Senator Padm? Amidala strolled slowly along the tree-lined street, admiring the way the setting sun cast the buildings and even the air itself in a warm pink glow as she took in the sights and sounds of the street festival. She stopped to watch a group of children dancing to the bright melody being played by a trio of street musicians, feeling happy and relaxed for the first time since her arrival on Venetcia.
"The evening air is growing chilly, Senator. Perhaps I should return you to your suite?"
The young man by her side looked at Padm? questioningly.
"No, Cyral. I am fine, I assure you," Padm? smiled at the aide.
When Chancellor Palpatine had asked Padm? to attend the diplomatic conference on Venetcia, the young Senator had tried desperately to decline the request. Anakin had recently been sent into the midst of another battle, and she wanted to remain on Coruscant, where incoming data regarding the conflict would be more readily available. However, this was not an excuse she could explain publicly, and Palpatine had given her little choice in the matter.
Now, after days of being sequestered in a stifling government building listening to endless speeches and debates, Padm? was anxious to return to Coruscant the following morning, but in the meantime, the king of Venetcia had arranged a tour of the local Blossoming Festival for her, and she was determined to try to put aside her worries and make the most of her remaining time on this beautiful planet.
When the music ended, the children bowed deeply to the small crowd that had gathered around them, and Padm? joined her fellow onlookers in a round of enthusiastic applause. The crowd dispersed, and the Senator and her escort continued along the crowded street, stopping occasionally to allow Padm? to browse the wares of the local vendors and artisans. At one stall, a young man was chiseling pieces of stone into sharp points then attaching intricately carved wooden handles to the stone using lengths of leather cording.
"They are replicas of ancient spears used by the primitive cultures of our planet," Cyral explained. "In addition to their obvious use as weapons, each tribe carved bits of its own history into the handles of the spears, along with special symbols that served as identifying markers for the tribe." He picked up one of the completed spears and held it closer to Padm?, pointing out the elaborate markings.
Anakin would love this, Padm? thought to herself as she ran her fingers along the intricate detailing. She signaled the artisan and handed over the appropriate amount of credits. As Padm? waited while the vendor wrapped the package carefully, she noticed that Cyral was looking at her curiously, surprised at her choice of a souvenir.
"For my father," she explained with a quick smile.
The aide nodded in understanding. As the vendor handed her the purchase, Padm? felt her spirits begin to fall. It was such a simple thing, buying a gift for her husband, but even little pleasures such as this required planning and stealth. When they had married almost two years earlier, an action forbidden for a Jedi, both Anakin and Padm? had known that maintaining their secret would not be easy. Lately, however, the strain of their situation had begun to take its toll on the couple.
After their marriage, their time together had been limited - midday meals together at public restaurants under the guise of friendship or stolen moments at Padm?'s apartment when Anakin was able to sneak away from the Temple undetected. As the Clone Wars increased in intensity, however, these already brief moments had grown even more rare as Anakin was repeatedly deployed to battle.
When his unit would return from yet another bloody fray, Padm? would stand at the landing platform, along with a handful of other politicians and citizens, to greet the brave heroes, forced to watch from a distance, her heart pounding in fear that this would be the time her husband did not return. When she would at last see him walk down the ramp, she was forced to stifle her tears as she took in each new wound, limp or scar. How she longed to run to him and embrace him, but she was forced to content herself with his hurried glances in her direction, his warm smile a reassurance to her that he was fine.
"Ah, here we are."
Cyral's voice broke through Padm?'s sad reverie. Lost in her own thoughts, Padm? had not paid careful attention as they had left the vendor's stall. Now, she could see that they had traveled a short distance from the city-center and were now in the midst of a public park, bordered by a lake on one side and by dense woods along the opposite perimeter. Lilting music was being carried to them on the breeze, and they followed the sound.
Soon, Cyral pointed at a nearby grove of trees protruding from the edge of the woods. Padm? looked in the direction indicated by the aide, and her eyes opened wide at the spectacle. In the center of the grove was a small, secluded opening, shrouded mysteriously by a circle of newly blossoming Wisleia trees. The sun had finally made its way below the horizon, and parchment lanterns hung from the many delicate branches, filling the area with a warm, golden glow.
In the midst of the opening, dozens of costumed men and women were dancing and laughing as musicians played well-loved traditional dances and rounds. Mesmerized, Padm? moved closer, stopping at the edge of the clearing. As the dancers twirled by her, she gasped in delight at the elaborate masks each one wore. Some were adorned with fabric and feathers, while others were painted in beautiful colors and designs.
"Cupido Segreto," Cyral answered her unspoken question. "It means the love that is kept hidden. Our legends tell of a young ruler, one of our earliest princesses, who fell in love with a man who was considered to be beneath her station. At that time in our planet's history, such a union would have been a scandal, bringing disgrace to the young woman's family. So, the lovers were forced to meet in secret, the princess wearing heavy cloaks and a mask to disguise her identity. They would often come here during the warm nights of the blossoming season, beyond the reach of the palace grounds, to dance together beneath the stars."
Padm?'s heart began to race, and she turned sharply to look at her guide, certain that he knew. But Cyral was watching the couples as they glided effortlessly through the motions of a dance.
"Sadly, they were never able to acknowledge their love for each other," Cyral continued. "The princess was stricken by an illness and died while still quite young. Her lover remained true to her, even after death. He never married, and each year, on the first night of blossoming season, after the final frosts had died away, he would return here to plant a Wisleia tree, her favorite blooming tree flower, in her honor. As the trees grew, he would sit among their blossoms, mourning and remembering his lost love."
"The festival is in their honor, then?" Padm? asked, hoping the aide would not notice the blush of guilt that was creeping its way along her neck.
Cyral nodded. "Each year, at the beginning of the blossoming season, young lovers adorn themselves in elaborate costumes and masks and dance throughout the night. Because of the masks, it is often difficult to be sure of a participant's identity. Smitten, but shy, suitors and lovers whose families disapprove of their courtship have even used this to their advantage, wooing the object of their affections without the fear of being rejected or discovered."
As she listened to the man's tale, Padm? thought of Anakin, and her heart began to ache even more.
The comlink at Cyral's side suddenly began to beep. The aide moved slightly away from Padm? as he unclipped the device and listened intently to the murmured orders of the faceless voice. When he returned to her side, Cyral smiled at Padm? apologetically.
"I am sorry, Senator, but I am needed back at the palace on an urgent matter." Cyral gently placed a hand on Padm?'s elbow, preparing to guide her out of the park.
"No, please, I would like to stay," she informed him. "I know my way back to the palace and will return later."
Cyral looked at her disapprovingly and opened his mouth to protest.
"There are people everywhere, and I noticed local security officers stationed only meters away. I will be fine, Cyral. Please?" Padm? pleaded her case.
Cyral sighed resignedly. "Very well, Milady, but I must insist that you allow a security officer to escort you to an air taxi when you are ready to return to the palace."
"Of course," Padm? smiled warmly.
Reluctantly, Cyral left his charge, turning often to glance back over his shoulder as he exited the park. When he was gone, Padm? leaned against the trunk of a nearby Wisleia tree, resting her head on its surprisingly smooth bark as she watched the dancing couples.
"Oh, Anakin, I miss you so much," she whispered softly.
A tap on her shoulder startled Padm?, causing her to gasp as she turned to see a tall figure standing just behind her. The man was dressed in a black hooded cloak, and his face was hidden behind a black mask.
"I'm sorry, Milady, I didn't mean to frighten you," the muffled voice apologized.
"That's quite all right," Padm? smiled weakly, raising her hand to her chest as she attempted to steady her pounding heart.
The man held out a gloved hand to her. "Would you care to dance?"
"Oh, no. I'm afraid that I cannot," she answered politely.
The man turned to scan the crowd, and when he was certain they were not being watched, he quickly placed one arm around Padm?'s waist, covering her mouth with his other hand as he pulled her deeper into the woods. Her panic rising, Padm? struggled furiously against her captor, who had now turned her to face him, pressing his body close against hers, his hand still firmly clamped over her mouth so that she could not scream.
"Shhh..." He warned as he released her waist to lower the hood of his cloak.
Seeing her chance for escape, Padm? prepared to run, but she stopped as the stranger ripped away his mask.
"Anakin?" she mumbled against his fingertips, her eyes wide with disbelief.
"Hello, Padm?," Anakin whispered as he lowered his hand from her mouth.
After the initial shock of seeing her husband had passed, Padm? began to pound her fists against his chest. "How could you frighten me like that?" she whispered fiercely.
Anakin laughed softly. "I'm sorry, angel," he apologized as he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her to him.
Padm? buried her face against his chest, inhaling his familiar scent. "I've been so worried, Anakin. The battle on Regala Prime seemed to only be growing worse." Padm?'s voice began to crack with her emotion.
"I'm here now," he reassured her, placing a loving kiss on the top of her head.
At his words, Padm? seemed to come to her senses. "What are you doing here?" she asked Anakin as she moved away slightly, glancing nervously around them.
Anakin looked down at his wife, a conspiratorial smile playing across his lips. He reached out his hand to smooth a stray lock of curls that had fallen across her cheek. "I'm here for this." He gestured at the dancing couples. At Padm?'s look of confusion, he continued. "You mean you didn't find it suspicious that the Chancellor practically forced you to come here for the diplomatic sessions?"
Padm? shook her head slowly.
Anakin laughed softly. "I heard about the Blossoming Festival and the Cupido Segreto from a group of Venetcian ambassadors we helped free during a hostage crisis on a planet near the Outer Rim. So, I enlisted a little...help. It pays to have friends in high places, Padm?." Anakin winked at his wife, thrilled that he had been able to procure such a surprise for her.
"Palpatine...he knows?" she asked incredulously.
Anakin shook his head. "About our marriage, no. He only knows about our feelings for each other, but don't worry, Padm?. He is a mentor to me, almost like a father. He won't betray our trust."
The Jedi leaned down to kiss his wife warmly, driving away her worry and lingering doubt. Reluctantly, he broke away, and from within the depths of his cloak, he produced a beautiful mask adorned with white feathers and offered it to her.
"Now, let's try this again." Anakin cleared his throat importantly. "Would you care to dance, Milady?"
Padm? laughed as she reached out to take the mask. "I would be honored," she whispered as she looked into his eyes.
While Padm? slipped the mask over her face, Anakin replaced his own disguise, and they returned to the clearing. They joined the throng of happy couples, and for the remainder of the beautiful night, until the sun threatened to creep through the canopy of Wisleia blossoms, Anakin and Padm? were together, and free, dancing beneath a blanket of stars.
Original cover by obaona. HTML formatting copyright 2005 TheForce.Net LLC.