Ruwenjorin

The Dark Lord and and his little party emerged from the orbital shuttle and found themselves at last on the surface - if not the soil - of Malioke, capital world of the Empire. The enclosed walkways of the terminal were undecorated, extruded-plasteel panels of bland beige covered with a random geometric design intended to be equally inoffensive to all known sentient life forms. Nevertheless, Vader felt an undefined sense of unease creeping into his mind as he strode determinedly onward, ignoring the crowd of alien beings hurrying through the building. Part of the sensation came from the two honor guards flanking him to the rear, their nerves on edge from trying to watch the mass of beings for any hostile move in his direction. Vader could feel their auras, tense, worried. How can we even tell what to watch for? Seller was thinking; in this mob of aliens, ANYTHING could be a threat.

Overtrained, Vader thought. It was unlikely that anyone on this world would dare to attack him, or, for that matter, would have any reason to wish him harm. Still, he could understand their mood. It had been several years since he could move anywhere, even within his own palace, free of the threat of an assassination attempt, or a stray sniper's energy bolt. No, honor guard to the Dark Lord had been no sinecure for some time now, and his men would have to learn how to relax again.

They took the antigrav down to the groundshuttle station, a dank, dimly-lit tunnel that smelled of lubricant and a variety of passengers of different species. Vader half-expected to see some kind of exotic fungi growing up the walls in the cave-like gloom, but there was nothing except the sterile grime of the city, and when he looked at them more closely the dark patches revealed themselves as a collection of greasy smudges and smeared graffiti in several languages, some of which he did not recognize at all. Vader half-consciously noted the other beings passing by: a six-legged creature with a dark exoskeleton and twitching antennae that gave it an abstracted air; a gaggle of green-skinned and long-snouted tourists from one of the rim worlds, clutching guidebooks and holorecorders, chivvied along by an officious tour guide; a family of felinoids trailed by two spitting and hissing kits; a long-legged and self-confident man with the look of a professional spacer in Corellian vest and jeans.

A muffled howl came to Vader's ears through the soundproofed transparent wall between passengers and the groundshuttle tube. It rose rapidly to a mechanical shriek that made Vader's guards flinch and lay their hands on their blasters, ready to draw. Atavistic childhood terror coursed through Vader on a wave of cold nervous excitement, memories of nursery tales of the evil spiritcreature that wailed the unhouseled dead to their damnation. He set his teeth and, with heroic self-control, managed to face the thing coming toward them down the tunnel with no more than an expression of mild interest. Vader*s shamefaced guards released their blasters and gathered the shreds of their dignity around them as the shriek declined to a mutter and died into silence as the shuttle came to a stop. With no more than a brief internal shrinking, Vader gathered his courage and led his people inside.

The shuttle was windowless, its soundproofing almost perfect, and the Sith had a breathing space while the transport drove on into the center of the capital at close to the speed of sound. But his misgivings returned full force as he stepped onto the walkway outside the terminal and stopped dead. His guardsmen only avoided crashing into their lord by quick footwork. The three of them stood stricken by an awed paralysis.

The buildings reached up and up and up on every side. An infinite distance away, where their tops faded into a blur, was a small square of hazy grey that might have been the sky. The blank slabs glittered with solid, unopened windows that seemed more a shield against the hostile world outside than a communication with it, like the mountain of glass which defended the fairy princess against the unwelcome trespass of mere mortal knights. The buildings loomed in the unhealthy air like giants leaning down to study the crawling life forms at their feet, and Vader had the claustrophobic sensation that they might come crashing down on them all at any moment. The entire scene was out of scale, beyond the comprehension of anything living. Vader suppressed a shudder and turned his eyes away from the towering ramparts of the city to the swarming mass of beings and vehicles filling the streets.

"May I serve you, sir?"

A robocab had angled over through the traffic flow to stop in front of them and open its passenger door. Vader eyed it suspiciously. It was nothing like the very few droids the old Dark Lord had permitted in Sith for absolutely necessary tasks: the medical droid, the interpreter/ translator for off-world communications. Here something that seemed to be an ordinary groundcar had somehow acquired a voice and a pseudo personality that subtly degraded his own humanity by its mechanical parody. It was a slave, not a servant; a slave which would never - could never - revolt. It was unclean, shameful. Vader's mouth curled slightly in disgust. Is this, this THING, sentient? he wondered. Intelligent? Can it be a feeling being? Could we who are flesh ever know how or what it can feel in its cold, mechanical heart and imitation brain? How can we trust it when we can understand nothing of what it is?

Now, for the first time, Vader comprehended fully why his father had fought so hard against the creeping influence of Imperial ways in Sith. This utilitarian and accepted robocab, unremarkable to the Imperial world, was symbolic of the whole inner decadence of its culture. They pervert their machines into thinking slaves, and themselves into the slaves of their slaves, Vader thought. He turned to his Sith guardsmen, standing wary but game in the center of this vast new confusion, held here despite their fear by loyalty, human loyalty, to him and loyalty to his House. He felt a sudden warmth. His men, human. He could trust them.

Still, they had to use the robocab. The three of them entered it and Vader gave the cab the address Kenobi had left with him the last time the Jedi had visited the Sith: Ruwenjorin. The machine hummed and clicked to itself, instructed Vader to deposit the proper number of credit tokens, and angled back out into the traffic flow.

* * *

Ruwenjorin was in the Old Quarter, far away from the modern section of the city. As the cab carried them toward their destination, the buildings shrank toward human scale and spread out to assume a more rational proportion. Occasional green things began to creep in among the buildings, giving Vader hope that there might be non-sentient life on Malioke after all. A tree, a bush, a carefully tended, meager flowerbox or tiny frontyard garden: it was a far cry from the riotous profusion of the gardens at the prince's palace in Sith, but it was alive.

The Old Quarter was a maze of unplanned, narrow streets with ancient houses dating back almost to the founding of the city, before the Empire had even existed. It was a place full of old secrets, houses turning black walls hidden by climbing vines to the winding cobblestoned public ways. Most of the people here were pedestrians, muffled in dark cloaks and hoods as if they, too, were full of secrets they wished to hide from the outside world. Vader pushed the button to open a window. Faint scents of growing things and a hint of birdsong came to him over the sound of the cab, carried from one of the enclosed gardens. Vader smiled with relief. Perhaps he could survive here after all.

The robocab stopped in front of another wall. Through a gate of wrought metal, Vader could see part of a low, rambling building, its timbers black with age and its stuccoed walls softened and crumbled at the edges by time. It looked as if it had been there forever. Ruwenjorin, oldest, most prestigious, most powerful of the Jedi schools: it stood haughty and unmoving against the tide of history, secure in its own inviolability.

This was something Vader understood. The architecture was totally different, but the school spoke Co him in the accents of his own palace, and he knew how to respond to it. He paid the robocab the remainder of the fare and advanced on the doors of Ruwenjorin like a conqueror, his guards trotting in his wake. The doorward took in the two hard-faced guardsmen in Sith dress, ceremonial daggers augmented by utilitarian blasters. Then he turned to the person who was obviously in command. He looked up - and up - into the proud dark-eyed face and then down the giant figure. At eighteen, Vader had filled out and lost the last traces of adolescent awkwardness. He moved with the controlled power of a trained warrior and the unconscious arrogance of his birth. Before the 'ward could speak, Vader took the initiative. He was back on familiar ground.

"I am Vader. Where is General Kenobi?"

The 'ward bristled at Vader's tone. Strangers at the doors of Ruwenjonn approached humbly and inquired politely, in awe of the Jedi reputation. This one's name meant nothing to the young student. "I will ask if Master Kenobi wants to see you."

"He'll want to see me." Vader started to brush past the 'ward. His guard moved up automatically into flank position.

“Stop right there!" the 'ward said. He made a quick calculation and decided that physical resistance was not a good idea. He reached out with the Force, the power that made the Jedi uniquely feared and respected. A little demonstration of Jedi "sorcery" and the most arrogant layman was quick to crumble, to stand in awe.... He threw the Force around Vader with the complete confidence of the semi-trained.

The next moment, to his vast surprise, the 'ward found himself slammed back against the wall with the breath knocked out of him and the suggestion of a hand around his throat, threatening to close. There was no finesse in the attack, no Jedi signature in the Force, but the sheer raw Force-power was astonishing and completely unexpected. The two guards stood easily, hands poised above their blasters as if they knew they were unlikely to be needed. The 'ward gave an inarticulate yelp that was echoed in the Force as a soundless cry for help, as Vader gave him a little shake with the Force, like a parent admonishing a naughty child.

"I will leave it to Kenobi to discipline you. Now, for the last time, where is he?

"Here I am," said a familiar, calm voice. Kenobi emerged from the shadow of the doorway and walked across the front courtyard. Vader released the doorward, who stood rubbing his shoulder where he had banged into the metal gate, and eyeing Vader warily with new respect. The Dark Lord smiled and stepped forward, the minor irritation of the 'ward forgotten.

"I felt you in the Force, Darth. This is a surprise - a welcome one indeed. What brings you to Ruwenjorin? I thought you had quite enough to keep you occupied in Sith."

Vader's face iced over into the haughty, defensive mask with which he had so often faced the old Lord his father, that impenetrable mask which walled out any intimacy of sympathy or question. "I am no longer occupied in Sith - for the time being," he said. "I have come to be a Jedi."

Something flashed over Kenobi's face and jangled in his startled Force aura, an eagerness almost gloating, that was joined, a fraction of an instant later by a tinge of dismay. It was gone before Vader could be sure it was more than his imagination. Ridiculous, he thought, dismissing the fleeting impression as the result of the long strain of recent events in Sith. When he touched Kenobi's aura again there was nothing he could see or feel in the Jedi except fatherly concern and pleasure in his, Darth's, presence.

"That's wonderful, Darth." Kenobi studied Vader for a long moment, silent, waiting. Vader felt the pressure of Kenobi's silence against his own, like seawater rising against a barrier, more powerful than any direct question: why are you here? What do you want from the Jedi? Vader set himself against it, and did not answer. He had had much experience at silence.

At last, Kenobi gave an almost imperceptible shrug and smiled. "Welcome to Ruwenjorin. Come with me." Vader's guardsmen started to join him, and Kenobi held up a warning hand. "Not your guardsmen, Darth. This is a place for Jedi and students of the Jedi disciplines. No others are allowed beyond the inner courtyard, unless they intend to study here. But your men are welcome to stay in the guest house for as long as you are with us."

The Sith armsmen stirred uncertainly, and Vader caught Seller's alarm at being separated from the lord whose safety was his responsibility. From his determined expression and the hand hovering over his blaster, it was clear that Seller was ready to try to force the gate and take out anyone, Jedi or not, who tried to stop him, rather than be left behind. Absurd, thought Vader. The idea of two Force-blind Sith trying to storm a Jedi citadel with blasters was nothing less than suicidal. What could Seller be thinking of?

"Seller!" said Vader sharply, "you and Naalic will stay in the guest house." He ignored the mute plea on his guardsman's face.

"Yes, your Highness." Seller sounded reluctant but obedient. Vader left his two liege men and the doorward eyeing each other with mutual hostility and contempt, and followed Kenobi across the uneven cobbles of the outer courtyard into the reality of Ruwenjorin. Vader could feel the ancient power breathing from the very stones of the place. He looked around eagerly.

The heart of Ruwenjorin was a garden. In the center of the forward courtyard, where the dormitory, refectory, and classrooms formed a square cloister, stood a fountain which provided a melodic background to all the school's activities. The rest was filled with ground cover and bushes skillfully designed to look natural, where stepping-stones meandered seemingly at random to negotiate the maze. Climbing vines bright with flowers crept up the pillars of the cloister, and several tall old trees made pools of shade. As Vader paused, a bird shot by, only inches from his face, and trilled at him from its landing place on a blooming bush. He laughed and drank in the green smell of the place.

Kenobi led him up a step and down a short hall to his private conference room. Inside were concessions to the outside world in a desk, a 'puter readout system, shelves of tapes. But the room was dominated by the raised meditation alcove set into one wall. Walled and floored in sweet-smelling pale-gold grasscloth, it was bare except for an embroidered cushion in the center and a scroll so ancient that part of its elegant calligraphy had almost faded into illegibility. Kenobi motioned his guest to a chair beside the desk and sat down there.

Kenobi folded his hands on his desk and studied Vader, as if reluctant to begin. At last he said, "You want to be a Jedi. You have wanted it since you were a child."

"Yes."

"But your father wouldn't allow it then. Do you understand why? No, don't answer - I know you understand what he told you, that your duty lay with Sith. But there are other reasons, too, Darth; reasons perhaps even he did not completely understand. If you stay here, you will have to commit yourself to Ruwenjorin and the Jedi utterly. There can be nothing halfway."

Vader stirred, half in protest.

"I know," Kenobi said. "There are some who come here for a semester or two, a season, to learn techniques to help them heal sick minds and troubled spirits, to study martial arts and the lightsaber, but those are not Jedi. To become Jedi, you will have to turn yourself inside out and unlearn everything you learned in your father's castles. For us who are Jedi, there is no room for any other loyalty or any other identity. Whatever we were before we came here is forgotten. Can you accept that?" The Jedi master showed no sign of emotion in addressing his Highness Lord Vader of Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith. As if, thought Vader, my rank and estates are no more important than some serf's cote.

Anger flared in Vader. "You did not care so little for what I am when you came to seek my help in Sith."

"Yes, Darth, I am well aware of who - and what - you are." Kenobi smiled. "Perhaps more aware than you are yourself. You could have learned much even while you were in Sith: ways to use your strength in the Force better and more fully than Sith training would allow. And you could have been a powerful ally for us there, an ally I'm afraid we will miss sorely, true. But you could not be a Jedi while you were also Heir of Sith, or while you ruled as Dark Lord. To open yourself to the fullness of the Force, you must first empty yourself of responsibility, dominion, rule, decision. You cannot be both Prince and Jedi. You must choose."

Then what are you? Vader thought, shielding. Is General Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, greatest of living Jedi and master of Ruwenjorin, free of dominion, rule, and decision? The calm power in this man was almost oppressive as Vader sat facing him. How can power come from the renunciation of power? Vader asked himself, and how can self come from the renunciation of self? How can I be anything less than Vader? It seemed an unnecessarily complicated mystery, and Vader was irritated by the way it evaded his rational grasp.

Either he was shielding less well than he thought, or Kenobi was used to this reaction from apprentice Jedi, it seemed. Kenobi smiled at him again, and said gently, "No, it isn't a matter of reason. In the final analysis, it's a matter of feeling, not understanding. Of wanting it badly enough to surrender everything you are to the Force, to become one with it, feel it and flow with it, and trust what you feel. Well?" He cocked an eyebrow at Vader.

"I'm willing to try," said Vader. "I don't understand it, but - "

"'Do or do not. There is no try.'" Kenobi chuckled. "As an old... friend... of mine used to tell me when I was still a novice. Can you do it?"

Vader watched the ironic angle of Kenobi's eyebrow, and felt that Kenobi was mocking him. There was some smug and simple secret here that Kenobi would not tell him until he had proved himself worthy by discovering the answer himself, like the cruel leading questions with which Vader's father had tormented him into thinking through the processes of statescraft. Vader remembered those long afternoons; he could almost smell the heavy leather scent of the rows of prized bound codices ranked behind his father's desk in his father's study (the old Lord had regarded holotapes as fit only for barbarians) and the faintly musty odor of the room's antique rug; see the slash of light that always escaped through the gap in the center of the window's garnet-velvet hangings to creep across the floor at him like a line marking off the time to his moment of humiliation. What, you don't KNOW? the small smile on his father's face would say if Vader hesitated; isn't it obvious? What sort of fool are you that you don't see.... And Vader would find the answer.

It seemed to Vader that Kenobi had exactly the same little knowing smile at this moment. "Can you do it?" Of course I can do it, thought Vader with determined anger. He thrust down his nagging doubts, let go of his identity as Dark Lord and the weight of lordship he had carried since his father's death, and threw himself into the seductive unreason of Kenobi's demand, without taking time to think, without taking time for cold consideration to hinder him. The surface Vader was all Kenobi's now, and if there remained at Vader's heart a hard inner core that had been born Heir of Sith and imprinted with his father's spirit, an inner core that remained in waiting, unconvinced, neither Vader nor Kenobi recognized it then. "I can," said Vader firmly.

Kenobi nodded in satisfaction. "Very good, Darth." Then he leaned back and laughed. "There's no need to make it sound as if you're accepting a death sentence! I'm sure you'll find life here isn't all that grim and solemn. In fact there are rumors that the students even enjoy themselves occasionally. Let me introduce you to some of your fellow candidates here at Ruwenjorin, and then we can get you settled in."

* * *

When they reached the commonroom, Vader was surprised to see how ordinary it looked. He knew that the Jedi preferred to hide their power behind the deceptive trappings of simplicity and plainness, their very ordinariness in dress and speech and surroundings giving them an extra mystery among the common folk, but this could have been the student gathering-place at any university, with its tables and chairs - quite unremarkable, mass-marketed, pale-colored wood tables and chairs, battered and scratched - on the scuffed tile floor crowded with casually-dressed young beings of half a dozen species. There was a muted clatter from the kitchen beyond the pass-through where a utilitarian caf dispenser sat on the sill.

Kenobi's introduction was equally matter-of-fact. "Gentlebeings, this is our new novice, Darth Vader."

For a moment, Vader was not even sure the master had referred to him so strange was it to hear his name in public with no titles and no identifying honorifics. "Darth Vader" had a bare and alien sound, as if his identity had been stripped away along with his titles. He started to turn angrily to Kenobi. Then, with a disorienting sense of strangeness, he realized that Kenobi had meant exactly what he said, that whatever he had been before was forgotten here, and among these beings he was simply another student, that to Kenobi, to most of the students in this room, a Prince of Sith was insignificant in comparison with a Jedi.

The moment passed as quickly as it had come. Vader needed no artificial bolstering of titles to impress an audience. As he stood eyeing them with haughty assurance, an appreciative hum ran around the room, tinged with a certain apprehension on the part of the male novices, and something that was considerably more positive on the part of the females. From the safety of the crowd came an awed, anonymous whisper, "My god, he's big!"

"I'll say," drawled a mocking voice. The speaker was a tall, strongly-built woman who was standing with a small group slightly apart from the others. Her square face was handsome rather than pretty: dark grey eyes, a straight nose, a wide, mobile mouth. Her brown hair was caught up casually in a mass at the base of her neck. As she came toward him, Vader noticed her no-nonsense economy of movement, an athlete's walk. She gave him a frankly admiring look up and down and held out her hand. "Welcome to Ruwenjorin. I'm Catryn."

Vader could feel Kenobi's unconcealed distaste for the woman as she came up to them, a sort of fastidious disapproval that Vader found puzzling. True, the woman was outspoken and a bit unmannerly, but she did not seem very different to him from the others in the room. He wondered what she had done to make Kenobi dislike her so. She returned Kenobi a bland stare that was almost insolent in its innocence. "Master Kenobi."

"My lady," Vader greeted her, slightly at a loss. He started to bow, then thought better of it. He was no longer in his own court; he had seen no evidence of decent courtesy among these people. Perhaps it was proper here for strange women to come up and introduce themselves shamelessly in this fashion. Or perhaps that was what had annoyed Kenobi. In any case, he was sure a bow was not the appropriate response. After a second's hesitation, Vader held out his own hand and shook hers.

The woman chuckled. "Oh, I'm no lady, as folk around here never tire of reminding me. I'm Corellian. First." She studied Vader's full-sleeved shirt, breeches and boots. "You're Sith, aren't you? Nobility?"

Vader nodded and Catryn smiled. "I thought so. Well, you'll need a native guide around this place - it won't be much like what you're used to at home, I'll bet. I'll volunteer for the job."

Vader could sense Kenobi growing more irritated by the moment. The tension between the Jedi and this Corellian woman was unmistakable; she seemed to be playing to Kenobi as much as to him, almost baiting Kenobi, although there was nothing in her words which could be identified as directly disrespectful. To all appearances, the woman was polite enough, but Vader had the impression that he was at the center of some intrigue that was clear to everyone in the room except himself. If it had been in Sith, he would have understood the significance of it, but here.... Why did Kenobi tolerate it? And exactly what kind of game was this woman playing with him?

Once again, Kenobi's silence was pressing in upon him, demanding he reveal himself, demanding a commitment based on that irrational inner loyalty to Kenobi that had been part of Vader for almost as long as the Sith could remember. But Vader drew back from that commitment, with the visceral caution learned through his long apprenticeship as Heir of Sith: he did not have enough data.

And the woman excited him. She was totally unlike the coy and flirtatious ladies of his court; her forthright interest had none of their simpering and groveling which had so irritated him at times. In fact, it was very nearly an outright challenge. There was, Vader felt, something here of that iron spirit which had defied him in his wife on their wedding night and which had roused him to take her so savagely then, in spite of his nervous inexperience. But he was no longer nervous, or inexperienced. And this woman did not hate him.

Certainly, it would be unchivalrous for a lord of Sith to refuse a lady.

This time he did bow slightly as he answered, "I would be honored."

The woman flashed Vader a triumphant grin that somehow included Kenobi in its orbit, as she started to open her mouth again. Kenobi forestalled her. "Thank you, Catryn. However, I don't think your help will be necessary. Darth is a Jedi candidate, and I'm sure you understand that he will working with his own class, not yours. Perhaps someone else would be more suitable. Now, if you'll excuse us, I'm sure Darth would like to meet some of the other students."

Catryn smiled again and shrugged. "Whatever you say. Master Kenobi." She gave Vader a final searching look. "See you later, Vader." Vader was left with the feeling there was more to her last remark than a conventional leave-taking, as the Corellian woman turned and walked away from them. He was not entirely sure whether he was pleased at that thought or not.

* * *

It was several days before he saw her again. It had been Vader's first session with the lightsaber, and he was thoroughly disgruntled. His full-sleeved silk shirt clung stickily to his back and sides, tendrils of hair still damp from the 'fresher were clammy on the back of his neck, and he felt completely exhausted. Random bruises and practice-saber burns reminded him forcibly of connecting blows during the session just finished. Master Kenobi was right: unlearning was going to be much more difficult than learning, here at Ruwenjorin. His trained body kept wanting to take over, to use ingrained reflexes gained through years of Sith swordwork. Wrong. Every time he moved in a natural stroke or block, he was stopped by the training-master. "No, Darth. Flow with the Force. Relax. Trust your feelings. Be passive." It was maddening.' His clearest feeling at the moment was the urge to smash something, but he hardly thought that was what the training-master had in mind. Vader's lips drew back in a half-snarl, and he kicked at the floor in a useless gesture to relieve his frustration.

Something caught out of the corner of his eye made him look up. The Corellian woman was lounging against the wall across from him, thumbs tucked into the belt of a sleeveless shortsuit which left the long sweep of her tanned limbs bare, regarding him with grave grey eyes. Vader felt a half-embarrassed impulse to avert his gaze from such an immodest display of legs and arms. He could sense an undercurrent of amusement in the woman.

Vader nodded at her and started to walk by.

"You were good," she said. "I was watching you from the gallery."

"I didn't see you."

"I didn't want you to see me. I wanted to get a look at you in action without any distractions. And you are good. You have the talent."

Vader snorted and his Galactic was more formal than usual in his annoyance. "And upon what do you base that opinion, my lady?"

"Now, don't get in a huff. That wasn't a crack." She grinned. "I'm good; that's what I 'base my opinion' on. Come on, Vader - you took a couple of hits, but nothing's damaged except your pride. Don't worry. What the hell did you expect from a first bout?"

Vader strode down the hall toward the commonroom, his frustrated mood requiring some outlet in physical movement. Catryn walked with him, matching his long strides with her shorter ones. Vader unbuttoned the cuff of his shirt as he walked along and pushed up his sleeve to show an angry red burn fading on the outer edge of his forearm. "Look! I haven't missed a simple overhead block like that since I was thirteen years old." He grimaced. "A remote!"

"I know," she said. "It's the blindfold. When I first came, it took me three weeks to get a hit on that double-bedamned remote with the blindfold on. Some people never get it at all. You got in four hits in your first match. That's why I say you have the talent."

The two came into the commonroom, drew mugs of caf from the dispenser, and sat down at a table. Darth stared unhappily into his mug's dark depths, still unmollified, eyeing the liquid with distaste and wishing it were something civilized like Sith wine instead of this black, bitter stuff.

Catryn took a sip of her caf and braced her feet on the base of the table, tilting her chair back. "I saw you with Kenobi when you came in. He seems to think quite highly of you."

"Who told you that?"

"Things get around," she said vaguely. "Are you going to go Jedi?"

"Yes." Vader felt an impulse to add "if I can" and swallowed it. He would not entertain the possibility of failure. "And you?"

"Naw. I'm just here to learn some of the fighting techniques."

Vader raised his eyebrows as he looked up at her, his full attention caught at last.

She went on. "My dad's partner's got a new ship that's being built for the company, a prototype, going out in a year or so, and he's willing to offer me a berth on her." Catryn's expression grew incense. "God, how I want to be on that ship! A whole new concept in merchant shipping, Dad says; and she's going to be the most beautiful - " She stopped with a little embarrassed laugh, then continued more calmly. "I guess I've got spacer in my blood. After my mom died, my dad didn't have any place to leave me while he was working the fleet, so he took me along with him. But he won't let me take a berth on another captain's ship until, as he says, I've 'proved I can handle it alone.' He's got a lot of respect for the Jedi." Her nose wrinkled. "God knows why; anyway, he thinks if I can make it here, I can make it anywhere. 'Nothing but the best for my daughter,' he used to say. So here I am. Some of the masters weren't too pleased at letting me in - a Corellian, a money-grubbing merchant's daughter, and one who didn't even want to be a Jedi. But money talks, even to Jedi, and the Order doesn't need the biggest shipping line in the galaxy mad at them. Kenobi didn't like it, but he had to let me in." She paused and shrugged. "I didn't ask to be a blasted Cause; it wasn't my idea. I don't care if the Jedi want us or not, but I'll be damned if I'll let Kenobi push me around! I'm staying here until I get what I want."

Vader responded again to the woman's spirit, even as he was surprised at her anti-Jedi attitude. He recognized, unconsciously, even in this merchant's child, something akin to his own unbending pride in his heritage and himself. He said slowly, "I will be a Jedi. I've wanted it ever since the first time Master Kenobi visited Sith, when I was six. He was head of the diplomatic delegation to my lord father the Dark Lord, asking for alliance and aid. The first time he spoke to me, I knew I was to be a Jedi."

"I'll bet," said Catryn. "As soon as he talked to you. It's obvious he wants you for a Jedi so bad he can taste it." Vader understood her implication. "Don't be absurd!" he responded. He thought back. It was odd that the emotional significance of that first meeting with Kenobi was still so clear in his mind, and yet he could remember nothing concrete about what the Jedi had said or done. He recalled Kenobi's face bending over his, and the soft, gentle, persuasive voice talking and talking, telling him about the Jedi, their glorious history, their vital mission to preserve peace and justice in the galaxy. Yes, he could remember Kenobi's words going on and on, and then nothing more except his overwhelming desire to please Kenobi by becoming a Jedi himself, to do whatever Kenobi wanted of him. Vader shook his head. Even the memory was compelling, dragging him backward in time, down like an ocean undertow into something dark and irrationally powerful. He swam back toward the surface. Catryn was watching him, concerned by the look of her, and a little alarmed.

"Hey - all right, all right!" she said. "I didn't mean anything. I know what you're going through; I really do. That passive Jedi technique is hell to learn after you're used to something else. My dad taught me a little double-knife style when I was a kid - for self-defense, you know? Downport can be rough on a lot of worlds. Anyway, double-knife's an aggressive technique, like Sith broadsword, and it was really hard to - "

"You know Corellian double-knife?" Vader broke in eagerly.

"Sure I know it. Every spacer knows it, if he wants to live long enough to retire someday. Blasters are useful, but there's nothing better than double-knife for close-in work. Quieter, too."

"I've heard of it, but I've never seen it," said Vader. "Could you teach it to me?"

"Sure. I've got an extra pair of knives in my room. Brought 'em with me to keep in shape, but I haven't found anybody here decent to spar with; they're all afraid they'll lose their Jedi passive discipline. I could use a little practice. Come on and I'll show you right now." Catryn rose, picked up their cups, and took them over to the rack beside the caf dispenser.

* * *

"That's what I like most about being promoted to First," Catryn was saying as she palmed the lock on her door a few minutes later. "A room of my own, even if it is pretty small. Was I ever glad to get out of that novice dorm!"

"Yes, the lack of privacy is annoying." Vader looked around the room. "Although this doesn't look like much of an improvement. Is there space to practice in here?"

"There will be," she said. Vader noted that the room had the orderly impersonality of a spacer's cabin, with neatly racked tapes beside the flat slab which hinged down from the wall to serve as a desk, a floor clear of clutter, and a foldaway bed with a blanket tight as a drumhead over it. Only a few small details gave any hint of the person who occupied the room. One of these was a polished box that Catryn took down from a shelf over the tape rack. Vader identified the glowing rich grain and spicy scent of expensive kallawood. Catryn put the box down carefully on the desk and opened it.

Vader drew in a breath in appreciation. "Beautiful!" he murmured. Inside were two sets of Corellian double-knives, the right-hand ones longer and heavier, almost short-swords, designed for slashing and stabbing, the left-hand ones lighter, made for blocking. Vader picked one up and examined it with the obvious expertise of a man familiar with fine edged weapons, as Catryn watched him with satisfaction written on her face. Vader tested the balance, admiring the perfect temper, the exquisite workmanship, the more-than-razor sharpness of the edge. A lovely weapon.

"They're a little light for you, of course," Catryn said.

"Hmmm," Vader acknowledged, concentrating on the blade. He tried a few passes with the right-hand knife, compensating for the lighter weight and shorter reach of the blade as compared to his Sith broadsword, falling naturally into a practiced swordsman's stance.

"Nice," Catryn said at last, after watching Vader for a while with patent approval. "Here, let me show you how we use them." She put the box back on the shelf and pushed the control to retract all the furniture in the room, giving them an open area. Catryn led Vader through a series of moves, demonstrating the Corellian style of using the second blade in place of a shield.

It did not take Vader long to follow what she was teaching him. The exchange of strokes grew faster and less experimental. After a few minutes, Catryn jumped back and cried, "Hold!" Vader stopped. Catryn slapped a panel on the wall, which opened to show two fencing masks among a collection of other items. She threw one to Vader, who stuck his left-hand blade through his belt and caught it easily. He laid down the other knife and moved to put the mask on.

"Armor?" he asked with a lift of his brows.

"No," Catryn shook her head. "Too heavy; doesn't give you enough feedback. The whole point of double-knife is quickness and skill; nobody's going to be wearing armor in downport, not unless they're paranoid or incompetent. Too much trouble."

Vader was dubious about her explanation. He had worn Sith battlearmor all his life, and it was flexible and light enough to fight in with no difficulty. He suspected the Corellian aversion to armor was a cultural prejudice, a part of the Corellian concept of personal courage. Bodyarmor implied a calculated concern for personal safety that the Corellian spacers evidently regarded as contemptible. Vader shrugged mentally. If this Corellian woman could fight without armor, so could he.

Catryn was studying him. "All right. Strip," she said. Vader's startled reaction must have been visible, for Catryn grinned and added, "...just the shirt, Vader. Wouldn't want to get a cut in all that lovely silk. That stuff's much too expensive to waste on a practice match. These blades aren't blunt, after all."

"Merchant!" Vader grinned back, caught up in her eagerness, and slipped off his shirt. Catryn's smile widened, her eyes sparkling.

The two moved back into position, no longer as teacher and student but as sparring partners. Their first moves were cautious, exploratory, respectful of the deadly blades, testing of an unfamiliar opponent's reactions. Then as Vader recognized the compact assurance and competence of his partner, the joy of battle rose in him, the aggressive instinct to attack he had been forced to hold in check during the Jedi practice session. Hot excitement flared behind his tight smile, an excitement he could see mirrored in Catryn's eyes. They circled, feeling each other's responses like a pair of lovers, like partners in a dance, perfectly in tune, sharing the pleasure of each other's skilled reaction in thrust and parry. Finally Catryn slid by under Vader's arm with a stroke of her knife that would have laid open his entire left side if it had connected. She was fiercely intent now, no longer playing, committed to the exchange. Vader could feel the passion in her clearly in the Force.

Vader evaded neatly with that cat-like quickness that was so remarkable in a man of his bulk, taking only a shallow scratch along the ribs. As he faced her again, Catryn moved in with an upward stroke. Vader blocked her left hand with his own, caught the right-hand stroke square with forearm against forearm, sending Catryn's knife flying with the numbing power of his blow, and before Catryn could recover, Vader had the point of his knife aimed at her throat for a killing thrust.

Catryn lowered her remaining weapon. "You catch on fast," she said in a soft, slightly shaky voice, between gasps for air. She pulled off her mask and Vader followed suit.

"Yes," said Vader, "I do."

He bent down, picked up the knife she had dropped when his arm connected with hers, and handed his pair to her along with it. She turned and began replacing them in the box one by one. Vader felt the echoes of her aura, felt his perception reaching out to mingle with hers in The Force, felt himself joining with her awareness of him and of herself. He shared her rising emotional response again, reading her thoughts.

As Catryn stood wiping down the knife which had caught his ribs, she felt Vader's hands at The back of her neck. With a quick, deft motion, he pulled the pin holding her hair and it came tumbling down her back. He put his hands under it, weighing the heavy, silky mass of it warm against the backs of his hands as his fingers gently stroked the sides of her neck under her ears. Vader could follow the fleeting, irrational thought that crossed Catryn's mind that it would take no effort, no effort at all, for him to tighten his grip and strangle her. She could feel his power, the incredible strength of those hands, even through the lightest touch. She surrendered to it joyfully, one with Vader now.

"Much better," he said, and he could tell she heard the rough edge to his voice, the undercurrent of urgency in him. "It looks much better that way."

She turned to face him, ran her hands up his broad chest and around his neck as he leaned down to her lifting mouth and claimed it with his own, then pulled her fiercely against him. There was no need for further words. They were perfectly in rapport, caught up in the mutual excited aftermath of combat. Vader's hands found the fastening of Catryn's shortsuit as hers moved to his breeches, and then they were naked, touching everywhere, melting together, mind and body, into a perfect unity of pleasure. Vader broke contact only long enough to extend the bed, gather Catryn up, and lay her down on it with firm authority, before he joined her again and she gave up all rational thought to the savage intensity of his passion and hers.

Some time later, she slid carefully out from under his covering arm and stood up. Looking down fondly at his sleeping figure, Catryn murmured, "No, my dear. I do not think even Kenobi will be able to make a Jedi out of you. Passive just ain't your style."

* * *

"I don't believe it," Naalic said, looking up from the flimsy sheet he had just removed from the guest house holoplayer. "I just don't believe it."

"Hmmph?" Seller grunted. Seller always grunts, Naalic thought. Sometimes Naalic wondered whether, if it weren't for the necessity of his periodic reports to his Highness on the state of his Highness's honor guard awaiting his Highness's pleasure in the guest house at Ruwenjorin, Seller would forget how to talk entirely. This time the grunt had an interrogative tone, so Naalic continued.

"This word from my sister-in-law. She's frantic. They've taken her nephew away to Lliryanthi, and she can't find out what's happened to him. They won't let her in to see him, and she can't get any word out. She doesn't even know if he's still alive."

Seller put down the blaster he was cleaning, wiped his big hands on his heavily-muscled thighs and sat back, pushing dark hair off his forehead. He wore an expression of polite interest. Well, that was something. Naalic thought with annoyance that the only things that seemed to interest Seller, really, were his weapons and his Highness's welfare. It wasn't that Seller was stupid, certainly; just... singleminded. Naalic had been trying to communicate some of his own passion for holochess to Seller, in hopes of making their boring wait in the guest house endurable. So far he had had only limited success.

"She says she wants me to appeal to his Highness to see if we can find out anything about what his Highness's cousin is doing. The men who took her nephew away were wearing Koric's livery."

"Fat chance," said Seller.

Naalic looked up from the sheet again and smiled ruefully. "She's a fine woman, my sister-in-law, but a bit simple when it comes to politics."

"What's the man accused of?"

"Treason, evidently." At Seller's questioning tilt of the head, Naalic continued, "Lord Garit was accused of plotting Koric's death, so Lurra says here. Nobody seems to know what the evidence was against him, but he was executed anyway, and his whole Household included in the attainder against his family. Lurra's nephew was master of Lord Garit's hawks. I ask you," Naalic said in disgust, "Lord Garit's hawks? What do Lord Garit's hawks have to do with treason?"

Seller shrugged.

"And why Lord Garit?" Naalic asked. "He didn't support either Koric or his Highness in the war. In fact, I used to know one of his grooms, and the man told me Lord Garit hadn't the backbone to come up with a positive opinion on the state of the weather, and couldn't find his own delwa's stirrup without someone to show him where it was. Like I said, it doesn't make any sense." He stared down at the sheet again. "I think Koric has finally gone off it altogether. It's the only explanation."

Seller grunted again, noncommittally, and turned back to his blaster.

"By the Bright Lord.'" Naalic burst out, exasperated. "You're a big help, Seller. It's like talking to a wall ..." He slapped the sheet down on the arm of his chair and stood up to begin walking back and forth, hands clasped behind his back. "I wish his Highness would take us back to the Sith. I'm worried about my family. And I don't trust these Jedi."

Seller concentrated on swabbing out the barrel of his blaster with faintly lascivious enthusiasm. "It's not for us to say what his Highness ought to do, Naalic."

"No, no; of course not. But - by the Bright Lord, Seller; don't you want to go home?"

Seller looked up at him. "Yes," he said quietly, and there was such longing in that one word that Naalic suddenly felt rebuked, like a child scolded for chattering on about some toy he wanted. He fell silent as Seller returned to sliding in a charged power-clip. Seller raised the weapon to eye level, and examined it, his face grave. Naalic could understand in that gesture what the weapon was to Seller, a distillation of his very self. Then the guardsman turned and thrust the blaster back into its leather holster with an abrupt, determined gesture. Seller sat with his hand over the holster for a long moment, and his blunt fingers lingered, almost tenderly, on the Vader luthra-hawk tooled into it. His expression grew distant, and Naalic thought he saw there a certain wistful, selfless hunger.

There was nothing more Chan Naalic could say. He sat down again, feeling vaguely ashamed.

* * *

Vader had only sporadic contact with Catryn over the next year. Jedi candidates were not encouraged to mingle with the other students, and Kenobi kept a close eye on his new prize. He saw her in public only at arms practice and in the commonroom. She was not one of the best of the Jedi-style fighters; she lacked the instinctive unity with The Force that made them able to act without thinking, and her reactions were a fraction too slow, too calculated. But with her own weapons, she moved like a striking cat.

Yes, Vader concluded, she reminds me of the hunting cats of the Sith uplands. Her attitude toward the object of her interest at the moment was amiably predatory: testing, teasing, searching out weaknesses, quick to seize on them and enjoy the capture. Most of the male novices had attracted her attention at one time or another. Toward the rest, she was aloof, more indifferent than unfriendly, and she lived in a state of casual tolerance edged with thoughtless contempt with her fellow female students. Typical Corellian, Vader pegged her, too independent to have much concern for anyone except herself.

Still, he seemed to be one of her favorites. She usually managed to be in the gallery when he was matched for a practice bout and she waylaid him whenever she could escape Kenobi's vigilance. Vader, in turn, found her a pleasant diversion and was glad enough to escape the crushing closeness of the novice dormitory for the illusion of privacy offered by Catryn's room.

As the semester moved on, there was no question that Kenobi's judgment of Vader's ability had been accurate. The Force accepted him, and he slipped into it with hardly a ripple, flowing with it, yet making himself master of it. He had the strength to treat the flow almost as a toy, matching himself against it with easy grace, and exploring all its aspects while respecting its underlying power. Within half a year, Vader was winning matches against first and second level students, often against a third, and Kenobi was quietly satisfied. The Sith glowed under the praise of his masters, the attention of his fellow students, and grew almost affable. He was still Sith: he retained a tendency to use his saber one-handed, broadsword-style, against easy opponents, and he never lost the underlying aloofness that set him apart from the others and tinged their admiration for his skill with exasperation at his bland air of superiority.

And, beneath it all, there was something wrong.

* * *

Kenobi was sitting at his desk going over some paperwork when a student knocked and announced, "Master Vesserek is here to see you. Master."

Kenobi was pleased. There were few people more useful to the Jedi than Master Mond Vesserek, whose nominal position as a recruiter of students for the Jedi schools took him all over the galaxy and neatly covered his other job of chief courier for information too sensitive for public means of communication from one group of Jedi to another. He was, to all appearances, a totally ineffective academic, but the small, stooped body with the wispy grey hair and nearsighted air of abstraction hid a sharp and observant mind. Kenobi rose and welcomed him, waving him to a chair and pouring him a glass of wine from the decanter kept on a side table for visiting notables. He turned back to the desk and switched on the sounddampers.

"It's good to see you, Mond. Is this visit business or social?"

"A little of both, Obi-Wan." Vesserek passed on information about Jedi activity in connection with the new rebel base on Dantooine, just beginning to grow, with Jedi help, from a collection of disgruntled local radicals to a command center for Empire-wide subversion. The outpost had carried out several small-scale sabotage missions, disguised as the work of apolitical criminals, and was planning to move on to bigger things. There was also word of Bail Organa's new delaying tactics in the Senate and his private assurances of support for dissident Jedi propaganda and terrorist activities based on Alderaan.

Then Vesserek grew more sober. "The rest of the news isn't so favorable, I'm afraid. Our school at Toraveldt was attacked and burned. Fifty killed, most of them novices and firsts. The rest got away. Some of them will be coming here, I expect. Master Veil was overpowered and killed while he was holding the rearguard for them."

"I knew him." Kenobi stared into space for a few minutes. Then: "Imperial troops?"

"Local mob. Spontaneous riot - they charged the school shouting about 'Jedi sorcery' and 'death to the Jedi devils' and so on. At least that was the story. The Imperial propaganda machine seems to be functioning very effectively on Toraveldt, unfortunately for us."

"You say this was the story?"

"Yes," said Vesserek. He smiled humorlessly. "But the Empire has more than one group of 'disaffected elements'. There was a group of Corellian spacers in port, and one of them recognized at least one of the leaders of the mob as an Imperial agent provocateur. There's no question the riot was set up by Imperial intelligence - very cleverly stage-managed, to be sure, but quite clearly deliberate. It looks as though this underground war of ours is starting to cost us real casualties. We're going to have to take direct action soon."

"Hmmm," said Kenobi. "And what do you think it means, Mond? Other than an Imperial attempt to make themselves generally obnoxious?"

"Test of strength," said Vesserek promptly. He puffed on his pipe briefly, looking thoughtful.

"Hmmm?" Kenobi nudged him again as the pause started to stretch out uncomfortably. "The Empire's deadly serious about this, you know, Obi-Wan. They want to wipe out every one of us and destroy the very concept of the Jedi. I see it everywhere I go* It's getting harder and harder to recruit new candidates; the people are more and more afraid to support us. A lot of them are even afraid to talk to a Jedi any more. And some of them are actually starting to believe that we're 'Jedi devils'."

"That's hard to believe. After the Clone Wars-"

Vesserek snorted. "You know how fickle the lay folk are. And how credulous. They'll believe anything if you tell it to them long enough and loud enough. So far, of course, we've been relatively safe because of the sheer inertia of people in the mass, and most of all, precisely because we are a secret organization. The Empire doesn't know what we can do and how much real power we have, what our training involves. Now it's trying to organize an effective campaign against us. They'll keep on increasing the pressure, to find out what our limits are before they hit us with extermination tactics." He paused, warming his hands on the bowl of his pipe. "It doesn't look good. But we do have one major advantage: our own people's loyalty to the Order. We've been very fortunate in our sworn Jedi, Obi-Wan."

Kenobi gave him a questioning look.

"That's the key," Vesserek went on. "As long as the Empire is working from the outside, they can't know just what we can do. We could be holding some final counteroffensive, some tremendously powerful Force technique, in reserve to use against them in the crunch. They won't take that chance unless they're really desperate. But if they had one of our masters, or a senior student, someone who knows the training, and just what it involves-" There was no need for him to finish the sentence.

"Yes," said Kenobi slowly. "All it would take is one. One renegade."

"As I say, we've been careful - and fortunate - so far; but it can't last forever. Someday, somewhere, the Empire's going to find itself a traitor Jedi, and when that happens-"

"-We'd all better be prepared. With a way out."

"Just so," Vesserek nodded. "I'm making sure all the schools are aware of what's happening, ready to move if it's necessary. Contingency plan."

"Let's hope it won't be necessary."

"Yes," said Vesserek dryly. "Let's hope so."

There was an awkward pause. Kenobi cleared his throat. Vesserek leaned back and eyed Kenobi patiently through the haze of smoke.

Kenobi leaned forward and folded his hands on his desk, smiling. He changed the subject. "So, Mond, have you had a chance to look over our new crop of students here at Ruwenjorin? What do you think of them?"

"Promising; promising. Your little public relations type in the office took me for a tour." Vesserek chewed on the pipe stem absently. "There was one that bothered me, though, that big Sith novice. What's his name?"

"Darth Vader. Amazing, isn't he? I have great hopes for him."

"Yes; so I heard from the other students," Vesserek said in a tone which took Kenobi aback somewhat. "You've been a bit obvious, Obi-Wan. And I'm not sure you're seeing him as objectively as you should."

"Why do you say that?"

"I had a chance to probe him while he was busy with a match." Vesserek rubbed his salt-and-pepper mustache absently and frowned. "I don't trust that boy. That double conditioning doesn't feel all that stable to me. He's a proton torpedo primed to blow, and I don't want to be around when somebody pushes the wrong button. I think you should hold off on giving him upper-level training until you can Clear him."

"I know it's a risk, Mond," said Kenobi. "Damn that father of his anyway 1 Amateurs like that shouldn't be allowed to play around with Force-conditioning."

"The Sith aren't exactly amateurs, you know. The Genetic Council's been linebreeding for Force-ability for about five hundred years now."

"Yes, yes; I know. And it didn't matter as long as the boy stayed in Sith to inherit. I had no idea when I conditioned him that he was going to get tossed out by his cousin and end up here." Kenobi appealed to his guest. "I couldn't pass up a chance like that. You felt that power. We need him!"

"Yes, I felt it. He's the most powerful novice I've ever seen, and that isn't surprising with Sith royal blood. I agree. We need him. But, Obi-Wan - it still could blow up in your face, you realize that." He tamped down his pipe, avoiding Kenobi's eyes. "Can you Clear him?"

Kenobi shook his head slowly. "I'm not sure. The imprinting is awfully deep - part of the birth trauma, right down to the basic structure of his personality. I don't know if I can Clear it without causing major damage to his mind. I want to wait until he is more fully committed intellectually to the Order. If I can persuade him consciously, it may help break the unconscious pattern, or at least weaken it enough so that I can work with it."

"So will you keep him at novice level until then?"

"I can't." Kenobi ran a hand through his hair in frustration* "Darth is no fool. He knows he's ready, and if I don't advance him, he'll ask why. That could be embarrassing. He already has enough Force-sense to detect a direct falsehood. All I can do is misdirect him until the right time."

"And if you can't?" Vesserek persisted.

"He's a proud boy, and a Sith lord still, for all that he's been trying to adjust to Ruwenjorin very hard. I doubt that he'd appreciate learning he's been guided. He wants to think he did it all on his own. I'm afraid we'd lose him. We can't afford that."

"No, you're right. He'd be a menace running around half-trained with that much power, like a little boy with a blaster and no idea of what to do with it. And it'd be even worse if somebody who does know what to do with him gets hold of him."

"Like the Emperor."

"Like the Emperor." The two Jedi traded significant and very unhappy looks across the desk. After a few minutes, Vesserek abruptly drained his glass and stood up. Kenobi rose too.

"Well, keep me informed." He shook hands with Kenobi. "And Obi-Wan, keep an eye on that boy."

"I will."

* * *

Meanwhile, in another part of the dojo, Vader lay on his side with his head on his hand, watching Catryn put up her hair. The distraction of the visiting dignitary had given them a chance to get together for love-making and conversation, and Vader was unburdening himself of opinions he knew his master and the other Jedi candidates would not approve. He glowered at Catryn's reflection facing him in the mirror, and slammed his free hand into his pillow.

"It's so frustrating! I know I can move ahead and take the sixth-level exercises, but Master Kenobi keeps telling me to wait. I have the power; I can feel it. I've tried some of the exercises on my own when none of the masters were around, and-"

Catryn turned toward him, her hands frozen in the act of pinning. "Alone? Isn't that dangerous?"

"Dangerous? For me?" Scorn was obvious in his voice.

"Well, I suppose not for you...."

Vader eyed her suspiciously. He was never sure how seriously to take her cheerful insolence, but he could feel there was no malice in it, merely amused affection.

Catyrn slipped in the last pin and came over to sit on the end of the bed. She tucked her legs under her, put her elbows on her knees, and propped her chin on her folded hands. "What are you in such a hurry for, Darth? What are you going to do with all this training - run errands for Kenobi?"

"The Jedi are the only thing holding this galaxy together. Without us, it would be every world for itself, sheer anarchy. We must be strong to preserve order, to provide freedom and peace for all the people of all the worlds."

Catryn wrinkled her nose. "That sounds like a campaign speech. Besides, I thought the Emperor had the same general idea. Only, I think he thinks he's in charge. Or do you think we ought to go back to the Republic?"

Vader shrugged impatiently. "What does it matter whether the Senate or the Emperor rules in name; the Jedi rule in fact. And someday-"

"Someday you will rule the Jedi, right?" Catryn smiled and shook her head. "That's what I love about you, Darth - your overwhelming modesty."

"And why not? Who is better qualified than I?" Vader looked offended.

She reached out her hand and put it gently over his mouth. "Shh, I'm teasing you; you know that. I wouldn't be surprised if someday you are Master General. There's nobody in the present Jedi class who can touch you."

"True. I deserve to rule." Vader sat up, leaned back against the wall, and stared out over Catryn's head. Half to himself, he continued, "I must rule."

"Why, Darth?" said Catryn softly, and there was puzzled sympathy in her voice. "Why do you have to try so hard? You're a good Jedi; maybe you'll even be a great Jedi, one of the ones that get listed in the Book of Masters. Isn't that enough?"

"No!" Vader looked at her, angry. "It's not enough. I'm the best and I intend to be the best. I have the power to go beyond anything the Jedi have yet accomplished, to show the whole galaxy a new and better order, something greater than it has ever seen. I would betray myself - would betray the power that the Force has given me - if I accept anything less. And...." He stopped, looked down, and said slowly, "It is the only way I can save Sith."

"Sith? But - what about your cousin?" said Catryn, more puzzled than ever.

"Do you think that because my traitor cousin falsely claims my title, my people are any less my people?"

"Darth," said Catryn, now completely serious, "didn't you tell me Kenobi said you had to forget all that - that you couldn't be a prince and a Jedi both?"

Vader turned his head sharply away. Catryn could tell he was caught between powerful conflicting emotions, his whole body vibrating with the intensity of his feelings. He seemed to be searching for some rational, logical explanation, some reason for the two impulses struggling within him, neither with any justification he could give to convince a cynical Corellian. As usual when he was not in control of the situation, anger won out over his other feelings. "It is a matter of honor - which you would not understand, merchant. I am Vader. I am not bound by Kenobi's fears or your low-born limitations. I can be Sith and Jedi!"

Catryn jumped up, fists clenched. "You can't talk to me like that!"

Wordlessly, Vader stood up and scooped up his breeches, reached for his boots. Yes, he could talk to her like that, Catryn realized. Vader of Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith - who had there ever been to require humility of him, to teach him the equality of any being who was not Vader? His fellow Sith would expect nothing else, and the folk at Ruwenjorin did not care. It had nothing to do with Vader's ability as a Jedi; it meant nothing to them. Only she, Catryn, saw; only she had somehow come to touch, to care for, the Vader who was neither Sith nor Jedi, but simply Vader.

"Darth," she said. "Darth, I'm sorry. Please don't go."

He paused, his expression haughty and frozen, and she sighed inwardly. DAMN his aristocratic arrogance. He insults me and I apologize. Right. That makes sense. Why in God's name do I go through this with him? she asked herself; I'm not one of his damned subservient Sith women - nobody pushes me around like that. Her sense of humor reasserted itself as she realized the irony of the situation. No wonder we keep striking sparks, she thought. A Corellian spacer's brat and a Sith aristocrat - you couldn't find two more independent, touchy people if you tried. We're two of a kind. No wonder I can get inside that thick head of his and tell what's going on in there. "I am sorry, Darth. I apologize. But it's not really me you're mad at, is it?"

"No," Vader finally admitted in a grumpy tone.

"So don't jump all over me." Her mouth turned up lopsidedly. "Hey - I'm on your side!"

Vader unbent, his quick anger gone. He pushed the control for a chair, sat down, and set his boots down in front of him. He sat staring at them with a frown of absent concentration, as if he had never seen them before, absorbed in his thoughts.

Catryn came over, put her hands on his shoulders, kissed him lightly on top of his head. She noticed again, as she did every time she touched him, the silky smoothness of his long, clean hair, the warm male scent of him, the rocklike strength of his body, his solid bulk. Even at his quietest, his least erotic, moments, he aroused her simply by his presence. THAT's why I put up with so much from you, Vader, she thought with a quick flash of inner laughter as she felt the familiar stirring of desire; you're the best damn lay I've ever had. That, and.... No, she told herself nervously as her mind skittered away, half in panic, from the thought, no. That's all…. . Friendship and a little fun, for now; that's ALL. There's no room in my life for anything else....

Hurriedly, she reached for the first distracting thing she could think of. "I don't understand what you can do for Sith here. Sith isn't even part of the Empire."

Vader looked up at her, reading the emotion in her, reading her attempt to smooth over their brief disagreement, to evade her uncomfortable thoughts, with what were to her political irrelevancies. She would never understand, he knew, that to him these things were not the dry stuff of newstape headlines, the dull, far-away conflicts of nameless beings, but the center of his heart, the source of his honor. He could not expect her to understand. He responded to the underlying meaning of her question as he answered the surface. "That is the way I intend to keep it, Catryn. The Sith cannot fight the Empire; it has no hope of surviving as an independent system unless it can oppose the Empire with its own weapons. And it if does that, it will have already lost, for it will no longer be Sith. I am the only one who can save it. When I have the Emperor's ear, I will make sure Sith is left untouched."

"When you have the Emperor's ear?"

"Yes." There was no trace of doubt in Vader's voice.

"Oh," was all that Catryn could quite manage. She was awed at his supremely arrogant certainty, and the sense of power that flowed from him excited her. She ran her hands slowly down the warm planes of his pectoral muscles, savoring the soft roughness of hair against her fingertips. Distractedly, she murmured, "What about Kenobi? Will he let you go?"

Vader understood her tone and smiled as he answered, "Kenobi is a wise man. I have learned much from him since I came here, and I will learn more before I leave. And one thing I have learned - he is my teacher, not my master. No one is my master, even among the Jedi."

"H'mmm," Catryn murmured agreement, giving herself up to her rising desire for him.

Amused, Vader also abandoned the attempt to continue a rational discussion, stood up, and pulled her around in front of him against his chest. After several more minutes, he reached up to unpin her hair again.

"Darth!" Catryn said with a comic imitation of annoyance, "I just got it up again!" She grinned wickedly up into his face. "And, as a matter of fact-"

"Catryn!" said Vader warningly, and leaned down to stop her mouth with his own as she laughed.

* * *

If Catryn had relayed this conversation to Kenobi, he would have been a good deal more concerned than he had been when he spoke to Vesserek. But Catryn was not likely to communicate anything not strictly necessary to the Jedi master, as Vader was well aware. It took none of his growing sensitivity in the Force for him to appreciate their mutual antagonism. In fact, he recognized with wry humor, part of his own attraction for her was his rank. She had no awe of nobility in itself, but it pleased her to spite Kenobi's pride in the high status of Ruwenjorin's elite student body by seducing the most high-born of them all, she, the daughter of a mere merchant. No matter how rich her family, or successful her studies, Catryn would always be a vulgar social upstart to the more traditional masters. But Vader cared nothing for the distinctions of Imperial society. The only nobility he recognized was Sith, and he found the masters' pretentions amusing. He laughed and accepted them all impartially as his inferiors, in this as in everything else.

Vader threw himself into his exercises - both those assigned by his teacher and those he searched out on his own - with determination, and grew in the Force. There was no doubt he was dedicated to the Jedi, talented in Jedi ways as none had been for generations. Kenobi watched him, torn between pride and unease, waiting for the right moment to attempt the deconditioning, never finding it quite the time. He watched the proud, confident, brilliant giant, and his heart grew cold with fear that if he tampered with Vader his potential would be lost, his value to the Order damaged. There were so many ways it could go wrong, so many ways his treasure could be ruined and lost to the great effort the Jedi would soon be making against the Empire. And so Kenobi hesitated: There is still time; he's only a boy yet; next week... next month... soon-

He was reassured by Vader's enthusiasm for everything the Order could offer, for Vader seemed as fully committed a Jedi as any man could be. Perhaps Kenobi, in his own self-assurance, did not see quite how adept his pupil was growing, how skilled at Reading others in the Force, and how skilled at concealing those aspects of his own aura he did not wish discovered. Kenobi noticed no trace of interest in Imperial politics in his student; Kenobi hardly noticed that he expressed no opinion on the worth of the Republic either. He does not care, Kenobi decided; he will serve the Jedi, and whatever we support, he will support.

So matters stood when, some eighteen standard months after Vader had come to the school, the Emperor commanded the entire Jedi class to attend a special reception to celebrate - as the proclamation read - "the long and loyal service of the Jedi Order to the Empire." The masters were well aware it was a polite method of getting a close look at potential Jedi troublemakers. Kenobi fumed, but there was no way the school could refuse a direct Imperial command, especially one allegedly honoring their Order. Each master spoke with his students, cautioning them to be wary, to say nothing more than the bare minimum, and to keep their mental shields up.

"Remember," Kenobi added to the little cluster of students which included Vader, "the Emperor is a high adept. You'll need all your skill to keep your minds closed. He will expect that, and I doubt he will probe deeply unless you give him some reason to suspect you. But if he does, he can probably break your shield; he's one of the most powerful Force-sensitives in the galaxy. That's what makes him so dangerous to us. So guard yourselves and give him no cause for suspicion."

"Suspicion of what, Master?" asked one of the Firsts. "We haven't done anything-" The unspoken question hung in the air: Have we?

"No," Kenobi answered. "But the Jedi are an independent power base, not a part of the Imperial system. Any relics of the Republic, no matter how apolitical, are suspect. We don't have to do anything; we just have to exist."

The student nodded, satisfied. But Vader, standing on the fringe of the group, caught a very faint seepage from Kenobi's shield, too faint for the rest of the students, too faint for him to Read it exactly. Kenobi tended to be careless around his own students, where he felt safe. But there was something hidden there. "We haven't done anything." H'mmm, I wonder, thought Vader to himself, careful to keep his own thoughts shielded. He was Jedi, but he was Heir of Sith first, and he had no illusions that as powerful an organization as the Order could exist and survive against the hostility of the government without political ambitions. He had suspected nothing else. And here, Vader thought, is the opportunity I have waited for.

* * *

The Imperial court was rich; it spoke - indeed it shouted - of wealth and power, the tribute of a hundred worlds. And it glittered: the jewelry, the icy satin of formal garb, the cut-glass chandeliers, the crystal wine glasses, the courtiers, all sparkled and flashed like a frosted window in sunlight. It was all hard surface and fashionable style, where the gowns and the manners were as new and expensive as the titles.

At its center, yet separate from it, was the Emperor, a cold and secret darkness apart from the bright shimmer around him. He sat and watched and said nothing; and as the evening wore on his eyes turned more and more often to the handsome young Jedi in Sith garb. The other Jedi students huddled together like chickens under a hawk, talking among themselves in hushed voices and sipping cautiously at the weakest available drinks. But the Sith moved confidently through the company and was clearly at home. Now he was flirting with Lady Davale, a stunning beauty who had seldom been known to converse with anyone under the rank of earl, and the rhythm of her fan indicated to the Emperor's practiced eye that she was definitely interested in her partner's gallantries. H'mmm - high-born, then, the observer concluded; and he was dressed all in elegant black: a fine silk shirt heavy with the dull glint of gold embroidery, close-fitting breeches tucked into gleaming knee boots, a short cape of rich velvet lined with the subtle complement of watered silk. His fair flesh and bronze shoulder-length hair glowed against the dark color, and the Emperor could tell from the way he carried himself, with an assurance too natural and complete to be called vanity, that he was fully aware of the impression he was creating. The distinctive blue-green and almost oily texture of the liquid in his glass identified it as quivvic - a potent, hideously expensive liquor with an almost burning aftertaste that required a cultivated palate and a strong head. That a Jedi student was drinking quivvic here indicated either supreme self-confidence or foolhardiness; and the young Jedi did not give the impression of being a fool. Not at all.

The longer he studied the Sith Jedi, the more intrigued the Emperor became. At last he came to a decision and sent out a probe, the very lightest feather-touch of the Force, to feel the Sith's shield.

A student should not have been able to detect such a faint probe by an adept with the Emperor's control. Yet the Sith raised his head in a listening pose and quested like a hunting beast on a light scent. He turned and his eyes met the Emperor's; a look of wary interest passed between them. The Emperor caught something like satisfaction, briefly, in the young Jedi's reaction before he turned away.

The Emperor rose, drawing the skirts of his long overrobe together and settling his belt around his hips. The musicians faltered. He waved a dismissal, and they returned to playing. The Emperor stepped down from the dais where his throne stood and drifted slowly, seemingly at random, through the company, which parted and bowed in a slow wave as he passed, like a field of grain in the path of a wind. The protocol droid eased over toward him in response to an almost imperceptible nod. "Confidential voiceprint," he said to it.

"Yes, Majesty."

"Tell us about that young Sith," the Emperor continued as he drew the droid out of earshot of the courtiers.

"Only a son of the late Dark Lord of the Sith, formerly Heir, now deposed by his cousin/nineteen and one-half standard years of age/intelligence level fourteen/Force ability level fifteen point five/ second-year student, Ruwenjorin Jedi school...." The droid droned on while its master listened with half an ear and covertly watched his prey. He would not try a more direct Force probe at this time; it would only antagonize the boy, and the earlier one had shown him that the young Jedi's shield was too strong for anything less - now. But perhaps later.... The Emperor eyed the level of quivvic in the young man's glass, the teasing expression on Lady Davale's face, and the lord's obvious interest in both. Ah, young Sith, the Emperor thought to himself with a secret smile, yes, you have Force ability few can match, training in Jedi ways, and training in the social graces, even if it was only at that bumpkin court of yours. You are a most accomplished young man - and how well you know it! A worthy prize, no doubt. But you have a young man's hot blood, and between pride and lust, I will have the better of you in due course. I have learned patience since I stood where you stand now. For a moment the Emperor allowed himself to indulge in a bit of harmless and ironic nostalgia: this young Sith reminded the Emperor of his own youth.

The Emperor nodded, cutting off the droid in midsentence, and drifted back into the company. He spoke casually to half a dozen of the Jedi students and arrived finally at the place where Vader stood. Lady Davale curtsied deeply.

"Rise, child," the Emperor said, and nodded dismissal. The lady curtsied to Vader as well and backed out of the Imperial Presence, not without a final melting glance at the young Jedi over the flutter of her fan. Vader's eyes followed her retreat with a calculating interest that sugggested he planned to renew the conversation at a later time. Then he turned and bowed to the Emperor; it was a bit less deferential than the Emperor quite approved, but there was no provocation in it.

"We trust that you are enjoying yourself this evening, your... Grace." The slightest perceptible pause before the last word let Vader know that the Emperor was aware of both his present and his former status.

"Indeed, your Majesty. The company is - congenial."

The Emperor permitted himself a frosty public quirk of the mouth. "Yes, she is charming, is she not?" Vader was tightly barricaded, his shield  completely up, but there was a sparkle in Vader's eyes and a half-smile on  his mouth that made it clear to the Emperor that Vader was very pleased with  himself indeed. The Emperor smiled to himself again. Such a beautifully arrogant young man, this Jedi, he thought; now - a bit of judicious flattery....

"We have heard quite a bit about your abilities, your Grace. We must say that if what we have heard is correct, we could wish there were more men of your caliber in our service."

"Your Majesty is most gracious," said Vader. Kenobi materialized abruptly at Vader's elbow. The Emperor ignored him pointedly. Perforce Vader ignored him as well, since in the Emperor's Presence no one existed unless the Emperor acknowledged him.

"How unfortunate that you are not our subject."

Vader looked just the slightest bit disconcerted by that, as if he detected a certain sinister undertone to the Emperor's remark. "It is most kind of your Majesty to say so. However, I am, of course, Sith ... and Jedi ..."  Ah, thought the Emperor, you ARE impatient. "Of course," he murmured. “Nevertheless, it is our hope that your stay in our domains will be both pleasant and profitable, and free of any... inconvenience...."

Kenobi, still officially invisible, remained at Vader's side, radiating a disapproval of the entire conversation that was nearly palpable. At the Emperor's last words, he was totally still, concentrated on them, but both Vader and the Emperor remained completely shielded.

"I assure your Majesty that I have not found myself inconvenienced by either identity in the past, nor do I expect that I shall in the future," said Vader.

At these words, Kenobi turned a look of triumph on the Emperor. But the Emperor remained concentrated on Vader, and in the split second while Kenobi was distracted from his protegé,, the Emperor read something on Vader's face which gave his words quite another meaning than Kenobi clearly drew from them. The Emperor gave no outward sign. Inwardly he thought with satisfaction: Yes, my young Sith Jedi - I think we understand one another well enough. He nodded slightly. "...Perhaps we shall have the opportunity to speak with you again...."

"As your Majesty wishes," said Vader with a final bow as the Emperor glided off into the crowd. Behind him, the Emperor heard Kenobi saying, “That was beautiful, Darth: I've never heard a better job of telling the Emperor 'no' without saying 'no'."

Out of the tail of his eye, the Emperor saw Vader incline his head graciously, accepting the compliment; but Vader said nothing.

* * *

It was quite late when the tired and subdued Jedi returned to Ruwenjorin. As they scattered thankfully to their beds, Kenobi laid a hand on Vader's arm and drew him aside, saying, "I'd like to talk to you, Darth."

They retired to Kenobi's office, and he switched on the sounddampers as Vader settled into the chair. Vader was not quite drunk, not really, he told himself; but several glasses of quivvic over the evening combined with a lively session in Lady Davale's apartments shortly before he left the palace had unquestionably blunted the sharp edge of his mental state. Vader leaned back comfortably, savoring his generalized feeling of somewhat fuzzy contentment. He wondered if it might not be wise to wait until the morning before having any kind of meaningful conversation with Kenobi, but in his current state he could think of no way to suggest this properly and could not bring himself to worry about it.

Kenobi leaned back also, steepling his fingers against his chin, a half-smile on his mouth. "You put your training to good use tonight. That was an excellent bit of diplomacy, that conversation with the Emperor."

"Yes."

If Kenobi felt any annoyance at the lack of a "thank you," it did not show. "I've been hoping to talk with you about this for some time, Darth, but I had to be sure where your loyalties lay first. I think that's quite clear after tonight."

"I am Jedi. Surely there has never been any question of that."

"No, of course not." Kenobi sat up, adjusted himself in the chair, and cleared his throat. "I'm sure you are aware, Darth, that there has been friction between the Order and the Empire recently - engineered riots, propaganda against the Order, that sort of thing. It looks as though the Empire may be moving into a new phase in its harassment. Some of the upper-level masters-"

"-feel it is time to do something concrete to defend the Order and prevent Imperial encroachment on its prerogatives," finished Vader, rather pleased to find such a phrase slipping so easily off his tongue.

"Exactly! said Kenobi. "How did you know - or was that a guess?"

Vader shrugged. "It's obvious. Any fool can see it is a political necessity."

"Let's hope it isn't quite as obvious to the Emperor as it is to you," said Kenobi. He lowered his voice in spite of the sounddampers. "Many of us feel that the most effective way to defend the Jedi is to work with the Senate for the restoration of the Republic. There are a number of sympathetic people there who-“ He got no further before Vader interrupted.

"No." Vader did not raise his voice, and it took a moment for the negative to register on Kenobi. "No," Vader repeated with an expansive wave of his hand. "The Republic is dead and gone; its time is past. The Empire is more efficient. It is far easier to control one man than a hundred."

Kenobi recoiled with a look of horror on his face. "How can you possibly say that, Darth? Have you no concept of what a Jedi is? We have been the guardians of peace and justice for all the peoples of the galaxy for generations. How can you possibly support a tyranny that denies those peoples their most basic freedoms, their very rights as intelligent beings? You cannot be a Jedi and support the Empire! Has what I taught you meant nothing to you?"

Between the quivvic and his fatigue, some perverse spirit had taken control of Vader's mouth, and he found himself saying, "Why should I care about the commons of the Empire? They are not my people."

It took a moment for Kenobi to understand what Vader meant, then he said, "But it's all part of the same thing, Darth. The Empire is as much a threat to Sith as it is to the other star systems. You know it has been trying to take over the Sith Worlds ever since the first Palpatine took control; the Empire will not accept any independent power - Jedi, Sith, anything. If we don't stop it, eventually the Sith will be just another conquered province, and her people will suffer as much as any of the other people of the galaxy. You remember your history: the Republic was peaceful; the Republic never threatened Sith."

Vader gave a bark of laughter. "There is an old proverb in Sith: 'The luthra and the luthra-hawk signed a treaty of alliance, but when the hawk grew hungry, he had a good meal.' I believe the good intentions of the Republic no more than those of the Empire. But the Empire I can use." Kenobi stood up and began pacing in an agitated fashion as Vader continued, "I have no wish to hurt you, Master Kenobi; you are in no danger from what you have told me. But I will not be dragged into an internal struggle of the Empire, a struggle I don't believe in."

"Do you believe in anything?" Kenobi said bitterly.

"I believe in myself. In Sith. In the Jedi. I do not believe in foolish dreams of a Republic which is gone forever. It serves no purpose to pursue them."

"I had hoped that living here at Ruwenjorin you would learn to step outside of your narrow provincial alliance to your home system," said Kenobi sadly, "to see that all intelligent beings are brothers in the Force, that all are worthy of our loyalty and concern. The Jedi are universal, Darth. We belong to all beings: noble or common, our own species or others. When you have truly come to be a Jedi, you will understand that."

Vader's face wore an expression verging on contempt. "No doubt, Master Kenobi," he said politely, dismissing the words.

"Don't humor me," Darth."

Vader lowered his head slightly, acknowledging the rebuke rather than accepting it. He was not paying much attention to what Kenobi was saying at this point; all he was really aware of was an overwhelming desire to go back to his room and fall asleep. He yawned and settled into a corner of the chair like a sleepy little boy.

Kenobi stopped pacing and studied him. The anger on Kenobi's face faded, to be replaced slowly by a gentle smile. "It will come to you in time, son. When you have more experience in the Force, you will able to feel it, I know." He paused. "Go to bed, Darth. You'll feel better in the morning."

Vader climbed to his feet and headed for the door to Kenobi's office, walking very carefully.

* * *

Seller glumly watched the holochess board, where the last of his defending chessmen was being dismembered by one of his opponent's toothy little horrors.

"That's 632 to 586," Naalic informed him cheerfully. "You owe me sixty-five credits."

Seller grunted.

"Yup," Naalic went on, "I think that we've hit the record for 'most consecutive holochess games played by a personal guard team while supposedly on duty.' Shall I patch the city central 'puter and find out for sure?"

"Stuff it," Seller replied without heat. The tail of his chess piece disappeared down the other little monster's throat, and the guardsman shut off the board.

"What's the matter?" Naalic teased. "His Highness is perfectly safe; we've got good chow, regular hours, and nobody gunning for us. Life is great." Naalic stretched out his legs under the chess table and put his hands behind his head.

Naalic hadn't expected an answer; Seller still responded to most of his chatter with monosyllabic sounds. But this time the other guardsman seemed to have reached his limit. He smashed his fist down on the table, stood up, and said, "Eighteen months. If we don't get some action, I'm going to go nuts I"

"I know what you mean. It's so quiet around here, sometimes I think I'm going to curl up in a corner and start talking to the wall." Naalic chuckled. "Well, they say you don't have to worry until you start getting answers back from the wall, though that might be sort of interesting: 'Hi, I'm a wall, and-'"

Seller gave him a look of pure disgust. "I want to go home," he said so softly Naalic could barely hear him.

Naalic sobered. "'Until death take me, or my lord release me, or the world end'," he quoted quietly.

Seller just stared at him levelly, and after a minute Naalic dropped his eyes. That had been unfair; Naalic knew perfectly well the depths of Seller's devotion to the Dark Lord and his oath. "I know, I know," he said. "We both want to go home. It would be different if I felt like we were doing any good here, but all we do is sit around twiddling our thumbs. I feel useless. Still," he added, "if it came right down to it, I'll bet not one of those little two-for-a-quarter-credit Jedi could find his left foot with both hands, let alone figure out which end of a blaster is which. If his Highness ever does need somebody-"

Seller nodded agreement.

"So here we stay until his Highness decides to leave." Naalic's good-humor returned. "Relax, Seller. Are you really in a hurry to go back to getting shot at by Koric's troops?"

But Seller seemed to have exhausted his conversational resources, and remained silent. "Shall I set 'em up one last time?" Naalic asked. Seller shrugged, and Naalic reached for the board control. The door chimed and Naalic looked up. "Maybe that's your action."

Seller's grunt was eloquently dubious.

"No, you're right. Who can it be at this hour anyway? Maybe it's that little girl from Madame Morin's down in the village. You calling for take-out service now. Seller?" Naalic got up and walked over to open the door as Seller resumed his seat. The door opened on a small, inoffensive-looking felinoid with dull fur and ragged whiskers. He was clutching a battered sample case defensively to his thorax. "May I come in please, gentlebeings?" he said.

"Maybe he's selling drugs," said Naalic over his shoulder. He studied the felinoid. "Oh, all right; you look harmless. Come on in."

The felinoid stepped into the shadow of the door, where he was hidden from view by Naalic's body, and made the universal sign of touching his thumb and forefinger together and holding them up in a circle around his left eye.

"No, we're not bugged," Naalic answered, puzzled.

The felinoid stepped into the room, shut the door, and dropped his deferential air. "I come from his Imperial Majesty."

The two Sith looked at each other and burst into a roar of laughter. "And I'm the Dark Lord of the Sith," Naalic said. "What kind of stuff are you selling, cat? It must be good."

The felinoid's ears went back. "Do you think his Majesty is stupid enough to pick an agent who looks like an agent? Do you think this is a holovision show? Only a Sith - " He stopped and the fur on his ruff slowly lay back down as he recovered himself.

"He's right, you know," said Naalic, with a half smile at Seller. "What kind of proof can you give us, and what would the Emperor want with us anyway?"

The felinoid walked over to the 'puter outlet sitting in plain view on the tape shelf, and keyed it.

"Central," it responded.

"Central, identify this voiceprint."

"Kytheronaha/planet origin Corlis/species feline/sex male/age....”

"Stop. Is this being an agent of Imperial intelligence?"

"Classified."

"Override. My authority."

"Yes, subject is Imperial agent."

The felinoid unkeyed the outlet and turned to the two Sith. "Does that satisfy you?"

"That could be faked," Naalic said.

“It could. But I have no reason to deceive you, and I'm afraid you're going to have to trust me if you want to help your master, the Sith Lord.”

Seller's hand stayed to the butt of his blaster and he growled, "What do you want with his Highness?”

I don't want anything with him. His Imperial Majesty wants to see him as soon as possible, in private, and without the Jedi knowing about it.”

“Why is it so secret?” Naalic asked. “How do we know it isn't some kind of a trap? Koric-“

“Don't be ridiculous," snapped the felinoid. “His Imperial Majesty has no interest in the petty squabbles of your system. If he intended your lord harm, he wouldn't send out an agent. He'd send a squad of troopers, and there wouldn't be a thing you could do about it. He wants to see the Sith lord privately - right away. He didn't tell me why. Go fetch him."

Seller bristled. "Why, you-"

Naalic stopped him. "Do we have any guarantees of his Highness's safety?"

"I will be your hostage, and you are welcome to accompany him."

The two Sith exchanged a long, measuring look. "We don't have much choice," Naalic said at last.

“I'll go," said Seller. He checked the charge in his blaster, settled his dagger in its sheath, and stepped outside into the warm summer night. He stretched casually and strolled slowly away from the door, the picture of an innocent, bored man taking a random walk for exercise. He nodded to the Jedi doorward across the narrow courtyard from the guest house as he passed, and the 'ward replied with a half-wave of recognition as Seller rounded the corner of the low wall surrounding the school. As long as he did not try to enter, the Jedi ignored him; they had no interest in the stranded Sith guardsmen who had spent eighteen months cooling their heels uselessly in the guest house.

Once out of sight of the 'ward. Seller's casual attitude vanished and he melted into the shadow of the wall. With a part of his mind, he noted the soft damp air, heavy with the scent of flowers. It was very dark. The Old Quarter was poor and secretive, and here the bright lights of the city's center were reduced to a soft glow against the horizon, nearly lost behind the surrounding buildings. The sleepy sound of night birds churckling in the shrubbery came Co him, and he was pleased that their chat coring covered the sound of his footsteps.

He arrived at the wall opposite his lord's sleeping area and breathed a quick thanks to the Sith gods that his Highness had graduated from the novice dormitory to a Second's private room. Seller had little trouble finding hand- and footholds in the crumbling old wall, and dropped lightly to the courtyard on the other side. He froze, listening, but there was no sign that anyone had heard, and no stirring from within the building. Its windows were open in the warmth. Seller noted, and he moved quickly and quietly to the ground outside his lord's room. The soaked grass was cold under the knee of his breeches as he crouched there.

"Your Highness?" he subvocalized, projecting as strongly and directly as he could. Seller had no trace of Force-ability, but he had learned to communicate with Vader in this way, though it still made him uneasy that Vader could pick up his thoughts. There was no response from within. Seller frowned; usually such a call would have brought Vader awake and alert at once. Is this the right room? Seller asked himself nervously, and risked a look over the sill.

It was the right room. The usually fastidious Dark Lord lay sprawled on his back across his bunk, innocent of garments or bedclothes, snoring softly. His boots lay helter-skelter on the floor and his rich festal-clothes were flung haphazardly over the desk and chair. That must have been some party, Seller thought, smiling to himself. He had not seen his Highness in this state since the night of his Highness's coronation feast....

Seller pulled himself up over the chest-high window ledge and slid noiselessly into the bedroom. Crossing to the bed, he whispered, "Your Highness?" That got no response either. Seller stood there in indecision: any louder and the students in the surrounding rooms would surely hear through the open windows and wake also. How was he to wake his Highness without shaking him, touching him? Seller looked down at the Dark Lord, lying vulnerable and unaware in sleep.

This was his lord, his Highness, Lord Vader of Vader, as much beyond him as....  It was not proper, it was not possible, that he should... touch... his lord, but he had no choice. Tentatively, greatly daring, Seller reached out and put his hand lightly on the shoulder of the sleeping Dark Lord.

Only Seller's trained guardsman's reflexes saved him from Vader's startled, defensive swing as the Dark Lord woke suddenly. Seller found himself frozen in a Force-paralysis as the groggy Vader sat up abruptly, shaking his head to clear it, and identified his guardsman. Vader released him. "Seller?"

Seller went down on one knee, hot with shame, and bent his head. Would his Highness resent, would his Highness punish, the dreadful presumption of laying a hand upon his Highness's person? "Forgive me for intruding on your Highness like this."

"What is it?"

"There's a felinoid over at the guest house, your Highness. Claims he comes from the Emperor and that the Emperor was asking to see your Highness. The central 'puter identifies this cat positively as an Imperial agent." Seller shrugged. "For whatever that's worth."

"Very good," Vader answered with a small, self-satisfied smile. He stood up with no sign of self-consciousness, totally at ease in front of his guardsman, and calmly gestured Seller to rise.

There would be, Seller knew, no more direct acknowledgement of his incautious touch; it was utterly beneath his Highness to take notice of it.

"Informal dress," Vader said in his guardsman's direction. Slipping back into his familiar role, Seller went to the closet, pulled out a plain linen shirt and cloth breeches, helped Vader into them, then knelt to pull on Vader's boots. It seemed strange and shocking to Seller that his lord had no gentlemen of the bedchamber here at Ruwenjorin. Seller reflected that when he, Seller, was not here, his Highness must actually have to dress himself. Seller thought that he would be glad to be gone from this barbarous place and back to the civilization of the Sith Worlds.

Vader clipped his lightsaber to his belt, allowed Seller to fasten his cape, and turned toward the door. "Your pardon, your Highness," said Seller, "but the cat says the Emperor wants this meeting to be secret."

"Excellent. Come." Vader opened the door to his room, and with a mental shrug. Seller followed his lord into the passageway. If his Highness thought it was safe to walk right through the center of the Jedi school, Seller had no right to question his Highness.

They encountered no one in the halls at this hour, and passed only a few closed doors with the light showing under the sill, and a lone cleaning robot which ignored them. When they came to the outer courtyard, Vader took note of the doorward standing with his back to them, then raised his hand and gestured. They walked past with no reaction on the part of the 'ward, and Seller realized that this must be a new Jedi technique his Highness had learned here at Ruwenjorin to make them effectively invisible to anyone with less power in the Force than his Highness had. Neat trick, thought Seller. That should come in handy back in Sith....

Vader didn't bother to look back, but strode on unconcernedly toward the guest house, as Seller gave the glassy-eyed 'ward a sideways glance and hurried to follow. No matter how convincingly he told himself that use of the Force was perfectly natural, no more "wizardry" than any other phenomenon of the physical world, it still made him nervous. He tried to hide it from his lord, but he knew it was depressingly obvious to his Highness. His Highness seemed to be subtly amused by the whole thing, and Seller had occasionally had the unworthy thought that perhaps his lord had chosen his guardsmen without Force-ability just for that extra edge of awe their lack brought him. He stifled the thought. It wouldn't do for his Highness to catch him with that in his mind; it wasn't respectful.

* * *

Not long after, an unobtrusive civilian groundcar pulled up at the Palace and discharged Vader, the felinoid, and the two guards. The Imperial at the door acknowledged the felinoid's identification and passed them, and he led the little party through a tortuous series of back hallways to a private room in the royal living quarters. The felinoid keyed the scanner set into the wall beside the door.

"Yes?" answered the familiar voice of the Emperor.

"Kytheronaha, your Imperial Majesty. I have the Sith."

"Very good. Scan him and send him in."

Vader submitted to the scan, which revealed no weapon except his lightsaber. The felinoid moved as if to remove it. Vader glared at him and the felinoid drew back.

"Your Majesty, the Sith refuses to release the lightsaber," Kytheronaha said into the scanner.

"So we see." Amusement filtered through the mechanical voice transmission. "It's all right; we doubt he will try to assassinate us with the saber. Send him in, Kytheronaha."

"Your Majesty." The felinoid gave Vader a last disdainful look and keyed the release pattern for the door. The Emperor matched it from within, and the thick metal slab slid silently back. Vader stepped confidently in and his guards moved to follow, but the door slid shut again before they could enter. The sounddamper cut in with a soft sighing noise.

Vader found himself in a luxurious small room. Muffling carpet covered the floor, soft as moss, and dull blue draperies gave the animated holos on the wall the appearance of windows. The Emperor stood, quite alone, with an arm resting casually on what gave every evidence of being a freestanding sculpture made of flowing water, yet apparently was completely solid. Vader refused to let the anomaly distract him. He stepped forward and bowed slightly. "Your Majesty wished to see me?"

The Emperor flicked the flowing grey sleeve of his undress chamberrobe aside, turned away from the sculpture, and took a step to the buffet built into the paneled wall. He lifted a crystal decanter and poured two goblets of blue-green liquid, took one for himself, then turned back to Vader. With the thin ghost of a smile, he held out the glass. "You were drinking quivvic this evening, if we recall, your Grace.”

Vader was aware that his aura was still slightly blurred, his defenses reduced, by the remaining quivvic in his system. He accepted the glass, barely touched it to his mouth, then moved over and set it down on the end of the buffet. The Emperor watched him coolly over the rim of his own ^lass as he took a sip of the quivvic. He seemed pleased, as if Vader had demonstrated something to his satisfaction - prudence and caution, perhaps.

"Your Majesty had some purpose, no doubt, in requesting my attendance this evening," said Vader. He left no doubt that his presence was a gracious gesture rather than obedience to the Emperor's command.

"Be seated, your Grace. No ceremony." The Emperor took a seat, waved Vader to a tall overstuffed chair with almost the look of a throne, next to the buffet. Vader bowed again slightly and sat, crossing his legs with complete self-possession.

The Emperor leaned back. "I had intended to speak to you earlier this evening. Kenobi is a most efficient watchdog."

Vader noted the change from the Imperial plural to the singular and waited expectantly. Such informality was encouraging.

"I will be frank with you. I need a Jedi."

"I am sure your Majesty should have no difficulty in finding one," said Vader, fencing.

The Emperor gave him the faintest of warning frowns, and continued. "So many of our native Jedi are unfortunately infatuated with the outmoded inefficiencies of the late Republic. Like Kenobi. Such people in positions of power can be dangerous - both to themselves and to those... unfortunate... followers whom they mislead with their foolish clinging to an idealized past which never existed." The Emperor twirled his wine glass slowly between his fingers, admiring the way the light caught the cut crystal. "You, however, are Sith. I presume your loyalties are Sith as well?"

Vader could feel the Emperor's controlled presence on the fringe of his aura; it was not overt enough to be called a probe, not pressing enough to permit him to resent it, but it would allow the Emperor to tell quite easily whether he responded truthfully or not. "Yes," he said simply.

The Emperor nodded slightly, still not looking directly at his guest. In an apparently indifferent tone, he murmured, "I am informed that there is considerable unrest in Sith since your cousin took control. Koric has suggested to me that it might be necessary for the Empire to offer him some assistance to help restore order." He took another sip of quivvic and fixed Vader with a look. "So far I have resisted responding to such a request. It would be inconvenient to commit the Empire to a long-term intervention in an independent system."

"I certainly hope that will not be necessary, your Majesty."

"Of course," the Emperor mused, "it might not be necessary if there were a Dark Lord of the ruling family - or his viceroy - with enough energy to correct the situation, whose interests corresponded with those of the Empire-"

That's certainly clear enough, thought Vader. He shifted, recrossed his legs in the other direction, toward the Emperor. The Emperor could read the gesture, combined with his aura, Vader knew. Exactly as he had hoped; it could scarcely have been better. His satisfaction was obvious to both of them in his very posture, hardly needing confirmation in the Force. There were, however, some minor matters which needed clarification.

"I am, as your Majesty says, Sith," Vader said carefully. "And Jedi...?" There was a faint question in the last word.

"As I said, I need a Jedi."

"I have, of course, committed myself to the Order...."

"Ah." The Emperor leaned forward suddenly, and Vader had the unsettling impression of a snake about to strike. "There, if you will forgive me, your Grace, you are mistaken. You did not commit yourself. You were committed."

Vader was disconcerted by the unexplained turn.

"I have Read you," said the Emperor. "Ah - you did not think anyone could do that when your barriers were up, did you?" He chuckled. "You were a bit indiscreet this evening. Did you think the lady's rooms were Force-shielded?"

Vader stirred angrily, half-rose from his chair.

"Be still!" The Emperor's voice held a new note of command. Vader bridled but subsided. "Surely you, as a Sith, should know that there are other methods of control in the Force than the Jedi Way. I am an Adept; we do not fear the Dark Side, and there is much power in it." The Emperor studied his vine glass again and said idly, "Do you fear the Dark Side, your Grace?"

"I fear nothing," snapped Vader with an arrogant lift of his chin.

"Good. Very good. It may be you are even more valuable than I anticipated. You have been searching for something more than the Jedi Way Kenobi teaches, have you not? Unauthorized experiments in the Force, perhaps?"

"Yes," said Vader, subdued.

"I know there is Chat in you which is already akin to the Dark Side. It spoke to me earlier. With the Dark Side you will be greater than any Jedi living." The Emperor watched Vader carefully. "I can give you what you want."

"And that is, your Majesty?"

"Power. Absolute power subordinate only to mine. Power to rule Sith as you wish; power to rule in the Empire as my deputy. The power of the Dark Side. You are strong enough to use it, if you have the courage to take it."

"I have," said Vader thickly. His face was flushed and there was an almost drugged look about him. He recovered slightly. "But, your Majesty, the Jedi-"

"Did you not hear me say that you were committed to the Jedi? Did you think you came to them of your own will?"

"Certainly. I have always wanted to be a Jedi."

"Have you?" said the Emperor, raising his eyebrows. "Your Grace, Kenobi laid a geas on you. You were manipulated."

"No!" Vader said, outraged.

"Search your feelings," the Emperor continued calmly. "It is true. If you will allow, I will remove the geas."

Long-buried thoughts came back to Vader: his father's warning against the Jedi; Catryn's words, "He wants you so bad he can taste it." Could it possibly be true that Kenobi had actually tampered with his mind? He did not want to believe it, but the more he turned the idea over in his mind, remembering things which had formerly puzzled him, that fit no pattern, the more it took on a horrible plausibility. He felt a sense of anger and humiliation; that Vader should be manipulated like the commonest layman was beyond enduring. And yet, he wondered uneasily, how could he trust the Emperor? He had no illusion that the Emperor was a disinterested party; the Emperor wanted him just as Kenobi wanted him. He was trapped between uncertainties.

The Emperor was watching him, and Vader realized that, in his shock, he had left himself completely unshielded. "Will you rather trust Kenobi if I can show you that what I have said is true?" asked the Emperor. He chuckled softly. "You have nothing to fear from me, your Grace; you are far too valuable to me for me to damage you. I will set you free of Kenobi, and you can decide if that is worth your allegiance. I want your willing service; you will make a far better liege man than slave, for my purposes."

"As your Majesty wishes," Vader said through clenched teeth.

"Look here and concentrate," the Emperor said. "I need a focus." Vader stared at the wine glass in the Emperor's hand, letting his shield go down completely. The crystal diffused, filled his consciousness, and he swam in a luminous fishbowl, weightless and unthinking, in a globe of sparkling hard clearness and blue-green.

Vader felt the Emperor's entry on the edge of his consciousness, his slow progress into Vader's mind. It required all of Vader's control not to resist the invasion. This careful investigation was far more than a probe. The touch was like the tickle of an animal's whiskers against his face, like the crawling of an insect across his hand: soft, insinuating, irritating.

The Emperor reached the center, his touch firmer now. There was a block there, one Vader had not even realized existed. It threw back the Emperor's mental focus like a mirror's reflecting surface, almost perfectly camouflaged from the Dark Lord's own identification, but clear to the investigator. The Emperor probed it carefully, examined it, and with a sudden application of mental force, like the shattering of a mirror, cracked open the protective defense, revealing the aura of the command and its substance. Kenobi. There could be no faintest doubt; the origin of the geas bore Kenobi's distinctive identity, and the command was - loyalty to the Jedi, loyalty to Kenobi: an alien presence, controlling, manipulating.

In a reflexive explosion as violent and automatic as a sneeze, Vader responded, thrusting the alien identity out of his mind, and the Emperor withdrew with it.

Vader found himself on his feet, fist clenched around his lightsaber, in a fighting stance, wild with anger - cold, deadly, reason-deadening, absolute fury - at the outrageous indignity of this mental violation. He was panting. Gradually his breathing eased a little and his grip unclenched slightly, as he thought. How could I have based my life on loyalty to the Jedi, I, the Heir of Sith? The Jedi, the Jedi Way, is a tool. One does not feel loyalty to a TOOL. I am a Jedi and remain a Jedi; the Jedi Way is full of power and I can use it still. The Jedi also: those who will accept rule, I can use. The others are dangerous, deviant foci for power which threatens mine, which must be removed.

* * *

The Emperor sat watching Vader, satisfied. A small smile played around the corners of his mouth. "Well, your Grace," he said in a voice as soft and smooth as cream, "do I have a Jedi?"

"Yes, your Majesty," Vader answered, and his tone was controlled and deadly cold. "I am entirely at your Majesty's service, as soon as some unfinished business of mine is concluded at Ruwenjorin." He slid his hand down the grip of his saber with a savage, sensual pleasure, clipped it to his belt again, and faced the Emperor. "Your Majesty would not deny my honor satisfaction?"

"No, indeed, your Grace," the Emperor answered. "You have our leave to go."

Vader nodded grimly, bowed to his new lord, and turned to go. As the door slid shut behind Vader, the Emperor sat tapping the tips of his fingers together absently, considering. He murmured, "My thanks, Kenobi, my old enemy. That is a fine sword you have forged for me, that Sith blade: good metal and a keen edge, well tempered. A tendency to turn in your hand and cut you, yes, unless your grip is sure. But I have a good hold on it now. That one is mine. If he survives."

The Emperor reached out and touched a control set in the wall near his chair. "Colonel Bannes: a squad of troopers and a med unit at once." "Yes, your Majesty," a tinny voice answered from the palace security office. There was the muffled sound of the order being relayed down the chain of command. "Where shall I send them, your Majesty?"

"Ruwenjorin," the Emperor said.

* * *

Obi-Wan Kenobi flicked off the office 'puter outlet and rubbed the back of his tired neck, staring out without seeing at the dark garden full of sleepy bird-sounds. Calm before the storm? he asked himself; I hope not, he answered himself. No, surely not. This was just a precaution. Everything that was clear of just sensitive he had coded and transmitted to Vesserek. It should reach him within the tenday, if his itinerary were unchanged from the one he had left when he stopped last; that might or might not be so, depending on what he had discovered along the way and any necessary detours that might have come up. But the information would catch up with him eventually, and it would go with him to Dagobah and Master Yoda, where the records of the Order had been kept safe for centuries.

The rest of it - the truly secret material - would have to go out tomorrow morning by courier. Who? Kenobi considered. Yes; Petta danLuq, the Sixth, was due for a vacation with his mythical family on Dantooine fairly soon now. No reason he couldn't make a stop at Dagobah without attracting attention. Perfect. DanLuq it was. He would be pleased; the boy was new to the Alliance and still had a rather childish enthusiasm for cloak-and-dagger games, for all that he had a good head on his shoulders and showed the makings of a fine agent. I wish we had more like him, Kenobi thought; there are so few even among the Jedi that we can really trust completely. If only it didn't put them in such danger. I hate to risk them, any of them; they're only children. How can I look that boy in the face and send him out of here, full of that enthusiasm of his, when I know I may be sending him to imprisonment, a labor camp, "rehabilitation," even death? But when there's no one else to go- And he's so eager, so frighteningly eager. Would he still be as eager if he really understood what he's facing out there? Yes, Kenobi decided, he probably would. Young men, children; always the first to die in a war. Kenobi sighed. He would tell the boy in the morning.

Obi-Wan sat for a moment enjoying the damp, alive smell of the air from the garden outside. The danger seemed absurd, a paranoid fantasy, in this peaceful moment. Darth had showed no signs of actually doing anything, and he had been drinking. Perhaps it was alarmist to doubt him; perhaps, still, with a little more effort he could be turned to the Alliance. There was so much potential in him that it could not be wasted and lost to the cause. Ridiculous - Darth was no Imperial! He was just confused. Darth had been his since he was six years old, when the conditioning had been imprinted on him. That was too deeply embedded by now for anyone but a Jedi master to detect. No, the conditioning was safe - and Darth was safe. It must be a false alarm. No doubt it would all look very silly in the morning.

He rose, put out the lights, and walked slowly back toward his sleeping quarters. It was very late and the third noon was dipping toward the horizon. Kenobi yawned. As he walked along the dormitory corridors, he reached out mentally and touched each of the sleeping students' minds, like a father tucking his children into bed with a little pat: a light, brushing touch in passing, reading calm sleep, restlessness, any hint of unease about an aura. Once or twice he found unhappy dreams, and eased the troubled spirit into sounder sleep.

He passed Vader's room, half-asleep himself now, and reached out to stroke that beloved mind, to assure himself that he was correct in dismissing what had happened this evening. There was nothing there.

Startled into complete wakefulness, Kenobi probed again, hurriedly. Surely he had been mistaken. No. The room was empty. A cold lump formed in Kenobi's belly. If Darth were gone, where could he be? In a futile gesture, he opened the door and checked the Sith's room. The bedcovering was slightly disturbed. Darth had lain down at least, and the clothes he had worn to the reception were thrown across the desk. It looked as if he had intended to go to bed. Had he been kidnapped somehow? But if so, there would be signs of a struggle, surely, and Kenobi doubted that any non-Jedi, even one of Koric's Sith, could have penetrated the school undetected, with that hostile a purpose influencing his aura, or have overcome the Dark Lord with no evidence of a battle. Kidnapping was most unlikely. Then where had he gone - and why? A horrible suspicion began to take shape in Kenobi's mind, one he fervently hoped was false.

He sank down on the bed and gathered himself for the difficult and exhausting effort of tracing an aura in the Force. A major disturbance could be detected parsecs away, but a single individual was hard to follow, and if he had gone off planet or made a jump through hyper space, it would be almost impossible.

Kenobi blanked his mind and focused, sending his consciousness outward to make contact with the aura of the Sith which was still strongly present in the room filled with his things. Obi-Wan concentrated, slowly bringing his own aura into resonance with his student's, merging, absorbing the pattern, linking with Vader's identity. When he was in unity with it, he began casting for the missing Jedi. Almost without conscious thought, keeping positive effort to a minimum to reduce the interference of his personality on Vader's frequency, Kenobi followed the faint tremor left by Vader in the Force. There were other presences there: the two guards the Dark Lord had brought with him from Sith, and an anonymous, fuzzy identity he had never felt before and could not identify. Kenobi ignored them, concentrating on the thin, bright trail of his student.

Kenobi moved through the strange Force-analogy of the city: dark blocks of dead matter, the buildings, looming against the faintest background glow of the all-pervasive Force like deserted streets in the early hours of predawn. Through the empty areas flickered intelligences which his mind saw as varicolored smudges of light, brighter or darker according to the power in the Force, each species and each aura different.

The Vader-aura was closer now - he had almost found it. But his following was blocked by a barrier. It was strong and burning cold, like frozen metal; cold enough and empty enough to suck in all life, to drink him in, like the soundless, lightless pull of a black hole, absorbing everything in its hunger. The Emperor. It was the palace, heavy with the dark Imperial aura, and Vader was there, within it. Unprotesting. Vader's aura was in unity with the Emperor's, absorbed into the Emperor's influence.

Kenobi drew back quickly. There was more power there than he could defeat or penetrate now, tired and disheartened as he was. He cursed himself for a fool; self-indulgent, willfully blind. How could he ever have assumed that Vader would do nothing?

The icy lump in his belly had spread. He was shivering with cold in the warm room, feeling hollow and light-headed, almost feverish. There was no more possibility of deluding himself. Darth had gone over to the Emperor. Darth was lost to him: the boy he had pinned his hopes on for thirteen years. Kenobi stood and walked to the door, moving slowly as if he were brittle and any sudden movement might break him into pieces.

...Petta. Kenobi gradually concentrated on one thought among the whirling confusion. Petta. He must send the courier at once, before morning, now. He grasped at the concrete action, and moved down the corridor toward the boy's room.

His mental call awoke the Sixth, and Petta appeared, heavy-eyed and disheveled, at his door, where he stood wearing a worried look and stuffing his shirt into his pants with uncoordinated, sleepy lunges, as Kenobi came up. "Master Kenobi?"

"I must have a courier, Petta - right away, tonight. It may be dangerous. Are you willing to go?"

Petta took in Kenobi's distracted air and swallowed his questions. "Of course. I'll get my boots."

Kenobi waited impatiently as the young man pulled them on. He gave Petta hurried instructions on the way back to his office, where he pressed a false I.D., traveling papers, and a fistful of credit tokens into the boy's hands, then handed over the information he was to carry. His hands closed around Petta's for a brief moment, a wordless wish communicating blessing and reassurance. "The Force will be with you," he said as he sent the young Jedi on his way. He hoped Petta could get offplanet on one of the night shuttle runs before the Emperor made any move against them. There had been no official action' taken against the Jedi yet, and a single student, traveling openly on a commercial flight, ought Co be the least suspicious courier he could use.

When he was sure Petta was safely on his way, Kenobi went through the school waking a student here, a student there. They gathered in a corner of the lounge, the fourteen of them huddling together in the big empty room, dressed in hastily thrown-on clothes, many with bare feet and barely-combed hair. But their faces were alert and their mouths grimly set, and they were all business. Kenobi stepped up to face them.

"Gentlebeings," he said, "Darth Vader has betrayed us Co the Emperor." A spasm of pain crossed his face. Until then it had hardly seemed real. Now, in cold, definite words, admitted before them all, it came home to him completely. He swallowed and repeated, "Darth Vader has betrayed us to the Emperor. You are all Alliance. You know what this means. Now that he has specific information, the Emperor will move against us, and you, in particular, are in danger here. He may or may not include the non-Jedi candidates and the novices - in any case, we must have a cover for you; they will stay. You all know what to do. Take as much with you as you can; you probably won't be coming back. Leave at once and regroup on Dantooine as soon as you can without attracting attention. We'll look for you there within the month." His mouth thinned and his expression hardened even more. "As of now you are outlaws and every loyal citizen's hand is against you. Trust no one. Take care, and the Force be with you ail."

As he turned to go, one of the students spoke. "Master Kenobi, are you coming with us?"

"No. "

"But surely you are in more danger than any of us."

Kenobi answered bleakly, "I am responsible for Darth Vader's presence here. I trusted him. It is my responsibility to rectify that error." Yes, thought Kenobi, I know Darth. When he finds out I have guided him, he will be angry  -very angry. His first thought will be revenge. He will come to find me before he does anything else, and I don't think even the Emperor will be able to prevent that. If I can stop him BEFORE he tells the Emperor what he knows, we may yet be able to salvage something from this disaster.

* * *

Catryn awoke in the predawn with an uneasy feeling. She was never a heavy sleeper, and ordinarily she would wake several times during the night, turn over, and go back to sleep. But this time there was something wrong. She sat up, extending her Force-perception, listening. There was definitely some disturbance in the room next to hers, an agitation in the Force, and she could hear muffled sounds: scraping, the slam of drawers being shoved hastily back into place, footsteps. Curious, Catryn swung her feet over the edge of the bed, rose, and shrugged on her robe. She pulled her heavy braid of hair out of her collar and dropped it with a thump against her back. The corners of her mouth curved up the tiniest bit; it did make it a bit easier when Darth wasn't here. He insisted on having her hair down, and it was always a mass of tangles in the morning. But tonight he was at the reception at the Imperial palace. That would be interesting to hear about tomorrow, if they could get away together.

She slicked back the few straggling tendrils of hair from around her face with her palms and padded out of her room. The door next to hers was open, ajar, and she could hear movement inside. She knocked and without waiting for an answer, pushed it open further. "Anji? What are you doing up at this hour? Is anything the matter?"

The sharp-faced woman looked up from her packing, hands poised over her traveling-case. When she saw who it was, her face twisted angrily, and Catryn took a surprised step backwards. Anji had never been one of her friends. She was an intensely committed Jedi, outspoken against the Empire, and contemptuous of anyone as self-centered and apolitical as Catryn. But she had always been polite, willing enough to be civil to a fellow student, misguided as she saw her. Now her expression was naked hatred.

Taken aback, Catryn repeated, "What's the matter, Anji?"

The woman's face worked; she seemed torn between prudent silence and a fierce desire to strike out hurtfully at the other. Anger winning, she spat out, "Your damned Sith has sold us all out to the Emperor."

Catryn's mind caught on the adjective. "My Sith? You mean Darth? What's he done?"

"Gone over to the Force-cursed Emperor, that's what Master Kenobi told us." With a nasty smile that never reached her eyes, she added, "Oh, don't worry. You'll be safe enough, but I'm getting out of here. Right now." She slammed the lid shut on her traveling-case and headed for the door.

"But what's he done?" Catryn cried after her in confusion.

"Ask Master Kenobi." Anji turned in the doorway. "He's staying here to take care of the mess Vader's created." She hurried out and off down the corridor, shoulders squared like a soldier going into battle.

Catryn stood looking after the woman, her mind furiously turning over this strange exchange. The basic outline was clear enough: Darth had succeeded in catching the Emperor's eye at the reception, as she had suspected he would; and Kenobi, as she had expected, had refused to let Darth go. And now Kenobi was going to "take care" of Darth - that sounded ominous. Kenobi was a sometime general of the armies of Alderaan, Jedi master, master of arms technique. Darth, with his damned Dark Lord's arrogance, would surely try to take out Kenobi by himself, if Darth felt his honor required it, if Obi-Wan went after him. If, Catryn thought to herself miserably, if Darth were ANGRY enough; when he was really angry, Darth had no more sense than- Catryn cursed savagely under her breath in desperation. Darth was good, very good; but not that good. Kenobi would kill him. She was convinced of it.

Catryn returned to her own room and stood thinking. Her eye fell on the polished wooden box on her shelf. She stepped over to it, took it down, and set it on the desk. Don't get involved; it's not your fight, a rational part of her mind insisted.

Images of Kenobi teaching saber flashed through her mind; he was brilliant. She had not the slightest chance against him in any sort of a set match. Resentment of Kenobi washed over her: Kenobi who had tried to block her entry into the Jedi school, who treated a merchant's daughter who did not want to be a Jedi as less than dirt, who had tried to force her stubborn Corellian independence into his own constricting mold. It was Kenobi who had tried to stand between her and her ship; who now stood between her and the safety of her-

Her what?

Catryn stood with her hands on the warm, smooth wood of the knife-box and thought back. She remembered Darth the first time he had held her double-knives in his hands, here in her room - remembered his beauty and his passion, his glorious pride, the unconquerable fighting spirit in him that was kin to her own and called to hers so strongly. Remembered, afterward, the fierce joy of their joining in mind and body. Ah, god! she cried silently. Darth! She was swept by a desperate fear and longing for him. What was Darth to her? Her friend, her lover, her....  She shied away from that final commitment.

 No.

 She opened the wooden box and picked up her pair of double-knives, and weighed them in her hand. What was Darth to her? She would not ask herself that; it didn't matter. She was a Corellian and a spacer's daughter; she would collect on the debt Kenobi owed her, and pay the one she owed to Darth. Catryn dressed in her fighting clothes, shielded her mind as best she could, and waited.

* * *

 Before the iron grey of predawn had quite strengthened to morning light Catryn caught the edge of Vader's aura as he entered the school. There was something subtly different in it, but it was Darth, without question, and she could feel the anger in him. Catryn crept down the stairs and along the corridor toward the aura, projecting invisibility as strongly as she could. She came to the corner and looked around the angle of the wall into the little flagstoned courtyard in front of the door.

The other students had prudently withdrawn, and the area was deserted except for four figures. Kenobi stood there, saber lit and in guard, facing the Dark Lord. Vader's short cloak fluttered in the light morning breeze, the only visible movement as he too stood poised in fighting stance, saber raised in formal salute before him. Vader's two guardsmen stood ready to support their lord; as Catryn arrived she heard Vader address them over his shoulder without turning his head: "This is a matter of honor between us; stay back.” They remained tensely waiting, hands on blaster hilts.

Then the tableau broke, and Vader advanced on Kenobi. Under any other circumstances, Catryn would have delighted in the duel. Whatever had happened to him at the palace, Catryn saw, had strengthened even Vader's tremendous ability in the Force, and, spurred on by the raging fury she could feel in him still, Vader moved with such graceful power that Catryn was entranced, frozen motionless with awe. Kenobi traded Vader stroke for stroke, the two flowing from figure to figure with such evenly matched skill that the whole seemed effortless, the deadly battle transformed into a ballet, an exercise in abstract art.

Suddenly Vader gave a sharp, unorthodox twist of his wrists and Kenobi's saber flew out of his hands, clattering across the flagstones. Vader drew back for the killing stroke, but before he could bring it down, Kenobi raised his hands and threw out an arm in a gesture of attack.

Catryn recognized it even before the blow hit: a full-strength Force-strike, a last, desperate, all-out assault with the whole of Kenobi's psychic^energy behind it. If it failed, he would be too weakened to strike again; if it succeeded, there was no means of softening its power. It was meant for death.

Vader fell. He crumpled to the ground in one awkward motion, like a puppet whose strings have been suddenly cut, and lay still. His saber swung down as he fell, catching the folds of his cape and starting a smouldering fire in the cloth before his nerveless fingers released the grip and the saber went out.

As the Dark Lord fell, four figures moved into instant action. In one moment, it seemed to Catryn, Kenobi reached out his hand and called his saber to him, swinging it up, lit, as the two Sith guardsmen leaped toward him. Catryn could feel their shock and fear, their suicidal determination to save their lord at any cost, but it was useless. Kenobi deflected their blasterfire effortlessly with the Force, and before the armsman in front could reach him with the dagger he was drawing, Kenobi's lightsaber moved in two smooth arcs, and both guardsmen were on the ground. Catryn was checked for a split second as the first guardsman fell and died, and Catryn felt his final despairing mental cry of love for his lord and the desolation of his absolute loss. Kenobi raised his saber again to bring it down across the still figure of the Dark Lord at his feet, final insurance that he was actually dead, but before the stroke could fall, Catryn's thrown knife blade had buried itself in Kenobi's forearm.

Kenobi whirled, transferring his saber to the other hand as he turned. He had been so absorbed in Vader that he had not even detected Catryn's presence. She stood, balancing the other knife ready to throw. Her Force shield extended around her like a pulsing field of northern lights, visible to Kenobi in the Force, electric with the power of her emotion.

Kenobi had no fear of a half-trained non-Jedi. Even through the pain of his wound, he moved almost negligently to disarm Catryn and bind her in a Force-paralysis until he had finished his business with Vader. Catryn knew she had no hope of preventing him and she had no slightest doubt that he intended to kill her.

"Darth!" she screamed in an absolute extremity of fear.

Probably nothing else could have reached him, called him back from the dark unconsciousness and death he was sinking toward. The force of her terror, aimed directly at him, roused him just enough to prevent his death. He was not even conscious of her as a person; he responded, not to her appeal, but to the raw wave of horror sweeping over him, galvanizing him to one last immense defensive effort. He reached out with his last strength in the Force and held Kenobi.

At that moment, when the three of them stood poised in a fragile tricornered balance of power, the whine of an approaching aircar reached them. Kenobi stopped, listening with the Force and his physical senses. As it grew nearer, even Catryn could identify it: troopers. At least a squad of them, and apparently headed directly for the gates of Ruwenjorin. Within seconds they were in sight.

Catryn never knew what motivated him: perhaps the Alliance/Jedi need of him, perhaps his military training that demanded he refuse to accept defeat without an effort to escape; but Kenobi turned and fled. Before the troopers leaping from the aircar could react, he was gone through the door, disappearing into the dark maze of the Old Quarter's shadowed streets, where the early light had not yet reached the bottom of the artificial canyons. Where he vanished, the Emperor's men never discovered, but the Old Quarter was full of twisting streets, hidden places, and discontented friends of Jedi and Alliance.

Catryn did not care. With a cry, she ran toward the body of her lover, still lying on the ground and moving with the very slightest, uncoordinated, blind squirmings, like some small animal stepped on and crushed but not yet quite dead. Vader's head and shoulders were enveloped in his cloak and - Catryn's horror increased - the cloak was on fire, the smoulder set by his falling lightsaber blade growing quickly into a sheet of flame. The sickening smell of burning flesh reached her.

Without taking time to think, Catryn snatched off her tunic and began beating at the flames with it. Sobbing hysterically with relief, fear, and reaction mixed together, she struck at it again and again, heedless of anything around her, until the hiss of a foam-thrower penetrated her attention and the fire was covered by a layer of smothering material. A pair of hands reached out and dragged her away as a medic knelt by Vader's side, pulling the charred cloak away, applying lifesaving equipment with calm, efficient speed.

Catryn stood, shaking, clutching the remains of her tunic in her hand, as the Imperial medical unit transferred Vader to the med unit aircar and carried him away.

* * *

It was nearly a month after the saber duel before Catryn was allowed to visit Vader. She walked into his hospital room, slid the door shut behind her, and took in the injured figure in the healing unit. In spite of speed-heal and bacta, the Force-induced wounds had not responded well, and Vader was still on total life-support, his torso concealed by the boxy mechanism, his arms and hands muffled in protective material. She remembered the fire, the Force-blast, Vader's crumpled body on the ground, but the sight of him here, the full impact of his hurts, was too much for her. "My god," Catryn breathed through the sour taste of nausea in her throat.

"I gave orders that no one was to be admitted," the thing on the bed said coldly in the metal tones of a respirator. His scarred, eyeless head lifted on the pillow in the arrogant way she remembered, denying her any chance of pity. Catryn remembered how much Darth had always hated droids and Imperial machinery, and it came home to her with a sharp pang how it must gall him to be dependent on life-support equipment.

"You know how good I am at following orders," she said. "I had to see you before I left."

"You saved my life, and the Empire would not be ungrateful. I - we - could find a place for you. You have abilities the Empire can use."

Catryn recognized the oblique plea. He would not ask for her sympathy, but she was his last tenuous link with the Jedi and the dream that had motivated him for so long. She was the last person who had shared a part of it with him, and who remembered his humanity.

"Darth," Catryn answered gently, "I'd stay if I could, but I'm a Corellian. I don't belong to anyone except myself. And I've got a ship waiting for me."

She could feel his withdrawal, although it was hardly visible through the muffling healing unit. She knew he thought she was rejecting him, repulsed by his cyborg body, and she could feel his angry reaction, mingled with shame, threatening on the edge of hatred. So, she thought, he hasn't learned yet not to care. The only thing holding him together right now is nerve.

She felt a flood of compassion. She was too much of a realist, she told herself desperately, to call it anything else. I won't - I can't - BELONG to anyone, she repeated silently, and love means possession.

Then why did you stay to save him from Kenobi? a small traitor thought whispered. Because... because…. . She thrust it violently away. Because I hated Kenobi; because Darth and I, we were, we are, two of a kind. Independent. For ourselves. Strong enough to be free. Catryn studied the thing on the bed, captive of the healing machinery she knew Vader hated. He was still stronger than she, to endure that. He would never be free again. Such courage, she thought.

Coward! she gibed at herself. Quickly, before she could lose her nerve, she covered the few steps to the side of the bed, leaned down, closed her eyes, and kissed him on his broken mouth.

With her eyes closed, she could feel his aura strongly in the Force. There was a new, bleak distance in it, and the weary, hollow memory of great pain recently past, the sense of pain and disorientation which still remained. Underneath, Catryn touched his stubborn gallantry and his bitter pride. He'll make it, she thought wryly; he doesn't have enough sense to give up.

She felt his faint answering warmth, and knew Vader recognized that she accepted him and paid her tribute to his indomitable spirit. And Catryn saw, beneath all Vader's suffering, beneath the machinery and the newly alien, metallic tang of his aura, Vader's enduring selfhood, and his undamaged maleness. The seductive pull of his masculinity remained, as strong as ever.

Shaken, she pulled back. The taste of serum was still on her mouth and she absently licked her lips, ignoring it, accepting it. Vader looked back at her without eyes, remote, his pride satisfied, his identity distanced now from any emotion, either appeal or anger. She saw the figure on the bed no longer with her eyes, but with her mind, her Force-sense. She knew she wanted him still and would always want him in some way; but she wanted her ship more. She had made her choice, and the ship was her survival. He would not deign to compete, and she felt in him that still coldness at the center of his being that made her, made everyone, ultimately no more than an extension of himself. He had dismissed her. She had been in control when she entered; now she stood uncertain, half sorry to have taken from her what she had come to give up. She felt almost a little guilty, as if she had completed the severing of the last link between Darth Vader and the outer sunlight.

"Darth, my dear - my very dear - goodbye," she said softly. He did not answer. She went to the door, paused with her hand over the control, and the guilt turned somehow to anger. If he hadn't lost the Jedi, she thought; if I weren't the last one- Spirit sparked in her and she closed her mind firmly to further thought. It's not my fault; it's not my responsibility.

"When you run into Kenobi again-" she said, and her hatred was heavy in her aura. She left the thought unfinished, palmed the lock, and fled.

* * *

Vader lay for a while, then he reached out in the Force toward the night sky, turning his mind outward to where the stars blazed coldly against the dark, and contemplated the idea of destiny.

 

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Winter's Tales