The Sith

It was the year of Imperial grace one hundred and four, eighty-third since the death of the Emperor Palpatine of glorious memory, twelfth of the current reign, and the Empire lay licking its wounds from the Clone Wars. The victory had been costly; she needed time to recover and digest her conquests. The small client systems surviving in precarious independence on the fringes of the Empire breathed sighs of relief and looked to their defenses and their diplomacies to stave off the inevitable a little longer.

Among them was Sith.

* * *

Politics was of only peripheral interest that afternoon in the gardens of the Grand Duke's summer residence at Falthi. There was a bit of fall crispness in the air. The Household would soon be moving to the grey stone winter palace with its yard-thick walls and huge fireplaces designed to ward off the blizzards of the Sith cold season. But for now, the sun was still warm in this sheltered corner where mother and daughter sat at their sewing. The veil of late-blooming vineflowers that covered the wall behind them gave off the heavy, sleepy scent of autumn and the soft buzzing of honeygatherers hurrying to store the last of their nectar crop against the winter.

The ten-year-old Princess Jessha sat on the carved stone bench with her head bent over her embroidery sampler. Long falls of pale blonde hair shadowed her face and brushed the outsides of her forearms. Her expression, as befitted a princess of Sith, was demure. Her feet were neatly tucked together beneath her bulky skirts, her back straight, but her heart was mutinous. The Princess Jessha hated embroidery. She pushed the heels of her slippers together so hard the rough brocade ground into her small feet and her knees quivered slightly in an invisible gesture of frustration. Control. A Lady of Sith must never allow unseemly evidence of her emotions to show, not even- Jessha thought rebelliously of her brothers, who had escaped the iron hand of their mother on their seventh birthdays for the tutelage of the family arms-master and their more indulgent lord father, the Grand Duke. They could run and shout and sprawl. But for the girls of the family, there was no escape. Jessha felt suffocated, and she got a certain satisfaction from pushing her stitches through the linen in savage little stabs that were, she hoped, hidden from her mother's constant scrutiny by her curtain of hair.

She risked a sideways look under her hair. The Duchess Norella turned a length of gold wire around the outline of the branching tines of the welett's antler she was stitching and couched it down neatly with red silk. Her round, pink face and plump figure, her carefully cultivated expression of mild unworldliness, made her look rather like a merchant's wife masquerading in the elaborate green-and-silver gown. But Jessha was all too aware of the terror the Duchess could inspire in her children and her household with no more than a frown and a gentle word of rebuke. Jessha was half afraid that if her mother ever raised her voice, the very stars would fall out of the sky, but so far it had never happened.

As she worked, the Duchess rehearsed, "... Koric, of course, will marry Maryen, and Daali is betrothed to Sanna of Wenk's daughter, and you-" She looked up and smiled at her daughter. "-And you are very lucky, Jessha. You are to wed your cousin Darth."

In spite of all she could do, Jessha fidgeted. Her mother frowned. "What is it?"

"I don't want to marry Darth. He's... he's... mean; he won't play with us and half the time he looks at you like you aren't even there, and when I told him the story about Daali falling off his delwa at the jump, he just stared at me. Everyone else thought it was funny. I don't like Darth. He's no fun at all."

"Darth is the Heir. He will be the next Dark Lord, and it is a great honor to be chosen for him. You should be proud." The Duchess continued, "He is to be your husband, not your playmate."

Jessha said, "Maybe I won't stay on Sith and get married at all. Maybe I'll go to school on Center, and see cities and the droids that talk, and... and I'll marry one of the Emperor's sons and have a big palace, bigger than the Dark Lord's, with holowindows and a real flitter that actually flies in the air, and-"

The Duchess's expression was a mixture of amusement and irritation. "There you go again, little skywalker, dancing among the clouds. Come back down to earth. You can't go to the Imperial worlds; your duty is here, on Sith. You will have to accept it."

"But I don't want to."

Jessha almost thought, for a moment, that she saw a distant wistfulness in her mother's face, but the look flickered and was gone before she could be sure. "Child, you must learn that what you want has nothing to do with your duty as princess of Sith. We'll hear no more about it."

"Yes, Momma."

Duchess Norella stitched down more gold wire. “Don't worry, child. You will learn to like your cousin well enough once you marry. I never even saw the Duke your father before our wedding day, and we have been perfectly contented all these years. You are of the royal House and your blood is precious. You must wed where the Council dictates, for the good of Sith.”

“Yes, Momma,” Jessha repeated in a lifeless voice.

The Duchess raised questioning eyebrows at her daughter, and Jessha took advantage of the softening to try to explain. She said hurriedly, “Momma, I don't want to live in the Palace. I'm afraid of the Dark Lord.”

Very wise. Jessha caught the undercurrent of her mother's thoughts, unsure if the Duchess were deliberately unshielded or had simply forgotten her daughter's new ability to pick up in the Force. But no, the Duchess never forgot anything. If you fear this one enough, you may survive to be the wife of the next Dark Lord. “He will be a good lord to you,” she said aloud, her tone curiously flat. Jessha concluded from the set of her mother's mouth that there would be no further discussion on that subject. She lowered her eyes submissively and was silent. “Let me see how your burden stitch looks now, Jessha.”

“Yes, Momma.” No, Jessha thought. No, no, NO! I want to say it so much, just once, about anything. It would feel so good to say what I actually think, what I actually want - just stand up and shout NO! right out loud-

“Jessha,” the Duchess said sharply.

The girl jumped, pricked herself with her needle, and automatically stuck the gashed finger in her mouth. She kept forgetting that her own thoughts were no longer private since her Force-sense had begun to mature. Her mother reached over, removed the offending finger, and set Jessha's hand in her lap.

“Control yourself,” she said, then added more gently, “you are getting to be a young lady. Other people besides your family will soon be able to Read you, and you must not let them hear you thinking like that. You wouldn't want them to, would you?”

“No, Momma,” said Jessha through clenched teeth as she raised her wobbly new Force-shield.

The Duchess Norella sighed, very softly.

* * *

When she remembered it later, it seemed to Jessha it was snowing that whole cold season before Koric went off to the university; that she spent that entire winter sitting on the window seat in the solar, watching the snow fall and envying her brother.

The snow had finally stopped that afternoon after tapering off to a few spits, leaving behind a sullen overcast that threatened to renew the attack at any time. Jessha curled up more tightly on the window seat, hugging her ankles, and looked out into the garden, now reduced to a variety of mysterious white shapes and a cold-looking, naked marble tree-spirit waiting for the spring thaw to become a fountain again. She stretched luxuriously and turned to insert another story into her imported holoviewer. It was so warm and snug here in the solar-no, she reminded herself, the proper word, the word the Imperials used, was "dayroom". Yes, the dayroom was wonderful on a winter morning like this, with her family sitting around the fire together, just like the families in the holotapes her father ordered for her from the Imperial worlds where everything was new and modern and exciting.

She rested her elbow on the windowsill, put her head on her hand, and daydreamed. If only she could go to visit those magical far-off worlds where eleven-year-old girls like her lived in "apartments" in "cities" instead of in old castles, and traveled in groundcars on busy roads instead of on delwa-back. To go to a "school" instead of having lessons with a tutor and a dancing-master-Jessha sighed. Koric would get to see it all. He would be going off-planet to study at the university. She would stay here; it was not proper for a princess of Sith to attend a public university, no matter how liberal and progressive her parents were. Jessha sighed again. Being a princess of Sith could be very dull sometimes.

Her name in a fragment of conversation caught her attention.

"It's not that I mind being born second," the Grand Duke was saying. "It's just that I object to old Walde being born first. He's insufferable, and that obnoxious brat of his, Darth, takes right after him." Jessha's father took another swallow of wine and stared moodily into the fire. The Grand Duke hated being cooped up inside, inactive. The snow put him in a foul humor. It wasn't that he didn't want to be with his family, Jessha knew. In fact, he loved his family very much. But he missed his hunting more.

"Arlen," said his wife warningly into her embroidery. She raised her head, crowned by the elaborate coronet of blonde braids that looked so out of place above her plain face, and smiled at the casual and vaguely disheveled figure of her husband. "That obnoxious brat is the Heir and the boy Jessha is going to marry."

"It's such a close match-first cousins. I hope the Genetic Council knows what it's doing."

"They told me that Darth has some remarkably strong Force recessives that match Jessha's and the Council wants to see if they can be fixed in the royal line. It seems reasonable to me." She paused, snipped the silk, and rethreaded her needle with another color. "I just hope the two of them can live together."

"Yes. I know. Last Midwinter Feast I invited him to join in the blindman's bluff with the family, and he said, 'No, I thank you Uncle; I do not play,' and looked down his nose at me as if I were one of the servants. I wouldn't have thought anybody could look down his nose at me when he only came up to my belt buckle."          

“Poor Darth,” Duchess Norella sighed. “I think Walde expects too much of him. He's only a little boy.”

“He's not like any other little boy I ever saw - not like our children. I'll bet Walde fooled us all, and he's actually a thirty-year-old midget in disguise. It wouldn't surprise me. I never did think that old stick was capable of-“

“Arlen! The children!”

Jessha shrank back into the window seat and tried to look as if she hadn't been listening. She surveyed the dayroom. Her two younger brothers were building a fort out of blocks, her two younger sisters playing quietly in the corner. Her next older brother was plaiting ribbons into a dress bridle for his favorite riding delwa, also trying to look very absorbed in what he was doing. They did make quite a crowd, she thought. Whatever happened to his nephew, Duke Arlen had certainly done his duty to assure the succession of Sith.

“Whatever we think about it,” the Duchess continued calmly, “Darth is going to marry Jessha. The Council is quite determined.”

The Duke snorted. “That bunch of ivory-tower mystics! The way they've been selecting for Force ability the last few generations, you'd think they were breeding Jedi instead of Sith. I think we need a little more honest warrior spirit and a little less mumbo-jumbo. Maybe that's what's wrong with the boy.” He grimaced. “It hasn't done wonders for Walde.”

“Oh, Arlen,” Norella laughed, “you're just tired of being indoors. Cheer up; it looks as though the snow has stopped at last. Maybe you can go hunting tomorrow after all.”

The Duke jumped up and went to the window, looking out over his daughter's head. He turned back to his wife with a cheerful grin. “Right you are - it has stopped.” He continued airily, “Oh, well; we're all slaves to the Council, I suppose. Jessha will just have to take her chances like the rest of us. Why do you think I married you?”

“Because you're madly in love with me, of course,” the Duchess replied complacently.

“Ah-hah! My secret discovered!” he said, with a look of mock-horror. He strode over to her chair and kissed her soundly.

There was the sound of rapid footsteps down the hallway outside, and a tall, blond young man burst into the room, followed by a blast of arctic air. He stamped his boots on the floor, sending a shower of snow cascading down off his fur-lined winter cloak, and beamed all over his frank, high-spirited face. He was followed at a respectful distance by a man wearing the uniform of an Alderaani Air Force lieutenant, who caught the door before it could slam, and shut it.

“Koric!” said the Duchess. “Is that any way to come in here? Look what you're doing to the floor!”

"It was glorious, just glorious!" Koric cried, oblivious to the state of the carpet. "We flew up above the storm, right over the mountains. The clouds looked like a pot of soup boiling. Lieutenant Pelz even let me hold the controls for a while. And then we came down through the storm - the lightning was all around us. Wonderful!"

"I'm glad you enjoyed yourself. And now, son-"

"Oh, father, I can't understand why we can't import enough of these Imperial machines for everyone--the common people, too. We could even build them ourselves, the lieutenant tells me. Think how convenient they would be: the farmers could get their crops to market in a fraction of the time; we could even travel in the winter. And it's so beautiful. Flying-"

"Your Grace," the Alderaani approached the Duke and bowed. "Sir, as I told your son, Sith is rich in metals and atomic ores. Alderaan could easily help your government set up a pilot plant to manufacture aircars using native materials and native labor. Why, within ten years - maybe even five - we could be turning out enough aircars to supply your whole planet. And that's not all, sir. There are hundreds of other items….”.”

"No," said the Duke. "His Highness has forbidden it."

The children, who had been clustering around the Alderaani with excited chatter, fell silent and turned to their father. Koric looked rebellious and the Alderaani puzzled.

"But father, why? There's no reason-" Koric began.

"The Dark Lord has forbidden it. The question is closed."

Koric threw down his gloves with a colorful and improbable observation on his uncle's personal habits. The Alderaani stifled a snicker.

"You may go, pilot," said the Duke coldly, and for a moment he looked remarkably like his brother. The pilot bowed himself out hurriedly. Duke Arlen rose, clasped his hands behind his back and strode back and forth in front of the fire in an abstracted fashion. Duchess Norella watched him carefully, her hands quiet in her lap but holding, perhaps, more tightly to the needle and embroidery frame than usual. After a moment, Arlen spoke to her. "Send the rest of the children out."

"Call the nurses, Daali," the Duchess said, and the boy went to the door, opened it, and spoke to the guard on the outside. The children's nurses, who had been waiting in the outer room, came in to take their charges away to the Children's Solar in the other wing of the winter palace. Jessha hesitated, afire with curiosity, near the door.

"If you don't mind, my dear," said Arlen.

"Arlen," the Duchess said, "I don't think ..." She swallowed her objection at her husband's irritated gesture, gathered her needlework and moved slowly toward the door. Her waiting woman hurried to her side through the open door and the Duchess put the embroidery into her hands almost mechanically. Norella paused reluctantly at the door, but her husband's expression was determined. After a nearly imperceptible hesitation, almost pleading, was met by the same adamant look, she hurried Jessha out in front of her and nodded to the guard to close the thick wooden doors behind them.

* * *

When they were alone, Duke Arlen turned back to his son. "You will not use that kind of language in front of your lady mother."

"I'm sorry, father. But it makes me so angry-"

The Duke returned to his chair and refilled his glass before continuing. "That remark was singularly stupid. In case it escaped your notice, it was also treason. If it were to come to his attention, your uncle has a number of highly skilled people who would be happy to remind you of that fact at the cost of considerable personal discomfort to you."

Koric looked a bit green, but he said boldly, “The prince wouldn't do that. I'm of his own blood.”

"That wouldn't stop him if he thought you were a threat to him." The

Duke paused. “Koric, I think it's time you and I had a little talk. You must start to think about it sometime."

The Duke settled back in his chair and motioned Koric to the seat beside him. “Koric, the old Prince is not likely to live for too many more years; you know his health is not the best. You are next in line for the throne of Sith after your cousin, and Darth is only a ten-year-old boy. There are a number of lords who would much rather see my son as Lord of the Sith than Walde's - men who favor closer ties with the Empire, a more rapid policy of modernization. Men who fear the power of the Empire and do not want a child on the throne to oppose it. Do you understand what all that means?”

“I know all that, father. It's been that way for years. What makes it so important now?”

"Walde is not the man to move rashly or unnecessarily. But you will be of legal age this coming spring. Do you think I'm sending you to the Hub for schooling simply because you can get a better education on an Imperial planet?”

"I suppose not."

"You suppose rightly. I want to remove the temptation for your loving uncle to ensure his whelp's undisputed claim by having you removed quietly and permanently.”

Koric sat for a moment, digesting this. Then he looked up, obviously disturbed. “But father, what about you? Are you in danger, too?”

“Me? If I were, I'd have disappeared years ago. No, I stay quietly at home: I enjoy my family, I drink, I go hunting, I attend to my own estates. I have no ambition for the throne, and Walde knows it."

"I don't want the throne either," said Koric hurriedly.

His father looked at him dubiously. "Don't you? Well, if you don't, you'd better let those supporters you've been collecting know about it, or you may find yourself in an embarrassing position fairly soon. Not to mention a dangerous one. No one has ever accused Walde of being overly naive."

"Or you, father."

Arlen sighed. "Son, I admire your spirit, but I sometimes wonder about your common sense. Have a little patience. Walde won't live forever." He leaned forward, suddenly completely serious. "And Koric - don't expect me to back you. Do you think you are the first to try this sort of thing? Not this reign, not this century - and Walde has a long memory. You are my son, but Walde is my elder brother. Whatever I think of him, he's the legitimate Dark Lord, and his son's the legitimate Heir. That's the way it's got to be."

Koric's face showed clearly what was in his mind.

"You think I'm a coward, eh?" Arlen's wry humor returned. "You're not the first there, either, son. Thank the Bright Lord, Walde is sure of it. Took me long enough to convince him, too."

Koric shifted nervously in his seat and Arlen watched him until what he was trying to say bubbled up irrepressibly to the surface. "Father, don't you care?"

"About what?"

"About our people. I go by the fields out there - our fields - and there they are, working with draft delwas and hand plows and scythes. Things they haven't used in the Empire for two hundred years. They can hardly plant enough to feed themselves, let alone harvest any to sell and buy the things they need from the towns. And we have a flitter, and spiced wine-" Koric waved at the table. "If we could bring in Imperial technology it would improve things so much. They'd work harder for us, too, I'm sure of it. Doesn't it matter to you? Why won't the Dark Lord let us bring in Imperial machines? Why do you support him?"

"Ah, the idealism of youth," Arlen snorted. "Ask your Alderaani friend sometime how many of his factory workers have spiced wine and no worries about where their next meal is coming from." He leaned back. "Yes, certainly we need Imperial technology. But we must move slowly. Rapid changes confuse the peasants, and confused peasants are ill-tempered. I have no intention of putting my head - or yours - on the block in some uprising. Give it time, son. There's nothing harder to keep out than knowledge. Imperial technology will get here soon enough."

"It would get here a lot faster if you would do something to oppose the Dark Lord's policies!" Koric was angry now. "You're his brother. It would influence a lot of people if you spoke out for a more liberal policy, wouldn't it?"

"And influence me right into one of Waldo's detention cells. Native

Sith technology is quite good enough in that area."

"Father-"

"Enough, Koric. You'll be the lord here when I'm gone, and you have to understand the situation, but I'm not dead yet, and I don't intend to go before my time. I'm walking a tightrope and it's hard enough to stay balanced with your supporters pushing me from one side and Walde waiting for me to make a false move on the other. The only safe place is in the middle. I have to think of your mother and the children - and the safety of our people. The people you're so concerned about. Walde wouldn't stick at mass executions if he thought it would be an effective deterrent. He's done it before. For the sake of those poor peasants your heart bleeds for. go slowly and go quietly. And don't get me involved." Arlen gulped down his glass of wine and turned to refill it. He waved a dismissal in Koric's direction. "Now go away and leave me alone."

* * *

Spring came soon enough, and with it Koric's wedding. Jessha carried the bride's train and watched her brother, his bright gold hair like a candle flame above the cloth-of-gold of scarlet cotehardie with its bugling embroidered wellet and label of cadency; and she thought him the most wonderful man in the universe. Koric did his duty and departed soon after for Alderaan, leaving behind a pregnant wife, a discontented party of supporters, and several envious siblings. The next year was Daali's turn to bring home a wife; the Duke was heard to grumble that he wished one of his children would marry below his station-someone who would be quick, uncomplicated, and cheap to wed and bed. The Duchess simply smiled and with her second son taken care of, moved on to begin the tedious shadow-work of silver thread and pearls that would eventually decorate Jessha's bridal veil.

 Koric proved to be one of those unusual students who writes home from the university. At first, Arlen was pleased, and happy enough to share with the rest of the family Koric's excited descriptions of towering buildings and druids, new foods, new clothes, new sights, new ideas. Koric reported that he was doing well enough in his studies and improving his grasp of Galactic quickly, although it soon became clear that he would never be a scholar. His family was satisfied.

Gradually, however, a disturbing note crept into Koric's letters and Arlen began to be uneasy. At first there was nothing the Duke could put his finger on: something Arlen identified as an injudicious and unnecessary enthusiasm in Koric's descriptions of his Alderaani history and political science courses; a casual sentence here and there with a faintly accusing tone. But there was little that was concrete. "No one goes barefoot here even in the warmest weather," Koric wrote, and the Duke knew he was remembering the lowest class of peasants on their estates, who went barefoot in summer to save their shoes. Koric had frequently attended, as the Duke's Heir, the traditional ceremony of Midwinter Gift in the great hall, when the Duchess handed out lengths of cloth, and leather, for making shoes to the poorest serfs.

"I do not think anyone goes hungry here. At least I have seen no beggars on the streets since I arrived." Arlen understood Koric's oblique reference to the swarms of petitioners who crowded around the ducal carriage and the Duke's riding delwa during his progresses. No beggars. No, thought Arlen, there the beggars live on the government dole, and have never seen their lords. I can well suppose proud Alderaan wants no beggars visible on her capital's streets for non-Alderaani to see. He snorted. No beggars-

"Even the poor folk here seem to have tri-D, and most of them have groundcars. My Alderaani acquaintance, Pera'u, says it was very different here before industrialization...."

Arlen sighed. This Pera'u continued to figure regularly in Koric's correspondence. Discreet inquiries through the Sith embassy uncovered very little about him. The young attaché the Duke depended on for information which would not pass through his brother's official notice, the young attaché who was nephew to the seneschal of the Duke's estates at Falthi, relayed only that this Pera'u was apparently an ordinary member of the Alderaani noble class, a younger son destined for the military, whose main interests in life seemed to be harmless political discussions of a mild liberal bent, pursuing the local women, and attending rather desultorily to his studies. What those studies were, the Duke's contact did not say. It sounded harmless enough, but Arlen was not satisfied. Not at all.

His suspicions were confirmed when he finally got the letter from his son he had been half-expecting and wholly fearing for some months. The year had turned twice since Koric had gone to Alderaan. It was snowing again, the Duke noticed-heavy, wet flakes that struck the leaded windows of Arlen's private study with aggressive thuds, as if the flakes were tiny batallions of enemy soldiers trying to take the castle by storm. The Duke smiled wryly at the martial image. If what this letter threatened came to pass, Castle Davalett, and all the castles of the Duke's family, might well find themselves under genuine attack. It will come, as I feared, Arlen thought. There is no way I can prevent it; no way I can escape it. I have never wished for my own death-1 have always been far too much in love with the things of life and the harmless pleasures of the flesh. Or so my brother always thought. Perhaps he is right; perhaps if I too had cared more for political manipulation and the subtleties of rank and power, I could have prevented it. Perhaps if I had dominated my children, made them devious and cold-hearte d- and obedient - as Walde has made his son, I could have prevented it. But I could not; it was not my nature, and it was no gift for a child of mine, to make him mean-spirited and calculating. Yet I have feared this more than anything, and now it has come. I have never wished for my own death-but I hope it comes before what I see here comes to trouble Sith. There will be deaths enough in it, and I do not want to be responsible.

No, a bitter self-accusing thought said in his mind; you have never wanted to be responsible for anything....

Arlen waved the sodden messenger who had brought him his son's letter out of the room and turned to the sheet again. At least Koric had had the sense to send it by hand, instead of through the regular communications service. But the Duke had little enough hope that the letter had escaped the Dark Lord's attention. There were too many steps between Alderaan and Castle Davalett, and Walde was too careful when it came to his nephew. Somewhere along the line, Walde was sure to have seen it.

The Duke noticed idly how the dull light through the falling snow turned the green velvet cushions of the window seat to a spiritless olive-drab and greyed the polished wood of his armchair to a depressing dark shade. He poured himself another glass of wine; even the beautiful deep red of his favorite brandiwjn was muddy in this light. How I hate snow, the Duke thought drearily as he turned back to the letter. The child had no discretion.

He found the relevant paragraph. "... I have made many friends since I came here to Alderaan. We have had many discussions outside of class, and I have been pleased with the great interest they show in learning about the way things are in Sith, about our family, and about our people. They have been most kind and have listened to my ideas and my hopes for the future here and at home. I am afraid you might find them a little hasty, father; they are in a hurry to get things done. I know you have always said I was too impatient, but you know that when I am interested in something, I want to accomplish it right away. These friends of mine seem to be of the same opinion. I hope you will not be unhappy, but I intend to bring some of them home with me to visit when the time comes for me to leave Alderaan, and they have told me they are eager to see all the things I have told them about on Sith. I wished to let you know, so that you and my lady mother could plan to entertain them properly. I hope you will not object, for I have already invited them, and they are most interested in coming."

Arlen slammed down the letter. Did that idiot of a son of his think this transparent nonsense would fool Walde? It was more than clear to him-as it would be to the ever-suspicious Dark Lord his brother - that Koric had made contact with some revolutionary group on Alderaan and expected to get troops from them to support his attempt at the throne of Sith. They would be happy enough to give Koric what he wanted, too; a malleable and technology-happy Dark Lord on the throne would give Alderaan - and the Empire-exactly the opening they wanted in Sith. And all too soon Koric would find himself no more than a pawn.

Arlen debated what he should do about this letter. He could hardly take it to his brother. Walde would not expect him to betray his son - family feeling ran deep among all the Vaders - and such a move would undoubtedly set Walde to wondering what kind of a double game he was playing. And if, by some remarkable chance, the letter had escaped the Dark Lord's attention…. . Arlen shook his head with a little sigh; it was a very slim chance, but it was just barely possible. If he brought it to Walde's attention, the entire family would be in danger of slow termination in one of the surprisingly modern chambers in the depths of the Dark Lord's Security building, if not public execution in the main square. Left to himself, Walde might ignore the whole thing for any of a half a dozen reasons; if forced to notice it, he would have to take action. No, he could not take the letter to the Dark Lord.

He was not really implicated, Arlen decided. The letter clearly said that Koric had taken action without his knowledge or consent. Perhaps the Duke and his wife and children could escape blame for the entire situation, if he did nothing overt in support of his son. Walde knew Koric was headstrong; and he had enough contempt for Arlen's cowardice....

 And, of course, Arlen thought, Koric always MIGHT succeed. If his son should win the struggle, it would not look good if the Duke had acted in support of the present Dark Lord. The boy did have supporters among the nobility after all, and this Alderaani army might be enough to put him over the edge into victory against Walde. It would be extremely unfortunate if he were to be executed instead by his own son's party. It was an irony Walde would certainly appreciate from whatever vantage point he might have at that time, but Arlen did not feel he himself would much enjoy the joke.

The safest thing was to do nothing at all.

Arlen leaned back and raised his glass in a mocking salute to his brother and his son. "My lords, upon your honor: Lay on!" Arlen said softly, quoting the ancient formula for combat upon the tourney field. In this joust, he would stand outside the lists. He drained his glass and flicked on the voicewrite he had bought from the Imperial importer, and began:

"My son Koric: Perhaps it would be best if you did not contact me again...."

* * *

Jessha had just turned fourteen, and it was her betrothal celebration. All her perceptions seemed to be heightened and yet fragmented by the strange fluttery feeling in her stomach, half excitement and half fear as she prepared to take her place in the receiving line for the first time. She was aware of the heavy flower-scent, almost nauseating, from the gardens she could see through the wide open doors across the room from her. It was one of the rare clear nights on the Sith, free of fog, mist, or rain. The gravel paths shone under the full moon like a river and the leaves looked as if they were made of beaten silver, cold, hard, and perfect. Very like the Dark Lord, their master, Jessha thought in passing: cold, hard, and… p perfect. She had not wanted to come here to the Dark Lord's palace for the betrothal, but custom demanded it, as custom demanded the marriage itself.

Yet, there was no question she was looking her best tonight. Her pale hair still hung loose to her waist under the jeweled bride's coronet, as it would until she was married, but her dress had a train - a real train - and it was cut low over her small bosom to mark her newly adult status. She shifted her feet, feeling the sensuous weight of moss-green velvet around them, and caught the end of her veil, transparent gold-shot gauze, in her fingertips. She almost gave a little skip of pure excitement before she caught her mother's warning expression from the cluster of Duke Arlen's Household and supporters near the door. Instantly, she composed herself, primly solemn. She must not forget there were enemies here as well as friends. She relaxed a bit at her mother's pleased smile before the Duchess turned to her husband the Grand Duke, who was laughing and expansive as usual in public, his face slightly flushed with wine and the rather brittle good humor of the gathering.

There really was quite a crowd, Jessha noticed. The betrothal of the Heir of Sith to his cousin was the social event of the year, and the towering Great Hall was packed with the nobility of Sith and numerous foreign visitors, all dressed in their best. She was very conspicuously at the center of it all; she could almost feel the currents of intrigue, the tentative diplomacies and shifting alliances swirling around her under the surface calm. Suddenly she felt uneasy, out of her depth. She sent her mother an uncertain look, and the Duchess came over. She adjusted Jessha's elaborate puffed and tied sleeves, and, under cover of the casual movement, put a firm hand on Jessha's arm. "Bear up, child," she said. "Remember who you are." Then she relented with a tiny smile and added, "Don't worry; you look beautiful. You will do us proud, little skywalker." Jessha managed a wavering smile in answer to the childhood nickname, and gave her mother's hand a grateful squeeze as the Duchess turned to return to her place.

Jessha's betrothed came up from behind to join her, and she glanced at him curiously out of the corner of her eye. She recalled him from family gatherings as a quiet boy who seldom smiled, very much on his dignity and conscious of his position, with a superior air that had always irritated her. She did not know him at all. He had hardly spoken to her, even after their parents had agreed to the match; indeed, he seemed to be trying to ignore her presence as much as possible, and his shield was up completely.

Why doesn't he talk to me? Jessha wondered. He bowed stiffly over her hand with cold and perfect courtesy, his face blank, and said nothing. Jessha thought she had never seen such a look of inhuman control on so young a face. Perhaps he was angry with her? Disliked her? But what could she have done to make him dislike her? A little nervous annoyance stirred in her, a defense against his possible mood. But there was no expression at all on his face, nothing she could even identify as distaste. After all, Jessha considered, Darth is only a child, really: a whole year younger than I am. Maybe he's just nervous....

She was saved from trying to make conversation with him by the line of guests which was suddenly moving past her, each requiring a word of greeting, a chance to curtsy or bow to her. She was glad that, in spite of her mother's endless drill, she did not have to remember all their names and titles. The herald-pursuivant - how strange it was to have a human instead of a protocol droid like the one at her father's estate, Jessha thought irrelevantly - murmured identifications in her ear as each person arrived at her place in line. She smiled and nodded graciously and remembered her politest formulas of address.

When the last of them had passed, the Dark Lord signaled from his chair of estate on the dais, and the music began. Darth took her hand and led her out at the head of the processional pavane. She concentrated on the graceful dips and gliding steps, on keeping her back straight and managing her new train in the turns. Everyone would be watching her. She didn't dare divert enough attention to see what the audience of courtiers and hangers-on along the walls was doing. "Left, together; right, together; rise, and-" she breathed soundlessly, her face grim. They reached the foot of the dais and she sank into a profound curtsy with her eyes lowered. She didn't want to look up at the Dark Lord; he terrified her. She shielded desperately, trying to prevent him from sensing her fear, but she knew it was hopeless.

Darth took a firmer hold on her hand and swung Jessha gracefully into the first figure of the dance. She felt, faintly, something akin to gratitude that he had rescued her from her terrible uncle's attention. Perhaps she could even grow to like Darth. After a few moments, she began to be more confident. This was no more difficult than her dancing lessons at home, and her feet moved almost automatically in the familiar steps. She unglued her eyes from the couple ahead of them in the figure and shot quick, sideways glances at her partner, trying not to be too obvious as she studied him.

He was almost exactly her height. Most boys Jessha knew of Darth's age were shorter than she, and she was glad that he had started to get his growth. It was so much easier dancing with someone who was tall enough, and they really would have looked a little silly if he were much shorter. All the same, she thought critically, his legs were much too long and he was undeniably all knees and elbows, for all that he moved gracefully enough. Her urge to snicker at his gangling frame died instantly as her eyes reached his face. He was lost in his own thoughts, concentrating on the dance or some other preoccupation, no longer completely expressionless, and there was a rigid intensity to him, a wary and secretive look like a defensive wall. And something else. Beneath the barrier, Jessha was puzzled to see, she thought, a sort of dead and hopeless longing, a hunger without expectation. It was the look Jessha had seen on the pinched face of a beggar child on one of her father's progresses. Why should Darth look like that? Jessha thought in confusion. He was the prince, the Heir of Sith. Surely he did not lack anything.

Moved by some obscure sympathy, she tried to smile. "You dance well, Cousin."

The corners of Darth's mouth turned up like a lid opening painfully on rusty hinges. "And you, Cousin. I am honored to have such a beautiful and charming partner." He sounded as if he were reciting a lesson, but he seemed friendly enough.

Jessha preened a little and continued more warmly, "My mother showed me the necklace and bracelets you sent as a betrothal gift. They're very pretty. I love sapphires. It's too bad I can't wear them until after we're married."

"They belonged to my lady mother. She died when I was born, you know."

Jessha had a sudden vision of Darth, living alone in this vast palace, with no companions except servants and the terrible Dark Lord his father. She shuddered slightly. "That's very sad, Cousin. I'd miss my mother very much if she weren't here. Still, my father always did things with us children also - he took my brothers hunting and taught them swordplay and riding and hawking. Did you and the old Lord-" She stopped. It was impossible to imagine.

An expression she couldn't decipher flitted over Darth's face. "His Highness of Sith has more important tasks than playing games with children."

Jessha bit her lip. This was not going well. Her cousin had seemed to be thawing a bit, but the reference to his father had frozen him solid again. She gave him a slightly apologetic look. "Tell me, Cousin: have you had good hunting this season?"

The conversation limped onward as they broke and reformed in the geometric figures of the dance. Finally the music gave a flourish and stopped as Jessha sank into a reverence with a swirl of skirts. She beamed up at her partner in pride and relief at having completed the dance without a mistake. Her enthusiasm was infectious. She caught the faintest answering eagerness in her partner's eyes, and he smiled at her a little, shyly, and then with a slowly growing openness. He reached out a hand Co help Jessha to her feet.

Before Jessha could thank Darth for his hand, a trumpet sounded and the herald announced: "General Master Obi-Wan Kenobi!" There was a surprised stirring in the crowd as a tall, bearded man in his forties came striding vigorously down the steps into the Great Hall, nodding amiably and exuding an air of good will. The Sith courtiers melted aside to let him pass, the ladies drawing their skirts out of the way with unmistakable lack of cordiality just short of outright insult and the high-born lords half-bristling with suppressed hostility. His aura was clear to the members of the nobility with Force-sense, and Jessha caught it also: the General shimmered in her perception with a strange foreign quality unlike anything she had ever felt before, a signature in the Force subtly alien and irritatingly out of phase with her own, a quality just different enough to be uncomfortable, similar enough that it was impossible to ignore or block out. It rasped her nerves like a stringed instrument slightly out of tune. Yet there was tremendous power in it. As she considered it, she realized it did not feel evil, merely... different; ordered to a separate pattern. Jessha felt she could almost grasp it if she tried - a little shift, and it would fall into place, and that annoying out-of-phase resonance would harmonize. She would capture it…. .

The General ignored the unfriendly whispering and rustling of the crowd around him. He projected peacefulness, lack-of-threat, harmony... peacefulness, harmony, harmony.... Like oil on water, an air of calm spread out from him, and the gathering resumed its studiously convivial tone as interest shifted away from him. He arrived at the foot of the dais and presented himself to the Dark Lord. Here, though, he had met his match. Jessha watched, seeing that her uncle greeted General Kenobi with a noticeable coolness in no way influenced by the cheerful inoffensiveness she could still feel him projecting in the Force. She could not tell because of her lack of training whether the General was incapable of overmastering the Dark Lord's shield or merely declined the contest. She shrugged mentally. It was no concern of hers.

Jessha turned back to Darth and was amazed to see a totally incongruous and unexpected grin spread across his face. It looked so out of place she simply stared at him. "Obi-Wan Kenobi!" he said. He sounded delighted.

Jessha felt a twinge of jealousy. "What is General Kenobi doing here? I thought the Dark Lord didn't want Jedi in Sith, and certainly not General Kenobi. Didn't he tell them not to come back after the Clone War Alliance ended?"

"Yes, yes," Darth said impatiently. "But with General Kenobi it's a special case and there is nothing my lord father can do to prevent him visiting Sith. He's not just a Jedi master; he's a general of the armies of Alderaan, and that's just about the same as a general of the armies of the entire Empire. Even my lord father can't afford to offend Alderaan by refusing audience to one of her representatives. He comes here every so often," he added, "to see me."

“To see you?" Jessha said, startled.

Darth turned to look at her as if dragging his attention back reluctantly. "Yes. He told me - Master Kenobi told me - that I have the strongest Force ability he's ever seen in someone my age. He wants me to become a Jedi and study at his school at Ruwenjorin."

"Ruwenjorin! A Sith at Ruwenjorin?" The words were out of Jessha's mouth before she had time to consider them. The idea was completely unexpected. There had never, so far as she could remember from her studies or the gossip of the adults around her, been a member of Sith nobility who had studied at a Jedi school. "Jedi and Sith: Fire and water" ran the old Sith proverb, and Jessha had never heard of a Sith who wanted to disprove that saying. Confused, she ventured, "Do you want to go, Cousin?"

At her question, such longing blazed up in Darth's face that Jessha was astonished. He looked like an entirely different person, his dark eyes lively and sparkling, his face alight, his aristocratic reserve gone. It was the first time she had ever seen him look like a thirteen-year-old boy, the first time she had seen a look of unself-conscious and uncalculated interest in anything around him. Then gradually the cold mask crept across his features again, the light dimmed out of his eyes, and he looked down, sullenly, and said, "My lord father will not permit it. My duty is to Sith. He doesn't want any Jedi wizard interfering with the succession; the Heir's loyalty must be to Vader, Sith, and his people. His Highness says." Jessha could hear the bitterness in his voice.

She noticed that General Kenobi was heading in their direction across the crowded room like an icebreaker worrying its way slowly through a field of pack ice. Darth evidently noticed him as well, for the young prince looked around desperately until he caught the eye of the nearest member of the crowd who could, by any standard, be considered nobility. With a small sigh of what seemed to Jessha to be relief, Darth gestured Count Gaowan to join them, and the plump, foppish little lord bustled over.

"Your Highness?" Gaowan was casting nervous, fawning glances at his young lord, as if he were not sure whether Darth were going to bite or not.

"If you would attend my lady for a few moments, Count Gaowan-"

The count bowed over Jessha's hand and launched into a series of flowery compliments. She responded absently, staring at Darth in total disbelief. Surely he couldn't intend to leave her in the escort of this insignificant minor lordling from one of the outer Sith Worlds, not at her own betrothal? She tried to communicate her horror to him without resort to public use of the Force-it would hardly do for anyone else to Read her situation, and it would surely insult the harmless little count who had offered her nothing but courtesy. She practically vibrated with the strength of her attempt to reach Darth. It was no use; Darth was oblivious to her best efforts. He was staring distractedly over their heads, all but dancing on his toes, Jessha noticed with a growing sense of unreality, as he tried to keep track of Kenobi's progress.

The Jedi finally reached them, bowed to Darth and then, courteously, to Jessha and the count. Jessha automatically curtsied in response. "Your Highness I I'm so glad I arrived in time to congratulate you on your betrothal to this most beautiful and charming young princess of yours." He smiled and offered Jessha a courtly gesture of respect. His eyes twinkled as he added, "I am most honored to attend - even if I did have to invite myself. I fear your lord father the Dark Lord neglected to add my name to the guest list."

Jessha was amazed to see, for a brief moment, something she would never have credited on the face of an Heir of Sith: a look of embarrassed apology, something, almost, she might have identified as pleading. It vanished, to be replaced by cold and sullen anger and then a return of Darth's former icy control. "Allow me to apologize, Master Kenobi, for my lord father's oversight," Darth said.

"No apology is necessary. Your Highness," Kenobi answered. He put out a hand and made a tiny gesture. "Darth...." he said, and his voice changed slightly in a way Jessha could not quite identify.

Darth's aura changed. Jessha felt it shimmer, ripple like running water over glass, then stabilize - different, now, subtly attuned and akin to Kenobi's own, echoing that odd, out-of-phase non-Sith resonance in the Force Jessha had identified with Kenobi earlier. It was an alarming sensation, and Jessha felt dislike for the Jedi, edged with fear, crawling like a chill up her backbone. Kenobi was still speaking: some gracious and inconsequential politeness suggesting imminent leave-taking. But Jessha was no longer attending his words. The way he was regarding her betrothed no longer seemed fond and cheerful to Jessha; it was suddenly somehow wrong - threatening, dangerous. It reminded her of Darth's father. It was - she fumbled for the idea - proprietary. That man wants Darth for some reason - wants to use him for something. Doesn't Darth see it? she wondered. No, she could tell he didn't. His eyes were shining now, his mouth slightly open, a look of almost religious rapture on his face. Stupid boy, Jessha thought, taking refuge in anger; it is our betrothal. He should be dancing with me. She took a step toward Darth, scraping her foot on the floor with as much noise as she could manage, and coughed delicately. Kenobi turned to her as if truly seeing her for the first time.

* * *

She really was a pretty little thing, this princess of Darth's, thought Obi-Wan. He studied the pale, delicate features and dainty figure, still childishly undeveloped but giving promise of genuine beauty in maturity. The chin was a bit firmer and the expression more determined than he thought quite proper; the girl looked as if she might have opinions of her own, and that might be a nuisance in someone who would be so close to the throne of Sith, especially if Darth were to develop an emotional dependence - Obi-Wan considered and firmly rejected the term "fall in love" - on her. That would definitely interfere with his plans for the future of this star system and its potential value as an ally of the Jedi. There was, in Kenobi's opinion, room for only one emotional dependence in the young Sith Heir's life, and Obi-Wan Kenobi did not intend that it should be his wife.

Still, she appeared to be intelligent and healthy enough. Good breeding stock, Kenobi thought cynically; and in an aristocractic line as inbred - as artificially manipulated by the Genetic Council - as the Vaders, that was remarkable in itself. Not that Obi-Wan had any real complaints about the results of the Council's decisions: Darth was unquestionably the strongest Force-sensitive he had ever seen, and even in the child's present state, with the laughable Sith excuse for Force-training, his talent and potential were - awesome. Awesome, valuable, and tremendously dangerous without proper guidance and control, guidance and control only the Jedi could provide.

Good breeding stock, yes, Kenobi repeated to himself, as he expanded his perception to examine the princess's Force-signature. Her Force ability was very strong indeed, almost as strong as Darth's, even though it was completely random and untrained except in the most rudimentary way. If Darth had children by this girl, they would be... remarkable. Kenobi found the idea intriguing.

There was no point in alienating the girl, Kenobi thought. She seemed harmless enough, charming, really; and it should be an excellent marriage. He would do his best to make himself agreeable. Darth seemed to have the situation well in hand: he had evidently delegated this nervous and effusive little count as a substitute to take care of the princess while Kenobi had his usual conversation with the young prince. Very good. Let the princess have a few dances with Gaowan and he and Darth should be back soon enough. They would probably not even be missed, except by the ever-watchful Dark Lord. Kenobi had no hope anything his son did would escape the old Lord's attention.

Kenobi put on his most winning manner and turned to Jessha. "I ask your Grace's pardon. I deeply regret that I must offer your Grace such a discourtesy, especially upon the occasion of your Grace's betrothal, but I am compelled to beg a word with his Highness. Will your Grace be so good as to allow-"

* * *

However, General Kenobi had miscalculated slightly.

As he and Darth went out into the garden to speak privately, Darth following the Jedi with the bemused and fascinated air of someone enchanted, Jessha stared after them in total outrage. The musicians tuned up for another dance and she felt horribly exposed, as if she had been stripped naked and displayed in front of the entire crowd for their amusement. Darth should be here to dance with her; how dare he abandon her like this in front of everyone?

Count Gaowan fluttered around her, babbling at her; she heard his voice as if from far away: "Your Grace, my lady Princess; may I bring your Grace a glass of wine? Your Grace looks pale; is your Grace unwell? Would your Grace care to go outside for a breath of cool air? Would your Grace please to sit down? My lady Princess...?"

She ignored him, infuriated beyond the limits of politeness. She was not allowed to dance with anyone except her betrothed at her betrothal feast. Her mother had made it quite clear to Jessha that it would be a scandal. And everyone - EVERYONE, Jessha thought in anguish - would wonder why she wasn't dancing the mershef the musicians were beginning. She recognized the tune. It was one of her favorites and they had included it on the program just for her. Heads were turned in her direction now, waiting for her to lead out the figure. Where was Darth? How could he do this to her?

She writhed in inner torment as she looked around the room for him. There, there were three ladies-in-waiting right there looking at her and whispering behind their hands, giggling. She was sure they were talking about her. An impressive older woman Jessha recognized as Lady Mavlore, social arbiter of the Dark Lord's court ever since the Dark Lord's Lady had died, was eyeing her with a stern look of-Jessha was positive-disgust. How shameless, the lady's look seemed to be saying, for Jessha to be standing here in the public company of another man than Jessha's intended lord, at Jessha's own betrothal feast. But it's not my fault! Jessha cried silently to Lady Mavlore and the world in general. Jessha noticed her parents watching her also. Her mother looked worried, and her poor father had such an expression of towering fury on his face, Jessha was almost afraid the Duke might do something rash. At least THEY'RE on my side, Jessha thought. Theirs were the only sympathetic faces she could see. Every other human being in the Great Hall seemed, to her heightened sensitivity, to be staring right at her, either outraged or laughing maliciously at her. All Jessha wanted to do was crawl away somewhere and hide from them all.

The cowardly impulse lasted only a moment. Her humiliation was replaced by rage, the all-devouring, killing Vader rage that had become a byword in Sith since the accession of Jessha's House. "I swear on my honor as a princess of Sith," Jessha muttered to herself through clenched teeth, "that you will pay for this, Cousin Darth!" She gathered up her skirts, bade the flustered count a courteous farewell, and went to join her parents.

* * *

Walde Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, pushed aside the last dispatch and transferred it to the pile beside him on the desk. The heap quivered, threatening to topple, and he straightened it, automatically checking to make sure his signature on the top document was legible and the seal properly placed. A wandering breeze drifted in the window, bringing the scent of spring flowers from the garden and the distant sound of a luthra's small song greeting the new year. Walde permitted himself a small sigh, and flexed his hands to get rid of the cramp. How long had it been since he had had time to walk in the garden? He tried to remember. Of course, he COULD buy a computer system, he thought, as he usually did at about this stage in his paperwork. One computer for the palace was hardly a danger to the stability of Sith. But let one in, and the lesser lords would want them also, and from there... No, he decided once again, with mild regret: no computer. Besides, he enjoyed the feel of the stylus and the crispness of paper under his hand. That was a pleasure no machine could provide. A man must be master of his tools, master of himself.

Walde rubbed his hand across his forehead. The familiar gnawing pain was beginning in his belly, sending tendrils of fire outward, and the pressure behind his eyes threatened to join it as a headache. He closed his eyes, concentrating on the Force, reaching for the cool, dark reservoir of peace within him that was farther away with each passing day. Slowly, the pain ebbed and he was in control again. Each time it took more effort to subdue it, called for more of his fading reserve of strength. Someday that trick is not going to work anymore, he thought dispassionately. He drew a breath. Just a little longer, until Darth is ready....

There it was again - the fear that drove him, that drove him to drive his son. How much time? Not enough. And so many enemies…. . The Empire, hungry and powerful, insidiously alluring. And those who served the Empire's interests here in Sith: some dupes, ready to sell out their own for a worthless handful of trinkets, and some knowing traitors. Some, even, in his own family. His brother Arlen was no threat. Walde had nothing but contempt for the self-indulgent, lazy, easygoing Duke, who had neither the vision for ambition nor the courage to realize it. All Arlen cared about was filling his belly and his bed, Walde thought with disgust. The man, for all his rank, had the spirit of a peasant. No, there was no threat there.

But Arlen's son - the Dark Lord frowned. Koric had been showing disquieting signs of enterprise and ability lately. And there was the matter of this recent letter to Arlen which had been discovered by Walde's agent. The boy might prove dangerous. Was it time to remove him? Walde asked himself. No, not yet. Let the malcontents continue to center their hopes on Koric, who could be easily watched, rather than on some other figurehead who might be harder to identify and forestall. Koric was no threat to him either, yet. But before he left Darth unprotected, Arlen's boy must be eliminated. How much time?

His thoughts turned to his son, and Walde smiled very slightly. It would never do to let the child know how he pleased his father. The Prince of Sith must demand nothing less than perfection from his heir. And a Dark Lord must trust no one, depend on no one, love no one. For his safety after his father was gone, Darth must learn that lesson well.

For a moment, the old regret stirred in Walde that he had no second son, no other child to whom he dared open himself, to whom he dared show his love, as Walde's father had had Arlen. Walde's wife had died bearing Darth, doing her duty to the line of Vader, as Walde had done - would do - his duty, and the Dark Lord had never wanted to remarry. One heir was adequate. Adequate, Walde thought with a recurring sense of unease, if he could keep the child safe; if he lived....

Walde thought bitterly again of the Empire, the uncaring Empire whose very blessings were cursed, the Empire with its droids and its hungry power. The Empire's machines could have saved the mother of his heir, but Walde's father had not permitted it. At least I will allow that, Walde thought, a medidroid for my daughter-in-law, for her lying-in when Darth had done HIS duty by the Sith. None of my blood and of the line of Vader will be risked in THIS generation; the inheritance is too precarious, and it must not fall to Arlen's children. Darth's child will be strong in the Force, stronger even, perhaps, than this, my excellent son, my son who will be the best, the most perfect Dark Lord the Sith has ever seen. This, my son, who will justify all my hopes, my sacrifices, and my long struggle.

Yes, pleased Walde was in his son. The child showed admirable promise: a good boy - diligent, courageous, competent in everything he did, self-controlled. And strong-minded, too; Walde smiled again. Darth was as obedient to him as a dutiful son should be, but he had the will and spirit of a thoroughbred. When he finally ruled, no one could hold him. He would be a prince, indeed.

However, there was the problem of the Jedi, Kenobi, and Darth's unreasonable and childish enthusiasm for him. Walde had no fondness for Jedi under any circumstances. He considered them a ridiculously snobbish group, making great secrets out of Force techniques the Sith had known for centuries, and cloaking all kinds of simple natural processes in mystical nonsense to baffle the uninitiated. And as for their silly rituals with the lightsword, as if it were more honorable than any other tool for killing.... A man's honor lay in his birth and his conduct, not in his weapons, Walde held.

More than that, the Jedi were dangerous. For far too long they had been the authority behind the thrones and governments of the Republic, ruling with near-absolute, if disguised, power. They had gained a taste for control, for manipulation, on a grand scale, and a certain carelessness of how they used that control, based on long unchecked privilege. They had never had such power in Sith; Walde thanked the Bright Lord and his ancestors for that. Force-sensitives themselves, the Dark Lords had no awe of Jedi tricks. The conflict between Sith and Jedi had been long and bitter, if covert, and distrust of them was bred in Walde's bones. Now the Empire was moving to control them also, to reduce them to their proper role as servants of the state. And high time, too, the Dark Lord thought. But now the Jedi were desperate for allies in their new struggle, and Darth would make a powerful one. Darth--who was as strong with the Force as any the Sith had bred for generations; Darth, who would rule an independent system some day, a perfect base from which to carry the Jedi's war back to the Imperial worlds.

Darth is mine, thought Walde: mine and Sith's! No meeching Jedi wizard is going to steal him from me!

There was a tapping on the door. That would be Darth, Walde knew, as he checked the desk chrono. Punctual as always. "Come," he called.

Darth's step as he entered was firm and determined. His son was looking very well, Walde decided; very well indeed in his doublet of garnet velvet slashed over amber silk and the heavy gold-and-ruby shoulder-chain he favored. The colors set off Darth's pale complexion and the heavy bronze hair that lay on his shoulders like a helmet. Even in civilian dress, his son looked as if he went clad in armor. Despite the adolescent gawkiness, the over-large hands showing below the frill of linen at his wrists and the emphatic knees in his close-fitting hosen, the boy moved with the controlled assurance of a warrior-in-training. Walde was reminded of the combative spirit, the fierce, graceful belligerence, of a two-year-old wellet buck challenging the herd stag, as Darth stood before him. There was the same sense of barely leashed power-to-be and the nervous threat not yet quite realized but suggested.

"My lord father sent for me?" Very good, Walde thought with satisfaction: there was no tremor in his son's voice. Darth had controlled his fear and was shielding remarkably well, even against his father.

"I am displeased with your conduct, my son. You require correction." Correction. The austere wording of the old Book passed through Waldo's mind: "Whom the lord loveth, he chasteneth." There had always been a healthy and appropriate confusion in Walde's mind between the Lord of the Book and the old Dark Lord his father, a confusion Walde knew his own son had inherited. And surely, Walde thought, he loved this his good son, as his own father, the late Dark Lord, had loved him, Walde, best of all. His father had lain on Walde far more than he had ever required - more than he could ever have required - of his useless brother Arlen. Arlen would never have survived it and become Dark Lord. As Darth in his turn would endure it. No, Walde amended as he watched the proud young man standing straight before him, his head at an arrogant angle, his cold face fearless and expressionless even before his awesome lord and father. Only his own long practice in complete self-control prevented Walde's pride in his heir from showing. This son of his, Darth, would not survive merely; he would conquer.

But first he must learn what it meant to be a Dark Lord's heir.

"Your behavior last night was most discourteous. The Duke your uncle was displeased." Walde's voice took on a calculated edge. "I trust that after you are married, you will be able to keep track of your lady's whereabouts?"

Darth's mouth tightened, but he gave no other sign of the anger Walde could feel seeping around the edges of his shield. "I regret that the lord Duke was offended," he said cautiously. "I will be more careful of my cousin Jessha in the future."

"You dishonor yourself when you dishonor your lady; and you dishonor me. Proper courtesy at your betrothal feast is to remain in attendance upon your lady and to dance with her, not to engage in idle conversation with-other guests. I had thought you adequately instructed as to your duty in this matter. Perhaps I was misinformed?"

"No, my lord father."

"Then the blame is entirely yours. Have you any explanation for your conduct?"

"No, my lord father."

The boy was wary, fencing. Walde could sense Darth's tension, waiting for the real subject of his father's displeasure to emerge. The Dark Lord felt a stirring of ironic humor: a politician already, Walde thought. There was no point in avoiding the issue any longer. “You were seen speaking with Kenobi for nearly a timepart during the evening.”

Anger flickered in Darth's eyes for a moment, then vanished. So you set your dogs on my trail again, to spy on me secretly, the look said. Walde ignored it.

"Yes, my lord father," Darth said.

“Your courtesy to this Jedi is excessive and unnecessary. You are not required to converse at length with him, and you are well aware that I do not wish you to do so."

As my lord father is aware, the Jedi are masters of many useful techniques in the Force which would be valuable to a Dark Lord. I wish to learn from Master Kenobi, for the good of Sith. My lord father knows the good of Sith motivates me in all things.”

Ah, courage, too, Walde thought. “The good of Sith is not served by the meddling of Jedi tricksters in our affairs.”

“Master Kenobi does not meddle. And, my lord father, we can use his help, the help of the Order. They are Force-folk, as we are, and haven't they also suffered at the hands of the Empire? We can work with them, surely?”

“Thou child!” said Walde, deliberately switching to the familiar mode of address, and seeing his son flush at the insult. “Kenobi does not meddle, you say! I can feel his taint in your aura still.” Darth's Force-signature had returned to its normal Sith pattern, but Walde could still identify the shadowy residue of Kenobi's presence, like a ghostly double exposure. The Dark Lord continued, “The Jedi are no one's allies. They will be masters or nothing. No people that has given them power has, in the end, been anything but their tool. Sith is mine, and while I breathe, it will be no Jedi's thing!” Nor will my son, he thought, shielding.

Something moved in the depths of Darth's still expression, something cold and dark and hungry. Walde recognized is as an echo of his own will to power. Sith is mine. Someday Sith would be Darth's, and in that, Walde saw, he had glimpsed the core of his son's being and his son's final loyalty. The Dark Lord smiled a little, inwardly, mollified. This inexplicable infatuation with the Jedi would pass in time; the child was basically sound. Sith was his heart, as it was his father's heart, and the Dark Lord could leave his heritage in his son's hands without fear when the time came.

“I will have no more argument. Kenobi means no good to the Sith, and he means no good to you. From now on, you will offer the Jedi the necessary courtesies when he comes, and nothing more.”

Darth bent his head. “Yes, my lord father.” It was a lie, and they both knew it was a lie, but it preserved the forms between them. Darth would obey - outwardly. For the moment, that was all that mattered, until Walde could convince his son of the threat Kenobi represented to the Sith, and for that, all Walde needed was time. How much time? Bright Lord, give me just a little longer, Walde prayed silently.

"You may go," the Dark Lord said, and Darth bowed himself out of the room.

Walde felt the pain beginning again as he turned back to his work.

* * *

Walde lived to see his heir married two years later, as arranged, to the lady Jessha. An uneasy peace continued on the surface among the royal family, and neither the Dark Lord nor the Duke his father mentioned Koric in the other's hearing. Whatever either knew of that young man's dubious contacts and activities on Alderaan remained unspoken, tacitly ignored. Years of mutual contempt had worn the brothers into understanding and a sort of wary forbearance. The Dark Lord would do nothing against his own kin until the threat was proven and the time ripe, until his preparations were complete, until his enemy's destruction was assured. The Duke waited and watched like an animal before a thunderstorm, nervously apprehensive but resigned under the still, oppressive air, and, as usual, did - nothing. And through it all, plans went forward to unite the young Heir of Sith and his cousin for reasons of state, according to the dictates of the Sith Genetic Council and the Dark Lord's good pleasure.

Afterward, everyone agreed that it had been the most splendid of weddings. The altar of the great cathedral was ablaze with candles, gleaming on snowy linen and gold embroidery, glinting in the jeweled silver sacramental vessels, flickering through the haze of incense that haloed each tiny flame like mist against the sun. The voices of the choristers rose sweet and pure, ethereal, perfect, and indifferent as angels' voices, toward the far-off ceiling, where the carved images of the ancient nobility of Sith looked down across the centuries on their distant heirs. Far below, in the glittering dazzle, two half-trained children knelt to accept the burden of their inheritance and be joined together, for the good of Sith, as lord and lady.

When the ceremony was done, Jessha stood in the center of the fading brightness to watch the candles extinguished one by one on the altar before the recessional. The lights are going out, she thought with a kind of distracted unease that was not quite fear; is it an omen? She cast a sideways look at her new husband as she waited under the priest's uplifted hand for the final blessing. Darth was grimly solemn, his face pale and remote from her in the dignity of the Dark Lord's heir. But it was, Jessha noted, a boy's face still. Jessha's jaw set. No, Cousin Darth, she thought, shielding, I am not afraid of you. You and I are of the same blood, and I am as much a Vader as you. I will uphold my House. She took a breath and armored herself with pride.

The recessional began and Darth turned to offer Jessha his forearm for the long journey back down the aisle. “My lady wife,” he said, with something that, behind the defensive barrier, might have been the most hesitant and tentative of smiles. His shield was lowered to her very slightly, and Jessha felt from him an uncertain warmth, and something else: …mymy lady WIFE... a nervous but determined stirring of anticipation, a looking forward to the night to come.

No! Jessha thought. Panicky revulsion swept over her for a moment. The things her mother had told her about her wedding night would be hard enough to face with someone she cared for, trusted. Her mother had spoken serenely of the Duke her father's gentleness and kindness, although the Duchess had been vague as to the details, but the Duke had been eighteen and, Jessha's mother had hinted, experienced in such matters. Not this- this- Jessha faced her new husband squarely. She had trusted him once and he had abandoned and humiliated her in front of his entire court. She felt an echo of that anger, and it fortified her. She met his look with cold hauteur, I will uphold my House.

Darth's shield slammed down and he returned her look. I, too. They reached the front of the nave, and Darth handed Jessha to her attendants. He nodded to the gorgeously robed archpriest who waited.

He blessed them again, Darth first and then Jessha. "Prepare the Bride with all ceremony for the honor of her marriage bed," he said loudly: ritual words. He gave Jessha an encouraging smile, then her lord. "The Bright Lord go with you both, my lord and lady; and give you all happiness," he added softly.

They thanked him, then Jessha joined her attendants and Darth his groomsmen for the final traditional ceremonies before the bedding.

* * *

All too soon, for Jessha, it was time. The room was prepared, the marriage-bed perfumed and blessed to bring fertility to the royal couple, and all things made ready. Laughing, joking, the wedding party led the couple up the wide stair to the state bedroom, where the Heirs of Sith had spent their wedding night since the castle was built, according to tradition. In all things, the House of Vader held to tradition.

"Out-all of you," Darth said shortly.

The last of the wedding party and the servants filed out, leaving the bride and bridegroom alone, and the heavy carved doors swung shut with a dull thud that sounded like the lid closing down on a coffin. Why does everything in this dreary old place remind me so of a mausoleum? Princess Jessha asked herself with a faint shudder as she turned away from her husband. I don't think there's a thing anywhere in this palace that's less than three centuries old - not even the servants. She thought longingly of her bedroom in her father's palace, with its bright imported holopictures on the walls, its fictiontapes, the old collection of dolldroids her father had given her, one for each birthday…. . Childish things, yet comforting. But now, with this night, she could be a child no longer.

She stood with her left hand over the back of her right, and the pearls sewn to the back of her white kid gloves ground into her palm as she clenched them shut into fists. Her knees trembled slightly, not with fear - she told herself that with a surge of angry pride - but with the tension of the endless day and the weight of the heavy cream silk wedding dress. Every inch of it was stiff with seed pearls and opals, and the train was edged in pure silver thread that dragged at her every step. She shook one long sleeve back into place and regarded it with loathing. It was the traditional Sith wedding gown, the design handed down for generations, and the Sith princess could be married in nothing else. Jessha was convinced it made her look as if she had been dead for several weeks. As dead as everything else around here, she thought.

Here you are at the tender age of sixteen: alone in your bedchamber with your new husband on your wedding night. How romantic. Where are the violins? Jessa thought dryly. She could feel him behind her, and she restrained the urge to give him a spiteful glance over her shoulder. Evening shadows and a listening silence hung in the corners of the cavernous old room. It seemed cold to Jessha, in spite of the functional modern heating and the fire that blazed on the ancient hearth and glittered in the hundreds of leaded panels of the casement windows. Velvet bedcurtains, embroidered with the Sith luthra-hawk in silver, and welett-hide rugs scattered on the stone flags, seemed to drink in all light and sound. Jessha stared unseeingly at the towering stone mantelpiece, carved with some particularly dull and bloody battle scene from Sith history, and gathered herself for the attack.

"If it please you, my lord husband, I will go to my own apartments for the night. I am very tired from the ceremony." She lowered her eyes and bent her head submissively to hide her faintly malicious smile, ignoring her cold shiver of nervous tension. She didn't have to turn around to Read her husband's response. His aura, full of fury, was clear to her in the Force, and her tight smile widened a little.

She could feel Darth glaring at her back. "It does not please me. You will remain here, lady." Her perception acutely sensitive, Jessha heard the faint whisper of cloth on cloth as Darth pulled off his overtunic, the soft sound as he threw it down angrily on the velvet coverlet of the bed, then began unlacing his shirt. "You and I were matched to provide an heir for Sith, and you will give me that heir if I have to drag you to my bed by force."

Jessha turned slowly to face him, controlling her fury with effort. Darth stood half-clad, his hair tousled, a forlorn attempt at icy hauteur unsuccessful on his fifteen-year-old face: "-But I imagine we would both prefer to be spared that-indignity."

"That would prove you are stronger than I. But that is hardly in doubt, is it, my lord?" she said. "However, my father might object to having me mauled about like a Corellian smuggler's wench - even by you. And my brother-" She let the sentence hang in the air.

"Your family had best attend to their own estates and not meddle in things that do not concern them. They will have no power here while I am Heir of Sith, and...." He stopped.

"...While your father lives."

Their glances locked, and their separate thoughts turned together to the old Dark Lord. The closed, secret look that always followed mention of his father clamped down over Darth's features, and Jessha felt a chill. Since her betrothal, the old Lord had treated her with the most punctilious courtesy, and today at the wedding ceremony he had taken her hand and smiled and called her "daughter." But when she had nerved herself to look up into his face, he had the eyes of something reptilian. They seemed to measure her coldly against some impossible standard by which the old Lord judged the entire world, and find her wanting. I'm a stranger here. And there is Koric…. . she had thought. But when the Dark Lord turned to congratulate his son, she had seen that the eyes did not change. She remembered how Darth had straightened a little more, and the way his face froze into a more impenetrable mask. He does have courage, she thought grudgingly; how could he grow up, facing that awful old man every day?

"And after my father is dead. As my son shall rule when I am gone," Darth said. He took a step toward her. "Shall I help you with your lacing?" By tradition, no one might remove a bride's clothing, once she was dressed in her wedding garments, except the bride's own lord and husband. Jessha was determined that this tradition at least she would avoid, here in the privacy of her own chambers. Their own chambers, she amended reluctantly.

"I can manage alone, thank you, my lord." Jessha began unlacing the ties over her stomacher, stiff-fingered, as slowly as possible. Her head felt hot, but her hands were ice cold and strangely clumsy. She took a deep breath and murmured venomously as she completed her task, "Yes; I can manage."

"Come then, my lady wife - to bed!" Darth held out his hand to her in a mockingly chivalric gesture. Jessha stepped out of the pile of cloth around her feet, and laid the very tips of her frozen fingers against his. With her head held high, she mounted the steps to the vast canopied state bed with her lord. Darth handed her up to the surface, and she lay down carefully, rigid, with the smallest possible area of her body touching the sheets, her ankles locked together. She eyed Darth challengingly.

For a moment he hesitated. Stripped of his elegant velvets and his ceremonies, he hardly looked old enough to be a husband. His tall, broad-shouldered body was painfully thin still, awkward here, and adolescent. He had none of the Duke's bulky heartiness or the old Lord's cold command. A faint sneer crossed Jessha's face, daring him.

It was all he needed. Darth flushed with anger and moved toward her. "Do you think you are the first woman I've ever bedded?" he asked. Yes, Jessha's eyes said plainly. With a scowl, Darth caught her wrists in his hands and leaned over her. Jessha closed her eyes and gritted her teeth as she felt him fling himself across her, the sharpness of his ribcage and his hipbones as he pinned her down. His clean masculine scent, tinged with the herbs stored with his body linen, was all around her, and she could taste the wine on his mouth, the "courage cup" that the groom was given as the last traditional gesture before his groomsmen left him alone with his bride.

What followed was protracted, painful, and humiliating. Darth breached his wife with the ignorant enthusiasm of a captain fielding his first campaign to subdue an enemy stronghold. Jessha lay grimly unresisting, refusing to give him the satisfaction of a useless struggle, and her control survived until her husband, his purpose accomplished, turned away with the final insult of an insufferably smug smirk and fell asleep.

Jessha slid over as far as possible from the sleeping figure and glared at it balefully, shaking with silent rage and reaction, tears seeping slowly down her face. There he lay, oblivious, and not even the waves of outraged hatred she was projecting in the Force disturbed his arrogant composure. He was too strong for anything she could do directly; he was her husband and whatever he did to enforce his marital rights, no one would say a word in her defense against him. She was helpless. Jessha felt a burning pressure against her diaphragm, as if she were about to explode from the force of her futile inward emotion trying to escape. She refused to be helpess! There must be something…. . Jessha shifted, gasping slightly from the pain of her bruises and the violation of Darth's vindictive clumsiness, and buried her hot face in the embroidered bedcurtains. She stuffed the cloth into her mouth to muffle the first convulsive sob, and she considered her revenge.

Darth slept on with a satisfied smile infuriatingly tenacious on his mouth.

* * *

Within half a year Jessha was with child, and Walde was dead. The old Dark Lord surrendered at last to the devouring illness within him, in the assurance that the succession was secured for another generation, and slipped out of life as if with relief. Jessha watched the Court as it felt out the character of its new master, and she was reminded of her father's hunting pack testing a new leader.

Fawning bitches, Jessha thought, as she observed the eager court ladies who clustered around their handsome young lord. They pursued him with sideways glances over their fluttering fans, with melting smiles and downcast eyes and decorous blushes; with cooing speeches and deep, admiring sighs that displayed their charms to best advantage in low-cut fashionable gowns. Jessha despised them all. Free of his father's heavy hand, the young Dark Lord proved to be an apt and willing pupil, and if he had been inexperienced when he first came to his wife's marriage bed, he was, with the help of such enthusiastic instructors, ignorant no longer by the time Jessha was ready for her lying-in.

Jessha supposed, when she stopped to think about it, that she should be jealous, or, at least, that it was her duty to appear jealous in the properly lofty and indifferent way befitting a princess who was also a young bride. But all she could manage to feel was pleasure that her lord's attention was distracted from her, once she was safely pregnant.

There is nothing so public as the private life of princes. Gossip of ladies-in-waiting and gentlemen of the bedchamber soon confirmed the rumor, which swept from the scullery to the guardpost on the parapet, that there was no love lost between the Dark Lord and his lady. And, inevitably, there was the question of who was to blame, adding fuel to the simmering conflict of the ruling and the cadet branches of the House of Vader; a minor matter, perhaps, in the great business of the government of Sith, but a straw in the wind for the wavering nobility.

So matters stood when the Dark Lord's cousin returned from Alderaan and the private life of princes became the stuff of public politics. Koric's intentions were obvious when he landed on his own estates rather than at the spaceport, bringing with him reports of several assassination attempts which had followed him to Alderaan, assassination attempts with the unmistakable signature of the old Dark Lord, and a batallion of Alderaani volunteers. At least they were officially volunteers, for the Alderaani government was not eager to be seen interfering in an independent system's internal struggle; it would not look good in the Senate. The volunteers were armed with suspiciously up-to-date blastrifles, and had a small but elegant selection of ordinance and ground support vehicles. In the months that followed, more of them trickled in until several thousand Alderaani waited on the edge of Koric's lands for the signal to move.

And waited. The Sith autumn rains came, turning the unpaved roads into impassable morasses of gluey mud, followed by the heavy snows of winter, and

Pera'u, commander of the Alderaani force, discovered the realities of warfare in a feudal culture.

The Alderaani commander, baffled and angry, found that Koric's Sith troops and advisers flatly refused to budge during the cold season, flatly refused to do anything without the support of the skittish Sith nobility who led Koric a diplomatic dance all that winter, courteous and evasive, waiting for some definite move on the part of Duke Arlen, official liege lord of Koric's branch of the ruling family, or on the part of the young Dark Lord. But Duke Arlen still refused to commit himself to either his son or his nephew, and the Dark Lord, sitting in his fortified capital, engaged in his own diplomacies among the lords of Sith, called in his levies of men and material, and awaited the thaw. And the birth of his heir. Both came with spring.

* * *

Jessha lay in the huge state bed, her pale face shadowed by the hangings, half-hidden in the gloom of late afternoon. The modern medical droid hovering at her side was an incongruous element in this unchanging room where the Heirs of Sith had been begotten and come into the world for centuries, and the other inhabitants of the room seemed uneasy with it, ignoring it as much as possible. Rain beat dully against the leaded casements where Jessha's maid sat on the window seat, her head bent over her sewing, waiting.

Indrawn breath hissed between Jessha's teeth and her face twisted, but she made no other sound. Darth Vader looked up for a moment, then resumed his slow pacing. Jessha watched him, trying to use his movement as a focal point to take her mind off her pain and anticipation. Firelight sent alternating light and shadow, as he turned, across his cold, withdrawn features and the shoulder-length hair which glowed against the darkness of his cloak and the absolute black worn by the ruling Dark Lord of the Sith.

Jessha noted how much he had changed in these last months since the death of the old Lord. He was no longer a boy. His body was maturing, filling out and losing its adolescent gawkiness. The aristocratic bones of his face had broadened, taking on a cast of forceful maturity, a look of command, reflected in the new sensuality of his full mouth, his strong cheekbones, the emphatic slash of his heavy brows over dark, liquid eyes. The cold reserve remained in his expression, but the former wariness had been replaced by a look of confident authority. He moved with the assurance of a prince.

Jessha felt suffocated by the sense of power that surrounded him. "Beru," she called in a strained voice, and her maid put down her sewing and hurried to Jessha's side. Jessha took her hands and clutched them as another labor pain swept over her.

"Go ahead, my lady; cry out," Beru whispered. "It will make you feel better."

"No!" Jessha said through clenched teeth. She threw a black look in her husband's direction, but a minute later she gasped softly again, arching her back, pulling on Beru's hands.

Jessha flinched as the forgotten droid came forward and laid a sensor on her belly. It hummed to itself, then gave an abrupt whrrr and turned in the direction of the Dark Lord. "Your Highness, the child will be born within the hour."

"Good." Vader snapped his fingers at the page waiting by the door. "Call the witnesses."

"My Lord." The page bowed and hurried out.

Jessha lay back, breathing deeply in an effort to avoid undignified panting. She scowled at Vader, at the droid. Neither of them had spoken a word to her since her labor started, except for the droid's terse commands: "Breathe, bear down...." Jessha felt as if she were one of Vader's prize delwa mares giving birth. And now she would have to endure the humiliating Witnessing, the public birthing of the Heir which Sith custom demanded. She shrank from the idea of the highest nobility of Sith seeing her in this ludicrous state, in the grip of a biological process she could not control. Jessha made futile swimming motions with her hands, trying to straighten the bedclothes around her and put her bedgown into some sort of order. It just wasn't necessary any longer, she thought; no lord with any sensitivity would require the public birthing by his lady anymore. Jessha's own mother had borne seven children, and the Duke had been perfectly satisfied with holotape and voiceprint. But then, the Duke was a considerate man, and he loved his lady…. .

The droid monitored her once again, making satisfied mechanical chucklings to itself, and rolled back as Vader approached the bed. Jessha clutched at the sheet to cover herself as Beru backed away from her side. Wordlessly, Vader reached down and pulled away the sheet, in spite of Jessha's short, fierce struggle to hold on to it. He started to put his hand on her belly, and she twisted sharply onto her side.

"Stop it," Vader said calmly, pinning her effortlessly to the bed with one powerful hand. He looked at Jessha's face, sparing her no more than a brief, distracted half-frown, the same expression Jessha had seen when her husband was annoyed by an overeager hound or fractious mount at the hunt.

A wave of anger went through her. "Don't touch me!"

"I must join with my Heir's mind during the birth," Vader said. "I warn you, Lady; do not try to fight me."

"If I may be so bold, you Highness," said the deferential droid from behind Vader's shoulder, "I would suggest that the Princess might be more cooperative if you let me give her something to relieve the pain."

"No; no drugs. I must have the child alert."

Jessha pulled at her captive arm, only to stiffen again as the cramping agony wrenched her. This time, in spite of her best efforts, a faint groan escaped her before the pain ebbed and she relaxed limply.

"Don't fight me," Vader repeated, tightening his numbing grip. "This child is mine. My son. My Heir."

She caught Vader's aura as he entered the child's mind, his touch, for all his power, as delicate and precise as a surgeon's knife. Jessha surrendered and drew back, afraid she would hurt the baby if she opposed him further. She felt Vader's firm, feather-light control as he followed the child in its passage toward the outside world, sorting and opening the new mind layer by layer, reaching to the very center of the awakening consciousness, imprinting his identity on the unformed spirit and absorbing his son's identity in turn. He worked slowly, careful not to damage the fragile infant mind, bringing their Force-signatures into a compatible resonance, creating a lifelong bond between them.

It was no wonder that this technique was so seldom used, Jessha thought, and then only among the great lords and the strongest Force-sensitives. Only the need for an undisputed inheritance and the danger of an heir's disloyalty could justify the vulnerability this melding created between the two. Jessha watched her husband; he was absorbed, oblivious to her and everything around him. She realized what it must cost him to open himself so fully to another being, to accept the threat to his private integrity in the Force his unity with his son created. And yet it was no wonder either that he thought it necessary, Jessha decided, remembering the long, bloody history of Sith dynastic struggles, and her husband's relationship with his own father. Had Darth been imprinted himself? Surely yes; the old Lord had liked to keep a firm grip on everything that belonged to him. Jessha shuddered faintly. She was grateful her own father had rejected imprinting as a barbarous, old-fashioned custom.

Through a painful haze, Jessha heard the witnesses crowding into the bedroom. Vader released her and stepped back to allow the droid to finish the messy process of delivering the child. As soon as it was dry and clean, Vader accepted the baby from the droid and turned to face the group of nobles standing by the door. The sound of recording equipment came to Jessha over the other noise.

Vader held up the child, and Jessha could hear the ring of triumph in his voice. "Behold this child, the Heir of Sith. This is my son, and I so declare him before you all."

"So be it," the witnesses chorused.

"Pledge the Heir."

One by one the nobles came forward and knelt before the Dark Lord holding his son, repeating the traditional words of fealty. Lying forgotten by them all, on sheets still clammy with her sweat and blood, Jessha ignored the ministrations of the droid as it bustled around her, completing its mysterious medical procedures. She spared only a brief, wistful thought for the soft-voiced midwife whose gentle strength had brought Jessha and her brothers and sisters into the world. Jessha had asked for the midwife, but the old Lord had refused. Trust Walde, Jessha thought bitterly, to require one of the hated Empire's machines only when a human presence would have given her so much more comfort.

But Jessha had no more time to think about the dead Lord. She studied the witnesses pledging her child, noting with grim satisfaction that several of the traditional vassals were not present. A suspicious number had developed pressing business or convenient ill health in the last few weeks which prevented them from attending to await her lying-in. Some, she knew, were simply cautious, waiting for developments. But the others: how many, she wondered, might be persuaded to her brother's cause? She considered them: Valerens, Morlet, Hatha - they were old-line conservatives, committed to the traditional succession by the loyalty of their ancestors and by conviction. No hope there. Lanar, Kathalen; yes, they were trimmers, ready to support whomever was in power, but they were dangerous for that very reason. There was no depending on them, even with the most tempting of bribes. She had dangled hints of estates confiscated and reenfeoffed in private discussions with them over the last few weeks, but they had evaded definite pledges of support - or opposition. Jessha knew from her own spies no word of such conversations had been carried to her husband. But that meant no more than caution, Jessha knew. She turned her eyes to the last of the witnesses: Fforst of Granvaille, who controlled the important pass into the mountains between Koric's holdings and the plains. Perhaps; Jessha thought she had seen a flicker of communication when the lord glanced at her before pledging the heir. She could not be sure, but Granvaille was a valuable prize; if she-Jessha struggled toward a sitting position, forgetting everything else in her concentration. Then she felt the bleeding start again, felt the impersonal appendages of the droid on her shoulders. She flinched from the cool metal touch and sank back, cursing under her breath. It would be at least a week before she could plausibly receive visitors. That was the earliest she could schedule her churching without exciting comment that would surely make her husband suspicious. A whole week lost, at this critical time! She snarled to herself and lay back, considering.

She felt another touch, this one warm and human. "My Lady?" Beru whispered anxiously, taking Jessha's hand. The maid looked quickly over her shoulder toward the Dark Lord, then back at her mistress. Jessha was warmed by the concern on Beru's face, and closed her eyes as the maid began gently patting a damp cloth across Jessha's forehead.

"You!" Jessha's eyes snapped open again, as Beru jumped and dropped the cloth, then curtsied to the floor. "Yes, your Highness," Beru answered.

"Take my son," Vader said. "And look that you let no harm come to him."

Beru exchanged glances with her mistress; the threat in the Dark Lord's words was clear. Beru bristled. She took the child from Vader's hands with an obedient courtesy that was so perfect it was close to insolence, yet safe from any punishment. "Yes, your Highness," Beru repeated. She wrapped the child in a warmed blanket, crooning, "Shhh, shhh... softly, my little love; softly... hush, dear, now...."

Jessha smiled a little at the indignant edge in Beru's voice as she answered the Dark Lord. Dear Beru; as if she would neglect a helpless child, no matter whose son it was. She'll probably be more of a mother to him than I will, Jessha thought. She relaxed, leaving the matter of her son in Beru's competent hands, and turned her mind back to the problem of Granvaille.

Vader turned on his heel with a swirl of dark cloak and swept out of the room in a flourish, the crowd of nobility close behind him. Jessha watched him leave, the corners of her mouth curling up in a small moue of ironic disgust. Such a sense of the DRAMATIC, she thought; he has to make a grand exit. She heard the stamp of feet and the clash of ceremonial pikes outside the door as the Dark Lord's guard saluted him and fell into escort position, then the sound of Vader's voice as he strode off down the hall, his tone abrupt and commanding: "Derglli, Berej; attend me!"

Earl Marshal and Exchequer; that must mean- Jessha started to sit up again, then gasped as pain lanced through her.

Beru finished tucking the child into his cradle on the other side of the room and came over to her mistress. "He's a beautiful boy, my Lady; so strong and healthy. Now, just relax. Don't worry about a thing. I'll have a nice warm bath for you in a minute, then you can sleep...."

"Not now, Beru. There's no time," said Jessha absently, thinking hard. Quick, go get Owen. Yes, yes - I must send word to my father about the child's birth; there will be no suspicion about that...."

"My Lady! You're all over blood!" Beru cried.

"Give me the coverlet. That will cover me well enough. Go on, Beru."

"My Lady!"

"Go, I said!" Jessha put all the force of her personality into that command. Beru looked at Jessha's determined expression, bit her lip and did as she was told.

It seemed like half a day, but Jessha knew it was no more than twenty minutes before Beru returned with Owen, a round-faced man in his middle thirties, dressed in the green jerkin, full-sleeved shirt, and half-boots of Jessha s own guards. He came to the side of the bed, bowed deeply, then pushed back his dark green hood and shook out his short brown hair. Jessha noticed his long cloak was dripping on the floor, soaked through. She looked up, becoming conscious of the open window against which Owen was silhouetted, where the afternoon was shading into evening. The grey stone towers of the keep were indistinct across the courtyard, veiled by the dull light and driving rain. The cool, damp scent of outside air came to Jessha, cutting through the cloying smell of blood and pain around her. She drank it in gratefully.

"Owen," Jessha smiled warmly at the sturdy guardsman, and extended her hand.

He went down on one knee and took it, touched his forehead to it. "How may I serve you, my Lady?"

"Owen, you must go to my brother at once - tonight. Tell my brother the child is born and my husband has imprinted him. The lords here have sworn to him, and now my husband will be ready to move." She paused and frowned, considering. "If I know my husband, he will be right on your heels. How close does it look to you from down there?"

"Close, my Lady. The men have been ready for a month and there's nothing left but the rest of the supplies that couldn't be loaded until the last. The commanders have been pushing everyone hard."

"What is my husband doing?"

"His Highness is still in conference with my lord of Eriichi and the Earl Marshal ..."

Jessha's eyes flashed. "You will not use that title! My brother is the Dark Lord, not Darth Vader!"

"Of course; of course, my Lady! Truly, it was just a habit, that. Forgive me. If I slip up and forget with the others-"

Jessha looked away, uneasy and confused, momentarily almost guilty. When she looked back to Owen, her tone was nearly pleading. "Owen, it is for the good of Sith. We must grow, must change. We can't fight the Empire with warriors on delwa-back and a feudal economy that has to use all its energy to feed its own people. If we don't modernize, the Empire will swallow us up. But my husband- Owen, you do understand...?"

The guardsman straightened, suddenly expressionless, as solid and oblivious as a block of wood. Jessha could read his disapproval clearly, and stopped her train of thought abruptly. No; she should not speak that way to Owen. The Larses had served her mother's House for nearly four hundred years; Owen would serve her - and her son - out of that obedient loyalty. It was an insult to him to talk of new weapons and economics, as if he were some politician, some wavering ally who must be persuaded to what was so clearly his duty. It impugned his honor. Jessha was instantly contrite. Her next words were as close to an apology as she could offer someone of his rank. "How long exactly do you think it will be?"

Owen's expression conveyed his gratitude and satisfaction; they were back on good terms. "They should, be ready to move out in two or three days at most, my Lady."

"Two or three days.... H'mm...." Jessha considered. "It's too bad I couldn't delay the birth any longer, but that should give my brother enough time. Do you think you might be able to take one of the flitters? You must tell them you are going to inform my father the Duke of the birth of his grandson."

"Yes, my Lady; I understand. I've already arranged it."

"Good man. Go then. And Owen-"

"Yes, my Lady?"

Jessha smiled at him. "Be careful. I can't afford to lose you."

"Yes, my Lady!" The guardsman flashed her a grin, thoroughly mollified, and bowed himself out.

Jessha listened to her guardsman's footsteps hurrying away and lay back down with a sigh. "You may draw my bath now, Beru," she murmured, and closed her eyes. She was suddenly utterly weary. In the darkness behind her eyelids, the noise of water was all around her, the sound of bath water nearby joining with the drumming rush and gurgle of the rain. Water, Jessha thought dreamily. Water.... Everything flows, nothing is safe or sure and all things change. Even the House of Vader, that is so proud in its traditions. My brother, my father, my husband, and now my child, heir to all of them… a and my loyal liege folk. Whoever wins in this struggle, the House will suffer. "The house and the blood which are holy... Men die and women weep," she remembered the old poetry, "but while the kindred live...." Whichever of them won, kindred and loyal folk would die. Bloodguilt tore at her. But my son, the Heir, is the unity of the House again. Someday, he will rule. Unexpectedly, she felt an upsurge of love for the baby, quietly asleep in his cradle. Her last thought as she floated away into sleep was that determination. My son. Someday he WILL rule Sith. But until then I must protect him - from both of them. From all of them….*.

* * *

At the same time that the Dark Lord was discussing matters with his Earl Marshal, the Dark Lord's cousin was in conference with his council in his own stronghold. Pera'u paced back and forth, agitated, in front of the dark wooden trestle table where they sat watching him with carefully noncommittal expressions. The Alderaani was peripherally aware of the contrast between his rumpled dull green fatigues, the remains of a once-crisp Alderaani Irregulars uniform, and the furs and velvets of the arrogant Sith before him. Pera'u could almost feel their disdain and hostility toward a non-Sith and a commoner here in the council. Irritation roughened his voice, making him careless of his words.

"But, damn it, Koric-"

The men at the table shifted, and the guards at the door made a half-gesture of threat with their pikes. Pera'u checked himself and tried again. "Your Grace - Highness-" Yes, that was it, the proper address. "You must see that this is necessary. Our only real advantage is technological superiority; your cousin has numerical superiority and the defensive position. But a few tons of herbicide sprayed over enemy territory will wipe out the entire crop. There'll be no way your cousin can field an army without food supplies. And the effect will dissipate by the next planting season, by the time you occupy the area. It's only a short-term poison. If we can defeat your cousin without any major damage to property, you won't have to worry about rebuilding-"

"It would mean famine ..." Koric said slowly.

"Yes, of course. That's the idea."

"I have never made war on peasants," said the Prince.

There was a rumble of assent from around the table. The expressions were openly hostile now, and Pera'u found himself glaring back. Somehow his purpose in coming here had gone seriously awry, he thought in frustration. The enlightened young prince who had talked so enthusiastically about liberating his people from the shackles of tradition in his dorm room at the University was hardly visible in the Sith lord who sat listening to him. If these supporters are the progressive nobility, Pera'u thought bitterly, I'd hate to see the reactionary ones. They were hopelessly undisciplined and individualistic; they all saw war as some kind of tournament, a test of personal courage, not an exercise in rational military strategy. They all demanded that they be allowed to go dashing into the fighting at the head of their personal levies, like a bunch of bloody idiots, asking to get themselves killed. No thought of reserves; no thought of tactics…. . How could he organize any sort of a campaign?

I have never made war on peasants.... Pera'u was even more disgusted with the unruly mob of conscript serfs who masqueraded as his "infantry." Somehow the peasants, too, had been much more attractive back on Alderaan. Pera'u thought of the dull-eyed, anonymous figures in their shapeless foot-wrappings stuffed with straw and their greasy clothes that smelled of their herd beasts. They all wanted to be home taking care of their fields and their animals; none of them seemed Co care at all about fighting for their own freedom. Pera'u had never believed in the theory that natural slaves existed before coming to Sith, but now he was beginning to wonder about it. He hardly cared what happened to them any more.

Baron Lanore was rising to speak. The burly lord had flowing ginger-colored hair and a bushy beard that merged with the heavy fur revers of his surcoat; he reminded Pera'u of a wookiee: large, furry, and dangerous. The baron scowled at Pera'u. "By your leave, Highness, I have no liking for this coward's trick. Would you shame yourself and the lord your cousin, as if-" He stopped abruptly, evidently constrained by courtesy. Pera'u saw shock on the faces of the other lords and a faint tinge of angry color in Koric's face. What was that about? he wondered. He could never quite get used to the casual presence of Force-use among these strange people. Half the time Pera'u felt as if he were blind or dumb among them and that they pitied-or despised-him for it. It made him edgy and defensive. Such things should be decently hidden away among the Jedi, Pera'u thought, wishing he were back in the civilized territories of the Empire, not trapped on this primitive world of bloodthirsty sorcerers....

"Your pardon. Highness," the Baron said; "I had no inten-"

Again there was that sense of some communication that was closed to Pera'u, unsatisfactory and irritating. The baron gave Pera'u a long, level look, plainly a challenge. Swords were forbidden in council, but the baron's hand was on the hilt of his dagger, and even Pera'u, Force-blind, had no difficulty reading the meaning of that gesture, as the baron stared pointedly at Pera'u's empty belt. No one, lord or commoner, except a criminal or a coward beneath shame, went unarmed on the Sith Worlds.

"You forget yourself, Lanore," Koric said coldly, and the baron sank back into his chair, still glaring at Pera'u.

There was a deferential throat-clearing. The council turned to a thin old man at the end of the table. Count Arvat of Lynne, Pera'u identified him. "Truly, your Highness," the man said, "these serfs have offered us no injury, and they have no such weapons as this outworlder would use against them. There can be no equal combat. Even serfs-" he faltered.

"Yes," said Koric. Pera'u knew, though he did not understand it, that the prince was thinking of the ancient Sith code of personal combat which taught that it was dishonorable to fight anyone without an equal chance of defense. But that is for the silly duels these hotheaded nobles fight among themselves all the time, Pera'u thought; how can that apply to real warfare? This is serious!

"Your Highness," Pera'u said, "it isn't a question of cowardice, or, if you'll pardon me, sir, some abstract Sith code of honor. It's a question of what's most efficient, militarily speaking. By sacrificing a few lives - enemy lives - now, you'll save many more lives, including your own troops', in the long run. It's the only way to avoid a long, drawn-out campaign. We can't afford that."

“No, we can't," Koric said slowly. "But I do not want to begin my reign with an act of tyranny."

"Highness," Arvat interjected, "the Bright Lord will not favor the lord who acts unjustly against the poor folk who have no defender." He was obviously quoting.

Pera'u gave an inarticulate snarl of exasperation. "The important thing is to win, my lords! If you lose this war, you won't have anything to rule over anyway. Excuse my bluntness, your Highness, but you can worry about the niceties of religion and morality later. The important thing is that if the people of Sith are ever going to gain the place they deserve among the worlds of the galaxy, your cousin has got to be removed from the throne. That goal is too important for you to be squeamish about the necessary methods. We have an effective weapon. Let's use it."

There was a babble of protest from around the table, but Koric looked up, fixing his council with a stony stare, and the voices subsided. The prince looked down again and sat silently for a long moment, turning his signet ring absently around his finger, frowning. "Pera'u is right," he said at last. "For the good of Sith, my cousin must be defeated. We must do what is necessary." Before anyone could respond, he added firmly, "Thank you, my lords. You may go."

It was dismissal. The lords rose and bowed themselves out of the room. Pera'u moved to follow them, but Koric stopped him. When they were alone, Koric rose and walked restlessly around the room. He halted, staring at the Arms of Sith, silver fret on sable, embroidered on the cloth of estate behind his presence-chair. He sounded as if he were talking to himself. "This isn't what I wanted. This isn't what I intended."

"I know," said Pera'u. "It isn't what I intended either."

"I began this for the sake of the commons, not to slaughter helpless serfs. That's what it will mean if I authorize this plan of yours." He turned to Pera'u. "I don't mind fighting, any more than Darth does. Not even the killing. By the Bright Lord, Pera'u, I'm a prince of Sithi I've been studying swordsmanship since I was old enough to hold a weapon; I've been leading my father's troops since I was fifteen. I'm not afraid of steel. I'm no coward."

"No, of course not, Koric. That remark of Lanore's was meant for me, not you."

"Truly. If I thought otherwise, I'd have his head off, and he knows it," said Koric in a matter-of-fact tone. Pera'u shivered. Koric was a prince of Sith.

"Still, I don't like this," the prince continued. "I wish there were some other way."

"I know," Pera'u repeated. "But there isn't any other way, not one that won't cost many more lives, your own people's lives too."

"But they are my people. I am the true Dark Lord; they are my liege folk."  

Pera'u heard the shrill edge in Koric's voice and saw the slight shifting of his glance. So Koric was not as certain of that as he seemed, Pera'u thought. He was, to all appearances, doing a good job of convincing himself; perhaps soon he will succeed completely. But not yet. Pera'u considered the best way to accelerate the process. He needed Koric, needed Koric's complete commitment to this... what? Pera'u sifted through the possible words to describe what they were embarked upon, overcome by a sudden cynicism. Treason? Civil war? Rebellion? Revolution? Crusade for freedom and justice? Whatever he called it, Pera'u knew, it was necessary. All of it was necessary. The Sith must be brought into the modern galaxy, for all her people's sake.

Poor man, Pera'u thought as he watched Koric turning his signet ring around his finger again in an old gesture of unease Pera'u remembered from

Koric's days at the university. Poor man: he has guilt enough about what he is doing. Why do I have to lay more on him? He quailed inwardly at the torture in Koric's eyes.

"Koric, innocents die in every war," Pera'u said. "You should know that. You're a ruler."

"Yes; I know that." Koric was almost whispering. He stood for a long moment with his head lowered, silent. At last he looked up and Pera'u saw the new bleak determination on Koric's face. "Darth's policies would destroy us. I will rule Sith. I will do whatever I must."

Pera'u felt no pleasure in having carried his point, only a remote sadness. It had to be done, but still it hurt him to watch the bright idealism with which Koric had begun fading, lost in practical realities. Koric was losing something of himself, Pera'u realized, something he could never regain, something he would regret losing forever. A vagrant line from an old poem floated through Pera'u's mind: "...never bright, confident morning again....”

"Koric, I-" he began.

His words died at the glare Koric turned on him, an expression close to hatred. "You have my authorization. Proceed. Carry out your plan.'

"Yes, your Highness," Pera'u answered, startled. He opened his mouth to continue, but the prince forestalled him with a sharp gesture.

"You have leave to go."

Koric's tone left no room for further argument or comment. Pera'u sketched a clumsy bow and left. His last impression, before the door shut behind him, was of Koric, with a look of desolation on his face, standing in front of his cloth of estate, a small, lonely figure dwarfed by the ceiling-high banner bearing the symbol of his lordship.

* * *

So war was joined between the Dark Lord Vader and his cousin, a slow-moving and frustrating war to the Alderaani. Pera'u's flitters and ground weapons struck into enemy territory, inflicting damage to strongholds and keeps, but the Alderaani's few thousand men were helpless to hold the land, and the enemy faded away in front of them, refusing contact. The peasantry refused to face the strange weapons out of fear, and the nobility out of contempt for the machines that killed at a distance and the alien common folk who used them.

Koric's own men came behind the Alderaani on foot and delwa-back, struggling through the steaming mud of the spring thaw and on into the choking dust of the short summer dry season, over unpaved roads, across the fresh-plowed fields that refused, this year, to show the green of sprouting plants. The Dark Lord's men met them here, and the campaign wavered back and forth in a series of indecisive battles. After his first few attempts, Pera'u gave up trying to force the shapeless melees into any semblance of rational or coordinated tactical structure, and accepted the Sith concept of battle as a collection of individual combats. It was all he could do to keep his own homesick volunteers in order.

As the year advanced, it became clear to the people whose fields had become the battleground that they would reap no crop this season. Koric's troops were hungry enough, with a supply line that stretched across hundreds of miles. War was nothing new anywhere in this ancient feudal land, and the local folk were adept at hiding their grain and livestock from enemy soldiers searching for food; searching boldly, led by a noble on delwa-back who came demanding tribute in the name of the Dark Lord, or furtively, in small groups on foot-stragglers, scouts, camp followers; and, as the campaign grew longer, deserters. Pera'u's Alderaani flitters and transports kept Koric's troops precariously supplied from home. Neither his cousin's troops nor his cousin's people were so lucky. The troops pressed the peasantry harder and harder for their fading reserves; and the peasantry, as they had forever, endured as best they could.

Pera'u watched Koric growing daily more grim, more silent, more preoccupied, as his soldiers advanced against the Dark Lord's weakening resistance over a land as barren as the surface of the planet's two tiny, airless moons. Sullen knots of peasantry lined the streets as Koric's troops marched through towns and manors along their route. Pera'u could read Koric's growing pain and guilt in the set of his mouth, the mounting greyness of his face, as Koric saw them and turned away from the starveling women, the hopeless, clutching hands and thin cries of the children, and the dull stares of men already too weak to walk who leaned against their doorways to watch them pass.

It all merged together in Pera'u's mind, a faceless procession of misery, fatigue, and sameness. He remembered the campaign as a series of disjointed frozen moments, like something seen by flashes of lightning. He was surprised, later, that he recalled so little of the actual fighting. In an age of holovision, no young officer had to go into battle unprepared, as the officers of other armies had done, to meet the realities of blood and death for the first time on the battlefield. The holos Pera'u had seen in his training were of clean modern death - explosions, laserbeams, blasterfire - not this crude hacking with swords and pikes. Yet, somehow, he was prepared even for that. It was the other things, the other horrors, that remained in his memory.

The moment when Pera'u finally realized he had lost control of the situation completely came toward the end of the summer. Koric's army was preparing to bivouac at the foot of a small rise not far from a nameless (to

Pera'u) town very like all the other nameless towns they had marched by in the last few months. The late-afternoon sky was dark toward the west with heavy cloud banks, forerunners of those which would soon bring the autumn rains again. Futile heat-lightning crackled against the horizon in the heavy, still air; there would be no rain yet. Pera'u felt oppressed by the breathless air that was as solid as water in his tired lungs as he inhaled. Koric and his staff had climbed the ridge to try and catch a glimpse of the main body of the Dark Lord's delwa troops, his noble cavalry, that they had | been pressing now for nearly a tenday. Pera'u expected the enemy would turn and make a stand at Manric, a day or two further. The Dark Lord could hardly allow them to come much closer to his major stronghold at Lliryanthi without some defense, even though his troops were already suffering seriously from lack of food and fodder for the delwas. Many of the animals, Pera'u knew, had died. His following troops had found no bodies. Delwas were edible - barely. There had been no human bodies either, Pera'u realized, and his mind skittered nervously away from the possible significance of that. Cannibalism? he wondered, and shuddered.

The Alderaani looked back down the rise toward the multicolor blot of the encampment against the dull-brown earth. That earth haunted Pera'u: a dreary, dead sameness which should have been bright with the ripening crops ready for harvest. Instead it lay blasted, stricken, empty of any except foreign life.

A faint sound caught Pera'u's attention. A disorderly group of people, perhaps some twenty or thirty, was climbing up the incline toward them from the direction of the town. A few carried hoes, scythes, implements Pera'u did not recognize, but most were empty-handed. Koric gestured toward his guard, and the armsmen gathered around their lord as Pera'u's Alderaani security lowered their bias trifles.

The peasants came to a straggling halt, shifting uneasily. Pera'u studied them. The clothes they were wearing were clean and substantial, but they hung on the skeletal figures, and there was a hollow air of desperation about them.

An older man detached himself from the group. "Please, my lord...."

Koric threw back his cloak, displaying his black tunic and breeches, the massive gold chain across his shoulders. His armsman took a step forward, hand on sword-hilt.

The spokesman swallowed, then reluctantly went down on one knee, followed by the rest of the peasantry in a ragged series. These men were clearly loyal to their own lord, and only the worst need could have forced them to acknowledge Koric with the symbols of deference due their lawful sovereign.

"Highness," the spokesman said, as if it were bitter in his mouth. "Highness, of your charity, give us food."

"I have none to spare," said Koric.

A mutter swept over the crowd. "Highness," the spokesman pleaded, "just a little. Our children are starving. The land is sick and will not yield. If you do not help us, we will die. Gracious lord-"

"I have nothing for you," Koric replied in a curiously flat voice.

The spokesman slowly rose, staring dumbly at Koric and his bodyguard. The crowd moved restlessly. Helpless flotsam, Pera'u thought; bits of driftwood washed up on the beach, caught in the backwash of this horrible war. He turned his head aside, ashamed.

There was a sudden desperate stirring as the crowd surged to its feet, and a young man in the rear cried out, "They have food. If we have their lord ..." A shudder went through the crowd. "Come on!" the young man shouted, and started forward. With a mindless, hopeless, animal cry, the little knot of people surged forward toward Koric. In reflex, the Alderaani blastrifles crashed and there were bodies on the ground. The mob wavered, then broke, and dissolved into individuals, running back down the slope toward the town.

Pera'u turned sympathetically toward Koric. "That was most unfortunate, your Highness. I know...." His sentence dribbled away into nothing. Koric was paying no attention to him, was staring fixedly at the young man who had led the mob toward him, as the young man twitched, crying out painfully from the blasterbolt, then gradually grew still. His face was like stone. "Highness?" Pera'u ventured uncertainly. "Koric?"

Koric spoke to his Sith armsman. "Fire the village. Kill them all." His voice was totally expressionless. The armsman, impassive, bowed and nodded to one of the lower-ranking aides, who set off at a trot toward the encampment, evidently to gather a squad to carry out the order.

"Koric! You can't-" Pera'u burst out.

"Be silent, Alderaani," said Koric. "They threatened violence to the Dark Lord. They must die. Everyone must die who threatens me." Then, in a calm voice, like a child reciting a lesson, "It is necessary. You told me so."

Pera'u stared at him in horror. Something human was gone out of his face, and it was blank and empty, suddenly alien. Behind the flat blue eyes flickered a new, tiny flame of madness.

Pera'u didn't quite dare to touch him; in this strange, new state he was afraid Koric would see it as another threat, but the Alderaani stepped a little closer and said urgently, softly, "Koric, you can't kill the whole village. They're not all guilty. They're harmless peasants. They're no threat to you."

"Not guilty," Koric murmured in a distant sing-song, as if he were talking to himself. He did not look at Pera'u. "Not guilty," he repeated, with a little laugh that chilled Pera'u completely through. "No, none of them were guilty, the peasants. Women. Little ones. But I killed them - all of them. What's a few more?" He turned a cheerful smile on Pera'u. "Why not kill them all? We're going to do it, you know. They'll all die anyway. Starved. Why not kill them all now? What difference does it make?"

Pera'u recoiled.

"Guilty. Guilty, guilty, guilty," Koric went on in that dreadfully cheerful tone. "No one is guilty. We'll kill them all, and then no one will be guilty, no one at all, not anymore. Come along, Pera'u. Let's go." He headed briskly down the slope toward the encampment, and his staff followed him.

* * *

In this fortress of Lliryanthi, the Dark Lord Vader waited for his cousin's final assault, and brooded. They were all gathered here, his remaining men, his wife, his heir, in this, his only safe stronghold, waiting for the last chance, the last desperate battle. Vader had no illusions that he could win it, but no one would be able to say he had surrendered. None of the songs which would recall this episode in the endless series of battles and deaths, the long-forgotten causes remembered only in the gallantry of their supporters, the ballads which were the history of the Sith's non-literate culture, would brand Darth Vader a coward. That, he thought, was worth a few deaths. Weary, sick, and starved, his men would fight on until the end, for their honor and his, and he would fight with them.

It might yet be his death as well, for in battle there was always that chance. No common Sith would touch a member of his, Vader's. House, but there were nobility also among Koric's followers who would fight him. Vader flexed his sword-hand, considering. He did not think there were many of Koric's men noble or no, who had the nerve and the skill to face him in battle and win; none, perhaps, except his cousin himself, who was an excellent swordsman, the Dark Lord knew. An excellent swordsman, but... tenderhearted. If Koric wanted him dead, Vader thought with contempt, Koric would have to take him himself, and Vader did not think Koric had the stomach for it, to kill his own kin. He, Darth Vader, would not be so squeamish if the situation were reversed, but Koric had always been a softheaded fool. In any case, there was nothing more he could do. The defenses of Lliryanthi, poor as they were, were prepared, and all he could do was wait. With a mental shrug, the Dark Lord decided it was time for a diversion, one of the few still available to him. He would go and visit his son.

He acknowledged the stamp-and-present-arms of the ceremonial guard at his door as he stepped out into the hallway. Not so ceremonial now, he reflected grimly. These men, too, would be in the fight before the end. He noted the two who fell in to guard him through the passageways of the fortress, recognizing one as Seller, feeling satisfied by his presence. Seller - tall, massive, silent, and efficient - was a familiar and gratifying satellite, a reassuring man to have at his back. Vader had no doubts about Seller's competence, or his loyalty.

They arrived at the door of the Heir's nursery, and Vader stepped through the door alone to confront his son's nurse Beru. As usual, his reaction to the woman was a combination of amusement and irritation. She obviously hated him, although Vader had never been sure why, and he could read her deep suspicions about him as clearly in the rigidity of her shoulders and her controlled voice as in her aura. Vader could tell Beru was convinced he had some nerfarious purpose in visiting the child, some scheme to work esoteric evil magic on him in the Force. Vader smiled to himself; that was just as well. Let the idiot believe it and it was all to the good - let her assume it was part of the Heir's training. It would do his dignity no good whatever for his people to know he came to see his son for the sheer pleasure of it.

"Leave me," Vader said. Beru obeyed, pointedly dropping an impeccable and elaborate court curtsy as she exited.

As the sound of his father's voice, the young Heir looked up from the pile of bright-colored blocks he was stacking, and a smile spread across his face as he struggled to unsteady bare feet. With a crow of delight, he flung himself in Vader's direction. Vader felt his son's aura, bright, untainted, happy now in his father's presence, and felt his own aura joining with his son's in the unique bond they had formed at the child's birth. Here was the one being in the world who was wholly his, who felt no fear, no hatred, no ambition, no obligation of duty; whose love for him was simple and wholehearted. Vader let his son's identity wash over him, merge with his, in harmony, soothing, cleansing, refreshing. He felt calm and at peace, as he did nowhere else.

"Son," he said simply, "come here." The sturdy little body hurtled into him, and heedless of his dignity, the Dark Lord of the Sith went down to his knees to hold his child. Vader examined the boy anxiously. Yes, he looked well and content. No matter how hungry the rest of the garrison, Vader's son would have enough to eat. He laid his cheek against the boy's head, feeling the feathery blond hair warm against him, smelling the clean baby-smell, as he luxuriated in the child. He picked up the boy, carried him to a chair, and sat with him as the baby explored the fascinating attachments that were a part of this large, warm, comfortable, and interesting visitor: the gold chain around his neck, the bright buttons down his jerkin, his belt-the child's hand closed over the hilt of his father's dagger. He tugged at it.

Vader drew it out, carefully guarding the small inquisitive fingers from the edge. It was an exquisite piece of workmanship, decorated with the luthra-hawk along the blade and hilt, but well-worn with hard use and practice. The baby stared at it in total concentration, then tried again to touch the shiny metal. Vader fended him off, withdrew the dagger, and slipped it back into the sheath. The boy's face puckered as he tried to recapture the blade and was prevented by Vader's intervening fingers.

"Ah," said the Dark Lord, joking. "A true Vader - a fighter from the beginning!" He sobered. "But you will have time enough for blades, my son; and need enough for them, too. Especially...." He checked himself. He would not bring thoughts of the coming battle here. The child's seeking hand closed over Vader's finger, examining the heavy signet ring, distracted successfully from the blade by this new interest. At the touch, Vader felt a wave of protectiveness, and a determination that nothing would be allowed to harm his Heir.

Heir to what? Vader thought bitterly, with Koric all but storming the gates of Lliryanthi. For a moment, memories of the hard campaign threatened to overcome him, then, with his son's fingers wrapped around his own, Vader set aside the thought. The arrogant pride of his House stirred in him: Vader conquered or died; Vader did not surrender, and he was Dark Lord. His son would be Dark Lord after him, even yet.

Koric would not dare to kill his sister's son, Vader thought ironically. The Dark Lord was aware by now that his wife was her brother's ally, and she had been closely watched since he had discovered this. A number of wavering or disloyal vassals of his had suffered fates of varying degrees of severity and unpleasantness when their correspondence with his wife had been intercepted; his father's example had served Darth Vader well. The child would survive, Vader had no doubt, but if he were to rule also someday, Vader must defeat Koric; Koric with his outland troops and his coward's machines that killed at a distance and sickened the very earth. What hope had he against them?

Vader put down his son, stood, and began pacing back and forth in the center of the room. Suddenly his mind was working at top speed. Perhaps it was time to use his father's example again, to turn to indirection and subtlety rather than the straightforward heroism of the sagas which was his natural preference. Not every strategic withdrawal was a surrender, to be sure, and if he were to counterattack, he would need time and allies. Allies. Yes! If Koric could make use of the Empire…. . Vader thought. And he, Vader, would not be content with a half-hearted collection of second-rate machinery and a few thousand troops from Alderaan; he would not be content to act as servant, soon to be slave, of a foreign government and Imperial ways. But use the Empire he, Vader, could also, and much more effectively than his cousin. The key was the Jedi. Whoever sat on the Imperial throne, the Jedi ruled the Empire in fact... all the Empire. Whoever controlled the Jedi, controlled the Empire. With the power of the Empire behind him, he could destroy Koric, and General Master Kenobi wanted him as one of his Jedi. Vader allowed the strong pull toward the Jedi, which he had sternly suppressed since his crowning, to surface, and felt again his deep longing for the Jedi and the control of the Force. Let his cousin play with machines and Alderaani volunteers; all material power was insignificant next to the power of the Force, so General Kenobi had said.

For a moment, he was touched by a faint unease. "The Jedi are no one's allies. They will be masters or nothing." His father's words came back to him as he stood there. Then his head lifted proudly: I am Vader, he thought; I am master. Wherever I am, I rule, even over Jedi. I will be no such poor fool as Koric. I will make them serve MY purposes, and I will keep the Sith safe: safe for me, for my Heir, and for all the people of Sith.

He almost laughed out loud. It was so simple; why had he not seen it before? He picked up his son, tossed him into the air to the boy's delighted shouts, then put him down. He sobered, his eyes on the tiny boy clinging trustfully to his leg, and he slowly went down on one knee to hold him again. Slowly, almost reluctantly, Vader raised his hand and signed his child with the symbol of the Bright Lord in a father's blessing. Darth Vader had never been more than conventionally religious, as befitted the heir to the ruling house, unlike his dead father. But somehow, in this moment, the dreadful vulnerability of this, his own small Heir, struck home to him, and he felt the hopeless impulse to protect and defend the child, to offer whatever he could to shield him from the dangers he would face when his father was no longer with him. A primeval terror swept through Vader, like a gulf opening under his feet, and he held the child close to him, so hard the boy began to struggle and cry. Irrationally, Vader wanted to pick up the boy, flee with him this instant, refuse to let the child out of his hands. Then control reasserted itself. It was impossible to think of traveling incognito across his lands, filled with desperate starving peasantry and enemy soldiers, with a baby hardly two years old.

"I wish I could take you with me," Vader murmured, "but it's much too dangerous. You will be safer here." His expression hardened. "And I swear, I swear, I will return for you. No one will steal your inheritance; when I return you will rule with me as Heir of Sith, as father and son."

Vader straightened to his feet, his mind busy now with practical details. Vader did not surrender. The last act of the farce must be played out, for his cousin would not believe he would give up the fortress without a fight to the end, and his retainers must cover his tracks. Under cover of the final preparation, he and one or two of his men should be able to get away on the last of the delwas, to make their way to the spaceport and off planet. Surely that was the last place his cousin would think to look for him - on an Imperial ship. By the time Koric discovered he was not in Lliryanthi, Vader would be off the Sith Worlds, out of their jurisdiction, where Koric could not touch him.

One or two of his men.... Vader was far too visible; someone else must make the preparation for his escape, someone both trustworthy and competent, a good fighting man and one with the intelligence to play a part. Vader ran over the members of his meiny in his mind, and settled with certainty on the one patiently guarding his door. Seller. The man was one of his best warriors: he was able, utterly loyal - and not inclined to be talkative. Yes, Seller would be perfect. Vader turned toward the door to inform Seller of his new role, and to give the orders for the final defense of Lliryanthi.

* * *

When he discovered the ruse, a tenday later, Koric was understandably furious. Had he been there to see it, Vader might well have been gratified at the depths of his cousin's anger. Koric stormed through the private solar of his sister's apartments at Lliryanthi, pacing back and forth in a gesture oddly, and for his sister, disconcertingly, like his vanished cousin Vader, as Koric addressed the only other occupant of the room.

"How could you do it - let him get away without sending so much as a word to let me know. I'm disappointed in you, Jessha!"

Jessha sat rigidly upright with her hands clasped in her lap where she could keep track of them, and contemplated a bright autumn leaf floating down past the solar window with every appearance of innocent unconcern. It was a pose she had mastered quite well over the years since her marriage, a pose useful in uncertain situations. This, Jessha decided, was definitely an uncertain situation. This person in the room with her was not at all the brother she remembered; she was not sure who, or what, he was. He was older, a bit taller, subtly different in his movements, but the most important difference was his eyes: the strangely flat eyes without any of the sparkle and depth she remembered, eyes that looked as if they were backed by smoked glass, reflecting mirrors cutting off all contact with the mind behind them. She could not tell at all what lay in back of those eyes now.

What could have caused the change? Jessha cast about hopelessly for an explanation and found none. It could not have been his experiences on the battlefield-he had led troops before; she had seen him back from a skirmish against bandits or a treacherous liegeman of their father's, full of high spirits and stories of the fighting. The death of his wife in childbed this three summers past? But Koric had hardly known his wife, and the baby had been born, and died, while he was on Alderaan. It could hardly have been his wife.

Their father? Yes, perhaps it was the death of Duke Arlen that had caused this change. She knew no more about it than the reports she had received. A hunting accident. After Koric had returned and their father had refused to see him, rumor had it that the Duke had begun to drink heavily. He had missed a jump, a difficult jump, a jump he should never have tried to take drunk, and had died in the fall, breaking his back on a fallen tree. Jessha knew that jump: a harmless-looking little stream with a deceitful tangle of boggy ground and deadfall on the other side, and in early spring it would be covered with patches of snow and dead leaves that hid a hundred places for a delwa to stumble. Jessha felt again the sorrow and the bitter anger that her husband had not even allowed her the chance to attend the Duke's funeral, lest she escape to her husband's enemies. As if, by then, she had even had any useful information to communicate, with Darth's spies always watching her! That she had not even been allowed a last look at her father, the father she had loved so dearly, before they buried him. But, at least, Jessha reminded herself as she had so many unsatisfying times before, the Duke had died as he would have wished: quickly and in the middle of the hunting he had enjoyed more than anything else, not slowly and painfully in a bed. And it had been, so they told her, a beautiful spring day full of sunshine. No snow; at least it had not been snowing....

Jessha studied Koric again. No, she did not think that even their father's death could have had this effect on Koric. Jessha brought her mind back to her present concern. She willed calmness, control, through her body, to the tips of the fingers in her lap, the toes neatly together beneath her skirts, into her shielded mind, into her voice. There was no hint of fear or apology as she answered, "I had no part in it, Koric. I was strictly watched; I would have been in the dungeons if Darth thought he could have kept me there. Even if I had known about his plans, there was no way I could have gotten word to you after he suspected me."

She could tell this did not satisfy him. He paced back and forth with quick, frowning glances at her, then away. Finally, apparently irrelevantly, he said, "You gave him a son."

Jessha recognized the connection. How can I trust you? How can I trust anyone? she read in his face. Rumor had it that he slept badly, and she noticed how he flinched away from shadows, seemed to be constantly pursued by... by something. What it was, Jessha could not Read exactly but it seemed to her as if he were afraid of some betrayal, some threat. Yet frequently Jessha felt it was not so much fear she saw in Koric as expectation, as if her brother were waiting for some justified and anticipated retribution to fall upon him, and anyone near him might prove to be the agent of it. And so, perhaps, he distrusted them all. He was harder than she remembered him, more decisive, more royal in his commands. But he seemed not so much matured to her as, well, curdled, soured. She could see nothing of the openness and idealism in him now that she remembered from their childhood together.

"I assure you, Koric," Jessha said with a flash of her old ironic humor, “that was entirely his idea as well." She adjusted her silver underskirt to lie more gracefully over her small feet, running one forefinger idly over the brocaded pattern of the cloth.

"But Darth's brat ..." Koric went on as if he had not heard her.

"My son," Jessha interrupted.

Koric stopped pacing to stare at her. "He is my son as much as Darth's," Jessha repeated calmly. She looked up at him, calculating. "And your hostage. Or did you think of that? He is Darth s Heir, the most precious thing in the universe to him. I know. While you have his Heir, Darth won't dare do anything to threaten you, to put his son in danger." Jessha hoped she was right in that opinion. "Your best weapon against Darth, now, is to keep his son safe and well and - available."

Koric appeared to have followed this with some difficulty. "Yes... yes." he murmured after a while. He seemed to be more convinced by the assurance in Jessha's tone than the logic of her argument, but at least he was agreeing, Jessha was relieved to note. She turned quickly to another subject, casting about for some topic to distract him from any further suspicious speculations on her concern for his enemy's - as well as her - son. A question about the opposition of one of the councilors in council that morning successfully diverted his attention. Jessha listened with half an ear, interjecting small noises to indicate interest and agreement at appropriate intervals, thinking busily. Yes, she had planted the idea that Koric must defend her son. If she could continue to encourage him to think so, her son might survive. Jessha moved surreptitiously to blot the trickle of cold sweat running down her back into her shift. She had won. Her son was safe, at least for the time being.

As long as Darth Vader remained alive and away from the Sith.

Ah, Darth, she thought to herself, you are so MUCH more useful to me away from Sith than you ever were while you were here! She smiled a little.

 

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Winter's Tales