The Emperor's thoughts were still on his new apprentice’s training as his shuttle left the Eclipse and headed towards the Palace on Coruscant. He had thought of little else on the long journey back. Try as he might, the Dark Side gave him no clue as to what lay in store for this new Sith. Even in his distracted state, though, Palpatine became peripherally aware of an unusual amount of traffic and people milling about the palace's main entrance as the shuttle broke through the atmosphere. Not the most social of animals even at the best of times, the Emperor was certainly in no mood for any sort of mass assembly NOW! He reached over and activated the comm unit. "Extinguish all running lights," he snapped at the pilot. "Circle the Palace once and use underground pad 4." There were a number of secret ways into and out of the Palace that were designed just for this sort of circumstance. As the shuttle began its descent, Palpatine's thoughts were finally able to turn from his apprentice’ s training to an even more vexing little dilemma -- his Empress, Azarra. He'd been thinking about her a lot, and in quite a different way since their impromptu late night communication...had it been so many weeks ago already? Azarra had been genuinely sympathetic during that exchange, and, despite the sly barbs she had thrown in, he still felt quite connected to her after the transmission ended. Their empathy had never seemed stronger. These were new feelings for Palpatine, and he wasn't quite sure how to deal with them. The shuttle had been berthed for several minutes when he finally broke from his reverie. Exiting the landing bay, he waved aside the Red Guards waiting by the doors. This entrance led to the ballroom level -- a perfect camouflage, as no one would ever expect HIM to frequent that place. As he expected, the halls were empty and quiet. Good. As he started down the corridor toward the turbolift, he began planning on how to surprise Azarra with his unannounced return. Later, when things had finally gotten back to whatever passed for normal these days at the Palace, Palpatine realized that even thinking about Azarra eventually led to trouble. As he rounded a corner, Palpatine suddenly ran smack into...he couldn't believe what He'd seen. A matronly, blue-skinned...alien... was standing in the middle of the hall surrounded by half a dozen little...blue-skinned alien children, at least three of them crying like mynocks. He stopped, rooted to the spot, incredulous. After a second, what he assumed to be the mother looked over at him. "Oh, thank the Puffin, you came!" the woman exclaimed in a lilting, musical voice. "We were on the second tour and got separated from our group trying to find a bathroom." The Emperor continued to stare. "Can you direct us to the Library?" she asked, "We're supposed to join up with another group and then the Empress herself is going to finish our tour." While the female spoke, the Emperor continued to stare at her, even as two of the smallest crying children detached themselves from the rest and, still snuffling, migrated over to where Palpatine stood. They clasped the hem of his robe in little seven-fingered hands, looked up at him and smiled. The Emperor continued to stare at her. "We've had a wonderful time so far, but I would hate to miss the chance to meet the Empress in person. She greeted our group at the door, but couldn't lead any tours until she finished some other business first. But she did promise to end our tour. She's so...royal, but still very approachable. By any chance, do you know her?" the female finally wound down. "Do I *know* her?" Palpatine's voice was an icy hiss. "Do you even realize who I *am*?" "Well, it's hard to tell in that cloak, but now that you mention it, I think I have seen your picture here...somewhere." The female extracted a tour book from her carryall and began to rifle through its pages as the children continued to cling to the Emperor's robe. "Well, I can't find it, but I know I've seen you somewhere before. Now don't tell me because it will come to me..." The twenty people clustered in the Library were enthralled as the Empress spoke about the real books contained on the shelves. Suddenly, the door opened and Azarra was interrupted by a very familiar voice saying, "Hello, my Empress. . *missing* something?" Azarra's face drained of its color, but she quickly regained her composure as she said, "Your Majesty, when did you return? I wasn't informed." The members of the tour group began whispering among themselves as they realized who had just entered the room. The alien family that had accompanied the Emperor murmured a 'thanks' as they moved to the far end of the room. Palpatine ignored them and moved closer to Azarra, anger flaring in his yellow pupils. "Since the Palace is MY home --or at least it *was* my home until recently -- I need not announce my arrival to *anyone*." Azarra, trying to avert a disaster, said, "Your Majesty, perhaps you'd like to continue the tour with us," and more quietly to the Emperor, "It would give them something to tell their friends." Suddenly, the Emperor's lips curled into an icy smile. "Yes. . .indeed it *would*. Privately, he bent his head closer to Azarra and whispered, "You have a *lot* of explaining to do, my dear..." He gave her a warning glance that told her he would cooperate with the tour theme - but only so far. He would not be made a fool. "So, if you will all follow me...us, next we will see the dining/ballroom which was recently used for my brother's birthday party..." To Azarra those 25 minutes seemed to go on forever, but they finally arrived at the gift shop, where she signed a number of autographs and the Emperor shook hands with those brave enough to approach him. He looked around incredulously at all the items that were for sale. And then, the shop was empty; even the clerks had vanished. "Majesty, I do think it was very inconsiderate of you not to let me know you were arriving today. I would have been there to give you a proper welcome." "If I had, quite possibly, I would have missed out on seeing your latest...project." "Surely you knew about the Palace tours. Someone *must* have told you or written a report about them." "There was some talk...I thought it a joke at the time, but now I see it is a fact -- which is not at all amusing to me. What could have possessed you to devise a TOUR of the Palace? Have you no sense of *pride*, woman?" Palpatine walked over to the postcard rack and, using the Force, scattered all its contents on the floor. Azarra cut in, "It is almost dinner time, so I think we should retire to get ready." She walked up to the Emperor, took his arm and bent close, whispering, "Please, this is not the place to discuss this. Let us leave." His eyes softened, amused. "Dinner time? I've lost my appetite, Azarra." "Please give me a few moments to explain the termination to these people and I will meet you wherever you want." There was a note of pleading in Azarra's voice. Palpatine turned around and started to walk toward the elevators, then paused at the doors and turned to face her stationary figure in front of the gift shop. "In the middle of my unusual homecoming reception, I forgot to tell you how delightful it was to see you in the lovely outfit you wore to your brother's party. I want to see you in my office today." He gave her a terse stare. "Tell me. How many of these tours have you conducted here, Azarra? Give me the number and Ill leave you alone to finish your business." "There were 4 tours each day, 6 days a week. We started the day after I returned from Port Lansing." The Emperor gritted his teeth and tried not to display his rising anger at her and stepped into the elevator. On the way up to his private level, he calculated the number of visitors, getting angrier every minute. He decided he should check the locks and the guard log to make certain that the tour didn't also include his private sanctum. Knowing she had only a short time, Azarra sent one clerk to close down the ticket booths and bring the sellers back to the shop, another to get Seleene, who would pay the employees, and the rest were admonished to pack everything up as quickly as possible and send it to the loading dock where a shuttle would take the boxes to the ISD Empress. That taken care of, she steeled herself for her meeting with the Emperor. She took the elevator to the 16th level and the door to his office whooshed open as she approached. She entered saying, "Thank you, your Majesty, for not embarrassing me in front of everyone." "We don't need any more embarrassment around here. Now...before we continue, Azarra...let me tell you that I have missed seeing you. I had hoped these so-called *tours* were simply media-hype, and so my reaction is naturally going to be one of anger and disappointment. This home was my only real refuge. I shared it with you and now...this. Why would you do something this ridiculous? It's not as if you needed the *funds*...I have tried to be generous toward your parties and shopping whims..." "Husband, this may be difficult for you to understand, but I felt that the public needed to be reminded of the majesty and grandeur of the Palpatine regime. Hence, my wanting to bring them into the seat of power. None of your private chambers were ever revealed, only the most public areas on the first few levels. I am sorry that you feel angry, disappointed and that you think it was ridiculous." "If I had done the same to your Diplomatic Embassy, and without prior approval from you, I'm sure you would have felt similar outrage. All of this was done without authorization, Azarra." Palpatine rose from his chair, and shook his head. "I saw the workmanship of the gift shop and the organization of the workers. In any other circumstances, I might compliment you on a job well done, except in this case - it appears you did it all underhandedly. Not good." "But, did you see the faces of those tourists in the last group? They could not believe that it was really you. They will sing your praises to everyone they meet. That was my goal. You did have more pressing things to attend to at the time. I have not undermined your authority, disgraced the sanctity of the Empire, or impugned your good name." Palpatine studied his Empress as if she were under a microscope. "I can hardly believe how naive you really are...to think you actually believe these people touring the palace today *like* me...part of me feels like laughing at you, while the other part...feels charmed by your lovely vision." He walked up to her and touched her cheek with his smooth, pale hand. "Now I know why I married you --" Azarra waited, holding her breath, for the stinging rebuke she knew was coming. When nothing happened, she said, "It has been rumored that you hold those below you in utter contempt. If everyone could see the Emperor who stood before that tour group today, they would change their minds. I am speechless, your Majesty." "Your being speechless is certainly a *rarity*" the Emperor grinned, "and tonight I intend to enjoy that pleasure. My apprentice is safely tucked away with Darana's Household and we can have a quiet dinner together, just the two of us - which is what I had planned from the beginning." "Are you sure you're not too tired from your journey and meeting the little people? I wouldn't want to exhaust you on your first night back." "Ah..so you think that I tire easily from such trivial activity, do you?" he smirked, emitting a soft cackle. "Oh, you do not know me well then, my little Empress -- I have enough stamina to match any of your young studs..." He gripped her hand and led her toward the door. "Playing tour guide doesn't become you, my dear. You look tired - and famished. Let us eat."
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