Anakin, where are you?
The Chancellor wishes to speak to me before we leave.
Very well. Just be back as soon as possible.
I will, Master.
"Ah, Padawan Skywalker, so glad you could come," Chancellor Palpatine greeted him, holding out his hand.
Anakin shook it, his bewilderment at this strange summons growing.
"You wished to speak to me, Chancellor?"
"Indeed. On more than one matter. First, I wish to extend my condolences on the loss of your mother. I understand anonymous persons on Tattooine killed her. I assure you, I will look into this matter. Your Master told me of your part in the negotiations with the Hutt in control of the planet."
He paused, studying Anakin's face until the young man wondered if he had a blemish on it.
"As to the matter of your request to wed the Queen... perhaps after this mission things will resolve so that all the involved governing bodies look upon the union in a more favorable light." With a beneficent smile, he continued. "And perhaps, I might be of assistance. Return when you are finished and we will discuss this further."
Anakin wasn't entirely certain how he left the Chancellor's quarters, or how he ended up before his Master's door. Obi-Wan opened it and gave him a perturbed look.
"Anakin, are you all right?"
"I...I don't know."
"What did the Chancellor want?"
"Just to say he was sorry about my mother," he said, oddly reluctant to mention anything regarding Amidala.
I sense you aren't telling me everything, Padawan. Trust is important between Master and Apprentice.
"Yes, Master, but I have to work things out for myself at the moment. After this mission I'll tell you everything," he promised aloud to Obi-Wan's sending. "Now, where are we going and what must we do?"
Palpatine watched the ambassadorial ship depart, the two Jedi safely ensconced aboard as they left for the latest trouble spot. A satisfied smile stretched his lips, giving him the semblance of cat with a mouse in its sights.
Yes, things were progressing exactly as he had hoped. He had sensed the building rage in the young Jedi, the frustration with the Council, the burning need for the young Queen. Despite the fact she had foiled Palpatine's earlier plans, she still had potential. If he allowed young Skywalker to marry her, get her pregnant, then he could maneuver the situation in such a way as to ascertain Anakin's loyalty to him. Then he would cement the relationship, after the child's birth, with a tragic death of the mother. Blamed, of course, on the Jedi.
The smile turned cold, calculating... a frightening thing to see... if anyone else were there to see it. Only a few had, and those were either dead or had already been under his spell. He pulled up his cloak's hood and prepared to transmit a holo to the world the Jedi traveled to. How he loved it when his plans came near fruition.
Amidala returned to Naboo and sequestered herself in her quarters for the first day. She knew she should be available to hear cases, yet she couldn't face that chore yet. Sabe' remained with her, oddly quiet and even in her own soul-searching, Amidala wondered at the cause.
That evening she emerged from her gloomy thoughts to dine with Sio Bibble and her handmaidens. He asked her about news from Coruscant.
"Governor, I worry that the Chancellor has taken too much power from the Senate. In the time I spent there, I heard some members grumbling that he has intruded into their systems' internal affairs," Amidala told him.
Sio Bibble rubbed his chin and thought for a moment. "Perhaps it is merely those who are jealous of his rise. After all, Naboo is a relatively small planetary system."
"Perhaps..." she conceded, moving on to speak of the slavery issue.
The governor listened, watching her intently. When she finished, he remarked, "How will this affect us, Your Majesty?"
"I am uncertain, Governor, yet I fear that the unrest in the Senate may prove its undoing. Even all those years ago, when the Trade Federation threatened us, I never sensed such dissension among its members. Now it seems no one can agree on anything." And Palpatine sits above them, seemingly enjoying their arguments.
"Would the Jedi consider stepping in to settle their disputes?"
"Governor, you know their policy. They will not become involved unless there is no other way."
He agreed and silence descended over the dining table until the meal ended. Amidala bid him good night, then she and her handmaidens retired.
As her friends divested her of the royal regalia and makeup, Amidala turned over in her mind the ramifications of her latest visits to Coruscant. Seeing Palpatine from both the Padme' and the Amidala personas had given her a better idea of his true character. And it worried her immensely. What also struck her odd was his seeming approval of her relationship with Anakin. As she had prepared to return to Naboo, he had visited her. The memory of his visit made her shudder.
"Your Majesty, I wished to speak to you briefly before you depart."
"I merely wished to give you assurances that I will do all in my power to support your marriage to young Skywalker," he told her, a bland smile in place.
"Chancellor?" she managed, wondering how he had discovered Anakin's proposal.
"Not to worry, Your Majesty. I am certain the Council will approve his request. The alliance between the Jedi and Naboo would benefit them greatly," he said smoothly, then turned the conversation to the slavery issue. "Most promising, Your Majesty. It seems Nal Hutta has agreed to join the Senate and discontinue the practice on a least five of the systems they control, including Tattooine."
"That *is* good news, Chancellor," she replied. If only this had happened before Anakin had left... before someone had killed his mother.
"With that, I will take my leave, Your Majesty. Have a safe and quiet journey home and give my best to Sio Bibble." He bowed and left in a swirl of blue robes.
The whole scene continued to disturb her. Anakin had told her he planned to ask the Council for permission to marry and through their bond he'd told her they'd said he must wait. He'd left without saying goodbye since he and Obi-Wan had gone on another mission. What he hadn't told her was that the Chancellor knew of their relationship. And why would the Hutts join the Senate?
She rubbed the bridge of her nose as a headache threatened, then shooed her handmaidens out to get their own rest. She lay on her bed, eyes staring at the darkened room.
Anakin... Where are you, love? Are you safe?
Am, I'm all right. What's wrong?
I miss you.
Soon, love. Soon.
Amidala curled into a tight ball, still terribly worried about so many things, not the least this last mission he had joined his Master on. Something seemed off, yet she couldn't place her finger on exactly what disturbed her. At last she fell asleep, her dreams filled with memories of the impassioned moments she had spent with Ani.
She awoke as the sky began to lighten, twisted in her sheets, her body heated and aching. *Oh, Ani... Be safe and hurry back!* she begged him.
Anakin stood a few paces behind his master, listening to Obi-Wan negotiate with the Mandalorian leader. As far as Anakin was concerned, the Mandalorians were little better than pirates. Yet Obi-Wan insisted they must at least make the attempt for a peaceful solution.
He'd heard Amidala's plea as they'd arrived on Mandalore, then during their wait for an audience he'd picked up her dreams. He shifted uncomfortably, unable to stem the tide of her arousing remembrances. Aware of his Master's brief curious glance, he pushed aside those exciting thoughts for the business at hand.
Yoda had told Obi-Wan the Mandalorians had begun assaulting nearby systems in an effort to expand their empire. He wished Obi-Wan to begin talks that would hopefully lead to them desisting from their predations into already populated worlds. From what Anakin had heard so far, they had little hope of success.
"What can you offer us that we cannot take for ourselves?" The harsh voice of the leader echoed through the hall, filled with contempt for Obi-Wan's request to desist.
"Only peace, General. I can only promise that...and promise that if you do not stop these aggressive acts, the entire Republic will be at war with your people."
The leader gave a shout of laughter. "As if I care for your weakling forces. We are Mandalorian, a power to be reckoned with. If we do not attack Coruscant, why should the Republic care?"
"Because the Republic is more than Coruscant. Every world has the right to live in freedom as it sees fit, not fear invasion and slavery at another's hands," Obi-Wan insisted.
There was that word again, Anakin thought with an internal grimace. On the tail of that came a sharp spear of loss... *Mom...* He fought against the pain and concentrated on the General's reply.
"Well, little Jedi, Mandalorians do not fear war... We welcome it. Go back and tell your Council and your Republic their threats mean nothing. Indeed, they can consider this a declaration of our intent to break that Republic."
Obi-Wan gave a grim nod, then motioned for Anakin to follow him out of the palace. They walked through ranks of armored warriors, their visages covered with concealing helmets, their Force signatures oddly murky. Anakin suppressed a shudder at the nearly droid-like sameness of each soldier. Were they droids? But no, they lived and breathed, but something wasn't right.
Master, we need to get out of here quickly. I sense something very wrong in this place.
I know, Anakin, I know. We must tell the Council and the Chancellor what we know and what the General said.
They hurried toward the ambassadorial ship, feeling as thought a thousand eyes glared at them in hostility. Not until Mandalore had shrunk to a tiny ball did Anakin breathe comfortably again.
They sped back to Coruscant and hurried toward the Council chambers.
"Worrisome is this, Obi-Wan. What say you, Padawan? Sense this also, did you?" Yoda asked.
Anakin, somewhat taken aback at the Master's question, tried to gather his thoughts. "Yes, Master Yoda. There was something... odd... about the whole situation. As if they wished to taunt us and force the Republic into acting. Their warriors...they seemed rather strange, too. I could sense they lived, but I also sensed a peculiar... sameness in their life forces."
"Hmmm... Could they be clones?" Mace Windu asked.
A murmur rose among the Council members. Ki Ad-Mundi spoke up. "If this is so, then they must have had assistance from elsewhere. From what we know, the Mandalorians have the reputation as a warrior society with tendencies toward aggressive acquisition. Nothing we do know of them suggests they have the technology to clone."
"Unless they have made a pact with another race that does," Adi Gallia proposed. "Perhaps this ally has negotiated some sort of treaty that allows them immunity from Mandalorian predation in exchange for cloning technology that provides Mandalore with a replaceable army."
A terrible silence descended over the chamber as those present contemplated the ramifications of such an occurrence.
"Until we have proof, we cannot assume such a thing. Merely that Mandalore has declared war against the entire Republic. That in itself does not bode well. The Chancellor must be told and the Senate informed in order that preparations for defense are started," Mace Windu stated. "Obi-Wan, since you and your Padawan brought this news, perhaps you should be the ones to speak to the Chancellor."
Obi-Wan bowed, then he and Anakin left for the Senate chambers.
Chancellor Palpatine met them in his recess room, his face creased with appropriate distress at their news. Obi-Wan detailed the events, only leaving out the part about the strange Force signatures he and Anakin had sensed.
"They have declared war, Chancellor... war on the entire Republic," he finished.
"This is most disturbing, Knight Kenobi. I must hasten back to the Senate and inform the members to begin arming themselves against this threat." He gave a measuring look at the two standing before him. "Can I count on the Council's support in this matter?"
"Chancellor, I cannot speak for them, but I will address the issue. Perhaps Master Windu or Yoda can give you an answer."
"I pray they do so quickly," Palpatine replied, then returned to the Senate chambers.
After the door closed behind the Chancellor, Anakin murmured, "That was rather strange, don't you think?"
"In what way, Anakin?"
"I sensed no distress as he left, rather it felt as if he were pleased with something."
"Perhaps you are overly sensitive. I picked up no such thing," Obi-Wan protested.
"Perhaps I *am* too sensitive, Master, but I know what I felt. He wasn't upset over the Mandalorian declaration of war. When he left, he projected his true feelings. It was as though he was happy that things had come to this pass," Anakin insisted.
Obi-Wan pursed his lips and frowned, contemplating his Padawan's words. It was true; Anakin had much more strength in the Force, despite his youth and still often undisciplined nature. He could have picked up something so subtle the average Jedi never would have.
"I believe you, but I cannot tell the Council this. Perhaps Master Windu or Yoda alone, but we must report back to them at once. No matter what, the Mandalorians present a danger to us all," he told Anakin. "We must hurry."
They made for the Temple, Obi-Wan contacting Master Windu to call the Council together. When they arrived, the members awaited them.
Obi-Wan and Anakin gave their report, Anakin holding back what he felt the true nature of the Chancellor. Obi-Wan asked to see Mace and Yoda alone once he finished the official report.
After the last of the Masters filed out, Mace turned his attention back to Obi-Wan and Anakin. "May I ask why you needed this privacy?"
"Master Windu, Anakin has something to tell you. Something I cannot corroborate, but feel he should speak of."
Anakin felt a cold knot gather in his stomach; much as it had the first time he stood before Masters Windu and Yoda more than ten years before. His chin lifted and he determined he would not let them intimidate him any more today than they had at that time.
"Chancellor Palpatine may have some secret agenda in this matter. I sensed some sort of satisfaction when he left us to speak to the Senate about the situation. Not at all what he had projected earlier when we first told him about it."
Neither of the masters replied at first, merely studied him. He felt as if he were some sort of microbe under a microscope. At last, Yoda spoke.
"Strange this is, young Skywalker. About your request for marriage to the Naboo Queen the Chancellor did speak to us while you and Obi-Wan were gone. Proposed we look favorably upon it, he did." Yoda's brow wrinkled in thought. "Glad about your return might his feeling be... not something dark. Considered this, have you?"
"No... No, I hadn't, Master Yoda. I can only hope that's the real reason for what I picked up." Anakin refused to back down, but that the Chancellor had acted as his advocate for marrying Amidala surprised him. "Forgive my speculations, Masters. I merely felt it important you know."
Yoda closed his eyes for a moment, then once again studied Anakin closely. "Visit Naboo, young Padawan. For the best this might be. To see Amidala again, I recommend. If war is upon us, much time could pass before again you meet. Go now...its blessing the Council gives to your marriage. Obi-Wan and Adi Gallia you take as representatives of the Jedi."
Anakin stood still, in shock at the turn of events. Obi-Wan looked troubled, but he smoothed his expression and bowed to Yoda and Mace. Once outside, he remained quiet on their way back to their quarters.
When they reached Anakin's room, Obi-Wan stood for a moment. "Anakin, I wish this were under better circumstances. I know you've wanted this a long time." He gave a weak smile. "Make the best of it. I have a bad feeling about this whole Mandalorian mess."
He patted Anakin's arm, then moved off toward his own quarters. Anakin opened his door and went inside as if in a dream. He stared off into the Coruscant skyline, his thoughts reaching for Amidala.
Am... I'm coming, Am. And they've given me leave to marry you.
Obi-Wan and Adi Gallia will be coming as Council representatives. As soon as we can pack, we're on our way.
Hurry, love, hurry. I fear something will prevent this.
Nothing can stop us being together, Am. Nothing...