s musical voice, her soft hands, her kind dark eyes. Kitster, who had befriended him. Master Qui-Gon, who had believed in him. Master Yoda. Obi-Wan. Yes, there had been frustration, but there was love, too.
And Padme. Spirited, brave, loving, passionate, beautiful Padme.
Anakin revisited them all in his mind. Favorite days, precious times, remembering each and every moment of love he could recall. And as he did so, a funny thing happened. All the difficulties, all the sadness seemed to melt away, and all he saw was love. A life of frustration and struggle suddenly became a life of poignant beauty.
He tried to imagine how it would feel to look back on the same love, and never, never see. Never know.
And Palpatine! Thirteen years of faith and encouragement. A soothing word when no other was to be found anywhere. To the Sith lord, nothing, but to Anakin —
Suddenly Anakin understood what drove Palpatine, and possibly every other Sith, from the very beginning of the order. With all the beauty and meaning stripped from their universe, only an endless blackness was left, one even the pinnacle of Galactic power could barely begin to fill. Without the people in Anakin’s life, what would his life have been?
All that time that he had imagined the Chancellor rich in wisdom and love, what had Palpatine’s life really been?
Tears filled Anakin’s eyes. Once what Sereine was saying had only been words. Now it meant something.
He knew he could never tell her what he now saw without breaking into tears before he got even a sentence out. He picked up a plastic printout flimsy and a stylus, and began to write.
Morning found him loitering outside her door, waiting for her to leave for work. When her door opened and she emerged, he held out the flimsy.”I have a mission now,” he said.
She took the flimsy, invited him in, and sat down to read it. When she finished it and looked up at him, her eyes were wet.
“I want him to know, too,” said Anakin. “Let that steer my course.”
“If you can hold to this,” she told him, shaking the flimsy for emphasis, “no matter what Palpatine does…it will be good enough. It will make you strong enough to forge your own way with him, as I do.” She swallowed. “They won’t like it. Not one little bit.”
Anakin thought about it. “What can they do?” he said. “Chancellor Valorum can’t even leave Padme’s. Padme won’t try to stop me. She’d tell the Council if she thought she absolutely had to…but she doesn’t want to betray my trust.”
“Understand that this may become the hardest thing you ever do,” cautioned Sereine. “Palpatine will do whatever he thinks he has to do…and look at what he’s thought he had to do already!”
“I know that,” said Anakin.
“This could feel very different to you in a few months.”
“I know that, too.”
“All right.” Sereine got up. “May I copy this? We’ll tell them tonight.”
As soon as she said that, Anakin knew what he had to do. “I don’t want to make you any later than you already are,” he said. “Same time tonight? Padme’s?”
“If I have to be late, I’ll let you know.”
Anakin ran the few blocks to borrow a small speeder.
“Get dressed, Padme. Get dressed.”
“Why? I couldn’t sleep, and I don’t have to be up for another hour.”
“We’re going someplace. Don’t ask questions. Just come!”
He helped her into the speeder and headed across town to the Jedi Temple. As they approached it, he could feel her relax. No doubt she thought he was going to turn Palpatine in.
Rather than to the topmost spire, however, he took her hand and guided her to the south end, to Temple Hospital.
She peered around them as marbled corridors and open classrooms gave way to beings hobbling the hallways in sleepwear and crutches and the odd piece of medical equipment parked here and there.
“Anakin,” said Padme, “where are we going?”
Anakin knocked and took her through a side entrance into a break room where the Healers rested and conducted rounds. Healer Bant was there, typing into a datapad and sipping a frothy green tea.
“Anakin!” she said. “What a pleasant surprise.”
“Good morning, Healer Bant,” said Anakin with a bow.
“I’d like you to meet my wife.”
“I have no excuse for my deception, my Masters. I’m trying to save my wife’s life, and I’m begging you for your help. I…I don’t matter here. Do what you like with me.”
Anakin’s head hurt, and his heart hurt, and his entire body felt numb.
“Master Kenobi. Know this, did you?”
“No! I knew — “ Obi-Wan had nearly choked. “I knew about their affair, but marriage? No!”
The way Obi-Wan had looked at him. And the way they had grilled him! Anakin felt violated. By the end of their grueling three-hour interrogation, all that was left were private details of his and Padme’s sex life — and Anakin half-expected the betrayed and furious Master Windu to start asking him those.
He had cuckolded none other than the great Jedi Order itself, and it was reacting very much like a woman scorned.
Padme had been sequestered from it all, undergoing a full day of medical evaluation in the Temple hospital. Anakin stared at himself in the mirror in a hall bathroom on his way to her room, and decided that he looked in no condition to see her. She would be overcome with concern, the way he looked, and he didn’t want her to know how bad this unpleasant process really was.
But oh, how he needed to talk to someone. He was avoiding Obi-Wan. There was a long talk coming between them — a long one — but he just wasn’t up to it tonight.
Any other time, Palpatine —
And then Anakin felt that loss anew, as raw as the night the war ended, and tears he had felt coming for the past hour finally reddened his eyes.
He splashed cold water on his face, dried himself, and checked his chrono.
Sereine would still be at work. He would go and pick her up and take her to Padme’s.
He reached out carefully in the Force, feeling for his wife. It was difficult with so many Force-sensitive beings so close about, but at last he perceived a much fainter sense several doors down.
One that was so full of joy and suspense, it could barely sit still.
Good, Anakin thought, then it won’t hurt her to wait until later on tonight.
He would come back and see her after he and Sereine had squared Chancellor Valorum.
Anakin never felt Palpatine as he passed the threshold into his offices, but tonight was different. There was something there, something like last night, only — it felt…it felt…
Anakin stopped to evaluate it. Sereine wasn’t at her desk, so she must be inside with him.
Palpatine felt very guarded. A lighter note in the Force told him the Chancellor was glad he had arrived. A pleased recognition, in fact, as if Palpatine had been looking for him. But beyond that, the Sith was closed, guarded. He wanted to know Anakin was there, but he didn’t want Anakin to know one thing more than he could manage to avoid showing him.
Anakin started carefully into the short corridor leading to the private office, Palpatine’s wall sculptures cavorting heedlessly over his head. As the room came into view, he saw Sereine standing with her back to him, doing something on the computer console that faced the window. Palpatine stood close, behind and to the side of her.
“What I’m saying is that you should consider this before you risk offending anyone in your State of the Republic address,” she was saying. “We’re still on the same side as far as that goes, you know that, and the Bothans are dependent on that technology.”
As Anakin watched, the Chancellor’s hand drifted up to press the small of her back. And then trailed smoothly, slowly down, following a gentle curve.
Anakin thought his eyes might fall out of their sockets.
“Don’t you have someone else for this kind of thing? You always did,” said Sereine.
“Be honest. I didn’t always.” Palpatine’s hand moved up to rest on her hip, his other hand caressed her other hip langorously up and down, and he sidestepped to press the front of his body against her back.
His low, lovely murmur tingled even Anakin’s spine. “Besides,” he purred, “when I did, you didn’t mind it a bit. You were very unusual, in that respect.”
Sereine snickered, then laughed.
She turned a little to look into Palpatine’s face, close enough to kiss. “Those were the days, weren’t they, Darling?” she said, and her tone was impossible to read. Then she neatly sidestepped and freed herself from Palpatine’s hands.
Anakin popped back around the corner and leaned against Palpatine’s wall art, prickling with embarrassment and concern.
What in blazes — ? And, should he say anything to anyone?
In the Force, the Chancellor disappeared, and suddenly the offices were empty.
- No, this isn’t behind the paywall.
More later …