The spacious conservatory was aglow in the soft, orange light of the sunset. Beyond the windows, the city lit up like a sea of stars as the daylight faded. Darth Vader plodded down a stone path alongside his master, silent and inky black like the long shadows cast by the exotic trees. Two crimson-clad guards followed a few paces behind, soundless and imposing.
The Emperor was fond of taking his evening stroll through the greenhouse, but Vader was rarely invited. The gardens were filled with a bounty of vibrant herbs, flowers, vines, fruit trees, and statues from across the galaxy, pristinely maintained by the palace servants, but only visited by the Emperor and his closest confidants. It surprised Vader to see his master run his pallid fingers down a vine adorned with bioluminescent florets or pause to gaze into a bubbling marble fountain. The Emperor even gently plucked a fruit from a low branch of one of the enormous trees, biting into it and closing his yellow eyes as he savored the flavor.
Vader felt slightly disturbed by his master’s conduct. Was he going senile or was it all an act? Vader discreetly turned his head and studied the Emperor, taking in the frail man’s slow gait. He seemed to be leaning on his cane much more than usual. Once or twice, he even swayed on his feet and had to grip onto Vader for support.
The Emperor paused in the middle of the path and let out a shuddering breath, clutching his cane with both hands. One of the guards stepped forward, but he held up a hand and shook his head.
Before Vader could stop himself, he imagined how easy it would be to crush the life out of his master’s small, bony body. He could snap his neck with about the same amount of effort as snapping a twig. Would the old man even have the strength to fight back if Vader grabbed him right now and impaled him with his lightsaber? He glanced at the guards. They would be easy to cut down. The Emperor’s corpse would be lying on the ground by the time they realized what happened.
Vader’s breathing quickened and his hand subconsciously drifted closer to his weapon as he entertained his violent fantasy. He hadn’t felt such strong stirrings since their ordeal on Ryloth many years ago. When he turned back toward the Emperor, the other man gazed steadily at him, aureate eyes unreadable and unblinking. His pale lips curled into a smile.
There was a brief moment of tension, but the Emperor eventually turned away and unsteadily walked over to a tree heavy with plump, cerulean fruit. His long, thin fingers trembled slightly as he pulled one from the branch and held it to his breast. Vader slowly approached him, his thoughts stormier than ever. Had his master sensed his traitorous musings? If so, he must be prepared for escalation.
However, the Emperor didn’t challenge him. Instead, he lowered himself onto an ornate silver bench and sighed, beckoning for Vader to join him. Vader awkwardly obeyed his command as the guards looked on.
The Emperor turned the fruit over in his hands, scrutinizing it intensely. After a long pause, he finally spoke. “My mother grew these on Naboo. They have extraordinary analgesic properties,” he said quietly, almost reverently.
Vader was taken aback at his sentimentality. He’d never heard the Emperor speak about his past life in such a direct manner. The old fool had truly gone mad. Even with all of his power, he still couldn’t save himself from aching joints, weakening bones, and dementia. It was almost amusing how old age had caught up to the powerful Sith Lord, but Vader knew there was a deeper meaning to this: his master was weak and it was his job to usurp him. However, his deteriorating health was almost…pitiful. Vader shook himself from his thoughts just as the Emperor looked up and met his gaze, his face much paler than usual.
He continued his reminiscing.
“After a particularly nasty beating from my father, my mother took me outside and held me in her arms under a tree just like this. Then she picked a fruit and said, ‘Sheev, take a bite. The pain will go away.’ And we ate in the shade until my tears were gone. My broken bones even ached less. She carried me into the meadows, strolling through the wildflowers until my father called us in.”
Yes. The Emperor had definitely lost his mind. Even worse, his words had awakened long forgotten memories within Vader. Memories of his mother patching him up after a podracing crash. Her pained expression as he departed with the Jedi. Padmé. Rex. Ahsoka. One thought lead to another and before he knew it, he felt a sudden flood of sadness as their faces crossed his mind. And to his alarm, not only sadness for his own lost past and dreams, but also for his aged master who sat hunched on the bench. He must truly be in physical and mental pain, Vader realized. Perhaps this would be a mercy killing. Besides, how would the Empire thrive if its sovereign was so enfeebled? The Emperor was still staring down at the fruit in his gnarled hands. One strike of Vader’s lightsaber was all it would take. His master’s addled mind wouldn’t see it coming.
But, Vader couldn’t do it. To his own disgust, he saw that he actually pitied the old man.
The Emperor abruptly stood up and studied him with an eerie, blank stare.
“What are you thinking of, my friend? I sense your troubled thoughts.” His voice was soft, but laced with danger.
Vader knew better than to lie. “I was thinking about killing you, my master.”
Vader hesitated, but quickly slid off of the bench to drop to one knee. “Forgive me. I was overcome with memories of Anakin Skywalker.”
“You disappoint me, Lord Vader,” the Emperor hissed, pointing a finger at him. “I feign a malady and weave a fanciful tale and you lose your inhibitions. Your foolish compassion will be your downfall. Now, rise.”
Vader stood and looked down at his master, preparing for some type of punishment or trial. He’d failed a test. However, the Emperor simply threw the fruit into a nearby pool.
“Control your thoughts or face the consequences.”
“Yes, my master.”
Before the Emperor turned and walked away, Vader couldn’t help but notice a rare tinge of emotion cross his disfigured visage. It was gone nearly as quickly as it had come, but there was no mistaking it: sorrow. As his master slowly walked down the cobblestones, Vader wondered what could’ve made him lose control of his composed countenance. And why he leaned so heavily on his cane.