Finis Valorum shook his head and rubbed his wife’s back. Once again the conspirators sat in Padme’s living room, Anakin turning off the protocol droid as a security measure.
“I’m sorry he hurt you, Darling, but perhaps it can be clear to you now what you’re truly up against.” He sighed heavily and shook his head. “If I’d had any idea that that was how it was for you with him, for eight years…My first wife always said she thought there was something between you, but the two of you were so reserved in public I never believed it.”
“Finis, stop,” said Sereine. “I knew how Palpatine was. If I was unhappy, I wouldn’t have been there.”
“If you knew how Palpatine was, he never would have become Chancellor! He wouldn’t have been in a position to be!”
“I don’t mean that,” she protested. “I knew how he was in his personal relationships. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t understand all, and that there were mysteries about him that bothered me. But it’s all coming together and making sense now. All the pieces are beginning to fit where they never did before.”
“How could you spend eight years with a person you say you knew was like this?” said Anakin. “How could you even spend one?”
“Well, if he had ever spoken to me that way then, of course I wouldn’t have stood for it. And he never did. It’s different now, because now I see why he’s doing it. I know you think I’m destroyed over it, Kinschem, but I’m not. As soon as I understood it, there was no point.”
“Then you can see how foolish this is, Sereine,” said Finis. “The man is a monster, you know that now. I don’t care what he tells you about his past. A great many Jedi have returned to the Capitol. Surely you both can agree with me now that turning him over to them is the only thing to do.”
Anakin shifted uneasily. “There’s one thing that hasn’t changed since the end of the war,” he said. “And neither has my position on it.”
“What do you intend to do?” challenged Valorum. “Use him and then turn on him? Palpatine must anticipate just such an action! Surely you can see that!”
Anakin gave them a stubborn lift of his chin. “I’ll deal with that when it comes.”
Valorum’s steel blue eyes flashed. “I’m sure Count Dooku once said the very same.”
They stared one another down.
Anakin didn’t know what to think, or believe, or say. Common sense whispered that Valorum was right; Anakin’s friendship with Palpatine seemed blown away by the Chancellor’s closing statements last night. If he could do that to Sereine, he could do it to anyone. He was probably just as contemptuous of Anakin as he was of her. Somewhere that wound still smarted, but Anakin tried to ignore it. All that mattered was Padme-and he had to either find an argument convincing enough to sway Valorum, or find some way to lock him in a closet for the next month.
“Finis, stop it,” Sereine said, sounding exhausted. “Why are you doing this? This isn’t playschool, and we aren’t six years old.
“Everyone always tries to boil things down as simply as possible, whether it bears any resemblance to actual truth or not. Either it’s this way, or it’s that way. Either he’s all good, or he’s all bad. Can you not get your minds around the possibility that he’s both?
“Palpatine is a Sith lord, and he’s a vulnerable human being. Palpatine loved Plagueis, and he used him.
“Palpatine tried to protect me, and he struck out at me. He was good to me, and he tried to hurt me. He believes in personal freedom for this galaxy’s Jedi, and he’s trying to subjugate them. He wants to do what he’s doing for others, and he’s doing it for himself. He believes we’re all valuable beings, and he believes some of us are inferior. He can love, and he hates. He’s been good to you, Anakin, and he’s done terrible things.
Palpatine is evil, and,” she finished, locking gazes with first her husband, then Anakin, “and he is a gravely damaged human being.
“I know we’d all feel better if we could look only at the first parts of all that, and pretend the rest doesn’t exist. I know that we could block out the good parts of him, Anakin, that you and I both know are there. It’d make him easy to kill.
“We could look at only the good, and pretend the bad doesn’t exist, if we wanted. And he’d cut us down in a heartbeat, and the rest of the Jedi with us. Or we could look at only the bad. We might save the Jedi from him, if we did that, but we’d murder something we knew deserved more from us. And we’d always know it. I’d always know it.”
“Don’t romanticize the Sith, Sereine,” said Valorum. “I know perhaps there’s a need to justify such close involvement with one, but don’t make that mistake. He is heartless and deadly…and that’s the end of it.”
“He can be heartless and deadly, and often is,” she corrected. “And !”
“Sereine. Stop this.”
But Lady Valorum was only gathering steam. “I always did tell Palpatine he was magnificent, and I believed it. And I still do. Now we’re seeing him at his worst, but I have also seen him at his best!” She locked eyes with Anakin. “And I’ll bet you have, too.
“I know what he can be! And maybe it isn’t even just him-what if it’s all the Sith? Think about it. This tiny cloister of wise, powerful, capable, scholarly, brilliant, wild beings-and they killed themselves! What we’re seeing here-this is the last one, and if he doesn’t stop, he’s going to kill himself.
“A sect of beings so brilliant and powerful that when they self-destruct, they take the Jedi and all of us with them-don’t they need help more than anyone? If we helped these people to see what they’re doing-what kind of a Republic would we live in?”
Anakin found himself mesmerized by the power of her words. He leaned forward, caught up in her vision of the Sith-
Until Finis Valorum answered her with a smooth yet steely rejoinder. “One in which there would still be murderously cruel Force-users attempting to use us for their own ends…and there would still be idealists like you willing to allow it.”
His wife drew herself up tall with steely determination and met him look for look.
“No more of this, Sereine,” said Valorum. “I intend to go to the Jedi myself.”
And he stood up.
“If you walk out there you’ll be shot on sight,” said Sereine. “You don’t think Palpatine has every clone trooper in the Capitol looking for you? And after you’re dead, it will be short work to take care of Anakin and me.”
“I don’t think so,” Valorum said slowly. “If he wants to start another war, all he needs is someone to tell the Jedi. It doesn’t matter who obliges him. He may even welcome it if I told them.”
“Even if you lived to reach the Jedi Temple…do you really want another war?” said Sereine.
“I’m not going to let you go to the Jedi, sir,” Anakin said. “I’ve told you that.”
“Are you going to kill me, then? Are you going to kill me in front of her?” Valorum glanced at his wife.
Sereine cut in and answered for Anakin. “No,” she said. “But the Jedi might kill me, in front of Palpatine.”
Valorum blinked. “What are you talking about?”
“The Jedi. When they come to kill him,” said Sereine. “If you do this, someone is going to have to stand between Palpatine and the Jedi and try to explain to them what they might be getting themselves into. That person is going to be me. If the Jedi are reasonable, that’s one thing, but if they aren’t, they will have to go through me before they kill him.”
Finis stared at her.
“I’ll sleep outside his door if I have to, Finis. Try me and see.”
“Are you that devoted to him?”
“I’m that devoted to the idea that no one else gets killed here.”
They stared at one another.
“Just you step outside that door.” Sereine pointed at the entrance.
Valorum crossed quickly to Padme’s little fountain to look out over her veranda. And Anakin felt it again-that same torrent of emotion that had hit him the night he met them. Only now he knew the Valorums, and every nuance was clear to him. The despair, the betrayal, a reeling sense of free-fall. The thoughts, agonizingly clear: She would never do this for me. She’ll do it for him, but she would never do it for me. How can she do this to me? How can this be happening to me again? And, pulsing under them, a conviction that was only a dark emotion. It formed itself readily into a thought in Anakin’s mind, but would never dare to do so in the former Chancellor’s.
He thinks it’s his fault. He thinks he isn’t good enough for her…
And Anakin’s heart broke for him, because he knew what it was like to be judged and found wanting…and he knew beyond words exactly how Valorum felt.
He wished he could say, “But, sir, that isn’t true at all!” But he watched Sereine on his left, unable to read the look on her face, and realized, But I don’t know that. I think so, I hope so…but I don’t know that.
He had to stop himself from writhing in embarrassment. These were eminent dignitaries and he shouldn’t be privy to this at all. He remembered when former Chancellor and Lady Valorum were just figures in the holomedia whom everyone saw once every other year or so and remembered with varying degrees of fondness or scorn, and wished he could escape to that view of them again. This whole thing, all of Valorum’s emotions surrounding this stank of the dark side. Why am I so attuned to this all of a sudden?
Seated where he was, he could see a movement Sereine couldn’t see-Valorum surreptitiously wiping his eyes. And then he heard his thought: Fine, let her kill herself.
When the Chancellor turned around he avoided his wife’s eyes, speaking to Anakin instead. “He can’t really save Senator Amidala anyway, you know. The very idea that a Sith-someone dedicated to the destruction of all we hold dear-could succeed in preserving life is preposterous!”
“We don’t know that,” said Sereine. “We know he’s lived through some medical catastrophes-but we don’t know how.”
Valorum avoided looking at her, and the atmosphere in the room made Anakin’s stomach knot.
“I should talk to him about that,” Anakin said finally, trying to break the tension. “It’s a two-way negotiation. Not only does he have the right to choose or not to choose me as an apprentice, but I have every right to choose whether or not I want him as a master.”
Sereine beamed at him, completely ignoring Valorum. “That is a terrific way to look at it, Anakin. And I hope you remember that when you talk to him.”
Valorum looked at her then, speaking with a terseness that voiced his rage. Sereine didn’t seem to hear it; Anakin couldn’t miss it.
“What I want to know, my wife, is what you plan to do. Turn him from the dark side? You can’t even touch the Force!”
“I don’t know what I thought before,” she said. “But now that I understand him finally…”
“Yes?” Valorum’s eyes glinted at her like those of a panther ready to pounce.
“All the time I worked with him,” she explained, “he’d do things that didn’t make sense. He could negotiate brilliantly with people like Orn Free Taa over bills fifty pages long, but he didn’t have the social finesse to understand things like kind white lies. I had to teach him a lot. I used to wonder if he’d been raised by wild animals. It’s like I told you the other morning, Anakin. He can leave me fifteen years ago with no explanation, but attack me that morning as if I had betrayed him by marrying Finis. I could go on and on with instances like this.
“I used to be mystified. I’d keep track of it all: ‘Well, I have to remember that he can’t do this well, and I’m going to have to prep him extra carefully before he goes there…Now it’s clear. It wasn’t a hundred tiny problems, it was one huge problem underlying everything. It’s all one thing. One thing Palpatine doesn’t understand!”
“You said that before,” said Anakin.
“What?” snapped Valorum. “What doesn’t he understand?”
Sereine got up and crossed the room to him. She reached up and laid one hand tenderly along his cheek.
“This,” she said. “He doesn’t understand this.”
Anakin heard her voice break. He could not see her face, but he could see the change in Valorum’s expression as he looked down at her. His black brows rushed suddenly down over eyes that gleamed like a predator’s; his face flushed like Palpatine’s.
Sereine seemed not to see. In a moment she settled back beside Anakin.
Valorum’s tone frightened Anakin. “You still haven’t answered my question, my dear.”
“What we do,” said Sereine, wiping her own eyes, “is just like driving a preeka.” She turned to Anakin. “You wouldn’t know about that, would you?
“A preeka is a mid-sized meat animal that looks like a Gomorrean. They’re farm-raised, and when you need to move them from place to place on the farm, you use a big board with a hole cut in it for your hand. Every time the preeka tries to go someplace you don’t want it to go, you put the board down in front of it and block it. And in this way you drive it where you do want it to go.
“That’s what we’re going to have to do with Palpatine. We headed off a war, but we had to give him an extra year in office to do it. Now we’ve got to ride out that year-and he’s going to run fighting the entire time, trying to slip around us and start this second Clone War that we think- that we know-he wants.
“We don’t want to hurt him, we don’t cause any more damage than we have to, but we do have to anticipate him. And every time we see him go in a direction we don’t want, down comes our board, and we block him, like we just did this week. Eventually he runs out of options or he runs out of time…and we gently ease him from office. We gently shepherd him out.”
Valorum made a loud snort at the mention of gently shepherding Palpatine anywhere.
“It’s the only thing that will work,” said Sereine. “The only way Palpatine stops aggressing is when he feels safe. If we do this any more directly, he’ll act more directly in a way that will blindside us, and there’s another war. This way, he feels safer longer…towards this time next year longer, and hopefully we’ve managed to defang him enough by then that he has no choice but to gracefully leave office. Then he doesn’t command an army anymore, and we should be okay.”
“We’re going to drive him further into the dark side that way,” said Anakin. “He’s going to hate us.”
“He already hates me,” said Sereine, “but he needs you. You’re the namana fruit dangling in front of the preeka’s nose. You’re one of the reasons he feels safe right now.”
“Sereine, you are insane,” said Valorum. “With all of Palpatine’s secret allies, secret funding, hidden infrastructure? How can we possibly hope to anticipate everything he does?”
“We’ve done a good job of it so far. And Palpatine is in a weaker position than he’s been in for quite some time. If what Anakin has told me about the Force is true, I can search his office on a regular basis if I need to. I can listen in on his communications. I can even follow him if I have to. He doesn’t have Dooku anymore, and no easy access to his minions in the Trade Federation. Plus, we can guess his broad objectives, even if he doesn’t trust Anakin enough to tell him. Don’t sell us short, here, Finis. You yourself had him down cold practically the instant Anakin told us. If we’re smart, we can anticipate him. I already have some good ideas about where to start.”
“If we make a mistake-”
“If we make a mistake, the Jedi are our backup. I don’t want to tell them, and start a war they could lose. But if we make a mistake, they’re our last resort.”
“Our first resort,” said Finis. “What we should have done in the first place!”
“A million clones to ten thousand Jedi?” Anakin shot back at the former Chancellor. Then he caught himself and put his head in his hands for a moment. “Eight thousand Jedi,” he said weakly. “You can’t think that would work!”
“Is there no way we can get the Jedi to help us?” said Valorum. “Are you sure they’d attack him? Perhaps if they could be approached in the right way-?”
Anakin thought. “Well, I am their liason with Palpatine,” he said. “I am supposed to be looking for clues to the identity of the Sith lord. I could-”
A slow smile spread itself across his face. “I could do just what they want me to do. Go crawling in on my belly, all contrite, wide-eyed, and innocent, and just ask the question. Start a discussion. ‘But, Masters,’” he said in a high, mincing, childlike little voice. “‘What should I do if I find out who it is?’”
“No, no-” Sereine corrected. “Don’t say that. They’ll just say, ‘Come back and tell us.’”
Anakin frowned. “Master Windu will say, ‘Just come back and tell us.’”
“Right. So you go all awed and goo-goo-eyed on them during a Council meeting, and you say, ‘But, Masters, if I find him, what will you do? You go all little and pipsqueak, you’re the poor know-nothing learner, and they’re the all-powerful masters. Get them to discuss it in front of you. Don’t contribute, just listen. That’s what I was going to do with Palpatine before Grievous was killed, about Amidala and her petition. Take his temperature on the issue first, and then I’d know best how to advise the committee to present themselves.”
Anakin had to laugh. “They’re gonna love this! ‘Finally, young Skywalker has learned his place!’” But he felt Valorum’s eyes boring into them.
“Let them talk, but don’t do anything. And above all, don’t say anything that might imply that there’s any larger reason than idle curiosity prompting you to ask. Come back to us and we’ll discuss it. If we think we can share the secret safely, we will.” Sereine looked up at her husband. “Does that make you happy?”
Finis wore a mask of anger. He said nothing.
“Happier?” said Sereine, frowning. “What?”
Valorum stared at her for a long, cold moment. “I think I need a while before I discuss this any further,” he said.
“Well, darling…” said Sereine in polite confusion. “All right.”
It was agreed that they would see Palpatine again the following evening, specifically for Anakin to talk about Padme. In the meantime, he would report the general feeling in the Council chamber regarding the ultimate fate of the remaining Sith lord.
Valorum retreated into Padme’s guest room almost before they had finished. Sereine glanced worriedly after him, but rose to follow Anakin out just the same.
Anakin stopped her, and gestured after her husband. “You should go talk to him,” he whispered. He really didn’t feel comfortable intervening any more than that.
“I can’t. Palpatine will be back from his lunch meeting. I do have a job now, too, you know.”
“He has to know you were here.”
“Not today. Senator Amidala is in a ‘private meeting’ with her petition cronies and you can bet that’s not on the record anywhere. I have a black rain cloak just like hers and I wore it today and used it to cover up my hair. Hopefully whoever’s watching the apartment thought it was her, especially since you’re here.”
“Nonetheless,” said Anakin, “you should talk to him.”
“It’s going to have to wait,” said Sereine, and swept into the foyer. “Are you coming?”
Anakin felt the roiling black tide from the general direction of the guest room and his spirit quailed. He knew this was going to be trouble.
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