An explosion that was no longer an explosion. A ball of superheated plasma sat suspended in the space her cruiser once occupied. Sat patiently while Cordé and her escort hurriedly evacuated from the area. Sat patiently while they rushed by a hooded figure who nonchalantly flexed a mailed hand into a fist and the ball of plasma disappeared into nothingness. As if it never had been in the first place.
Lord Vader was even more fearsome than his debut Senatorial address would have him appear. Fearsome and, seemingly, terribly bored by an entire delegation almost being obliterated by assassins. After the burning ball vanished, his easy and unnatural strides brought him into step with the fleeing delegation. “Senator Amidala, I see you have made yourself ever popular with the warmongering dregs of senatorial society.” Except Lord Vader wasn’t speaking to Cordé, his elaborate masked features were entirely on Padmé’s own even in her dress of an aide. Tatooine’s newfound Senator gracefully inclined his head in what might have been a bow towards her. Padmé did her best not to trip over the gawking Panaka. Panaka whose security training at no point had ever contended with a cordial Sith Lord. The Jedi certainly hadn’t and she’d been contacted in a mad panic as they informed her that her security should make preparations in the event that Lord Vader was linked to Maul. To the contrary, Padmé had little doubt that Maul would’ve keeled over dead if Vader merely glanced disparagingly in his direction, such was the difference in their raw demeanor.
“Lord Vader,” Padmé gasped as they entered shelter. “I’m surprised to see you as our greeting party.” An understatement, of course, but she doubted Vader needed any elaboration as to why devouring an explosion would be surprising. Perhaps Jedi she would have expected given the upheaval over the Military Creation Act, but not Vader with his own bloody war against the Hutts. Vader was not who she was expecting on this landing pad. Unless she happened to be a Hutt, then she was sure Vader would’ve been an eager recipient of their arrival. Followed by Lord Vader granting an infamous priority departure to the clan member.
The infamous Lord Vader, who by all estimates, had a military of his own on the cusp of removing Nar Shaddaa from the painful throes of existence in a storm of fiery plasma. Though Padmé imagined the cusp to be rather literal, given that Vader had somehow managed to blockade the entire system in the space of a Centaxday. How much of that was due to his military presence and how much was due to the sheer amount of debris from the constant stream of reinforcements minced by plasma fire was pure speculation. The fact remained that nothing would be coming or going if it wasn’t affiliated with Vader’s fleet. Where the fleet had come from was a mystery for the ages, because the designs of the ships had many an engineer scratching their heads in a manner considered unprofessional. Lord Vader’s fleet was as much of a mystery as the man himself.
“You’ve been making waves, Senator. When the Military Creation Act was proposed, one could hardly imagine that it referred to the militant attitude of its proponents.” In spite of Vader’s reputation, there was a certain amount of respect Padmé held for Tatooine’s Senator as sarcasm positively dripped from him. “It’s almost as though they’re unwilling to engage in discourse. Whoever would have suspected the Senate was not entirely honest in their demands for a peaceful resolution.” Respect because Vader was at the forefront of any and all discourse across a variety of topics even while he slowly snuffed out the fading embers of the Hutt empire. While the man’s violence and recordings of him showering entire worlds with the blood of his enemies, Padmé could in no way say he wasn’t equally dedicated to his diplomatic duties.
Padmé nodded shortly. “My rivals in the Senate are eager to see a swift resolution to the Separatist crisis, regardless of the cost to life.” The sooner she was dead, the sooner they had one last advocate stalling the procurement of an army.
“More eager to fill their silk lined pockets with the bacta, blasters and other war profits,” Vader drawled and Padmé outright stopped to stare, feeling Panaka slam into her back with a grunted curse word. “I doubt that life of any kind factored into their considerations unless it’s a form they can sell.” She outright turned to stare as Vader’s thinly concealed contempt for slavers washed over their party.
“You oppose the Act, Lord Vader?” Padmé arched an eyebrow. It was difficult to imagine that someone of his reputation would oppose an act that would, presumably, see him granted even more power in resolving the crisis. Then again… why would he have any need for the military of the Republic when practically overnight he’d recruited a formidable fleet of his own? They called it Death Squadron in hushed, timid whispers and indeed it brought death to all who dared trade slaves in the domain of Vader. Death Squadron, Vader’s personal avatar of destruction blotting out of the sky of all those who dared to oppose him. No, the Republic gathering their own naval might would indeed to be contrary to his own interests.
“Certainly, Senator.” Vader casually waved a hand and in a comfortable diplomatic dead spot, Padmé allowed her metaphoric jaw to drop. “I fail to see the need for a dedicated military when I alone am more than capable of resolving this… diplomatic irregularity. More specifically, I lack confidence in the Jedi and their capabilities in enacting a suitable military campaign.”
“What is your issue with the Jedi?” She did her best to conceal the defensive edge that threatened to overtake her. The Jedi had helped save her world and were peacekeepers on many others. While the Sith inherently had conflict with the Jedi, Vader was a different breed of Sith. Not at all like Maul who relentlessly hunted her. Maul hunted. Vader merely provided a noose and patiently awaited it tightening around the necks of his opponents as he slowly smothered the life from them. Or he took the literal path and simply strangled them without so much as lifting a finger. That too was in his nature.
“Ah, Senator, I’m sure you’re familiar with the Jedi as peacekeepers.” Vader’s hissing crackle made Padmé hair stand on end. “Though their record in this area is… regrettably lacking in much keeping of the peace. They are simply not equipped to manage the logistics of large scale conflict. My expertise in this area affords more permanent and expedients methods of dispute resolution.” Such as glassing planets from orbit and laying waste to entire battalions on his own, Padmé could only assume.
“Yes, Lord Vader, your methods of dispute resolution have been a source of much discussion within the Senate.” And the military. And the criminal underworld. And the general public. And especially the Jedi who were frantically attempting to arrange a meeting with the Sith Lord who, by all accounts, was booked out a full decade in advance. It’d take a miracle for the Jedi to arrange a face to face of any kind with Vader, unless it was one he himself arranged. It didn’t take precognition to know that such an event would end poorly for the Jedi.
“I am pleased that my Apprentice and myself have brought peace and order to so many chaotic patches of Republic space,” Vader practically purred. “Considering his less than desirable upbringing, his progress has been remarkable.” It was all Padmé could do not to trip over an ornamental vase while her delegation murmured behind her. Unless she was mistaken… that sounded suspiciously like pride for his apprentice who was just as much a bane of Hutt existence as his master. It was rather peculiar when Padmé had been led to believe that an Apprentice was merely a servant, instead of… instead of whatever emotion it was that hovered around Vader. It certainly hadn’t been part of the warning provided by the Jedi.
Instead, she settled for the old fallback. There was a phrase much used in politics for these situations. “You must be very proud of him.” Tactful, to the point. At no risk of causing offence.
“Indeed, I’m proud of all of my children. We have achieved much together.” Padmé nearly buckled under the force of Vader’s fondness.
And Padmé felt the air leave her lungs in a rush of air while she forced herself to stay relatively in step with the Sith.
Children, a plural.
There was more than one child.
The Apprentice was a child.
Lord Vader had more than one child.
Were they all his?
Did the Jedi know there was more than one Apprentice?
She dragged herself back to reality as Vader, ever the gentlemen when not mulching his enemies beckoned for her to proceed ahead of him. “Come to think of it, Lord Vader, where is your young associate?” The Apprentice who was never far from Tatooine’s representative was again almost more of a mystery than the senator himself. No one could recall the boy ever speaking or communicating with another sentient. He was there, a background shadow to Vader’s conduct within and outside senatorial walls. Until his shadow took form and then the link between them was clear.
“My Apprentice is undertaking a short chore. He will be with us momentarily.” Lord Vader concluded with a quiet chuckle that made her entire delegation recoil.
Yes, Padmé was quite sure that anyone who ran afoul of the Apprentice’s blade would be quite short by the time he was done. And inexplicably, as if he could read her mind, Vader began to laugh.
Chancellor Palpatine was elated by the survival of Senator Amidala and offered his heartfelt sympathies. How terrible it was for a Senator so dedicated, so young, so gifted a speaker to be targeted by nefarious forces who strived to squash down her vote. He would investigate thoroughly and bring the wrongdoer to justice.
“It’s such a shame that the assassin wasn’t found by security,” Palpatine simpered. And with the amount he paid them he demanded perfection. Fett was the idea candidate for the plan to finally bring down the Jedi Order and was paid appropriately for his role within it.
Darth Sidious on the other hand quivered as Vader’s attention focused again on him alone and a mailed fist coiled itself around his ribcage and squeezed. An abyss edged with amusement and highlighted with a delicately waggling finger.
Oh no, Lord Sidious, the hissing, poisonous drip whispered. Perhaps the Jedi Order fell for your insipid, simpering display, but you’ll have to do better than that here.
Sidious withheld a whimper as the Dark honed itself into a locus around the unknown Sith. A whirlwind of whispers of the suffering to come at the hands of the other Sith. The other Sith who made no attempt to hide his nature. Who was accepted, who held power the Jedi couldn't ever hope to touch.
Then three bodies fell from the ceiling that' was empty only moments earlier. Two with a THUD and third landing casually on his toes. His bounty hunters lay there moaning, hearts still beating but the stench of burnt flesh and the blackened streaks of lightsaber wounds were unmistakable. They had taken on the Apprentice and suffered a calamitous loss. But they lived. Lived so that Vader may make use of them to his own ends. Sidious bristled with a rage that would spell instant death if it was ever released.
“Master,” the mild sounding boy bowed to Vader. “I have retrieved the would be assassins for you.” For they hadn’t managed to assassinate anyone, had they? Not with the other Sith Lords ready, waiting, expectant, aware of what was to come. As if they already knew how Sidious wanted it to end.
“Most impressive, my Apprentice,” Vader clasped a proprietary hand around his Apprentice’s shoulder in a manner that had Sidious cursing his own Apprentice's lackings. “I take there are no objections to me questioning your would be assassins Senator?”
“None from me, Lord Vader,” that accursed girl curtseyed to the Vader and Vader returned it with a graceful bow befitting royalty more than a Senator.
“Excellent, I am much obliged.” Light. Casual. As if nothing could touch and at this moment in time, nothing could, not even Sidious himself.
And the Dark Side merely laughed while Palpatine stewed and watched helplessly as the core template for his clone army and his subordinate were constricted by Vader’s telekinetic grip and floated away, gasping for breath. Cackled while Palaptine was forced to smile at his own impending demise.
It didn’t escape Padmé that years ago during the invasion of Naboo that she’d criticised the Senatorial committees that waffled while her planet burned. Stuffy old men who cared more for their wealth than the facilitation of the Republic. Now, it was only becoming more obvious in other committees she sat upon, but this one was free of those familiar faces. Instead Bail and Mon’s face’s were angled into careful expressions of capitulation fitting for the Senate Intelligence Tabular Hearing which was newly formed and, oddly, only opened to a select handful of Senators who’d been invited to the committee. Naturally, being so select, all of them had immediately agreed if only to see the purpose of such a secretive committee.
The reasoning became clear when Lord Vader and his apprentice swept into the room and the committee’s three nominated members fell into a hush as the fourth joined them.
“Fellow Senators,” Vader greeted in a hissing whisper and bowed in a manner that lifted the hairs on Padmé neck. “I am pleased to see you all answered the call of duty. Today we attend to discuss a… fringe matter, but an important matter no less.”
“I confess that the name of this committee is non-indicative in its purpose,” Padmé allowed. “I take it we are here for explanation of its purpose?” Whatever purpose it had would be aggressively pursued. Lord Vader wasn’t one for half measures or platitudes as Chancellor Palpatine had discovered. Vader preferred to hang his problems from the nearest available set of rafters as an example to everyone else.
“To commence, an explanation of the purpose of this committee,” Vader waved his hand and Padmé was greeted with a holographic explosion of plotted data, graphs and numbers that screamed forensic accounting. “The purpose of this committee is to conduct an audit into the finance provided to the Jedi Order through Republic channels and to determine the efficacy of this funding.” Padmé held it together, but beside her Bail and Mon’s jaw’s were hanging open. “If they are to act as peacekeepers on the public purse, then the public should expect a degree of reassurance that their funding is being used effectively.”
Three jaws dropped.
“You can’t be serious,” inched out of Bail, almost without his own consent. “Auditing the Jedi? Why would the Senate be interested in such a thing?”
“Oh, rest assured Senator Organa, that my commitment to this task is greater than the Jedi’s own. Perhaps if they had engaged upon these matters with more interest, my involvement wouldn’t be required,” Vader coldly assured Bail and Padmé had the strangest impression of sincerity. “For you see Senator Organa, the Jedi Order has not been audited or risk assessed since the Ruusan Reformation. For so long as they dine on the public purse, they too must be held to public account. I submit my expenses for public perusal and so too should they.” Ah yes, Lord Vader’s distressingly blunt expenditure outlays were documents of proverbial legend for Padmé own accountants. There wasn’t a single cent not accounted for and spoke of a spartan existence wholly dedicated to Vader’s… unique form of employment that put the entire Jedi Order to shame. Vader was the leading example for expenditure disclosures and not a single member of the Senate was unaware of this fact.
The proposed audit of the Jedi Order though was uncalled for, it was outrageous, it was unheard of and unfortunately for everyone present it was also long overdue. Vader’s data streams spoke for themselves and everyone present was in fact familiar with the budget details that cycled through, data points neatly aligning themselves. There were discrepancies in the data that the Senate had long been ignored because the Jedi had their own utility that defied a casual cost benefit analysis.
Who could say with any honesty that they could divine the needs of a collective of entities connected to the supernatural whims of the Force? Who could call them out of inefficiency, waste and the irresponsible waste of credits when they were mere agents of a higher power? There were no auditors who had knowledge of the Jedi or the Force to even begin such an analysis. It was now a problem of the past when Vader stepped out from the darkness to reveal an entity that was equally as capable of strangling his way through bureaucracy of myth and legend as he was pirates and slavers. Lord Vader was connected to the Force and that alone was the most difficult part of the audit complete with the candidate volunteering for the arduous role.
Unfortunately for the Jedi Order, Lord Vader was just as personally connected to reigning in the Republic’s haemorrhaging budget as he was the Force. What a pity for them all.
Obi-Wan had a bad feeling about this and much to his consternation, Anakin didn’t seem to take any heed of it whatsoever. In fact, Anakin had an unbecoming spring in his step as they made their way towards the offices of Tatooine’s rooms. Nearly a skip at they made their way to the entrance.
“Anakin, when I warned you about the interests of politicians this isn’t what I had in mind.” Anakin had hardly anything to do with Palpatine these days, much to Obi-Wan’s relief. No, no, instead his young Padawan made “friends” with the two chief bureaucratic servants of Darth Vader and was now formally invited to dinner or lunch (paperwork permitting) at least once a week. Usually more if Vader himself was occupied. Yet, through the mercy of the Force, Anakin never had the misfortune of encountering Vader himself in the darkness addled halls of this part of the building. Obi-Wan thanked the Force for small blessings… and had a distinct feeling it was laughing at him, which did nothing to help his unease.
“Don’t be like that, master. Luke and Ben are perfectly nice people.” Anakin’s optimism was uncharacteristic and Obi-Wan could only do his best to manage those misplaced expectations.
“Keep in mind, Anakin that both of them work for a Sith Lord,” Obi-Wan gently reminded him as Anakin tapped the buzzer and they waited for entrance.
Only to be interrupted as a man around Obi-Wan’s age peaked out from around a violently opened door. “If you saw my job prospects you’d happily work for a Sith Lord as well,” the human male snorted and Obi-Wan resisted the urge to blanch. He would not be complicit in feeding the Sith’s appetite for fear. “You must be Obi-Wan!” The man beamed. “I’m Luke and the sprog you’ll see running around with paperwork twice his size is my nephew Ben.”
“Uncle, I am not a fish!” Came back a high pitched voice and Obi-Wan blinked.
“You’ll be swimming through enough of that paperwork to be one if we don’t hurry up,” Luke called over his shoulder as he gestured for the Jedi to enter. Anakin bounded over a precarious stack of documents with a practiced leap and Obi-Wan followed.
“You are busy here, aren’t you?” Obi-Wan stroked his beard, thinking of Nar Shaddaa and Vader’s ever growing blockade. Certainly, these two wouldn’t ever be short for work under Vader’s employ it seemed. Though their prospects of a social life also seemed purely limited to who could visit while they worked as he watched a young, dark haired boy who could only be Ben speed past holding a stack of flimsi twice his height.
The chief bureaucrat snorted. “You’d think this is from the wreck at Nar Shaddaa, but no, no, Lord Vader had to-,” Luke’s face twisted in a manner that triggered immediate sympathy, “-have an audit into the Republic’s expenditure.” Followed by an immediate and profound roll of his eyes that had Anakin wincing. Oh dear, yes, that would cause some unhappiness for everyone involved.
“Didn’t your boss just release his expenditure reports? I mean… I heard accountants waxing poetic about it on the holo just last week,” Anakin frowned and turned to Obi-Wan in clear confusion.
Obi-Wan did a double take. Since when had Anakin ever followed Senate expenditure reports? And perhaps a lingering expression of disbelief gave him away when Anakin glanced back over with a bob of his head. “Really, Anakin?”
“Well, ever since we had a Sith Lord elected to the Senate I figured someone should keep an eye on what he’s doing with his credits,” Anakin explained. “It’s good practice, especially since the Order thinks whatever he’s doing has to be illegal.” Because, to the shock of the Order, simply being a Sith Lord wasn’t enough to arrest someone. With the history of the galaxy it was unthinkable to Obi-Wan that it wasn’t already a law. With Lord Vader being so understandingly popular with the Outer Rim and its constituents, the opportunity for it being made into a law was long gone. No, the Jedi Order couldn't arrest someone for simply being a Sith Lord, especially not when the Sith Lord in question was a one man war waged against all of the galaxy’s slavery. It would’ve been admirable, if Lord Vader wasn’t the galaxy’s current foremost expert on brisk genocides.
“Weren’t we already keeping an eye on his finances?” Obi-Wan instead wondered aloud as he was led to a sitting area.
“Nope,” Luke cheerfully answered, dumping down one of the saddest and most well loved teapots Obi-Wan had ever set eyes on in his life. What a misshapen creation, as though it’d fallen out of its mould while hot and been given a healthy kick on the way down for good measure.
“Not that we know about,” the boy added. “And we know a lot.” With the entire Senate eating from their palms, Obi-Wan would’ve been more surprised if there wasn’t intelligence on what the Jedi were or weren’t doing.
“Why aren’t you at school?” Anakin shot back in a friendly manner. It almost felt like an in joke.
“Homeschooled,” and the boy stuck his tongue out then turned to Obi-Wan. “Uncle pays me a king’s ransom so he doesn’t have to take calls.” At least boy was receiving an education of sorts, even if growing up in a Sith Lord’s senatorial office was hardly the norm. Ben seemed better adjusted than Anakin, who admittedly, had a far harsher upbringing and clearly a lingering trauma to which he was still attached.
“And I don’t regret a single cent of it going towards that higher cause either,” the uncle in question insisted, dolling out four teacups, saucers and a healthy amount of marble cake that had Anakin drooling. “I made the cake myself, it’s excellent,” the man beamed and Obi-Wan, in spite of himself felt some of his reservations fade away. If Vader’s servants baked their own cakes and practically lived in their office as a home space, then what could the Order expect from Vader himself? Surely this had to be a trap.
“And to save time for the Nar Shaddaa audit?” Obi-Wan slipped in.
“No, we’ve been assigned a more specialised task unfortunately,” Luke sighed, fork in one hand and a pencil rapidly moving through rows in another. How very strange. Usually droids were used to audit finances, so what was it about this task that required a living person? “Not gonna have any off time for the next decade at this rate. I’ll be dead, buried and still working,” he grumbled and Obi-Wan thought of Vader’s equally dense schedule and could only agree.
“Of doing what exactly?” And the Force screamed. A shrieking wail that rent it asunder. The Force was crying out in pain. But why was it screaming? Vader was nowhere near and the tainted slime of the Dark was likewise absent. Why couldn’t Anakin hear it screaming? Anakin whose eyes widened with concern as Obi-Wan crumpled and reached out a steadying hand.
“Are you alright?” Anakin mouthed at him, but Obi-Wan only had eyes for Luke. Luke who had yet to answer. Luke who couldn't see what was happening.
“Auditing the Jedi Order of course,” Luke answered blithely, completely unaware of Obi-Wan’s escalating distress. Simply oblivious. There was no way the man was Force sensitive. It was impossible. “Lord Vader’s been pushing through reforms on transparency for more efficient spending of public moneys. He figured that the Jedi should also be doing their part in the public interest.” Pausing, Luke almost seemed to hesitate. “Lord Vader also expressed some dissatisfaction at the state of the Temple’s security and felt a review and potential reinvestment into its framework would do it some good, especially with the amount of children present if anyone were to attack the Temple.” And the Force’s keening abruptly terminated in a whimper.
“How very generous of him.” It was a trap. It had to be a trap. The event itself made the Force writhe in agony. The Council had to be told. Had to be warned.
“Someone had to do it,” Ben added, forcing a glass of water into Obi-Wan’s hand. “No one else was willing to volunteer to take care of the paperwork. It stretches all the way back to the Reformation.” Twenty five millennia of documents to sort, enough to cripple any droid without prior sorting. And Vader had inflicted it upon himself and his staff. A being that revelled in suffering.
“I would have offered to purchase you a new teapot in thanks for Lord Vader’s concerns, Luke, but I fear that too may end up as an unreasonable purchase for the Order in your audit,” Obi-Wan faintly stated.
Luke shuddered. “If it makes you feel any better Master Jedi, his Lordship is reviewing the documents as we speak and I can assure that any gifts of teapots would be duly declared.”
Obi-Wan, in a haze, heard Ben giggle and felt a distant event that would never be shatter into pieces that may as well have been grains of sand.