Varelttas was a blue and golden-green gem as seen from space. Darevek was clean and modern, with no trace of the poverty that afflicted the darker edges of so many capital cities, a fitting testament to the Vader family's superior governing competence. Yes, Palpatine thought, he'd chosen his bride well, and out of respect for Azarra's family he would honor her homeworld's customs, and prove once and for all that he really did care for her. His resolve began slipping when he learned that the only legal transport into Drashak Province was an antique airbus that left Darevek at midnight, and that its notion of a first class sleeper cabin meant you got a blanket along with your plank. Sevranir was a charming foothill village, with a tidy market square surrounded by crafts shops, but apparently its residents never went anywhere else. The local hostler and his single toller had proved its only source of local transport. The reason no one lives out in this godsforsaken wilderness, Palpatine thought sourly as he glared at the lumpy beast before him, is because they've been driven away by their own backward customs! "Hundred creds," said the hostler. Enough of this mindlessness. Palpatine mustered the Dark Side on the local, hoping to end the negotiations. I'll let you have it for forty credits, he focused, pointing at the hostler. "Hundred creds - take it or leave it," the hostler said. "Last time I rented for up to the vineyard, my stock never came back." The hostler spat into the straw underfoot, then pulled a stem from a bale in the haystack and began chewing on it. "Made new policy after that." So then, it didn't work on these Varelttans. "Fine," Palpatine said, exasperated. "I'll take it." He gestured to one of his four accompanying Red Guards, who handed the hostler a hundred credit chip. The hostler bit down on the chip, winked, grinned, and waved the party toward the stable door. "Why the hurry?" Palpatine asked. "Best git goin'," the hostler replied. "Tollers don't move after dark." *** So now the Emperor's old bones were being further insulted by the toller's bony back and his brain was being churned by its swaying gait, as they lumbered uphill toward the Rividh vineyard, Red Guards tramping stolidly behind. The dirt track meandered upslope, clearly in no hurry to arrive anywhere. At least the surrounding trees kept the summer sun off his neck. Toward evening the party passed a stone marker, presumably the boundary of the Rividh estate. Shortly after that the toller took root in the middle of the road and refused to go another step, despite shouts and slaps and a Force prod at the beast's mind, which proved vacant as vacuum. Very much like the hostler's, Palpatine thought wryly. There was no help for it, they'd have to camp on the road, or walk. Palpatine started at the scream of some night-roaming predator, peered into the lowering darkness ahead, and decided waiting for tomorrow's daylight was the better part of valour. The summer night was mild, but he was not going to sleep on the ground. One night on a plank was sufficient indignity. Palpatine glared at the surrounding wilderness, but the desired feather bed failed to materialize. Conversely his Red Guards seemed perfectly content to sleep standing upright, a position he had no desire to emulate. Later, feeling resigned, he agonizingly lowered himself to the ground, pressed his back against a rock, and began a mental list of who would pay for this indignity. At sunrise the toller awoke, and even looked anxious to continue the journey. Not so Palpatine, who stiffly unfolded from his repose, every joint and muscle screaming their displeasure at resuming this undignified trek. A bit of Dark Side meditation and walking restored some flexibility. But there was no use putting it off. The Emperor climbed aboard the toller's bony back, and soon the procession was on its way. At midmorning the procession arrived at the remains a burned-out estate house, half-hidden in a grove of young trees. Good thing it's already cinders, Palpatine fumed to himself as he glared at the empty and neglected farmstead, or I'd burn it down for them! Just as he began considering appropriate punishments for the absent Lord Rividh, a tall lean sandy-haired man emerged from the surrounding forest. "Vineyard," the man announced. "This way." He pointed at the mouth of a narrow foot trail between the trees, then turned and disappeared up the trail. Wondering why he was putting himself through this ordeal, Palpatine turned the toller to follow. After another hour of jolting over a rough mountain ridge, they finally arrived at the Rividh vineyards. Grapevines stretched north from a collection of aging shop and winery buildings. A large wooden affair, apparently a servants' dormitory, was the only habitable-looking structure in sight. Still, it had to be better than perching atop the toller's knobby spine. Palpatine gratefully dismounted, and the sandy-haired man led the beast away. A silent servant met them at the door, and showed the Emperor to the library to await Azarra. The Empress took her time arriving, and meanwhile Palpatine had plenty of time to examine the library's clutter. He'd seldom seen so many old bound books in one place. At the far end of the room, two overstuffed chairs flanked a huge stone fireplace. Definitely better than the toller's back. An hour later, Azarra arrived in a shower of glittering silver and black material with a subtle hint of green. Exasperated and enraged by his tedious journey, the Emperor snapped, "I always knew Varelttas' outback was a culture far from the city we Coruscanters are used to, but... I suppose my memory has faded, as it's been many, many years since I last visited here -- and you can be sure it will be a very long time before I visit again." "Majesty, you have looked better," Azarra noted. "I take it your journey was arduous. If you had merely let us know you were coming, we would have returned to Darevek or at the very least, met you in the village." "It was...inconvenient... at best. But something I needs must endure to see my Empress," he said with a weary smile. "Ahhh, Azarra -- you look stunning. I have missed you. Truly." Azarra smiled. "Majesty, you are too kind. The facilities here did not allow me to adequately prepare myself for your visit, especially since you arrived unexpectedly." "It is most unfortunate that your attire doesn't quite fit in these crude surroundings, but I understand this is your brother's lifestyle." Wishing to change the subject, Azarra asked, "Did my Father accompany you?" "This trip was not planned, rather a last minute surprise, so I did not wish to bother your father. Have you not seen him? I thought you would have contacted him about your whereabouts. He is on Coruscant, which is where I would have hoped you would be by now...seated beside me as my Empress." "And so it begins; the reason for this journey," she said. "Since my safety is of the utmost concern to me, Your Majesty, Coruscant is the last place I would want to be. If you couldn't protect me somewhere as insignificant as Port Lansing Station, how could I possibly feel safe in the capital of the galaxy? You know I haven't spoken to my Father since before the ceremony. Communications from Iskandar were jammed, but I'm sure you told him of our meeting aboard the Eclipse and my return to Varelttas." The Emperor gave her a puzzled look. "Does not Rikonis have communication equipment onboard his ship? I assumed you would have contacted your father on your way here. So, you have told him nothing?" "Most of the journey was spent in deep conversation with Rikon working through the emotional devastation I felt after our meeting on the Eclipse," Azarra replied. "I could not contact my Father in that state of mind. I found your badgering of me mentally, as well as physically, draining." The Emperor merely nodded. "That is understandable, my dear. However, when we parted after our encounter on the Eclipse, you seemed as decisive and strong-willed as you had always been in our past dealings. This attracted me, and made me feel you were worthy to be My Empress. I admit, I began to grow fond of you. Lately, though, you have been markedly less so." "I was never poisoned, blockaded, dragged out of bed in the middle of the night, and betrayed by someone who professed to love me, Your Majesty." Palpatine pale lips formed a frown. "I won't discuss your poisoning again, Azarra. You know I was not responsible. Skywalker and Daara told Jordan I was innocent. What more do you need? I grow tired of your accusations. If you don't want to be Empress, I need your answer now, for this is the last time I ask you to come back and take your place at my side." "You told me I would have time to be trained to protect myself. Surely you don't expect that in this short of time I have learned enough to do that in that nest of vipers you call your Court. I thought you wanted me trained. Have you changed your mind?" "No. I'm not asking you to leave immediately, Azarra -- only when you have finished your business here. But I will not tolerate any more insinuations that I did not try to protect you. I thought I explained my error in that... I am powerful, yes, but I can still make a mistake or two -- as can you. Now you have the opportunity to build new skills to protect yourself from my 'nest of vipers' as you so eloquently put it," he paused as his pale lips lifted in a secret smile...secret because only he knew what gave him glee, "and from me, you are thinking as well. Keep in mind, I have powers that neither you nor your father can match, so I expect you will always be looking for new ways to try and guard yourself. Fine, if that suits you. I just came to see how you are doing and to ask if you still have a desire to stay married to me, because -- Imperial law states that we are indeed still married. So...do you want to end it right here, or return to me?" The Emperor awaited an answer and, when Azarra continued to stare into the fire, he continued, "I wonder what your father will say when you tell him that you are undergoing training in the Force...not with him, but with Rikonis, of all people. Are you progressing well in the training, my dear?" As the Emperor began to caress the top of his twisted black cane, Azarra noticed that he was wearing the ring she had placed on his finger. "My training is progressing in ways I couldn't have imagined. Contrary to what you all think, Rikon has been an excellent teacher. I wasn't aware that you would have allowed my father the time needed to train me." "You may or may not be aware that I, too, have an apprentice under my care. An ex-Jedi... Turim. I have found the perfect challenge for him. I'll say it in one word. Trinian." The Emperor held out his hand revealing a tiny holograph mechanism. The image showed Trin fencing with Turim on the ISD Eclipse. "Recognize the one clad in green, do you? Trinian held his own in a fencing duel, to be sure... I'm just not sure who is trying harder to impress me -- Turim or my son. And Turim is dangerous. He's unusual because he is a controlled Sith student... and one who thrives on survival. I hope, for Trinian's sake, that he doesn't take his position as my son for granted. I'm far the stronger one, in the end." "So, you would put Prince Palpatine in mortal danger for amusement? Is that what I have to look forward to when I return to Coruscant? Certainly, you won't expect me to duel with ex-Jedi for your entertainment?" Azarra asked calmly. The Emperor's yellow eyes narrowed to slits. "All this time did you imagine that I would change into a completely different person, Azarra? You can expect nothing more than being the Empress. You never wanted me during the time I courted you with passion...when I contacted your father, reminding him of your lineage, a speedy affirmation letter to my proposal was received. I know you have no great love for me, Azarra - I simply ask that I have your company for life - as my Empress. If you cannot stomach that idea then I will honor your refusal!" "I do believe that my exact words were that when I felt I could protect myself at your Court, I would return as Empress. As you are so fond of reminding me that there are no romantic illusions in this relationship, I will be the Empress, not your Empress. If you will have me return to Coruscant on those terms, I will, when I am ready. Or is there a compelling reason why I must return very soon?" "Let me remind you - you will be my Empress. There is, and will be, no other Emperor. And I have invited you to rule at my side." Angry now, Azarra snapped, "I suspect I will be subjected to watching endless duels among family members that you find amusing! I didn't find it entertaining at Port Lansing and I can assure you it won't be any different on Coruscant, no matter who is involved. Perhaps you no longer see any value in having my Father by your side." "I suppose you Vaders know how you feel about such things. I'm sure your father has a mind of his own. He has been a friend to me. I have no desire to hurt you but I have never cushioned or coddled your father during his many years of service to me and I have no intention of treating you any different than he. If you continue acting in this manner, Azarra, I will retract my offer and give you closure, which is fast becoming as attractive to me as it obviously is to you." He began to tug on the ring, having difficulty in getting it to come off. Before he could succeed in removing it, Azarra retorted, "I have said many times, Your Majesty, that I would return as Empress to Coruscant. How many more times do you need me to say it? As a Vader, I am used to having to say things only once to be believed." The Emperor slowly leaned against the back of the chair and studied her face with mock amusement. He knew he'd never see true submission there and seemed to find pleasure and pain in that at the same time. "Yes, I suppose you Vaders tend to try and see your own way in things... you've inherited the stubborn streak, to be sure. "So-- then..." he favored her with a chilling smile, "you have no sense of urgency in seeing your Prince Trinian again? Perhaps you no longer feel compelled to pursue a sordid romance with my son..." "Majesty, we obviously understand each other, so I would like to resume my training to hasten my return to Coruscant. With your permission, of course." "Of course... we understand each other. You certainly have my permission... I gave it to you before if you recall, and it still stands. I ask that you contact me when you are ready to depart to Coruscant. And I want you to do it two ways -- by the usual transmission...and by using your newfound Force ability, to communicate your intention to come back to me and be My Empress." Azarra made a cursory bow as she said, "Thank you, Your Majesty. This has been a most illuminating visit." Quickly turning her back on him, Azarra left the room. I can just imagine what the ride back will be like, Palpatine groaned softly.
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