Midnight in the Garden
(Actually, this is Chapter Five, because of the prologue being chapter one.)
Anakin approached Sly Moore, leaving Sereine loitering around the back of Palpatine’s sumptuous reception room, datapad in hand.
“He’s expecting you,” said the administrative aide. She cast a baleful eye on Sereine. “Not her.”
“She’s coming with me,” said Anakin, waving a hand and touching her mind with the Force. Sly stared blankly and Sereine followed Anakin in.
Palpatine wasn’t in his spacious outer office. Anakin led the way down the short corridor to his smaller one, searching for the Chancellor in the Force. The way ahead felt as blank as the way behind — and that was more disconcerting than anything.
Palpatine sat behind a small rolling desk stacked with several folders of printout flimsies, his back toward them, his attention on the computer consoles beneath his breathtaking view of the city. He turned his tall black chair to face them as they crossed the threshold — and rose to greet his Chosen One with a quick bow of his head.
“Anakin. I presume you’ve — “
And then he caught sight of Sereine, and his whole face went hard. The dark rings under his eyes stood out against his pale skin.
Steel sharpened the throaty voice to a fine edge. “What is this?”
Nausea pitted the bottom of Anakin’s stomach. The palm of Sereine’s hand pressed the small of his back as she moved to stand beside him.
“It’s a small adjustment in everyone’s plans. Anakin’s told me everything, Palpatine. I know.”
Palpatine’s blue eyes flickered over Anakin’s face with a twitch of his wheaten brows. Anakin could see the thought: You’re kidding. And then his eyes roamed to Anakin’s right, and one corner of his mouth crept up in a just-suppressed smile.
“Has he?” Palpatine said easily, and sat down. “Well, no doubt you’re disappointed, my dear. You do seem to prefer a different kind of man these days — if he can be called that. Angelic, ineffectual, and …” His smile played around a third word that hung in the air unspoken. “Now, if you’ll excuse us …” He moved to press the button on his comm.
“A moment,” said Anakin. “Your Excellency.” He only hoped he sounded more confident than he felt. Palpatine gave them a bored, impatient sigh and folded his hands on his desk.
“What you had to tell this young man last night was very interesting,” said Sereine, brimming with confidence. “We’ve been discussing it together.” Anakin felt her hand leave his back and watched her approach the desk with a sense of alarm. What part of Stay behind me the entire time did she not understand?
“There’s more than one person involved now, and we’ve come to a decision as to how we want to respond to this.” She stressed the word we slightly, and Anakin’s nausea rose along with that rogue corner of Palpatine’s mouth.
“Indeed?” said the Chancellor, highly amused.
“Indeed!” said Sereine, matching the humor in his tone and lacing it with some steel of her own. She turned to take Anakin into her glance.
“We’ve thought this over very carefully, and we have decided that we will not give you up, nor will we move against you.”
Her eyes flickered to Anakin’s, and he said the lines they had rehearsed, exactly as they had planned them. “But we will not join you, either.” Slight pause. “I will not join you, either.”
Lift the chin, look squarely into the eyes — “Not at this time.” Sixty percent of communication is nonverbal, Anakin.
Palpatine cut his eyes across at his ex-lover, who took up the baton. “In exchange for our silence, we want three things from you.”
Palpatine did not move. “Do you?” he purred, his expression unreadable.
“First,” said Sereine, “you dismiss Sly Moore and hire me in her place.”
Palpatine looked as if he might laugh in her face. He sat back, elbows on the chair, and said, “Done!” He sounded as if he might laugh in her face, too.
“Second. You’ve made this young man a very serious offer, and we want you to give him the time for the sort of serious contemplation it deserves.”
The amusement faded back to unreadable.
“Third. We require that you begin to govern responsibly.” Anakin’s eyes followed Sereine as she moved around the desk to stand over Palpatine’s shoulder. “You’re about to address the Senate in a couple of hours. This is the address you’re going to give.” She reached over Palpatine’s shoulder to deposit her datapad on his desk.
Anakin did not like the expression on the Chancellor’s face, but he couldn’t alter his own to flash Sereine the kind of look that said, Get back from there. Please.
Palpatine sat for a moment, then reached for the datapad. He began to scroll it down.
At one paragraph near the beginning he actually snorted with laughter.
“If you think I’m going to say this, you must be a fool,” he said, leaning back to point. Sereine leaned forward to look, and they glanced at each other for an instant with an ease and familiarity that told Anakin he was watching an old, old scene between them.
Sereine shrugged one shoulder. “It’s your choice,” she said, “but I think you owe the citizens of this Republic some apology for what you’ve done. No matter how obscurely it’s worded.”
Palpatine gave her a contemptuous smirk and continued to scroll down. He passed the first page break -
- and the dark side drew over his face. Anakin felt it in the room. Anakin put his hand on his lightsaber and sought Sereine’s eyes, but she stubbornly refused to look at him.
“Surrender the authority to end the state of emergency back to the Senate,” he read in a tone so low it didn’t even sound like him. Sereine recognized it, however, from the sardonic half-smile that crossed her lips.
“All but two hundred and fifty of my governors,” Palpatine continued. “Half of my emergency powers.”
“It really isn’t so bad,” Sereine cut in. “We’ve left you the ones we think you want the most, and we’ve left them the ones they’ll find the most reassuring. You can justify it on the grounds that there are still quite a few Separatist battalions left to mop up. It’s an excellent compromise.”
“I will not compromise,” Palpatine growled.
He scrolled past the second page break, skimming quickly through the rest of the document. “That much in aid to the Outer Rim territories.” He turned cold blue eyes to Sereine. “You had Finis write this. Didn’t you?”
It was her turn to almost laugh.
Palpatine sat back, both elbows on the chair arms, his tone deadly. “I will never agree to this.”
“I’d consider it if I were you. Because the Senate isn’t as well informed as we are, they think you’ve done a brilliant job running this war. Considering your recent tragedy, they’re prepared to be very reasonable, even the Senators who oppose you right now. All they want from you is some reassurance. You give them this, before they even ask for it, and they will eat from your hand. Palpatine — “ her voice dropped urgently. “You know I’m right!”
Palpatine sat there like a stone. “And if I refuse?”
Sereine met Anakin’s gaze from her post at Palpatine’s shoulder, and gave him an almost imperceptible nod of her head.
The coldness in the room roughened Anakin’s voice. He tried to keep it smooth and even.
“You break your side of the bargain, and we’re allowed to break ours,” he said.
He heard, rather than saw, Palpatine move. Sereine stepped reflexively back, and the next instant a crimson lightsaber hummed at her throat.
Anakin leaped forward toward the desk, his hand on his own lightsaber.
Something in Sereine’s eyes kept him from taking it off his belt. Every factor they had considered whirled through Anakin’s mind. Dooku, Grievous, the weak Nemoidian leadership, the end of the war, the four masters in the Temple, will he fight me? Can I take him? ‘Use my knowledge, I beg you -’
“I will not negotiate with you!” That otherworldly voice shook the very walls.
Sereine’s eyes pleaded with Anakin not to move. But if there was anything they had overlooked, if Palpatine had any asset they didn’t know about, she would be dead.
Anakin didn’t move. He couldn’t. He thought of Padme, of Valorum. He didn’t know what to do-
After an agonizing moment she spoke, steady and low. “If you were going to do it, you would have done it already. Do you mean business, Palpatine? Or are you just … venting?” Her eyes held Anakin’s, and she raised one russet eyebrow.
Call his bluff. He was supposed to call his bluff. But how — ?
Anakin thought over everything they had talked about, and took a deep breath. The hesitance he felt made his voice soft and earnest, but as he heard his own words, he knew it was just right.
“I’m not going to join you,” he said. But it wasn’t quite enough.
He tried again. “Palpatine …” it was the first time he had ever called the Chancellor solely by his name. “It doesn’t matter what you do.”
He took his hand off of his lightsaber.
For a second, time really did stop.
“You know this is no longer confined to this office,” said Sereine. “If anything happens to me, my husband will regret my loss enough to discuss it with the Jedi Council. You don’t know where he is. And I assure you we did put some thought into where we hid him before we came here. Perhaps you’ll find him in time. And perhaps you won’t.”
Anakin had a sudden thought. He added, “But I’m sure he’ll have the presence of mind to wait two or three days. So that he can discuss it with the entire Council. When they return.”
And then Palpatine’s whole manner changed. The lightsaber disappeared, and he turned almost gaily back to his desk. He had switched on another manner altogether, his shoulders straight, his posture lifted, his arms swinging lightly at his sides as he moved back to his chair. He lowered himself into it with a strange look at Anakin, full of an almost stubborn good humor.
“You’ll change your mind in due time. In about six weeks, I’m quite sure.” He folded his hands smugly on the polished desktop and met Anakin look for look.
Sereine stayed exactly where she was, cool and calm. “The baby’s not due for twelve,” she said.
Palpatine’s glance flickered from Anakin to Sereine and back again. He really did tell you everything.
“What information I have to share will take some time to be taught, understood, and properly augmented. It can’t be mastered in an evening.” His blue eyes met Anakin’s in an unspoken challenge.
And Anakin knew what to do. He planted both feet apart, drew himself up to his full height, and crossed his arms squarely over his chest. “Then I have six weeks to decide what I’ll do, don’t I?” It was his turn to be smug. “And you will give them to me.”
He watched as a slow red flush crept over Palpatine’s cheeks. Watched as the fine blue eyes grew steely and glittered like ice.
Sereine moved then, scurrying back behind Anakin’s shoulder, and it was over.
Palpatine moved to pick up the datapad. It quivered in his hand.
His body may have betrayed him, but his voice did not. Anakin was amazed at the nonchalance of his tone. It could have been any meeting, any day.
“This is what made Finis so impotent as Chancellor. The bleeding-heart tendencies notwithstanding, it makes much more sense to divert at least a third of this aid to Mid-Rim planets such as Nubia. With their industrial plants operating at full capacity, there will be supplies and materials for the Outer Rim territories which need to rebuild.”
Sereine pulled up a chair for herself and sat down, indicating with her eyes for Anakin to do the same. “You may make alterations to the last section as you see fit,” she said. “The transfer of authority to end the state of emergency is not negotiable. Neither is halving your emergency powers.”
“I object to this language near the end. I am not offering, implicitly or explicitly, to step down.”
“Fine. I’ll trade you thirty governors for it.”
He looked up at her peevishly. “I suppose you have suggestions as to how this should be delivered?”
“No.” She shrugged. “I thought you’d had enough for one night.” Palpatine slit his eyes at her and looked back at the datapad.
“However … since you asked …”
“I see your carefully worded apology is the first thing to be discarded.” Finis Valorum squinted at the holo of Palpatine coming live from the Senate floor, his mouth a taut line. They could speak openly in Senator Amidala’s living room, as the Senator herself was also on the floor. The holocams had cut to her just a moment ago, seated with Bail Organa and Jar Jar Binks in the Naboo car.
“A personal stab at me,” Sereine said, and her husband’s eyes shot her an unkind cut, as if to say, If you really believe that -
The rancor between them, especially from the former Chancellor, was almost palpable, making Anakin uncomfortable just being in the room.
“Let’s just wait,” Sereine said. “We know he’s flying blind now, or he’d never have started this speech at all. He knows we don’t want to hurt him. Let’s just see how much he’ll put himself in our hands, here.”
Sereine followed the speech intently, ticking point after point on her fingers, with a “Yes!” or an occasional “That’s it,” or a “Perfect!” when she heard a line delivered exactly as she had instructed. The looks Valorum gave her suggested that he had been subjected more than once to the same sort of pre-address lecture that Palpatine had received.
As the Chancellor neared the end of his speech, slowed by several rounds of applause, his former advisor gloated. “I’m afraid I didn’t share this with you gentlemen last night,” she said, “but as we worked on this, I was counting on one more thing. Let’s see if we get it.”
Palpatine delivered his last line, stepped back from the edge of the podium, and lowered his head in a humble bow. Such dignity touched the gesture that Anakin, tired as he was, could almost believe that the events of last night were nothing more than a dream.
“Don’t look up,” Sereine barked at the hologram. “Don’t look up!”
Palpatine didn’t look up.
As one, the entire body of the Senate rose and rewarded him with a standing ovation that went on and on. To Anakin’s right, Sereine made a little scream of glee.
Well, almost the entire Senate rose. Quickly the scene changed to the Naboo car, where Jar Jar Binks, while not applauding, stood up respectfully, glancing with a puzzled expression at his colleagues. Organa and Padme Amidala still sat, looking at each other, stunned frowns flitting across their faces. One by one, the other Senators whose names or voices Anakin had recognized during his eavesdropping session last night filled the screen, also seated, also frowning.
Then a lone pod car detached itself and floated to the Chancellor’s podium. Senator Horoxx Ryder.
Sereine reached over and grabbed Anakin’s hand. “Here we go,” she said. “Here we go …”
The holocams gave them a closeup of Palpatine, who raised his head finally. Slowly, not proudly, and just enough to see who had approached.
“Very nice,” said Sereine.
“My friends -” said Palpatine, with a little tremor in his voice that sounded just a bit too forced to Anakin.
Sereine said, “Ugh. Stop right there.”
Palpatine hesitated for a moment, wet his lips, seemed about to continue, then changed his mind. “We recognize the Senator from the sovereign system of Raioballo.”
“Thank you, Supreme Chancellor,” said Ryder. “On behalf of the entire Senate, on behalf of the entire Republic, I wish to offer you our heartfelt thanks for your faithful service these many, many years. When I think of your personal sacrifices on behalf of the citizens of this galaxy, it practically brings tears to my eyes.”
Valorum made a small, strangled sound.
“Which is why I regret so deeply to have to say what I am about to bring forward.”
“Here it comes,” said Sereine. “Anakin, this is going to embarrass the poodoo out of your wife. I thought about warning you last night. But Senator Amidala is a big girl with a stellar reputation. She should be able to take care of herself.”
“I have known for some time — and I am ashamed to say, I should have brought this forward sooner — about a certain group of Senators who seem to believe they are above the rule of law. Who are without any faith in this fine leadership. Who have been plotting to remove this Chancellor from office. I speak of a certain petition -” and Ryder went on to name every single person, minus the Valorums and Anakin, who had been present here last night.
Valorum turned to stare, hollow-eyed, at his wife. “How the hell could you know -?”
“You know I’ve been doing some writing and editing for Horoxx. He’s completely snowed about Palpatine, poor thing, thinks he’s a saint. He’s been grousing about doing this for weeks, every time I’ve gone over there. I thought this might give him the backbone -”
Valorum interrupted her with an exasperated snort.
“What in blazes -” began Anakin, adopting one of Obi-Wan’s favorite expressions. “Poor Padme!”
Ryder carried on in excruciating detail. The cams flashed to Padme and Organa, who sat stone-faced in the Naboo pod. Representative Binks stared at them, with his long snout literally falling open, adding poignancy to the little tableau.
Another closeup of Palpatine, who bowed his head again. “Not quite as hurt as I would like, but good enough,” Sereine commented. “And don’t you dare smile!”
Ryder wound up to his big finish. “In light of these terrible developments, the excellent service of our beloved Chancellor, and in recognition of the very good plan he has put forward for the reconstruction of our war-torn Republic, I propose that we extend his term of office, not to exceed one year from this date, so that he may be the one to oversee this plan, and to put it into action.”
Cries of “Hear! Hear!” gave way to cries of, “Vote now! Vote now!”
Valorum turned to his wife with an expression of equal parts fear and loathing.
Sereine shrugged. “It’s your plan, dear. Give or take a few minor points.”
When it was all over, Palpatine rode down from the Chancellor’s podium, secure in the knowledge that it was his for at least another year, and his ex-lover went mad, actually screaming and stomping her feet.
“We did it!” she cried, and convulsed with sudden laughter. “Oh, my Gods, I can’t believe we did that!”
Anakin stepped away from her, reflecting that, if there were any glasses present, they’d be in pieces on Padme’s expensive carpet. “I don’t understand,” he said.
“Now we’ve got something to work with!” Sereine crowed. “We have time to consider our next move.” She looked at her husband. “We have an insurance policy and some excellent advice, but more than anything, we’re going to start to get Palpatine’s confidence.
“We hijacked him into this, and he’s angry, but he knows he has to respect us. He just did!” she pointed out. “We’re worthy opponents now. But, beyond that, he knows we don’t want to hurt him. And he’s going to start to trust us. Now we’ve got a tiny island of choice, from which to work.”
Anakin showed her a puzzled frown. “But how is this going to help Padme? And the baby?” he said.
Former Chancellor Valorum gave his wife a savage look. “I’m afraid you’re terribly in the wrong, my wife,” he sighed. “All you’ve done — all you’ve done — is manage to capture a vornskyr by the tail.
“And now that you’ve got it,” he asked, “what are you going to do with it?”
- No, this isn’t behind the paywall.