AOH :: ARCADIA2.TXT|
Star Wars: Arcadia_part2
ARCADIA: PART 2
Marit Rouvel opened her eyes and immediately closed them
again. She remembered the impact against her armor, and the rising
tide of sound in her head as she left training bay. She was not sure
why she was lying down now, or whether she wanted to know.
"You're in medical quarters," a soft voice said above
her. "Don't try to speak yet; just nod or shake your head. Can you
feel my hand on your fingers? On your wrist?"
A silvery shadow swam into focus, a fair-haired woman in
grey. As Marit's vision cleared, she saw another figure behind the
healer, entering the antechamber beyond. "Commander Skywalker?" Her
He raised one hand from the pockets of his
fatigues. "Rouvel. Good as new? Arcadia should have you up in no
Arcadia pared a thread of skin away, sealing the graze with a
finger following after. "You were hit by blaster fire in training
session yesterday. I've repaired the physical damage, but you should
rest a few days to recover from the shock." Marit looked uncertainly
at her shoulder. "There's no scar, but your body remembers the
injury. Would you rather recuperate here or in your own quarters?"
"I'll go back to my bunk." She wobbled alarmingly as she got
to her feet, but managed to keep her balance. Her folded uniform in
hand, she disappeared into a cubicle to remove her medical
smock. "Sir, will I be able to leave base with the rest of the group?"
"That's for Lady Arcadia to say."
"If your recovery permits," Arcadia said. "If there's any
discoloration or hemorrhage, come back to medical."
"In any case," Anakin resumed, "there'll be other transports
to the front. You needn't worry you'll miss the war."
Arcadia followed her to the door, ready to catch her if she
stumbled; when Marit hobbled out, Arcadia called up her medical
files. Anakin remained behind her. "Think she'll recover in time?"
"If I haven't altered her geneprint, she can leave whenever
she is strong enough to go. Otherwise, I will have to destroy the new
tissue and rebuild it more carefully." She opened a panel and fed it
the paring of cells. Since a brief flicker when Marit greeted him,
Arcadia had not met his eyes, nor did she do so now. "Are you always
so eager to send your students to their deaths?"
"There's a war going on. People die in wars. The faster it
ends, the fewer deaths there'll be."
"I suppose you could look at it that way."
His voice hardening, Anakin said, "You'd prefer I took each
death personally, wouldn't you? Do you think it's easy for me, knowing
I'm sending half-trained children against the Nechti? My last active
mission was the seige of Nkabe. We got to our Headhunters just ahead
of their ground troops.
"I recognized some of the Nechti: members of my squadron who'd
had their fighters shot out from around them. Maybe they ejected, and
the Nechti captured their command pods-- I don't know. But their faces
were completely blank, like paper masks. The scars--" He grimaced,
"Just as we launched, the Nechti destroyed Nkabe behind
us. One shot from their starship, and a wall of flame poured over the
whole surface. There was nothing left behind it but bare stone and
"The Nechti are capturing our own people for cannon fodder. If
they can't take a planet, the Nechti burn it around them from
orbit. And all this time, the Senate can't decide whether it would
rather send reinforcements or debate bacta tariffs. If I brooded over
every cadet I sent out-- I can't teach them everything I know, but at
least I was giving them some knowledge of what it's like out
there. And now, nothing at all."
"You could speak to General Kenobi again. He'd like you to."
"I'll think about it." He watched the wall console blink. "Do
we need to stick around here, or are you still working on that?"
"I'm on duty. Don't you have a squadron to train?"
His smile was full of teeth. "Kenobi put me on leave
yesterday, as you may recall. But thank you for your concern."
"He wasn't enforcing it immediately."
"No, but if I'm going to leave a few senior cadets in charge,
I'd best start them off while I can still tell them what they're doing
"What can you tell them if you're not there?"
"I'll check on them in a few hours." He shrugged. "I was
planning to use the intervening time to make amends for yesterday. You
don't seem interested in my contrition, though, so I may as well talk
She spread her hands, neither rejecting nor encouraging
him. "Say whatever you feel you must, then. If that means silence, so
Folding his arms, he leaned against the wall, his mouth in a
sharp curve. They regarded one another wordlessly for some moments,
until the console made a whirring noise and beeped. Arcadia turned to
it and dimmed the panel. "General Kenobi should be in his office by
now," she said.
"That's good." He eyed the chrono, but remained where he was.
"Is there something you require of me?"
"Not really." He shrugged again and turned away. "I'll see you
later, I suppose. You'll be meeting Denis when he arrives, right?"
"I can see you're looking forward to it. Later, then."
Arcadia did not look toward the door until it closed. On the
other side of the antechamber, her desk drawer catapulted steel into
the air. She caught the saber handle and dropped into stance as the
remote flared to life above her.
* * *
General Kenobi looked up from his desk. "Ah, Anakin," he
said. "Sit down, won't you?"
"Morning," Anakin said. He stretched out his long legs before
him, contemplating the sheen of his boots. "Decided what to do with
"I'm still putting you on leave, if that's what you mean."
"Yes, well, I did want to discuss that with you. Not that I
want to stay on teaching duty," he added quickly. "In fact, just the
reverse. I didn't want training rotation in the first place; you know
that. If my teaching methods aren't effective, then why keep me here?"
Kenobi exhaled. "I hope you didn't deliberately injure your
students to make this point."
Anakin looked disgusted. "I did the best I could with
them. But I'm just not cut out for training, and you know it. Can't
you post me back to the front?"
"My influence is currently limited to this base. I can't be
sure of finding you another command position outside it."
"Excuse me, sir, but you can." Anakin leaned forward. "I
stopped by Arcadia's quarters last night--"
Kenobi raised one eyebrow, then the other. "Did you?"
"Not on those terms." He shook his head ruefully. "But she was
on the comm with her brother, and I ended up chatting with
Denis. Aldea sector will be sending new reinforcements through here
soon, he said."
"True, but that hardly--"
"The flagship will be led by an inexperienced young officer
who'll relinquish command to you as soon as he arrives. Now if this
Lord Geoffrey or Justin is any indication, there could be a shortage
of officers in the lower command posts as well."
Kenobi sighed. "I was told that might happen, but hoped it
wouldn't. But if that's the case, then--" His head snapped up. "What
name did you say?"
Taken aback, Anakin said, "Who?"
"The Alderaani scion bringing _La Belle Dame_ to Ikatya."
"Lord Justin Semble, I think. Why?"
"And Arcadia heard Denis say this?"
"She'd fallen asleep already. Why, does it matter?"
"Yes." His holo receiver began to flash. "That'll be my orders
for the front. If you would, go tell Arcadia what you've just told
Anakin's jaw tightened. "Is that an order?"
"No, but I'd be grateful." Kenobi flicked a pointed glance at
the comm. "Now if you don't mind, I've business to attend to."
As Kenobi whacked the buzzing comm, Anakin slipped out of his
office. He paused in the corridor, considering both directions before
choosing the way back to medical.
* * *
"That girl is a menace to herself and everyone around her,"
Danah snapped. "Not to mention us on Alderaan. Why didn't you leave a
chaperone with her?"
Bail developed a sudden preoccupation with his data pad. Over
its edge, he said, "She isn't completely unattended. And it's Castra's
right as Princess Consort to represent us in the Senate. I'll grant
you she's young, but you were nearly the same age when you married
"Yes, but I had the sense to know what I was doing!" She
hurled her comm across the empty audience chamber. It struck the floor
with a loud thwack, then several softer ones as components bounced out
of the casing. A droid instantly whirred from a hatch, polishing the
lapis tiles as it swept up wires and glass.
A sentry peered into the chamber, but Danah dismissed him. She
waited for the double doors to reclose before continuing. "That speech
was the most undiplomatic defense I could have imagined. If she were
defending us against a traffic charge, we'd be taken out and shot. Why
did you leave her in your place?"
"You wished to confer about a domestic crisis. I might note
I've seen no imminent revolution since I arrived."
"The crisis is your marriage. If it remains barren for much
longer, I shall insist you end it."
"Insist?" Bail laid his data pad in his lap. "Perhaps this is
a shock to you, but I have been the ruler of Alderaan for twenty
She glared at him. "It is your duty to govern Alderaan, and I
wish you would do it properly. While I can fulfill some duties in your
place, getting you an heir is not one of them. Castra is clearly no
political asset; if she is sterile as well, she is worthless. If she
cannot bear your children, find someone else who can."
"You and Father didn't produce me until a few decades after
your marriage. Why impose such an urgent schedule on mine?"
"Because other noble houses are approaching Arcadia for
betrothal." When he started, she nodded slowly. "Oh yes. She may be
harmless by herself. But if she weds into House Liachne, or Ivaru, or
one of the great guilds, how patient will they be? Any child you get
will stand between the throne and her-- and through her, them.
"I have no fond cravings to dandle grandchildren, Bail. I am
trying to persuade you to save your own life."
He folded his hands over the data pad and regarded them for a
while. "With such views, I am surprised you delayed getting heirs for
"Davit and I had two children before you." Her eyes
closed. "They were twins, born the year after we wed. They died in the
"You never told me this."
"We did not want you to grow up in fear. It seems you learned
fearlessness too well. But if I must throw your sisters' blood in your
face to bring you to your senses--"
"Mother," he said, his voice low. "You are making this a
choice between lives. You say I stand ready to be killed on Arcadia's
behalf. But you would do the same to her and Denis, if Castra were
Danah's rings ground into his sleeve. "Is she?"
"I've no word either way, and it may be best for it to remain
"Ah." She drew back. "And if she is not, and remains so, will
you divorce her?"
Bail leaned down from his seat. From the cushion on the dais,
he took the formal coronet of Alderaan and placed it firmly on his
head. "I will not. And we have delayed court long enough." He keyed a
remote signal on the data pad, signalling the guards to allow the
waiting ministers and suppliants into the palace.
As footsteps and voices began to slip through the doors, Danah
gathered her train over one arm. "You are welcome to it," she said as
"Where are you going?"
"I am going to pack. Castra cannot be trusted to represent us
in the Senate. If you are staying on Alderaan, I am going there to
"You can't mean that."
"Oh, but I do." She kissed his cheek and smiled, as graciously
as he had ever seen her do. "The _Tantive_ should be ready for
departure before court is over. I will see you when I return from
She glided out the private entrance before he could think of
something to say. "Damn it," he said.
As the wide double doors began to open, he inclined his head
toward the group beyond. Fingers ablur on his data pad, he said, "Your
pardon for the delay, but there was a matter that required private
communication." He finished the message and pressed the transmit key.
Setting the data pad down, he beckoned the first party
forward. "Ivaru Lady Anei, your house has requested permission to
communicate with Lady Arcadia Antilles, exiled from Aldea sector. I
deny permission, as I see the Princess-Dowager has done already, and I
ask that no further petitions of the sort be made by you or any other
house. When we are pleased to rescind Lady Arcadia's exile, we shall
do so. Until then, she is not to be mentioned in this court."
* * *
As the door to medical opened, Anakin ducked out of the
way. Drawing his blaster from his belt, he edged back toward the
opening, trying to see whatever had launched plasma at him.
"Sorry," he heard Arcadia say. The low electric hum snapped
off. "I wasn't expecting anyone, and this remote goes after anything
that moves." She leaned out into the corridor, wiping her face with
one sleeve. "Oh. It's you again."
"What are you doing in there, splicing power couplers?"
"Saber practice. I have eight hours of duty every day, and
I've only seen four patients this week. I have to do something the
rest of the time." She folded her arms over her robes as he
rose. "Which one of your cadets did you mangle now?"
"Listen," he snapped, "I'm only here to do Kenobi a favor for
you. Believe me, it won't happen again."
"So what is it?"
"Justin Semble's coming to Ikatya." He turned away, but she
pulled him back. Her face suddenly had a seige's scarred exhaustion,
and the sounds of Nkabe swirled around him.
She seemed to review long ranks of words before selecting
"He's bringing the Aldean reinforcements. When I passed the
word to Obi-Wan, he sent me to tell you about it."
"Denis told you." She hardly seemed to hear his answer. "Have
they left Alderaan yet?"
Her apprehension touched him, despite himself. "Their
scheduled departure isn't 'til 051. They'll stop to investigate
reported Nechti activity near Aricia; another cruiser might join them
there. Semble will be handing the flagship to Kenobi as soon as he
arrives, so he won't be going into combat. Are the two of you--?"
"So he'll stay here at Ikatya." She inhaled sharply and
straightened. "Thank you for the news," she said, and withdrew back
He made it through the doors before they closed. "What did I
say? I wasn't even trying to insult you this time."
"It isn't you. Forgive me, but I must go to my comm." Leaving
her deactivated lightsaber on the desk with the remote, she swung a
panel open and stepped into the wall. Anakin recognized her private
quarters on the other side.
She disappeared behind a carved screen in the corner; a drawer
opened, fabrics rustled, and Arcadia's robes poured over the top of
the screen. As he stared at them, she emerged around the side, shaking
out a fold in the gown she had put on. It was violet damask, so pale
that its color could only be seen by contrast with the decolletage's
white lace and her white shoulders rising from it. She had undone her
hair as well, and it spilled over her like sunrise across the morning
Opening a compartment in the screen, she extracted a strand of
blue fire. She began to draw a silk cord over her head, but evidently
decided to leave it in place, its pendant half-hidden in her
bodice. She glanced up at him as she twined her hair up with the blue
jewels; abashed, he retreated back through the panel.
The transmission tile beneath her flickered to a steady glow
as she entered a comm code. Although he could not see the holo, he
heard it buzz twice and click. There was a pause, then a surprised
voice. "My dear lady, I believe you have the wrong code."
"I don't think so. Is this the captain's quarters of _La Belle
There was a longer pause. "Yes, it is. Who are you?"
"Arcadia Antilles. You must be Lord Justin."
"Yes, but-- ah. Yes. Lady Arcadia." Justin laughed
nervously. "It's quite an unexpected pleasure to set eyes on you at
last. And if I may say so, you are even lovelier than your
"Oh, stop it," she said. "I don't know where you got a copy of
my identification holo, but it scarcely qualifies as a portrait. I
gather from Denis that you received my letter."
"You seemed to misunderstand my intentions. I hoped to arrange
a meeting in person, so we could discuss the matter more fully and,
er, confidentially. If you can wait a few hours to discuss this--"
"I understand well enough." Her voice had a clear, honed bite,
like the edge of a glass knife. "Alderaani law prohibits any
communication with exiles without the consent of the ruling
house. Marriage to them is out of the question. I don't know what
conspiracy House Semble is planning, but I want nothing to do with
"Please, be little more circumspect," Justin whispered. "If
anyone were to overhear, I could be ruined."
"Ruined? You mean exiled and attaindered, as I've been? What
do I have to lose?"
"You have everything to gain from marrying me. I could restore
your rank, return your family's possessions--"
"If you could get them back from Princess Danah."
"I beg you to reconsider. We simply must meet in person--now
that I've seen your face, I'm strangely attracted to you."
On the other side of Arcadia's chair, Anakin saw her dip one
hand outward. "I've already declined your proposal in writing. I am
now doing so over the comm. I will consider it tedious if I have to
decline you in person. But perhaps this will provide the necessary
emphasis." As her fingers curved, a gleaming blur shot past Anakin; he
reflexively snatched it from the air. She moved her fingers again, and
the lightsaber handle tugged toward her in his hand.
When she glanced back, she was astonished by his smile's
incandescent mischief. He strolled into the room and deliberately
stepped onto the comm tile. The receiver holo revealed Lord Justin as
a stocky young man in an ill-fitting uniform, brown hair
unconvincingly streaked blond. Anakin leaned into Arcadia's chair and
kissed her, dropping the saber into her lap.
Justin made some sound of surprise and alarm. Anakin would
have stepped back then, but Arcadia slid her hands up into his hair,
thoroughly disheveling it as she deepened their kiss. By the time she
released him, he did not want to move away. Her fingers touched his
mouth, gently pressing it apart from her; half-dazed, Anakin backed
off the tile to the bench behind.
"Um," Lord Justin said, with desperate urbanity. "I'm sure we
can come to some sort of understanding about this. After all, this is
primarily a matter of political alliance. And whoever this-- your--
er, he can't reverse your banishment, after all. If you marry me, I
"Could you." An azure flash leapt up, snarling. As Arcadia
held the lightsaber, it purred and sizzled in her hands. "I'm not
simply an exile, Justin. I'm also a Jedi. I don't need to remind you
about the laws of the Republic concerning Jedi and politics, do I? Or
Alderaani precedent for both? I might also point out that if you
pursue this matter-- or me-- any further, I will be annoyed." She
lowered the saber, pointing it directly at him. "And we wouldn't want
that to happen, would we?"
Justin squeaked. It was a tiny noise like a fork scraping a
plate, and Anakin enjoyed it immensely. "No, no, of course
not. Forgive me for having disturbed you; now I simply must go." The
background static of the comm went off. After a moment, so did
She swiveled her chair toward him but kept her eyes carefully
averted. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have involved you in this."
"I involved me in this."
"All the same, I shouldn't have escalated..."
Despite the direction of her gaze, she could hear that
astonishing grin in his voice again. "I think I can find it in my
heart to forgive you. What was all that about, anyway?"
She made a face at the comm, moving away to sit beside
Anakin. "Lord Justin wants to marry me. I don't."
"I gathered that." He contemplated the slim metal between her
hands. "What was the bit about Jedi and politics?"
"Marriage is only the head of the comet. One of the aspects of
Jedi training is mind control; by learning to discipline your own
mind, you can shape the thoughts of others. You can see how this might
be an unfair political advantage."
"Did someone demonstrate this on Alderaan?"
"They tried. When my-- when another member of my family
attempted to overthrow House Organa, years ago, she enlisted a Jedi as
an ally. Eventually he saw that if he continued to assist her, he
would enter the Dark Side of the Force. He thought he could save them
from further corruption by confessing everything. It might have
worked, except that while he was doing so, she took a step beyond
redemption. Princess Danah had her and her consort executed."
"He did tell everything to Danah, but if he had spoken
earlier, the assassinations could have been prevented. She promoted
him to General, but sent him off Alderaan into the fleet. And she
placed Denis and me in his custody.
"From her perspective, General Kenobi was an excellent teacher
of morality. I don't think House Semble agrees, but you can't make
"You don't seem very happy," he said softly.
"Sometimes I wish General Kenobi had not taught me so well. I
know what House Semble and all the rest have in mind, and part of me
wants to join them and avenge my family's ruin. But I know all the
reasons why it's wrong, and why I should stay clear."
"Kenobi could have brainwashed you into thinking that, under
orders from Alderaan."
"He didn't brainwash me into seeing the vendettas. I was only
a child, but I remember the terror and the blood. And my mother's
death." She let out her breath. "I'll do anything I can to stop the
vendettas from beginning again. If the Alderaani nobility decide this
means all Jedi are spies for the royal house, at least they will leave
me out of it."
As she raised her head, the strand of jewels slipped its clasp
and fell out of her hair. "Oh, bother," she said. "Well, at least I
can get these things off now. After the way Lord Justin was fawning at
me, I feel slimed all over."
He lifted the stones from her lap, fingertips barely touching
the moonstone damask. "Expensive slime, isn't it?"
She laughed, loosening her hair about her shoulders. "Princess
Danah wanted Denis and me to look decent for Prince Bail's
wedding. The only reason I wore it now was because the noble houses
will only treat you as well as you're dressed. As for the jewels,
they're worthless, or Danah would have taken them with the rest of the
He turned the blue facets in his hands, watching the light
spatter from them across Arcadia's face. Unlike the stones, her eyes
were a silvery brown, like clear water over mica sand. "They seem
heavy for glass."
"Oh, they're not glass. They're flawed lightsaber crystals."
In illustration, she ignited her saber again. Its blade's flame was
the same blazing hue of desert sky. As he began to reach toward it,
she pulled it away. "It's not a toy," she warned.
"I just wanted to look at it. General Kenobi was talking about
Jedi training last night, and I got curious. Actually," he added,
almost offhand, "he said I should ask you more about it."
He could not quite decipher her face this time, eclipsed as it
was by the saber's light between them. "Did he now?" The saber hissed
off, and she gave it to him as she rose. "Well, you can hold this
while I scrape off my slime." As he waited for her reappearance, he
turned the weapon in his hands, listening to every sound of cloth and
skin behind the carved screen.
* * *
"Your Highness!" Justin Semble wailed. "Your Highness, I must
speak to you, please!" The young nobleman stumbled down his ship's
ramp to the hangar floor.
The royal guards closed ranks around Danah as she continued
toward the _Tantive_. "How nice for you," she said.
Circling in front of them, Justin planted himself in their
way. "Your Highness, I beg of you--"
Her mouth twisted. "I am in haste. You may send me letters at
"About Lady Arcadia?"
Danah finally gave him her full attention. He was no longer
sure he wanted it. Pinioned between two of her guards, Justin tried to
keep step, but ended up half-dragged onto the _Tantive_ behind her. In
the consular suite, she seated herself as they searched him. "No
weapons on him? Leave us." She eyed the crest on his uniform. "Young
Lord Semble, is it? Now, what do you wish to say of Arcadia Antilles?"
"She's at Ikatya base, and I'm taking the Aldean fleet there."
"Two ships are not a fleet. And I didn't give you command of
"They'll be given to General Kenobi at Ikatya, I know, but I
asked Prince Bail to let me take the sector flagship there."
"Very enterprising of you," she said coolly. "Do you think to
use it on Arcadia's behalf? If you move against my son, I will destroy
Justin winced. "The thought never crossed my mind." Or not
that last thought, anyway. "I came to give you a warning about her."
As if he had not spoken, Danah tapped her fingers against the
table, silently moving her lips in tally. "House Semble has eighteen
legitimate heirs distributed over three estates. An efficient sweep
could eliminate all of them in one day."
He hunched farther down into his chair. "Arcadia seems to have
taken up with a Jedi Knight. If family precedent is any guide, she may
be plotting against the royal house. As a loyal supporter of House
"I am certain of General Kenobi's loyalty," she said,
emphasizing the other man's name.
"It's not General Kenobi." He began to babble to distract
himself from her regard. "It's a younger man, tall, with dark hair. It
wasn't anyone I recognized, but he didn't look Alderaani. He was
carrying a lightsaber, and--"
Danah's voice cut smoothly through his. "When did you see them
"I-- well-- that is to say--" Justin gave up. "He was with her
this morning when I spoke to her by comm."
He might have delivered a particularly banal
formality. Indifferently, Danah examined one hand, turning her rings
one by one so that the jewels faced inward. Then she lashed her palm
against his face, leaving stone-gouged furrows behind. "You want
revenge for being thwarted of a traitor's alliance, do you?"
As he cowered, bleeding, she said in the same low tones, "When
you reach Ikatya, discover this man's name, and whether General Kenobi
knows of his association with Arcadia. Tell me these two things and I
will consider your vengeance for you. If you fail me, I will forbid
your return to Alderaan, even to pay respects to the ashes of House
Semble. Do you understand me? Now get back to _La Belle Dame_ and out
of my sight."
* * *
Arcadia reemerged much as Anakin had seen her in the mess
hall, wearing a close-fitting tunic and leggings. She had replaited
her hair but left it unpinned, and she batted it out of the way of the
wide belt she was wrapping around her waist. Anakin was waiting for
her, dormant saber in hand. "So what is Jedi training all about?"
She motioned him to her desk, where she pulled out a carafe
and ran water into it. As he settled into her chair, she said, "I'll
make tisane for us first. This is apt to be tedious, and you didn't
taste as if you had breakfast."
If he had been drinking tisane at the moment, he would have
sprayed it all over the desk. As it was, she merely patted his back,
remarking brightly, "And you with a bad cough, too. You shouldn't
neglect your health this way." She set the carafe on a thermal tile
and hitched herself onto the desk to sit aslant from him.
"I can only tell you about elementary training," she
began. "After a certain point, the training of Jedi Knights and
Healers diverges. The basics, however, are nearly identical.
"The first step is simply learning to sense the flow of the
Force. I suspect you have that down already. After that, it's a matter
of letting the Force guide your actions as you guide yourself."
Anakin leaned one elbow on the desk. "So the idea is to become
a puppet of the Force?"
She smiled. "The viewpoints of healers and warriors are bound
to differ. My work releases the Force to impose its own design,
strengthening the flow of life and restoring the original
balance. General Kenobi would be more likely to use the Force for his
own purposes, controlling things he cannot reach himself.
"As a rule, it's safe enough to extend one's senses with the
Force. It flows through you then, and carries you with it. But when
you use it for your own design, it's as if you build a reservoir to
contain it. If not properly channeled, the pressure may break you."
"Send you mad, you mean?"
"There are other ways to destroy yourself with power." Her
hand went to her throat, touching the cord of her necklace. "But I
believe the carafe is ready. I've cups in that drawer, if you don't
mind fetching them." Soft bubbles broke the surface as she added a
measure of granules and swirled.
He took a filled cup, sipping cautiously. "What is this
"Tisane. It's a mixture of things-- pods, malt, crushed
cane. It's good for you, especially in your ailing condition."
"I'm glad I tasted it before you described it." He let the
flavors play around his mouth, closing his eyes as he swallowed. His
second mouthful drained the cup. As she refilled it, he lifted the
forgotten lightsaber in his hand. "So when do I learn how to use
She seemed taken aback. Behind her own tisane, she said, "I
don't think I'm the one to teach you such things."
"I chose a different path." Her voice was distant, only
gradually returning. "Only a Jedi Knight is a true master of the
lightsaber. General Kenobi knows more of the art than I do."
"But I saw you using this," Anakin persisted. "You can't say
you're completely ignorant."
"No; I said I can't teach you. There's a difference." The
saber leaped out of his grasp into hers. "You can watch me practice
with the remote if you like. I was planning to do that until Denis
arrives, unless an actual patient comes in. But I'd prefer not to let
you wield this without proper training, and that I can't provide."
Anakin grinned. "Sounds fine to me. I learn fast." Although he
had seen Kenobi use the Force, there had been no special empathy
between them. But in the aftermath of Arcadia's kiss, he could still
sense her thoughts, like shadows seen through a door left open. He saw
how Arcadia had called the saber to herself, and he extended his arm
and his will in the same way. The remote flew to him from the other
room. He tossed the sphere to her, and she weighed it in her hand,
studying him. "Ready when you are," he said.
* * *
Castra Gatou leaned closer to her reflection. She tilted her
head, gauging the jewelled gold wrapped around her throat. "I think
this should do," she said.
"A small enough price to pay." Palpatine traced the bare curve
of her back. She was reclining near the mirror at the foot of his
bed. He watched her with the same measuring gaze she had for the
necklace. The full sleeve of his formal robes followed his hand over
her skin. "After all, I should have required ten times that sum to buy
the votes you brought to me."
She wrinkled her nose. "Bribery is such an unpleasant word."
Leaning down, he set his teeth in her shoulder, just hard
enough to make a mark. "Reality is often unpleasant, my dear. But
perhaps you know that already."
"Marriage can be instructive that way."
"Indeed." He folded his arms, a smile flickering at the edge
of his mouth. "A pity Bail Organa doesn't appreciate your true worth."
"I prefer not to discuss my husband," Castra said. She looked
away from the mirror at last, sitting up and pulling her discarded
gown over her head. She coiled her tawny hair into place, green eyes
shadowed. "Can we meet again tomorrow?"
Palpatine's pause was nearly imperceptible. "I don't think
that would be wise."
"You're right, of course. I've been away from the Alderaani
suite too often of late." She slid one shoe on, but did not fasten
it. "Perhaps next week, then?"
This pause was longer. "Perhaps. But for now, you should
certainly return before anyone notices your absence. You won't be able
to excuse yourself with midnight walks in the gardens forever."
"No, I suppose not." She unfastened the necklace and arranged
it over her fingers. "Very well, I'll see you in the Senate. Thank you
for the jewels. And for everything."
He had crossed the room as she spoke, and leaned beside the
outer doors. "Believe me, the jewels do not begin to convey my true
feelings for you." He held one hand out to her, half-bowing. "Good
By the time Castra had gone a few steps into the gardens, the
door had closed behind her. She looked back at it, invisibly locked
behind layers of foliage. The necklace's facets bit into her hands as
she pressed them together; with a quick motion, she gathered her
skirts and ran through the branches, away from the walls and into the
She had nearly regained her composure by the time she reached
the Alderaani suite. As she entered, she heard the steward say, "Your
Highness, I didn't expect--"
"I knew I'd lost that necklace in the gardens," she
announced. And then she turned her head and saw Danah.
* * *
"Arcadia? Is something wrong?"
She let the remote fall into her hand, shaking her head. "No,
I-- it's about time for the Aldean contingent to arrive, I think."
"One last cup of tisane," Anakin said, lounging. Even with the
interplay of remote and saber shut off, faint aftertrails of light
streaked his vision. "Sure you don't want one yourself? You look a
"A few hours of sparring will do that." The strain she felt
was more psychic than physical, but she was not sure what was causing
it. Perhaps it was merely the pleasant tension of Anakin's presence,
she thought. Or Lord Justin's imminent arrival, or the unknown news
"Arcadia? I said, are you ready to go?"
"Sorry." She draped her outer robes around her and pinned her
braid back up before she followed him out.
Anakin paused in the doorway, blocking her path. "You're
leaving your saber behind? If Lord Justin hasn't given up yet, a
closer look at it might change his mind."
"I'm beginning to think he hasn't a mind to change," she
murmured. Nevertheless, she let the saber come to her hand, clipping
it to her belt as they left her quarters.
"I'm checking my cadets on the way, if that's fine with
you. If they've shot themselves to bits, at least you'll be right
there, and it won't've been my fault this time."
The cadets appeared to be intact. Anakin leaned farther into
training bay to make certain. "You're supposed to be recuperating,
"I'm just watching them," the girl offered. "I wanted to make
sure I wouldn't miss anything. And anyway, General Kenobi caught me
suited up earlier and made me sit down."
Passing through the corridor behind them, Kenobi overheard
this last comment. "You certainly motivate your squadron," he said
dryly. "I take it the two of you are on your way to welcome the Aldean
ships as well?"
Arcadia considered the general before straightening a ribbon
on his dress uniform. "I think I can welcome Denis. The rest of the
contingent might be too much for me to manage."
"The lower observation deck for that hangar is always crowded;
you might have better luck in the upper one. I'll be in the control
room myself," Kenobi said. "You're welcome to join me, but I thought
you might prefer to avoid Lord Justin."
Anakin stepped back out from training bay, having offered his
cadets whatever corrections they deserved. "I think we'll take the
upper deck," he said.
"Then you'd better be off," Kenobi said, already striding
away. "That turbolift is slow, and the hangar's far enough as it is."
By the time they gave up on the turbolift, they could hear the
hangar's magnetic seals powering down to admit the Aldean ships. The
stairs were dusty from disuse. At the last landing, Anakin growled, "I
didn't know they still made these things."
"There were a lot of stairs where I grew up. They stunt your
growth," Arcadia said. "Or at least, they make ascent such a chore
that growing taller is too much of a bother." From her place four
steps ahead of him, she turned about and smiled, at eye level with him
at last. "We're here now, anyway. And so are they." Beyond the
stairwell, the upper observation deck was empty, though the hangar
beyond it was not.
The flagship alighted on the hangar floor, flanked by two
other cruisers. Behind them, the magnetic seals and defensive shields
snapped back up with a visible sizzle of ions. As the atmospheric
pumps repressurized the docking bay, the space-chilled hulls beaded
over with condensation. The disembarking passengers' uniforms
identified them as a mixture of cadets, recruits, and transferred
personnel; all of them stifled yawns or stretched stiff joints, eager
to explore their destination at last.
Behind her in the observation deck, Anakin said, "Is Denis out
"I don't see him. It's strange, really; all the cadets seem to
have come out already. But perhaps he's still gathering things on
Anakin approached the window. "Maybe so. If he boarded when
they left Alderaan, I hardly think he'd've gotten off partway."
"Unless he deserted at stopover to get away from Lord
Justin. Speaking of which, there's the clod now, with the Semble
martlets all over his chest. He looks taller than I expected."
As Anakin reached the glass, he glanced down. "Bloody hell,"
he whispered. He drew his blaster and swung it into the window. As the
fragments fell into the hangar, he fired at the crowd below.
She dragged his hand down. "Anakin, what--"
He had already struck the blond-streaked officer. Instead of
falling, the man struck the smolder out of his uniform sleeve. The
surface of his arm came away with it, revealing a dull metallic
sheen. As he looked up at the observation deck, his face's shadow fell
away from his throat, where a vivid crystal pulsed and flared. Seen in
the light, his face was scored with crimson-- four clotted scrapes
across one cheek, and a solid line of blood around the rest.
A spray of intersecting plasma bolts barely missed Anakin as
he ducked beneath the window ledge, dragging Arcadia to the floor with
him. "They're Nechti, damn it. They've all got those throat-crystals,
or didn't you see them?" He crawled to the squalling intercom and
whacked it. "No, I'm not out of my mind. Seal off the hangar, now!
"Well, can't you blow out the seals? Yes, I know that would
kill us, but it would take the Nechti with us!" The comm rattled with
an electronic shriek and fell silent. "Damn," he muttered. "We'll have
to run for it now."
"If the Nechti took our ships, we've got wounded out there,"
"If that's Lord Justin's face you saw out there, they took it
off him for one of their own. Our wounded are the Nechti salvage heap,
and we'll be part of it unless we move." He whipped down the stairs
and began to run farther into the base, toward his cadets in their
training bay. Arcadia scrambled to her feet and followed him as best
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