Paths of Glory
by Karen Winter
From the outside, the low, rambling building was unimpressive. Blank walls of mossy grey stone and age-blackened wood drew hardly a casual glance from the passersby hurrying along the rain-slicked cobblestones. Only a weathered wooden sign, half-hidden by climbing vines, identified the place as Ruwenjorin, oldest dojo of the Jedi order. Further north were the bright lights and bustle of Tavarsan's business district and the Imperial Palace, but here in the narrow, secret alleys of the Old Quarter time seemed frozen - as if the Empire had never been.
Passing through the heavy outer doors of Ruwenjorin, one came first to a central courtyard with a small fountain set in weathered flags. On one side was the refectory with its massive trestle tables, and on the other a dormitory where sleeping platforms stood in long rows, each with its mat tightly rolled at the head. A low arch separated this compound from the rear courtyard where five or six pairs of novice Jedi were exchanging sword-strokes under the watchful eye of a Jedi master.
His attention was focused on two students in the far comer. One was a stocky, sandy-haired young man of about twenty-five whose only distinguishing feature was the grim intensity of his attack, but the other would have stood out in any group. Already, at sixteen, he was tall and broad-shouldered, with an adolescent lankiness that promised even greater adult height. His fluid grace, dark, silky hair, and above all the cold perfection of his features, the result of generations of controlled breeding, stamped him unmistakeably as an Heir of Sith.
Warily, the two circled. The sandy-haired man obviously had half his attention on the master as he displayed like a ground-fowl defending his territory. The Sith was more disciplined, outwardly calm except for a faint frown of concentration as his practice lightsaber flowed smoothly from one figure to the next. He could tell that his opponent was trying just a bit too hard to look good, his eagerness making him slightly awkward and off-balance. The new student aimed a sweeping cut toward him. He parried and pressed the older man back several steps, then suddenly sidestepped backward and drew his practice saber down and across in a diagonal stroke: a perfect "kill". The Sith relaxed fractionally in guard waiting for his opponent to concede, but instead the other lunged forward and landed a numbing blow. The Sith nearly dropped his saber in surprise, then managed to deflect the next stroke with a desperate counter. "Yield!" he said in a low, furious voice. "That was a good kill, the match is mine."
The other fighter advanced on him again. "No!" The Sith could follow his thought: Not here in front of Obi-wan. Not to you.
Such rage swept over the Sith at this deadly insult that his opponent's face blurred. To deny his honor as a fellow Jedi, to declare him unworthy of the code of chivalry by refusing to yield in a practice bout, destroyed the whole meaning of the saber. All thought of technique vanished, and the Sith hit his opponent a full-force blow across the diaphragm. As the older man doubled over, the Sith raised his practice saber again and brought it down toward the other's head with real killing force.
"Darth, no!" The Jedi master blocked the descending stroke with his instructor's rod. Darth Vader felt the shock through his whole body, bringing him up short, and with an effort he composed himself sufficiently to glare down as his former opponent climbed shakily to his feet. Peasant, he thought. How can a blasterman use the saber properly! He has no honor.
"I'm disappointed in you, Darth," said the Jedi master. The finest of my students, the strongest with the Force, but there is so much fire in him. Can even I control him if he learns his full strength? Kenobi cut off that thought hastily, but not before Darth caught it. "I thought you had learned by now that a Jedi does not strike in anger. The fighter who allows emotion to master him is defeated even in victory. You are not fit to master another until you have first mastered yourself."
Darth opened his mouth to respond, then abruptly shut it again. He bowed slightly and said. "I ask forgiveness, Master Kenobi - for my anger."
"But not for your attack, hmm? At least you offer no excuses." Kenobi turned to face the other man. "Jhen Skywalker, you are as much at fault." He looked tired, and both novices recognized his recurring disappointment in his inept favorite.
"Obi-wan-" Skywalker interrupted. At the Jedi's frown, he amended, "Master Kenobi, you know what he is!"
Darth could feel the resentment Skywalker was broadcasting like a palpable wave. The stocky young man moved toward Kenobi as if to form a united front with him to shut Darth out. Darth's eyes narrowed and he felt the familiar scorn: Do you think you can take my place here, Skywalker? You served with him in the war -but I'm his future, the master-to-be he wants most of all. You can't beat me, little Skywalker, you haven't the training or the skill. You'll never be the Jedi I am. His head lifted proudly as he met Skywalker's hostile stare.
Kenobi put a hand on Jhen's shoulder. "Jhen, I understand. But the war is over. You are a Jedi now, and Darth is your brother Jedi." Between them, at the periphery of Darth's perception, hung the thought: You were the best of my young soldiers, and I love you like a son. You will always be more than just a student, my friend. But here in Ruwenjorin I must be impartial - if I can. And Darth is the better Jedi.
Darth could tell that Skywalker's control of the Force was less trained than his own, and the other's fierce emotion was blocking his reception of Kenobi's thought. There was hurt as well as anger in his sullen reply. "He will never be my brother," muttered Jhen.
"That's enough!" said Kenobi, calling both students to order sharply. "The lightsaber is a weapon for Jedi, not spoiled children, and you must be clear of passion to use it properly. There is great danger in calling upon the Force with negative emotion clouding your judgment. The dark side, the side of anger, fear, hatred, will eat you up if you allow it an opening. Before you use the saber again, go and consider whether either of you deserve it."
Skywalker bowed stiffly and walked away. Outwardly he showed no sign of rebellion. Darth moved to do the same but was stopped by the doorkeeper appearing at his elbow. He bowed to Kenobi, then said to Darth, "Brother, there's a page at the door with a message for you. He's wearing Imperial livery."
Darth looked at Kenobi, who nodded. "You may take it."
"My thanks, Master Kenobi. Brother." As Darth walked away, Kenobi's frustrated sigh followed him.
When Darth reached the door, the page waiting there went down on one knee and held out an envelope with the Imperial seal. "Your Grace, His Imperial Highness commands your presence this evening at a reception celebrating the anniversary of his accession. He will send a speeder for you at 1900 hours."
"You may tell His Imperial Highness that I will be - 'honored' to obey." Even Master Kenobi could not refuse a direct Imperial command. Darth walked back toward his sleeping area with his face impassive, but his mind was racing. A human page with an envelope, not a mechanical or an electronic message! And the page had addressed him as "Your Grace" - not the formal royal title, but one sometimes used to the Sith Prince or his close relatives. And he was being invited to an official diplomatic function after his presence here had been ignored for so long. Perhaps all was not well between the Emperor and Darth's cousin who had stolen his throne and sent him into exile here. Perhaps Palpatine was even considering supporting a counter-coup. But he must be careful. It would not do to underestimate the tortuous thought processes of the Emperor.
When the meal-bell freed him from his required period of meditation, Darth dressed for the reception. Discarding the loose white tunic and pants of a student Jedi for a civilian doublet of dark velvet, he put on a long, open black robe, high boots, and sweeping black cape: the garb of a Sith Prince. These barbarians, these non-Sith, might not recognize their significance, but the Sith Worlds would know by them that he did not intend to accept his cousin's usurpation. If the Emperor received him in this garb, it might be a bargaining point. He settled a thin fillet on his hair and turned toward the door to see Kenobi standing there. When he saw Darth's clothes, he frowned, and Darth was pleased to see his concern even as he dismissed it as unnecessary.
"The Emperor has commanded my presence this evening, Master Kenobi," said Darth.
"Yes, I received your message, Darth. And the Emperor must be obeyed, of course," said Kenobi sourly. In another tone, he added, "Darth, take care. I'm afraid you're getting in over your head. Palpatine is no fool."
"Indeed not." Giving him a look of such bland innocence that Kenobi could find no way to continue, Darth stepped past him and went out.
* * *
As he waited to be announced at the Imperial Palace, Darth glanced around the ballroom. His first impression was of glitter and confusion. The light from huge chandeliers splintered into myriad reflections from jewels and satins and mirror-polished floor, so that the whole room flashed like a faceted gemstone. Darth remembered his father's audience chamber with its muted velvets, its sheen of dark wood and dull-burnished gold worn to a patina by generations of servants' hands. His mouth quirked in a faint sneer as he mentally evaluated the court's gaudy brilliance. "You may enter now. Sir." said the gleaming protocol droid at his elbow. Turning, the machine bellowed, "His Grace, Prince Darth. Lord Vader, of the Sith Worlds."
Across the room, three heads turned toward Darth. He recognized the two men from a hundred videocasts. The massive figure with a face like rock: that was Palpatine; and next to him was Count Anjord, the foreign minister, a thin, stooping man with the look of a dyspeptic heron. The third - at sight of her, Darth's breath caught slightly. With the two men was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. "Who is the lady with His Imperial Highness?" Darth asked the droid.
"Lady Elys Castoigne, Sir."
The Emperor's current mistress, if rumor was correct, Darth recalled. Well, even with an empire's women to choose from, I can understand why the Emperor picked this one.
As he walked toward them, Palpatine spoke briefly to Lady Elys, who curtsied and moved off into the crowd. Darth stopped before the throne and bowed with just the right degree of deference. It was neither the bow of subject to sovereign, nor of liegeman to lord. Palpatine's eyes narrowed slightly, but he greeted the prince cordially.
"Welcome to Our court, Your Grace. We regret that We have not had the opportunity to make your acquaintance before, but We did not know you were here in the capital. You should have informed Us."
I'll bet you didn't know, Darth thought. "I was not aware that my activities were of any interest to Your Imperial Highness."
"The activities of Our cousins of the House of Sith are always of interest to Us. But now that We have met you. We hope you will not remain a stranger. Please consider Our court as your home and attend Us often."
"Your Imperial Highness is most kind."
Palpatine nodded dismissal. Darth bowed again and backed out of the Presence. As he turned, he found himself facing Anjord, who smiled and offered him a glass of wine. Darth sipped cautiously, and was pleased to find it was his favorite vintage.
Coincidence or planning? he wondered. With the ingrained habit of the Jedi-trained, he reached out to touch Anjord's mind-and met a total blank wall, the natural shield of a mindmute. There was not even the unfocused chatter of a normal untrained mind. Of course, Darth realized, such a mind is necessary for a professional diplomat.
"Tell me, Your Grace," the foreign minister began, "are you enjoying your stay in Tavarsan?"
"It's a most interesting city."
"I've never visited the Sith Worlds myself," Anjord continued, "but I've heard that they're very beautiful."
Beautiful! Darth felt a surge of longing for his lost estates, remembering the golden lowlands and the high, cold mountains where the sky against the peaks was cobalt even at midday and the sun on the snowcaps was like molten silver. He could almost smell the remembered scent of wild-flowers and sweet grass crushed under his riding delwa's feet and hear the ecstatic caroling notes of a luthra bird as it rose up and up in wide circles in the crystal air. "I doubt that you would like it, Your Excellency. It's a rather primitive system."
"And will you be returning there when your studies are completed? Or do you prefer the decadent flesnpots of the capital?"
Anger rose in him, and Darth thrust it firmly down. Anjord knew that the only way he could return to the Sith Worlds was by renouncing his claim to the throne and swearing fealty to his cousin. Koric was enough of a fool that he would probably allow Darth to live, too, until he could raise a force of loyal men. But that would require that he forswear himself to crawl to Koric. Even for the throne, the price was too high. "No, I have no plans to return to the Sith Worlds - at least not in the near future."
"Ah, that's too bad." Anjord's tone of satisfaction belied his words. "The Empire could use a positive voice at the Sith Court." At the words "positive voice" the foreign minister raised a questioning eyebrow, but Darth ignored it.
"I have heard that you are not in complete agreement with my cousin's policies."
"Let's just say that we would prefer a more cooperative attitude in regard to the concessions the Empire has requested on Thanlor."
Darth answered, "It is my understanding that my cousin believes the extra-territoriality and the Imperial enclaves you asked for would compromise our sovereignty excessively. It seems a plausible position."
Anjord leaned forward. "Would it be your policy in his place?"
"I would hardly want to give any definite answer to such a hypothetical question." Darth smiled faintly. "If the situation materialized, perhaps I would have to reconsider."
"I see. Well, perhaps the opportunity will arise." Then, offhandedly. "Of course, the Empire does not interfere in the Internal affairs of independent star systems. We could hardly have much influence on the situation."
"Of course not."
Anjord bared his teeth in a bright smile and nodded to the Sith ambassador who had drifted casually into earshot during this exchange, apparently absorbed in conversation with a young military attaché in the uniform of the Alderaani Defense Force.
The ambassador smiled back with equal insincerity, and nodded coldly to Darth, who stared through him with an expression of amiable inattention. Since the two seemed to have no intention of moving. Anjord took Darth's elbow and steered him toward the buffet. "More wine, Your Grace?" "Certainly. An excellent vintage."
Anjord accepted two more glasses from the servant behind the buffet and handed one to Darth. "I presume, Your Grace, that this discussion will remain academic until you have completed your study at Ruwenjorin. Will you have much longer there?"
"That will depend. The study of the Force can take an entire lifetime."
"A fine occupation, a fine occupation! The Jedi have served the state well for generations. However-"
"However?" Darth echoed.
"There have been some unfortunate rumors lately that some of the current Jedi have had - um - 'contacts' with questionable political elements."
"Indeed? How strange. I haven't heard any such rumors."
"I'm sure you wouldn't. That sort of people wouldn't be likely to appeal to an Heir of Sith." Anjord sighed. "That's our problem, most of the order are perfectly loyal, and it's so hard to weed out the unreliables. You know how difficult it is to be selective with such limited information. Your father had much the same problem during the Granduthord revolt, I believe?"
Darth turned a haughty look on the foreign minister. Was this little flunky trying to threaten him? He had been eight years old when the planet of Granduthord had revolted against Sith rule. His father, a tidy man with a belief in effective solutions, had depopulated the entire world. It had been repopulated with the poor and landless from the other Sith worlds, and his people had blessed the Prince's open-handedness. But radicals throughout the galaxy had vowed death to the Prince and all the Heirs of Sith.
"I'm sure you agree, Your Grace," Anjord continued, "that you have no stake in protecting any disloyal mentors of the order."
Darth answered icily. "I assure you, Your Excellency, that I know of no members of my order who would hold the Empire in any less regard than I. If you will excuse me-"
He strode toward the door, but his path was blocked by a rustle of grey-blue silk and a wave of heady perfume. He looked down into the blue eyes of Lady Elys. She was no less attractive at this distance than she had been from across the room. Soft blond curls lay enticingly against the smooth curve of creamy bare shoulders, and as she breathed he could see the swell of her full breasts above the rich gown which flowed like a caressing hand over her perfect body.
"Your Grace, surely you're not leaving already? I had so hoped to meet you!" She turned her beautiful face up and gave him a ravishing smile.
Hm, thought Darth, Palpatine must want that information on the Order rather badly. First the threat and now - it seemed - a bribe?
"I must say, Your Grace, that you are not at all what I had expected," Lady Elys continued.
"How so, my lady?"
"Why, when I was told that you were only sixteen, I expected a child. Clearly, I was mistaken, for you are most assuredly a... man." She lowered her eyes and gave her lashes an experimental flutter.
Darth was amused. He had played this game before at the Sith court. With a hint of laughter in his voice, he answered. "I, too, was surprised when I met you, my lady."
"I have heard much praise of your beauty, but I see now that rumor did you far less than justice, for indeed, no words of man could express the perfection of your loveliness. The reality outshines the report as the sun outshines the pale morning star."
Lady Elys threw back her head and laughed. "Touche," she said, and allowed her genuine intelligence to show through the vacuous mask she had put on to dazzle an inexperienced boy from a backwater system. "Well, now that we've exchanged the necessary courtesies, why don't you and I go and take a look at the gardens? The rain has stopped, and they're really at their best this time of year. You must see the maze - it's famous all over the galaxy."
"Why is it famous?"
"It's all grown up with miles and miles of flowering bushes arching over into tunnels. It's like walking through the heart of a blooming tree. And right at the center is a beautiful little summer-house, but it takes quite a bit of woodsmanship to find it." She grinned. "People have been known to disappear in there for hours."
"Ah. I see." said Darth. "But perhaps the Emperor would prefer that we remain in attendance?"
"The Emperor has asked me to extend you his fullest hospitality. I know he won't mind if his guests amuse themselves by visiting the gardens. In fact, I'm sure he would be offended if you refused what the court has to offer."
"I certainly wouldn't want to offend His Imperial Highness." Darth bowed and took her arm. "Lead on, Lady Elys."
"With pleasure, Your Grace."
Darth returned to Ruwenjorin the next morning in a groundcar with a discreet Imperial crest on the door. By the time he had changed into his Jedi tunic and reported for breakfast, the entire dojo was buzzing. He slipped into his regular seat with eyes lowered and hands folded as required by custom, only to realize that the hands on the rough table across from him belonged to the new student he had fought yesterday. Darth cursed silently to himself.
"Where have you been?" asked Skywalker. "To sell us all out to Palpatine?" Heads around the table turned in their direction.
"Our quarrel is settled, brother," answered Darth.
"Our quarrel will never be settled as long as you live. We fought a war to free the people of the galaxy. As long as one planet suffers as the Sith suffers, we haven't won." Behind the rhetoric, Darth could feel Skywalker's hatred for the mere boy who had bested him in front of Kenobi.
Taking a firm grip on his temper, Darth answered formally, "I offer you no offense."
"You are the Heir of Sith. That offends me." The words were meaningless, an excuse.
Voices were raised in protest from around the table. "Come on, Skywalker, get off it. What's he ever done to you?"
"Leave him alone, he's got as much right to be here as you," said a big redheaded youth who added, "He's been here for a long time, working hard, and he's never caused any trouble. If you weren't Kenobi's pet, you'd still be on that damn dustball you come from."
Skywalker whirled to face the boy. He obviously did not want to be reminded that Kenobi had insisted that the dojo accept him as a student, although he was twice the age of the average first-year novice. "Don't you see? His whole family are bloody tyrants, just like Palpatine. Now Palpatine sends for him. He's gone all night, and comes back in the morning in an official car. What do you think they were discussing? The price of used droid parts? He's a spy!"
Darth rose slowly. "You farmer's spawn, I have no need to justify my actions, or the actions of my family, to you. We have been good lords to the Sith since before your ancestors climbed up off all fours, and if my people have any grievance, it is for them to bring it before me, not for you to meddle in the affairs of your betters."
"Yes," Skywalker spat. "You're great at being gracious and benevolent to 'your people' as long as they're humble and obedient and drool all over your boots kissing your feet. But you can't accept anybody as an equal. You want everybody to be like those poor clones in the Imperial Guard: bred and brainwashed so they can't even think of protesting. The Sith aren't 'your' people - they don't belong to you!"
"They belong to me, as I to them." How could this creature understand the bond between a lord and his loyal liegefolk? This nameless man, without title, without family, without honor....
Skywalker turned to the others again. "You hear that, fellow 'peasants'? If you think you can trust-" He stopped abruptly as the monitor came toward the table. Under his silent displeasure, the two student Jedi sank back into their seats and returned to outward composure. But Darth could sense Skywalker's feelings from the fringe of the aura which reached him. Beneath the belligerence, Skywalker was uncertain. He felt out of place in this group of near-children who moved so confidently amid rituals and forces he only half understood. In spite of himself, Darth felt a grudging pity for the older man. To have so much potential power in the Force, and to be so blind to it: never to feel the glory and power of joining totally with it - the power; oh, the power.... His hands clenched involuntarily on the table, and he came back to himself with a start.
* * *
Darth's aristocratic manner had brought him only a few close friends at Ruwenjorin, and, as Skywalker repeated his accusations again and again, suspicious looks and whispers began to follow him. Little knots of students would fall silent as Darth approached, greet him with a few polite monosyllables, and wait for him to leave before resuming conversation.
Much worse, Skywalker refused to confine his agitation to Ruwenjorin. Several times, Darth found him haranguing passersby in public areas near the school with violent attacks on Palpatine and the Empire. Even though the Old Quarter was not a center of patriotic enthusiasm, Darth knew it was only a matter of time before a police spy turned up in the crowd and connected Skywalker with the dojo.
Darth went to Master Kenobi, but he said, "It's what he believes in, Darth. He has to follow his conscience, make his own decisions, and endure the consequences, just as you must. Even if it's dangerous. I can't forbid him to speak. While he is here in Ruwenjorin, he is the student and I am the master. Outside these walls, he must rule himself."
In the days that followed. Darth found himself waking up suddenly in a cold sweat from surrealistic dreams in which Master Kenobi was slowly demolished with sadistic thoroughness by the Imperial interrogators. He had seen what happened during the search for ringleaders of the Granduthord revolt, and the images were permanently impressed on his mind. He knew that once the Empire began looking for members of an organized conspiracy, it wouldn't stop until it found them - guilty or not. It wasn't malice, simply the mindless grinding of the bureaucratic process.
Darth now found himself paired with Skywalker at practice more often than chance would have indicated. The other man was seeking him out, Darth suspected, and there was an air of desperation in him, as if Skywalker were trying to prove something to the master or himself.
The bout that day was typical. Skywalker pressed the attack vigorously, but his control of the Force was clumsy. He seemed to be fighting it, and Darth could feel the muddy countercurrents swirling and clashing around him. Despite his fast reflexes and fencing skill. Skywalker could not match Darth's skillful manipulation of the Force flow. Sullenly, Skywalker raised his practice saber into guard and conceded the match. He stood breathing heavily, a discouraged look on his face. In spite of his anger, Darth felt concern and the unwilling prodding of loyalty to a fellow Jedi. "Here," he said, "let me show you how to block that stroke. You must flow with the Force...."
Skywalker glared at him. "I don't need you to tell me about the Force!"
"But you do," Darth said patiently. "You have good reflexes, good training in arms, and a fair amount of Force potential, but you are trying to use the Force as a weapon, like a blaster. You must let it use you, use you as a channel, like a clear magnifying glass that focuses the sun's rays into fire. The glass can channel the whole energy of a star, power enough to destroy a world, to a tiny point. Your will is the focus." His expression softened slightly, although he did not go so far as a smile. "You see, I am not your enemy unless you make me so. Let me help you." We are fellow liegemen, he thought. We serve the same lord. For Master Kenobi's sake, I must make him into a Jedi.
Skywalker simply stared at him for a moment. Then he tossed his practice saber down. Half-guiltily, he muttered. "I'm just not cut out for this... this stuff." Louder, he added, "I'm a pilot, a fighter. I'm used to blasters, not mysticism."
Darth wondered, not for the first file, how Skywalker could have lived in a Jedi dojo for as long as he had and remain oblivious to the fact that he was broadcasting his every thought to each Force-sensitive within range. It's what Obi-wan wants, Skywalker was thinking. God knows I - we - owe him enough to give him that much. But I'll never be the Jedi he wants me to be, and this wet-behind-the-ears kid shows me up in front of him every time. I'm too old to start over in first grade here. I want to be out in the streets, with ordinary people, doing things I understand. The revolution - they need me there.
"Thank you." said Skywalker, though he nearly choked on the words. "But I'd rather ask Master Kenobi. He's my trainer, and he's responsible for me."
He's responsible for me-
* * *
That night Darth dreamed again about Master Kenobi. Guards marched him down a dank stone corridor into an underground chamber that Darth's subconscious furnished with cliches of dripping, cyclopean walls, gloomy shadows, and antique torture implements that his waking mind would have rejected as hopelessly anachronistic. Kenobi was locked into a restraint while one of the black interrogation remotes hovered nearby humming softly to itself. A drop of liquid gathered on the end of the needle it extruded like an eager predator's fang. "This one is strong and well-disciplined," said an interrogator with the face of Palpatine as he advanced on Kenobi and began twisting his fingers off, one by one, and throwing them casually to the floor. He moved upward to unscrew the wrist, saying. "It will take a lot to break him-" Kenobi's face contorted in agony, and-
Darth sat up on his sleeping mat with a yell which he managed at the last minute to reduce to a strangled gurgle. He felt cold and shaken, and he could tell that there would be no more sleep for him that night. He looked to each side. The sleepers on neighboring mats remained undisturbed. Cautiously, so as not to wake them, Darth crept out of bed and dressed in the dark. He padded softly to the court-yard, drew on his boots, and walked to the main door. The doorkeeper was dozing in his chair, and Darth slipped past him unnoticed into the street,
At first he simply walked, glad of the exercise which unkinked his tight shoulders and unknotted the fear in his belly. The image of Kenobi's pain returned, and he pushed it away desperately. Gradually he found his long strides taking him northward toward the fashionable part of the city. The sight of a pedestrian was unusual here. A robocab drew over to the curb and inquired. "May I serve you, Sir?" At the toneless droid voice, Darth looked up to see the machine hovering on its anti-gravs, door politely open on his side.
Darth hesitated. A Prince of the Sith is not a police spy. There is no honor in defeating an enemy in secret by the hand of others, said a part of his mind. Another part responded, That madman Skywalker must be stopped or he'll destroy the entire Order. A third thought nibbled at the back of his mind, one he had been deliberately ignoring for the last five days: Anjord as good as promised Imperial support for regaining rule of the Sith if I provide them with a disloyal Jedi.
He was swept by such passionate desire for a moment that his head swam. He clenched his teeth. He would not allow that to influence him! Turning Skywalker over to Anjord was the only possible answer, the safety of the whole Jedi Order depended on it. And Kenobi's life.
"May I serve you, Sir?" The flat mechanical voice of the robocab repeated. Darth slipped into the passenger's seat and deposited a credit. The door swung shut, the tape clicked, and the 'cab asked. "Destination, please?"
"Ministry of Security," Darth said.
* * *
Anjord was most cordial in spite of the late hour. His clothing looked thrown together and his face had the puffy, unfinished look of someone waked abruptly from sleep, but he smiled broadly as Darth entered his office, followed by three secret police officials and the Chief of Security.
"Excellent, excellent!" the minister chortled, "I'm so glad to see you again, Your Grace. Now, I'm sure you won't mind if we engage in a few formalities here before we begin?" He nodded to the security chief, who flipped a switch on the desk. "Recording, sir," he said.
"Identify," said the computer link.
"Your Grace, if you please-" said Anjord. Darth gave his name and the computer agreed that he was who he claimed to be by a cross-check of his voice-print. He then gave a complete account of Skywalker's anti-government activities.
"Thank you, Your Grace. That should be sufficient," said Anjord when Darth had finished, and the security chief flipped off the recording switch. The foreign minister continued with satisfaction. "Yes, a little editing, and I think we'll have enough to take care of the whole Jedi Order."
"What!" Darth cried.
"Oh, we've had our eye on Skywalker for some time, ever since he left Tatooine, in fact. But we needed a non-government witness from the inside before we could be sure of convincing the Senate and the Emperor that a genuine conspiracy existed in the Order. Reactionary romantics, all of them are, still seeing the Jedi as shining heroes defending peace and justice. They might have been that once, but the time is past for a group of undisciplined knights-errant with high-powered weaponry wandering around the galaxy cutting down whomever they take a dislike to." Noting Darth's stricken face, Anjord added, "Don't worry, Your Grace, there is no question of any charges against you."
In a dangerously quiet tone, Darth said. "You assured me that you were only interested in 'weeding out the unreliables'. There was nothing said about an attack on the Jedi Order."
"I'm afraid you misunderstood me. As I recall, I only said that it was difficult to weed them out. Now it shouldn't be necessary. We have all we need."
Anjord looked surprised. He took on a pompous, lecturing tone. "But surely, Your Grace, it must be obvious to you that the state is responsible for the safety of its citizens. The Empire can hardly allow a highly trained, well-armed, and potentially disloyal paramilitary organization to take justice into its own hands and carry out private vendettas against anyone it decides is undesirable. Justice has to be based on law, not personal whims." He paused, then added so softly that even Darth could hardly hear him, "Not even the Emperor's."
Darth tensed. He was never sure afterward whether he intended to bolt for the door or attack Anjord, but he was prevented from having to make a decision. Before he could move, two of the secret police had taken him politely but firmly by the elbows, and the third was covering him with a blaster.
"We're going to have to ask you to avail yourself of our hospitality once again, Your Grace," the foreign minister said. "Only temporarily, of course. It's for your own protection - until we have the remaining Jedi in custody." Darth considered using the Force, but he realized there were too many guards in the building for him to control. Yet. He did not yet have the control.
Darth shook the guards off angrily, but declined to argue with the blaster. He sank slowly into the desk chair. Anjord bowed and exited as the guards settled down for a long wait.
It took Darth until the afternoon of the next day to bully his way into the area where the Jedi were being held prisoner. The footsteps of Darth and his two guards echoed down a windowless, grey corridor lit by dull indirect light, a claustrophobic metal tunnel like a deep-space docking umbilical. Security doors irised open as Darth inserted his visitor's pass at each checkpoint, then slammed together with a dang behind him like a series of robot jaws snapping at his heels.
The final door took a check of his guards as well as his pass before opening on a dismal room. It had walls of a muddy grey-green and a dark floor so scuffed and battered that 11 was impossible to tell what its original color had been. A few cheap plastic chairs gave the place the air of a provincial orbital shuttle terminal. Inside were Master Kenobi, Skywalker, and four or five other students and instructors from Ruwenjorin. They stared hostilely at him.
Darth's voice emerged as a whisper. "Where are the others?"
"Dead," said Kenobi. "I doubt if any of them escaped."
"And you killed them!" shouted Skywalker. "You're responsible for their deaths." His voice was frantic, his eyes glazed with rage and hatred.
Neither of them answered him. Their conversation continued without the slowness and ambiguity of spoken words.
//Why, Darth? Show me why you betrayed us to the Imperials.//
//I was afraid. I meant to save you from just what has happened. Anjord promised-// Darth sketched what had passed between himself and the foreign minister. Kenobi took a step toward Darth. "Darth, child..." he began aloud, and there was distant pity overlaying the sorrow in his voice.
//Darth, you are a child,// Kenobi continued. //All my lost children-// Darth caught from the edges of his mind. //Or you would never have taken Anjord at face value. "The honor of princes is the snow of midummer."//
A wave of confused emotion - anger, shame, anguish - swept over Darth. "Not the honor of Sith!" he cried aloud, and moved toward Kenobi to express with wordless body language the apology his royal pride prevented him from voicing openly. I failed my master, he thought. I betrayed my lord, not willingly - oh, never that.... What worse dishonor can there be?
During their exchange, Skywalker stood looking on from one to the other, a puzzled expression on his face like a man straining to follow a conversation of which he could catch only an occasional word. As Darth took a step toward the Jedi master, Skywalker shouted "no!" and ran toward him.
Darth could not tell from the boiling confusion of Skywalker's mind whether he thought the Sith was attacking Kenobi, or whether he was trying to prevent a reconciliation between them. Perhaps Skywalker himself was not sure. He launched himself at Darth, arms outstretched, preceded by a formless wave of hatred in the Force, aimed like a weapon, anger that could kill. Caught off-balance, Darth instinctively lashed out with the Force to defend himself. The next minute Skywalker crumpled as Kenobi leaped forward to catch him and lower him gently to the floor.
For a long moment the Jedi master remained bent over Skywalker's dead body, and the room was full of his grief. Kenobi's sorrowing thoughts reached Darth. He was my man. He offered his death for me in battle. His whole life was in the Alliance; I took him away from it, took him from his wife and son, brought him here to teach him the Jedi way he never really wanted to learn. Now he is dead. We needed him so much. My fault; my fault.... A cold bitterness slowly brought the Jedi's thoughts under control. My fault - and his, the Sith's....
Slowly Kenobi straightened up and turned to face Darth. His face was controlled and utterly remote. He was suddenly a figure of awesome power, his tone formal. "It is as I feared, Darth. The dark side of the Force has claimed you, the side of passion, not reason. You have killed your brother. You are no longer worthy to be a Jedi." He half-turned toward the other prisoners and raised his voice. "I cast you out of the Order. I utterly renounce you. Henceforth your name is forgotten. Is it agreed, my brothers?"
"So say we all," they answered.
"My brothers," continued Kenobi, "these two were of my household and both were my students and my friends. The injury is mine; I claim the redress."
"It is your right," said the oldest of the instructors in the room, and the others assented. Kenobi turned to Darth and said in a ringing voice, "I claim your death!"
A cold hollow settled in Darth's stomach. It was the formula for a formal lightsaber challenge, a ritual so ancient that it dated to the earliest beginnings of the Order when the Jedi had been little more than a loose guild of wandering warriors and duels between Jedi had been common. Honor now demanded that one or the other of them should die by the lightsaber, and there was no possibility of refusing.
Numbly, his mind unnaturally clear, Darth realized that neither of them was armed. He had relinquished his saber to the guards at Anjord's office and Kenobi, as a prisoner, was weaponless, although what had happened to his saber in the capture. Darth had no idea. The challenge must lie between them until they met again, if they ever did.
Darth forced words past the constriction in his throat, and was surprised to find they sounded level and calm. "I await you when we are both armed, Obi-wan." The other would be "Master Kenobi" to him no longer.
With a nod to the guards, Darth turned on his heel and strode out of the detention cell. He never remembered clearly the walk back to the main desk or his exit from the Ministry of Security. Everyone - guards, secret police, the speeder pilot who delivered him to a hotel-seemed to move past him in a blur. Only when the door closed on his room did his thoughts clear. He noticed that his visitor's pass to the detention center was missing, but he couldn't remember turning it in. The problem seemed curiously meaningless, and after a minute he dismissed it from his mind.
Darth spent an uneasy night on the unaccustomed softness of the hotel bed, and awoke still tired. A quick glance out the window showed him a pair of ostentatiously inconspicuous men lounging against the wall opposite his room on the other side of the street. He was still being watched, and the guards obviously intended him to know it.
He pushed the question of what to do next down to give his subconscious a chance to chew on it, and let his conscious mind float as he moved through the graceful figures of Jedi fighting katas. A dead calmness flowed into him with the familiar discipline of movement and breathing. Whatever Obi-wan might say, he was no less a Jedi than before, he told himself. Now the only master he had to satisfy was himself. There was no one else.
At that thought, he was suddenly filled with desolation. His concentration faltered and he stood still, breathing hard in what threatened to become a totally undisciplined, humiliating sob. The remembered image came to him of his father's funeral, of himself standing by the looming catafalque draped in the ritual mourning-cloth. The confused emotions he had felt then returned to him: Death is the final failure, he had thought; my father is mortal, is fallible, too. I'm free of him. He can't judge me any more against a perfection no human being can achieve. He failed, too. An ugly, angry joy smoldered in him for a moment, followed by guilt as he quickly suppressed the thought. And fear - I must not think that; it's wrong, I owe a son's duty, obedience; a liegeman's duty, fealty. Treason is the worst crime. It will be punished... . But who is there who can punish me, the Lord of Sith? Now. The fear returned. No one. There is no one else. I'm all alone... alone.... "Father..." he muttered. "Obi-Wan... Father...."
He breathed in, a shuddering gasp, and disgust filled him. What nonsense was that! He was a Vader, a Jedi, Heir of Sith. Who did he need? No one. With the power of the Force, nothing in the universe could stand against him. He didn't need anyone to teach him - he could learn it himself. He would be a more powerful Jedi than any the order had ever seen. There was nothing to hold him back now - not Obi-wan, not fear of the Dark Side, not the petty incompetence of his fellow students. There was no one to judge him now. I can take anything I want; I'm free, he thought, and a savage exultation swept over him. He moved through a complex kata with flawless grace, finished with a smashing killing blow and stood laughing in the middle of the room. Free!
He had just finished dressing and was giving thought to breakfast when there was a knock on the door. He was not pleased to open it on the page who had summoned him to the Emperor before. This time several secret police hovered in the background. “His Imperial Highness commands your presence, Lord Vader," the page said. Darth's mental ears perked up at the change of title.
Darth was ushered into a small audience chamber to see the Emperor alone except for his ever-present bodyguard and a secretary droid. Palpatine was jovial, and it did not take his visitor long to discover the cause of his good humor.
"Well, well. Lord Vader, it was good of you to come. Your visits to my court do seem to bring me luck! First, I want to thank you for your help in discovering disaffection among the Jedi. We've had a small problem - a minor escape - but we will soon have them all back, and Anjord has the situation well in hand."
So that's what happened to my visitor's pass, thought Darth.
"The foreign minister has asked me to commend you on your public spirit," the Emperor continued. "You've rendered a real service to the Empire, and you will not find us ungrateful to our friends."
Darth bowed warily and waited for him to go on.
"Since our last conversation, your cousin seems to have developed a more cooperative attitude. He has agreed to the concessions we requested."
"All of them?" Darth blurted, startled.
"All of them!" sa1d Palpatine firmly. “And he has accepted the peace- keeping force we offered to garrison there. Under the circumstances, I don't imagine that you will want to return to the Sith Worlds in the near future? No? I thought not. So, in light of your loyal service to me, I have decided to give you a special commission in the Imperial Navy, under my direct command. Your computer profile shows remarkably high aptitudes in all the required areas."
"The Heirs of Sith have been bred to command, Your Imperial Highness," said Darth. "We're genetically selected for it.” The cold rage he felt showed itself only in the slightest possible emphasis on the word "we".
"Of course! Excellent!" said Palpatine. "We wouldn't want to waste such potential, would we? Report to Naval Headquarters today for assignment. My secretary here will advise you of the details. You may go."
"As Your Imperial Highness commands." said Darth, bowing with just enough exaggeration that a suspicious observer might have considered it ironic.
As he backed out of the Presence, Darth thought, So the whole thing was merely a method of putting pressure on Korio - and eliminating the troublesome Jedi in one neat gambit. I was just a pawn. Now Anjord thinks he can buy me off with just enough to preserve the amenities. What better way to keep someone under polite surveillance and control than by meshing him into the military machine? There was hardly a move he could make without being noticed. It was almost as visible as the Imperial throne.
Darth realized that he had turned a corner in his life. What he felt was no longer clean, hot anger. It had become something darker: a cold, bitter disgust and implacable contempt. He had been made a fool of once. His pride would not allow 1t to happen again. Never again would he believe in anyone or anything except himself. "Bred to command" he had told Palpatine. Well, he would prove it. For all his nonsense, Skywalker had been right about one thing: Imperial stormtroopers, clones, such as he would command, were the only beings one could trust, for their loyalty was bred in their genes and their obedience to their commander was absolute. The right man, with patience and cunning, could do almost anything with them. Darth lengthened his step, and in the grim set of his face there was already a hint of metal.