He stood quietly as the aides attended to him, tying a sash, adjusting part of his cloak, placing the circlet on his head, or brushing dust off his shoulder. His face was neutral, as it almost always was when he wasn't on political assignment. Shadows covered his eyes, making them glow brightly with an intensity that could pierce into someone's soul, and yet these same eyes wouldn't care what they saw either way. He held himself erect, with as much dignity as his station required, but while it seemed like nothing more than the most casual gesture to him, as if he always held himself in such a manner, something about it seemed false.
Perhaps that was just because Tarkin himself knew that it was false.
"You look just like your mother," Tarkin remarked. Physically they bore little in common, but their manners were very alike. He was reminded strikingly of the last day he saw the woman alive.
The man being dressed did not move, but his eyes flickered in the mirror to stare at Tarkin's reflection. He seemed to ponder Tarkin's words for a short while and then he returned his gaze to himself. He said nothing.
Tarkin expected nothing different.
The aides finished their work and bowed in unison, backing to the door and then turning to leave. The man remained still, silently examining himself. Tarkin knew better than to reassure the man that he looked just as presentable as he always did; these actions the man was undergoing were rituals to him, and he would not have them interrupted.
After two minutes of examination, the man nodded approvingly and turned to face Tarkin. He looked handsome with his chiseled face and sinewy body. His dark blonde hair fell perfectly on his face, trimmed and proper while still holding a touch of youth to it. However, no one would ever find him endearing, for while he gave off the impression of being calm and attractive, he was also cold. Everything in his features, from his neutral stare to his icy blue eyes to his manner of speaking denoted distance between himself and whoever he was addressing. No one had ever gotten close to him, and no one undoubtedly ever would.
He walked towards the exit without saying a word to Tarkin. No words needed to be said, and he didn't say anything he didn't have to, so Tarkin simply followed three steps behind him as protocol dictated.
The two walked in silence through the ornately decorated hallway. Massive floor-to-ceiling windows were to their right while pottery and plants lined the left wall. Not a great deal of light was entering through the windows despite their size since the weather was bleak; although Imperial Center's weather was mostly controlled through technology, the planet always seemed to make more depressingly cloudy days than was allowed in the yearly meteorological calendar.
Anyone they passed stopped and bowed or curtseyed to the man and the officers saluted automatically. The man acknowledged no one, continuing to walk with purpose.
The two reached the end of the hall and took the stairs to the next level. After arriving at the end of the next corridor, they approached enormous double doors. The Red Guard was flanking the doors, and the two guards on duty only glanced at the man before immediately opening the doors, one announcing their presence to the occupant in the throne room.
"Darth Vader and Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin, sire."
The emperor waved the guard out dismissively, and Darth Vader genuflected. Tarkin did so as well, still remaining three steps behind the young Sith Lord.
"Master." This was the first word the young man had spoken all morning, but his voice was not dry nor did it crack from lack of use. The word was spoken with the same coldness as every other word he used, and yet Tarkin could always swear he heard some sort of emotion in it. Devotion, perhaps? Probably not. Tarkin had not known Darth Vader to be devoted to anything or anyone, even himself. The emotion was more likely loathing; from what Tarkin knew of Sith Lords, it was a common emotion that they felt, and so he suspected that somewhere underneath all of the man's cold, hardened, and neutral defenses was a fiery hatred for the man before him.
"You will accompany me to the Senate today, Lord Vader," the emperor ordered. Like Vader, there was no emotion in his voice, no hint of affection or concern for his own second-in-command. As Tarkin watched the two interact he felt his own mind numbing at the lack of emotion and humanity in the room.
He was used to it, though.
"Yes, my Master," Darth Vader answered immediately, bowing his head. He didn't argue with the emperor; he never argued.
When it was evident that there was nothing else the emperor wished to discuss with Vader, he rose and backed out of the room while Tarkin was beckoned forward.
"Lord Vader will be occupied for the foreseeable future," Emperor Palpatine informed Tarkin. "For the time being, you are in charge of all military matters, Grand Moff Tarkin."
Tarkin was tempted to quirk an eyebrow, but he knew better than to show any reaction to the emperor's orders. Immediately dozens of questions sprang into his mind. Why was Darth Vader going to be too occupied to oversee the military, which was his usual duty? What did Palpatine have planned for Vader and, more importantly, for Tarkin himself? Was this a test for either man, or for both? Where would Palpatine's attention lay? Despite these questions buzzing in his mind, Tarkin simply said, "Yes, Your Imperial Majesty."
With Tarkin's acknowledgement of the orders, the emperor dismissed him from the throne room.
Most Imperials would have tried listening at the door if they could, and Tarkin was sure Vader was aware that Palpatine's conversation with Tarkin concerned him as well, but Darth Vader was not in the hallway. He never would do such a thing. Tarkin had watched Vader grow over the years and believed he could safely boast that he knew Vader better than any other Imperial… including perhaps even the emperor. Vader was most likely in his quarters assuring that his appearance was appropriate for the Senate, and then he would no doubt go for his usual morning stroll. He always had to find time for it before noon, and if he did not, it threw off his schedule and his mood for the rest of the day.
Just to see if his hunch was correct, Tarkin walked down the stairs to Vader's room and saw him dressing more comfortably for a long day at the Senate whilst still retaining the dignity of the ensemble. His expression was still blank, but his eyes were lit up with thousands of thoughts going through his mind as he prepared for the day. Tarkin had no doubt that Vader, just as Tarkin had in the throne room, was pondering why he was going to the Senate and what Palpatine was planning. However, that was as far as Tarkin could read; no one knew what really went on in the dark recesses of the young Sith Lord's mind.
Darth Vader did not notice Tarkin's scrutiny, or if he did, he didn't acknowledge it. Instead, he walked off to some corner of his quarters where he could continue to prepare for whatever task Palpatine wished of him. Tarkin should be doing likewise and he knew it, so he departed.
She stood quietly as a handmaiden gave her a data pad that had the agenda for the day. After the handmaiden departed, she examined the pad, scrolling through its contents and frowning.
"What is it?"
She looked up at him and sighed. "The first thing the Senate will be debating upon is whether or not it should raise taxes to cover the funding going to the military."
Obi-Wan Naberrie sighed in return. "No doubt the emperor will decide that matter for you."
"No doubt indeed," she replied.
"Padmé, try not to make a huge deal about it," Padmé's handmaiden, Siri Naberrie hastily said. "You've attracted enough attention. I still remember the look Palpatine gave you after your speech during yesterday's session."
"It had to be said," Padmé argued defiantly. "No one was protesting what the emperor was suggesting."
"That's because they want to stay alive," Obi-Wan stressed.
Padmé sighed tiredly, and Obi-Wan suddenly felt tired too. It wasn't even ten on the chronometer; how could they all be so exhausted already? He suddenly found himself missing the years when Padmé had been queen. At least then they hadn't had to directly deal with Emperor Palpatine.
Judging from the look on Siri's face, she felt the same way.
"Sometimes I wish I had stayed on Naboo for that second term as queen," Padmé admitted as if she were reading their thoughts. "But it's better that I got here as quickly as possible; after all, the entire point is to help the Alliance."
"Speaking of the Alliance, I have bad news," Siri intoned, her blue eyes darkening like a storm cloud. "Kuna is dead."
Padmé and Obi-Wan both jumped, staring at Siri in horror. Kuna was an important contact for supplies, and he had been dealing directly with the Naberrie family for almost two years, which was the entire duration of Padmé's term as senator so far. Not only was this bad news for the Alliance, and of course for Kuna's family, but also…
"They could trace this to us," Obi-Wan blurted out, terrified. The Empire had never hit a blow so close to home… so close to them. "We were the Alliance's liaisons for Kuna; he dealt with nobody but us! If they know he was helping the Alliance—"
"Then it's possible they know our involvement," Siri finished, having come to that conclusion before she had even relayed the news. "Exactly."
"We don't know if they've traced it back to us," Padmé said nervously, trying to allay their panic. "They may have indicted him on something else. He did work with the underworld, after all. Poor Kuna…"
"Yes, poor Kuna indeed," Obi-Wan shook his head. "We should lay low for a while, Padmé. Didn't some Naboo noble die recently? We could use that as an excuse—attend his funeral and the like—to get off Imperial Center for a while."
Siri shook her head fervently. "No, we can't leave; that would be too obvious."
"We're not leaving," Padmé stated firmly. She then looked at her sister-in-law. "Siri, I need you to find out who was behind Kuna's death."
Siri nodded. "No problem."
Obi-Wan sighed. "Don't I get any say in my wife's life-risking adventures?"
Padmé laughed lightly. "I don't think she'll give you much of a choice. You can't go – that would be obvious."
"That's why I became a handmaiden," Siri said exasperatedly. "With Padmé as the senator for the entire Chommell Sector and with you as the representative for Naboo somebody has to be able to work behind the scenes."
"I thought you became a handmaiden so you wouldn't have to directly deal with annoying politicians?" Obi-Wan surmised with a smirk. "As I recall you were very tempted to punch a senator during one of our dealings at the palace; we all discovered then and there that politics was not the ideal career for you."
Siri laughed. "True; just thinking about that guy still makes me want to punch him. Either way, I'll get the info, Padmé."
"And what happens when you find out who was behind it?" Obi-Wan suddenly asked. "Killing whoever is responsible isn't an option; it wouldn't do us any good anyway."
"No, it's not like we're going to eliminate him," Padmé replied. "But we need to find out how they learned about Kuna, and we need to find out what they do and don't know."
"And what happens then? What if we find out that some inquisitor dug up enough dirt to get our involvement?"
"If they already had that kind of information we'd be dead too," Padmé sighed. "They can't know yet."
"True," Obi-Wan conceded.
"We could always try bribing the person who's behind it," Siri suggested.
"That would be completely giving away our involvement," Obi-Wan argued.
Padmé interrupted the couple. "Let's worry about what to do after we get the information."
The three agreed, and Siri quickly departed to get to work. Padmé sighed heavily and sat on the couch beside Obi-Wan. "How did we get ourselves into this mess?"
"As I recall, you dragged all of us into this mess," Obi-Wan answered while wrapping his arm around her.
Padmé shot him an irritated look. "Well you're the moronic big brother who decided to come along for the ride."
"I didn't want my moronic little sister getting herself killed in a senate full of backstabbers." Obi-Wan retorted. "Padmé… please, just be careful and keep your head down for a while in the senate, okay? Even if they don't have evidence to link us to Kuna yet, it will eventually surface if they look hard enough."
"Maybe we should bribe whoever's behind it," Padmé wondered aloud.
"Bribing won't work, even if we're assuming the person already knows our involvement." Obi-Wan shook his head. "A relationship based on greed is a shaky one at best and a treacherous one at worst."
"I suppose you're right," Padmé murmured as she leaned her head against his shoulder. She remained silent for a time before speaking again. "You remember when we were kids? We used to play that we were Republic citizens who stopped Palpatine from becoming emperor. You think it would have been easier to do that?"
"Easier to stop Palpatine's rise to power? Easier than what? Than what we're doing now?"
Obi-Wan pondered the thought. "Maybe. It's normally easier to nip a problem in the bud rather than have to deal with the disastrous effects after the problem has arisen. Still, from what I've read about the political climate and galactic stability at the time, it doesn't seem the case… it probably would have been harder, actually. Back then people liked Palpatine."
"I don't even see how that's possible," Padmé said, sounding sickened.
"Anything's possible," Obi-Wan sighed as he released Padmé from his hug and rose to his feet. "Come on. We should get ready for the senate session."
The day was relatively uneventful, thankfully. There was mostly bickering amongst senators about specifics of a bill that had already been passed. Padmé remained silent on the issue, simply watching it play out, and Obi-Wan was extremely grateful for it. He knew his sister's habits too well; she often spoke out against Palpatine despite both Obi-Wan and Siri's best efforts to keep her silent. Their position within the political scene made them vulnerable as well as helpful to the Alliance, and the last thing they needed was Padmé attracting attention to herself. Honestly, that was the real reason Obi-Wan had become the representative for Naboo. He hated the campaigning, and while he preferred to talk things out, speaking in riddles and lies to fellow politicians was not his passion… but it was all to ensure Padmé didn't get herself shot for her outspoken sense of justice.
As Obi-Wan sat on the small pod that was dedicated to delegates from the Chommell Sector, he felt something brush in the back of his mind. Turning his head slightly, he caught sight of his wife approaching silently. She had a grim look on her face. This couldn't be good news.
Before Siri could say anything, the senate session ended for the day and everyone filed out of the main arena. Padmé led the way out and, having noticed Siri's return, began to walk towards the landing pads so they could head home and talk privately. Their fast trek was interrupted, however, when they suddenly turned the corner and found the emperor himself standing in their way.
Emperor Palpatine was a surprisingly kind looking man. His face held few signs of age and was soft in appearance, and his fluffy white hair still had a single streak of red remaining. On a second glance, however, one would notice certain characteristics that easily gave away his true character, most notably his yellowish eyes. Obi-Wan shuddered looking at them and quickly averted his gaze, instead looking at the others in the emperor's party. Palpatine was flanked by four members of the Red Guard, a servant, and one other who was dressed too well to be an aide. He had a strong build, tall and lean, with slightly tan skin and dark blonde hair. He looked to the emperor more often than anyone else, however, and so Obi-Wan quickly returned his attention to the conversation that began to unfold.
"Ah, Senator Amidala," Palpatine said in his disgustingly silky voice. It made Obi-Wan's skin crawl, and he saw Siri's cheeks flush in anger at just hearing it. Subtly, Obi-Wan slipped his hand into his wife's hand and gave it a squeeze. "It's such a pleasure to see you."
Padmé nodded her head in a stiff manner. "Emperor, you look well."
"I have heard that there have been some issues of rebellion in your system, senator," Palpatine said, putting on a false tone of concern. He dismissed the aide with a wave of his hand. The other figure, however, remained. "It makes me worry for your safety; the thought of losing you is unbearable."
Even Obi-Wan almost gagged at the remark, and although he was only holding her hand, he felt every muscle in his wife's body tense. The woman had little patience and little tact in situations like these, and Obi-Wan knew she was just waiting to call Palpatine out on his lies, and so he squeezed her hand even tighter; if there was one person who was better than Padmé at being a little too outspoken for their own good, it was definitely Siri.
Obi-Wan's focus drifted from Siri to the man beside Palpatine once more. The man was watching the interaction between the emperor and Padmé. Obi-Wan gazed at him intently, trying to figure out who he was; he had never seen the person before, but he felt extremely unnerved by him. Something about him just seemed so… off. Obi-Wan had no idea what was giving him that sensation, though; by all accounts the man looked perfectly normal and calm, if a bit distant.
Suddenly, a remark from Palpatine caught Obi-Wan's attention. "I heard they even killed a nobleman on Naboo. It's extremely worrisome, but although you no doubt feel you have a duty to attend the man's funeral services, I do believe it would be in your best interests to remain on Imperial Center while we send someone to eradicate the insurgents."
"Your Imperial Majesty is most kind," Padmé replied politely with a smile plastered to her face. Obi-Wan felt his own heart rate rise a little; they had no intention and made no indication of returning to Naboo, yet Palpatine was still quite insistent they stay on Imperial Center. He knew something they didn't… something about them. Hopefully Siri had news that would enlighten the other two so they could quickly get the bull's-eye off their backs.
"Just promise me you'll stay on Imperial Center for a while," the emperor insisted with an earnest expression. "After all, we all think you are a wonderful addition to the senate. Your youth brings new life to everyone. Oh, and one more thing since you both are here, may I introduce Darth Vader to you? I do not believe you are acquainted."
That was Darth Vader? Obi-Wan's gaze immediately returned to the young man. No… how could that be Darth Vader?! The reputation that guy held was deplorable; he had led countless battles that had destroyed both the Alliance and civilians, he had assassinated people, he… that was Darth Vader? He looked so… so… normal.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, senator," Darth Vader said as he bowed slightly in acknowledgement. His voice sounded young; it was slightly deep, but it almost seemed as if it were still maturing – just how old was this guy? Despite his words, neither his expression nor his tone denoted any sort of pleasure, or anything for that matter. He seemed just as distant as before, not quite bored, but certainly not interested in the conversation at hand.
And Obi-Wan still couldn't shake that feeling that something was just so off about him. He now presumed it had to do with the fact that this man was a murderer, but…
Padmé only offered a slight nod in return. The introduction would have held no meaning to it, honestly, if it hadn't been preceded by Palpatine's warning that she remain within his reach. This was a threat. They all recognized it.
"I wouldn't fear too much, Your Imperial Majesty," Padmé said. "I don't intend on leaving anytime soon."
"That is good to hear," Palpatine said, widening his smile. "Then I will have the pleasure of seeing you very often."
Obi-Wan shook off a shudder.
The emperor then left, followed by the guards and Vader, none of whom paid them a second glance. The trio then quickly exited the building, flying back to their apartment in silence. The instant they were inside, however, the silence broke quickly.
"Blast it, he's on to us," Padmé remarked, hugging herself in an attempt to stop her hands from shaking. "Siri, what did you find out?"
"Well I hope you weren't expecting good news after that fiasco," Siri said as she sat on the couch. "There is none. Some Intelligence agent found out Kuna had ties to the Alliance."
"Well that confirms our suspicions that it was the Empire's doing," Obi-Wan sighed heavily. Poor Kuna – he had been aiding with the Alliance and working with the underworld to help feed his family; being a Rodian, he was neither treated well nor respected by the Empire. Obi-Wan hoped the man's family would be alright.
"It gets better," Siri continued. "The agent may have found our connection to Kuna as well. Whatever he stumbled on, though, it was too important for him to know; he's dead too."
Both Padmé and Obi-Wan jumped and stared at Siri in shock. "What?! Who killed the agent?"
"Darth Vader," Siri said darkly. "That sick freak kills his own men, apparently, on top of everybody else. But it also means he knows whatever the agent found out."
"We have to alert the Alliance," Padmé immediately said. "Heaven knows what the agent found out."
"I'll take care of it," Obi-Wan stated, leaving the room to do just that.
As he departed, Siri asked, "What are we going to do about Vader? We have to lay low for a while, Padmé. Isn't there some way we can get away from the senate?"
"You really want to try after that stunt Palpatine pulled?" Padmé sighed heavily. "No, our best bet is definitely to stay here."
"Well how are we going to divert attention, then?" Siri demanded, shooting to her feet. "Palpatine just basically introduced us to Vader as if to say, oh by the way, this is the guy who's going to kill you if you try anything!"
"Do you think Vader will be the one to keep an eye on us?" Padmé asked.
"Probably," Siri sighed heavily, sitting once more.
Padmé remained silent for a time, pondering an idea, before she finally sat in a chair facing the couch. "Obi-Wan and I were talking… I had mentioned that we could perhaps bribe whoever had the information…"
Obi-Wan reentered the room as Padmé spoke, and he immediately shook his head before Siri could reply. "Padmé, we already went over this. Bribing won't work, especially on someone like Darth Vader."
"But what does that even mean: someone like Darth Vader?" Padmé suddenly asked. "We don't know anything about him—"
Siri barked out a laugh. "I beg to differ; we know a lot about him. What do you want to talk about first? How he single handedly murdered the entire congress of Acirema? How he pacified an uprising on Kashyyyk by burning half the forest? How he led an army into civilian cities on Mon Calamari to make a point to a handful of dissidents? Or how he just now murdered an Imperial Intelligence operative?"
"That's what we've heard about him," Padmé corrected her sister-in-law. "We haven't really learned anything about him personally."
Obi-Wan and Siri both paused. Siri was horrified that Padmé might be suggesting Vader was anything less than a monster. Obi-Wan, on the other hand, was more suspicious than ever.
"What are you saying, Padmé?" he asked slowly.
"I'm saying Darth Vader is a man," Padmé remarked.
Siri snorted. "Not sure about that – that implies he's a person. Can we just define him as an animal and be done with it?"
"No, we're not going to be done with him for a very long time," Padmé replied. "The point I'm trying to make is that he is a man and I can be very persuasive with men, if need be."
Siri and Obi-Wan both gaped at her. "What?"
"Oh don't be like that," Padmé sighed as she stood to plead her case. "Look, we were just introduced—it wouldn't be out of the ordinary for me to be polite and ask to be better acquainted with him."
"Absolutely not!" Obi-Wan immediately said.
"Obi-Wan, you're my brother, not my father," Padmé rolled her eyes. "I'm not intending on taking it that far, anyway. Just some flirting here and there…"
"And that's supposed to do what, exactly?" Siri asked. "You're trying to attract the one guy who will probably kill us?"
"If he gets some sort of favorable attachment to us then he'll be less likely to act on orders to kill us," Padmé suggested. "We don't have another option. Obi-Wan's right that we can't bribe him any other way; he doesn't strike me as the type who really cares about wealth—or if he does, he already seems pretty wealthy enough; did you see his outfit? He certainly doesn't strike me as somebody who cares about reputation or politics; I could tell that from his manner. He won't take orders from us, either. So what option does that leave us? We have no choice!"
"Padmé, you're getting a little too panicked and desperate about this," Obi-Wan hastily remarked. "There has to be another option."
Siri remained silent, irritating Obi-Wan slightly since he was expecting some back up from her. Padmé immediately took it as a good sign and looked at her.
"What do you think, Siri?" she asked.
Siri furrowed her brow and rubbed her hands together. "Well… you do have a point in that we really have no other option…"
"Siri!" Obi-Wan protested.
"What?" Siri snapped, rising to her feet. "I'm not saying Padmé needs have an affair with the guy, but flirting with him may not hurt."
Before either Padmé or Obi-Wan could say anything else, however, Siri looked sharply at Padmé. "But you have to be insanely cautious around that guy—heaven knows what he's capable of. You can't be with him alone."
Padmé sighed irritably. "That defeats the purpose, don't you think?"
"Just start out slow and steady, will you?" Siri pleaded.
"Slow and steady won't catch him off guard," Padmé shook her head. "And that's what we want. We want to keep him tripping, we want to keep a step ahead of him. I'm asking him to dinner."
"Dinner?!" Obi-Wan repeated in horror.
"How about a double date?" Siri immediately offered.
The room was silent as everyone considered it, though Obi-Wan was mostly still panicking at the entire concept. Finally, Padmé smiled and nodded, coming to a decision. "All right, then. A double date."
"How are you going to get in contact with him?" Siri asked.
"I'll find Governor Tarkin," Padmé replied. "Almost every time Vader has some public mission or appearance, the governor is always with him, and we know Tarkin hangs around the senate building on most days."
Siri remarked it was a sound plan. Obi-Wan just groaned.
"It's all right, Obi," Padmé laughed. "Everything will turn out fine."