His work in the Senate was tedious, if only for its banality; his work was incomparably easy, ideas formed and planted and coaxed into fruition, one after the other, seeds buried in the soil to be nurtured. He had always been gifted, blessed, with opportunity. If he closed his eyes he could see a spinning web of black oil unspool at his fingertips, silk strands waiting in the Dark to be plucked, and the more he played his song the more lost in the cacophony the Jedi would be. So he played a symphony; noise, after noise, after noise, after lecherous noise, bounding around in the Dark, getting louder by the day, and the Force did Sidious’ bidding and Sidious’ bidding alone. Darth Plagueis had called him insidious—and Sheev Palpatine, soaked in his father’s blood, standing before the precipice of a greater calling, standing before a beautiful Fall into the beautiful Dark, had cleaved his soul to the name.
The esteemed senators of the Republic had always joked, over lavish dinners at plush estates, that the Senate floor was a game. A game, Sidious remembered murmuring reverently at his first dinner with the former Senator of Ryloth—he was younger, then, freshly elected Senator of Naboo. Freshly Mastered, with the Dark licking at his heels, and eager to do as he did best. Insidious.
It’s always a game, she had said. Everyone here is playing to win. Money, recognition, adulation, a second term. It’s exhausting. I’m sorry to welcome you to it, Senator Palpatine.
What he had longed to tell her was that for years, as he trained beneath Darth Plagueis’ level gaze, a lot of what he had done was in essence, a game. That games were a longstanding Sith tradition; for the first three years of his apprenticeship, his master had woken him early, and the first part of the day was dedicated to small games of tactics he had once thought pointless. Only once he had thought them pointless. Now they were his victory. You lose because you don’t see the point, Plagueis had told him. This is not merely chess, my apprentice, it is a lesson, and it is a life. And when Sidious could outmaneuver him in chess, Plagueis then taught him to do it with people, to replace pawns and knights and towers with sentient minds. Orchestrate the fall of the House of Wren on Skynara, and define fall as you please, he’d ordered, and in six months—in a mere six month stay, Sidious found his black oil web. He played his symphony. He found the weaknesses, and he pried them apart, the lever his patience, his skill, his intelligence. Three of the six youngest children had killed themselves, the mother dead by the father’s hand, the line for the throne in shambles and Skynara thrown into political unrest—what wonders, hiring the wrong advisor could do. Plagueis had been impressed, and that was when Plagueis had introduced him to the Sith tenet of the arrak—the only game, the sweetened game. The arrak is the great trap, the honeyed trap; the Sith deal in beautiful absolutes, my apprentice, and before you begin you must know absolutely that you will win, Plagueis had said.
What he had longed to tell the poor, doomed Senator of Ryloth was, there is nothing they can win that is not already mine, and you will call me Emperor as I demand, but he had simply smiled beatifically and remarked on what a miserable state of affairs it all was. Sheev Palpatine was nothing if not a useful construction. She would lose her campaign for a second term to Senator Orn Free Taa, because Orn Free Taa had a mind like overripe fruit and gave beneath the smallest pressure, and it had suited Sidious to anonymously funnel money in Orn Free Taa’s direction. He would need not only the support of wealthy Core Worlds, but the poverty-stricken plight of worlds such as Ryloth; build a broad base of appeal. But that was all part of, as she’d said, the game, the only game, the sweetened game. His perfect arrak. She was dead now, no longer a piece on his board, a beast on his string. He recalled organizing her death. He no longer recalled her name.
His work in the Senate was tedious, because it was so simple; when his war came, and death bloodied the Force as lives howled in pain and winked out in the trillions across the galaxy, then it would be exciting. Then he would thrive in the deception, in the bloodshed, the victories he would win part and parcel; until then, the boy captivated his interests. The boy whet the Dark’s thirst for suffering, and kept Sidious’ silver tongue sharp as a dagger, kept his mind even sharper than that.
“I hope you’ve been well while I’ve been away, Chancellor,” Anakin Skywalker said. He was fifteen, now—Sidious could always mark the boy’s age by what youthful whims he fell prey to, but now he had hit a growth spurt. He was tall, taller than Sidious himself, but gangly, a hound not quite grown into his limbs. He had developed an incredible ability to appear both habitually nervous and habitually obstinate, in equal measure and at the same time, and the once brighter shock of blond hair had turned several shades darker, but nonetheless he resembled the desert he hailed from; blue eyes as the midday sky, hair as the sand, lean and tan and working calloused fingers through his robes awkwardly.
“Oh, of course, my boy,” Sidious said, jovially. “More than well. I had a brief respite just the other day, which I used to attend the Coruscanti arboreal collection. It was a bit of a travel but my, it was excellent. A beautiful place. You would have loved it.”
Skywalker beamed, and the Force thrummed with a happiness that was so painfully earnest Sidious would have accused it of being saccharine, if he had not spent years intimately equating himself with Skywalker’s brand of peculiar emotional honesty. It was almost as if he were allergic to the Jedi’s teachings; he felt brashly, boldly, with the power of his whole self, even more brilliantly than he had when he was a child. It was a thread of Skywalker’s character that Sidious studied carefully—it would prove useful to him, that habitual obstinance, but there would come a day after Skywalker was his that he would have to cripple it. Anything was a weapon if pointed in the correct direction. There would be ways to cripple it, to cripple him in totality—they would present themselves, as Sidious plunged further into the boy’s favor.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Anakin said. “You—you work hard, for the Republic. I can’t think of anyone who deserves more of a break from it all than you.”
Sidious paused, offering that the due considering Sheev Palpatine would give it—a breadth longer, and then he offered a gentle smile. “You are, altogether, far too kind,” he said. “Truly a credit to your Order, dear one. Tell me, how was your mission?”
Skywalker’s face crumbled, predictably. It had become a pattern; Skywalker would hit a marginal equilibrium at the Temple, never quite happy, and then he would adventure off alone with Kenobi, and return with some confidence shattered, some internal frustration burgeoned. I do think that man is intent to do my divine work for me, Sidious thought to himself, and the Dark, visible only to him—at his command, it would always rest, in its favor he would always be—curled in a sick delight.
“It, er,” Skywalker said. He wrung his hands. “I supposed it went. It was just a diplomatic mission, I guess I shouldn’t bore you with the details.”
“Skies above, dear boy,” Sidious crooned. “Every diplomatic mission you’ve told me of has been far more exciting than my everyday diplomacy. I spend my diplomatic missions begging my senators to attempt to do anything together for three minutes, and the last one you told me of, you managed to find an illegal swoop bike racing circuit.”
The boy grinned. “That was a lot more fun, if I’m honest, your Excellency,” he said.
“I do so hope. I know how you enjoy your adrenaline, Anakin. I only worry for your safety—you’re an excellent pilot, no doubt, but I don’t trust others to treat you as fairly as you deserve.”
And then Skywalker ducked his head, shoulders held taut and tense, fingers knotting in his dark over robes. “Thank you for—I don’t know why you do it. You’re a busy man. But you somehow always make time for me, and then you—and then you say things like that, about… caring. It’s always been important to me, Chancellor. Thank you.”
There, again, the earnest truth; the unbridled glee that flooded Sidious then would have reverberated in the Force for lightyears, had the Dark not shielded him, protected him. He’d known, for nearly as long as he’d been speaking to the boy, that there were a number of flaws to lay pressure on, a number of flaws to exploit. Skywalker was an exposed nerve of a boy, nothing but frenzied hurt and aching failure, with no direction for any of that pain; it sat there behind his heart, rotting like a corpse. Sidious could feel every second of that rot through the Force itself, could feel it as plainly as he could see the boy’s eyes were blue, an immutable and incurable piece of him, scarred and gouged by experience. There were a number of flaws, all of which Sidious laid pressure on alternately, all of which Sidious toyed with to see which way the boy would flinch—but there was one, one above all else, that ran through him like a gorge from heart to head, lightyears wide and lightyears deep, so long and powerful it held its own gravitational pull.
Habitually obstinate was true enough, and from what Sidious had gathered, habitual obstinance was the very thing that the Jedi distrusted most about their wayward charge. That was the fool’s errand—there were more pressing dangers in Skywalker, more painful ones, barbs slicked with blood. To show Skywalker mercy was to show him something he’d rarely seen, to show him some far away power he thought incredible; Sidious engaged with the boy only a few times a week when he was on Coruscant, and after a few scant years, he had secured a level of trust Kenobi had failed to manage. It was the honeyed trap within his honeyed trap—the Jedi would never trust the habitually obstinate, and then the boy would crawl to Sidious, howling in the Force like a hurt animal and Sidious would show him mercy. Skywalker would follow it to the end. Behind Skywalker’s trust was a wellspring of unquestioning, unwavering loyalty, a loyalty Sidious had all but taken for his own—the gorge that ran from his head to his heart, the chain-bred belief that to love is to give mind, body, and soul, that love is purchase. A heinous crack in a soul to have; a beautiful breaking point to use.
“Oh, my, Anakin,” Sidious said. “Of course I care for you. You make it easy. You are—earnest. Honest. Genuine, in a way so few are, even among the Jedi. I trust you immensely, my boy, I always have, but—you delight me. Our time together delights me.”
There was a swell of affection, of giddy, pure happiness in the Force, so strong and eager that Sidious could have vomited. Skywalker was smiling, and flushed, and babbling incessantly—he had a habit of babbling, which was from his most irritating habit, but one that Sidious would have to crush under his heel. Soon enough, this babbling, idiotic boy, blessed with glorious power—he would be nothing. Sidious would remake him in the image of a fine Sith.
“Now, tell me,” Sidious said. “What’s bothering you, dear boy?”
Skywalker paused. “It’s—Jedi business.”
“I don’t mean to press. I just—as I said, I care for you. I want to see you treated well.”
Skywalker cut his eyes to the side. Mindless hurt rippled in the Force so loudly Sidious almost thought he was physically wounded somewhere. “I don’t think Obi-Wan trusts me.”
The smile Palpatine offered was sympathetic, but the smile Sidious gave to himself was sadistic. Before you begin you must know absolutely that you will win, Plagueis whispered to him.
“Tell me about it,” Sheev Palpatine said, quietly, kindly, and Darth Sidious began.