Pooja’s grandparents had been furious with terror when she announced that she would accept the position of Imperial Senator for Naboo. Her grandfather had yelled and her grandmother had cried and they hadn’t spoken to her for over a week. They hadn’t come to her swearing in, either, but they’d sent a note.
“We love you,” it said. “Come back to us.”
Pooja didn’t blame them. She remembered, all too well, the sight of Aunt Padmé, still and cold as she lay in state, haloed in flowers. She remembered just as clearly the strange conversation she and Ryoo had had with their parents after the funeral.
Aunt Padmé had been killed by the Jedi, her mother had said – at least, that was what they would have to tell people. It was the story they would have to abide by, but Sola wanted her daughters to know the truth. To know, and to bury it deep down, where it could become a fire burning in their bones.
And they couldn’t tell anyone about Uncle Ani, either. That had been true before, of course, and Ryoo and Pooja were very good at keeping secrets, even from their own grandparents. But it was even more important now, Sola said. The Emperor hated the Jedi, and he hated democracy, and he had killed Aunt Padmé because of that.
Only a few hours before Aunt Padmé’s funeral, Sola had made a public statement against the Jedi. She had cursed them for her sister’s death, and praised Palpatine for his swift action against them. Now she was saying the very opposite.
Pooja and Ryoo had looked at one another in confusion. What could their mother mean?
“It’s like a story,” Sola had said, pulling her daughters close. “Like the legend of Queen Polana. Remember how she tricked the wicked King Aprana and brought democracy back to Naboo?”
“Oh,” Pooja remembered Ryoo exclaiming. “We’re going to be spies!”
And Sola had laughed, startled but no less determined. “We’re going to be spies.”
That was twelve years ago. Pooja and her sister had grown to adulthood in a house of covert rebellion.
Ryoo worked at Theed University now. She was a professor of ancient literature. It was a solidly academic posting, rarely visited by inspectors from the Imperial Ministry of Education. After all, the poetic musings of lovers from thousands of years in Naboo’s past could hardly pose a threat to the smooth functioning of the thoroughly modern Galactic Empire.
Pooja smiled to think it. It was quite obvious Palpatine had never dedicated much time to reading Naboo’s ancient romantic poets. If he had he might have been more worried.
Their grandparents might have been more worried, too.
As it was, their worry was reserved almost exclusively for Pooja. Why couldn’t she have chosen a safe but meaningful career, like her sister the professor, or her mother the data technician, or her father the architect? Why did she have to go into politics?
Pooja didn’t tell them that Ryoo’s poetry reading group at the university doubled as a Rebel cell. She didn’t tell them that Darred spent much of his time designing hidden spaces and disguised safe houses. She didn’t tell them that Sola’s work at the Central Hub gave her access to a shocking amount of classified Imperial data – data that was vital to the Rebellion. She didn’t tell them that she’d met with the Queen just prior to her swearing in as senator and had received directly from Her Highness the codes and frequencies she would need to communicate with the Rebel Alliance.
All she told them was, “I want to help the people of Naboo, and this is the best way I can see to do it.”
“You’re too much like her,” Jobal had said, her voice laced with a bitter and still raw grief, and Pooja had said nothing in reply. It wouldn’t help her grandmother to know that Pooja took her words as a compliment.
The Imperial Senate was more or less exactly what she’d expected. Pooja had never had any real illusions about her ability to affect positive change in the Empire through legislation. The Senate was effectively toothless and it had been for years now. The Emperor’s word was all that truly mattered, and even the most unimportant of the Moffs wielded more actual power than the most prominent senator. Yet her colleagues still postured and squabbled as though their actions would determine the balance of power in the galaxy.
Pooja remembered overhearing Aunt Padmé complaining about the very same behavior to her mother several times, and she even remembered Uncle Ani, on one of his rare visits, laughing at Aunt Padmé’s disgust. He’d said that all politicians were the same, with only a few exceptions, and Sola had jokingly agreed with him, leaving Aunt Padmé to splutter in indignation.
Perhaps things had been different under the Republic, but the Imperial Senate seemed determined to prove Uncle Ani right.
They still had committees in the Senate, though Pooja was honestly not sure why they bothered. Perhaps her fellow senators simply wanted to maintain the illusion of relevance. But Pooja had chosen her own committees carefully to achieve nearly the opposite effect. The Heritage Committee. The Committee for the Preservation of Imperial Culture. The Senate Hospitality Committee. Three committees that were largely regarded, even within the increasingly powerless Senate, as either frivolous or merely sycophantic. As though that didn’t describe the entire Senate.
She wouldn’t learn much information that might be useful to the Rebellion there, but the truth was she wouldn’t learn that in any of the Senate’s committees. Nothing really important was shared with the Senate prior to its implementation. Information had to be obtained through other channels, and she had plenty of those. So instead Pooja had chosen her committees the better to craft her image. Naboo, under the Empire, was regarded as a quaint, beautiful, peaceful and innocent place, the jewel of the Empire, and Pooja had created her own political persona to be its perfect match.
Senator Pooja Naberrie was everything that Senator Padmé Amidala had not been. She was a vocal supporter of Naboo’s native son, Emperor Palpatine. She was in favor of the consolidation of power in the Core, the system of regional governors, and the steps the Empire had taken to preserve traditional culture and strengthen the military. The only piece of legislation she had so far introduced in her eight months in the Senate was a bill to officially recognize the anniversary of the end of the Clone Wars with a state holiday. The bill had received instant approval from the Emperor.
Her act was solely for Palpatine’s benefit. No one else was likely to notice how very unlike Senator Amidala she was, because no one talked about Senator Amidala anymore. Her name was never mentioned, her face never seen. It was like she had never existed at all.
At first Pooja had been surprised by this. Aunt Padmé’s funeral had been widely publicized at the time, and the official line that she had been murdered by the Jedi should have made her an ideal object of propaganda. Instead Palpatine had quietly disappeared her.
But after only two audiences with the Emperor, Pooja thought she could now guess why. The reason was petty and shockingly mundane for a man who wielded absolute galactic power, and that, paradoxically, gave her hope.
Padmé Amidala had once been Naboo’s most popular politician. The people of Naboo had even tried to amend the constitution to keep her in power. The coup Palpatine had been forced to work years to achieve, she had been offered on a silver platter. And she had turned it down.
And Palpatine, Pooja suspected, had never forgiven her for that.
The thought brought her a small measure of satisfaction. It was a cold satisfaction, but it was something to cling to, and today of all days Pooja desperately needed that.
It was a thought she clung to during the endless, monotonous meetings of the Senate Hospitality Committee. It was a thought she reminded herself of continually as she smiled inanely and directed the workers around the Imperial Hall of Culture, as though the placement of flowers and the proper arrangement of food were of vital galactic importance.
That evening they would celebrate the twelfth anniversary of Empire Day, and everything had to be perfect.
It was Pooja’s first Empire Day on Coruscant, and so far she thought she’d done well simply to get through the day without punching anyone. Even that had been a near miss with Moff Pirus, who was perhaps the worst combination of smug bigotry and ignorant bluster she had ever encountered in a politician. And that was certainly saying something. The festivities, speeches, and military parades seemed endless, and Palpatine’s image was even more omnipresent than usual.
At least this gala would be the final event of the evening and then, at last, she could just get away from it all, drink a toast to Aunt Padmé, and sleep.
“Excuse me, Senator, I’m terribly sorry, but there’s been a mix up with catering and we’ve only received two of the twenty orders of Tilesian caviar – ”
Pooja allowed herself half a second to paint a strained society smile across her lips, then turned back to the crisis of the moment.
If the process of setting up the gala had been tedious, the party itself was ten times worse. There were more speeches, more displays of military might, and yet another interminable proclamation from Emperor Palpatine himself. This, of course, was met with riotous applause.
And then there was the mingling. Pooja dreaded mingling.
Her face was beginning to ache from holding her smile. She’d long ago stopped really listening to the inane comments of her fellow senators. Her mouth was on autopilot, replying by polite rote while her eyes cast all around the great hall, desperately looking for anything that might ease the tedium.
There was an array of buffet tables, lined with the finest delicacies all beautifully arranged. There were all twenty orders of caviar. There was the band, a quartet from Naboo’s lake district who had the singular distinction of being the most forgettable performers Pooja had ever heard. There was a dance floor on which no one was dancing, but plenty of genteel conversations were taking place over canapés. And there were the large bouquets of flowers strategically placed around the room.
In the absence of anything else interesting, Pooja studied the flowers. Most of the blooms were in shades of red and dark purple, appropriate enough for Palpatine’s signature colors, though here and there a yellow or an orange peeked out. There was very little foliage in the arrangements, which was slightly odd, but perhaps the designers had wanted the most vibrant pop of color possible.
The majority of the flowers appeared to be native to Naboo. Pooja shifted on her feet, some unknown feeling piercing through her vague interest. There was something about those flowers –
Naboo’s notoriously complex flower language was no longer widely known beyond the meanings of a few of the most common flowers associated with romance. But Pooja had a sister who studied the romantic bards of Naboo’s past, who made extensive use of the symbolism of flowers. And, although she’d been too young to fully appreciate it then, she remembered that Aunt Padmé had loved the clandestine poetry of the secret language of flowers. Uncle Ani used to send her flowers during the war. Pooja remembered once watching her aunt study a brightly colored bouquet with all the focused intensity she usually reserved for reading legislation.
Pooja hadn’t considered before that flowers might be used to send any message other than the romantic. But she was certainly considering it now.
There were five arrangements set around the hall, the most prominent and impressive of them marking out the center of the Emperor’s dais. It was impossible that Palpatine could have missed it.
It was just as obvious that he was unfamiliar with his home planet’s traditions of flower symbolism.
The most prevalent blooms in the arrangement were blood red tipala lilies. An accusation of injustice. Stabbing through the lilies at the very center of the arrangement was a single purple sword iris, so dark it was nearly black. A vow of vengeance. Purple canthaé sprays marched around the circumference of the gilded urn: a defiance of power. They were joined by the pale yellow fronds of billa ferns, foliage that was typically only used in funerary arrangements. Memory that survives beyond death. When paired with canthaé, they carried an implication of wrongful death at the hands of political authority.
But most startling of all were the sprigs of lacy red Queen’s mantle peeking out amongst the other blooms. I am deceiving you.
Pooja tried not to stare.
Someone was sending the Emperor a message. A message in the archaic flower language of his own people. A message he couldn’t read.
“Senator?” asked Bardan Toobis of Corellia, startling Pooja out of her thoughts. “Are you quite all right?”
“Oh!” said Pooja, shooting him a bright smile. “Yes, I’m terribly sorry. I’m afraid I’m a bit overtired.”
“Quite understandable,” he replied jovially. “You’ve done such lovely work with the day’s festivities. You must be exhausted!”
“Thank you,” Pooja said, too distracted to be troubled by resentment. Who had ordered those flowers? The order hadn’t come from her committee, she was certain of that. She hadn’t seen any invoice. They had been delivered by a florist just as the desserts were arriving, and at the time she’d thought nothing of them. She didn’t even know what shop they’d come from.
“Well, I congratulate you again on your fine achievement today,” Senator Toobis said, already beginning to move away, back into the milling crowd. “If you’ll excuse me.”
“Certainly,” Pooja said, shooting him perhaps the fakest smile she’d worn all day. “Good evening, Senator.”
Free for the moment, she drifted slowly but with purpose towards the nearest flower arrangement. It was conveniently placed atop one of the five long dessert tables, and whatever else she might have thought of the festivities, she had to admit the chocolate-dipped shuura slices were delicious.
The flowers were no less startling up close. There were more Queen’s mantle sprigs than she’d initially thought, some of them hidden beneath and among the other blooms in a way that indicated something close to mischief. Whoever had sent this message had fully expected that the Emperor would not be able to read it, and they were gloating about that fact.
But who could have sent it? Pooja was certain that no one on her team could be behind the bouquets. Naboo’s flower language was hardly widely known even on her home planet. But it was even harder to imagine an outsider becoming fluent in it. And to take the risk of sending them to the Emperor, himself a native of Naboo…
“Does something about the flowers trouble you, Senator?”
Pooja jumped. In hindsight, she’d be embarrassed to realize she couldn’t even claim to have been just startled. Her feet actually left the floor and a yelp of surprise left her mouth.
Then she heard the breathing.
If she’d ever interacted personally with Darth Vader, Pooja couldn’t recall it in that moment. It was difficult to recall anything beyond a sharp and purely instinctual terror. The sound of that measured, harshly mechanized respirator seemed to overshadow every other noise.
She turned to face him, her heart thudding in a bruising beat against her ribs, and stumbled through a greeting. “Lord Vader.”
He didn’t apologize for startling her. That would have been the polite thing to do, and the expected thing besides, and in the face of his looming presence and his utter lack of apology, Pooja had no idea what to say.
He was very tall, she thought absurdly. At least a head taller than her. And he was just standing there, his hands clasped behind his back in a way that was oddly unsettling, staring at her. Well, she assumed he was staring. It was impossible to tell behind that mask. But she certainly felt that she was being stared at. Pooja breathed deep and repressed a shudder.
“Happy Empire Day, Lord Vader,” she managed, and instantly felt like a fool.
Vader still said nothing.
Oh gvalé, Pooja thought. There were whispers that Vader could read thoughts, like the Jedi of old. She remembered, distantly, Uncle Ani saying once that it didn’t actually work like that, but she’d been very young then. Had he meant that a Jedi couldn’t read someone’s thoughts, or simply that they wouldn’t? She couldn’t imagine Vader abiding by any rules the Jedi might once have kept.
And Vader was still staring at her. Pooja froze her face in a smile and tried to stop her mind from thinking. If he could read –
“Do you disapprove of the flowers?” he rumbled.
Pooja blinked. She’d been prepared for any number of terrifying pronouncements, but that had not been one of them. “The…flowers?”
“You were studying them rather intently,” he said. Pooja was half convinced she was dreaming. There was simply no way that she could be standing here, in the midst of an Imperial gala, chatting with Darth Vader about flowers. It was absurd.
She chanced another quick glance at the bouquet with its seditious message before turning back to Vader. His blank mask was far worse than any expression she could have imagined. But after all, what were the odds Lord Vader was somehow familiar with Naboo’s poetic language of flowers, when even the Emperor was not?
“Well, they’re lovely, don’t you think?” Pooja said, smile and voice both overly bright.
Vader’s mask tilted to one side and he shifted on his feet, but his arms remained linked at his back. That shiver of familiarity passed through her again. She could feel him staring.
Pooja babbled. “And, well, I’m having a small soirée next week, you know, and they’re just so lovely and I thought I might want something similar, for the party, not as grand of course, it’s only a small party, but they’re very pretty and I was hoping the florist – ”
Vader turned and walked away. He said nothing to her, and made no excuses. The end of his cloak snapped against her skirt as he went.
Pooja was left gaping. Well, her thoughts whispered from somewhere very far away. How rude.
She puzzled over the strange encounter for the rest of the evening, but the mystery only deepened. Vader did not approach her again, and he spoke only very briefly with a handful of other senators, all of whom approached him first. Once or twice he was drawn into conversation with groups of Moffs. But mostly he seemed to stand behind and to the side of the Emperor’s throne, silent and looming. There were chairs interspersed throughout the hall but she never once saw him sit. He left with the Emperor, and Pooja couldn’t say she was sorry to see either of them go.
As a member of the Hospitality Committee, she was obliged to stay until the last of the guests had left. It was well into the early hours of the morning when the servants came to remove the leftover food and clear the decorations. She watched them work, feeling half asleep on her feet, until they came to the flowers.
It was a risk, but not much of one. They were only flowers. The Emperor hardly seemed to have noticed them, and taking them would fit easily within Pooja’s carefully crafted public image.
She took the bouquet from the dessert table, the same one Vader had abandoned her to, and commed her handmaidens to bring the speeder. She was more than half asleep already by the time they reached the Naboo senatorial apartments, and only managed a mumbled good night as Tila ushered her into her room and Nimé disappeared into the living room with her vase.
So she didn’t find the note until the next afternoon. It was tucked between the vase and the liner, printed on a piece of old-fashioned cardstock. Tirvané Occasions, and an address and comcode.
Had it been there last night? It must have been. She hadn’t exactly gone peeking around in the vase with Lord Vader looking on, after all. So she must have missed it last night.
She could call and ask who had ordered the flowers. But if her suspicions proved correct, she would find it had been an anonymous order anyway. And if her call was logged, as it certainly would be, someone in Imperial Intelligence might wonder why she’d been so curious. It was a small risk, but an unnecessary one. She could live with her curiosity.
She brushed her fingers over the frothy red sprays of Queen’s mantle and allowed herself a small, sad smile. “Happy Empire Day, Aunt Padmé.”
The celebrations of Empire Day seemed more odious every year, but Pooja had begun to almost look forward to the gala. After that first year, when she’d seen how many senators brought their aides despite the supposedly strict guest list, she’d started bringing Tila and Nimé with her for the evening. The flower messages were infinitely more enjoyable when she had people to share them with.
And the flowers came every year. The message was never exactly the same: some years there were more sword irises, other years more canthaé or tipala. The Queen’s mantle was a constant, though some years it was more prominently displayed than others.
On her fourth Empire Day, Pooja broke out into a startled coughing fit in a desperate effort to disguise her laughter. She couldn’t meet her handmaidens’ eyes for nearly an hour, and other senators kept wishing her a swift recovery from the illness that was obviously plaguing her, which hardly helped. She took two bouquets home that year. For weeks, the vibrant yellow blooms of the malla flower cheered her after long, pointless committee meetings with their message of irreverent mockery.
The malla was a flower normally only used in romantic arrangements. It meant “the one you seek is before you,” but in this case the anonymous sender clearly meant the sentiment quite differently. Whoever had sent the flowers must have been someone attending the gala, and someone the Emperor interacted with regularly.
“He has a secret admirer,” Tila laughed, arranging the two bouquets at either end of Pooja’s dining table. “Can you even imagine?”
Even Nimé giggled, though she normally preferred not to discuss anything remotely seditious, even obliquely, for fear of the ears that Palpatine had everywhere.
Pooja laughed so hard she snorted, and didn’t bother to apologize. The malla blooms were entirely surrounded by near-black sword irises.
The next year, Pooja’s fifth Empire Day on Coruscant, was Leia Organa’s first. Pooja had actually been almost looking forward to spending the gala with Leia. It was too dangerous for her to spend much time with Fema Baab or Artab La or most of her fellow Rebel senators, with whom she officially had nothing in common. But Leia was the senator for Alderaan, historically Naboo’s closest ally, and she was young like Pooja, so they could be expected to associate without creating too many questions.
But Leia had stepped out onto one of the balconies with Moff Pirus early in the evening, and ever since she seemed to be almost deliberately avoiding Pooja’s company. That was probably an overstatement on Pooja’s part, but it sat uneasily with her nonetheless. Even the addition of deep red varyn blossoms in this year’s bouquet – a sign of regret, and one of the more puzzling flower messages Pooja had seen – wasn’t enough to distract her from her worry.
Leia escaped the gala early, just after Palpatine’s departure, without ever speaking to Pooja. The evening wound down, but the air of unknown danger that had haunted her all night never dissipated. Pooja slept briefly and fitfully, and woke to the news that Moff Pirus had been found a traitor to the Empire. His ultimate fate was not disclosed.
The flowers she’d taken from the gala this year sat on her bedside table, their delicate scent filling her bedroom. Pooja sat and stared at them.
Moff Pirus had been the furthest thing from a Rebel agent.
It took her another three days to arrange a meeting with Leia. Pooja, in desperation, had organized another soirée, this time for “young, up-and-coming Imperial leaders,” which was probably the most absurdly meaningless bit of political nonsense she’d uttered since, oh, yesterday. She was doubtless due to spend the next four hours at least sharing Senate gossip, but it was worth it if it offered Leia, her co-host, an excuse to arrive an hour early for set up.
Leia and her aide, Fiura, had barely stepped through the door when Pooja activated the scrambler. Tila, Nimé, and Fiura exchanged a quick glance and slipped away as one in the direction of Pooja’s receiving room. Someone had to actually prepare for the party, after all.
Pooja grabbed Leia’s hand and all but dragged her into the small converted closet she used for secure communications. The scrambler never left her hand.
“What happened the other night?” she demanded as soon as the door closed.
Leia responded with the same brusqueness. It was something Pooja had always appreciated about her. “You were almost compromised,” she said. Pooja sucked in a sharp breath. “Moff Pirus was planning to report you. He wanted to catch me in his net, too.”
“What are we – ”
“It’s taken care of,” Leia said quickly. She paused, and Pooja could see her working out exactly how much she should say. “We have someone…one of our agents. On the inside. You’re not compromised. I’m certain of that.”
“But how did Pirus know in the first place? If there’s a leak – ”
“We don’t think there is,” said Leia. To Pooja’s surprise, she laughed. “It’s actually much more ridiculous. We think that he may not have had much real evidence at all. He had a gut feeling and possibly a plan to frame you.”
Pooja smiled tightly. “So our agent framed him instead.”
Leia’s expression slipped. “Yes,” she said.
Pooja wondered how involved her friend had been. Not directly, she didn’t think, but Leia plainly knew more than she was willing or able to share. That wasn’t surprising. She was Bail Organa’s daughter, and his main representative here on Coruscant. It made sense that she would have connections across their network.
“Well,” said Pooja, trying for casual although her heart was still thudding painfully. “I can’t say I’m too upset about it. He always hated me, though I could never figure out why.”
“My theory is that he just hated the Senate,” Leia said. “Many of the Moffs think that it’s outdated, that it just gets in the way of their ability to govern.” Her lip curled in a sneer.
Pooja snorted. “At least we’re accomplishing something, then.”
But her mind was still turning over what Leia had said before. She thought of the flowers in her bedroom, with their vibrant blooms of regret and deception. They were messages that only made sense if sent by someone who was fairly close to Palpatine.
“So,” she mused aloud. “Your agent on the inside. Are they the one sending the flowers?”
Leia blinked. “The flowers?”
Pooja told her.
She described each of the five bouquets she had seen and their meanings, and all the while she watched Leia’s face. Her friend had a decent sabacc face, but only when she really concentrated, and right now she wasn’t making much effort to hide her reactions. Pooja saw amusement, surprise, and even a hint of unabashed glee. Leia obviously knew who was sending the flowers, and she was just as obviously not going to tell Pooja.
Pooja pressed her luck anyway. “I’m right, aren’t I?”
“Maybe,” said Leia. They both knew she meant yes.
“Well,” Pooja said with a grin. “When all of this is over, I hope you’ll tell me who it is. I want to thank them.”
Leia’s expression turned surprisingly serious. “I hope you can,” she said softly. “I hope someday we can tell all these stories openly.”
Pooja reached out and squeezed her shoulder. “That’s what we’re fighting for, isn’t it? For everything that’s hidden to be made known.”
“Is there a flower for that?” Leia asked. She was smiling again, but Pooja didn’t think she was joking.
“You’d need a couple, I think,” Pooja said slowly. “Let’s see… Pirené blossoms mean truth. And a branch of river sasté would mean an obligation. And of course the lyané rose is the flower of democracy.”
“There’s a flower representing democracy?”
“There are quite a few. Technically, the lyané indicates democracy victorious over the forces of tyranny.” Leia looked more than a little bemused, and Pooja smiled ruefully. “I know you’d never guess it from our most famous son, but Naboo actually has a long history of resistance to authoritarianism. I grew up with stories about Queen Polana, who led a rebellion against the evil King Aprana, who wanted to do away with elections and establish himself as ruler for life. I even dressed as Queen Polana one year for the festival of remembrance. But of course children don’t learn those stories in school anymore.”
“One day they will,” said Leia. There was a ferocity in her eyes that left Pooja almost breathless. “One day we’ll tell all the stories again. And we’ll have flowers.”
Pooja started to reply, but there was a knock on the closet door, and her words dissolved in a sigh. “But for now, we have Senate gossip,” she muttered, releasing the secure seal and letting the door slide open.
Leia followed her into the receiving room, where Tila, Nimé, and Fiura had set up a lovely spread of drinks and finger foods. The flowers Pooja had taken from the Empire Day soirée were prominently displayed, still fresh and bright three days later. Leia’s eyes went to them immediately, and Pooja watched as a secret, fond smile lit her face.
Leia was not present for Pooja’s seventh and final Empire Day on Coruscant. She’d left nearly a week previously on a diplomatic mission to her home planet, and Pooja had been battling a nebulous feeling of dread ever since. Whatever mission Leia was really involved in, Pooja knew it was nothing the Empire would consider remotely “diplomatic.”
The annual Empire Day gala, too, seemed fraught with some unknown sense of danger. Pooja’s role was the same as it had been every year previously, but she found it difficult to concentrate on issues of catering and décor, even as there seemed to be far more little issues that required her attention. There were missing tablecloths, an inaccurate order of cakes, and too few servers to be found. Pooja, Tila, and Nimé were bustling about right up to the arrival of the first guests. The flowers arrived early in the evening, but she spared them only a brief glance. The fun would have to wait.
The feeling of vague unease only increased as the Emperor delivered his remarks and the gala began. Pooja’s fellow senators all seemed overly cheerful, while the Moffs mainly stuck to themselves and the Emperor sat unmoving on his throne. He looked somehow smaller without his omnipresent shadow. Darth Vader, too, was absent from Coruscant on some mission that no one would name.
A thrill of fear shot up Pooja’s spine. She hoped Leia was safe.
It was Nimé who first noticed the flowers. Pooja heard a sudden, sharp intake of breath at her side and felt her handmaiden’s hand on her shoulder. Her voice was low and breathless. “Milady, look at the flowers.”
Pooja looked. Her own breath caught.
Whoever was sending the flowers had taken pains to be sure this year’s bouquets would look little different than previous years. The colors were the same: dark purples and reds, with occasional highlights of yellows and oranges. The shape and size of the bouquets were the same. The urns were the same. To the untrained eye, nothing about these flowers would seem unusual.
But this was not a message to the Emperor. It was a message meant for her. There was one difference, small but startling: in the very center of the arrangements, a single, understated white bloom. A pooja flower.
The rest of the bouquet hardly required interpretation. It was an arrangement that would once have been instantly recognizable to any child on Naboo. Queen Polana’s bouquet, straight out of the stories: the flowers she had presented at King Aprana’s celebration of the constitutional amendment that allowed him to consolidate his power. Polana had been Princess of Theed then, not yet suspected by Aprana of anything but naiveté, and as the stories went, she had saved most of the resistance with her cleverly disguised message.
That same message was presented now at the very foot of the Emperor’s dais. There were the small, dark red blooms of eirna. You are betrayed. There were purple vayoo lilies, surrounded by blood-colored sprays of casta. Democracy dies in darkness. There were the faint, nearly hidden sprigs of yellow aenoo peeking around the flower that was her namesake. Safety lies in secrecy. Pooja counted four sprigs: they had no more than four days to prepare.
It was over.
Blood pounded in her ears. She thought, ridiculously, of her grandmother’s note. “We have to get out,” Pooja whispered.
She would never know how exactly she made it through the rest of the gala, or the cleanup that followed. She remembered almost none of it after she’d sent Nimé, feigning illness, to send out an urgent message to all the agents she had contact with in the Senate. Somehow Pooja endured another three hours surrounded by the extravagances of Palpatine’s ode to himself. And, just as she had every year before, she took the flowers with her when she finally went home.
Then it was another long period of waiting, just to be sure she wouldn’t be tailed, and then the careful, circuitous route she took to the meeting place: a hidden room beneath Dex’s Diner in Cocotown. Once, long ago in a very different galaxy, her aunt Padmé had met her secret husband there. Pooja liked to imagine that some part of her aunt could still be felt there, and she prayed now that Aunt Padmé would protect them all.
The place was closed up at this hour, but Pooja had the code. Dex himself ushered her quickly inside, his face for once devoid of his usual smile. Nothing could make him forget his hospitality, though: a moment later, Pooja was gratefully sipping a warm ardees as she slipped into the secret room.
She was the last of her dozen Rebel Senate colleagues to arrive, and she wasted no time with pleasantries. “The Emperor is planning to dissolve the Senate,” she said, meeting each horrified pair of eyes. “There’s going to be a purge. We have to get out.”
There was an instant bombardment of noise, too many questions for Pooja to focus on any one of them. She swallowed a steadying breath and waited.
It was Fema Baab who called for quiet. The noise died slowly and the room moved subtly to reorient itself around her. Pooja felt a sharp and unexpected surge of relief.
Fema was the longest serving Rebel agent in the Senate, and, though she’d certainly never confirmed it, Pooja knew that she was widely considered by her fellow agents to be Mon Mothma’s chief deputy. She would know what to do.
“How long?” asked Fema. Her voice was perfectly steady.
“Not more than four days,” said Pooja. “He’s going to move quickly, and without notice.”
“How do you know?” asked Maryo Trassa of Chandrila.
Pooja grimaced. Any explanation she might offer would provide more questions than answers, and she couldn’t risk this being dismissed. In the absence of other options, she was left with what Leia had once jokingly called the old standby of a spy. “I can’t say. But I’m absolutely certain of this intelligence, and of the threat we face. We’ve done what we can here, but it’s over. We have to get out.”
“But – ”
“Pooja is right,” Fema cut in. “If the Emperor has decided to do away with the last illusions of democracy, there’s nothing more to be gained here. We cannot hope to effect change from within. I think we’ve all known that for years now.” She smiled tightly. “This isn’t a reform movement anymore. Maybe we’ve only been deluding ourselves in thinking that it was. This is a revolution.”
Pooja felt the world still around her. The collective intake of breath was loud in the sudden silence that followed Fema’s words. It felt both momentous and inevitable. Some part of Pooja had always known it would come to this.
“We should make our plans now,” Fema continued. “But we won’t leave yet. Not until the opportune moment. If he notices people disappearing, the fallout will be worse.”
“But how will we know?” Pooja whispered. The flower message had been meant for her, but she didn’t know who had sent it, and Leia was away already. Whoever had sent the flowers was unlikely to send Pooja a bouquet just before the Emperor’s announcement.
“I’ll announce a press conference,” said Fema. “When you hear the announcement, go. Don’t wait, don’t communicate with one another. You all know your assigned rendezvous points. Go, and if the Force is with us, we will see each other again.”
No one asked how Fema herself would know when the time came. She was Mon Mothma’s deputy. She would know.
They left Dex’s one at a time and by separate ways. Pooja was the last to go. She wondered how many of her friends she would see again.
By the time she returned to her apartments, it was early morning, but just late enough that a holocall to her family on Naboo would raise few suspicions, given the time difference.
“Pooja!” her mother exclaimed, her eyes twinkling even as she scolded. “I haven’t heard from you in weeks. I was beginning to wonder if you’d forgotten you had a mother.”
Pooja just managed to summon a longsuffering sigh for effect. “Mom, please. I’ve been busy. You know that.”
“That’s what you always say, little voorpak,” Sola laughed. “What was it this time?”
“Just the usual procedure,” Pooja said. “I never realized that service to our great Empire would be so taxing. But it’s worth it, of course.”
To Sola’s credit, her smile held and no sign of surprise or dismay showed on her face. It was a code they’d agreed upon a long time ago, and they’d practiced it every time Pooja returned home, just as they’d discussed their exit strategy if the worst should happen. Palpatine had taken Aunt Padmé from them, but he would not have any other Naberrie.
They kept up the conversation for another half an hour, simply for the appearance of it. When it ended, Pooja submitted herself to her handmaidens’ ministrations for the next hour and a half. Then she made her way to the Senate rotunda, exactly as she did every other day the Senate was in session.
Three days later, Fema Baab called a press conference. The topic, supposedly, was her intention to present a bill proposing changes to Imperial education requirements. Pooja didn’t bother to read the full press release.
She hadn’t packed much. She’d be traveling light and in secret, and she wasn’t likely to need many of her elaborate Senate gowns any time soon. She took only what was necessary: her secure communications equipment, an array of simple, practical clothes, her holos of her family, and the small painting of the Theed palace gardens that had once belonged to her aunt. Tila and Nimé had even less to carry.
Dex had arranged their passage on a nondescript freighter piloted by a grizzled Twi’lek woman who’d spoken of evading possible Imperial pursuit the way most people spoke of a casual trip to the pub. Her ship was docked near the diner and ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
Pooja swept one last glance around the Naboo senatorial apartments she might never see again. There was nothing left to prepare, no further precautions she could take. It was over.
“Goodbye, Aunt Padmé,” she whispered, and turned her back on the last vestiges of the old Republic.
On the desk where she’d once poured over increasingly meaningless legislation, she left a final message for Palpatine, a message he would never understand: a single lyané rose.
The announcement was broadcast across every holo network in the Empire two days later: The Imperial Senate was officially dissolved. The Empire would now be guided directly by its wise head, Emperor Palpatine, and directed by the Moffs as agents of his will. The elimination of the last cancerous remains of the corrupt Republic would ensure the increased strength and security of the Empire.
Pooja watched the proclamation from a bunker on Melirrun V. She hadn’t heard from her family since that call six days ago, and there was no news of Leia. She could only hope her fellow senators’ escapes had gone as smoothly as her own. But Tila and Nimé were here with her, and if she wanted answers, she’d managed to land in the same base as the person most likely to have them.
Pooja watched the proclamation, and Mon Mothma watched her. Pooja could feel her curiosity, but she didn’t look away from the farce unfolding on the holoscreen, where a strikingly small pack of now former senators were furiously applauding Palpatine’s decision. She wondered how many had departed the capital already, and how many had been killed.
“How did you know?” asked Mon at last.
Pooja smiled to herself. So, even the famously patient head of Alliance intelligence had her limits. That show of humanity was strangely comforting.
“You’re going to think it’s ridiculous,” she said, turning at last to meet Mon’s eyes.
Mon smiled wryly. “You were right about Palpatine’s move, and about the timing. Obviously, your source was reliable. I need to know what you know, and how you know it.”
Pooja exchanged a glance with Nimé and Tila. There was no arguing with that.
“It was the flowers,” she said.
“Go on,” Mon said levelly.
Pooja told her, just as she’d told Leia. But Mon was an intelligence operative to the core, and her reactions were far harder to read. Pooja guessed that Mon had an idea of who must have sent the flowers, but she couldn’t gather anything else from the other woman’s reactions. When Pooja had finished her story, Mon said, “Thank you,” and nothing else.
“You don’t think it’s ridiculous?” Pooja pressed.
Mon offered a tight, secret smile. “No. On the contrary, it’s very interesting. And illustrative, I think.”
Pooja scowled. “You’re actually enjoying this, aren’t you? Being all mysterious. I thought it was just Leia.”
The head of Alliance intelligence laughed in delight. “We must savor the little things where we can,” she said with a smirk. But a moment later she was the same earnest, uncompromising Rebel leader Pooja was used to. “You understand, of course, that all of this is classified at the highest level. The protection of sources and methods is paramount. Who else have you already spoken to about this?”
“I informed our other agents in the senate that there was an urgent need to meet, but I didn’t offer anything else,” Nimé said.
“And I told them we had to get out,” Pooja said. “But I didn’t tell them how I knew, or anything about the message I’d received. Mostly because I was afraid it would jeopardize my chances of being believed.” She hesitated a moment, then added. “I did tell Leia about the earlier flower messages, though. I hope that was all right. From her reactions, it seemed pretty clear she already knew who was sending them.”
Mon nodded, apparently satisfied, as though Pooja had just confirmed something for her. That was interesting.
“You’ve done quite well,” Mon said, smiling warmly. “The Alliance owes you a debt of gratitude.”
Pooja didn’t smile. Leia was still missing, and it might be months before she learned if everyone else had escaped Coruscant safely. They’d outwitted Palpatine this time, but it hardly felt like a victory.
It was another three days before Pooja’s family arrived on Melirrun V. They came in a small, ancient Corellian freighter that couldn’t have been meant to hold more than five people. In other circumstances, Pooja might have laughed at the picture that thought painted.
Her parents were the first to emerge from the hold, running towards Pooja before the ramp had even touched the ground. Ryoo quickly followed, her spouse Tio carrying their twin daughters just behind her. And finally there were her grandparents.
When all the hugs and tears were over, Pooja looked around at the members of her family: her mother, exhausted but fiercely joyful; her father, his shoulders stooped but his face lit with relief; Ryoo soothing Taré as Tio rocked Tinoo; and her grandparents, their eyes haunted, looking shockingly old. And Aunt Padmé, the ever present ghost they would never name.
Pooja swallowed thickly and took her grandmother’s hands. “I’m so sorry, Grandma,” she murmured. “I know you never wanted to leave Naboo. I know you didn’t want this. I’m – ”
“Hush, dear,” Jobal said, her voice rasping but strong. “You’re alive. You’re alive. That’s what matters. You came back to us.”
“I came back,” Pooja whispered, and hugged her grandmother close.