She waits on the small balcony adjoining the guest chambers, absorbing the breathtaking view. Her arms are wrapped protectively around her body, shunning the cool breeze that darts in and out of the folds in the skirt of her simple, green robes.
Watching as the sun begins to sink behind the majestic mountains, she ponders once more if this is to be her last sunset on Naboo .The thought does not chill her; she knows that he will find her. It is now a matter of when, not if.
She gracefully lifts a hand to the back of her head, gently plucking the carved comb from her dark hair, allowing it to cascade down her back. It has always been long. Even when it had become cumbersome, she had never considered cutting it off short. He liked long hair.
It is now only a matter of time.
I have never particularly liked the mountains, rejecting them for the playfulness of the lakes, or the warm grass plains. They seem so serious, almost daunting, and their sheer wildness frightens me somewhat, as if the unpredictable twists and turns offered by their paths are a deliberate taunt against my own small helplessness.
It is not an easy journey. After separating from Obi-Wan and Raj?, I am left alone, and returning my native planet when I am currently so highly ranked on 'Locate and Detain' lists across the galaxy does not seem the most intelligent of ideas. But I know of only one person who can and will help me, and that means going to her, on Naboo.
I arrive on-planet at Ewarelon City, one of the smaller ports on the Western Continent. Not wishing to draw attention to myself, I take several crowded transports and eventually arrive at tiny village of Lyalum, lying in the valley near my friend's home.
Travelling the route to the villa, located a little way up the slope of the northern mountain, takes about an hour on foot. The mountain is actually a dormant volcano, so the soil is rich, and perfect for growing the delicate grapes used in the making of emerald wine. The whole area is filled with a delicious, earthy scent that soaks my senses and gently chides me for having been away for so long.
Walking gives me plenty of unwanted time to reflect on various issues, particularly my children. Leia, at least, I had been able to keep with me for a time, but Obi-Wan had broken my heart by insisting upon taking Luke away only a few days after he was born. But the most important thing is that they are both safe, far from Palpatine and that thing that he has created; the monster that used to be my husband.
Tears well in my eyes, unbidden and unwelcome. I wipe them away angrily, refusing to give into self-pity and useless cycles of 'what-ifs? and 'if-onlys'. The Force flows only forwards, as Obi-Wan would say. The past cannot be changed, but the future is not yet set. What will it hold for my children, I wonder. Will they remember me as they grow? Will they forgive me for not saving their father?
Will I ever forgive myself?
It is growing dark by the time I enter the expansive garden, inhaling the sweet scents of herbs and flowers. I look up at the villa in the fading twilight. Wide and sprawling, it is an ancient building of golden sandstone whose wings seem to stretch out in a gesture of welcoming. Balconies jut out from the second and third levels, and large windows cast beams of light out into the darkness of the night that surrounds me. It is exactly as I remember it.
I almost brought Anakin here several times, but I always just stopped myself asking him to accompany me. I don't know what prevented me. Maybe it was that this was one corner of my life that I wanted to keep just for me and my handmaidens; for these women, who are like sisters to me and each other. Perhaps I was afraid that this intimacy would be broken should I introduce Anakin into the circle.
Moving towards the house, I pull up short of the pool of light cast from the kitchen window. A dark thought that had never before occurred to me sends a cold shiver down my spine. I am endangering her, my dearest friend. Just by being here, I am making her as hunted as I. Moreover, I could tell her nothing of where I had been, or where I am going or with whom or, indeed, why I need her help. Was this the way to repay her years of loyal service and friendship, by putting her at risk for a set of unanswered questions?
I silently reprimand myself for not having thought of this before, having been lost in my other concerns. Shaking my head, I turn away from the villa, heading back down the garden path.
The ground lights suddenly flare to life as Sab? rushes down the stone path leading from the house. I cannot help but match her elated smile, and we embrace for the first time in well over a year.
She pulls back to look at me properly, her grin faltering as she takes me in. I know I must look awful, with that great gash on my forehead and having lost so much weight in so little time. She, on the other hand, glows with a beauty that age has not tarnished. I find it very unfair that, although she is several years older than me, she could easily pass for my younger sister.
"Leaving without even saying hello? That's bad manners, Milady," she mocks gently, her arm firmly around my shoulders, guiding me back to the house.
"I took one look at the house and couldn't bear to see it in the terrible state you've got it in," I quip back, entering the cavernous kitchen and inhaling the new scent of traditional recipes that my mother used to prepare. Seating myself on one of the chairs, I finally stop long enough to feel the aches and pains of the past few days, sighing in exhaustion.
Sab? arches an eyebrow, unimpressed.
"You never did take proper care of yourself. The evening meal isn't for another hour, but I'll make some tea."
Protests die on my lips as she dashes about the kitchen, mixing dried this with fresh that, creating a concoction that smells wonderfully refreshing.
"I can't stay long, Sab?, I just..."
"Decided to visit an old friend, after going on a horrifically long and complicated journey, after suffering through Force-knows-what," she interrupts, pouring the tea and handing me a mug.
I sniff the sweet herbal mixture before placing it on the table to cool, shaking my head.
"Sab?, I'm in trouble. I don't want you to have any part in it."
"You're always in trouble, Padm?, of one sort or another. That's why you were given handmaidens," she teases, though I see a concerned glaze settle over her eyes that belies her casual manner.
"It's deep trouble this time - dangerous for me and for anyone who helps me or is seen with me," I say carefully, watching her closely to ensure that she understands.
She nods slowly and blows softly on her tea, watching me over the rim of the cup.
"I know, Padm?," she responds softly.
I bow my head over my tea, wrapping my hands around the warm mug. I should have known that Sab?, though retired from all government duties, had not taken her finger off the pulse of the galaxy. She knows that I am being hunted, but obviously none of the specifics. But it's those details that put us both in danger.
"How long can I stay?"
My eyes dart nervously to her unreadable features. She glances back at me, leaning her head to one side, as she always does when she is considering something carefully. I resolve to myself that she ought to know the truth, that I will answer any questions she asks me, whatever the danger to myself. She deserves that much.
"How long do you need to?"
She transforms the inquiry into an offer of boundless assistance.
This is the only question she asks.
The memory warms her against the wind, a golden moment in an icy time. It had been as if they had never been separated, the old familiarities flowing back easily.
She fingers the wooden comb that she had pulled from her hair, carved with small flowers. It is a gift from long ago and gently evokes a thousand memories of pancake makeup, elaborate hairstyles and richly decorated gowns - a period in her past when life had been complicated and dangerous, but simpler and safer than present times.
She tucks the comb and her memories away, keeping them safe, and continues her waiting vigil in the waning light.
I've always loved the wild, rugged beauty of the mountains, so different from the manicured perfection of the Academy and the Palace where I spent most of my life.
The villa is situated high enough to give spectacular views, but close enough to the valley floor that the climate is hospitable. It is not isolated, merely hidden from prying eyes, nestling amongst the tall trees and against the mountain side that protects it from harsh, easterly winds.
Most people said that I was crazy not to take up a home in the fashionable Lakes Country, where most Naboo nobles have their private retreats. But I find the lakes fickle, beckoning with soft waves and water sparkles, changing suddenly to rough, grey waters that suck at the strength of even the strongest swimmers. Nothing is ever as it seems and one must always be wary of the ever changing undercurrents. I prefer the simplicity of the constant mountains, sprawling solidly, protectively, as they always have and always will. After a life full of political intrigue and pretending, I am tired. That said, I would unhesitatingly leave all of this once more, should Amidala ask me to.
I was originally assigned as part of Amidala's security detail when she became an Apprentice Legislator, and stayed on as her bodyguard and decoy after her election as Queen. I remained with her after the invasion of Naboo, and throughout her prosperous reign. When she was appointed a Senator, her cadre of handmaidens was reduced to suit her position. We all kept in close contact, even when Eirta?, Sach?, Rab? and Yan? went to pursue different lives, while I accompanied Padm? to Coruscant with a two new recruits, Dorm? and Cord?. But returning home after the first year, I knew that I could not go back to that place, even for my dearest friend. I was utterly suffocated by the cold, fast paced lifestyles, played out between monstrous metal towers. People on Coruscant do not live; they merely exist, from insignificant birth until unnoticed death.
How can affection survive in a city of mirrors and glass, with a heart of steel? How do the Jedi, beings of such pure light, endure living on such a planet?
So I, too, retired from my official duties as a handmaiden to Amidala, replaced by a sparkling young woman named Vers?. She and Cord? were killed in the line of duty just before the beginning of the Clone Wars, the only handmaidens who have left us, for you are a handmaiden for life. Though most of us have retired and pursued other paths, we are forever Amidala's handmaidens. Raj?, of the Southern Continent, was the last member to join our exclusive circle, replacing Cord? a few months into the Clone Wars.
Padm? herself has always been counted as a handmaiden. When she took off the ceremonial robes and makeup, there was no disparity between her and the rest of us. Amidala was a public persona, an ideal even, and Padm? served her as the rest of us did.
But now, we are all on very different paths and spread throughout the galaxy. Rab? and Yan? are the heads of security for the Naboo Ambassadors to Corellia and Bothawui respectively. Nobody blamed Sach? for succumbing to the charms of her charismatic Alderaanian prince, nor Eirta?, when she married a handsome businessman and moved to the Corporate sector. Dorm? and Raj?, on the other hand, are still actively in Amidala's service, scampering around the galaxy to fulfil their duties.
As for myself, I spent several years on Queen Jamillia's security team, working with my old comrade Captain Panaka. This was all before I retired. I know that I am, by normal standards, far too young for retirement, but I was dodging laser blasts from the age of fifteen and the term "retirement" isn't quite accurate. I still have contacts from my old days in the governmental service and run a small, but profitable wine-making business.
Though we are spread across many planets, we all gather together, when our busy schedules permit it. It is always at my villa. It seems fitting that a group of women who are bound together through service to Naboo meet on Naboo. The people of the nearby villages noticed my visitors, commenting on our likenesses. Down-to-earth folk, they are unconcerned and unimpressed with the world of politics. I let it be said that I am sometimes visited by my sisters. This is especially useful, now that one of those sisters is here, and in danger.
Padm? is isolating herself, confining herself to her chambers, as if in an act of self-imprisonment. I wish I knew of the supposed crimes that she is punishing herself for. The guilt is killing her and I can do nothing to abate it. And that is killing me.
I enter her room with a laden tray, eyes flicking to the balcony where she is seated, obviously in deep thought.
"You haven't eaten anything all day."
She starts as I stop next to her chair.
"Sab?! What did I say about sneaking up on me like that?" she asks, clearly exasperated.
I arch an eyebrow, my lips twitching.
"Padm?, if I made anymore noise, the neighbours would complain," I respond, smiling mischievously and gesturing to the wilderness that surrounds us.
She mock glares at me, a ghost of a smile uplifting the corners of her mouth. The smile that I have not seen in recent days, as she creates a cage of dark thoughts that I can know nothing of.
I follow her gaze out to the mountains on the horizon, their snow-capped peaks drifting in and out of the clouds; clasping hands with the heavens.
She suddenly stiffens, eyes wide, as the air is filled with the recognisable hum of an approaching shuttle. I place a calming hand on her rigid shoulder.
"It's alright. It's just Dilaen and the supplies. Look."
I point as a shuttle appears over the mountains, flying over the smallest of the peaks, as its pilot picks out the easiest path.
"It must cost you a small fortune to import supplies like that," she comments, visibly relaxing and watching the ship's progress. I shrug, dropping into the chair opposite her.
"Not as expensive as you might think. I grow a lot of things in the garden, and I'm on the same run as a few of the big resorts out here. And they don't know Dilaen's cousin, or give him tea or transport barrels of wine through him."
She laughs easily this time, shifting comfortably into her chair.
"Dear Sab?, is there anyone on this planet who you don't know?"
"A few, but I'm working on it. Just because I'm retired doesn't mean I'm retired."
We both laugh, watching the shuttle set down on the cleared landing pad that usually serves as a courtyard behind the villa. She sighs contentedly.
"You were right, Sab?. I like this place better than the Lakes. It's full of memories."
"I know. The mountains are timeless. They hold the memories of Naboo - and of us."
She nods in agreement, her gaze on the vista.
"It's just what I need at the moment. The good memories to combat the...not so good," she finishes lamely, biting her lip and clearly wishing that she had not spoken.
I open my mouth, a million questions forming on my lips. I am dying to know what is happening and how I can better help her, make her safer.
She glances at me, eyes full of sympathy and a deep sadness that I long to comprehend. We both know that she is resigned to answer anything that choose to I ask, but those haunting eyes beg me not to force her to.
My mouth closes, as if of its own accord, and we watch the mountains together in uneasy silence.
She smiles sadly to herself, recalling the cat-and-mouse type game that they had played, repeatedly circling around questions that could not be asked, for they could not be answered.
Leaning an elbow onto the balcony railing, she cups her jaw in her hand, watching orange-gold rays fade against deep blue.
She reflects grimly on the number of starships floating silently above the world, beyond the dark blue of the sky and the perception of the people on-planet, as if hiding in shame; as if they too were horrified and sickened by the damage being inflicted. She has seen the images on the Holonet; blood spattered, pain stained. She knows that he is here, leading this atrocity, this violent rape of her home and her people.
She blinks through a watery haze, as a faint buzzing grows louder, signaling the approach of a vessel. A shuttle appears over the top of the tallest peaks, traveling uncertainly on an unknown path. She watches it approach, straightening and brushing the tears from her eyes.
He has arrived.
I have always disliked mountain ranges, and the fact that this one conceals my beloved makes me despise it all the more. I have always felt as though their imposing bulk, weathered by centuries, millenniums, is judging me in my insignificance, caring not for my power or skills - like the Jedi Council.
But I showed them.
I clench my jaw, resolving to have this chain of overgrown hills destroyed once I have what I came for.
Stretching out my senses, I try to get a fix on Padm?'s elusive presence. I have not seen her in over a year and, considering the events that have transpired, it is not out of the question that her Force signature has mutated into something that I cannot quite recognise. Thus, my hopes are not destroyed when I cannot sense her. My spies reported seeing her near Sab?'s villa. She is here - I am sure of it.
After we touchdown, I remain in the shuttle for a few minutes, giving the troops time to round up the occupants of the villa. They have specific orders not to even touch my wife, and I have no doubt that they will obey them to the letter. I brought only a half a dozen soldiers; I know not whether my Master approves of my quest to find Padm?, and do not doubt how he would express his opposition.
Running a black-gloved hand through my cropped hair, I wait impatiently, eager to finally see my dear wife after our long separation. Too long a separation, and those responsible for that severance will pay, eventually. But for now, nothing matters, except that soon I will hold her again. And once I have her back, I will never let her go.
Finally exiting the shuttle, I glance up at the villa, a place that I have long heard about, but never been to before. Private invitations were reserved for Padm? and the other handmaidens; an exclusive society that had its own code of secrecy and honour, a private little world for the women who served Amidala.
I move through the kitchen, past trembling servants, their fear surging through the Force, and into the main hall. A guard stands over the servants and one is here, at the foot of the winding staircase. The others are nowhere to be seen.
Something feels wrong. Something is wrong.
The soldiers ... I immediately push the one at the foot of the stairs aside, striding up the stairs two at a time. Two guards have taken up sentry outside an open bedroom door and, as I move through, I see another pair keeping careful watch over the enigmatic figure on the balcony that is facing out towards the mountains.
This is wrong, all wrong.
She is tiny, clad in moss green with brown hair spilling down her turned back. I walk to the balcony entrance, the soldiers falling back at my silent command. Awash with relief, I cannot focus on anything except the fact that I have found her.
"Padm?," I whisper hoarsely.
She stiffens at the name, or perhaps the sound of my voice.
I step forward, reaching out a hand. She breathes deeply, and half turns.
I snatch my hand back, as if burned by a blazing fire, staring in disbelief.
She smiled slightly at him, bringing herself to face him properly.
"You remember. Hello, Anakin."
His eyes flashed dangerously.
"That name means nothing. I am Vader."
Sab? cocked her head slightly, regarding him thoughtfully.
"If you say so," she responded softly.
His eyes narrowed and she could feel the heat of his anger.
"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded. "Where is my wife?"
She gave a slight shrug and offered up her empty hands.
"She's not here, Anakin," she responded calmly, raising an eyebrow, daring him to try and break her tranquility.
Vader ignored the provocation, preoccupied with the more pressing matters at hand.
"Where is she?"
"I don't know," she stated simply, again with that annoying calm.
"Where is she going? Who is she going to?"
"I don't know."
She lowered her gaze from his. He stretched out with the Force, pulling at her mental barriers, trying to sense any secreted information.
"You know something, Sab?. I know that she was here. She must have told you something - you must have asked her where she was going."
She raised her head to meet his gaze once more, her eyes burning with bold defiance.
"I'm a handmaiden - I ask no questions and expect no answers."
Vader felt an overwhelming surge of frustration.
"You damn handmaidens and your damn secrecy! You know something! You know what I want to know. Where is she?"
He was angry now, and desperate, advancing and grabbing her shoulders, forcing her to face him, demanding her to tell him what she had deliberately avoided knowing.
"Where is she?"
Sab? stared his fury down.
"You think this was an accident? A coincidence? I'm the decoy, Anakin. I'm supposed to be caught, so that she isn't."
The Sith Lord released her, stepping back, stunned by the simplicity of the trick he has been caught in. But he had broken her calm. She was exasperated and fearful and the emotions flowed through her words.
"Yes, she was here. She came to me because she was distressed and needed somewhere to hide. But I knew she wouldn't be safe for long, she had to get off Naboo. You're not the only one looking for her, you know."
He nodded sharply. The price on Padm?'s head had just risen again and the bounty hunters were out in force, another reason why he was so desperate to find her.
"I still have connections. I arranged for her to get out, while perpetuating the rumour that she was still here, at the villa. I knew you had your dogs out sniffing for any traces."
The former handmaiden shook her head in denial and silent disbelief at his ignorance.
"I know nothing that you would want to know."
He regarded her shrewdly for a moment, his blue eyes calculating coldly, before turning out to face the fading vista.
"How did you get her out?"
Sab? seemed to consider the question for a moment, but came to the obvious conclusion. Lying to a Sith Lord seemed impossible and unwise, and it would only serve to anger him.
"She was smuggled out in the supplies shuttle that serves the resorts in this region. Don't bother questioning the pilot, he didn't know, nor did my servants here. I smuggled her out in a wine cask and pretended that she had confined herself to her room and would only see me. She met with my contact in Yawaren City and they left the planet together."
There was a flash in his eyes as he recognised the name, before they dulled once more to hard slabs of blue marble.
"Why the deception?" he asked softly "What was the point? You knew that I would find out eventually."
"Eventually, yes. But as long as you were hunting me, you wouldn't hunt her. She was safe for a while."
Vader whirled back, his features contorted with anger.
"How dare you!" he roared, pushing through the Force and sending her recoiling against the railing. She gripped the rail behind her; her knuckles turned white, but raised her chin defiantly against his tirade. "I love her! I would never, ever hurt her! She knows that!"
"You love her? You see her as a stolen possession! Something you want back only so you can own it again! You didn't even notice that I wasn't her!"
He flinched as though she had hit him, realizing the truth in the accusation. He hadn't seen Padm? in over a year, how could he recognise her? He could barely recognise himself.
No. He was Vader. She was his wife. He needed her and she needed him.
"She loves me. I know she does," he declared defensively.
"So much so, that she's crisscrossing the galaxy to avoid you? If you truly love her, you will stop hunting her."
He glared daggers at her.
"You've poisoned her mind against me. You, Dorm?, Sach? and the rest of your little group. You and the Jedi. I will see you hunted down for this."
He moved close to her, towering over her petite frame.
"I will destroy you all for what you have done," he hissed harshly.
Sab? stifled a gasp as he stared her down with such hate. It had aged him terribly, more so than the ravages of time. He seemed so far from the little boy she had once met on the Royal Star Cruiser.
"What happened to you?" she asked quietly before she could prevent herself.
He turned his back to her once more, moving to the other side of the small terrace.
"I wept for you, Anakin. For both of you, and for what might have been."
"You wasted your tears," he responded, monotone.
"I don't think so."
He turned back, arms folded and eyes dead. She continued, refusing to be intimidated.
"I've seen what you've done. I see what you are doing, and I know."
Coming off the railing, she straightened herself proudly and walked slowly towards him, her words dripping with venom.
"I mourn Anakin Skywalker. You're right, you are certainly not him. You're a monster of your own making, a monster of your precious Master's making - a willing slave!"
A harsh slap stung her cheek. She took a breath, quickly and deeply, and regained her composure before raising her head haughtily, meeting his gaze.
Vader's voice was icy in response. "Do not speak of things you cannot comprehend, Handmaiden."
He spat the title as an insult.
"You will be tried for treason against the Empire, and I will ensure that you receive life imprisonment."
Sab?'s jaw dropped slightly in surprise at the sentence, lenient by Imperial standards. He noticed her reaction and sneered openly.
"Your kindness to my wife spares your life."
"I didn't do it for you," she bit out.
"And I don't do this for you," he snarled back, summoning the soldiers with an imperious flick of his hand. "Take her away."
As the soldiers escorted Sab? off the balcony and out of the bedroom, he turned and took one last look at the darkening vista that his wife had been gazing upon only a short time beforehand.
Anakin felt like crying hot, angry tears, allowing his twisting frustration to break forth. Clenching his jaw tightly, Vader resisted the urge - a Sith does not shed tears. Closing his eyes, he touched the Force, letting it cleanse him of his misery and focus his rage.
He silently cursed Sab?, swearing that she would pay for her deception and insolence. He would reserve a special punishment for her. She would watch as he destroyed the group of traitors who had stolen his beloved. She would bear witness to the destruction that private world. Vader would guarantee it.
She walks slowly to the shuttle, flanked by white armoured guards, glancing up into the growing darkness for a last look at the mountains that have cradled her for so long.
She thinks sadly of her friends, her sisters. Eirta?, Rab?, Sach?, Yan?, Dorm?, Cord?, Vers?, Raj?. Padm?.
She is the last handmaiden to leave Naboo.
Original cover by Cereth. HTML formatting copyright 2003 TheForce.Net LLC.