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Taking the Veil

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From Wikipedia:

Proscription (Latin: proscriptio) is, in current usage, a decree of condemnation to death or banishment.  The term originated in Ancient Rome, where it included public identification and official condemnation of lists of declared enemies of the state, who were often the losers in political power struggles.

 


 

 

At the end of the Great Hyperspace War, the Sith Empire was soundly defeated and in full retreat.  A heretofore unremarkable sorcerer named Carl Tenebrae, Lord Vitiate, convened a meeting of the surviving Sith Lords at his obscure planet.  Eight thousand Lords attended to sort out what to do next.  

The sorcerer and the other Lords took part in a Dark ritual that consumed the participants’ Force, as well as the Force belonging to all living things on the planet.  The combined life Force was transferred to the conniving sorcerer Vitiate, making him immortal.  With the Sith leadership either dead in the war or dead in his ritual ruse, the crafty Vitiate declared himself Emperor of the Sith unopposed. 

Vitiate next led his people on a twenty-year exodus into the Unknown Regions.  There, hidden from the enemy Republic deep in wild space, for over a thousand years Vitiate rebuilt Sith society and remade his armies as he forged a new Empire.   All ostensibly for the single goal of re-emerging one day to strike back at the Republic.  Revenge, as always, is the Dark Side’s stated goal.

Purging the ranks of the Sith Lords from time to time became a pastime of the reclusive, anonymous Emperor.   Every few decades, Vitiate deemed his Lords too weak.  And so, he would draw up a list of unfortunate Dark souls to make an example out of.  The men would be sacrificed for his glory in a repeat of the ritual Vitiate used to seize power.   For in the culture of the Sith, only the strong survive.  The weak serve as victims and servants of their rightful masters.   

My story begins with a day in the life of an unremarkable aristocratic Sith woman.  Her concerns are not putting food on the table and making ends meet.  Her troubles are how to succeed in the game of power and influence when you’ve been dealt a lackluster hand.   She’s a creature of convention clinging to what she has.  It’s not so much for herself as it is for her family, because among the fiercely patriarchal Sith, a woman’s fortunes largely rise and fall with her clan.  But our heroine, a woman used to life in the background and on the sidelines, is about to take her family’s destiny into her own hands.  She makes a bold move with consequences that will lead her to question many things that she blindly accepts about her culture. 

 


 

 

PROLOGUE

 

3703 BBY, on the Sith Empire capital world Dromund Kaas

 

“My Lady?   Can I get you another size?”

 

“No, thank you.”

 

“My Lady, are you quite certain?”

 

“Yes, thank you.” 

 

Tosca tries to keep the irritation from her voice.   She might not have much prestige among her own set, but among the common people of the Empire she does.  And so, there is an awful lot of ‘My Lady’ talk whenever she ventures into down market retailers like this one.  For not many ladies of her class would deign to patronize such an establishment. Then again, few ladies of her class have her regrettable figure that necessitates this special size range. 

 

Staring at her reflection in the mirror, she sighs.  The truth is that she looks like she belongs here.  She has the thick, fleshy, dimpled figure of their usual customer.  There’s not an item in this cheap store that cannot be made to fit her.  Tosca wouldn't be here, naturally, if she had better options.   Usually, she commissions clothes bespoke for occasions.  But that costs a lot and takes time.   Today, she is just looking to pick up something alluring since Marcus is coming home unexpectedly.

 

She cocks her head and frowns at her reflection in the mirror.  This nightie and robe set are the usual thing.  Among the Sith, lingerie comes in either black or red.  This set is black lace.  It looks a bit inexpensive because, well, it is.  There is little style to it and it’s basically a different version of something she already owns.   But she can make it work.  If all goes well tonight, she won’t be wearing it for long anyway. 

 

“My Lady, would you prefer to see something else?”   It’s the sales girl again.  She’s hovering.  The novelty of a Lady dropping in to shop has clearly impressed her.  This store in particular is one most of her peers would not be caught dead in.

 

Sith ladies—whether pureblood or not—are a uniformly lean bunch.  With elegant, toned bodies honed by punishing workouts and strict diets.   The vain Sith are extreme by nature, so they routinely take things too far.  Sith Lords might covet pain for self-improvement, but Sith Ladies tend to covet hunger.   All except Tosca, who gave up on deprivation as a lifestyle years ago.  She eats and exercises in moderation.  But that strategy, together with an unfortunate slow metabolism, are what have landed her in this store. 

 

In her younger days, Tosca strived mightily to fit in, dieting constantly and even dying her hair.  But at this point in life, she is content to be herself.   Part of maturity is appreciating and accepting who you are, for better or for worse.   Her mother might complain that she has let herself go, but Tosca prefers to view it as validating herself.   And, oh, look at the time.  She needs to get going or she will be late for the conference. 

 

She’s changing back into her dress when her comlink rings.

 

“Tosca, it’s Daria. I’ll be quick.  Are you coming tonight?”

 

“Oh, I’m so glad you called.  Marcus is coming home tonight.  I will have to miss.”

 

There is a long pause from her friend. “That’s unexpected, isn’t it?”

 

“Yes.   The boys are excited.  It’s been six months since his last furlough.  Anyhow, I’m running around today preparing for that.”

 

“Hmmm.  You don’t think it has anything to do with the List?”

 

Tosca gulps.   “Oh, don’t say that—“  That reason hadn’t even occurred to her.  Just the very thought of it sends a shiver down her spine.

 

“Oh, no!” Her friend hastens to correct herself.  “I don’t mean that he’s on the List.  Just that the Empire will shuffle things around after the List is announced.   My Lord says it could be as many as four hundred this time.  That’s going to open up a lot of positions.  It will mean opportunities.”

 

Yes, she knows.  Others’ loss could be your gain.  It’s very Sith to advance this way.  But advancement is advancement, Tosca knows.   And anything helps in the uber competitive culture of Darkness. 

 

Tosca’s eyes narrow as she asks, “Does Septimus know anything?”

 

“I’m sure he does, but he’s not telling me.  Tosca, I didn’t mean to worry you.  A lot of Lords are being recalled.  Septimus told me last night that he’s sending his whole command back next week.  And Livia just found out this morning that Vero is on his way home.  She’s cancelled for tonight too.  Look, Marcus is doing an excellent job on—what world is that again?”

 

“Ziost.”

 

“Right.  I knew it was one of the far-off ones near the Republic.  Anyhow, not to worry.  Everything is fine.”

 

“Well, I said I would bring dessert, so I’ll send my cook around with something later today.   Daria, I’m sorry about the late notice. I’ll make it up to you,” Tosca apologizes. 

 

“No need.  You welcome your Lord home properly, you hear?  And good luck at the conference.  That’s today, right?”

 

“Right.”

 

Tosca hangs up, buys the negligee set, hops in her speeder, and heads for school. 

 

Lord Wrath, the headmaster, greets her with the school’s academic counselor at his side.   Lucius is there too looking as nervous as Tosca feels.

 

“Lady Struct,” the headmaster addresses her formally even though they know one another socially.  It sets a formal tone that signals bad news.  “Let us speak frankly,” the headmaster begins.   And that too is not an encouraging sign. 

 

What follows is a ruthlessly objective assessment of ten-year-old Lucius who is made to sit through it all.   Tosca hears how her son lacks physical strength and coordination.  His build is bulky and slow.  Clumsy Lucius is easily outfought by boys years his junior, the counselor reveals.   He is behind his age level on all his combat skills, with and without the added challenge of weaponry. 

 

So those extra training sessions with the swordmaster didn’t help, Tosca asks weakly. 

 

No, the man responds. 

 

Next, she hears how Lucius is merely adequate at the Force.  Given his low midichlorian count, that’s actually impressive, she is told.  But Lucius will never have enough Force ability to compensate for his physical inadequacy and inherent lack of killer instinct.  The boy is not a warrior, the headmaster condemns him curtly.   It’s a harsh statement.  For all Sith Lords, no matter what their ultimate service to the Empire, are expected first and foremost to be Dark soldiers of the Force.

 

Tosca listens with a sinking feeling.  None of this bodes well for Lucius’ Academy application in two years. 

 

But he’s a very bright boy, she protests weakly.  The school administrators will concede this is true.  It’s his saving grace in their eyes. They are suggesting that Lucius begin focusing on technology classes.  The kid is destined for a laboratory or the engineering corps, the counselor informs her.  You and your husband need to adjust your expectations accordingly. 

 

But the Lords in my husband’s family are always military, Tosca contends.  Going back almost three hundred years, Lucius’ forbearers have helped to build the new Empire following the disastrous Sith defeat.  Sure, it’s been awhile since anyone in the family truly distinguished themselves, but Lords like her husband Marcus are integral to the Empire.   Someone has to administer, defend, and oversee the worlds the Sith conquer.  Military rule is a key part of the Imperial system. 

 

But the school officials are firm:  her boy’s options are limited.  The headmaster assures her that the Academy will only be more selective going forward given the Palace has confirmed that the Emperor will be issuing a new Proscription List.  The Emperor will be looking to heighten our standards for the next generation, not lower them.   With a glance at Lucius, the headmaster summarizes him as smart but soft.   It’s a cringe inducing moment that prompts the boy to start to cry.  And that is just more proof for the school officials that their assessment is correct.  It’s best to orient your son towards goals that he can achieve, they tell Tosca as they hand her information about the Imperial Engineering School. 

 

Engineering is a semi-respectable career path, she knows.   But it is a support function and not the traditional leadership role of a Lord.   Worse still, it is a career path open to non-elites.  For you don’t need to have the Force to do these jobs.   Lucius would be surrounded by his social inferiors.  In the hierarchical, competitive culture of the Sith that means a big step down.

 

Tosca puts a supportive arm around her miserable son.  The prevailing sink-or-swim ethos of Sith pedagogy has written him off at age ten.  And that’s a lot to absorb for one so young.  It also uncomfortably reminds Tosca of a frank conversation she had at age twelve with her own mother.  Young Tosca was informed that her marriage prospects would be limited by her low midichlorian count and her modest dowry, and so she needed to pay more attention to her appearance.  You have a very pretty face, her mother informed her, but no one is going to marry a fat girl, so shut your mouth and stop eating.  Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind, her mother had sighed as young Tosca cried.  For Sith parents, those are words to live by.

 

Tosca now thanks the two men for their time and takes her leave.   She will discuss her son’s future with his father, she promises.   Then Tosca bustles her now full-on crying boy out into the speeder as fast as possible before his classmates see him.  There’s no point in sending him back to class in this condition.

 

“Lucius, don’t cry,” she consoles the shamefaced boy.  “We will find a way.  We will make it work.”   She always does.  Life is full of less than ideal circumstances, but you make the best of them and move forward.

 

“Decimus made it into the Academy,” the boy hiccups.   Because, of course, at this age his main concern is keeping up with his big brother. Lucius starts crying anew now.  And that babyish reaction is all wrong.  A Sith boy is supposed to be sullen and angry in disappointment, not tearful.   Boys don’t cry in their social strata.   Boys are supposed to break things and hurt the servants.  But sensitive, sweet natured Lucius never does that.  It’s why he will end up an engineer or a scientist and not a naval or army officer. 

 

They arrive home and Tosca heads straight for the kitchen.  With Marcus’ transport touching down in a few hours, she orders her husband’s favorite dinner.  Tosca plans to spend the few hours left before then with her grooming droid to look her best for his homecoming. But that plan goes awry when the cook tells her that his Lordship is already here. 

 

Tosca has to drag the still teary Lucius into his father’s study to greet him.  There the boy kneels the obligatory obeisance to the Lord of the household before he dashes off to sulk in his room. 

 

Low key Marcus merely raises an eyebrow.  “What’s the matter with him?”

 

Tosca relates her conversation with the school officials.  Her husband listens in silence, frowning.  

 

“What else is news?” Marcus asks for a full report.  Tosca tells him about the promising conversation she had with Lady Harm last week about Lord Harm taking Decimus on as Apprentice in a few years.   About the progress on the over-budget repairs to the kitchen after they had a small fire.  About how the speeder is going out of warranty soon and they should consider whether it’s time to invest in a new one.  She and Marcus talk weekly, sometimes more.   But Tosca, like all Sith Ladies, runs the household singlehandedly while her husband is off on deployment.  The dirty secret of the Sith is that the women quietly make almost every day-to-day decision, even if it is not overtly acknowledged.  The Sith patriarchy might be enforced by men, but it is largely implemented by women like herself.   Tosca knows that she is the dependent who her whole family depends on.

 

“Apprenticeships?   Are we already at that stage?” Marcus sighs.  “How time flies . . .”

 

“I know it’s early,” Tosca explains, “but I was hoping to put out some feelers.  Unless something changes, Decimus will end up in the bottom third of his class.“   She says what they both know:  “It may be a challenge to find him a Master.”

 

Marcus grimaces.  “Where is our firstborn anyway?”

 

“He’s doing sword practice with Lord Vile’s boys after school.”

 

Marcus nods his approval.  “Vile is a connection he should pursue.   That family could offer a lot of Master prospects.”   Her husband looks Tosca herself over now.  “And how are you?”

 

“Same as always,” she smiles. 

 

“Good,” Marcus smiles back with obvious relief.  But the moment is brief.  Her husband looks very tired.   The lines on his face seem deeper and the shadows under his eyes more pronounced.  Her husband is not a tall man, not even as tall as Tosca herself.  He used to have a boyish, impish quality in his youth.  But time and responsibilities have cured him of that.  At forty-seven, Lord Struct is a balding mid-career army officer who is towered over by his taller, broader, much more vibrant wife.

 

Marcus picks back up his cloak to throw it over his shoulders and draw up the hood.  It signals that he is going out. Like other Lords, Lord Struct wears the cloak and sword in public at all times.  “I have a few things to attend to with our lawyer this afternoon and then I am meeting with the financial types,” he informs her.  “I’ll be home for dinner.”

 

“Don’t be late. It’s your favorite—pork chops,” Tosca teases, trying to lighten the mood.   Then, she too drops to one knee in the ceremonial posture of submission to her Lord.  She probably should have done so along with Lucius earlier, but Tosca often forgets.  Marcus never orders her around—that’s not how they relate to one another—so it’s a symbolic gesture at best.  But still . . .  Tosca wants to show that she knows her place and honors her husband for his role in the family.  They each have responsibilities and together they are a team.

 

Marcus walks forward to reach down and cup her cheek.  “There’s nothing you can’t handle, is there?”

 

“Nope,” she grins up at him.  “I always make it work.”

 

“Good.”  Marcus nods gravely in a demeanor very much at odds with hers.  “I’m counting on that.”

 

Hours later, after Lord Struct has picked at his favorite dinner and snapped at both his sons, the day is done.  Tosca is alone with him in their bedroom.  Marcus has divested his weapons, chestplate armor, and cloak.   He’s working on his boots when she emerges from the dressing room in her new lingerie complete with a spritz of perfume. 

 

Marcus doesn’t so much as glance up. 

 

Tosca moves to retrieve his cloak from the floor to hang it up. The saber and pistol she puts on the bedside table.  The armor she lays on a chair.  “Want some help with those?” she offers, watching him fiddle with the laces on his combat boots.  The Force tells her that Marcus is nervous and that makes no sense.  But he’s been distracted all night. 

 

“No, I’ve got it.”   Lord Struct stands now to pull off his trousers.  He tosses them aside and climbs into bed.

 

Taking the cue, Tosca does the same.  But as she reaches for her husband, Marcus anticipates her.  He turns on his side facing away. 

 

Tosca doesn’t react to this rejection.  She has mastered the Sith stiff upper lip for disappointment.  She and Marcus have a deep affection for one another, but their marriage is not the passionate love affair that some are.   Other friends giggle and blush as they whisper tales of reunions with their Lords after long absences.   Those romantic seductions are the antithesis of tonight.  For this evening Lord and Lady Struct are as far apart in the same bed as two people can be.  

 

The distance is more than physical. Tosca reaches out now to lay a hand on his bare back.   Marcus flinches and she takes it for a rebuff.  Usually, he is up for some cuddling even if he’s not up for sex.   But not tonight.  Maybe Marcus is like many Lords stationed in remote areas and he keeps a local woman for sex.  If so, Tosca doesn’t want to know.  Or maybe their fifteen-year marriage has reached the point where sex is an afterthought.  They long ago settled into comfortable routines and mostly separate lives due to his career.  But whatever the reason, there won’t be any action tonight. 

 

Well, okay. Tosca can make that work.   She always makes things work. 

 

“What’s wrong?” she asks softly now.  Maybe tonight they will not be lovers, but they are still confidantes.   Marcus has something on his mind, she’s certain. 

 

Lord Struct doesn’t answer. 

 

Tosca is prepared to prod one more time before she gives up.  “What’s wrong?  Tell me and maybe I can help.”

 

There is another long silence before her husband speaks up.   He’s still facing away on his side as he says the words that forever change both their lives:  “I’m on the Proscription List.”

Chapter Text

Is she doing this?  

 

Is she really doing this??  

 

She is.  It’s three days later and Tosca stands nervous and fretful in her best dress.  It’s the one she wears for weddings and funerals.   It was ridiculously expensive when she commissioned it, but just putting the dress on gives Tosca confidence. Today she needs that chutzpah more than ever.  Her face is carefully made up complete with the typical red slash of lipstick.  There wasn’t time to dye her hair dark, so she settled for hiding it with a black scarf.  If she tucks the fabric up closely to her hairline, her natural color is less noticeable.  Her brows are dark and that helps.  And if all goes as planned, she’ll need to get used to wearing a veil anyway.   This is a look she may wear for the rest of her life.  

 

But, oh Force, is she really doing this?

 

Yes, she has to do this.

 

Her heart is racing and her palms are sweaty as Tosca once again girds her resolve.  She has called in every favor from every influential relative and friend she knows to get to this point.  She can’t back out now.  There is one chance to get this right.

 

Tosca has been waiting over three hours, watching as one by one the preeminent Lords of the day present themselves in costly ceremonial armor for an audience with the Emperor.  One Lord didn’t make it out alive.  His lifeless body was dragged from the audience chamber by a pair of red robed guards.  Another Lord emerged limping and slightly smoking from surviving a bout of Force lightning.  How will Tosca emerge from her interview?  She doesn’t know, but she fears to find out.  What she is doing is very unorthodox.

 

Finally, the deeply disapproving majordomo nods his cue for Tosca to enter the Emperor’s presence.  There’s no backing out now.  She takes a fortifying breath and steps forward.

 

It takes a moment for her eyes to adjust to the sepulchral gloom of the Imperial audience chamber.   The Emperor sits on high far above her sight line.  No one other than the Lords who are members of the Dark Council know what the Emperor actually looks like.  Here today, he is a shadowy figure in a cloak, barely distinguishable from the empty dark space that surrounds him.   In contrast, his visitors are brightly lit by a single shaft of light from high above.  Ironically, the lighting only serves to blind and obscure things further. 

 

Tosca recognizes this setup to be classic posturing. From his vantage point, the Emperor sees all but his subjects see very little.  She knows this to be no accident.  Tosca is a Sith lady born and bred.  She knows all the subtle cues that promote and reinforce the balance of power in her hierarchical society.  She takes those cues and uses them herself.  But it all boils down to this:  the Emperor prevails over his Lords, who in turn prevail over their command posts and all the people living and toiling in them. 

 

A less stark version of this room exists in many a Sith Lord’s household.  Her own husband has a throne room at his local outpost.  But even when Marcus sits there for official business, he is a stand-in for the authority of this man.  For all power emanates from the Emperor.  There is nothing he does not control, despite how much he delegates.

 

Supplicants to this mysterious figure, the ultimate and forever Dark Lord of the Sith, customarily are men.  Sith Ladies might be powerful Force wielders and very effective social figures, but always in private behind closed doors.  Women of her rank have no place in the public sphere.  For in the rigid patriarchy of the Sith, all glory and honor inure to men, at least officially.  Sith women do not lack for ambition, they just express it through their husband’s career and their children.

 

One does not remain standing in the Emperor’s presence.  Lords take a knee, head bowed, with their sword offered up.  But that warrior pose is inappropriate for her.  So nervous Tosca sinks down on both her knees, clasping her clammy hands in her lap to keep from wringing them.  Her chin ducks.   She waits to be spoken to.

 

A long pause follows.  Is the Emperor offended by her presence?   Tosca can barely think because of the blood pounding in her ears. 

 

“Who are you?” a voice from on high now rumbles.  “Why are you here?”

 

Tosca keeps her head bowed as she answers.  “I am Lady Struct.”

 

“Louder.  I can’t hear you.”

 

“I am Lady—“

 

“Louder, woman!” 

 

Tosca looks up now and announces loudly and boldly, “I am Lady Struct.  Daughter of Darth Vehement and Granddaughter of Darth Stain.”  She identifies herself with the genealogical references that the Sith slavishly obsess about.  Hers are not particularly impressive, but it’s who she is on formal occasions like this.

 

“That’s better.  Why are you here?” the voice wonders aloud again.

 

“Lord Struct is on the P-proscription List,” she begins.

 

The unseen Emperor interrupts again.  “And you have foolishly come to beg for my mercy?”

 

“No,” she gulps. “I have a proposal.”

 

“Then make it,” the voice says impatiently. 

 

She rushes her words to get them out. “If you will remove Lord Struct from the Proscription List, I will take the veil in the Temple.”

 

“I can’t hear you,” the voice complains again and Tosca feels her opportunity slipping away fast.

 

She repeats her words louder.  “If you will remove Lord Struct from the Proscription List, I will take the veil in the Temple.”

 

There.  She said it.  She has just offered the unthinkable in exchange for Marcus’ life.  If the Emperor accepts, Tosca will face permanent social ruin that will earn her others’ contempt.

 

“Why?”

 

Why?   Tosca begins babbling.  “Because it will save him and it will protect my sons.  If my husband is proscribed, my boys will never be fostered.  No one will take them on for an Apprentice.  Their lives will be ruined.”

 

That assessment does not elicit sympathy. “Proscription is necessary.  Only the strong survive.   That is the way of things.  The way of the Sith.”

 

Yes, she knows.  Every few decades, the Emperor culls the ranks of his Lords, choosing the underperformers to be sacrificed to renew the Dark sanctity of his temple.   Those he judges worthy continue to serve his Empire.   Those he judges unworthy he drains of their power, killing them in an elaborate Dark ritual.  That will be Marcus’ fate if she cannot convince the Emperor of her scheme.

 

What’s worse, the consequences reverberate past the doomed Lords themselves.  For to be proscribed effectively ends a family.   The surviving children—male and female—are shamed and shunned for their misfortune.  No one will marry the offspring of a proscribed Lord, for fear the taint of weakness will pass on since the Force is very hereditary.  And so, if her husband is proscribed, her boys will live their lives at the margins of Sith society.  With very limited career opportunities and no training.  With no opportunity for a peer marriage.  Her boys will never belong to the ruling class they were born into nor will they be regular non-Force sensitive Sith bourgeoisie.   They will be outcasts somewhere in between.  

 

The Emperor speaks again.  “Why have you come to waste my time with this ridiculous bargain?”

 

Tosca responds staunchly, “Lords die in battle for the Empire.  Ladies sacrifice for their families.”

 

“Not usually in this extreme,” the Emperor observes.

 

“Lady Scathe did,” she counters, citing the centuries old Sith heroine who took up her injured husband’s sword to defend him from a Jedi Master, getting herself killed in the process even though she slew her foe.

 

“Did your husband put you up to this?”

 

“No, Excellency.  He does not know I am here,” she admits.  Tosca had kissed Marcus and the boys lingering goodbyes this morning, but no one seemed suspicious.  In fact, they barely noticed.

 

“You dishonor Struct by making this appearance and by making this proposal,” the Emperor decrees.  He sounds very annoyed.

 

But Tosca doesn’t back down.  “It will save him,” she points out.  That’s what matters most.  He will live.

 

The deep voice from above disagrees.  “Lord Struct might prefer to die rather than have his wife trade sex for his life.”

 

Tosca hangs her head lower still now.  Oh Force, this interview is awful.  Every bit as awkward and uncomfortable as she feared.

 

“You’re blushing.  You do know what the Temple girls do, don’t you?”

 

“Yes, I know,” she responds weakly.

 

“What was that?  I can’t hear you,” the voice complains again testily.

 

“Yes, I know,” miserable Tosca says in a louder, choked voice.

 

“Are you always this headstrong?” the Emperor asks.

 

“Oh no, Excellency,” she gulps.  “I know my place.”

 

“I rather doubt that.” 

 

Tosca flushes some more.

 

“The Proscription List is not final.  But there are some who know of Lord Struct’s name on the List.   If it comes off, there will be talk.”

 

Yes, she has thought of this.  “His name comes off because he has proven his fortitude by condemning me to the Temple.”  That’s the cover story.  It explains both his pardon and her absence.

 

“Condemned to the Temple on what grounds?”

 

“A-Adultery,” Tosca stammers.  It is the obvious charge for a married woman like herself to be sentenced to the Temple.

 

“Adultery could call into question your sons’ paternity.”

 

“Our boys look just like my Lord,” she says quickly.  “No one will doubt they are legitimate.”

 

“Have you ever been unfaithful to your husband?” the Emperor now asks bluntly.

 

“No!” comes her quick, reflexive response.

 

“Yes, I thought not.”  The conversation now takes an abrupt turn.  “Take off that scarf,” the unseen Sith ruler orders. 

 

Tosca reaches up with trembling hands to snatch at the pins and yank off the offending fabric.  With the light shining down so brightly from above, she knows her light blonde hair will be revealed in all its glory.   The unfortunate hair together with her alabaster skin and light eyes speak volumes about her unimpressive heritage.  There hasn’t been a red skinned, dark eyed pureblood Sith in her family tree ever. 

 

“So that is what you are hiding,” the Emperor drawls as she cringes.  “Are you a Lady or are you a peasant?”

 

Tosca lifts her gaze and asserts herself indignantly.  “I am a Lady.”

 

“But only so long as I refuse to grant your wish to let you take the veil in the Temple,” the Emperor points out.  “What is there in this bargain for me?” he muses.  “The Temple is not short of serving girls at the present.  I gain nothing from your volunteerism.”

 

“My sons and my Lord will be alive to give their loyal service to the Empire.”

 

“I expect that of all my subjects.  Moreover, Struct’s service is a benefit I already have and do not value.”  When Tosca has no further rejoinder, the Emperor repeats, “What is there in this bargain for me?”

 

“Nothing, I suppose,” she concedes. 

 

“So then you have come to beg for mercy after all?” the Emperor concludes.

 

A long uncomfortable silence follows until Tosca whispers, “Yes.”

 

“Speak up!  I can’t hear you.”

 

“Yes.  Yes, I am begging for mercy.  But it will not appear like mercy to others.  If you grant me this request, no one will know.  It will look like just punishment for my transgression.”

 

The Emperor is silent for a moment of consideration.  Then he offers biting criticism. “Lady Struct, that last bit is the only astute point you have made during this entire audience. I appreciate those who understand the value of discretion.  Things are not always what they appear in the Empire.”

 

Does that mean he accepts?  Tosca looks up hopefully. 

 

“Guards!” the Emperor commands sharply.  “Take Lady Struct to the Temple.”

Chapter Text

Well, that’s over.  Still trembling Tosca is marched to the Temple adjacent to the Palace by two faceless masked and armored Imperial guards.  There, she is shown into a small anteroom to sit and wait.  One guard remains to hover near the door.  The other disappears.  Apparently, she is rightfully judged as not much of a threat or a flight risk.  She volunteered for this, after all.

 

Tosca sags low in her chair, gulping back equal parts panic and regret.  Steeling her resolve and swallowing her doubts.  What’s done is done.  She succeeded, and she should be happy.  This is what she wanted . . . right?

 

The waiting continues, giving her far too much time to brood while the man by the door watches silently.  No doubt in disapproval.  Has she made a terrible mistake?  Is this the worst decision of her life?  The Emperor is right.  Marcus will be furious with her.   If the truth gets out, he will never live it down.   He’ll be the Lord saved by his wife who made a sleazy bargain for his life. 

 

She waits even longer.  Is anyone ever going to come?

 

Finally, the door slides open.  Tosca sits up as a Lord walks in.  He’s tall, but not excessively so.  He probably tops her own unusual height by an inch or two.  But that’s all she can perceive.  For like all Lords, this man wears a flowing black cloak with the hood pulled low.  All she sees is a salt-and-pepper bearded chin and mustache, which is an unusual choice.   As a rule, Lords are cleanshaven.  Only the lower classes wear facial hair.

 

“Leave us,” the Lord waves away the guard at the door.  Then he turns to Tosca.  “Lady Struct,” he rumbles.

 

She stands to her feet in respectful silence.   Her heart is beating so fast that she doesn’t trust herself to speak anyway. 

 

The Lord raises his hands to toss back his hood in a casual gesture. It reveals a pleasant face with even features and deep-set yellow eyes.  The man is nearly as pale as she is, with no trace of ruddiness to speak of pureblood ancestry.  His forehead is lined and there are crinkles at the corners of his eyes that suggest humor.  He must be around fifty, she guesses.  He looks distinguished.  Almost kind. 

 

“I am Tenebrae.  I am the Master Sorcerer of the Temple.”   The man introduces himself by his name and his position in the pecking order.  Because among the Sith, hierarchy is everything.

 

Tosca inclines her head warily.  “My Lord.”

 

He waves her back into her chair.  It’s the easy gesture of a man long used to command.  Then the Lord seats himself and manspreads across the couch.  He has one arm extended out across the adjacent cushion and his long legs apart with one boot propped on his knee.  The man’s casual sprawl speaks volumes about how comfortable he is in this situation compared to her.  By contrast, Tosca perches on the edge of her seat, stiff with her hands on her tightly clenched knees.   Sith Lords might take up space, but Sith Ladies typically do not.

 

The chief priest looks her over.  He has a penetrating gaze that assesses her frankly.   Tosca endeavors not to flinch.  She’s had her share of curious stares thanks to her appearance, especially her hair.   She knows her overall presentation is somewhat unusual for a woman of her rank.  But whatever.   She’s not here to impress this man who will likely be among those who abuse her.  And so, Tosca meets his eyes steadily and lifts her chin. 

 

He grunts. “Usually, the new girls are in hysterics just about now.”

 

“Do I disappoint you?” she challenges quietly.

 

“You are not the usual Temple girl, that’s for sure,” he remarks.  There is a hint of a smile about his accompanying smirk. “No one volunteers for this job.  And you are hardly a girl.  How old are you?”

 

“I will be forty next month.”

 

He grunts again.  “I would have guessed younger.”

 

Yes, she knows.  One benefit of being plump is that it keeps your face full and youthful.  Maybe it’s all the extra estrogen, but fat girls always seem to have good skin and shiny, thick hair.

 

The man looks almost troubled now.  “You do know what this life entails?”

 

“Yes, I believe so.”

 

He spells it out.  “Temple girls assist in the rituals.  Some of the rituals are frightening.  Some are violent.  Occasionally, they are of a sexual nature.”

 

She looks down and gulps.  Yes, she’s heard whispers about orgies.   Those rumors must be true.

 

He continues.  “Temple girls are also available to the priests for comfort.”

 

It’s a polite euphemism they both understand. Tosca gulps again. 

 

“The girls serve so long as I deign.  Usually four or five years.   Few last longer than that.”

 

“Why?” she speaks up.

 

“Usually, it is because the priests in residence tire of them.   It also makes room for newcomers.  Every year, we get another one or two dragged here by their irate parents.  We never run short of candidates,” he assures her.  “There’s always some highborn teenaged girl who has managed to disgrace herself or thoroughly anger her father.”  Darth Tenebrae shrugs as he lists off their offenses.  “Typically, it’s a secret spice habit or some illicit love affair with a neighbor boy.  We also seem to collect every budding lesbian in the Empire who refuses to marry to spite her parents.”

 

“What happens when a girl is done with her service?” Tosca is almost afraid to ask.

 

“It’s up to their families.  Some agree to take them back.” 

 

“And the others?” Tosca hazards.

 

“They join the Force.”

 

It’s another euphemism they both understand.   Tosca gulps a third time now.  Because she is quite certain that when she’s done here, Marcus will refuse to take her back.  And then, she too will join the Force.

 

Lord Tenebrae merely shrugs.  “It matters not to me.  I let their fathers decide.  These are family matters, after all.”  The priest shifts positions in his seat now.  He’s peering at her still.  “In view of your unusual circumstances, I have advised the other priests that you are off limits.  Meaning that you will not be available to them for comfort.   Only to me.”

 

Tosca can feel her face flame at this nonchalant frank statement about sex between them.

 

The priest ignores it.  “Those rules will not sit well with the other girls, so do not advertise it.  You are an exception.  Be discrete.” 

 

“Yes, my Lord.  Thank you, my Lord,” red faced Tosca whispers. 

 

“Why are you doing this?” the man now asks plainly.

 

“My husband is on the Proscription List—"

 

“I know the circumstances.  Why are you doing this?”

 

“To save his life.  He’s a good man.”    

 

That’s an unsatisfactory explanation. “Good men die every day in service to the Emperor,” Lord Tenebrae points out.  “So, let Struct die.  Remarry some old lonely widower who wears a mask and move on.” 

 

While that might be a solution for Tosca, who bears none of the Proscription taint, it does nothing for her husband and sons.   And besides, she’s not looking to exchange one husband for another.  “People are not fungible.  My husband is not interchangeable,” Tosca replies softly.

 

The priest frowns.  “Were you some sort of love match?”

 

“Of course, not!” Tosca takes offense.  “We were a respectable couple.  We met twice before our wedding,” she retorts indignantly before she can think to be more submissive.  She should probably be sucking up to this priest given who he will be to her, but that occurs to her too late.  Instead, she bristles, “Who do you think I am?” before she can stop herself.

 

“I’m learning who you are.” Thankfully, the Lord doesn’t seem upset at her outburst.  He continues looking at her curiously.  Like he’s genuinely trying to understand. “Do you love Struct now?”

 

“Well, yes,” she answers automatically. “He’s my husband.  I honor and respect him.”   The Sith culture of arranged marriages for strategic gain might frown on sentiment as the basis for a relationship, but it fully supports familial love once marriage is established.  Many marriages become extremely successful partnerships.  And with divorce not an option, both spouses have to find a way to make things work. Luckily, she and Marcus were compatible from the outset.  Her parents chose well for her. 

  

“So, you wish to save the husband you have grown to love,” the priest summarizes.  “Why else are you doing this?” 

 

Isn’t it obvious?  “I also want to keep my sons from the shame of having a proscribed father.”

 

“I read about your husband and sons,” Lord Tenebrae reveals. “I pulled their files.  They are an unimpressive lot.”  He continues by critiquing her menfolk with the harsh objectivity that is characteristic of his culture.  “Low midichlorian counts, less than average physical attributes, average intelligence.  Your husband has lackluster performance reviews and your sons have mediocre grades.  In all the measures of merit for a Lord, they each come up short.” 

 

“Not in my eyes,” she maintains, adding tartly, “I suppose on all the measures for a Lady, I come up short myself.  I’m as unimpressive as the rest of my family.” 

 

That claim prompts another smirking smile from Lord Tenebrae.  “Hardly.  You got this far with this harebrained scheme.  You managed to impress the Emperor himself.  Why are you doing this?” the man keeps asking.  He seems genuinely befuddled. 

 

She looks down. “It feels like it’s my only option.”

 

“You sound rash, my Lady.  That is usually a sign of a bad decision.  Did you panic?”

 

“Maybe,” she concedes. 

 

“Then I will allow you to reconsider,” he offers magnanimously.

 

It’s too late to renege.  “I told the Emperor I would do this.”

 

“He will allow you to reconsider.   He thinks you are a valiant woman.  Sacrifice is something the Empire asks of its Lords, but rarely of its Ladies.  Sith Ladies are known to be a selfish, calculating bunch.” 

 

She eyes him for this comment.  “Your cynicism does the Ladies of the Empire a great disservice.”

 

“Perhaps.   But nonetheless, he will allow you to reconsider.  I am tasked with telling you that you have until the Proscription ritual to change your mind.”

 

“When is that?”

 

“Two weeks.   We have to publish the List and allow time to shuffle the ranks and jobs.   The Emperor wants a seamless transition so that there will be no disruption of business.”   

 

“This is what I want,” Tosca persists.  This will save Marcus and the boys.  There really is no other option.  More time to think will not yield a better solution.  

 

Still, the priest tells her, “Think it over.”  Then he shifts gears rather than continue the argument.  “Alright, now that is out of the way, show me this blonde hair.” 

 

Tosca flushes but peels back the scarf from her head.   Once more, she reveals her light blonde hair, tightly coiled into a chignon at her nape.  Does it repulse him?  If so, that might be a good thing. In his disgust, he might leave her alone.  Deeming her beneath his interest. 

 

“That hair is rare.  Very rare among our people.   As are your light eyes.”

 

Yes, she knows.  Her hair, her eyes, her figure.  She’s not your typical Sith Lady. 

 

“Take down your hair.   Show it to me.”

 

Tosca complies.   She reaches up to pull out the pins that hold fast her heavy locks.  Then she unwinds her bun.  Long blonde waves tumble down about her shoulders and down her chest.  Only her husband has seen her hair like this.  In public, she wears it tied back.

 

“Yours is an unusual beauty, Lady Struct,” the priest says thoughtfully.

 

Tosca is uncertain whether she is being mocked or not.    

 

The man now stands to his feet, moving to hover over her.  He reaches out a hand to finger her hair, wrapping a tendril around his finger.  It’s a covetous gesture that makes her slightly uncomfortable.  

 

“Wear your hair down like this when we are alone.   I wish to see it.”

 

And now, for the first time, Tosca senses that she has made a favorable impression.  It’s not what she’s used to.   It’s also somewhat threatening given their relative positions.  She was half hoping to give this man a disgust of her. 

 

Can he sense how threatened she feels?  The chief priest now steps back and retakes his seat.  He cocks his head at her. “Tosca is an unusual name.   I was expecting a Julia or a Livia or Octavia or something like that.   Tosca isn’t even Sith.” 

 

She explains, “It was a common name on the colony world my father was stationed on when I was born.  My parents liked the name.”  

 

“I like the name,” Tenebrae approves.  “It suits you.   There is nothing common about you.”  He says this like it’s a good thing, and that’s not the usual attitude for the rigidly conformist Sith.  “So . . .  did he grill you?”

 

“He?”

 

“The Emperor.”

 

Tosca nods.  When the priest looks at her expectantly, she elaborates.  “My audience was probably only five minutes, but it felt like hours.”  She fiddles with her skirt nervously as she remembers. “He kept interrupting me and telling me to speak louder.”

 

“Yeah, he can be a real dick sometimes.”

 

“Oooh!” she stiffens, uncertain whether to respond to this vulgar disrespect.  And from the chief priest of the Imperial Temple no less.

 

Lord Tenebrae continues his irreverence unconcerned.  “Still, it probably woke the old guy up when he saw a woman in an audience.  You’re quite the novelty.  You are maybe the second or third woman ever to get in there.   Kudos to you for finagling that feat.”

 

“The majordomo did not approve,” Tosca grumbles.

 

“I can imagine.  How long did he make you wait?”

 

“Almost three hours.”

 

“That sounds like him.  You’d think he is the Emperor and not the servant. That guy is a terrible snob.”

 

“Actually,” Tosca sighs, “I don't think the Emperor thought any differently.”

 

“You are here, aren’t you?  And you are much better eye candy than the rest of today’s Lords.”

 

“Me? Oh, no—“

 

“There are not many women around the Palace,” the priest tells her.

 

Right.  That explains it.  “I guess that sets the bar pretty low—“

 

“And you do have that striking blonde hair.”

 

She reaches up self-consciously.  “I didn’t have time to dye it—“

 

“Oh, don’t dye it.  I like it.  It’s unusual.  You’re unusual.”

 

Tosca recalls testily, “The Emperor saw it and called me a peasant.”

 

“I told you he can be a dick.”

 

“My Lord!” she hisses.  “You are going to get yourself on the Proscription List!”  

 

“Hardly,” Darth Tenebrae smirks.  “If he killed me, he’d have to find someone to replace me.  And no one wants to be a professor of the Force these days.  Most of the priests do their residency here and move on.   They’re just sucking up to the Emperor before they go back to the diplomatic corps or the navy.  Darkness isn’t their vocation. Usually, it’s war.”

 

She nods her understanding.  “War prizes are where the money and prestige are at.”

 

“Yes, but the Temple is where the power is.  And power is a Sith’s true purpose, not war,” the priest contends.  He takes it a step further now.  “War is what got us into this situation. We overreached trying to defeat the Republic and we got trounced.  It was a good thing the Sith lost so many Lords there at the end.  Those guys were steering the Sith in the wrong direction.”

 

That’s not the conventional wisdom.  The prevailing view is that one day the Sith will take their revenge upon the Republic for their humiliating defeat.  War is the whole organizing principle of the Empire.  Never has Tosca heard it stated otherwise.  Flummoxed, she huffs, “You, my Lord, are very opinionated.”

 

He laughs.  He actually laughs.  Then he sits forward to confide, “We sorcerers are like that.   We are the contrarians of the Force.  We don’t play by the rules.  We’re always seeking to defy them or elude them.”

 

“I’ve never met a sorcerer before,” she concedes.  It’s a rare vocation.  Most Lords work in a military or civic function. 

 

Tenebrae looks mercurial now.  “Sorcerers have more fun.   And we have good party tricks.   And that trumps a war prize any day.”

 

Tosca raises an eyebrow at this claim.  “Prove it.”

 

Clearly, this Lord relishes a challenge.  He says a few words in Kittat and concentrates a moment.  And then, with a flourish of his hand he conjures a bouquet of white flowers.

 

“Oh!”  Tosca is charmed.  “Wow!” she breathes out.   “How amazing!”

 

“For you,” Lord Tenebrae stands and presents the bouquet.  “Pretty flowers for a pretty lady.   Bet old Struct can’t do that.”

 

“No, he couldn’t.” Tosca marvels at the exquisite flowers. 

 

Lord Tenebrae chuckles low in his throat.   “That’s just the beginning of what I can do,” he promises.   He’s flirting and they both know it.  “See, there—I knew you could smile.  I was hoping to see you smile.  I look forward to furthering our acquaintance, Lady Struct.   I will see you at dinner tonight.”   With that veiled command for an invitation, he draws up his hood and exits the room. 

 

Next, a very no-nonsense woman appears to escort Tosca to her living quarters.  Tosca soon learns that this laywoman functions as something of a matron to the Temple girls.   The woman is clearly taken aback by Tosca’s unexpected arrival.  She is even more unwelcoming of Tosca’s composed demeanor.  The matron must be used to distraught, homesick young women who she can intimidate, and Tosca is nothing like that.   She’s a proud aristocrat long used to running her own household and supervising servants like this matron.   Plus, she is here on her own terms.  So when the woman speaks sharply to her, Tosca looks her over coolly.  “You will address me as Lady Struct,” Tosca announces.  “And in the future, you will refrain from using that tone of voice to me.”

 

Her response is the reflexive habit of a lifetime of living as an elite. It is also Tosca’s introduction to the other Temple girls who stand as a crowd of gaping onlookers come to meet the new addition. 

 

“There are no Ladies here,” the disdainful matron sniffs. 

 

“If you persist in your disrespect and rudeness, I will be forced to punish you,” Tosca answers evenly.  “And neither of us wishes that.”

 

It’s a quiet threat spoken in a pleasant tone, but it’s still a threat.  And it’s a threat from a Force user.  While Tosca might not be capable of summoning Force lightning on short notice and she’s never choked anyone in her life, the matron doesn’t know that.  She backs down.  The matron fumes as she shows Tosca to the small austere room that she will call her own.  Then she thrusts a red veil at Tosca before she storms off in a huff.  Tosca watches her go, knowing she has made an enemy. 

 

She has also managed to make friends with the episode.  The twelve other Temple girls now flood Tosca’s room wanting to meet her. 

 

They range in age from sixteen to twenty-four.  All young girls who would have their whole lives ahead of them were their prospects not ruined by their current experience.   Tosca recognizes two of their surnames as prominent families, but the girls are all strangers to her.  As one by one they introduce themselves, Tosca can’t help but wonder about their stories.  How did they come to be here?

 

The girls are equally as curious about Tosca, and they are not shy about asking questions.   Wow, you’re old enough to be my mother, one says artlessly.  And it’s true.  I’ll be forty next month, Tosca admits with a smile.   That is positively ancient sounding to this crowd.  They cannot conceive of being thirty let alone forty.  And well, given what Lord Tenebrae told her earlier, at least some of these pretty young things will never get the chance to see middle age.   It’s a sobering thought.

 

Tosca hears comments about her blonde hair that is still hanging loose. She gets a few compliments on her dress.  Everyone admires the small bouquet of blooms she’s still holding.  Someone runs to get a glass to fill it with water to display them.  It’s all a prelude working up to the real question everyone is dying to ask:  How did you end up here?   A very young, pimply faced teen blurts it out:  what did you do?

 

Tosca goes with her cover story.  I committed adultery, she answers plainly.   There seems no reason to sugarcoat the notion of sex to these girls.  They are no longer the sheltered innocents typical of their tender years and unmarried status. Tosca’s direct admission provokes respect and more curiosity. Who is your lover, one of the bolder, older girls asks.  Then a babyfaced young one moans aloud that she hopes it’s not her dad.  Tosca brushes off the question which, naturally, just gets the girls’ imaginations going.  No doubt they are full of romantic notions of forbidden, illicit love. 

 

The bold girl speaks up again.  You’re lucky to be alive.  My dad would put a sword through my mother for that.   He’s a fucking asshole and I hate him!  Ordinarily, proper Tosca might object to that language and sentiment, but she lets it slide.   She’s inclined to pity these girls rather than correct them.  And she’s not their mother, anyway.

 

From the girls, Tosca learns the daily routine.   They appear in the Temple for the standard rituals twice a day.  Other than that, they hang out.  Maybe they will get summoned at night by a priest, maybe not.  There are currently ten priests in residence and only three of them dabble with the girls.   The others tend ignore them, much to everyone’s great relief.   The priests are all probably married, the boldest girl speaks her mind.  You get dumped here for adultery, she gripes to Tosca, while they get it as a job perk.  Life isn’t fair. 

 

She’s right, Tosca knows.   But these girls all presumably had a lot going for them before they ended up here.  All they had to do was follow the rules for girls of their class.  But somewhere along the way, they each must have deviated somehow.  Looking at their young faces, Tosca can’t help but wonder if any of these girls ended up here through no fault of their own.  Like she did.   Tosca did everything right and yet still ended up here in what amounts to the Dark Side’s cloistered harem of nuns. 

 

The rules are different for Lords and Ladies, Tosca sighs.  But the bold girl persists on asking why.   Why does it have to be different?  Why is there a double standard for us?  It’s a question traditional, conventional Lady Struct has never thought to ask.  She’s never had to until now. 

 

Tosca stands there a moment stumped.  Because she’s part of a culture that separates women into good girls and bad girls, madonnas and whores, Ladies and common women.  Heretofore she has only seen the protective, beneficial side of the Sith patriarchy.  Never the ugly consequences for those Ladies who fall off their pedestals.  Maybe it’s the mother in her, but looking around at the faces of these forsaken daughters, all Tosca can summon is compassion.   She doesn’t even know their offenses, but condemnation is the furthest thought from her mind. 

 

So what are the rules of the veil, Tosca quickly changes the topic.   She shakes out the red sheer gauzy fabric she has been given.  It marks a Temple girl for an outcast.  She learns that the veil must be worn at all times outside these quarters.  It attaches with a clip to her hair and hangs down to nearly to her waist, covering her completely.  Underneath, the matron requires the girls to wear shapeless heavy black long-sleeved, high-necked dresses.  For girls who are basically kept as sex slaves, the outfits are ironically very prim.  

 

Tosca takes one look at the rack of available size options for the unused dresses and decides that none will fit.  For starters, not one of them looks long enough to reach past her knees.  Tosca is a woman who can make a lot of things work, but too small clothing is not one of them.  She resolves that she will wear her current dress instead.  Can you do that, a girl asks warily.   Yes, Tosca answers.   The matron can take it up with her if she has issues. 

 

Just then, there is a firm knock at the door down the hall.   All the girls freeze.  “Someone’s been summoned!” the girl nearest Tosca hisses. 

 

“Lady Struct.”  The knock at the door is the gloating matron who indicates that it is Tosca who is selected. 

 

The other girls hurry to clip on her veil and whisper advice.   If it’s the fat one with an accent, she should keep filling his wine glass to get him drunk.  Eventually, he will pass out and leave her alone.   If it’s the young guy, he’s actually very nice.  He often just wants company and he tends to talk about how much he misses his wife.  The naval commander has a mean streak, so Tosca is told to be very meek.  The really old grandpa guy just wants you to jerk him off, the bold girl informs Tosca with cringeworthy candor.  He too feeble to get it up.  If it’s him, you’re in luck. When you’re done, he tends to pat you on your head and send you back. 

 

Tosca nods as she inwardly quakes at this well-intentioned frankness.  The girls don’t know it, but she’s heading to see the Master Sorcerer.  He’s a man who Tosca judges to be plenty spry for fornication.   Too bad the old grandpa isn’t the chief priest, she sighs. 

 

Tosca steps out and is handed over to four guards.  Once the lead guard dismisses the matron, he produces a wad of black fabric.  Tosca blinks at it in confusion.  “What is this?”

 

“It’s a hood.  Put it on.”

 

Tosca gulps and gingerly pulls the heavy fabric down over her face.  It obscures everything immediately.  The guards turn her about several times now to further disorient her.   Then, with a guiding hand at each elbow, she is marched forward.  Like a prisoner. 

 

What has she gotten herself into, Tosca wonders beneath the hood.  Her quiet life full of routines upset now and then by the occasional domestic crisis is gone for good.  Now, she’s a figure of contempt lying to the world about a transgression she would never commit.  All for the purpose of saving the family she pretends to have betrayed. She’s the good girl pretending to be the bad girl.  A Lady who masquerades as a whore.  Was she a fool to opt out of the protections her society offers her?  Once more, Tosca has her doubts.  Maybe she should back out . . .

 

Tosca seems to go a long way given the Temple complex is not that large. She enters and exits at least two sets of elevators.  She hears footsteps and men’s voices now and then. But that’s all she can discern. Every so often, the guards halt and turn her around again to confuse her sense of direction.  It’s an effective tactic.  Tosca is completely lost, swaying on her feet, and feeling dizzy when finally the guards release their hold and someone standing close snatches off the suffocating hood. 

 

It’s Lord Tenebrae, the chief priest himself.  

 

Surprised and blinking at the sudden bright light, Tosca stumbles slightly forward into him.  He catches her upper arms to steady her. 

 

“I see you missed me,” he smirks.  “Hungry?” he solicits as if nothing is amiss.  He gestures to an elaborately set table in the luxuriously furnished room she finds herself in.

 

Tosca instantly rights herself and steps back. She looks to the table and then to the priest, blinking in confusion through her filmy red veil. 

 

“Leave us,” the priest barks his dismissal at the guards who still surround her.  And now, they are alone again.  Just her and the Lord who has reserved her favors for himself.  But he’s also the man who has offered her a way out of this mess.  Tosca has only been at the Temple a few short hours, but she’s learning fast what this wretched life entails.  And she’s no longer quite so certain as she was earlier in the Emperor’s throne room.

Chapter Text

“There’s a lot of security here,” Tosca breathes out softly as she watches the heavily armed guards retreat.  She turns a questioning face her host. 

 

Lord Tenebrae is not wearing his cloak this time.  But if anything, it increases his gravitas.  He wears tall boots with blouson trousers tucked in and a tailored tunic clasped with a wide belt that emphasizes his broad shoulders.  It’s all in black, naturally.  And of such a fine quality and exquisite cut that it screams luxury.  Other Lords might don flashy robes and distinctive armor to distinguish themselves from the crowd.  But not Lord Tenebrae. He simply oozes austere glamour. Tosca can’t help but be impressed.

 

“Security is a necessity,” the priest shrugs off her concerns.  He’s clearly used to this sort of subterfuge.  “From time to time, the Emperor has had attempts on his life.  He’s become a bit paranoid.”

 

“Oh,” she gulps.  “Well, naturally—"

 

“No need to worry for him.  No one has ever come close to killing him.  Between you and me,” Lord Tenebrae confides, his deep-set eyes dancing with mischief, “I think old Vitiate enjoys the challenge of an assassination attempt now and then.  It keeps him on his toes.”

 

“Riiight,” she nods warily, glancing again at where the guards exited.  Suddenly, Tosca is wondering how dangerous this place really is.  Assassination attempts are yet another wrinkle in the predicament she has volunteered for. “And then what happens?” she wants to know.  “After the assassination attempt, I mean.”

 

“The Emperor kills the conspirators.  They never act alone.”

 

“For treason?”

 

“Yes.  But mostly for vengeance.”

 

“Of course.”  What a stupid question she had asked.  Tosca flushes red beneath the red veil.  “Is this a dangerous place?  Should I be worried for my safety?” she wonders aloud.

 

Lord Tenebrae chooses his words carefully now.  “The Emperor is a dangerous man.  Those near him—those close to him—take on a certain amount of danger.  It is unavoidable.”

 

“But he’s in the Palace, right?” she breathes out anxiously.  “And we’re in the Temple now?”

 

“This is the Palace,” Lord Tenebrae reveals.  “Unlike the other priests, I live in the Palace.”

 

Yes, looking around, Tosca realizes she should have guessed as much.  The grand room they are in is oversized and luxuriously furnished.  Not with the lavish red, black, and gold gilt of the Temple interior, but with handsome deep burgundy and dark grey.  This looks like some Admiral’s showplace villa. Less like a public space and more like someone actually lives here. 

 

Tosca glances over and notices for the first time that the chief priest is unarmed.  That’s very atypical for a Sith Lord.  “Where’s your sword?” she asks bluntly.  She’s unnerved by this whole conversation and by her prisoner treatment that preceded it.

 

“I don’t need a sword.” 

 

“Because we are safe here now?” she asks hopefully. 

 

His answer is smug.  “No.  It’s because I don’t need a sword.  I am a sorcerer, not a warrior.  Do not underestimate my power.”

 

Oh.  Well, maybe that makes sense.  “Is that because you can turn enemies into flowers?” she ventures artlessly, thinking back on his earlier impressive trick.

 

He chuckles.  “I’ve never done that.  I’ll need to try that.”  He smiles and Tosca realizes for the first time how handsome he is.  Lord Tenebrae has unusual appeal.  The neatly trimmed full beard is such a contrast to his elegantly swept back hair.  The style is one part peasant, one part patrician.  But it combines to make him unexpectedly attractive.

 

Tosca gets caught looking and he smiles again.  She can’t tell if he’s amused or pleased.  “Now, my Lady,” he pulls out a chair at the small table set for two he stands beside, “Join me.”

 

As Tosca gingerly takes the offered seat, the priest leans down to pluck the red veil from her hair.  “I hate those veils,” he gripes, tossing it aside in disgust.  “I have no idea how this custom of Temple girls got started, but it predates me.” 

 

“Then why don’t you stop it?” Tosca suggests as he takes the seat opposite her.  She surprises herself with her boldness.  But something about this man and this situation makes her want to speak frankly.  “You’re the Master Sorcerer, right?  Don’t you make the rules in the Temple?”

 

Tenebrae’s answer is philosophical.  “The Sith like tradition.  The more things change, the more they stay the same with us.  Besides, the Emperor likes continuity.  He cultivates the sense that some things are eternal and intrinsic to the Sith, like himself.  It’s not that Temple girls are important per se, but that they are part of a larger mosaic of traditions which people have grown to expect.”

 

She nods at this reasoning.  “You’re saying he doesn’t want to change things and risk upsetting people.”

 

“He’s not the reformer he once was,” Lord Tenebrae says somewhat wearily.  “Every ruler begins as a reformer and ends up as a reactionary.  Eventually the zeal for change ebbs and the goal becomes sustaining the status quo.”  He lifts his glass to her now in a courtly salute.  “To you, Lady Struct.  The blonde bombshell of the Empire.”

 

Flustered, Tosca colors as she takes refuge in a quick sip herself.  Because what does she say to that??  She settles on ignoring the comment.  Instead, she tries to make conversation about every Sith Lord’s favorite topic—power.  “The Emperor has been the Dark Lord longer than all the rest, right?  Almost fifteen hundred years now?”

 

“More like thirteen hundred,” Darth Tenebrae corrects her. “But who’s counting?” he smirks.

 

“Oh, I’m sure he is,” Tosca observes dryly.

 

That comment makes the priest smirk even harder. 

 

This conversation is easier than their previous one, and that relaxes her.  Tosca now plows ahead with an issue that’s been on her mind since their earlier meeting.  “Is there a Lady Tenebrae somewhere who is going to be borrowing your book of spells to put a curse on me?”   Tosca is worried that she may have more enemies than just that awful matron back in the Temple cloister.

 

The question amuses Lord Tenebrae.  The crinkles on his cheeks deepen.  But still, he is coy.  “Now why would that concern you?”

 

“Because your wife might be angry because we are . . . uh . . . “  How does Tosca describe what she and this strange Lord are to one another?

 

“Friends,” he suggests lightly.

 

“Yes!   Friends.”   She latches onto his benign terminology, feeling much relieved.

 

The priest looks amused again.  “Calm your fears.  There is no Lady Tenebrae to cuckhold.”

 

“You are a widower then?”

 

“Confirmed bachelor.”

 

“Oh.”  That’s unusual.  Very unusual.  The Sith view all of life through the prism of strategy.   From marriages, to Apprenticeships, to careers, it’s all about competition.  For a Lord to eschew marriage means that he passes up the chance to gain influential familial ties that might one day help him.  And with a job as prestigious as chief priest, Lord Tenebrae could surely look to the highest circles for a wife.

 

The priest explains as they begin to eat.  “When I was young enough to consider marriage, I would have been rejected by any worthy candidates.   But in my position now, I have no use for a wife.   Choosing a wife these days would be a political act that would favor a particular family.  It would cause them to get ambitions, and that could stir up trouble.”

 

“I guess you don’t really need to worry about career advancement,” Tosca speaks her thoughts aloud.  “As the Master Sorcerer, you’re at the top.”

 

“Yes,” he says with utter seriousness.  “All I can go is down.”

 

“And you don’t want sons?”  All Lords want sons, in Tosca’s experience. 

 

But not this Lord.  “Children are a risk I don’t need to take.  I don’t need sons to create a legacy.  I will do that myself.”  Darth Tenebrae leans forward in his seat now as he divulges, “I got here all on my own.  I received nothing from my father, and I do not intend to be a father myself.”  There is an ugly edge to his voice as he says this and Tosca senses a slight undercurrent in the Force.  It speaks to deep resentment.  If she knew this man better, she might ask more.  But she does not, so she keeps her nosiness to herself.  Plus, his mindset is so very different from her own.  Frankly, Tosca can’t relate.  Her life revolves around her family.  That’s why she’s here.

 

“So, how did the first day go?” Lord Tenebrae switches topics as he pours himself more wine.

 

“Fine, I guess.  I didn’t really know what to expect,” she confesses.  “I met the other girls.  They are all so young, my Lord.  Many are teens.  And they are all pretty.  A few are truly beautiful.”  And this brings Tosca to another troublesome point for her:  “Why would you choose me over that?  Or wait, are you friends with some of those girls too?” she asks, borrowing his euphemism.

 

He shakes his head.  “I am only friends with you currently.”

 

That answer has Tosca relieved.  It’s not so much for herself as for the younger girls.  She hates to think of how they are preyed upon in this environment.  At least Tosca has a choice.

 

Lord Tenebrae grunts.  “Youth is overrated.  I should know.  I’m fourteen hundred and ten years old.”

 

She drops her fork and it clatters to the tabletop. “Wow.”  Tosca does not bother to hide her shock at this news.   “I’ve heard that Lord Azamin is hundreds of years old through the Force, but I didn’t know it is possible to extend your life even longer than that.”   She’s gaping now, thoroughly impressed by his Force.  “Wow . . .”

 

“Do not underestimate my power,” the priest admonishes her for the second time.  It’s a prideful, chiding warning.

 

Tosca is no fool.  She’s knows she’s out of her league.  “Oh, I won’t,” she instantly concedes.  “But why?   Why choose me when you could have innocent youthful beauty?”

 

He smirks.  “I assure you none of those girls is innocent.”  He takes another long sip of his wine now as he sits back.  “Actually, I don’t avail myself of Temple girls.  I did that once or twice long ago and learned my lesson.  I have nothing to say to a girl of twenty.” 

 

“One’s only sixteen,” Tosca recalls sadly.

 

“Sixteen . . . twenty . . . it matters not.  What matters is that they haven’t begun to live life yet.  It makes them rather boring.  Talking to them is all about how they miss their school friends and hate their parents.  The rest is all dresses and hairstyles,” he complains.  “It’s very superficial.”

 

Tosca levels him a frank look.  “Come on, is there really much talking?” 

 

“Well, there was usually some crying too,” he admits.  “Whatever you decide, my Lady, and however this friendship progresses, promise me that you won’t cry.  I can’t abide crying females.”

 

Again, Tosca levels him a frank look.  “My Lord, do I strike you as the crying type?”

 

“No,” he grins.  Suddenly, he is years younger as he laughs.  “I liked right away that you weren’t the crying type.  That was a big point in your favor.”  He smiles at her and Tosca can’t help but smile back.  This cynical, wry man is engaging.  If the circumstances were different and this were a dinner party instead of a command performance, it would be fun.  He would be fun.  They would harmlessly banter and chat and then go home to their separate spouses with no lasting damage.  Except this situation is far different from the male attention she’s used to.

 

“So why are the Temple nuns always girls, never adult women?” She’s curious. 

 

His answer is pragmatic and very strategically Sith.  “Because men kill their unfaithful wives, but they drag their wayward rebel daughters to me for punishment.  It gets them off the hook for an exorbitant dowry payment for a daughter with a sketchy reputation and it pacifies their wives who might revolt if the punishment is death.” 

 

Tosca cringes.  “That sounds so awful . . . “  But maybe there is no nice way to put it. 

 

“It is awful,” Lord Tenebrae confirms.  “It tears families apart.  Which is why you are the first to volunteer for this job.”  He peers at her over the rim of the wine glass he is swirling.  The man seems to drink far more than he eats.  “Are you sure you want to do this?  Have you reconsidered like I asked?”

 

No, not really.  Tosca is still committed to her plan, even if her doubts have grown as the downsides are increasingly made clear.  Still, she digs in.  “I want my husband to live and my sons to have an opportunity for success.” 

 

Lord Tenebrae doesn’t answer for a moment.  He just watches her in a way that makes her squirm.  Then, he drawls, “And what do you want for yourself?”

 

“Does that even matter?   I’m past the point of caring primarily about myself.” 

 

He grunts again.  “Lady Struct, you are a terrible Sith.  It’s supposed to be all about you.“

 

“You know that’s just bluster, right?” she counters.  “Half the things the Sith pretend about ourselves are not true.  It’s just posturing that we all collectively buy into.  Besides,” she points out, “women’s lives are never about just themselves.  We don’t get the luxury of caring only about ourselves.   Most of our day is devoted to others.  To friends, to husbands, to children, to the community--”

 

“See!” he seizes upon her outspokenness.  “This is the conversation I can’t have with a twenty-year-old.  And if I took a wife, she wouldn’t speak to me like this.  She’d be too busy trying to please me.”

 

Huh?  Now it’s Tosca’s turn to smirk.  “You, my Lord, clearly know nothing about marriage.”

 

That makes him laugh again.  He looks almost sheepish.  “Truthfully, I have never been much for women.  I prefer power.  It has lasting gratification.”  He happily gushes now, “Tosca, you and I are going to get along famously, I suspect.” 

 

And that comment confuses things further.  Does this man want more than sex?  Is this supposed to be a relationship?   It dawns on Tosca now that his description of them as friends might be more than a polite gloss over her status as his personal pleasure slave.

 

He confirms it when he lowers his chin and whispers like it’s a secret, “Do you know that in the Republic, what you and I are doing now is called dating?” 

 

“Dating?” she echoes blankly.  “I've never heard that word.  Should I have?” 

 

“It’s a Republic custom where men and women meet and form relationships.  They spend time together. They might even live together.” 

 

Tosca is confused. “So, they're married?” 

 

“Not necessarily.  Sometimes it ends in a commitment.  Sometimes, it’s just an affair.  And then, they move onto the next lover.  One after another.”

 

“Oh.”  Tosca can’t help but bristle primly.   “That is . . . different.  And the families approve of this behavior?” she squints across the table.

 

That’s when it gets even more foreign.  “Oh, families don't always have influence,” Lord Tenebrae informs her.  “People choose for themselves who they spend time with.”

 

“Really?”  Tosca is scandalized.   “How bizarre.”

 

“In the Republic, there is much more freedom, particularly for women.  Things are far less preordained by your status and family.  Everyone is tasked with choosing their own future.”

 

Tosca scoffs at this idea.  “I wouldn’t let an eighteen-year-old girl choose anything.  It’s too young to know what’s important in life.  You’d have totally unsuitable partners coupling up.  It could spell disaster in the long run.”

 

“Ah, but the point of the Republic is not ambition,” Lord Tenebrae explains.  “It is self-fulfillment.”

 

“What’s that supposed mean?” she demands.

 

“Happiness.”

 

“Oh.  Well, I was happy with the man my parents chose for me.  I didn’t need to sleep around to confirm it,” Tosca sniffs righteously.  “My parents gave me input, of course.  But they had already narrowed my choices to three.”

 

Lord Tenebrae eggs her on with more of the enemy’s strange customs.  “Actually, many women in the Republic never marry.  Their life goals are different.  For some, their career is their primary objective.  In fact, some of the highest positions in the Republic have been held by women.”

 

“Huh.”  She can’t hide her disapproval.  “And they say the Sith are selfish.  It sounds as if the Republic is the place where it’s really all about you.”

 

Tenebrae nods thoughtfully.  “Perhaps, in a way.  We are a culture of rigid rules and limited paths for success. Not all societies are organized in that manner.”

 

Tosca grumbles, “What do I care how the enemy lives?”

 

“You can learn from your adversaries,” he points out.  “Just because their customs are different doesn’t necessarily mean they are inferior.”

 

“I guess,” Tosca considers. “Female leadership might not be all bad.   Women can be excellent decisionmakers and multi-taskers.  Many women are very organized.  And I suppose if they don’t marry, then they need to do something productive . . . “

 

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of sex.  People are people.  But the marriage part is optional.”

 

“What about the children?  Is the Republic overrun with bastards?” Tosca complains.  “Who rears them?”

 

“A lot of times, it’s just the mothers on their own,” Lord Tenebrae answers.

 

Tosca is outraged.  “Why, that’s terrible!  Men should be responsible providers and role models—”

 

“Some are.”

 

“They should all be!” she argues.  “A woman can’t be expected to do it all—”

 

“Oh, but men and women are equal in the Republic.  Each gender can do it all,” Tenebrae points out.

 

“Men and women are equal here too in the Empire, without having all that other . . . . er . . . stuff,” she improvises for lack of a better word. 

 

Darth Tenebrae now gives her a knowing look.  He raises an eyebrow and teases, “It rather seems like you might be more equal than old Lord Struct—”

 

“Nonsense!  Marcus and I are life partners,” Tosca proclaims stiffly.  “He has his work and I have mine.  They are separate, but we are equals still.  We complement one another.”

 

“Does that mean you know your place?” the priest goads her.  “Shouldn’t you be at home right now, Lady Struct?”

 

She scowls across at him.  “Yes, I should,” she snaps.  There’s no place she would rather be, in fact.  But it’s not an option.   Frustrated with his all too effective verbal maneuvering, Tosca tosses her napkin down and pushes back from her plate.  She raises a hand to rub at her forehead.  “I was raised to do one thing,” she sighs.  “To be a wife and a mother.   And I am none of those things now.”

 

“Tosca—” he rumbles softly.

 

“I miss my boys,” she blurts out.  It’s been less than a day, but she’s already wondering about things back home. She’s used to the mundane routines of family life:  meals eaten together, school drop offs and pickups, extracurricular lessons and sports practices.  None of that will exist in the Temple cloister.  As far as she can tell, it will be just a lot of time spent doing nothing.  She is already keenly aware of how much she is missing out. Tosca looks down. “I’m used to Marcus being away, but I am always with my boys.”

 

The chief priest nods.  “Then go home to them.”

 

Tosca finds his answer to be frustrating. “It’s not that simple.”  She abruptly stands from her chair and marches across the room to put some distance between herself and the insidiously engaging Lord Tenebrae.  She knows better than to argue with the man whose goodwill she needs and she also wants to hide how close she suddenly feels to tears.  She said she wasn’t the crying type.  And that’s generally the case, but these last few days have been a marked exception to that rule. 

 

How can she make Lord Tenebrae understand the sense of futility she feels?  Because going home doesn’t help her sons and that means it won’t help her in the long run.  The only way to save her family is for her to stay here.  With him.

 

“You know,” she says in a choked voice as she pretends to look out the window, “you think you will make your children’s lives better than your own. That you will give them more advantages and opportunities and that will make things easier and better for them.   But the truth is that most children turn out just like their parents.  There is far more nature than nurture at work in childrearing.”

 

Can the bachelor priest who doesn’t want children even understand her point?  She turns around and sees him too arise from his chair.  Tenebrae heads for her. 

 

“I see it in my own sons.  The boys look just like their father.   They are clumsy like he is.   Heavy and slow on their feet like me.  My youngest is too gentle to be a Lord.  When the school told me he will never make a warrior, I was inclined to agree. I couldn’t tell him that, of course.  But Lucius has no killer instinct, no aggressive streak. He’s kindhearted.  Far too sensitive and sweet.  He’s just so . . . so . . . ”

 

“Good,” Darth Tenebrae finishes for her.

 

She meets his yellow eyes.  “Yes. How did you know?”

 

“If he’s like his mother, then he is good.”

 

‘Good’ is not a description most Sith prefer.  But the priest doesn’t have a pejorative tone.   He says it matter of fact.  Like when he was talking about the enemy Republic.

 

Tosca sighs heavily.  “Things will be hard enough for Lucius as it is.  But if Marcus is proscribed, they will be worse.  My Lord, he’s only ten.”  And ten years old is too soon to lose your future. 

 

“Perhaps the adversity will be good for him,” Tenebrae suggests.  “Seeing his father’s fate could focus him and toughen him up.”

 

“I suppose,” she concedes.  “Or . . . it could break his spirit.”

 

“He would have you,” the priest reminds her as he walks up close. 

 

“He’s probably worried sick right now with me being gone.”  Even at age ten, Lucius is still very much her baby.  “Marcus must think I am hurt somewhere.  Or missing—“

 

“Struct knows you are safe at the Palace.  He thinks you were summoned here with other wives of Proscribed Lords to act as hostages to ensure none flee.”

 

“Oh.”  That’s a big relief, actually.  Tosca exhales.  “That lie was kind,” she murmurs.

 

“No,” Lord Tenebrae quickly corrects.  “It suited the Emperor’s purposes.  He is never kind.  You should know that.”

 

Tosca is only mildly chastised.  “Maybe so,” she concedes, “but whatever the motivation, it was kind from my perspective.” 

 

The priest drops the point.  “If you go home, Struct will be none the wiser for your bargain.  The Emperor will be discreet,” Lord Tenebrae assures her.  He moves closer still and repeats his theme:  “Go home.  We need more virtuous mothers like you in the Empire.” As she frowns, he issues a soft warning, “The Emperor rarely offers a second chance.  You should take it.”

 

“But what about my family—“

 

“Tosca,” he cuts her off.  “Go home.  You are too good for this place.  It will bring you only dishonor and danger.”  He holds a hand out now and her discarded red veil and the black security hood fly into it. He tosses the veil into the air and it fluffs and gently settles down over her.  Then he steps closer still.   He is definitely in her space now.  Far too close as he looks down into her upturned face.  She’s used to looking down on her shorter husband.  Looking up to a man seems somehow different.  And suddenly, this doesn’t feel like friendly flirting at a dinner party.  Alarm bells go off in Tosca’s mind as she realizes that this posture feels like a prelude to a kiss.

 

But it’s not.  Darth Tenebrae pulls the black security hood over her veiled hair, pausing slightly to admonish again, “Go home.  You are too good for me.  I could be your downfall.”  Then he tugs the hood down firmly, blinding her as he summons the guards to return her to the Temple. 

Chapter Text

Life in the Temple cloister is dull and repetitive.  Five days in, Tosca has the routine down.

 

The day begins with Prime, the morning prayers in the Temple.  The priests assemble with at least six of the girls to formally commemorate the day.  It’s basically fifteen minutes of Kittat chant exhorting against the Light that the new day has brought.  Urging those committed to Darkness to withstand the onslaught yet again.  For as surely as the new day dawns, night will fall.  And with it, Darkness.

 

The girls do nothing more than appear and participate.  But that in itself is harder than it sounds.   For many of the girls are determined sleepers.  How can they be so tired at their young age?  And after doing so little exertion during the day?   It takes Tosca only a few days to identify how seriously depressed and withdrawn many of the girls are.  A few never seem to rouse before noon.    Tosca herself is used to getting up to get children to school, so she never misses morning prayer.   She might as well go.   There is nothing else to do. 

 

After morning prayer, the girls are idle until Compline, the evening prayers that greet nightfall at dusk. This is the main ritual of the day and all girls are expected to attend and participate.  These prayers are more elaborate and aggressive.   The Kittat chant repeats and grows in volume to crescendo to the big finish.  Again and again, the girls repeat In manus tuas, Tenebra . . . Into thine hands, O Darkness as the day’s presiding priest intones his request for strength to do the will of the Shadow Force. 

 

The standard liturgy has lots of beseeching for the glory of the Empire, for the health of Emperor Vitiate, and for victory in battle for the Imperial army and navy.  Then there are the damnation curses against the Jedi and the Republic.   It all culminates in the hymn of revenge calling for Darkness to sanctify and protect the Sith in their unending quest for power. Then everyone says the creed in Kittat, repeating Pacis est mandacium!  Peace is a lie!  for good measure with a raised fist.  After that, it’s all done until the next night when it repeats. 

 

The Temple services are sparsely attended.  A few Lords wander over from the Palace, the most notable of whom is pointed out to Tosca.   That’s Lord Azamin, the Minister of Military Strategy on the Dark Council, she is told. The man is ancient as befits his old-style name.   Modern Lords tend to choose action verbs and assertive nouns for their Darth moniker.  But in the olden days, Lords often took their names from Kittat or other ancient tongues.  

 

Other than a few boldfaced names like Lord Azamin dropping by from the Palace, the attendees for the services are only the priests in residence and the Temple girls.  Lord Tenebrae, the chief priest himself, is never in the Temple as far as she can tell.  No one who does show up seems particularly devout or enthusiastic.  It all seems like going through the motions. Is it different on the high holy days, Tosca asks.  Nope, a girl tells her.  This year’s Black Sabbath vespers were pretty much the same as this only longer.  There were lots of candles to snuff out to symbolize the death of hope.  Once that was done, we went back to the cloister.  There was no party afterwards with gifts like we used to have back home, she laments.

 

The cloister most closely resembles a poorly supervised women’s prison, Tosca decides.  The girls have some limited reading materials that are full of preachy religious sentiment, but there’s nothing else in the way of amusement or tasks to complete.  That means the girls either pick fights with one another, cry, or sleep the day away.    If that horrid laywoman matron has any duties, she clearly neglects them. In the first three days, Tosca sees her only once in passing.  The matron arrives to triumphantly present Tosca with a Temple girl dress sized just for her.  Tosca agrees to wear it in place of her best dress mostly as a gesture of solidarity to the other girls.

 

The complete lack of leadership and structure makes for a slovenly bunch.  That’s initially what prompts Tosca to step up and take charge.  After seeing a girl with greasy, dirty hair who doesn’t shower once in the first four days, Tosca assumes the role of mother hen and starts telling everyone what to do.  At a minimum, everyone must maintain hygiene for good health.  Tosca decrees that to mean a daily shower plus a hair washing at least twice a week.  Clean underclothes every day and tidy hair, too.  Plus, everyone must wear shoes.  No more bare feet.

 

It progresses from there.  Make your bed, pick up after yourself, don’t throw clothes on the floor.  Suddenly, Tosca is nagging twelve recalcitrant young women who grew up with maids for those sorts of menial jobs.  They think themselves above all chores, naturally.  Well, there are no servants here, Tosca points out, so have some respect for everyone else and for yourself and do your part.   Tosca worries that she is being overbearing as the newcomer.  But she is surprised to find that the girls mostly tacitly welcome her leadership.  By the end of her first week in the cloister, the girls are calling her Aunt Tosca.   Though they would never admit it, some seem to welcome the scolding oversight of being mothered.  It’s almost like they miss it.

 

Emboldened Tosca finds the matron to demand the premises be given a thorough cleaning.   The request goes unheeded.  The matron ignores her, naturally.   And so, rather than ask a second time, Tosca approaches one of the priests after morning service.  The man blinks at her, annoyed to be embroiled in matters he clearly views as beneath him.  But then she wonders aloud if she should consult the chief priest instead and the man can’t help her fast enough.   That very day, the cloister gets a good scrubbing supervised by Tosca herself.  She’s run a household for years, so she knows just what to do. 

 

It helps Tosca to have tasks to complete.  And it feels good to be needed.  Because too much time on her hands gets Tosca thinking.   She’s missing her boys terribly, worried that the housekeeper won’t know all the particulars of their school schedules and activities.  She misses Marcus too.   She wishes they had one last night together as a goodbye but he hadn’t been in the mood, too preoccupied with his Proscription, and she had worried about her plan to approach the Emperor.  So there was no last grand kiss or bittersweet night together.  Things ended quietly with the usual rushed morning breakfast.  At the time, that had been fine.  But a week later, Tosca wishes she had more closure.

 

Tosca frets too about the Emperor’s offer to permit her to change her mind and go home.   Lord Tenebrae had gone out of his way to warn her against staying and he seemed very sincere.   Looking around at the depressed and lonely Temple girls, Tosca can’t help but wonder if that will be her in a few months.  Is she naive to think she will handle this life better than they do?  

 

She goes a whole week without seeing the chief priest again.  And then, one night after Compline, she is summoned again.  It’s basically the same security protocol as before except this time she gets red robed Imperial guards for her escort, and not the usual Palace security.  Tosca worries this could signal that she is being presented to the Emperor himself.  But when the black hood comes off, she’s looking through her crimson veil into the handsome face of Lord Tenebrae. 

 

“Ah, there you are,” he says with clear satisfaction.  He’s just as insouciant as she remembers.  “Ready to go home yet?”

 

She knew this question was coming.  Tosca takes a deep breath.  “No, my Lord.” 

 

He raises his eyebrows and deploys his sarcasm.  “Is my Temple cloister really so comfortable that you are loath to leave it?”

 

“No, but it will do,” she answers. 

 

As he frowns, she surveys the room and finds the table for two set for dinner.  This must be why she has been summoned.  Then she glances over at today’s extra-lethal looking escorts who still hover around her.  The priest catches the look and she remarks, “The Emperor vastly overrates my combat abilities with those Force pikes.  I know there are some Ladies who are fierce.  My Lord, I can assure you that I am not one of them.  And anyway,” she grumbles, “I’m not here to attempt a coup.”

 

Her disavowal makes him smile.  “You pose other types of dangers,” he smirks cryptically.   “Leave us,” Tenebrae dismisses the trio of guards who brought her in.  Then he crosses his arms and cocks his head at her.  “What is it going to take to scare you away?  Lady Struct, are you always so determined?”  He’s complaining but he doesn’t look mad at all.  In fact, he looks downright pleased.

 

Tosca lifts her chin. “I walked into the Emperor’s throne room, didn’t I?   He didn’t scare me.  You don’t scare me either.”  Er . . . not really . . .

 

“Oh, Tosca, you are bold.  I think I’m the one who should be scared,” Lord Tenebrae teases.  Then he proclaims, “You might look like a citizen of the Republic, but you have the spirit of a true Sith.”

 

This flippant attitude angers her and she lets it show. “Do not mock me, my Lord!  This might be fun and games for you, but the fate of my family is at stake!”  She didn’t make this life changing decision lightly. 

 

“I know.”   He looks only mildly chastised though.  Tenebrae is the consummate insider and he has the supreme confidence that comes with being at the upper echelons of the pecking order.  It rankles.  A man of his talents would never face Proscription.  And even if he did, there would be no collateral damage thanks to his confirmed bachelor status.   And so, Lord Tenebrae can’t possibly understand how it feels to be her. 

 

Before she can stop herself, Tosca vents, “You know, those of us who live outside this Palace in the real world have responsibilities.  I am trying to do the right thing in a set of circumstances I cannot control.”

 

“I know.”

 

“Do you?  Do you really?” she challenges.  And now, wary that she has said too much and gone too far, Tosca drops her belligerent stance.  She looks away and sighs.  She’s confused by his glibness.  “Are you testing my resolve or do you really want me to leave?” she asks plainly.

 

“I’m giving you advice,” he answers, “since the Emperor is giving you a choice.   I know how things work around here.  I know how he works.”

 

“Well, I’m staying,” she digs in, shooting him a defiant glare.

 

“Very well,” he concedes defeat.  “Then, let’s eat.  I’m hungry.”  He smiles to lighten the mood.  He is a mercurial man, she’s learning.  One moment, he’s foreboding and stern.  The next moment, he’s casually friendly.  A minute later he is gleefully smirking.  Lord Tenebrae is unlike anyone she’s ever met before. 

 

“Take off that veil and come yell at me over dinner,” he invites.  “No one ever yells at me anymore.” 

 

“That’s why you need a wife, my Lord,” she retorts.

 

“I’m a confirmed bachelor, remember?” he grins back.

 

Tosca sits and dutifully doffs her veil, revealing her hair coiled at her nape.  Lord Tenebrae looks at her expectantly so she removes the pins.  Pale blonde hair tumbles out from its neat knot to cascade down over one shoulder.

 

“I will never tire of watching you do that,” he approves.  Then he pours them both some wine.  “The last woman to yell at me was my mother,” he recalls.  “That was a long, long time ago.”

 

“To your mother,” Tosca lifts her glass in tribute.  “A woman of uncommon sense, I suspect.”

 

He joins her in the toast, saying simply, “To my mother, whom I loved.”

 

This seems like a safe topic.  Tosca runs with it.  “Was she a grand lady?”

 

“Oh, no.  Far from it.”  

 

“She must have had a tremendous amount of Force for you to be her son,” Tosca ventures.

 

Lord Tenebrae shakes his head.  “She had no Force.”

 

“Oh.”  Oooohhh.  Tosca’s eyes widen at this reveal.  So, his mother was not a Lady.

 

The priest looks wistful a moment.  “She was blonde like you.   Pretty and blonde.  But tanned from the sun.”  

 

“You’re a random . . . ” Tosca concludes softly as she pieces it together.  The Force is strongly hereditary.  That’s why marriages are such a strategic play among the Sith elite.   Everyone wants their family to increase or at least maintain their midichlorian count.  But every so often, out of nowhere, children are born with the Force.   Sometimes lots of Force.  Lord Tenebrae must have been one of them. 

 

“How unprecedented . . . ” she breathes.   For a random Force-user to achieve so much is astounding.  But maybe Tenebrae’s extreme age explains it.  He would have been youngish at the time of the war’s end, when the ranks of the Lords were very depleted.  That must have made room for him.  Now, suddenly, his comment about being unmarriageable in his youth makes sense.  Because no one marries a self-made Sith Lord who randomly received the Force.

 

Lord Tenebrae is still reminiscing about his mother.  “Like you, my mother was trying to do the right thing in a set of circumstances she could not control.  I see that now.   I did not see it back then.  I was too young . . . ”

 

“I’m impressed.  I’m really impressed,” Tosca gushes. 

 

He’s not expecting this reaction.  Lord Tenebrae looks up with a skeptical expression.  “Because my mother was a peasant farm wife?”

 

“Because you came so far as a random.”  Tosca thinks now of how hard it is for her own family to get ahead.  The barriers to success for Lord Tenebrae must have been enormous.   She’s very intrigued. “Tell me the story.  How were you discovered?  Who was your Master?   How did you come to be the Master Sorcerer?”

 

Lord Tenebrae looks away.  The smug veneer slips.  His tone is grim.  “It’s a story from a long time ago. No one in it other than me is left alive.”

 

Tosca immediately backs down.  She has clearly raised unpleasant memories and she is sorry for it.  She flushes.  “Forgive me.  I didn’t mean to pry.”   

 

“I can’t blame you for being curious.”  His face twists in a wry grimace.  “My background is atypical for who I am.  I used to think it a great burden.  But I have come to see that it gives me a different perspective than most.  Sometimes those who don’t belong can see the truth of things far more clearly than those who do.”

 

“How so?” she probes.  For as a bit of an outsider herself, Tosca has only ever wanted to fit in.  She’s hasn’t critiqued the in-crowd.  Instead, she has wanted to be the in-crowd with all their advantages.  Their lives look so easy by comparison.

 

Lord Tenebrae thinks a moment before he answers.  “I learned long ago not to buy in to the prevailing values of the Sith upper-class.  That’s a game I cannot win.”

 

“You’re either born a winner or you’re not,” Tosca nods. 

 

“Precisely.  So refuse to play it,” he counsels.  “Let them revere lineage and wealth, but I will revere talent and effort.  I’m far less interested in the potential of midichlorian counts than I am in actual demonstrated Force.  Tosca, I like results, not talk.  Merit is not a birthright in my view.”  He takes a drink of wine and muses, “The status obsession of the Sith elite is pointless and tiresome.  It's useful though.  The Lords are so busy competing with one another for glory and bragging rights that they completely buy into the status quo.  They are very vested in things as they are.”

 

“Meaning?”

 

“The leading families have a lot to lose should the Dark Lord change.”

 

Tosca scoffs. “Who would be fool enough to challenge Emperor Vitiate?”

 

Lord Tenebrae shoots her a pointed look.  “You'd be surprised.”

 

She considers now.  “So long as your buddy the Emperor is in power, you keep your gig as chief priest, right?  Is that your angle?”

 

“Yes.  I am beholden to Vitiate,” Lord Tenebrae smirks.  “I would lose in the usual measures of success.  I lack all the attributes Lords esteem.  A fancy pedigree, formal schooling, a noteworthy Apprenticeship, a military record . . . I have none of those things.”

 

“Because you’re a random,” she concludes for him.  “Tell me your story.  How did you get so far on so little?”   She wants to know in case it will help her own sons in their careers. 

 

The Master Sorcerer looks at her a long moment, as if gauging how much to reveal. 

 

“Please tell me,” Tosca prompts softly.

 

He relents and starts talking quietly while looking away.  “I was a prodigy from a young age.  My power manifested around age six.  It was not a gradual progression like with most children.  It was more sudden.   Like an awakening to the Force.  I did not understand my power and I could not control it.  Only my mother recognized it for what is was.   She urged me to nurture it in secret, but otherwise to hide it.  Among the other villagers, the Force was very suspect.  It was the distinctive mark of the Sith invaders who were our hated overlords.”

 

“Your mother was afraid to lose you?”

 

“Yes.” 

 

As he recalls the past, the priest loses his considerable swagger.   It’s easy to see now that Lord Tenebrae is not the aristocrat he pretends to be.  Because arrogance is not an attitude the ruling class puts on and takes off; it is woven into the fabric of their selves.  And now, Tosca understands his sartorial choices of the full beard and the austere clothes.  They are a subtle statement that Lord Tenebrae does not fully belong and does not wish to fit in anyway.  Even if over a thousand years later, he is now ostensibly one of the Sith overlord invaders himself.

 

“At first, I used my power to help my family.  It was all very innocent. We were simple farmers and our fortunes revolved around the soil and the weather.   And so, I conjured rain and sunshine to ripen crops.  I sent plagues of locusts down on neighboring farms to reduce their crop yields to raise prices at the harvest.  If the bill collectors came when my father was out in the fields, I frightened them away with the Force.  Later, I learned to kill them.”

 

“How did you come to be a Sith sorcerer?”  Tosca asks.

 

“Our world was an agricultural colony, administered by a single Lord.  One day, I killed him and seized power for myself.   I was tired of toiling in obscurity for a life of poverty.”

 

Tosca blinks.  “You staged a coup against Imperial authority?” she whispers with equal parts horror and respect.

 

“Essentially, yes.  My motivations were more personal than political at the time.  But I took over control and started running things the way I thought they should be done.”

 

“That got you noticed, I’m sure,” Tosca breathes out.  This story is so fantastic that it must be true.  “I’m surprised you’re still alive, my Lord.”

 

“I didn’t expect to live,” Lord Tenebrae admits.  “Marka Ragnos was Dark Lord then.  He summoned me.  Naturally, I believed it was for execution, but he surprised everyone by granting clemency in view of my youth.”

 

“How old were you?”

 

“Thirteen.”

 

“Oh, my.”  Tosca chokes.  Her oldest Decimus is thirteen.  She can’t imagine him running an entire world. Young Lord Tenebrae must have been precocious indeed.

 

“Ragnos recognized my power for what it would become.  He sent me back home with the title Sith Lord and told me to rule my backwater world as I saw fit.  At the time, I thought I had been given a great honor to validate my power.  I was too unsophisticated to recognize what he did.”

 

“He made you an ally,” Tosca observes.

 

“Yes, but he rusticated me with no training and no Master. I was very effectively marginalized . . . for a time.”

 

“Yes, I see that.”

 

Lord Tenebrae’s face is inscrutable now as he continues.  “Even though I was alone and self-taught, Ragnos did not succeed in stunting my growth in the Force.  Right before he died, Ragnos summoned me again years later.  He told me that he had foreseen my future.  He wished me good luck and told me to stay put.  He knew war with the Republic was coming, and he knew the Empire would dissolve into factions after his death.  Ragnos told me to stay on the sidelines and let the Lords kill one another while I watched.”

 

“It was good advice,” Tenebrae judges with the hindsight of thirteen hundred years.  “Naga Sadow came to power next with his expansionist agenda.  He himself lived in seclusion while he sent the Lords to the ends of the galaxy. Sadow was Simus’ tool all along.  He called himself a visionary but he was a fool.  Sadow wasted the opportunity he was given and almost singlehandedly destroyed the Empire.”

 

“And then came our savior Emperor Vitiate,” Tosca volunteers the next chapter of history.  For like every Sith, she knows the story of the mysterious Lord who stepped up when there were none left to lead.

 

“Yes,” the priest nods at her prompt.  “The war was lost, the Sith were beaten, we were in full retreat, and our leadership was dead.  Vitiate filled the power vacuum from out of nowhere and set us on a new course.  Back then, all that were left were the very young and the very old Lords.  Basically, those who did not go off to war.”

 

“And you.”  The man who had taken Marka Ragnos’ advice to stay on the sidelines and watch.

 

“Yes.  I was a self-taught Sith who improvised with the Force.   That had its advantages,” Lord Tenebrae contends thoughtfully.  “I was not limited by the biases of my Master or by the orthodoxy inherent in formal training. I was a true original who everyone underestimated time after time.  Over a thousand years later, I am still here while those who mocked me are gone,” he says with an edge to his tone.

 

His conceit seems merited, Tosca thinks to herself.  For what an extraordinary life this man has led.  Understanding now dawns.  Because if this man is as powerful as he claims, then his position has risk.  Lots of risk.  She looks at the Master Sorcerer with fresh eyes now.  “The Emperor keeps you here to watch you, doesn’t he?”

 

Tenebrae puts down his fork.  “It’s not what you think—“

 

“They say the Emperor murders boy babies with high midichlorian counts because he fears a rival,” Tosca whispers.

 

“That’s true,” Tenebrae confirms.

 

“Could you be his rival?” she asks boldly.  “My Lord, are you a prisoner at the Temple too?”

 

“No.  But somedays it feels like I am,” he admits.

 

“I’m surprised you’re still alive,” Tosca tells him again softly. 

 

He smirks.  “Some days, so am I.”

 

“Do you have an Apprentice?” she asks.

 

But before Lord Tenebrae can answer, there is a knock at the closed door.  The priest makes a face and waves it open with the Force.  A young Lord walks in.   He takes a knee in formal obeisance.  This must be the Apprentice she was asking about, Tosca surmises.  Because he’s definitely not a son and he’s taking the pose of a supplicant.

 

“My Lord.”

 

“What is it?”  Tenebrae complains testily.  

 

“Mace has been apprehended.  You asked to be notified.”

 

“Very well, bring him in.”  Tenebrae throws down his napkin and stands to his feet.  His mood shifts perceptively.

 

“And your er . . . guest?”  Tosca sees the man’s eyes dart her direction, taking in the shapeless dress and the scarlet veil laying in her lap.  They mark her for a Temple girl.  The man’s face betrays his contempt and Tosca feels her face flame.  “Shall I summon the guards to take her back to the Temple?”

 

“Lady Struct,” Tenebrae emphasizes the honorific, “will remain.  Let her watch.  She should see this.”

 

The man nods and disappears a moment.  When he reappears, he is accompanied by two red robed guards dragging a Lord between them in chains. 

 

“Lord Mace,” the young Lord announces as the guards thrust the man to his knees at Tenebrae’s feet.

 

The prisoner raises a bloodied face while Lord Tenebrae crosses his arms and glowers.  He is very displeased.  Just seeing his expression sends a shiver down Tosca’s spine.  Gone is the slightly vulnerable cast to his features she saw just moments ago when he spoke of the distant past.  Lord Tenebrae is now firmly in the present and he is all business.  That business is grim, apparently.

 

“You think that you can outrun the reach of the Emperor?” the priest sneers at the captive.  “That you can evade Proscription?   Better men than you have tried and failed.  Tell me, where did you think to go?”

 

The terrified prisoner mutters softly, “I was going to hide.”

 

“Liar!  Where did you think to go?”  Tenebrae demands again.

 

“The neutral zone,” the man gasps.  Even to Tosca’s ears it is a lie. 

 

Lord Tenebrae knows it, too.  “You were running to the Republic!  Going to throw yourself on the mercy of the Jedi while you turn traitor to the Empire?”

 

“No!   No!  I swear it!” the prisoner stammers.   “I would never—“

 

Tenebrae silences the man with a jolt of Force lightning.  He begins pacing before the sprawled prisoner.  Looming over him.  “Your thoughts betray you.  Your failure is complete.”

 

The man ceases his denials. He simply hangs his head in silent admission.

 

“You are a fool to think you would find sanctuary with the Jedi!  They would listen to you tell all about the Empire and then murder you!  Their mercy is a lie!  They are terrified of what we represent.  They fear Darkness because they know the Shadow Force is supreme.  The Jedi have foreseen what Marka Ragnos foresaw:  that the Sith will win in the end and the Republic will fall!”

 

Lord Tenebrae is seething as he continues his angry lecture.  “For over a thousand years we have rebuilt our society and plotted our revenge.  When at last we reveal ourselves to the Jedi, it will not be by the likes of you!”  He punctuates his words with another jolt of lightning.  The prisoner gasps in pain. That earns him another bout of lightning for his weakness.

 

The Master Sorcerer is incensed.  “Now, Lord Mace, you will die.   Not as a proud and loyal Lord proscribed, but as a loathsome traitor.  And in place of you at the Proscription ritual, your oldest son will perish.”

 

The face of the condemned man is ashen at this unforeseen consequence. “No!”  Lord Mace struggles to his knees to beg.  “No!   Spare him!  Faustus is innocent!”

 

Lord Tenebrae is unmoved.  “It matters not.  I will visit the sins of the father upon the son.”  With that chilling statement, Tenebrae lifts his hands and begins shooting continuous Force lightning at the prisoner.  The man writhes on the ground screaming in agony as the pungent acrid smell of fried flesh fills the room. 

 

Tosca can’t watch any more.  She shuts her eyes, covers her ears, and turns away.  But she cannot block out the sound of the man’s screams or the blinding brightness of the lightning that harshly illuminates the room.  Worst of all is the feel of his suffering in the Force.   The pain, the dread, the hopelessness, the longing for it to end . . .    This is less an execution, and more a torture session.  For Darth Mace is dying slowly by inches.  It feels like it goes on forever until finally it ends.  At last, the tormented Lord Mace succumbs. 

 

Tenebrae grunts out his satisfaction and ceases his efforts.  The young Lord withdraws now as the guards drag the smoking body out.   Then the priest turns to Tosca standing clear across the room.  She is still facing away from the gruesome, unwatchable scene. 

 

Tosca can feel Tenebrae’s disapproving eyes on her back.  It prompts her to speak.  “So . . . you are both the Master Sorcerer and the Emperor’s executioner?”

 

He answers quietly.  “Sometimes I kill people, yes.  Punishment comes with my position.”  

 

When she makes no reply, the priest complains, “If you can’t bear to see that, then you need to go home.”  His tone is impatient.  Like she’s a weak, whining child.  “Things like that happen around here fairly regularly.  You will need to get used to it,” Tenebrae informs her.  “Now, come back to dinner.”

 

“I’m not hungry,” she responds automatically.  For who could eat after that??  “Will the Emperor really proscribe that Lord’s son?” she asks fearfully.

 

“Yes.  The son will be an example for all to see.  No one escapes Proscription.  And those who try doom their family.”

 

Yes, she knows.  All except Lord Struct, who will make a different sort of sacrifice.  Her. 

 

“Is lightning how the Proscribed Lords will die?” she wonders aloud, thinking again of Marcus.

 

“No.  But the result is the same.  Dead is dead.”

 

Tosca gulps hard at his bluntness. 

 

Lord Tenebrae walks closer to hover over her shoulder now.  Like some devil come to whisper in her ear.  But he’s not tempting her to sin, he’s shooing her away.  “The Proscription ritual will be much worse than what you just saw.  And all the priests and Temple girls will witness it.   So, if that was too much for you, then you will likely faint at the ritual.”

 

“I’m staying,” she yelps fast, correctly anticipating his next point.

 

But Lord Tenebrae makes it anyway.  “It would be best for you to go home now.  Let Struct be proscribed and move on.  The future for your sons might not be as bleak as you fear.”

 

Maybe not.  But she refuses to find out.  If the point of showing her that execution was to change her mind, it has backfired.  Because now Tosca will agree to anything to keep Marcus from suffering like that Lord did.   She takes a deep breath and quietly repeats, “I’m staying.”  

 

She can sense Lord Tenebrae bristle behind her.  He’s closer now as he softly observes into her ear, “Words won’t chase you away . . . violence does not deter you . . .   I suppose you leave me no choice.  There’s only sex to scare you off.”

 

Tosca flinches at these words, but before she can react his arms slip around her from behind, pulling her close. 

 

“D-Don’t—“ she breathes out, leaning away.

 

Her movement gives him access to nuzzle at her neck as his hands begin to roam boldly. “There is so much of you,” he murmurs into her skin.  “I love it.” 

 

He keeps tracing her curves covetously as she squirms in his grip.  Lord Tenebrae is a lot larger than Marcus, who she topped by several inches and outweighed too. 

 

“My Lord—“ she grinds out her protest.   This feels bizarre.  She’s hardly in the mood for romance after an execution.

 

“You smell like incense,” he whispers as his hands settle on her breasts, squeezing and kneading them. “Like Dark magic.” He’s rubbing against her from behind now in a way that leaves no doubt of his growing enthusiasm. 

 

It’s shocking.   Passion might fuel a Sith’s power, but casual sex is not something they engage in as a rule.  Every bride is a virgin on her wedding night and every wife knows to be chaste or risk her husband’s sword.  There are no stolen kisses even between betrothed pairs, and no interaction between unattached Lords and Ladies beyond verbal flirting.  That context makes this frankly seductive moment all the more forbidden. 

 

What’s worse, it feels so good.  Marcus has been away too long, and she must be starved for physical affection.  Because how else can Tosca explain the rush of desire that floods her?  His beard is tickling her neck as his lips tease.  Together, it’s a brand-new sensation Tosca wants more of.  If this keeps up much longer, she’s going to turn around and pull this handsome priest down into a real kiss to see what that beard really feels like.  And then who knows where things will lead??  Something tells her Lord Tenebrae won’t need much encouragement.  That smoking corpse the guards just dragged from the room must have set the mood.  Tenebrae wouldn’t be the first Sith Lord to get turned on by violence.   After the thrill of the kill comes the lust to dominate in other ways . . .

 

So, Tosca says firmly, “Take your hands off me!” to put a stop to it.

 

Tenebrae is undeterred.

 

Annoyed, frosty Tosca jabs a sharp elbow into his side.  “I said take your hands off me!”  She’s not this man’s plaything.  Not yet, at least.

 

“You volunteered for this,” he reminds her between tongue kisses down her jaw that are making her weak in the knees.

 

Time to show she means business.  That little hint with the elbow didn’t seem to work.  This time, Tosca responds by stomping on the priest’s toe with the full force of her weight behind her heel. 

 

“Owww!”  He backs off and she whirls and marches a few steps away to put distance between them.

 

“The Emperor gave me until the ritual to change my mind.  I’m now yours yet, Lord Tenebrae!” she informs him hotly.  They are both panting now, she sees.  He’s got lust in his eyes and she herself is far more worked up than she would ever admit.  She’s flustered and flushing bright red.

 

He eyes her a moment but finally nods.  “I will respect that.  But if this isn’t what you want, you need to leave.”

 

Irritated by his persistence, she looks away and makes a face.

 

“Look at me!” he commands in a tone that tolerates no disobedience.  So Tosca drags her eyes back to his.  “I don’t want to force you. My own mother was forced by a Lord, although my ten-year-old self didn’t understand it when I learned the truth.  Tosca, I am a man ruthless about what I want, but I am not Dramath.”

 

“He was your father?”

 

“Yes.  I am not Darth Dramath.”

 

“You’re not a random,” she realizes suddenly.  So suddenly, that she blurts out, “Oh Force, you’re a bastard, aren’t you?” 

 

He cringes at the wounding word.  It marks him for an outcast in rigid Sith society.  Tosca is instantly sorry for her words.

 

But before she can apologize, he rasps with true menace, “Lady Struct, I am everything people like you disdain.  I’m uneducated and untrained, illegitimate and unacknowledged.  I’m not even born a Sith—I’m from one of the assimilated conquered peoples.  This,” he sneers with a curled lip, “is who you will consort with if you stay.  So, go home and mother your brats and stay away from me!”

 

“I c-can’t,” she whispers.  “I w-won’t.  And you know that.”  She looks up at him, pleading for him to understand.  “I’m sorry that I called you a—”

 

“Don’t do it again.”

 

“I won’t.  Ever.  I promise.”  She can’t keep the pity from her voice now.  “Your secret is safe with me, my Lord.”  She would never betray such a damning fact to anyone.  How unlucky and humiliated he must feel.  She feels so, so sorry for him.  For this is no fault of his own.  He has all that Force and yet the lowest status of all.

 

Lord Tenebrae looks at her strangely.  Like he wants to say more.  But then he thinks better of it. 

 

“This is why you aren’t a threat,” she mumbles.  “Because even if you surpassed Vitiate’s power, no one would ever accept you as Emperor.  Not with your background . . .”

 

His face hardens.  Like before when he confronted Lord Mace.  “I am who I am,” he says through gritted teeth.  “I can’t change it and I stopped worrying about it over a thousand years ago.  It’s not relevant to anyone any longer.”  Lord Tenebrae looks her in the eye and states the words he lives by.  “All that matters is power.  Power is the ultimate gamechanger to level the playing field.  It is the only measure that counts.  And it is the only thing I care about.”

Chapter Text

By the second week in the cloister, Tosca is beginning to get to know some of the girls.  Inasmuch as she can given the gulf in age and experience, she tries to make friends.

 

Back in the real world, that was never hard for Tosca.  Women like her.  For one, she's thoroughly non-threatening.  Tosca knows she cannot rival other Ladies’ beauty or dim their social prestige.  Her sons won't compete with their sons for coveted Apprenticeships or Academy appointments.  She has no daughters who might snag away an advantageous suitor.  And that context always made other women relax around her.  She's also a reliable, helpful worker on committees and other volunteer assignments.   Tosca shows up and does the work with minimum fuss.  If she makes a commitment, she keeps it.  In the 'look at me' Sith culture of high drama and conflict, she's the easygoing worker bee type who lets others hog the limelight. 

 

But it's more than that.  Tosca knows on some unacknowledged level she helps other women feel better about themselves.  She provides the context to contrast themselves favorably against.   She's the fat friend everyone wants to stand next to in pictures to make themselves look smaller.  She's the dinner party guest it's safe to seat next to your husband.  She’s the dowdy, unfashionable wife who makes everyone else look sleek and chic.  She's also the token example of the in-crowd's open-minded inclusiveness.  Because her family lacks the pedigree, wealth, and Force to justify the circles she sometimes moved in.   She and her family are—well, were—perfectly respectable, but they are not particularly noteworthy. 

 

None of that matters here in the cloister.  Here Tosca has stature.  It’s respect from taking on the matron and from cleaning house a bit.  It’s also probably based a large part on Tosca’s age and hard-won self-confidence. Among a few of the more romantic minded girls, her cover story of adultery probably adds to her mystique.  But one downside of her newfound leadership role is that it makes the girls a bit standoffish. 

 

To counteract this, Tosca makes a determined effort to get to know the others.  To hear their stories without judgement.  To show them understanding and compassion for their predicament. This will take time, she quickly concludes, for many of the girls are deeply hurt, sullen, and discouraged.  Most feel utterly betrayed by their parents who they never believed would follow through on their threats to drop them at the Temple.  Several seem to be spoiled, overly indulged daughters who took things too far and were shocked at the results. Especially one named Poppaea who gets summoned to the bed of the naval commander priest most nights. 

 

Tosca watches the wan, woebegone girl don her veil and march out when she is summoned.   Her heart goes out to the desperate looking Poppaea.   Tosca has never met this naval commander priest, but she knows who he is.  And she hates him for what he does to this girl. 

 

It raises all sorts of doubts and misgivings for Tosca herself.  Because some part of Tosca hates herself for what she has volunteered to do.    Another part of her hates Marcus for putting their family in this position in the first place.  And so, under Tosca’s calm veneer of composure, she too is a boiling font of conflicting strong emotions.   And with each passing day, the deadline for her decision looms.  There is lots of dread involved on her part, but some secret anticipation too.  Though Tosca would never admit the latter to anyone.  Just acknowledging it to herself now raises a fresh round of guilt.  Because somehow Tosca is certain that whatever her relationship with Lord Tenebrae turns out to be, it won’t be like Poppaea and the naval commander.

 

It takes several days, but Tosca finally succeeds in holding a conversation with Poppaea.  It’s not much, but it’s something Tosca hopes they can build on.  Unfortunately, it results in them both being late to Compline.  She and Poppaea are rushing through the Temple corridors with hands upraised to pin on their red veils when the service begins.  They run up to the back of the sanctuary just as the presiding priest starts the chant. 

 

“Uh oh,” Poppaea worries.

 

“It will be fine,” Tosca declares unilaterally in a whisper.  “We’ll stay here at the back until a break in the ritual.  Then we can join the others without being disruptive.” 

 

They remain furtively lurking in the rear until Tosca hears a familiar voice rumble from over her shoulder. 

 

“My Lady.”

 

She jumps and whirls.  It’s Lord Tenebrae, of course.  This man is like a ghost in the Force.  He leaves no personal imprint to tip off his comings and goings.  It’s very strange, especially for someone of such immense power.  Because everyone projects their own specific mental feel in the Force that is unique to them.  Except this man.  He leaves a blank.

 

The chief priest raises an amused eyebrow at Tosca’s reaction.  “I see I’m not the only one late to services,” he drawls as he steps up beside her. 

 

Is she being scolded?  “We had a pressing matter to attend to,” Tosca improvises a vague lie.  “It won’t happen again.”

 

“It was my fault, my Lord.  I was the delay,” Poppaea confesses before she bursts into a fresh round of tears.   Then she runs headlong from the sanctuary.

 

Tosca frowns and debates a moment whether to chase after her.  She decides to let Poppaea go.  She will look in on her after Compline instead. 

 

Lord Tenebrae rolls his eyes at this melodrama.  “What’s the matter with that one?”

 

“She’s homesick and miserable,” Tosca summarizes.

 

“Does she do that a lot?”

 

“Yes.  They all do.”  There are a lot of crying jags and dramatic exits among the Temple girls.

 

“How annoying,” the chief priest gripes.  “I hate weeping women.”

 

The first part of the ritual now ends.  This is the break in the proceedings Tosca has been waiting for to slip forward to join the others.  “Shall we go in?” she looks to Lord Tenebrae.

 

“No.  Stay here.  This is fine to observe.”

 

So Tosca stays put.  But she shoots Lord Tenebrae a questioning look.  “This is the first service I’ve seen you at.”

 

“I am rarely in the Temple.”

 

Huh.  That’s odd.  “Do you study the Force all day?   Or do you teach?” she asks.  She’s curious. “This Temple doesn’t have a madrasa, does it?”

 

“It does not.  This Temple is ceremonial, not educational.”

 

“I see.   That’s too bad,” she judges.  “I suspect you would have much to teach.”

 

Lord Tenebrae disagrees.  “I am not a teacher.  It’s why I have never taken an Apprentice.”

 

Never taken an Apprentice?  That news surprises Tosca.  Most Sith Lords with a prestigious Palace appointment to the Dark Council or the Temple normally have four or five Apprentices of varying ages.  Those high ranking Lords are much sought after Masters.  For the chief priest never to have taught anyone seems very unusual.  “Not once in all those years?” she marvels.

 

“Never.  My techniques are my own.   I will not share them.”

 

“And the Emperor permits this?” 

 

“Yes.”

 

“I guess he’s more interested in filling the military ranks than in making priestly appointments,” Tosca thinks aloud.  Sorcery is considered to be a quaint vocation among many modern Lords.  It lacks the prestige it once had before Emperor Vitiate came to power.  And, well, Lord Tenebrae did say that he has no formal training.  Perhaps that makes him ill-suited for the role of teacher.  But it’s one more peculiarity in the mosaic of facts that make Darth Tenebrae a most unexpected man.

 

“I’m glad I ran into you,” Tosca decides as they stand shoulder to shoulder watching the ritual.  Seeing the girls assembled before her reminds Tosca, “I have a favor to ask you.”

 

That gets Lord Tenebrae’s attention.  He leans in, “Ah, so now I finally have some leverage.  Ask away, my Lady,” he invites.  The words come out as slyly seductive.  Tosca is instantly reminded of that heavy-handed pass he made at her a few days ago.  The incident has lingered in her mind and weighed on her conscience.

 

But she rallies now to speak up.  “There is a garden between the Palace and the Temple.   I saw it when I arrived.  I want to take the girls there for a walk every day in the morning after Prime.”

 

“Why?”

 

“All they do is sit around and brood and pick fights with one another. They need some exercise, some fresh air, and a change of scenery.  It’s too many hormonal teenagers in too close quarters.  Many are terribly depressed, my Lord.”

 

“This isn’t summer camp,” he drawls.

 

That flippant response is very him.  And it prompts earnest Tosca to dig in.  “Even prisoners get some diversion now and then. No one is going to escape. There are guards on the Palace walls.   I saw them too.”

 

“Very well.  I will permit it.”

 

“Thank you, my Lord.”

 

“Any other requests?” he solicits.  He actually sounds like he means it.

 

So Tosca plunges forward.  “That matron woman is awful.  She should be dismissed.”

 

“I have a candidate for her replacement under consideration already.”

 

Oh.  Okay.  “Good.”  Tosca continues with her suggestions.  “Make it a woman with some organizational skills and creativity.  A little empathy wouldn’t hurt either.”

 

“This isn’t summer camp,” he observes again.  Then he leans in to whisper, “You are softhearted, my Lady.”

 

“These girls’ lives are ruined and they know it,” Tosca retorts.  “They are concubines to be preyed upon while their friends and sisters marry and have children.  A little compassion would go a long way around here,” she sniffs indignantly.

 

“You are softhearted,” Lord Tenebrae accuses again into her ear.  But if it’s a criticism, it doesn’t sound like one.  He almost sounds pleased.

 

Is she soft?  Too accepting of the girls’ transgressions and unwillingness to conform to social norms?  Well, maybe.  But what’s done is done and nothing Tosca can do will ever change it.  “I prefer to think of it as helping others to be strong,” she says slowly.  Because that’s really what she wants to do--to build up the fragile psyches of girls who must go on and endure despite the life their families have sentenced them to.  And if Tosca ever meets some of their parents, she plans to give them a piece of her mind. 

 

Her phrasing strikes a chord with Tenebrae. “Will you help me to be strong?”

 

He’s flirting now.  She shoots him a dry look. “I rather doubt you need my help for that.”

 

He smirks back.  Then together they watch the ritual in silence some more. 

 

When Lord Tenebrae speaks next, it’s clear he is mulling over the situation.  “Temple girls are a stupid tradition.  I dislike my Temple being used as a mechanism of social control for headstrong girls whose parents cannot control them.  The girls serve no real purpose.”

 

Hearing his misgivings prompts Tosca to argue hard.  “You should abolish this tradition.   It’s nothing more than organized abuse of women.  Make your Temple an institution of faith and learning instead.  I mean, look at them—do you think even one of those girls believes the words she mouths day in, day out?   I assure you, they do not.”

 

“No one does anymore.  The study of the Dark Force is all about fighting now,” he sighs.

 

“Shouldn’t this place be full of believers?  Of true acolytes of Darkness?   This place is so . . . empty.   It’s the Emperor’s Temple and yet it lacks meaning.”  For all its gilt and stone, this place somehow feels hollow.   The gravitas is all in the look of the place, but not in the feel of it.  And that seems all wrong.

 

Lord Tenebrae now promises, “You will see its meaning at the Proscription ritual.  It will make a believer out of you.”

 

“I don’t understand.”  She’s confused. 

 

“Darkness is about power,” Lord Tenebrae informs her.  “Not about hymns and chants.  Not about curses against the Republic.  This liturgy is stupid.  The majesty of the Dark Side is revealed in its action, not this superficial pomp and circumstance.”

 

“You’re verging on blasphemy,” she warns.  “And you’re standing in a Temple.”  Force lightning might just strike him down at any moment.

 

“Yes,” he shrugs, unconcerned.  “I am quite the heretic,” he confides and Tosca could swear he is serious.  It’s enormously ironic coming from the Master Sorcerer himself.

 

“You could reform all this,” she urges. 

 

“Why bother?”

 

Why bother?  His cynicism perplexes her.  “To make it better.  To make it pure.  To bring us all closer to the Force.  That’s the point of our religion, right?  To align us better with the will of the Force so that it will bring us power and victory?”

 

“I see you learned your catechism as a girl,” he smirks.

 

She ignores the sarcasm.  “You could change the liturgy and abolish outdated conventions like the Temple girls.  You could make things fresh and modern here.  You could make this Temple relevant again.”

 

“Things don’t change around here.”  He shakes his head at her like she’s a slow child.  “And, I told you.  I don’t teach.  I have not lived this long by sharing my knowledge.  All who gain power fear to lose it,” he quotes a maxim of the Sith as he chides her.  “So if my Temple preaches meaningless platitudes and repetitive dribble to an empty sanctuary, that’s fine with me.”

 

His dismissive attitude floors her.  “So . . . you alone have the real knowledge worth learning?”  Is she understanding him rightly?

 

“Yes. But,” he smiles indulgently, “I honor your zeal, my Lady.  Really, I do.  Walk with me,” he invites as he exits before Compline ends.  “Come to the garden before it gets too dark.  See where I actually commune with the Force.”

 

He tugs at her hand and she follows him.  It’s a few quick turns for the exit and then Lord Tenebrae leads her into an expansive garden.  Even in the fading twilight, it’s beautiful to behold.  So teeming with life and bursting with color.  It must look amazing in bright sunlight.

 

“Oh, this is perfect,” she breathes out as she can’t stop looking around.  Everywhere she turns, there is something new to see.  Dromund Kaas is a humid, temperate world originally covered by large rainforest jungles.  The jungles are mostly gone now in the urban areas, but their presence is still remarkably persistent.   For pretty much anything grows on Dromund Kaas with little coaxing.  If Tosca wasn’t careful, the small atrium in her family’s house would return to thick jungle after one or two seasons.   The native plants are hardy varietals that resisted her attempts at pruning.  But in this private garden, someone has allowed the local flora to run rampant.  The result is a green thicket of blooms.  Trees twist with flowering vines and even the groundcover boasts bright colored leaves.  Some of the plants she recognizes but others are clearly jungle exotics. 

 

It’s her turn now to quote the catechism of the Sith.  Taking it all in, Tosca recalls aloud, “Life creates the Force and makes it grow.”

 

Lord Tenebrae meets her eyes.  “Yes.  Exactly.”

 

The garden is laid out with a central grassy clearing surrounded by an oval path.  From the main path, smaller walkways branch out like spokes on a wheel.  Some of them lead to statuary, some lead to cozy benches.  One even leads to a small gazebo.  And even though the garden is bound on two ends by high rampart walls and on the other two ends by the Temple and the Palace, the feel of this place is very private.

 

Lord Tenebrae explains as they stroll through.  “My family grew things.  I was raised surrounded by crops and flowers.  It is how I first understood the Force.”  He muses now, “The tenuous but remarkably interconnected balance of life . . . the ebb and flow of seasons with the passing of time . . . the seemingly random violence and cataclysms of nature that interrupted things . . .   There is a harmony to it all, but also a discord.”

 

Tosca is a city girl. She can’t relate at all to what he’s saying.  But she wishes she could.  Because what he describes sounds so beguiling.  She herself has only ever heard the Force described in terms of emotions.  She, like every other Lord and Lady, was taught to channel strong feelings into power. 

 

“I built this garden as the counterpoint to the Temple.  That place is for show.  It is for others.  But this place is real.  It is for me.  This is where I come to find the Force.  This is where I receive my visions.”

 

“Thank you for sharing this with me,” she gushes sincerely.  She hadn’t realized when she made the request just what a personal space this garden is.  “And thank you for letting the girls visit in the mornings,” she amends.

 

He catches her eye to smile.  It makes the corners of his eyes crinkle. 

 

She smiles back automatically.  Then Tosca looks over behind them.  The fast setting sun has slipped behind the Palace in its position in the sky.  Nightfall is coming quickly.  Already, there are long shadows everywhere.  “The Palace looks so big from here,” she remarks.

 

He follows her eyes and grunts.  “It is big.  Too big.”

 

“Maybe that’s why the Emperor is a recluse,” she wonders aloud. “Maybe it’s because he never has to leave his home.”

 

“That’s nonsense,” Tenebrae scoffs.  “Vitiate is a recluse for strategic reasons.  Familiarity breeds comfort and then contempt.   It’s best for the Emperor to be unknown but feared.  He appears to a very select few.  Even then, he is often disguised.”

 

“The people loved Marka Ragnos.  He was no recluse,” she points out.

 

“Vitiate is no Ragnos,” Tenebrae remarks in a comment whose meaning is lost on her.  “Come, I should bring you back lest that matron woman sends the guards out looking for you.”

 

“She’d do that,” Tosca gripes.  “She’d do that and tell them to shoot to kill.”

 

“My Lady,” Lord Tenebrae informs her flatly, “The guards here always shoot to kill.”

 

“Right.  I’ll remember that.”

 

“Please do.”

 

Lord Tenebrae escorts her back to the cloister, but he lingers a moment at the door.  Looking across at him, Tosca can’t help but recall the feel of being in his arms.  Of his lips on her neck and his hands on her breasts.  Will he try to kiss her again tonight?  Tosca blushes and looks away.  For it feels so disloyal to Marcus to notice yet again how attractive Lord Tenebrae is.  

 

“Tosca, I will not abolish the Temple girls.”

 

She didn’t think he would.  But still, she presses.  “Is it because the Emperor won’t allow it?  Because he doesn’t like change?”

 

“No.  Because if I send them home, I will have to send you home as well.”

 

Oh.  She’s flustered, as always, by his attention.  Lord Tenebrae’s intentions are clear, even if they are not honorable.   And the days are ticking down fast until they become ripe.

 

“We could still be friends,” she offers lamely on impulse.

 

“Not in the way we will be friends here,” he answers.  Then, with a wave of his hand, the cloister opens and the chief priest departs.  And sure enough, the matron is waiting for her, demanding an explanation.  Only hours afterwards does it occur to Tosca that this is the first time she has seen Lord Tenebrae when he didn’t try to talk her into accepting the Emperor’s offer to leave. 

 

Finally, the day before the Proscription ritual dawns.  Tosca is jumpy all day, anticipating a summons to confirm her decision.   But when late in the day a knock at the cloister door comes for her, there are no guards waiting with a hood.  Tosca figures this means she will have to suffer through another uncomfortable interview with the matron.  But instead, it is the senior priest in residence at the Temple, the very aged and slow Darth Vallum, come to collect her.  He greets her with the formal respect the matron does not and bids Tosca to accompany him to the Temple’s main chamber.  Lord Vallum offers Tosca his arm with formal courtesy, and together they slowly shuffle towards their destination.

 

In the sanctuary, Tosca finds Lord Tenebrae waiting. 

 

He stands at the far end of the sanctuary on the altar where he is adjusting a new cauldron in place of the normal red and gold one she’s used to seeing.  This one is much more plain.  It looks from this distance like a large black pot.  Like something you might find bubbling over with stew atop a campfire in a humble peasant’s hut. 

 

Lord Tenebrae looks up as she enters.  That’s Darth Vallum’s cue.  “My Lord,” he rumbles in his croaky bass voice, “I bring you Lady Struct.”

 

The chief priest nods.  He is almost polite as he dismisses the man.  “Thank you, my Lord.  I will see you tomorrow.”  Then, the ancient Vallum slowly makes his way out, leaning heavily on his cane in place of Tosca’s arm.

 

It is the first and only time that she will see the Master Sorcerer interact with his auxiliary priests.

 

Lord Tenebrae beckons her forward and then resumes his fussing over the cauldron.  “I like to use my own,” he tells her as she approaches. 

 

“It’s different,” she says diplomatically.  For what else can you make of a Dark cauldron that looks so well used? 

 

“It was my mother’s,” he explains and now Tosca understands the simplicity of this version.  Because this cauldron must indeed once have cooked food long before it cooked up Dark magic.  What must it have been like to be a poor famer’s wife hiding an illegitimate child of a Sith Lord?  And what must it have been like to be young Lord Tenebrae bursting with talent but wholly ignorant of how to use it? 

 

Tosca looks at the pot and she looks at the man now.  He’s wearing in his simple woven cloak and austerely styled tunic and boots and, of course, that provincial beard.  Tosca realizes for the first time that the Master Sorcerer is somewhat uncomfortable with luxury.  He didn’t grow up the son of a Sith Lord and it shows in small ways.  Like how he prefers his own cauldron over the fancy one.  No wonder, Tosca realizes, he has little sympathy for the fate of her two boys with their Proscribed father.  Lord Tenebrae endured much worse adversity and still prospered.

 

The practical significance of the cauldron is not lost on Tosca.  “You are performing the ritual?” she surmises.

 

“Yes.   This is not something your average priest can do.” 

 

“Oh.”  She had half expected the Emperor to lead the ritual himself.  That’s how she always assumed it would go.    

 

“I have to do this trick every now and then to prove myself worthy,” Lord Tenebrae explains.  

 

“To impress the Emperor?  Will he be here?”

 

“He is always watching.” 

 

“Oh.”

 

“Nothing in the Force escapes his notice.   And this will make a great disturbance in the Force.  All who matter on Dromund Kaas will sense it.  That’s not by accident.”

 

She nods.  “Are you nervous?”

 

He shrugs.  “I’ve done this before.  Many times.” 

 

“Right.”

 

He’s seemingly satisfied with the placement of the cauldron now.  He busies himself with the placement of the candelabras and incense pots.  Clearly, Lord Tenebrae has strong preferences for how he likes things to be positioned.  As he works, he talks.  “You won’t like tomorrow.” 

 

“I know.”  He’s warned her.

 

“I’m going to kill four hundred men with the Force.”

 

“I know.”

 

“It is necessary.   We cull the herd now and then for the good of the herd.”  

 

“And if the Emperor is displeased?   What happens to you?   Are you culled too?” she asks bluntly.   Suddenly, she’s worried for him.

 

The priest answers with a non-answer, “We all serve at his pleasure.”

 

“Of course.”

 

He seems to be finished now as he looks up to survey with approval the empty sanctuary that tomorrow night will be packed with people.  “There’s no one else in the priesthood with a command of the Force like myself.    Four hundred is a lot, but I’ve done bigger groups in years past.  And actually, once you get above a hundred, it might as well be thousands.  The effort is the same.  So is the effect for the most part.”

 

“How long have you been the chief priest?” she wonders aloud.

 

“Since the Emperor took over.”

 

“So all the Proscriptions through the years have been your doing?”

 

“Yes.” 

 

That troubles her.  “Tell me the Emperor is real and not some smoke-and-mirrors puppet prop in the throne room.  Tell me he’s the real deal.”  She and the rest of the Sith have placed their faith in the Emperor to lead them into the future.  Could this man Darth Tenebrae be the real heft behind the Imperial majesty?

 

The priest turns to look her in the eye as he warns, “Tosca, do not underestimate the power of the Emperor.  And do not question his authority openly.  Nothing good will come of that.”

 

Chastised, she nods.  “Yes, my Lord.  Forgive me, my Lord.”

 

He looks her over, still troubled.  “I summoned you here because now is when I need your final decision.  The Proscription List will be published at midnight.  So, tell me.  Are determined with this foolishness?” 

 

“Yes,” Tosca answers firmly.  “I will take the veil to save my husband.”

 

She can’t tell if he is pleased or not.  Sometimes this man is very readable.  Other times, not.  

 

“Very well.   Struct’s name will be removed from the List.”

 

Tosca audibly exhales her relief at this confirmation.  “Thank you, my Lord.”

 

“Officially, you will be sent to the Temple for adultery.  Publicly, it will be an act of mercy by your longtime husband.   But make no mistake, Struct will know that you are the sacrifice for his Proscription.”

 

Tosca nods even as she cringes at how this will dredge her good name through the mud.   If she ever does emerge from the cloister, she will be a pariah.  Shunned by all her friends for her pretend transgression.  But Tosca gulps back her fears for the future. There’s no point in worrying about that now.  

 

Does Lord Tenebrae sense her anxiety?   He steps closer to confide, “Tosca, when our friendship is over, you do not have to return to Struct.  But if you wish, I will ensure he takes you back.”

 

She looks away now, worried how that might look for Marcus.  “I suppose that by rights, my husband could kill me for adultery.”  The adultery that is the pretext for her life here but will be the consequence as well.  Because while she might not have betrayed Marcus yet, she will.  It’s part of the bargain.  Lord Tenebrae has made that very clear.  She is, after all, a Temple girl. 

 

“He's only alive because you are here.” 

 

It’s true.   And the risk is minimal.  “Don’t tell anyone,” she sighs, “but Marcus couldn't hurt a fly.  He's terrible with a sword and he's the first one to admit it.  I could out-fence him, I think.”

 

Lord Tenebrae grunts his disapproval. “That's why he got himself on the Proscription list.”

 

She rallies to her Lord’s defense. “He's a good man. Marcus is a good husband and a good father.”  

 

“Maybe so.  But he's a lousy Lord.  Tell me,” the priest looks at her curiously, “is he worth it?   Are you doing this more for him or for your children?”

 

Tosca knows the answer to the first question but not the second.  “Yes.  Marcus is worth it.  Absolutely,” she says with conviction. 

 

Lord Tenebrae grunts again his disapproval. “His loss is my gain, I suppose.” He starts walking now and gestures for her to follow.  Together, they pace the perimeter of the empty chamber.  

 

“Who gets to decide when this end?” she ventures to ask.  She might as well spell out the details of this relationship now.  And besides, this is very Sith of them.  Because if marriage requires lawyers, a contract, and a negotiation, then adultery as a Temple harem girl probably requires at least a frank discussion.

 

“Either of us can end this,” he responds.  “All along, I have wanted this to be your choice.  Like we are equals.”

 

“I am a Temple girl.  You are the Master Sorcerer.  We are not equals,” she points out the obvious. 

 

The priest shrugs. “Maybe not in power and position.  But we can still be equals to one another.”   He seems troubled by her questions.  So he reassures her, “Never fear, Tosca, I will treat you well.  I will not give you cause to regret me.”

 

“I still don’t understand why you are doing this.”  Because why her?   Why not one of the other more appealing girls? “I don’t get it.”

 

He looks over in rebuke.  “I could say the same for you.”

 

“You have said that. Over and over again,” she grumbles.  

 

“Then never say that you were not forewarned, Lady Struct,” he rumbles.  But his tone is thoughtful now. “I am fourteen hundred years old.  I thought I had seen it all.  But then you walked in one day.  Looking like some blue-eyed, flaxen haired Republic duchess come to ransom her captive husband.  You were one part damsel in distress and one part Lady of the manor.  I was smitten.” 

 

She shoots him a skeptical look.  “Liar.”

 

“Well, I was certainly intrigued,” he equivocates with a smile.  “For look what the Force has sent to me.”

 

“The Force doesn’t send you a woman—”

 

“Why not?” he challenges.  “Don’t you believe that the Force answers prayers?”

 

And now, it’s her turn for an uncomfortable remark.  “You are lonely, my Lord.  I see that.”   He bristles at her side as they walk, so she anticipates his objection.  “No, don’t deny it.  There is no shame in it.  I suppose it is hard to find a peer for a man in your position. I guess only the Emperor would be your peer.  And certainly, very few women . . . if any.”

 

He scoffs with a reflexive arrogance she has begun to understand.   Whenever this priest feels vulnerable, he takes refuge in his ego.  “You are nothing compared to my power,” he sneers.

 

Yes, she knows.   This man is very proud of his power.  Perhaps because he has little else to be proud of.  

 

“That’s the point, isn’t it?   Power is what you have, not what you lack,” she says softly. He’s the opposite of Marcus who is rich in family and love, but poor in achievement.  They really could not be two more different men.

  

Lord Tenebrae glowers but does not respond.  He’s not angry, she senses, so much as embarrassed. Fourteen hundred years is a very long time to be alone, she decides, but declines to comment.  

 

“So, that’s it?  You’ve stopped trying to talk me out of it?” she asks mostly to change the topic. 

 

“Yes.”

 

 She can’t help but tease a little, “Admitting defeat?”

 

“No.  It’s a change in strategy.”  He stops walking and she halts too.  Lord Tenebrae turns to her.  “I would be disappointed if you reneged.   Very disappointed.”

 

Something in the way he says this makes her inhale quickly. “Oh.” 

 

He flashes the smirk she’s seen many times now.  “I have my own self-interest to think of.”

 

 “Right.  Of course.” 

 

He reaches forward and she thinks it’s to take her hands in his.  But it’s not.  It’s to lift her crimson veil.  He tosses the filmy fabric back to reveal her face to him.  His yellow eyes search hers now.  “I look forward to tomorrow night when you are mine,” he rasps.  

 

Tosca swallows hard at this especially plain speaking.  And now, she too wishes to be clear.  To set expectations.  “My Lord, I will always belong to another.”  She is married to Lord Struct according to the laws and customs of their kind.  With the consent of both their families, with marriage contracts signed and fulfilled, she and Marcus plighted their troth and slashed left hands in a Temple under moonlight.  She was a virgin bride naked under her transparent dress.  He was a Sith Lord in full ceremonial armor and the hooded cloak.  Plus, they have two children to prove their consummation.  The marriage is legal and binding in every way ‘til death do they part.  And since tonight Lord Struct will receive clemency and be removed off the Proscription List, Tosca will remain married even after she takes the veil and commits adultery to save her husband.  

 

Lord Tenebrae is looking at her intensely and it prompts her to repeat herself firmly.  “I will always belong to another.”

 

“No.”  He wags a finger before her nose.  “After the ritual, you belong to me in every way that matters.  That is the choice.  Do you understand?”

 

Tosca gulps.  

 

“Do you understand??” he demands.  

 

“Yes,” she whispers.  Because what other answer can she give? 

 

“You will be good for me,” he tells her.  “In this den of whores, you alone are a lady.”

 

Not really.  Not like he believes.  Tosca remembers now the rush of desire she felt in this man’s arms and worries that she’s no different from the wayward girls who ended up in her position the usual way.  She looks down.  “I’m not nearly so good as you believe.”   

 

“Yes, you are.   I can sense it. You and I will be something special.  I have foreseen it.” He gets the last word on that topic.   Tosca lets the point go.  She knows better than doubt his Force foresight. 

 

“I must go now to meditate to prepare for the ritual.”  He intercepts her right hand and raises it to his lips.  He drops a kiss on her fingers in the courtly fashion of a bygone era that was likely his youth.  After a conversation that has felt more like a negotiation of terms, it’s arrestingly suave.  Tosca is charmed.  “Until tomorrow night, my Lady,” he bids her farewell.  Leaving her standing watching him leave.  

 

 

Chapter Text

The time for the ultimate Dark ritual has finally come.  This is the hour that Tosca has been dreading since Marcus first confessed that he was on the List and their lives fell to pieces.  Two weeks later, her husband is safe thanks to her bargain with the Emperor.  But still, the anticipation for tonight is awful.   Because first comes the ritual she has been warned against.  And then . . . there will be Lord Tenebrae to confront.   Tosca is a mess of nerves.  It takes all her self-control not to fidget.  

 

The stage is set.  All the pews have been removed from the sanctuary. Everyone will stand tonight.  The air is hazy and thick with cloying incense that has been burning for hours.  It clouds her vision and closes her throat.  All along the walls of the sanctuary, torches are lit and blazing.  There is smoke, there is fire, there will soon be death.  All the hallmarks of war are here tonight, as befits a holy rite of the Sith.

 

The spectators are assembled as well.  In the far rear of the sanctuary hover the cloaked and hooded members of the Dark Council.  These are the greatest Lords of their day, the preeminent men of their respective vocations, come to witness the Proscription.  The priests in residence stand upfront on the right side of the altar at the right hand of the empty cathedral throne reserved in absentia for the Emperor.  Tosca stands with the other Temple girls on the left side of the altar.  Like the other nuns, atop her veil she wears a woven crown of white flowers intertwined with thorns, symbolizing the purity that comes from pain.  It’s yet another metaphor for a ceremony that will be replete with symbolism.   The Sith love their stagecraft, but they tend to be heavy handed with the messaging.  Subtlety is not a Dark Side strength.

 

The prelude to the ritual is solemn, as befits the occasion.  The majordomo from the Emperor’s throne room walks to the rostrum.  He begins to read the names of the condemned as the men silently file into the chamber in neat lines.  “Lord Abuse . . . Lord Addict . . . Lord Alarm . . . Lord Animus . . . Lord Assert . . . Lord Attack . . . Lord Battalion . . . Lord Bereft . . . Lord Bereaver . . . Lord Bellicose . . . “

 

The doomed Lords wear their shiny ceremonial armor, their heavy boots thumping softly and formal capes brushing against the stone floor.  Each Lord wears at least one sword.  Several carry unusual stylized weapons like spears and axes.  For they are here to die a warrior’s death.  Loyal to the end to the Emperor who has lost confidence in them.

 

“Lord Blister . . . Lord Bloodshed . . . Lord Capture . . . Lord Clash . . . Lord Combatant . . . Lord Confront . . . Lord Debilitator . . . Lord Deformer . . . Lord Despair . . . Lord Discord . . .“

 

All the Lords have their hoods thrown back to expose their faces.  Uniformly, the men are in their middle years—forties, fifties, sixties.   They are seasoned enough to have matured in their field of work but not yet on the downhill slope of their career.  The Emperor does not proscribe young Lords still finding their way or old Lords past their prime.   The Dark Lord of Lords reserves this harsh judgment for men he believes have had their chance, but failed. 

 

“Lord Disfigure . . . Lord Dispatcher . . . Lord Dispute . . .Lord Dread . . . Lord Eliminator . . . Lord Execute . . . Lord Extinguisher . . . Lord Feud . . . Lord Fright . . . Lord Gall . . .”

 

Had these unfortunates lived during another decade or two, they might have escaped their fate.   For the Emperor can go fifty or more years between publishing Proscription Lists.  But alas, someone has to draw the short straw.  And these men are it.  Because the expectations for Lords are high and, as always, it is sink or swim with the Sith.  From boyhood to manhood, the stakes are steep and the competition is relentless.

 

“Lord Gloom . . . Lord Grief . . . Lord Grim . . . Lord Harm . . . Lord Hatred . . . Lord Impair . . . Lord Impale . . . Lord Infiltrate . . . Lord Inflict . . . Lord Injure . . .”

 

The list goes on and on.  Given the rigid conformity of Sith society, no doubt each of these Lords leaves behind a wife and family.  That means there are four hundred households who will lose a husband and a father tonight.  Tosca can’t help but think of her own family who she has spared this fate.  Will Marcus understand her decision?  Or will he hate her for what it requires?  She still wishes she could have told him a proper goodbye . . .

 

“Lord Injustice . . .Lord Inveterate . . . Lord Lacerate . . . Lord Maim . . . Lord Misery . . . Lord Molest . . . Lord Monstrous . . . Lord Mourn . . . Lord Mutilate . . . Lord Pain . . .”

 

Here it is, the night of the Proscription ritual and still Tosca doesn’t know how to feel about her decision.  She is someone who can handle a lot.  She makes things work.  But can she cope with this?  On some level, taking the veil seems like a paltry exchange for Marcus’ life and their sons’ futures.  But then again, she is sacrificing her personal dignity and autonomy, and that should not be discounted.  Yes, this is her decision.  No one put her up to this.  No one pressured her to go through with it.  But still . . . this is a sordid affair . . . and on some level, she is complicit in it.  She’s not a victim like poor Poppaea.  At least, not entirely.

 

“Lord Parch . . . Lord Paralyzer . . . Lord Pugilist . . . Lord Rage . . . Lord Ragged . . . Lord Raven . . . Lord Ruin . . . Lord Siege . . . Lord Scorch . . . Lord Skelter . . .”

 

They are into the S names now.  Tosca can’t help but hold her breath, fearful that the Emperor might renege and the name Struct will be called anyway.  She wouldn’t put it past the notoriously ruthless Vitiate, who is rumored to be very duplicitous.

 

“Lord Sorrow . . . Lord Sore . . . Lord Spear . . . Lord Stalk . . . Lord Stake . . . Lord Starve . . . Lord Stern . . . Lord Storm . . . Lord Strife . . .”

 

She’s dying inside.  It seems like forever before the majordomo says each name.

 

“Lord Suffer . . . “

 

“Oh,” she breathes aloud a sigh of relief, prompting a curious glance from the girls at her side.  Have they guessed what Lady Struct was worried about?  Thankfully, the alphabetical list has moved on past her husband.

 

And still, the names drone on.  But in her relief, she mostly tunes them out now.  “Lord Terror . . . Lord Thane . . . Lord Thunder . . . Lord Torn . . . Lord Tremor . . . Lord Ulterior . . . Lord Ultimate . . . Lord Vendetta . . . Lord Vex . . . Lord Victor . . . “  They are getting towards the end of the List now.  The room is almost full with forty rows of ten men standing in formation.  “Lord Vigor . . . Lord Vortex . . . Lord Wane . . . Lord Woe . . . Lord Wound . . .”  The last to enter is not a man, but a boy.  The majordomo announces, “Faustus Tenax, in place of Lord Mace,” and Tosca’s mother’s heart goes out to the innocent child.  It is so unfair that he be punished for his father’s treason.  It compounds the mass tragedy of tonight.

 

The Force is heavy with dread, fear, and excitement as the litany of the condemned comes to an end.  The victims are assembled.   Now, it is time to begin the executions. 

 

The majordomo calls the Lords to military attention.  Then Lord Tenebrae walks out in a nondescript black cloak with the hood pulled low to obscure his face, just like the members of the Dark Council standing at the back.  In this guise amid the thick smoky haze, he is utterly anonymous to a casual onlooker.  Even the beard is hard to discern.  But Tosca knows it’s him from his walk and his bearing.   Do the others in the chamber realize that this is the chief priest presiding instead of the Emperor?   Tosca thinks it rather disappointing that the Dark Lord would delegate such a task.  It seems the ultimate in disrespect for the Emperor not to personally conduct the ritual for those he proscribes.  He owes these loyal men an honorable death inflicted by their leader himself.  Vitiate ought to do his own dirty work, Tosca thinks to herself.

 

The majordomo signals again and the Proscribed Lords all take a knee in the traditional pose of supplicants before the Emperor.   They speak in unison in Kittat their melancholy salutation:  “Ave, Imperator: Morituri te salutant!”  Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you.

 

Lord Tenebrae, the secret stand-in for the ultimate Sith Master, responds with more Kittat and a wave of his hand.  “Avete vos.   Vis vobiscum.”  Fare thee well.  May the Force be with you. 

 

These are the parting words Naga Sadow exchanged with his Lords before the disastrous invasion of the Republic, the words the much beloved Marka Ragnos used with his subjects, and countless other Dark Lords before them.  Like so much in the Empire, they are a tradition handed down and slavishly observed.   Times may change, but the Sith do not.  For the Shadow Force is eternal and one day will reign supreme.  But the pursuit of that goal requires tonight’s deaths.   For as Marka Ragnos once famously said, complacency, not the Republic, is the true enemy of the Empire. 

 

And now, the ritual proper begins. 

 

Lord Tenebrae nods to the priests.  They begin their beseeching low repeated chant “Veni sanctus spiritus ex tenebris”  Come holy spirit from Darkness.  Tosca and the other girls soon join in the chant an octave above at a perfect fifth.  The monotone music repeats over and over hypnotically as Lord Tenebrae steps forward, raises both arms, and begins to conjure the Dark Side. He stands at his cauldron, deep in trance-like concentration.  Soon, the chamber fairly vibrates with the Force.  The hair on Tosca’s arms stands straight up and there is hard pressure on her eardrums and at the back of her throat. 

 

“Vis nobiscum!” The Force is with us! Lord Tenebrae declares and somewhere someone rings out a clanging bell.  That’s the cue for everyone in attendance to make the sign of the cross—right hand to the forehead, then the middle of the chest, then the left shoulder and the right shoulder.  It’s an ancient Sith charm to ward off the Light and bless yourself with Darkness.

 

The chant continues louder now and so does the escalation of Dark power.  It builds and builds and now Tosca can feel the Force pulsating like a heartbeat in her chest.  It throbs fast and hard like a drum.  Does she hear it?  Does she sense it?  She can’t tell.  Maybe both.  But it seems as if the collective life Force of all in the room is in unison.  Tosca’s heart beats in time with the girls at her side and with the men about to die.   All life in the sanctuary is aligned and focused and under Lord Tenebrae’s command.

 

And then, the single, unified rhythm breaks.

 

The chant dies away awkwardly.  Everyone is breathing too hard to sing.  And they are too distracted in any event.   For the men down below in the sanctuary begin to yield their Force.  Slower, and slower still becomes the pulsating sensation emanating from their group. One man at the front shudders and slumps forward as the first to fall.  As he slumps, a blue mist of visible Force wafts up from his body to travel towards Lord Tenebrae.  It swirls around the priest and disappears.  Then another man slumps and more blue mist envelopes the Master Sorcerer.

 

Tosca watches in horror.  This is the visible evidence of a soul leaving its body to adhere to another.   Tonight’s ritual is more than an execution that kills and sends the Force of the condemned back to join the universe at large from which it came.  This is theft.  The condemned yield their Force to another completely in an unprecedented transfer of power.   Lord Tenebrae is literally absorbing their lives, she realizes.

 

The men start falling fast as the ritual gains momentum even as the thumping sensation slows to a halt.  Everywhere Tosca looks, men are prostrate face down dead.  The air is shimmering with blue mist arising and wafting towards Lord Tenebrae.  It’s like seeing four hundred ghosts rising from the dead to join together and possess a new body.   This is Sith alchemy at its most complex and daunting.

 

This is the stuff of nightmares, she thinks.  Watching it, Tosca can only feel pity for all involved.   Most especially for that child of fifteen or sixteen who must be the oldest son of Lord Mace who tried to run. 

 

It takes ten minutes, maybe less, for all four hundred men to perish.  But it feels like ten hours.  Soon, the chamber is silent.  Full of dead men and speechless onlookers. 

 

“Factum est.  Derelinquas me.”   It is done.  Leave me.  Lord Tenebrae dismisses those left alive and standing:  the priests in residence, the Temple girls, the Lords of the Dark Council, and the guards.   Tomorrow, the priests will burn the bodies where they lay, Tosca knows.  It will sanctify the Temple in fire and blood to renew this holy sepulcher of Darkness.  But for tonight, the dead men will lay in state as testament to the Dark power of the Sith leader, who is really Lord Tenebrae in disguise.

 

Disturbed Tosca steps down from the high altar and shuffles out with the others, casting a last glance behind her as she prepares to leave.  What she sees concerns her.  Lord Tenebrae stands leaning on the altar table with both arms.  His hooded head is hanging down.  Something about that posture alarms her.

 

“Aren’t you coming?” It’s Poppaea asking as a guard anxious to depart rudely pushes between them.  Temple girls merit no respect from anyone in the Palace.  Plus, no one wants to linger at this grisly scene.  People are fleeing to the exits.

 

Tosca glances back again at the figure at the altar and hesitates.  “I’ll catch up with you.  Cover for me if the matron asks.”

 

More rushing guards walk between them now as Poppaea nods and exits.  Only Tosca lingers watching everyone leave as she lurks in the corner shadows. Soon, it’s just her, the dead men, and Lord Tenebrae in the sanctuary. 

 

He knows she’s here.  From high on the altar many meters away, the chief priest slowly raises his head.  Even at this distance and with the low hanging hood, the expression she sees scares her.  But not for herself.  For him.  

 

“My Lord,” she whispers.  In the silent empty room, her words carry.  

 

Lord Tenebrae drops his head again.  

 

“My Lord!”  

 

Tosca lifts her skirt and picks her way through the aisle of dead men and dropped weapons to the front of the sanctuary.  Up close now, she can see the subtle tremble to Lord Tenebrae’s hands he leans on. Every now and then, his hands seem to emit blue sparks that creep up his forearms.  It’s like he cannot contain all the Force he has consumed.  It leaches out of him involuntarily. 

 

He warns her now in harsh guttural Kittat.  “Noli tangere me!”   Do not touch me.  

 

His words stop her advance.  And that’s when she realizes what he is doing gripping the altar.  He is grounding himself for the discharge of all that excess energy, giving it a pathway to flow into another object.  Concerned for her own safety now, wary Tosca hangs back.  And waits.  

 

“My Lord, are you alright?” she ventures after a long moment. 

 

He relaxes somewhat now, lowering his shoulders as he rights his stance and lifts his palms off the altar.  Then, he looks to her.  Lord Tenebrae’s eyes are normally the perpetual golden hue that denotes exceptional accomplishment in the Force.  But now they are glowing yellow with blotches of red, like little hemorrhages.  It looks painful.   Tosca tosses aside her flower crown and throws back her veil for a better look.  She approaches to peer at him.

 

“My Lord??” she prompts when he still does not answer.  

 

Finally, he speaks and it sounds like it takes great effort.  “I ordered everyone away. But you didn’t listen. You never follow instructions, do you?” His voice is so deep and so low that it’s almost unrecognizable.  He sounds like some groaning god of death.  And Tosca could swear she hears him more with her mind than with her actual ears.

 

“How can I help?   I want to help—“

 

“Everyone else shrinks away.  They’re afraid, as they should be. But you’re not afraid of me. You fool!” he gasps.  Then staggers.  

 

She’s at his side now.  But still fearful of touching him.  “Tell me what to do—“

 

That sets him off.  He snarls, “Run away!   Run back to the cloister!  Take your temptation and your goodness and flee while you can!”

 

Oh Force, she thinks.  From this distance, he looks terrible.  Unsteady on his feet and deathly pale.  Forgetting the risk, Tosca reaches a hand up to cup his cheek. “Look at me,” she commands.  He turns those spooky eyes to her and Tosca feels how alarmingly cool he is beneath the beads of perspiration.  “Oh, my Lord, we should summon a medic.”

 

“I am not ill,” he croaks out hoarsely.  He sounds indignant.  “I am Dark.  Too Dark!  I need . . . a few . . . moments . . . “ he exhales wearily.

 

Tosca drops her hand, not sure what to make of this answer.  “Oh.”  She hadn’t known what to expect from Lord Tenebrae after the ritual.  She was worried after yesterday that he would drag her off to bed.  But this situation had never occurred to her.  Because after that impressive feat, he is weakened and not empowered.  It seems wrong somehow.  All that Dark glory should have strengthened him.

 

Her face must mirror her dismay because he’s angry.   He jeers, “Have you come to take care of me?  To help me to be strong?  Like those silly girls who follow you around as their new mascot?   Don’t mother me!   I had a mother once and I . . . I . . . ”

 

She interrupts as his words trail off again. “You’ve done this before. What helps? Tell me and I will help you—“

 

“Go away!  Stupid woman, you should listen!”

 

“Shut up!” she tells him, impatient with his resistance.  “Shut up and tell me what you need.   I’ll go away,” she mutters, “but first, I’m going to help you.  You sent even the guards away.  There’s no one left but me to help you.”

 

“Managing, meddling woman—“

 

“Here, lean on me.” Tosca snakes a hand around his torso.  “Let’s get out of here.”   

 

“Stubborn woman—“

 

“Let’s get some air.”  The hundreds of bodies lying about surely can’t help if he’s too Dark, she judges. And Tosca herself can hardly breathe from all the thick incense.  This place feels stifling with its gloomy, smoky, melancholy malaise.  She glances over at the hundreds of bodies and blanches again.  Yes, they definitely need to get out of here.

 

Lord Tenebrae agrees even as he shoves her aside. “I can walk.  I’m not weak.  I am never weak,” he proclaims.   But his stumbling gait belies his proud words.  It’s like he’s drunk on Dark power, intoxicated with the destruction he has wrought.  Weaving as he shuffles forward.

 

Lord Tenebrae shudders again and Tosca is there to prop him up.  This time, she anticipates his rejection.  “Just tell me where to go.  I’ll get you there and leave you alone.” Little sparks of blue still travel up and down his twitching arms, zapping and popping.  It’s static from the energy that binds the universe together.  As Tosca grips him, the sparks get on her too.  It’s a strange feeling.  Like a jolt of adrenaline.  “Where should I take you?”

 

“The garden,” he requests.  “Take me . . . to my garden . . .”

 

Yes, the garden.  That’s where he likes to find the Force.  Perhaps the garden will help him find his equilibrium again.  Tosca drags the priest outside with a firm grip, walking him forward to the small grassy meadow in the middle.  The garden is unlit but the full moon overhead more than compensates for the lack of illumination.  “Steady now.  Here.  This is better.   Catch your breath.  Let’s find a bench--”

 

“No, this is fine.” Gulping down air Lord Tenebrae nods, “This helps.  I feel alive.  I need to feel alive.”  He just murdered four hundred men with his mind.   And not by violence, but by draining them of their Force to bolster his own.  The Master Sorcerer of the Empire is brimming with Darkness and overflowing.  He is sated with death and now craves life.   “No bench.  This is fine.”

 

But he sways again.  “Whoa there!” Tosca intercepts him before he falls.  She’s tall and strong with plenty of mass behind her to prop him up.  But he’s not pushing her away any longer.  Instead, Lord Tenebrae clings to her, his head lolling to rest on her shoulder as they embrace.  She can feel the stress radiating off of him. He’s still so rattled.  Panting from the exertion of their short walk and covered in a cold sweat.  

 

Tosca tries to talk him down.  “It’s over.  It will be okay,” she soothes as she strokes at his back.   Like he’s Lucius upset and discouraged that he lost yet another saber match.  “You’re okay.”

“Darkness is dangerous,” the priest gasps in a shaky voice.

 

Yes, Darkness is deadly.  Tonight had demonstrated that very clearly.  “It’s done.   You’re done now.”

 

“It will consume you if you let it.  Once it’s done lashing out, it destroys from within—“

 

He’s babbling now.  She just lets him talk.

 

“That’s why Darkness can’t win.   Because once we defeat others, we will defeat ourselves.  We will turn on one another.  It’s why the Sith will never rule the galaxy.  Not for long, at least . . . ”

 

“Shhh.   Do not doubt.   Do not fear.  Darkness is supreme,” she assures him.  “We will win in the end.”  She quotes him Dark Side chapter and verse.  “We will get revenge.   Once more, the Sith shall rule the galaxy.”

 

“We won’t.  We can’t. I know it for certain,” he chokes out.  “Fourteen hundred years a Sith has taught me the fallacy of Darkness . . . ”

 

What is this—an existential crisis of faith?  And after such a display of power?  It makes no sense.   This man has to be the strangest choice ever for the chief priest of the Dark Side.  Because he really does sound like a heretic.  What he’s saying probably borders on treason too, Tosca thinks.  She furtively looks around to make sure they can’t be overheard.

 

“Just rest now,” she soothes. “That’s your fatigue talking.  In the morning, you will be renewed and so will your faith.”  After all, this is a man who only loves power, or so he proclaims.  And tonight, he just absorbed an awful lot of power.  He should be happy.

 

“Everyone trusts me to lead us to victory, but I know we can’t win.   I’m beginning to think that the only way to win is not to fight.”  Lord Tenebrae is raving now, his words tumbling out like a confession.

 

She’s a little embarrassed for him, honestly.  “Shhhh.  That’s for the generals, the admirals, and the Emperor to decide.  Not a priest.   You did your part tonight.  Let them do theirs.”

 

“You don’t understand.  No one understands.  But that doesn’t make it less true.  I keep asking the Force to show me the answers.  I pray for guidance.   Really, I do . . . ”

 

“The Force sent me, right?” she jokes, trying to lighten the mood.   

 

But he takes her seriously.  Lifting his head, he responds, “Yes.  Yes, it did.  But I still don’t know why.”

 

Tosca tries to encourage him now.  “What you did in the Temple--it was . . . it was . . . “  How does she describe it?  Because it was absolutely horrifying but amazing too.  She settles on, “Impressive. It was very impressive.  With power like yours on our side, the Jedi don’t stand a chance.”

 

“You’re missing the point,” he gripes in her ear.  “I have seen the enemy.  It is ourselves.”

 

“My Lord!” she shushes him.  “Stop that talk!  Someone will hear!”

 

“It doesn’t matter—”

 

“Yes, it does!  Will tonight be acceptable to the Emperor?” she worries aloud.   Because if he doesn’t please the boss, he might be in trouble.  Especially if the Vitiate knows of his unorthodox views.

 

Lord Tenebrae sighs on her shoulder.  “It’s fine. He will approve.”

 

“Can he do what you did?” she asks in a curious half-whisper.  “Or did you have to do it tonight because he cannot?”

 

That question earns her growling rebuke.  “I told you not to underestimate the power of the Emperor,” the chief priest complains. “Do you ever listen??”

 

She’s only mildly chastised.  “Not as much as I should.  Sorry, my Lord.”

 

“The Emperor once did that ritual to eight thousand men at once,” he informs her angrily.  Tenebrae brags on his boss.  “He could easily do that again.  Any day.”

 

“Eight thousand--” Tosca breathes out her disbelief.

 

“Yes.  He was blind for weeks afterwards. He wandered in literal darkness for forty days and forty nights in the wasteland he had accidentally created.  He took so much Force that the ritual got out of control.  He consumed and destroyed all life—the people, the animals, even the plants—on Medriaas.”

 

“I’ve never heard of that world.”

 

“You won’t.  There’s nothing there.  He sucked it dry of the Force.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“That’s when he realized he had made himself immortal.  Because he couldn’t die of thirst or starvation.  He had too much Force in him to sustain him.” 

 

Tosca’s eyes widen.  “So the rumors are true—he really is immortal?”

 

“Yes.  He is the ultimate power in the universe,” Lord Tenebrae proudly announces in an approximation of his normal voice.  “No one can kill him.  Nothing can hurt him.”

 

Judging by the chief priest’s condition after the ritual of a mere four hundred, he is clearly mortal and can be hurt.  But Lord Tenebrae seems a bit better now. His breathing is more normal.  He’s more lucid and composed sounding as well.  Tosca steps back from their embrace that suddenly feels awkward.  She squints into the dim light as she assesses him.  “Feeling better?”

 

“Yes,” he confirms.  

 

“Then let’s get you inside.  You should rest more.  Here,” Tosca hooks a supporting arm into his, “I’ll help make sure you get there.   Show me the way to your rooms.”  She feels responsible for Lord Tenebrae now.  Because if she leaves the chief priest out here spouting blasphemy, who knows what will happen?

 

“My rooms?” he repeats blankly.  Then he nods emphatically as he accepts.  “Yessss.   My rooms.  Take me to my rooms.”

 

Chapter Text

Lord Tenebrae starts giving directions as together they slowly head into the Palace.  This is the first time Tosca has been inside the corridors of power without a security hood on, other than her foray into the public areas near the Emperor’s throne room.  This portion of the giant complex looks nothing like the bustling grand black and red hallways she remembers.  They enter some side door into what she mistakes for a servants’ entrance.  From there, they take a twisting, winding route through corridors that all look exactly the same.  Everywhere Tosca looks, she sees the same blank grey walls devoid of decoration.  Even the floor looks seamless, without variation. Every so often, they get in an elevator.   Those all look exactly the same as well. 

 

“You know, even without that security hood, I would never find my way back here,” Tosca assesses. “This place is a maze.  I feel like I’m going in circles. But I don’t think we’re going in circles.”

 

“That’s the point,” Lord Tenebrae explains.  “You have to know where you are going to get anywhere in the private areas of the Palace.  The Emperor is paranoid about assassins.”

 

“Well, then this is a dumb strategy,” she grumbles, “because anyone who belongs here knows the way.  And it would be an insider who stages a coup, not some random Jedi.”

 

“It was built with Jedi in mind. Long ago, the Emperor had a vision of two Jedi brothers coming to attack him. One wore a mask.”

 

Tosca squints over at the priest whose arm is tucked through hers.  “Jedi don’t wear masks, do they?”

 

“This one did.”

 

“Huh.  Well, whatever.   Did the two Jedi ever show up?”

 

“Not yet.  But they will.”

 

“How do you know?”

 

“Because the Emperor has foreseen it.”

 

“Right.  How much farther?” she complains.  “This place is big.”

 

 “It is big,” he agrees.  “Too big.”

 

“Tell your boss to give you a room closer to the Temple, will you?” Tosca complains some more.  “No wonder you’re never at Prime or Compline.  It takes too long to get there.”  Tosca is getting annoyed now.  She pulls to a halt, forcing him to stop. “Yes, we’re definitely going in circles.  Are you sure this is the right way?   Because I think I have passed that same guard three times now.” She points to the Force pike wielding uniformed thug they just passed.  

 

Lord Tenebrae seems pleased with her reaction. “Different guards.  You just can’t tell at a glance.  The interior guards are clones with essentially the same Force imprint.  They are very hard to discern, but easy to control.”

 

“Oh.  That was clever.  I guess the Emperor thought of everything,” Tosca decides.

 

“He’s a clever guy,” the priest smirks.   Then he tugs her forward.  “Take the next left.  We’re almost there.”

 

But Tosca’s mind is still on the guards and how this will look.  This jaunt is somewhat risky, it occurs to her. “Those guards will know I was here,” she frets.  “Will it get you in trouble?”

 

“No.”

 

“What if someone tells the matron?” she worries aloud.  “I’m not supposed to be out of the Temple. And oh, wait,” she realizes that her veil is still thrown back exposing her face.   That’s not allowed either. “Whoops.  I forgot. I’m still not used to this thing—“

 

“Leave it.” Lord Tenebrae intercepts her hand as she reaches to pull down the fabric.  “I’d rather see your face.  I hate those stupid veils.”

 

Tosca shoots him a look.  “The matron doesn’t.  And if she hears from a guard that I was out without it, we’re going to have words again.”

 

“I will take it from their minds.  The guards will not remember either of us,” the priest assures her.

 

“You can do that?” She’s impressed. 

 

“I can do anything,” he boasts.  And after what she saw in the Temple, Tosca half believes him.  

 

“So,” he slants a sideways glance her direction, “Have you had words with the matron before?”

 

“Yes.”

 

His blood speckled yellow eyes twinkle at her.  “Did you win?”

 

“Let’s just say that we understand one another better now,” Tosca prevaricates.  

 

He laughs.  “That’s a yes, isn’t it?”

 

“That woman does not know her place,” Tosca harrumphs.  In hierarchical Sith society, knowing your place matters.  A lot. 

 

“I don’t know my place,” Lord Tenebrae smiles mischievously at her.  “I am definitely not where I’m supposed to be.”  It’s a vague allusion to his humble, illegitimate background and they both know it. 

 

“At your age and with your power, it probably doesn’t matter,” Tosca muses blithely. “But you are the exception, for sure.”  And that’s a good word for this strange man, she decides.  For he truly is exceptional.  He’s unlike anyone she’s ever met before.  “Most of us have to play by the rules,” she reminds him.

 

“I break the rules,” he boasts.  

 

This guy brags a lot, she’s noticed.  It’s more than the usual Sith arrogance.  He strikes her as very insecure.  And that’s no surprise given who he is.   “Lucky for you that you can get away with it,” she sighs.  “But I guess it helps when you know the guy who makes the rules.”

 

As they approach their destination, Lord Tenebrae seems recovered.  He might be masking his weakness well, but to her eyes he’s back to normal.  The priest no longer lumbers side to side with heavy effort.  Now, he’s striding and Tosca is the one lagging behind.  She has to move fast to keep up.  

 

“This is the most exercise I’ve had since I got here,” she jokes.  But it feels good. 

 

“We’re here,” Lord Tenebrae announces as he suddenly halts.  

 

“Ummm . . . where?”  Tosca looks around in confusion as she nearly trips over him.  Because she doesn’t see a door.

 

 Lord Tenebrae flashes a smug look over his shoulder.  Then he waves a hand and the wall before them appears to dissolve.  In its place is an entrance into living quarters.

 

“Wow.  I’ve heard of doors being locked with the Force but this takes it to a whole new level,” Tosca marvels.  “What did you just do?”

 

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” Lord Tenebrae answers and he seems half serious about it, too.  But nonetheless, he ushers her in.  “Welcome to my home sweet home.”

 

“Nice.  Very nice,” Tosca’s eyes light up as she steps inside. The Master Sorcerer lives in a giant apartment aerie in the sky with panoramic windows on all sides.  The interior furnishings are plush and luxurious, but it’s the exterior that immediately catches her eye.  Tosca walks to the nearest window to look out.  “Does the Emperor know you have this view?” Surrounding them is the evening skyline of Kaas City.  It is a gorgeous display of lights.  “When it’s daytime, can you see the jungle from here?” she asks as she peers out. 

 

“Yes.”

 

“Wow.  Living here could really go to your head.  It’s like you’re the master of all you survey,” she jokes. 

 

“Actually, I am,” the priest confirms.  Which she takes to mean the spiritual master of the Sith.  Because there he goes bragging again . . .

 

Tosca cocks her head. “Well, I guess now I know why you don’t mind the long walk to the Temple.  This view is definitely worth it.”

 

“Come,” he bids her.  “That’s not the view to see. There’s a better one.”

 

Tosca follows him to the far end of what is essentially one giant studio apartment.  It’s where the chief priest sleeps.  He waves a hand and the ceiling above the giant bed opens to another window.  Only this one is on the roof.  “Go on. Look up.  This is the real view.”

 

Uncomfortably aware of the alarm bells going off in her head, Tosca dutifully peeks up. It’s a clear night with a full moon and bright twinkling stars.  It makes for a breathtaking celestial tableau overhead.  Tosca’s jaw drops.  “Oooooo, how beautiful,” she whispers.  Then, she steps back and smiles perfunctorily at the priest.  “Well, I’m glad you’re recovered.  Get some rest.  Goodnight, my Lord.” 

 

She starts walking fast towards the direction where they entered.  She’s purposely trying to get away from that bed before Lord Tenebrae gets ideas.  Playing it cool, she calls nonchalantly over her shoulder, “Please summon some guards because I will be wandering the hallways for days trying to find my way back.  And then someone might shoot me since I’m out of the Temple—"

 

Lord Tenebrae follows on her heels.  Yes, he is feeling much better because he easily reaches her side and intercepts her hand.  “No.  No guards tonight.  Tosca, tonight you stay here.”

 

She stops short and swallows hard.  She had thought herself off the hook for that sort of thing given the condition Lord Tenebrae had been in after the ritual.  And that was maybe half an hour ago, if that long.  

 

“My Lord—“ she begins her protest. 

 

He cuts her off with a stern look and an imperious tone.  “It’s time to pay up, my Lady.”  He steps forward now and boldly yanks her forward to claim her mouth with his own.   It is an unrelenting kiss that rocks her on her heels and has her clinging to him to remain standing as he presses closer, ever closer.  Suddenly, their roles are reversed and he’s the one propping her up. 

 

Tosca didn’t see this coming.  And never in her life has she been manhandled like this.  She’s a bit shocked.  If this were any other man and any other situation, she would toss him across the room with the Force for such effrontery.  And then, her husband would deal with the issue as a matter of honor.  But she’s a Temple girl and this is the chief priest who just murdered four hundred Lords with the Force.  That changes things immeasurably.

 

His mouth is full of lust with an edge of desperation.  It takes her breath away. But when they both come up for air, he merely shifts his lips to her jaw and neck.  It’s illicit passion with aggressive, lustful urgency.   And that’s everything Sith culture protects highborn Ladies and girls from . . . usually.

 

Tosca jerks away.  “My Lord, I hardly think you are up for—“

 

“Do not underestimate me,” he growls.  

 

It’s a warning she takes seriously. Because as she blinks at him, Tosca realizes he might be right.  Lord Tenebrae looks like a man capable of anything just now.   Those bloodshot yellow eyes of his look so Dark.  So dominant.  Suddenly, he appears every bit as dangerous as he had in the Temple earlier, only now he’s completely in control.   The manic frailty she had seen in the immediate aftermath of the ritual is gone.  In place is a Sith Lord who looks very determined.  

 

It’s intimidating. 

 

And, yikes!  Tosca had walked right into his bedroom chatting the whole time, not realizing what lay ahead.  Because after the ritualized mass murder comes the command performance for sex.  After the show of Force, comes the bargained for seduction.  Maybe she shouldn’t feel blindsided, but she does.  What a stupid fool she had been to suppose she could elude this moment for at least one more night.

 

Tosca steps back. And then back again. 

 

But Lord Tenebrae steps forward.  “Take off that veil.  Take down your hair,” he orders.  

 

She nods automatically.  Because though his voice is soft, his command is firm.  And he has all that lethal Dark Force she witnessed earlier to back it up.  She reaches a tentative hand up to fumble for the comb that nestles the red fabric in her hair. Then, she starts picking pins from her loose chignon with trembling hands.  She’s sucking in quick breaths, suddenly terrified that this moment has actually come.   She’s as nervous now as she ever was as a virgin bride on her wedding night.

 

Her bun tumbles down and Tosca automatically fluffs her thick tresses to loosen them.  Lord Tenebrae nods his approval as her pale waves tumble everywhere askew. 

 

“Take off the dress,” he orders next.

 

She chokes, “My Lord—”

 

“Take off the dress.”

 

Tosca can’t help it—she blinks back hot tears that rush to blur her vision.  For though she agreed to this, it is still an emotional moment.  Lord Tenebrae might not like crying women, but she can’t suppress her distress.  Just because she accepts this bargain doesn’t mean she wants it.  She would never be in this position if Marcus’ name were not on the Proscription List.  

 

“Take off the dress,” the priest rasps yet again, staring at her like a man transfixed.  Maybe she ought to be flattered that he’s so intent on her, but truthfully this is frightening.  Tosca has a lot of self-confidence in other situations, but not in this one.  Her courage deserts her.

 

So, she gives herself a quick pep talk.  She can do this.  She has to do this.  She gathers her skirt fabric in her hands.  There’s no need to unzip this shapeless sack of a dress. She simply takes a deep breath and whips it fast over her head. 

 

Then she stands there red faced and humiliated, staring at her toes in her shoes.  She’s spilling out of her black lace bra on top.  As usual, her big breasts overfill their support.  Thankfully, her bottom half is amply covered by her half slip.  Because while it’s terribly unfashionable, nothing smooths over dimply curves under clothes like a bias-cut silk half slip.  It does wonders for her bottom heavy overripe hourglass figure.  

 

It also draws his attention.  “A petticoat,” he muses with a smirk.  “How quaint.  Women wore those back when I was a boy.” 

 

She fidgets but says nothing.  Lord Tenebrae’s unwavering gaze feels so uncomfortable.  His slow perusal makes Tosca certain she’s being judged and found lacking. And that’s just one more reason that this moment feels terrible.  And to think, she sort of liked this guy.  She even helped him.  What was she thinking?   She shuts her eyes and it prompts a tear to leak out.  She wipes at it quickly, but there’s no hiding her distress.  She’s never been this undressed before a man who isn’t her husband.  

 

“Keep going,” Lord Tenebrae instructs.  His voice is softer this time.  Less like an order and more like a request. 

 

Still looking down, Tosca somewhat defiantly steps out of her shoes. 

 

That cheeky move prompts him to chuckle. “Well played.  Keep going.”

 

Now, it’s time for a strategic choice.  Tosca opts to shimmy down her panties and keep the slip on.  It will keep her big thighs she’s self-conscious about under wraps a little longer.  

 

She risks a glance up and watches as his eyes find her panties on the floor.   It prompts him to shrug out of his cloak.  Anticipation is written all over his face.  

 

“More,” he rasps as he reaches for the buttons on his tunic and starts to undress himself. 

 

More??  Oh, Force, this is really happening, isn’t it?  Tosca slowly reaches behind her for the clasp to her bra as his eyes bore into hers so intently that she looks away.  She’s all thumbs with the hooks as she fiddles and then hesitates.  Suddenly, she panics.   Tosca whirls and walks a few paces away.  She raises a worrying hand to her face.  “I’m sorry,” she exhales raggedly.  “I just . . . this is new to me,” she finishes lamely as she struggles to keep her composure.  This is harder than she thought it would be.  

 

He’s at her back now, his hands on her upper arms, as he leans into her ear. The commanding tone is gone.  Lord Tenebrae is consoling now.  “It’s alright.   You would have disappointed me with a strip tease.   Because you cannot seduce a whore and there’s no point in corrupting a wanton.”

 

She’s confused.  Was this some sort of test?  Because Lord Tenebrae doesn’t sound annoyed.  If anything, he is approving.  

 

He lifts her long tresses over one shoulder as he confides, “I like your virtue.  I admire your dignity.“   He busies his hands at the back of her brassiere as he promises, “What others fail to appreciate, I will worship.”  The clasp to her bra parts.  His hands slide the straps away from her shoulders.  Then they reach around greedily for her bare breasts. 

 

Tosca gasps at the unabashed intimacy.  She tugs away but he intercepts her.  “Do not be afraid,” he soothes.  “We can take this slowly.”   And now, she’s back in his arms, drowning in his thorough kiss once again. His mouth is insistent and his hands are bold.  He leaves her slip on, but he hikes it up to caress underneath.  Sinking his fingers into her ample bottom.  Squeezing all that extra flesh she wishes wasn’t there.  

 

Tosca doesn’t know what to think as her body starts to respond.  It prompts a crisis of conscience. She’s uncertain how much she should be participating in this seduction.   Should she be passive and let the priest have his way?   Should she be fighting him? Or should she too be seeking pleasure?  Is one choice more disloyal to Marcus than the other?   Or does it even matter at this point?   Guilty Tosca can’t decide.  But she’s learning fast that Lord Tenebrae is very hard to resist.  Because his bare hairy chest feels so good against her naked breasts. 

 

His body is the body of a scholar of the Force. He’s a sorcerer, not a warrior, and it shows. The military Lords might discipline their bodies to hone them to lean rippling muscle, but this priest has the physique of a man with a desk job.  His shoulders are broad and his chest is wide but his strength is merely average. He clearly doesn’t spend hours swinging a sword or jabbing a pike.  And from what Tosca knows of Lord Tenebrae, that sounds about right.  His ally is the Force.  This sorcerer disdains a weapon, she remembers. 

 

“You’re so full of compassion,” he pants into her ear like it’s dirty talk.  Other men might be seduced by beauty, but this Lord is hot for goodness.   “I kill hundreds of men and you’re worried about me afterwards.  I loved it,” he confides between languid, drug-like kisses.  “Fuss over me again soon, my Lady.   Show me your soft heart that matches your soft body.”  He squeezes her hip to punctuate his words.  It may have been many centuries since Lord Tenebrae was a farm boy, but the experience has left a lasting imprint.  She is so lush, so bountiful he tells her as his hands knead her chest and her bottom.  You are like the fields in late summer before the harvest.   “Don’t ever starve yourself.  I like how fecund you look.  Like you could last through a lean winter into spring.”

 

Tosca is equal parts dread, fear, and excitement. But as daunting as this feels, there is no denying that on some level she is enjoying this.  And maybe she might as well because it’s not like she has a choice. And so, despite his promise to go slowly, things progress quickly.  They are both getting worked up fast. 

 

“I laid eyes on you and I wanted you,” he rasps.  “That is a rare thing.  I mostly despise the ladies of your class.  So haughty and high maintenance, so temperamental and status obsessed, always concerned for how they present themselves.  You were none of those things.  You were like one of the village wives I remember growing up.”  Lord Tenebrae says this like it’s a compliment. 

 

Maybe it’s fourteen hundred years worth of women, or maybe it’s just Tosca’s lack of experience for comparison, but this man is making all the right moves.  His touch is so beguiling.  Firm but gentle.  But like a steel fist in a velvet glove, it holds the very real threat of danger. Because she knows firsthand how lethal this man is.  It makes Tosca automatically want to please him. For even if Marcus’ life were not at stake, her own might be.  And so, between her bargain with the Emperor and his power, Lord Tenebrae has her thoroughly manipulated. 

 

Between kisses, he keeps talking.   “I knew it was the Force at work, tempting me with your wholesomeness.  For no ordinary Sith Lady could turn my head.  It took a Republic-looking blue-eyed blonde come to coax me to mercy.  There is a lesson there, but I have not yet divined it.”

 

Tosca has nothing to say to this.  But it seems the time for talking is over because Lord Tenebrae is ready for action.  He takes her by the hand to lead her to bed.  There’s no turning back now.  Before she knows it, he’s fully naked and on top of her.  And oh, all that flesh on flesh feels good.  

 

He’s back to issuing orders again.  “Open your legs.  Make your sacrifice,” he growls into her hair. 

 

Tosca closes her eyes.   Forgive me, Marcus, she thinks, as she parts her thighs and holds her breath.  

 

“Yessss,” the priest hisses.   He’s pleased as he reaches to stroke her where no man but Marcus should.  “Surrender your goodness.   Betray him for me.”

 

Tosca gulps.  That’s not exactly how she thinks of this arrangement.  In her mind, she’s saving her husband.

 

Lord Tenebrae positions himself now. He is looming over her with those blood speckled yellow eyes as he whispers, “He doesn’t deserve you.  I deserve you.   I deserve it all.  Give me everything,” he demands.  Then he thrusts in.  Hard. 

 

“Oh!” she cries out.  The feel of him inside is very different.  This isn’t like making love to Marcus.  Looking up into Lord Tenebrae’s intense expression, all Tosca can think is that she’s being ravished by the demon priest of Darkness.   It’s like some secret torrid fantasy come to life, like an embarrassingly submissive daydream you would never actually want to live. Except this is happening for real.  She’s in bed with another man.  Feeling him hard and throbbing inside of her.  Tosca shuts her eyes for a moment of true regret and self-loathing. 

 

But the deed is done now.  When he starts to move, Tosca loses her all lingering resolve to remain passive.  This friction just feels so good.  Before she can stop herself, she’s meeting him thrust for thrust.  Straining and squeezing to maximize the sensation.  Reveling in the physicality of sex.  

 

“Yessss,” he purrs triumphant. “You want this.   You want me.”   He pounds his hips into hers to underscore the point. “Tell me that you want me.  Say it!”

 

Is that a true request?  “My Lord,” she pants out, “I . . .  I . . .”  She can’t say it.  

 

“Say it! Do not deny it!”

 

But she refuses to say those words aloud.  She will not dishonor her husband any more in this moment.  So, she gasps out the first alternative that comes to mind.  It also happens to be true.  “Oh, don’t stop!  Please don’t stop!”  She’s so close to tipping into oblivion. Any moment now—

 

“Such a good girl. But I am going to fuck you bad,” he chuckles, using vulgar language a Lord would never use with a woman of her class. “And you’re going to like it. You came in here Struct’s Lady but you will leave a whore.  My whore!” he pants as he redoubles his efforts. And oh, that feels so good if she can just tune out his hateful words.  

 

“I will corrupt you every night.”   He croons it like a lover’s promise, like an endearment.  “I will taint you with Darkness if you will shine your Light on me.  Give me your mercy and I will make you scream in ecstasy.”

 

Light?   Er . . . what??  Did he say Light?  Tosca is only vaguely hearing him as her mind blanks and reboots from ultimate pleasure.  She arches up, throws her head back, and issues a gasp of “YES!” that he probably mistakes for agreement.  

 

He is pleased, very pleased.  “You wear that veil for him, but you spread your legs for me.  You are mine now!  You will take care of me!  You will learn to love me!”  He is insistent . . . almost jealous sounding. 

 

Her head lolls side to side as she silently dissents.  But Lord Tenebrae’s monologue quiets.  His face is inscrutable—it could be pleasure, it could be pain—as he concentrates to work his way to his finish. With one last mighty heave, he spends himself with a deeply satisfied groan.  Then he collapses onto her.  

 

Tosca lays there.  Uncertain how she feels.   And even more uncertain how to react.  He rouses to kiss her closed eyelids now, sweet and feather-light.  So tender after all his harsh words.  Tosca doesn’t know what to make of it.  Any of it.

 

“Stay Light for me.  It is a rare and precious thing.”

 

She blinks up at him. She’s offended.  “Don’t call me Light.  Please don’t call me Light.”  He can call her a whore. Maybe that label is fitting now.  He can say she looks like she belongs in the Republic. But he can’t call her a traitor or a heretic.  She draws the line there.  ‘Light,’ with all its loaded connotations, stings.  “I am not Light,” she contends, feeling close to tears again.   Who is this man that he thinks he can seduce her and call her names?

 

He sits up next to her. Wrapping a strand of her hair around his finger, toying with it as he nods in response.  “As you wish, my Lady.”  Is he humoring her?  She can’t tell.  She barely knows this man even though they have been to bed. 

 

Tosca looks over to see her dress on the floor across the room.   She decides that she needs to get out of here.  Now.  How does she extricate herself from this situation?  She doesn’t know.  Tosca is unsophisticated about a situation like this.  One-night stands and extra-marital sex are not a Sith thing.  So, she mumbles, “Good night, my Lord,” as she begins to sit up.  She’ll make a dash for her dress and shoes and go from there.

 

Lord Tenebrae anticipates her.  He lays a heavy, restraining hand on her shoulder as she leans toward the side of the bed.  “We’re not done yet.”

 

Tosca freezes. 

 

“We’re not done yet,” he repeats.  There is no threat.  This man doesn’t need to threaten.

 

Tosca relents and lets him tug her back down.  He is contemplative now as he busies himself spreading her hair over her shoulders.  He loves her hair, she’s noticed.  From there, he reaches to fondle her breasts.   As he keeps touching her, always touching her, he explains, “It’s been seven hundred years since I kept a woman.”  That’s a long dry spell, even for a Sith. Passion might be the path to Dark power, but Lords are generally not known to overly indulge in carnal pursuits. Because between long deployments and strict training regimens, and given the rigid prohibitions on premarital and extramarital sex, the Sith don’t get much opportunity.  As one neglected Lady once complained privately to Tosca, power is the new sex. 

 

But Lord Tenebrae is making up for lost time tonight because he seems to have the stamina of three men.   No sooner does he tug her back down, then he begins again.  Coaxing and teasing her to commence the next round of pleasure.   Tosca goes along with it, of course.  Once is not enough for this Lord.  Twice isn’t enough either.  For it goes on and on.  He has her on her back, face down, on her side, and on her hands and knees.   Tosca learns that no position is awkward or uncomfortable with the assist of the Force to maneuver you around. 

 

This definitely is not like having sex with Marcus.   This Sorcerer Lord is in no rush—it’s not the race to the finish she’s used to, after which you cuddle five minutes, roll over, and fall asleep content.   That’s sex as an act to complete, like a bodily function that fulfills a need and checks a box for the week.  This is more like a determined pursuit of pleasure.  It’s less about the big moment and more about the process to get there.  And so, Tosca loses all sense of time and place in his rapturous, drawn out kisses.   It’s like one big blur of lust.   On some level it is bliss, yet it’s also very much a nightmare.

 

Lord Tenebrae narrates the whole time.  His themes are the same:  she is his for the taking, she’s so good, too good for him, and she’s beautiful—so unique and different in a way he loves.  She reminds him of his long-ago childhood, not the prevailing Sith beauty standards that he disdains.  Tosca herself keeps quiet.  Only once or twice does she speak up to tell him to stop.  He’s hurting her.  Please don’t, she requests.   He always complies and moves on to the next thing.

 

When the marathon sex session is done, Tosca lays exhausted on his chest.  His hands are in her hair again. Stroking her tangled waves absently in the lazy, sweaty afterglow.   Are they done finally?  She hopes so.  She can’t take much more of this.  It’s too much. 

 

“My name is Carl,” he reveals without preamble.  “I was born Carl Veradun.  When we are alone together—when no one can hear—call me Carl.”

 

“Yes, my Lord.”

 

“Yes, Carl,” he corrects gently. 

 

“Yes, Carl,” she echoes obediently into his chest.  

 

Carl.  It’s not a Sith name.  Lords are Gaius, Junius, Paulus, Quintus, or Severus.  Or maybe Octavius, Titus, Publius, or Agrippa.  But never Carl.  The single syllable has such a dull, flat, declaratory sound to it. It must be a name from his original indigenous people.  A name for a local farm boy for whom little was expected.  Not an elegant name for the Master Sorcerer of the Sith Empire.

 

“How did you choose your Lord name?” she asks.  It’s an old style Kittat name, which is fitting given his advanced age, but unusual today. 

 

“Tenebrae was the name Ragnos bestowed on me when he made me a Lord.  I was thirteen.”

 

“Lord of Darkness,” she translates the Kittat.

 

“Marka Ragnos knew even then what I would become.   He knew that I would rise.  That I would outlast everyone.  Like Darkness itself, I endure.”  Lord Tenebrae says this proudly, if a little sadly.  Then, he muses over the past.  His sex talk is all about good and evil, but his pillow talk is all about power, she’s learning. 

 

“Ragnos had keen foresight.  But it didn’t matter. You cannot evade the cosmic Force.  Its will is done despite our best efforts.  Visions are always some form of self-fulfilling prophecy.  You try to subvert them but only end up ensuring their inevitability in the end.”

 

“It must be a great burden to know too much of the future,” she remarks softly as she stifles a yawn.  Maybe if she keeps him talking, he will fall asleep and she can leave.  It becomes her new strategy.  “If I knew the future, I would be too tempted to change it,” she confesses.

 

“Therein lies the trap,” he sighs.  “Because you cannot escape your destiny.  I know.  From time to time, I have tried.”

 

Tosca tries flattery now.  “You must be a wise man to have realized your destiny.”

 

“Just an old man,” he explains.   “When you live many lifetimes, you have plenty of time for introspection and discovery.  Plenty of time to watch visions eventually come true.  I’m never in a hurry to do anything any longer.”

 

“Time is on your side?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“So what is your destiny?” she asks. “Why are you here, Lord Tenebrae?”

 

“Carl,” he chides her.  “My destiny is power.  I used to think power was the goal.  Now, I’m wondering if power is the means.”

 

“The means for what?”

 

“I’m not sure.” He sounds genuinely perplexed. 

 

Tosca thinks a moment.  And then, the answer is obvious. “Isn’t power the means for victory?”  After all, those are the twin pillars of the Empire: commitment to Dark power and to victory over the enemy Republic.

 

“But what is victory?” he challenges. “Is it victory to conquer the enemy only to create enemies amongst ourselves?”

 

“You demean the valor of the Sith,” she speaks up in defense of the Lords.  “Ruling the Republic would give everyone plenty to do. There probably aren’t enough Lords to administer all those systems.  Everyone would get a promotion.”

 

“There is always enough work to go around.  But there is never enough power,” he observes dryly. “You have only lived in a time of stability.  You have never seen what happens when infighting runs amok. When Lords get big ambitions.  Vitiate keeps a tight grip to hold them in check.   The status quo has an inertia all its own.”

 

“It keeps him in power.”

 

“Yes, but it keeps the Sith unified as well.”   Then, he drops a bombshell.  “The Emperor will never invade the Republic. Not directly.  Vitiate will never risk an all-out war again.”

 

“Not directly?  Who would volunteer to do it for us?” she scoffs.

 

“I don’t know.  Maybe the Chiss.  Maybe the Mandalorians.”

 

“The Manda—what?”

 

“They are a warlike tribal system in the Republic.  The closest thing the enemy has to the Sith.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“We could ally with them and still stay anonymous.  Safely hidden.  They could do our dirty work for us.”

 

Yes, she thinks, it’s the same outsourcing strategy the Emperor took with tonight’s ritual:  get someone else to do it.  And where is the honor in that? Emperor Vitiate is turning out to be a big letdown the more she learns of him, Tosca thinks. 

 

“You sound as if you are afraid of the enemy,” she complains to Lord Tenebrae.

 

“I am.   You should be too.”

 

She frowns.  “Does the Emperor think like you do?”

 

“Yes.   These are his ideas.”

 

Tosca half sits up. “You’re not just a priest, are you?” she accuses.  “You’re some sort of advisor to the Emperor, right?”

 

“Something like that.”

 

“Why are you telling me this?” she now demands.  Suddenly, she’s worried for what it might mean to be privy to such secrets.  “I don’t think I should know this,” she frets.  “This knowledge is dangerous.”  Well, maybe not.  No one would believe her if she told them.  That’s how preposterous it all sounds.

 

Lord Tenebrae pulls her back down into his arms. Then, he rolls over on top of her.  He’s on his knees and elbows as he begins to kiss her deeply.  “Keep my secrets, my Lady,” he croons into her ear, “and I will keep you safe.” And then he begins to grind into her.  More, he wants more.   This man can’t seem to get enough. 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Tosca opens her eyes and is momentarily disoriented.  Where is she?  She’s in her bed in her small room in the cloister, naked and wrapped in a bed sheet.  Someone dumped her veil, clothes, and shoes in a pile on the floor.

 

She sits up slowly, wipes the sleep from her eyes, and runs a hand through her disheveled hair, catching her fingers in the tangles.   She smells like sex and sweat.  His sweat.  As memories of last night flood her mind, Tosca lowers her head into her hands.  And that’s when she hears a soft knock at the door. 

 

Tosca tucks the bedsheet closer up around her armpits as she calls out weakly, “Come in.”

 

It’s Poppaea.  “You’re awake.”  She walks in and immediately closes the door.

 

Tosca looks the young girl up and down.  She’s fully dressed complete with veil.  “Am I late?”

 

“It’s almost ten.”

 

“Ten??”  Tosca blinks in surprise.  “Oh.”

 

“We just got back from the garden.”  Poppaea shrugs as she plucks out her own veil.  This girl of seventeen is far too jaded for her own good.  “Be glad you missed Prime.  They burned the bodies,” she reports.  “The smell was terrible.  The cleaning crew is in the Temple now but there’s not enough bleach and droids to make that place tolerable again.” 

 

“Oh.” 

 

“I’m dreading Compline.”

 

“Yeah, me too,” Tosca sighs. 

 

“He was there,” the girl volunteers. 

 

“He?”

 

“The chief priest.  The one who did the ritual last night.   The guy with the beard.”

 

“Oh.”  Tosca quickly looks down.  

 

“He was there to preside over the funeral pyre.  He lit it with Force lightning.”  Poppaea is watching her closely now.  “He was also probably there to see you,” she adds casually.

 

“Me?” Tosca gulps.

 

“I was awake when he brought you back this morning.  I saw him carry you in asleep in the Force.”

 

“He carried me?”  Lord Tenebrae must be a lot stronger than he looks.  Tosca is no lightweight.

 

Poppaea nods.  “With the Force, I presume.”

 

“Oh.  Of course.”  Tosca raises fretful eyes to her visitor.  “Did anyone else see?” she whispers as she feels her face flush.

 

“No.  Just me.  Everyone else was asleep.  I was awake because I had just come back myself.”  Meaning Poppaea had spent the night with that naval commander priest again.  “Are you alright?” the girl asks Tosca softly. 

 

She looks so concerned that Tosca answers automatically.  “Yes, I’m fine.  Perfectly fine.”  The words come out fast and defensive.

 

Young Poppaea raises an eyebrow with clear skepticism.  Again, it’s a sophistication far beyond her years.  “Really?” she presses. 

 

No.  “Yes.  I’m fine.” 

 

“There’s no one in the shower now.  A shower always helps,” Poppaea suggests.  Her next words betray how completely she understands Tosca’s situation firsthand.   “The shower is a good place to cry.  No one sees or hears, so no one bothers you.”

 

Tosca nods.  That’s good advice.

 

“This helps too,” Poppaea counsels as she sets two things down on the bedside table.

 

“What is it?” Tosca asks blankly.

 

“Pain reliever and some of that new bacta gel.  It will help erase those bruises.”

 

“B-Bruises?” Tosca stammers.

 

“Yes.”  The girl points to her throat and shoulders and Tosca surmises that Lord Tenebrae’s kiss has left its mark. Poppaea next sets a small muffin wrapped in a napkin on the table.  “I saved you some breakfast, if you want it.” 

 

“Thanks.”  Tosca is grateful for these small kindnesses.  Truly she is.  But they are bringing home in a very real way her solidarity with miserable Poppaea, and that frightens her.   Tosca’s bottom lip starts to tremble and she looks away fast.

 

Her incipient tears are not lost on her visitor.  “My Lady . . . Aunt Tosca . . . it will be alright.”

 

“R-Really?” Tosca asks hopefully.   Because she’s not so sure.  For in the immediate morning after, all she feels is crushing guilt.  She is ashamed, so very ashamed, of what she did last night.

 

“Yes.  It will be alright.  You will be fine.” 

 

“Thank you,” Tosca sniffs as she wipes at her eyes.   Just days ago, she had been trying to help Poppaea deal with her situation.  To draw the sullen girl out and get her talking.  And now, their roles are reversed.  Poppaea’s befriending her now.  Because this very pretty pureblood Sith teenager with red skin, black eyes, black hair, and elegant cheek tendrils is an expert at the aftermath of compelled sex.  This is a sorority Tosca never dreamed she would join, but now she too is wondering if she can manage to make it to the shower before she bursts into tears.  Suddenly, Tosca understands completely how why this high strung, overly emotional girl feels the way she does.

 

But just now, Poppaea is feigning jaded nonchalance.  “It’s just sex,” the girl shrugs.

 

Tosca looks up and pretends too.  “You’re right.  It’s just sex,” she agrees.

 

Poppaea keeps looking at her with sympathetic eyes.  She probably thinks Tosca is just like her.  Except Tosca’s situation is far more complicated in some ways.  Because Poppaea didn’t volunteer for this treatment.  And, Tosca suspects, Poppaea didn’t enjoy herself quite the way Tosca had in her priest’s arms.  It’s a little humiliating to admit that even to herself.  She feels her face grow hot at the memory of her night with the chief priest in his bed under the window of stars.

 

Poppaea speaks up again now.  Her voice is hushed and intense.  “I’m going to get out of here. One day, I am going to get out of here.”  She says this like a solemn vow. 

 

Alarmed Tosca looks up.  “Poppaea—"

 

“Poppy.  My friends call me Poppy.” 

 

“Poppy, don’t talk like that.  Please don’t talk like that.  You can’t escape this place.” 

 

The younger girl has a firm set to her jaw and a determined gleam to her eye.  “I will,” she declares staunchly.  “You’ll see.”

 

Her quiet resolve makes Tosca even more alarmed.  “Don’t try!  It’s suicide!” 

 

“Maybe so,” Poppaea concedes.  “But that won’t stop me from trying. I have to try.”

 

Oh Force, she’s serious.  Tosca starts panicking now.  “Please don’t talk like that—please don’t do anything foolish—"

 

“When I’m ready, I’ll let you know.  In case you want to come with me.  That’s why I am telling you now.” 

 

“Poppy!” Tosca hisses.  “Stop this talk!  Someone will hear and tell the matron—"

 

“I can’t stay here.  I won’t stay here.”  Poppaea looks at her steadily.  “Aunt Tosca, in time you will know why.  When you wake up like this day after day for months on end, you will know why I need to try.”  Then, before Tosca can argue further, Poppaea cracks open the door to peek out.  “The coast is clear,” she judges.  “Now’s your chance to make it to the shower without being noticed.  Stuff the sheet in the laundry bin and the maids will deal with it,” she advises with experience that makes Tosca want to cringe.

 

Tosca stands now to head for a shower, but as she brushes past Poppaea she admonishes under her breath, “Please reconsider.  And talk to me first before you do anything.”

 

The shower helps.  After that, Tosca spends the rest of the day trying to focus on something other than herself.    All the girls here have been through a version of her experience.  They cope with it and she can too.  Fearful of becoming an adult version of brooding, desperate Poppaea, Tosca avoids unpacking her twisted mess of emotions that surrounds last night.  She basically ignores what happened the best she can.

 

Later that day, Tosca dutifully shows up at Compline.  The Temple sanctuary is filled with pews again.  Other than the lingering smell of strong chemicals and a slight dampness to the stone walls and floors, things are basically back to normal.  There’s no sign of the four hundred Lords who died here last night.  On some level, the quick cleanup is an impressive display of Imperial efficiency.  On another level, it is a terrible statement on how cheaply life is valued at the premier Temple of Darkness.  After last evening, Tosca wonders whether the Temple is more house of horrors than church.  Because even the chief priest seems to find the daily services to be meaningless. The only thing of consequence Tosca has seen happen here so far is a mass execution. 

 

Promptly after Compline, she is summoned.  Truthfully, Tosca is expecting it.  She marches to the door, dons the black security hood, and follows the guards’ directions.  There’s no point in resisting and she might as well get this over with.  She is going to have to face Lord Tenebrae again sooner or later.

 

The guards deposit her in the same lounge she has been in before.  It includes a table set for two just like she remembers.  Tonight, apparently, she and Lord Tenebrae will dine before things get started.  But where is he?  The room is empty.  It’s just Tosca and those red armored guards who look so fearsome. 

 

She wanders across the room to ostensibly look out the window.  Tosca stands tall and composed beneath the red veil.  She’s trying for maximum dignity with her body language. But really, it’s just a pose to put her back to the contemptuous guards and create distance from the table set for dinner.  She’s standing still with her hands clasped when the door slides open to admit Lord Tenebrae.  She knows it’s him without looking.  No one else creates such a blank in the Force. It’s like some concealment trick, she realizes. 

 

“Leave us,” he dismisses the guards.  Only once the door slides shut behind them does Tosca turn her head slightly to acknowledge the priest.  Then, she’s back to pretending to look out the window.  Except she’s gripping her hands tighter now to hide their trembling.

 

Lord Tenebrae does not approach.   He just stands there off to her right near the door, watching.  

 

Tosca makes a face beneath the veil.  This is every bit as awkward as she feared.  She should say something, but what?  She truly does not know how to handle this situation.  There is no tried-and-true social script to fall back on.  Tosca’s aplomb deserts her. 

 

He breaks the silence.  “Did I hurt you?”

 

How does she answer that question?  Physically, yes.  A bit.  No woman’s body is made for that much sex.  She’s stiff all over and a bit sore down there.  But it’s all very minor, like the slight bruises on her neck and chest.  And emotionally?  Well, she’s kind of numb.  Tosca has successfully avoided processing what happened last night.  From the ritual murder to the adultery, it was all too much.  Way too much. 

 

“Tosca, did I hurt you?” he asks again. 

 

She should say something.  But there is everything and nothing to say.  Her options are too much or too little.  And no matter what she says, it won’t change anything.  So, she takes refuge in the time-honored non-answer of upset women everywhere.  It’s what she told Poppaea this morning and what she has been telling herself all day long:  “I’m fine.”

 

She’s fine.  She’s always fine.  Because no matter what happens, no matter what life brings, Tosca finds a way to make things work.  She solves problems or manages things and moves on.  It’s who she is.  The cook leaves a pan on the stove and sets the kitchen on fire and the repairs are just a small remodeling project to plan.  Her son is told not to bother applying to the Academy and suddenly she’s rationalizing engineering as an alternative career path.   Her husband comes home to announce he’s on the Proscription List and she finds a solution.  That’s how things go:  in her domestic sphere, she is the one to clean up other people’s messes, manage the damage control, and find alternatives.  All while standing mostly unheralded in the background.

 

“I’m fine,” Tosca repeats.  And she doesn’t know who she’s trying harder to convince—herself or him.  Because she’s stuck as this man’s concubine living with a miserable bunch of castoff girls at the Palace Temple.  Escorted everywhere by guards who are armed to the teeth and openly disrespectful. Meanwhile, she has abandoned two children to fend for themselves with the servants while their father is deployed to the edge of the Empire. The youngest is only ten and he still sleeps with a stuffed toy even though everyone pretends not to know it.  So, she’s fine.  Absolutely fine.  F-I-N-E fine.  Thanks for asking.  

 

Lord Tenebrae sounds apologetic now. “I overdid it.   I should not have used you that way.”

 

Used.  It’s the perfect verb choice, Tosca thinks bitterly.  She made a bargain with the Emperor and fell into this guy’s lap as a job perk.

 

He starts explaining now. “I have been too long without a woman.   And I have a tendency for excess.”   

 

Yes, indeed. It was like an entire honeymoon’s worth of sex in one night.  Too much.  Way too much.  

 

“It got out of hand.  I did not intend for things to become so . . . intense.”

 

He’s talking in the vague and uncomfortable way that men and women always discuss sex.  It’s a hard topic, naturally.  But sex used to have rules she understood.  Not anymore.   And that’s the problem. 

 

“Are you alright?”

 

Lord Tenebrae walks closer now, but she’s still facing away.  Her body language is rejection even if her words downplay it.  “Yes, of course.”  She’s alright.  She’s fine. “I’m fine,” she says doggedly.

 

“You’re lying,” he accuses.  

 

It gets her hackles up.  “I am a mature, married woman, not some teenaged virgin you deflowered.   It’s fine,” she declares in a choked voice.  Then, she repeats her new mantra:  “It’s just sex.”  That’s what she’s been telling herself since the conversation this morning with Poppaea.  But somehow the words are no consolation.  Saying them out loud doesn’t make them any more convincing either.  

 

She’s not fooled and neither is he.  Lord Tenebrae observes dryly, “If you are as mature and experienced a woman as you claim to be, then you know there’s no such thing as ‘just sex.’”

 

“No.  There is not,” she agrees somewhat plaintively.  “My Lord—“

 

“Carl.”

 

“Do not treat me like that ever again.”  She throws back her veil from her face and turns to him now. She does not want last night’s orgy for two to set a precedent.  So, Tosca starts boldly claiming boundaries.   “When I wish to leave, the e-evening is over.  When I d-decline, you will respect that.  You w-will treat me like the Lady I am despite my . . . ah . . . predicament.”  The words are strong but the delivery is shaky.  Because Tosca finds it very hard to talk about this so directly. 

 

Lord Tenebrae eyes her coolly. “You don’t get to make the rules.”

 

“I just did,” she snaps.  

 

He looks almost amused by her assertiveness.  “This is how you had words with the matron, isn’t it?   All frosty and ladylike?   I am not the matron, Tosca.  You do not intimidate me.  And you have no leverage here.”

 

Oh, yes, she does.  Tosca remembers very vividly last night.   Unless he has another fat blonde woman stashed somewhere for his nightly pleasure, then she has leverage.  But she’s too smart to state it overtly.  Instead, she takes refuge in his earlier euphemism for their arrangement. “This is how I wish us to be friends, my Lord.  This is how we both can be comfortable with this matter.”

 

“Carl.  We are alone.  When we are alone, call me Carl.”

 

Tosca digs in.  “Are we agreed?”

 

“I will agree not to repeat last night.”

 

That’s the best she’s going to get out of him, Tosca decides.   This power obsessed man won’t cede an inch.  So, she relents and deems it victory.  “Very well, my Lord.”

 

“Carl.”

 

“Carl,” she repeats.  

 

That conversation takes a bit of the awkwardness out of their meeting.  It clears the air somewhat to address last night straightaway.  But Tosca is far from relaxed.   She’s very concerned that this guy is going to think last night is the new normal.  But she’s done all she can to prevent that.

 

“Come, sit down,” he invites, pulling out her chair.  “I missed you at Prime.  You had me worried.”

 

Tosca takes her seat.  “I was tired.”  For obvious reasons.  

 

“Wine?” he asks as he lifts the uncorked bottle waiting on the table.

 

“Yes, thank you.”  He fills her glass and Tosca grabs for it.  Maybe if she’s tipsy, this evening will go better.

 

They lift the warming covers off the waiting plates.  He begins eating as she drinks.  Tosca doesn’t really want food right now.  So she conducts a covert inspection of her dinner partner. His eyes look better today, she judges.  They are still bright yellow, but the red spots seem to have faded.  And if Lord Tenebrae is any worse for last night’s excess of Force and sex, it doesn’t show.  He looks fit and rested.  Happy even.  It’s a far cry from Tosca’s slightly puffy, red rimmed eyes and bruises.  She’s not feeling her best or looking her best currently. 

 

As she sips at her wine and looks her fill, Tosca’s conscience keeps pricking at her.   For everywhere she looks, she is reminded of last night.  The hands that lift the bottle to fill her glass are the hands that stroked her body until it quivered.   His wry half-smile are the lips that drove her wild with passion.  Under that black cloak are the broad shoulders she clung to, pulling him closer.  Now, a day later, Tosca cannot deny that she is attracted to Lord Tenebrae on a purely physical level.  It’s unsettling.  She ought to be repulsed by this guy.  But she’s not.  And that’s one more thing to feel confused and guilty about.

 

“You’re not eating?”  Her untouched plate gets the priest’s attention as he moves to refill her glass. 

 

“I’m not very hungry.“

 

“You slept through breakfast, you skipped lunch, and you’re not hungry?”

 

“How did you—”

 

“There are no secrets in this Palace,” he informs her pointedly.  “You should remember that.”

 

“Yes, my Lord,” she whispers out of habit.

 

It annoys him.  “Yes—”

 

“Carl,” she yelps quickly.  “Yes, Carl.”  Then she takes another big gulp of wine.

 

“Stop looking at me like that,” he growls at her.

 

“Like what??” she squeaks nervously.

 

“Like I’m going to drag you to the floor and rape you.”  Lord Tenebrae is resentful. He points his fork at her to punctuate his words as he grinds out, “I told you I am not Dramath.”

 

“Yes, my Lord.”

 

It’s the wrong thing to say.  He rises, throws down his napkin, and stalks across the room.  He’s visibly frustrated.  Even the Force projects his anger. 

 

Tosca looks down and corrects herself softly. “Yes, Carl.”

 

He turns around.  His mouth is a tight, straight line as he fumes, “I have ruined things, haven’t I?”

 

What does she say to that??  He’s looking at her expectantly, so she improvises.  “This is new to me.  I have never had a lover.  But I am trying.”

 

“Well, you can stop guzzling wine.  I won’t touch you tonight.  There’s no need to get falling down drunk in anticipation of me,” he gripes.  “And stop telling me ‘yes.’  The woman who marched into the throne room wasn’t a woman who said ‘yes’ all the time and agreed with life as it comes.  That was a woman who took matters into her own hands and thought for herself.”

 

That lecture is unfair, and Tosca says so.  Irritated, she drops the submissive posture and speaks her mind.  “You just told me that I don’t get to make the rules.  And now, you want me to break them?  Let me guess—you want a woman with spirit so long as her opinions don’t contradict yours, right?  Men always want to be obeyed and their judgements ratified.  They never want to hear that they’re wrong.”

 

“I don’t like you meek.  It doesn’t suit you,” he counters as he stalks back towards the table.

 

“Do you know what happens to women who take matters into their own hands and think for themselves in our society?” she jeers.  “Some of them end up in your Temple cloister as martyrs to the misogyny of the Sith!  So forgive me if I am apt to agree too much.  But as you pointed out already, you have all the power between us.”  Yikes.  She is nearly shouting.  Tosca reins herself in, embarrassed for the outburst.

 

But she’s getting it now.  This man wants it both ways.  He wants her accommodating but challenging.  Just like last night he had praised how good she is while he egged her on to be bad. What an impossible man.  There will be no pleasing him.

 

But then, Lord Tenebrae confounds her.  “Better,” he approves.  “This is better.  When we are in private, I like you unfiltered.  I hear ‘Yes, my Lord’ all day long.  I don’t want to hear it from you as well.”  He retakes his seat at the table.  “Now, eat something so you don’t fall over drunk from two glasses of wine on an empty stomach.”

 

Tosca complies.  And given his encouragement to plain speaking, she now raises a subject that has been worrying her.  “Last night you said that it has been seven hundred years since you last kept a woman.”

 

He nods, “Yes.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I’ve been busy,” he answers breezily.  And that is unconvincing given this guy is rarely in his own Temple.  Tosca still has no idea what he does all day.   But he can’t possibly be that busy.

 

“Who was she?” Tosca probes.

 

He puts her off.  “It was a long time ago. It doesn’t matter.”

 

“Tell me,” she presses.  “I want to know.”  She’s very curious about her predecessor.

 

Lord Tenebrae is clearly reluctant about this topic, but he answers anyway.  “She was a safe choice.  A villager from a colony world.  She had no family. No Force.  No aspirations—or so, I thought at the outset.  She was sweet natured and accommodating.  She was a simple girl really.”  The priest now shoots a sly smirk across the table.  “She was nothing like you, my Lady.”

 

Tosca ignores the provocation.  She can’t tell if it is praise or not.  “So . . . you got bored?  Is that it?”

 

“No.  It wasn’t boring at the end.”

 

“Did you love her?” Tosca asks bluntly.

 

Lord Tenebrae raises an eyebrow.  “I only love power.” 

 

Yes, and his mother, Tosca remembers. “Were you together long?”

 

“Two years or so.  She got pregnant and things didn't work out.”  The priest makes a face at Tosca and warns rather belatedly, “Don't get pregnant.”   He has the gall to say this like it would be her fault alone.

 

But it’s a non-issue.  “I'm way past all that.”  Tosca took permanent birth control years ago when she and Marcus determined that they couldn’t afford a third child.  Not given the expense of all the schooling and other advantages they wanted to give their boys.  It wasn’t Tosca’s preferred outcome—she would have welcomed another child—but it was the right choice.  She long ago accepted it and moved on.  And besides, at forty she’s probably not particularly fertile any more.  So, she tells the priest with full confidence, “There is no risk.  I took care of that years ago.” 

 

“Good,” he grunts.  “Because I don't want a child.  I will not have a child.”

 

And that just begs the question:  “What happened to your pregnant girlfriend?”

 

“She forced my hand. Refused to get rid of the baby.  Wanted me to marry her.” Lord Tenebrae sighs and warns, “I do not respond well to ultimatums.” 

 

Uh oh.  This doesn’t sound good.  Tosca’s eyes widen.  She looks at him questioningly.

 

He takes refuge in vagueness.  “I handled the situation. It ended.” 

 

“Oh.” 

 

Tosca’s reaction must show her fears for the worst.  Lord Tenebrae does nothing to downplay them.  “I killed her,” he says very matter of fact.  “Do not get pregnant.  You’re the mothering type who would want to keep it.  I won’t let you keep it.  Do you understand?”

 

She nods.  “Yes, my Lord.”  And for once, he does not correct her. 

 

“The Emperor would never allow it.  He knows that were I to have any offspring, they would be a threat to him.  They would have too much Force.”

 

“I understand.”   And why is he harping on this?  Tosca doesn’t want to have another baby, she wants to help her existing children.  That’s why she’s here.

 

But the priest keeps up his stern warnings.  “I will not marry you.  I am not the marrying type.  You should know that.”

 

“I remember.  You’re a confirmed bachelor.”  Then, Tosca points out, “I’m also already married.”  She’s doing this to save her husband, not to find a new one. 

 

Lord Tenebrae relents now.  “I’m glad we understand each other.  Any other parts of my past you wish to know about?” he solicits.  “Ask away.  I’m an open book.”

 

Tosca very much doubts that.  Not when he has over a millennium of personal history to account for.  But the priest must be sensing her relax somewhat as they talk longer.  And, putting last night aside, Lord Tenebrae has always spoken of them as friends.  Like he wants a relationship and more than just sex.   Tosca is starting to think she wants that too on some level, if possible.  Because making this a purely physical thing seems very empty.  Verging on transactional.  Like she’s some sort of prostitute.

 

“Nothing?” He cajoles her now when she doesn’t immediately pepper him with questions.  “Tosca, I want you to be comfortable with me.  I want you to know who I am.”

 

Well, okay then.  His words embolden Tosca to ask about a name from his distant past that keeps coming up.  It’s the name that Lord Tenebrae likes to contrast himself against.  “That Lord you killed to seize control of your homeworld—that was Lord Dramath, wasn’t it?” she guesses.

 

The priest’s eyes narrow.  He doesn’t look happy about this topic either, but he nods.  “Yes.”

 

“Were you trying to liberate your world?”

 

He grunts at her heroic romanticism.  “I was trying to kill my father.  It was personal, not political. I killed him and his family for revenge.   I have never regretted it,” he boasts.  Over a thousand years later, Lord Tenebrae is still proud of that dubious achievement. 

 

“And what happened to your mother?” Tosca asks.   She’s the only person Lord Tenebrae speaks fondly about.  Tosca instinctively wants to know more about the woman.  

 

As expected, it’s yet another touchy subject.  The priest exhales a long sigh before he answers.  It makes him seem to deflate a bit.  Some of his self-assurance disappears. “My mother died a few years before I killed Dramath.”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Tosca remarks automatically.  “You must have been very young to lose her.”

 

Lord Tenebrae looks away and blurts out, “Don’t be sorry for me.  I killed her.  I killed my own mother.”

 

“Oh.”  Tosca swallows hard.  She didn’t see that coming.  Well, there’s a story there, for sure.  So, with more than a little trepidation, Tosca softly urges, “Tell me.” She is trying to sound neutral without judgement.  To listen to his explanation like she listens to the Temple girls confess their sins.  And really, it’s for the same goal. She’s trying to understand this man.  The chief priest of the Dark Side seems very much an enigma.   Basically, all she knows about him is that he’s a bit of a heretic and he’s killed a lot of people.  There has to be more to him than that.

 

Lord Tenebrae resists, eyeing her with suspicion. “Why do you want to know this?”

 

Because he says loved his mother.  It’s one of the few things that redeems this man in Tosca’s eyes.  But she answers more benignly.   “Carl,” she uses his given name and he looks up sharply.  “Carl, I want to know you.   So we can be friends,” she uses his turn of phrase again.  

 

He thinks a moment, as if deciding when to begin the story and how much to tell.  Then he speaks slowly as he looks away, like he’s reliving the distant past as he recalls it.  

 

“My stepfather drank.  Afterwards, he would come home and knock my mother around, calling her names.  I’d seen him do it many times.  But one night, I finally intervened.”   The priest sighs again and deflates some more. “I killed him.  It was an honest accident.  I was angry and my power kicked in and I couldn't control it. I was trying to scare him but I went too far.  I never meant to kill him.”

 

He glances over as if to gauge whether she believes him.   Tosca does.   He is utterly sincere.  And miserable about it still, she sees.

 

“How old—“

 

“Ten.  I was ten.”  The same age as Lucius who still sleeps with his stuffed bear. 

 

“I was horrified.  Crying my eyes out because I thought I had killed my own father.   That’s when my mother told me truth.  He wasn’t my father.  My father was the local Sith Lord.  She and my stepfather had gone to him for help, seeking justice on a land dispute.  They left without justice.   Instead, they left with a bastard child.  Lord Dramath raped my mother.  I was the result.”

 

“Oh, my.”   Now Tosca understands the distinction Lord Tenebrae keeps trying to draw with references to his father.  

 

“It took me years to piece together the story.  It wasn’t the sort of thing my mother spoke to other villagers about. But my aunt confirmed it.”

 

“So why did it happen?” Tosca presses gently.  “Why did you kill your mother if she was not to blame?”

 

Lord Tenebrae looks increasingly uncomfortable and his words slow down.  He’s choosing them carefully now.  “My ten-year-old self didn’t understand that she was a crime victim and not an unfaithful wife.  Suddenly, all the ugly names my stepfather called her when he got drunk made sense.   Because he knew that she had been with another man.  I guess he couldn’t get past that humiliation and anger.  I later learned that my mother had argued with my stepfather about whether to keep me. But she prevailed and they raised me as their own.   Only the decision didn’t sit well with my stepfather.   It festered over time as I grew and they had no children of their own.”

 

Lord Tenebrae’s face is full of regret as he keeps revealing more.  “All I knew that night was my mother had admitted that I was the spawn of Dramath, the enemy Sith and the most hated man on our world.  She had betrayed the man I loved as a father and she had betrayed our family with the invaders.  I was already out of control, so the solution seemed obvious.  It was easy,” he chokes.  “That’s how little I understood what I was doing.  It happened before I could stop myself.”

 

The sad story is less shocking than how vulnerable Lord Tenebrae now appears.  It’s a marked departure from his normal self.  The priest appears as a man in his fifties.   But right now, his crumpled face is that of a lost child.  As a mother, Tosca recognizes that bleak neediness in his watery eyes.  “Oh, Carl, you poor boy,” she whispers before she can stop herself.  Because as awful as his decisions were, he was still a ten-year-old.  He had set out to defend his mother, but he ended up orphaning himself.  All because he couldn’t control his immense power.

 

Lord Tenebrae meets her eyes now.  “It was my first lesson in the Force.  I had no Master.  I had to learn from my mistakes.”

 

She’s not following.  “What was the lesson?”

 

“Control.  You must learn control.”  Lord Tenebrae now repeats what he told her last night in the aftermath of the ritual.  “Darkness is dangerous. If you do not control it, it will control you.  And then it will consume what you love.  You can lose what matters most in the pursuit of power.”

 

She’s almost afraid to ask, but she does anyway. “What happened next?”  

 

His delivery becomes very matter of fact now.  Lord Tenebrae is dispassionate about the fallout from his parents’ deaths. “It was a downward spiral from there.  I panicked and went a killing spree to cover my crimes.  Once I started, I couldn’t stop.  Those who I didn’t kill, I subdued.  Slowly, little by little, I began to take over neighboring villages by manipulation and by the Force.  It was a defensive tactic to help them hide me from the local authorities. But over time, it became a creeping takeover of my homeworld.”

 

“And Lord Dramath didn’t stop you?”

 

“He was a lazy administrator.  It took him a year to even notice. By then, I had a foothold. I eluded capture for a few years.  And then one day, I became tired of living as a hunted criminal.  I walked into Dramath’s throne room and challenged him.  He laughed.  But I won.”  Lord Tenebrae sits back and flashes a truly wicked grin. “It was the best day of my life.  Power never felt that satisfying again.”

 

Really?  Tosca gestures to the luxury around them. “All of this power and prestige doesn’t feel good?”

 

He shrugs.  “It’s fine.  But it’s not killing Dramath.  That was revenge, but it was also justice.  Everything since then has just been . . . ” he falls silent, searching for the right word, “more.  It’s just more.  It’s not better.  Plus, the higher you climb, the farther you will fall.  Sometimes,” Lord Tenebrae muses wistfully, “I wish I had stayed the Sith Lord of a fringe world.  Conjuring rainstorms to feed the crops in my mother’s old cooking pot.”

 

“You’re a long way from that now,” Tosca remarks with true admiration.  This man’s rise is nothing short of remarkable.  And yet, he’s so dissatisfied sounding.  Tosca doesn’t know what to make of it.  Because this man is a big winner in life even if he didn’t start out that way.  But maybe the real problem has nothing to do with achievement in his career. Maybe what’s missing is people to share it with.  But that’s entirely his own fault, Tosca judges. Because no matter the crimes of his misspent youth, Lord Tenebrae had a chance to create a new family of his own and he squandered it.  Recalling his story about killing his pregnant girlfriend, Tosca is not sympathetic in the least.  Lord Tenebrae didn’t break the cycle of violence, he repeated it.  This man killed his entire family, even his own baby. 

 

“You and I—we are very different.” Tosca tries to say this without judgement, but it’s hard because they have completely different values.   She’s here trying to salvage her family’s future, willing to debase herself in the process, while this man seems hellbent on destroying everyone close to him.  

 

“We are very different,” he agrees mildly.  “You are good.”  

 

He leaves the corollary unspoken:  that he is evil.  

 

“I ceased to be good when I was ten years old.  Through a series of events that I could and couldn’t control, I ended up supplanting Dramath.  I became the very thing I swore to destroy.”

 

“That was the Force at work, wasn’t it?” Tosca says with sudden insight.

 

“Yes,” he approves of her comment.  “Just like the Force sent you to me.”

 

Tosca bites her lip and tries to push down her misgivings. Because the more she learns about this man, the more dangerous he becomes.  She watched him kill hundreds last night in a ritual style execution. But that bloodlust wasn’t just Lord Tenebrae doing his job for the Emperor. Killing appears to be his way of life.  It’s how he handles most problems, she worries.  Is this why the chief priest is lonely enough to pick a homely middle-aged Temple nun to declare as his friend?  Because he hurts everyone else who gets close to him?   Because, unlike with Tosca, if he took a peer wife and hurt her, there might be repercussions from her family?   And, oh Force, what does that mean for her??

 

Either the Force or her face is giving her away, maybe both.  Because Lord Tenebrae observes, “I have frightened you.”

 

“Yes,” she freely admits. 

 

He is philosophical about it.  And unapologetic.  “I am not an ordinary man and I do not live by conventional rules.”

 

Yes, clearly, she thinks.  But why does the Emperor let him get away with all this?

 

“Tosca, I have no wish to hurt you.  We have no quarrel and I desire to keep it that way.  And I am no longer age ten.  I can control my power.  I do not kill indiscriminately any longer.”

 

Yes, he kills on purpose.  And that’s only slightly less scary.  Tosca doesn’t even want to guess this guy’s kill count. He’s probably lost track given his unprecedented life span.  

 

As the conversation has progressed, Tosca has grown increasingly subdued but Lord Tenebrae is back to being his blazingly confident self.  It’s like confessing his past has lifted a weight from his shoulders.  The priest now flashes that half smirk, half smile that she’s grown accustomed to.  “I’ll only hurt you if you let me.”  He’s teasing but he’s half serious.   Even when he flirts, this guy is inscrutable.

 

Lord Tenebrae takes a long drink of wine and watches her over the rim of his glass.  “Now you know the defining moments of my life.  What are yours?”

 

Tosca thinks a moment.  Then, she starts downplaying.  “They aren’t as dramatic.  I’m a wife and a mother.  So, I suppose my wedding day and the birthdays for my children were my defining moments.  The usual stuff for a woman, I guess.”

 

“Wrong,” he decrees.  “That stuff was preparatory.  None of that matters as much as the day you knelt to the Emperor and begged for mercy in exchange for your virtue.  That was your defining moment.  It showed your true colors and revealed your purpose.”

 

Yes, it did in a way.  Tosca came here for love and for loyalty.  For her family.  “You might be right.”

 

“Of course, I’m right.”  He smiles again, his yellow eyes snapping at her.  He leans forward slightly in his chair.  “It brought you to me.”  

 

Those eyes shift now to her blouson sleeves she keeps smoothing down.  Like the rest of her wretched Temple girl dress, they billow with movement and make her appear huge.  Tosca would have to work hard to choose a garment that is less flattering to her figure.  

 

Lord Tenebrae agrees.  “I hate that dress.  Don't wear that dress again.  Wear the original dress. The one with the cape that showed your shoulders.  You looked like a heroine.”

 

“I would wear it,” she agrees, “but the matron--“

 

He interrupts.  “She has been terminated.”

 

“Oh.  I see.”   And at her behest, too.  Suddenly, an awful heretofore unforeseen thought occurs to Tosca.  Her eyes narrow. “Terminated how?   Terminated like fired or terminated like killed?”

 

He chuckles. “I dismissed the servant.  I didn’t murder her.”  He raises his eyebrows. “Should I have?  If you would prefer—“

 

“No!”

 

He laughs again.  “As you wish, my Lady.  Now, grant me a favor in return.  Be the new matron.”

 

“Me?” She blinks.  

 

“Yes.  I can’t think of a better choice than an upstanding Lady like yourself.”

 

Is he mocking her?  Tosca can’t decide.  A lot of his comments are ambiguous.  Take them at face value and they’re fine.  But there’s often a subtle undercurrent of sarcasm that gives them bite.  Moreover, Tosca doesn’t know how to respond to the offer. Her instinctive response is to decline.

 

As she hesitates, Lord Tenebrae breezily grants her carte blanche. “Make whatever changes you want so long as the girls show up for services and are available to the priests.  Other than that, I don’t care how they live or what they do.  But fix the clothes.  Get them new clothes.  I tire of those homely dresses and dreary veils.”

 

Tosca looks across the table steadily at the chief priest who is her self-appointed lover and now her would-be boss.   This man is fast taking over her life.  Even telling her what to wear.  “I wanted you to abolish this tradition,” she reminds him tartly.  “I wasn’t looking to be in charge of it.”

 

“And I told you no.  But you can make changes to improve things.  Go mother that flock of fallen angels, Aunt Tosca,” he smirks. “It will be good for all involved.”

 

She balks.  “You’re making me complicit with my own captivity.”

 

“You volunteered for that veil,” he purrs.  Lord Tenebrae leans forward in his seat to tell her, “Since last night made you a real Temple girl, you are perfectly qualified for the job of matron.  How well you understand the girls’ plight.”

 

Tosca shoots him a hard look.  It’s way too soon for cracks about last night.

 

Lord Tenebrae must realize it, because he shifts gears.  “Think of all the good you could do,” he coaxes. “How many small improvements you could implement to make things more tolerable.  How you could improve the girls’ quality of life.  Spend what you want, do what you want.  I will not limit you.”

 

He knew that ploy would convince her, she suspects.  Mostly thinking of miserable Poppaea and her death wish escape plan, Tosca grumbles her acceptance. “Very well.  I will do it.”  Because better her in charge than another version of the current matron.  

 

“Excellent.”

 

Just now, there is a knock at the door.  Lord Tenebrae frowns but waves a hand imperiously and it slides open. “What is it?” he complains to the young Lord who steps forward. Tosca recognizes him as the man who interrupted before to announce the capture of the man who fled Proscription. 

 

“My Lord, the Chiss delegation is here.  You asked to be informed.”

 

“Yes.”  Lord Tenebrae rises to attend to business. “Finish your dinner,” he tells Tosca.  “The guards will bring you back when you’re ready.”

 

“I’m done,” Tosca announces and she stands as well. 

 

Lord Tenebrae turns his head to bark at the young Lord, “Get her an escort.”   As the man disappears to follow orders, the priest turns back to her.  “Time for peekaboo,” he smirks.  He’s got the black security hood she wore in here in his hand.  

 

She reaches for it, but he tugs it back.  “Allow me, my Lady.”   Lord Tenebrae lifts a hand to brush her voluminous veil back from in front of her shoulders.  Then his hand stops and lingers.   He fingers a bruise he has revealed by her collar.  

 

It’s tender.  She squirms away.  

 

“Does the rest of you look like this?” 

 

A lot of her does.  There are marks from his mouth on her throat and chest, and marks from where he gripped her waist and hips too hard and too long.   “Please don’t treat me like you did last night,” she whispers. It was all just too much. 

 

He nods soberly.  He’s clearly troubled.  “I am not Dramath.  Neither am I my stepfather.  I’m sorry, Tosca.  I never meant to hurt you.”

 

He sounds sincere, but the fact remains that he did hurt her.  This man is dangerous even when he doesn’t mean to be.  

 

When she doesn’t respond, he offers, “I will make it up to you.”

 

“Yes, my Lord,” Tosca says dutifully.

 

“Meet me in the garden tomorrow after Compline.  I want to hear how your first day as matron goes.”

 

That’s sounds innocuous enough.  Tosca accepts, “Yes, my Lord.”

 

Then he pulls the hood over her head. Pausing just briefly to brush his lips against hers before he tugs it the rest of the way down.  Then the door slides open and he hands her over to the guards for safekeeping.

Chapter Text

Tosca’s announcement the next morning that she is the new matron is well received.  But her stated intention to make changes at the cloister is even more enthusiastically welcomed.  Things are going to look and feel different around here, she promises.  But first things first, we will purchase new dresses.  And for that task, Tosca intends to take the girls shopping.  In public.

 

Everyone is invited, Tosca tells the girls, but no one is required to come.  If you do come, you should be prepared for looks, she counsels.  Maybe even rude comments.  We will be accompanied by guards, so we will look especially conspicuous.  Her words are the dampener she intends them to be.  Tosca doesn’t want to ruin the girls’ zeal, but she wants to prepare them.  It’s possible that you might see friends or even family while we are out, she warns.  That could be awkward or hurtful.  So please consider carefully whether you want to come.

 

Where are they going?   Tosca names the most exclusive department store in Kaas City.  It’s the bastion of luxury where only the wealthiest Sith Ladies shop.  Because if these girls are going to be stuck in a cloister, they are going to do it in style.  Tosca plans to add some glamour to the seedy ignominy of being a Temple girl.  Unfortunately, the destination clinches it for the girls.   Everyone knows that it will not be a comfortable setting.  One by one, they decline to join her.  Very well, I will go myself, Tosca decides.  Then, she admonishes everyone not to do anything she wouldn’t do while she’s gone.  That comment earns her a few good-natured eyerolls that Tosca cheerfully ignores. 

 

She is heading for the door when Poppaea intercepts her.  “Can I change my mind?”

 

“Of course.  Get your veil.  We’re leaving now.”   Quickly, before Tosca loses her nerve.    Bringing along Poppaea is probably a good choice, she judges, as the girl scrambles to ready herself.  After their conversation yesterday morning, Poppaea probably bears close watching.  Plus, maybe some time outside the cloister will be the outlet the teen needs to deter her from escaping.

 

“Are we actually doing his?   Can we do really this?” Poppaea asks breathlessly as they step into the hallway.  Her dark eyes are flashing with excitement.

 

“Yes,” Tosca responds with more confidence than she actually feels.  But she is determined to assert herself as matron.  Lord Tenebrae told her that she could make changes, so she intends to take him up on that offer.   Things are going to start to change around here beginning today, she resolves.

 

Tosca and Poppaea present themselves to the guards at the Temple entrance.  Tosca requests a transport and a security escort for a short outing. The lead man looks her over skeptically.  He informs her that he will have to clear it with his superior.  After that, Tosca and Poppaea cool their heels for almost fifteen minutes.  But then, two red armored guards appear with a driver and a very official looking speeder.   As soon as they climb in, the driver asks, “Where to, my Lady?”

 

Tosca can’t contain her grin.  Everything is off to a promising start.  Just getting away from the oppressive gloom of the Palace complex feels good. 

 

Beside her, Poppaea claps her hands with excitement.  “It’s been over a year since I have been outside the Temple,” she gushes. 

 

It’s a short ride to where they are headed.  All the most exclusive restaurants and shops in Kaas City are adjacent to the Imperial District.  As the speeder pulls up to the grand edifice with curated windows full of the latest fashions, Tosca takes a deep fortifying breath. She advises Poppaea quietly, “Hold your head high and carry yourself with grace.  You’re a big girl.  You can deal with dirty looks.  I’ll be right by your side,” she reassures.  “You’re not alone in this.”

 

“I can handle anything,” Poppaea answers brightly. “Now let’s go spend some of the Emperor’s treasury.” It’s the happiest Tosca has ever seen the girl.  And that alone makes this trip worthwhile.

 

Once inside, their reception is pretty much how Tosca expects.  It’s still early so the store is sparsely occupied.  But even with the absence of haughty Sith matrons to cluck their disapproval, the sales ladies manage to create a frigid atmosphere.  No one really knows who the cloistered Temple girls are—they are something of a whispered urban legend since they seldom appear in public—but everyone recognizes what the red veils signify.  They are the mark of fallen women.  Women to be shunned and shamed.  Women too unruly and dangerous for their families to tolerate.  Women who have forfeited the chivalry and privileges that elite Sith society offered to them.  When you add the two red armored bodyguards into the mix, their group is impossible to miss.  Everyone is gawking at them.  Even Tosca, who is used to being eye catching, has to work to stay positive.

 

Young Poppaea heads straight for the makeup counter where a pureblood Sith Lady is shopping with her teenage daughter.  “I know we’re here for dresses, but how about some lipstick too?” Poppaea wheedles. 

 

“Lipstick does make everything better,” Tosca smiles beneath the veil.  Young girls always love makeup.  It gives her an idea.  “Let’s buy everyone a tube as a treat.” 

 

As they approach the makeup counter, the Lady with her daughter by her side is finishing a purchase.  She keeps throwing Tosca and Poppaea nervous, furtive looks.  It’s impossible to ignore her unease. The Lady even turns to instruct her daughter, “Go wait for me by the elevator.  I’ll be right there.”

 

“But Mom, you said I could pick out a lip gloss,” the daughter whines.

 

“Some other time,” the mother hisses, shooing the impressionable girl away from Tosca and Poppaea as fast as she can.  As if the mere proximity of two Temple girls might corrupt her daughter.

 

“We need thirteen tubes of lipstick please,” Poppaea requests of the flustered sales lady who has observed this exchange.  Poppaea gestures to Tosca.  “She needs a red color for her fair skin, but the rest of us need a neutral dark purple.”  It’s a typical nude shade worn by hybrid and pureblood Sith women who have naturally dark berry colored lips.  With an ugly smirk over at the protective mother who is clearly listening in, Poppaea adds, “Aunt Tosca here is the only pale sex slave.   The rest of us have skin consistent with our noble ancestry.”

 

“Poppy!”  Tosca shoots her charge a quelling look. 

 

But the cheeky, rebellious seventeen-year-old will not be dissuaded.   Poppaea now asks the sales lady loudly, “What floor is lingerie on?    We’re going to want something new for tonight’s big orgy.”

 

“Poppy!   Stop it!”  Tosca shoots the girl a reproving glare.   “I’m sorry, my Lady,” Tosca apologizes to the other customer.  “She’s not usually so poorly behaved.”

 

But as the offended Lady hurries away in search of her daughter, Poppaea beams triumphant. “You can’t take me anywhere,” she brags proudly.

 

“Yes, I’m learning that,” Tosca grumbles. 

 

Poppaea is unrepentant.  If anything, she’s indignant.  “I refuse to hang my head in shame.   The shame should be for my parents!”  And once again, her voice carries.

 

Tosca looks daggers at the teenaged girl who is making a scene.  “No one’s asking you to be invisible.   But I would like you to be less conspicuous.  Do not go out of your way to offend people.  It’s immature.”

 

“So I’m supposed to be okay when they whisper about us?” Poppaea challenges.   “When they point when they think we are not looking?  Like that sales woman two counters behind you is doing right now?”

 

“I warned you about that,” Tosca reminds her.  “Nothing you are doing is going to stop it.  But if you carry yourself with respect, it will increase the chance that people will treat you with respect.  Now, act like a Lady.”

 

Poppaea pouts, “What’s the point?”  Then, for a brief moment, the girl’s mask of petulance slips and she looks as though she might cry.

 

Tosca’s face softens.  “Poppy, I was gawked at long before I wore this veil.  Trust me, this is not the way to handle it.”

 

“Oh, alright,” the girl relents.  “But you’re ruining all my fun.”

 

“Nonsense.  The fun is just beginning.  What do you think of this color?” Tosca strokes a blood red lip stain across the back of her hand.  “Too bright?”

 

“Looks good.  Can we get some eyeliner too?  And mascara?” Poppaea asks hopefully.

 

“Why not?” Tosca plays along.  “How much are those hair grooming droids?” Tosca asks the sales lady. She names a sum and Tosca decides, “We’ll take three.”

 

“No one sees our hair under the veil,” Poppaea points out.

 

“Very soon,” Tosca reveals “we’re losing the veils.”

 

“Really?  But we’re supposed to cover our heads in the Temple. All women do.  It’s tradition.”

 

“I have a better idea,” Tosca confides.  “Let’s finish here and I’ll show you.”

 

Tosca’s better idea is a red cloak.  There’s nothing more Sith than a cloak, so it’s a perfectly acceptable garment for a formal setting like the Temple or the Palace.   Upstairs in the quiet, by-appointment-only ultra-expensive area of the store, Tosca discusses commissioning a bespoke version for the Temple girls.  It will be scarlet red in color with a deep, concealing hood, long sleeves, and a black silk lining.   It’s the female version of the cloak every Sith Lord owns.  Only, Tosca hopes, theirs will be devastatingly stylish.

 

“What do you think?” Tosca consults with Poppaea about the design.  “We can raise the hood for services or when we are in public.  It won’t obscure our vision as much as these veils do.”

 

“This is made-to-order couture.  The good stuff.”  Her young companion is intimidated.  “My mother always said this was too expensive except for a wedding dress.”

 

Poppaea’s mother probably fit less expensive standard sized designer clothing, Tosca thinks to herself.  But due to her unique size, Tosca is used to commissioning garments.  It’s the only way to get exactly what you want and it makes sense for big occasions or for basic items that you intend to wear over and over again.  And anyway, cost isn’t really the issue.  The Empire can afford this.  It’s probably a small fraction of the cost of one of those great naval ships they keep building.  “Only the best for the Palace Temple,” she waves off Poppy’s price concerns.  “But tell me, would you prefer this to the veil?”

 

“Absolutely,” Poppaea fully endorses the choice.

 

Once thirteen capes are ordered, Tosca starts picking out new dresses.  All the girls can wear clothes off the rack with minimal alterations, so Poppy dutifully models a few options.  They are all demure but not severe.  Well cut and easy to wear.   Which do you like best?   Poppy has plenty of opinions, but she can’t decide.  So, Tosca buys each girl five dresses to wear in rotation.  Maybe a little freedom and self-expression will help ease the tension in the cloister.  They don’t all need to look exactly alike every day, Tosca figures. 

 

“And what about you, my Lady?” the sales woman asks.  As she has realized the size of this purchase, the woman has become more and more solicitous.  Her initial standoffishness is gone.

 

“Yes. Order something for yourself, Aunt Tosca,” Poppaea urges.  “You have only one dress that’s not the old style.”

 

Poppaea is right.  But given her size, Tosca cannot purchase off the rack at this store.  So, she decides on a few bespoke commissions for herself.  She chooses four designs similar to her current dress, each with a wide-open neckline and a skirt with sufficient ease of movement.  Tosca refuses to mince around tugging at some skintight fishtail day gown like the fashionable women of her class.   She’ll be dowdy but comfortable, as always, in her A-line skirt.

 

As they complete the order and make arrangements for fittings and delivery, Tosca hears her name said aloud in a familiar voice. 

 

“Tosca??”

 

She whirls to find the speaker.

 

“Tosca!  I thought that was your voice.”

 

A familiar woman has exited the adjacent dressing room, her arms laden with new purchases.  It’s her good friend Daria, Lady Marrow.  Daria takes one look at Tosca in her red veil and swears softly, “Oh Force, it’s true.   He did send you to the Temple.”  Daria’s jaw is agape with dismay.  Her eyes are full of pity . . . and questions.

 

Tosca shifts her weight.  Suddenly all that bold talk about poise and confidence she gave Poppaea deserts Tosca when she needs it most.  Somehow, she had been so concerned with how the girls might handle running into someone they know, that Tosca had neglected to prepare herself.  “Daria,” Tosca says her friend’s name uncomfortably. “H-Hello.”

 

“Here.  Hold this.”  Her friend thrusts the dresses she is carrying at the rather shocked looking seamstress who has followed her from the fitting room. Then Daria approaches closer.  She has wary eyes on the uniformed guards as if to silently ask permission. “When Septimus came home with the story, I didn’t believe it. He said Marcus wasn’t sent home on leave, he came home because he caught you in an affair and needed to deal with it.”  Daria looks ashen faced with concern.  “I thought it was ugly gossip that got exaggerated with retelling.  But it’s true.  Oh, Tosca, what have you done??” her friend whispers in horror.

 

“Uh . . . Uh . . . ”   This is the cover story Tosca agreed to, but hearing it from her appalled friend makes it far worse than she imagined.  Suddenly, she is at a complete loss for words.

 

“What were you thinking??”   Daria looks crushed.  Like she is very let down.  And, frankly, that’s far worse than the shaming looks Tosca and Poppaea have endured from strangers thus far.

 

“I . . . I . . . I made a big mistake.”  Tosca decides that the less said, the better.  Because if you’re going to lie, it’s best to keep it simple with scant details.  “Look after my boys, will you?  And Marcus too.  Please Daria--”

 

“Tosca, you should have thought of them before you—you—”  Her friend’s voice trails off awkwardly.  Then, she rallies.  “Who was he?   What Lord got you into this mess?   Was it Indelible?   Because he always liked you a little too much.”

 

“No.  Not Lord Indelible.”

 

“Then who?  Tell me so I can let it be known. Why should you bear all the stigma while he walks free?  He is just as culpable as you are--”

 

Tosca looks down.  “It’s no one you know.”

 

“Of course, it’s someone I know! I know everyone you know—“

 

“Please Daria, let it go.”  Tosca feels a tear drip down beneath her veil.  She hopes her friend can’t see how nervous she is committing to this lie.  “I made a big mistake.  I can’t change any of it now.  What’s done is done.”

 

“But Tosca—”

 

“Daria, drop it!”  The words come out sharply.  Then Tosca starts improvising explanations to compound the lies she’s telling.  “If his name is known, then Marcus will have to challenge him.  Then, there will be a duel and one of them will end up dead.  I don’t want that to happen.”

 

“You’re right,” her friend backs down as she comprehends.  Then, she shoots Tosca a hard look.  “So . . . you’re protecting your lover?  You’re shielding him from your husband’s justice?  Shouldn’t Marcus have a right to defend the family’s honor?”

 

“Oh Force, you know I’m protecting Marcus!” Tosca vents.  “He doesn’t know one end of a sword from another!  He’s as hopeless as our boys are in combat! Just let it go . . . please!”  All this machismo talk of family honor is just another form of vengeance.  This is how family feuds start among the Sith ruling class, and some of them last for generations.

 

“I guess I should be glad that Marcus didn’t kill you,” Daria says miserably, “because that’s what most Lords would do.  Can you have visitors?   Can I come see you?  I want to help you--”

 

“No.  It’s not allowed.”

 

“What about the boys?   Can they see you?”

 

“No.  That’s not allowed either.”

 

“Who’s looking after them now?”

 

“I guess the servants,” Tosca answers weakly as her conscience pricks at her.  Abandoning her children is the worst part of this scheme by far.

 

“Oh, Tosca,” her friend breathes out with awful insight, “you’ve lost everything. What folly!”

 

“I made a big mistake.”  If she says this vague statement enough, Tosca thinks, maybe Daria will believe it.  She hates lying to her friend, but there is no alternative.

 

Daria looks to the guards now and asks, “How much time do you have?”

 

“We were just finishing. We need to get back.  We . . . uh . . . don’t get out much.”

 

“Well, come here. Give me a hug.  I’ll walk out with you.”

 

Tosca hangs back and shakes her head.  “You might not want to do that.” Tosca is thinking of her friend’s reputation.  “Someone will see and then there will be talk.”

 

“Nonsense.  I can handle it.  Who is this?”  Lady Marrow turns to the wide eyed Poppaea who is silent for once.  Tosca introduces the teen and she mumbles hello.

 

Daria eyes the two guards who hover close.  “Do you go everywhere with these guys?   For a minute there, I thought the Emperor himself was in the ladies dressing room.”

 

Tosca sighs, “It’s overkill, I know.  You know how hopeless I am with the Force.”

 

“Those are praetorians,” Daria observes thoughtfully. 

 

“I guess.”  As far as Tosca is concerned, the guards come in three varieties at the Palace: red, grey, and black.  She differentiates them only based on uniform colors.  Their weapons may be different, but they all look plenty lethal to her.

 

“Praetorians guard Vitiate himself,” Daria divulges.  She runs her eyes over the security detail.  “Your crew here aren’t the regular Palace guards.” 

 

“I guess.”  Whatever.  Tosca doesn’t care what color the guy is wearing who hands her a black hood.  Their purpose is the same.

 

Daria goes in for a hug now and whispers into Tosca’s ear, “Meet me here same time next week.”

 

But Tosca balks.  She refuses to plot a meeting.  “I don’t think that’s wise.”

 

“But Tosca—"

 

“Thank you, but no.   Everyone knows Septimus will be considered for the Dark Council someday.  A wife in your position shouldn’t risk this.  You can’t be seen with a Temple girl.  You know how people talk.”

 

“But Tosca—"

 

She looks away, but stubbornly persists.  “I’ve hurt enough people with what I did.   I don’t want to hurt you too.  Please watch out for my boys and for Marcus.  That’s the best way to help me.”

 

Daria’s mouth is a straight line of disapproval, but she agrees, “I will.  I wish you would tell me who he is.  It’s not fair that you get all the blame and your Lord stays anonymous.”

 

“It doesn’t really matter now,” Tosca sighs.  “And life isn’t fair.  Especially for women.  You know that.”  Every woman knows that. 

 

With a brief hug, she and Daria part.  Then, Tosca completes her shopping tasks with Poppaea in near silence.  All the adventure of this outing is gone.  Tosca just wants to get back to the Temple as soon as possible.

 

Back in the transport heading home, Tosca remains subdued.  She can handle the dirty looks and moral condescension from strangers.  But her conversation with Daria is very upsetting.  It brings home the consequences of her bargain with the Emperor.  Tosca will live the rest of her life as a social outcast for a sin she did not commit.  She’s known that on a theoretical basis for weeks now.  But today, it became very real. 

 

And for her astute onlooker Poppy, it was engrossing.  “Did you really cheat on Lord Struct?” she asks.  The girl’s curiosity is lurid.  Her skepticism is also very apparent. 

 

Tosca looks Poppaea in the eyes, gauging how to answer the question.  She wants to promote trust with this girl.  But there are two guards and a speeder driver listening in to consider. 

 

“You didn’t, did you?” Poppaea guesses.  She looks at Tosca’s troubled face and registers her hesitation.  “No . . . you didn’t,” Poppaea decides.

 

That comment makes it hard to avoid an outright lie.  So, Tosca opts for the truth.  “No, I didn't.  Not in the way people think, anyway.  How did you guess?”

 

The teen shoots her a frank look.  “Aunt Tosca, you are a terrible liar.  Plus, your friend was genuinely shocked.”  Poppaea keeps prying.  “Did you husband want rid of you?   Was that it?  Did he frame you?  Was it a set up?”

 

“No.  If he wanted rid of me, he would have killed me for adultery,” Tosca points out.  Then Marcus would be free to remarry and move on with his life.  Unlike the current situation in which they are married but separated permanently.  “Look, it’s . . . complicated.”   Tosca knows better than to confess the whole truth.  This girl has a big mouth to match her big attitude.  And the Emperor’s random act of mercy must remain a secret.  “It’s complicated,” Tosca repeats.

 

“Well obviously, if you ended up in the Temple,” Poppaea rudely retorts.  “Did Lord Struct piss off the Emperor or something?”

 

“Poppy, watch your language,” Tosca snaps.  “You sound common when you speak like that.”

 

“Who cares?  It’s not like it matters.   I’m not a Lady any more.  There’s no one to impress.”  Poppaea now summarizes their shopping experience in a nutshell:  “We’re the bogeyman to scare young girls.  We’re the example of what not to be.  You can’t fail as a wife or daughter worse than we did.  Even when it’s not even true,” she adds bitterly.  

 

And now, heedless of the guards listening in, young Poppaea discloses the crux of her desperation.  All those tentative conversations in private in the cloister didn’t succeed in getting this girl to open up, but today’s outing apparently has.  Pretty Poppy is indignant as she reveals, “You know, I didn't do what they said I did either.  They said I was caught with one of the servants at my cousin’s villa.  It was a lie!”  

 

Tosca is taken aback by the vehemence of this revelation . . . and by its implications.  She gulps as she begins to fully comprehend the situation.  “Oh, Poppy—"

 

“It was a lie!” the girl screams.  She’s suddenly near hysterical.  “My father . . . he . . . he . . . well, he did things with me that he shouldn’t.  I told my mother and she didn't believe me.  And he kept d-doing it.  No one believed me.”  Poppaea is a mix of frustration, rage, and hurt.  Those dark eyes of hers suddenly flash with yellow.  It sends a shiver down Tosca’s spine to see what extreme distress has made Poppy capable of.  “I kept telling teachers and they would approach my parents.  But my parents would say that I was making it up.  That I was a troubled girl and a pathological liar who wanted attention.  I wasn't!  I told the truth!  Aunt Tosca, it was the truth!  But they covered it up for the sake of the family and my father’s career.”

 

Poppy dissolves into great gulping sobs now.  It’s pitiful to witness.  “Oh, Poppy . . .”  Tosca snakes an arm around this very unhappy girl.  Clearly there is way more to her wretchedness than just the naval commander priest who preys on her as his favorite.

 

“They lied and s-stuck me in the cloister!  They lied!”

 

Tosca hugs her closer.  “I believe you.” 

 

“They put me in the T-Temple to shut me up.  Problem s-solved.  They t-threw me away. . .”

 

“I’m so sorry,” Tosca commiserates.

 

“They are never going to take me back.”  Poppaea looks up and pins Tosca with her eyes.  “You know what that means.” 

 

Tosca nods sadly.  “I know.”

 

“So if I want to speak coarsely or offend some righteous woman buying makeup, I will!  Because this whole damn Temple girl tradition is a disgrace and a fraud!  It’s just one more way to control and abuse women, and I refuse to go along with it!” 

 

Tosca can’t argue with that sentiment.  She just nods again.   

 

“I am so tired,” young Poppaea vents between sniffs, “So tired of being the victim!  First my dad and now the priests.  Well, I refuse to die for my parents’ lie!  It lets them win!”

 

Tosca now understands why this girl wants to attempt an escape.  Because in her mind, she has nothing to lose.  She’s going to die anyway.  “I’m sorry,” Tosca stammers out, wondering now what it means to know this information officially in her role of matron.   Because Tosca suddenly feels as if she should try to help.  Or at least to investigate Poppy’s claims.

 

Angry Poppaea plucks the red veil from her hair.   Then, she reaches to yank the veil from Tosca’s hair too.  “We shouldn’t wear these.   We don’t deserve them.  They’re a lie!”

 

“You’re right,” Tosca agrees softly.   Then she impulsively leans forward to get the speeder driver’s attention.  “Open this window please,” she requests.  When the driver complies, Tosca reaches clear across the armored guard on her left to heave the two veils out into the street.  They waft in the breeze as the speeder whizzes forward and then they are out of sight on the pavement.  It’s a useless gesture, but it makes Tosca feel good.  Then, she awkwardly pats Poppy’s back as the girl cries her eyes out. 

 

When they make it back to the Temple, the girl is still inconsolable.  It’s like her confession to Tosca has brought a lot of suppressed grief to the surface.  “D-Do we have to go in?” Poppaea complains.  “I don’t want to go in.”  That wail produces a fresh round of tears.

 

“Yes, we must go in,” Tosca answers.  “But let’s you and I go to the garden for a bit.  The guards can deliver our packages to the cloister for us.”

 

Soon, she and Poppy are alone on a bench in Lord Tenebrae’s garden.  Tosca sits holding her hand as slowly the teen regains her composure.  “Are you going to tell me how you got here?” Poppy asks now that they are alone.

 

“I wish I could,” Tosca answers honestly, “but I can’t.  Please keep my secret safe.  Don’t tell the other girls that I’m not really here for adultery.  It will just raise questions that I cannot answer.  And,” she adds as an afterthought, “it could endanger my family.”  Because there’s no telling what Emperor Vitiate might do were the truth became public.

 

“Alright,” Poppaea agrees, but requests in return, “Don’t tell my secret either.  I don’t want anyone to know.  It won’t change anything.”

 

“I might be able to help you,” Tosca offers tentatively, not exactly sure herself what she means.

 

“The only way you can help me is to help me escape,” Poppaea whispers.

 

“For both our sakes, I’m not going to do that,” Tosca turns her down flat.

 

“Then keep my secret,” Poppaea hisses.  “And I will keep yours.”

 

Hours later, Compline is over.  Tosca walks with the other girls to dinner.  Then, she promptly excuses herself and heads for the garden.

 

She’s tired.  From the heartbreaking truth of Poppy’s past to her own vague lies to Daria, today has been emotionally exhausting.  Mostly, Tosca wants this day to be over.  But she already committed to meeting Lord Tenebrae in the garden, so who knows what’s coming next?  Life at the Temple is turning out different than she expected.  What she feared most—being passed around for sex by the priests—has not come to fruition.  And unforeseen circumstances, like her new role as matron, are complicating things.   She now has twelve troubled girls to watch over, including the restless and reckless Poppy.

  

Nightfall is fast approaching as Tosca walks into the garden.  But the full moon from the night of the Proscription ritual has not waned much.  And so, while the garden is full of long shadows, it’s far from pitch dark.  Is the chief priest here?  Tosca doesn’t see him.  As usual, she cannot sense him in the Force.  So, she starts to wander aimlessly to kill time and be alone with her thoughts.

 

She is startled when a voice calls, “Good evening, my Lady.”  It’s a tall, skinny gardener in work gloves and rubber boots still toiling away by the gazebo.  He’s young with an easy open smile and a deeply tanned face from a life outdoors.

 

“Hello there,” Tosca responds as she walks up.  “You’re working late.” 

 

“Dusk is the best time to see the blossoms,” he explains.  “Come see.”  He puts down the shovel he’s spreading soil with and beckons her over to see a climbing plant that winds its way around the pillars of the gazebo.  “The flowers only open at night.”

 

Intrigued Tosca follows.  “Oh, how lovely.”  The plant has small pink berry-like fruits that open into tiny flowers.  Some of them unfurl in real time as she watches.     

 

“Smell,” the young gardener invites.  “Their real lure is their fragrance.  At night, the insects that pollenate can’t discern colors, so the plant has adapted to attract them with scent.”

 

Tosca leans in and inhales.  “Uhmmm.”  It’s an earthy, musky, sweet aroma.

 

“If you’re a local bee, that is very seductive,” the gardener grins.  He looks her over.  “You’re the new girl.” 

 

“Yes,” she smiles absently.  “But hardly a girl.”

 

“You look like a country lass with those braids. Like you got dressed up to celebrate the solstice.”

 

It’s an observation that would merit a dismissive rebuke from most Sith Ladies, who would deem it an insult.  But not from Tosca.  She pats her intricate crown of braids and explains, “The girls have a new grooming droid to play with.  I let them test it out on me and this was the result.  It’s probably a little young for me,” she shrugs, “but I let them have their fun.” 

 

The talkative gardener is even more impertinent now as he approves, “It’s pretty. I like it.  So, how’s life at the Temple?”

 

“Okay, I guess.  I’m still getting used to things.”  Tosca looks around and sighs deeply.  It releases some of the pent-up tension of the day. “I love this garden,” she muses, looking to change the subject.  “I could never manage to grow much in our little atrium.”  The Struct house, like most Sith city houses, is constructed around a central open court with a fountain and small greenspace.  “I always managed to pick one plant that would take over and crowd out the rest. It looked great at first and then months later, it was a jungle thicket.”

 

The young man nods and speaks with wisdom beyond his years. “That is the nature of life.   Some are born to dominate.”

 

“Not here,” she points out. “Here you have everything growing side by side in harmony.  There’s a spot for each plant.”

 

“It is from careful pruning,” he discloses.  “You must keep the dominant ones in check so that there is room for all. It takes a firm hand to keep things balanced so that everything can grow and prosper.  You need a watchful eye and a willingness to intervene.  To cut things back and uproot them if need be.”

 

The young man goes back to his work now.  He is shoveling dirt out of a wheelbarrow and spreading it among the plant beds.  Tosca watches him in silence.  There’s something familiar about him.  Something about the deep-set eyes and dark brows.  Maybe something about the wide shoulders that contrast against his lean frame.  This young man will need a few more years and a lot more pounds to grow into those shoulders, Tosca decides. 

 

“What's that?”  She points to the wheelbarrow. “Compost?  Fertilizer?”   She’s asking mostly to make conversation.  Lord Tenebrae hasn’t shown up yet.   So, she will talk to this gardener kid about his work.

 

“In a way, it is a fertilizer,” the boy answers as he keeps spreading it around among the plant bed. “It’s ash.”

 

Oh. “Ash from what?”

 

“From the Proscription ritual.  From the burned bodies.”

 

“Oooh.”   Tosca was not expecting this ghoulish answer.  She makes a face and takes a step back.

 

The gardener doesn’t seem to notice.  If he is troubled by the cremated remains of four hundred Sith Lord, it doesn’t show.  He is matter of fact as he explains, “I mix it with wood ash to feed the soil.  I spread it thinly.  A little goes a long way.”

 

He lays aside his shovel, scoops up a handful of ash and turns to Tosca.  He surprises her when he grabs her hand to stuff the mixture in it.

 

"Ewwww."  She recoils but the young gardener closes his hands tightly around hers. 

 

"No, don't,” he cautions her.  “Don't be frightened. This is death and decay that feeds new life.  All life comes from death.  All new beginnings also mark an end.  That is the way of things.  The way of the Force.   Whether Dark or Light, it is the same.”

 

Flustered Tosca wrenches back her hands.  She sputters, "What do you know of the--oh!"

 

Tosca looks up to find that she is not talking to the young gardener.  She’s looking up into the handsome bearded face of Lord Tenebrae.

 

"Hello, Tosca,” he smiles.  It’s the same easy smile of the young gardener.  “I’ve been waiting for you.”

 

"You-you--"

 

“Surprise,” he smirks. 

 

“You're like a changeling!” Tosca accuses.  She’s not exactly sure what just happened.  But the laboring boy is gone.  In his place stands the priest.

 

Lord Tenebrae grunts.  "I do more with the Force than just kill."  He gestures to her hand still holding the ash mixture. "Go on.  Scatter it.  Sow the future with me."

 

Gingerly, Tosca steps forward and complies.   It’s mostly to get it out of her hand. 

 

“Cinis in cinerem, pulvis in pulverem.”  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.   He quotes now from the burial ritual of the Sith the words of farewell spoken as the tomb is closed.   “Memento, domini, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris.   Atque in perpetuum, ave atque vale, domini.”  Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.   Forever and ever, hail and farewell, my Lords.

 

His Kittat is spoken solemnly.  There is no mockery here.  In his own way, the priest is burying the Proscribed, she realizes. Perhaps he is not as callous about the ritual carnage as the absent Emperor seems to be. 

 

"Is this why you burned the bodies?"  The Sith bury their dead.  Rarely do they burn them. 

 

Lord Tenebrae nods thoughtfully.  "Cremation was the custom among my people. But whether bodies are buried or burned, this is the fate of us all.   It is good to acknowledge that.   Those men died, but they will live on.   In my garden.   And in me.”  For the Master Sorcerer had absorbed their essence in the Force in a jaw dropping display of power.

 

“You didn't want to do that ritual, did you?” Tosca guesses.

 

“I do what must be done,” he answers neutrally.  Perhaps he is reluctant to criticize the Emperor.  He shrugs, “All die in the end.”

 

"Except the Emperor."

 

He nods. "Except the Emperor."

 

"And you."

 

He says nothing.

 

Tosca clenches and unclenches her fist that held the ashes, looking down at her dirty fingers.  She too will one day be ash and dust.  She’s fine with that.  "I don't want to live forever.  To watch everyone I love grow old and die.”   She wonders how Lord Tenebrae does it.  How do you cope with such a remarkable lifespan when others do not share it?  It must be very isolating over time. 

 

The priest is reflective now.  “Everyone I loved died way too soon and by my own hand. All my losses came at once.  After that, it didn't matter.  So, the years have no consequence.   Time has little meaning to me now.”

 

Is he boasting or sad?   Tosca can’t tell.  This man is a strange mix of pride and regret.   When he speaks of himself, he sounds so dissatisfied.  Maybe that too is the consequence of living far past your time.

 

“That doesn't sound like living,” she remarks before she can stop herself.

 

Her comment provokes his wry smile.  He chuckles.  “Oh, I assure you that I am very much alive.” 

 

Lord Tenebrae looks so relaxed in this setting, she notes.  At peace.   Almost happy even.  So unlike the man she's seen barking orders and killing people.  And that prompts her to ask, “That boy earlier who you pretended to be—who was that?”

 

He looks mischievous as he admits, “It was me.”

 

“I thought so.”   He was his past self, doing what his past self once did—tending the land here in the Temple garden.  This man is many years and many lightyears from where he began, and yet the past is still very much his present.  And he seems to like it that way.   He’s less haunted than nostalgic tonight, she judges.

 

It occurs to Tosca now that Lord Tenebrae, the untrained, illegitimate, non-native Master Sorcerer of the Empire, a man who lives out of place and time, is not as comfortable in the upper echelons of Sith authority as he purports.    Perhaps he lives here in the Palace because he likes it.  Because his existence as a fourteen-hundred-year-old bachelor means he wouldn’t fit into the normal peer group.  Because he has no peers left.  If he ever had any, that is.

 

“I guess you have done it all in your long life,” she muses. “So, tell me—how do you cope when there's nothing left to look forward to?” She's been wondering this for herself and for the girls.   Because what do you do when the expected progression of life events falls apart?  Getting outside societal norms is a lot harder than it sounds.  Today had brought home to Tosca very clearly her predicament.  So . . . what’s next?

 

Lord Tenebrae looks at her quizzically.  “There is always something to look forward to.  Today, I looked forward to seeing you.  All day,” he tells her, “I have been thinking of you.”

 

With that declaration, he steps forward into her space.  He’s going to kiss her, she can tell. Should she step back?   Probably.  But she doesn’t.

 

He continues his theme.  “All day,” he whispers, “I have been longing for you.”  And here comes the kiss.  It’s not hot and hungry passion.  It’s a soft, slow salute.  Nothing intrusive or insistent. Just a simple kiss.  Like something that farm boy version of him she met earlier might give to his sweetheart. Not the kiss of the Sith Lord she went to bed with that had left its mark all over her body.  

 

As wholesome—almost sweet—as the moment is, Tosca is shy.  She turns her head and steps away.  “My Lord, someone will see.”

 

He follows her.  “No one will see.  No one will hear.  We are cocooned in the Force. The world will be blind and deaf to us.”

 

“How?”  She looks to him in befuddled amazement. 

 

His response is sly.  “I did not survive on the run for years as a boy without learning a few tricks.  I can hide and disguise better than anyone else.”  His eyes are full of cheeky mischief again as he brags, “It made for some silly circumstances on occasion.”

 

“I’m picturing you hiding in haystacks,” she giggles.

 

“It was far more sophisticated than that,” he groans, shooting her a look of reproof.  “Far more sophisticated.”  Then, he flashes a suggestive grin.  Lord Tenebrae looks almost boyish. “So, how about it?  Will you lay with me in my garden, my Lady?   Let me see you naked in the grass in the moonlight,” he proposes.  And is he serious?   He is.  

 

His hands reach for her greedily. He grabs her from behind in a bear hug.  But Lord Tenebrae is more playful than threatening.  This feels very different from the other night.

 

Tosca asserts herself. She bats at his hands and complains, “What are you—“

 

“It's alright to want this,” he overrides her.  “I want you to want this.  To want us.”  His voice is husky in her ear now.  “I’m crazy about tall blondes in braids who like my garden. Come admire my flowers and I will fall at your feet.   No one can kill me but you.  You slay me with your beauty and you goodness.”

 

She laughs off this shameless flattery. “You’re such a liar—“

 

“It’s true.  Feel the truth in the Force.”  He’s irrepressible as his hands start to roam freely now. “I want to plow you like a new field.  I want to roll in the dew with you.  I want to have you here in my garden.”

 

“Oh, stop!” she protests again, wiggling away.  She points to the high walls near them.  “The guards!  They will see—“

 

“Only the Force will know,” he whispers seductively.   “And the trees and the flowers.  Maybe the bunny who lives down that path.”

 

Wait. “There's a bunny?”

 

“Lots of bunnies.  They reproduce like—“

 

“Rabbits?” she snorts.

 

“Precisely. Be my bunny and I'll be your jackrabbit?” he wheedles.

 

“You're ridiculous.”

 

“I'm just a country boy bewitched by a grand Lady.  Now, let me put some grass stains on that dress.  Better yet, let me take it off.  I'll put some grass stains on your ass—“

 

“My Lord!” she huffs, even as she can’t quite repress a smile.

 

He is undeterred by her half-hearted qualms. “You have a spectacular ass.  Big and juicy.”  He swats it to indicate his approval.  “Just like I like it.  I bet it jiggles.”

 

“It does,” she confirms with a sigh.

 

“Good.  Now, let’s do this.   Let’s give those bunnies something to see.”   He leans in now to confide, “You know, I saw you in the Force before I ever met you.  So, when I laid eyes on you, I knew we were destiny.”

 

She groans.  “That’s a corny pickup line.”

 

He smirks.  “Maybe for others. But in my case, it’s true.   What do you say, my Lady?” he coaxes.  “Will you be mine tonight?”

 

She freezes in indecision.  Is he actually asking permission?  Does she get to say no?

 

He looks her in the eye and lets her know he realizes her misgivings.  “I won’t hurt you.”’  It’s a soft, sincere promise.  All joking is set aside.  He is serious.

 

Looking up into his handsome face, Tosca wonders whether she should be less guilty for this man and more grateful.  Because things could be a lot worse for her than being in his arms.   Lord Tenebrae is very likable at times, even if he is hard to understand.  And before their night together verged into gratuitous excess, Tosca had thoroughly enjoyed herself . . . multiple times.  Plus, she’s no fool.  Keeping Lord Tenebrae happy could make things easier for her.   He is the chief priest, after all.   So, Tosca makes a snap decision.  “Kiss me," she urges as she affirmatively pulls him to her.

 

That’s the last talking either of them do for a while as their passion catches fire.  Tosca’s enthusiasm definitely eggs him on.  For all his talk of being naked in the moonlight, neither of them gets to that stage.  In the rush to pleasure, Tosca ends up with her dress around her waist and he just unzips. It’s fast, furtive fumbling that becomes a grunting, panting romp in the wet grass.

 

This is wild. This is way out of Tosca’s comfort zone.  Having sex outside in the open isn't something she or Marcus would ever do. Conventional, traditional Tosca had sex in her master bedroom on her back with the lights off.  This feels very daring.  Downright risky.  Very wanton.  But she's already a fallen Temple girl who has committed adultery.  Sex with a priest is her job now.  She might as well do this and enjoy it.  Because what the Hell?   Being in Lord Tenebrae's arms has Tosca blithely dispensing with all her inhibitions. Plus, part of her knows that those disapproving Ladies she saw today out shopping would fully expect this. She has a racy reputation to live up to now.

 

Both their hands are still dirty with the ash of dead Sith Lords.  As he caresses her thighs and holds her hips, it leaves charcoal smears and smudges.  It's life and death in opposition, violence and lust intermingled, power and sex combined. And it all leaves a mark.  

 

But Tosca is oblivious. All she knows is rising desire.  Her outing this morning has her feeling a bit indignant. More than a little subversive.  She's coming to terms with the fact that life as she lived it is over. There's no going back to the way things were.  And this man--this perplexing, difficult, yet very human man--might just be her life now.  He's her chance for comfort and security and maybe even something approaching happiness.  It's not what she would have chosen had she better options. But Tosca's life is full of compromises and this is just the latest.  So, yeah, she'll settle for this.  Fighting it seems like a stupid course, like just another way to make herself miserable.  And then she might become poor Poppaea.

 

Tonight isn’t the determined, perpetual pursuit of pleasure like their first night together. It’s all over in a few minutes.  Afterwards, they lie side by side in the grass, both satisfied and out of breath.

 

Lord Tenebrae speaks first.  “You make me feel young again.”

 

“Young like 500 or young like 25?” she teases.

 

“Young like in my 100s.  Like before Vitiate.  Before the defeat and before the re-founding of the Empire.”   He rolls over to snuggle next to her.  “Like I’m a man of 100 robbing the cradle by romancing a girl of 40.”

 

She rolls her eyes.  “I’m hardly a girl.”

 

“You are to me.”   He reaches a long arm out to pull her closer.  He starts canoodling her neck.  “How was shopping?”

 

“You know about that?”

 

“There are no secrets here.  Did you enjoy yourself?”

 

“No.”  Tosca is candid.  “It wasn't as much fun as I hoped it would be.”

 

“Were people unkind?”

 

“Not really.   It’s more that they were uncomfortable.  Disapproving.”  She and Poppy had been treated with cool courtesy for the most part, but there was no doubt that they were pariahs.

 

He’s not surprised.  “I feared as much.”

 

“I don’t much care what people think or say,” Tosca claims.  “I have a thick skin.”

 

“Good.  Tosca, go out if you wish but all you need is here.   Right here.”   He cups her face with his palm as he promises, “In time, you will see that this isn't a prison.  It is a refuge.  There's nothing out there but pain for you now.   My power can protect you from that.”

 

Her brow furrows with discomfort because he’s right. She had a taste of that pain today when she unexpectedly met Daria and was confronted with her own lies.

 

Lord Tenebrae looks very pleased with himself now as he announces, “I have a surprise for you.” 

 

“Uh oh. I hate presents.”

 

“No one hates presents.  Besides, you will like this one.   I told you that I would make the other night up to you, and I meant it.  Your sons are coming by for a visit tomorrow.”

 

Tosca sits up. “Really?  Oh!  That's--that's . . . ”   What is that?   Good or bad?   Her first reaction is elation.  But perhaps that’s too hopeful given all that has occurred.  Her upsetting conversation with Daria is still very much on her mind.

 

Lord Tenebrae is oblivious to her concern.  “I will let them come monthly for a visit, if you wish.  Boys need their mothers.”   He’s thinking of himself when he says this, she suspects.

 

Tosca frets.  “I want to see them but—“

 

“What could go wrong?” he interrupts.   “They love you. And you love them.”

 

“I do love them,” she nods. 

 

“Then you will love tomorrow.”

 

“And the other girls?   Can they have visitors?”  Tosca angles to help her flock. 

 

But Lord Tenebrae shoots her down. “They are different.  You are the only married woman with children here.   Once you sit through an interview with parents when they dump their daughter here, you will know that those sorts of reunions are ill advised.”

 

Tosca frowns some more.

 

“It's messy and raw.  There's a lot of crying and screaming.  You'll see.  There's a family coming to drop another one off tomorrow. I want you to handle it.”

 

“Me?”

 

“You're the matron now.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The next morning, Tosca is awake and dressed early.   She’s too excited and worried to dawdle and chat.  She’s the first one to arrive in the sanctuary for Prime and the first one to leave afterwards.  As the girls head for the garden for some fresh air, nervous Tosca heads back to linger outside the cloister.  She doesn’t want anyone to have to seek her out, causing her to miss a moment with her boys. 

 

Tosca is expecting the guards to come and fetch her.  But today, Lord Tenebrae himself arrives with the red praetorians bringing up the rear. 

 

“Good morning,” he nods gravely.  He’s wearing his cloak with the hood pulled low.  It gives him gravitas to spare.  So does that full beard which Tosca has decided she loves.  It’s so atypical . . . so him.  This man is very distinctive.

 

“Good morning.”   Tosca nods back absently.   She’s suddenly distracted.  She senses something. It’s a presence she hasn’t felt in a long time.  Not since that fateful day when she talked her way into the Emperor’s throne room. 

 

Tosca closes her eyes to luxuriate in the years old, familiar mental feel.  “Mar-cus,” she whispers aloud slowly.

 

Lord Tenebrae reacts fast.  He waves a finger before her nose as her eyes pop open.  “No!” he forbids.  “You will see the children and the children only,” he decrees, anticipating her request.  The look he gives her silences the next words on her lips. 

 

“Yes, my Lord.”  Tosca automatically caves at his preemption.  She will not jeopardize her chance to see her boys by arguing to see Marcus.  As it is, this visit is an indulgence Lord Tenebrae did not need to grant her.  Tosca is grateful for this opportunity.  And . . . terribly anxious about it.

 

“Lord Struct brought the children. This visit is to see the children,” Lord Tenebrae sets the parameters. 

 

“Yes, my Lord.”

 

Then he ushers her down the hall to the lounge area adjacent to the priests’ offices.  It’s the same room where Tosca herself had originally met Lord Tenebrae weeks ago.  Together they come to a halt outside the closed door.

 

“Your boys are inside.   I’ll wait here.”

 

“Yes, my Lord.”

 

“Tosca—“

 

“Yes?” she looks up.

 

He smiles. It transforms his stern features and shows the crinkles at the corners of his eyes.  “It will be fine.”

 

“I hope so,” she frets, wringing her hands in nervous anticipation.

 

He reaches to take one and squeezes it.  “It will be fine.”

 

“Thank you for this.  You don’t know how much this means to me.”

 

“I do know.  That’s why I am doing it,” he answers.  “Talk to them about anything but their father.”  

 

“Yes, my Lord.”   Then Tosca takes a deep breath and activates the door. 

 

“Mom!”  Her youngest pipes up with excitement immediately as she walks in the room.  It puts a huge smile on her face.  Lucius is ten, but he’s still her baby.  He runs into her open arms, just like when he was little.  “Lucius!” Tosca clasps him to her chest in a tight squeeze.  Then, she thrusts him back to have a good look at him.  It’s been three weeks since she has seen her boys, but it feels like a year.  “Have you grown?  You look like you’ve grown,” she decides happily.  “Is cook feeding you?  You look alright.” Then, she glances up to where her oldest hangs back across the room.  “Decimus, come over here and give me a hug,” she calls.

 

Her inspection done, Lucius now throws himself back into her arms and buries his head into her chest.  “Can you come home now?  Please?” he pleads softly.

 

Big brother Decimus is decidedly more cool.  He slowly pushes off the wall he’s been leaning against and plants his feet as he crosses his arms.  “I’m only here because Dad made me come,” he announces. 

 

“Mom?” Lucius prompts her, tugging at her dress.  “Can you come home?”  He wants an answer.

 

She looks down to cup his cheek with her hand.  It hurts to say the words, but she has resolved to be as honest as possible with her boys.  She doesn’t want to create false hopes.  “No, honey, I can’t come home.  This is where I live now.”

 

“I told you so!” his older brother sneers triumphant.  Resentment is written all over Decimus, from his demeanor, to his tone, to his Force imprint.  “But you shouldn’t be living here!   You should be dead!” he hollers with an accusatory finger pointing her direction.

 

Dead??  “Decimus!”  Tosca corrects him sharply.  “Don’t speak like that to—"

 

“Dad should have killed you!” the boy overrides her.   Thirteen years old in his Academy uniform, this little Lordling postures like a Lord.   He’s full of moral outrage and condemnation.  Very sure of himself.  Tosca is realizing fast how ugly this situation is about to become.  Decimus has always had a bit of a temper.  But today, he looks ready to explode.

 

Nervous Lucius begins babbling and tattling now.  “Daddy broke your stuff. He took his sword to your closet and your stuff.  It was a big mess—"

 

“He should have killed you and killed the guy you slept with!” his older brother rages.  And at that volume, surely he can be heard down the hallway.

 

Lucius keeps talking as he clings.  “I don’t care, Mommy.  I don’t care what you did so long as you come home . . . “

 

“You dishonored Dad!  Everyone knows it.   He’s humiliated!  Everyone is speculating who it is, but Dad won’t tell.  That probably means your lover is someone important,” Decimus surmises.   “So, who is it?  Confess!”

 

Tosca tries to put a stop to this conversation.  She looks her oldest boy in the eye and pulls rank.  “This matter is between me and your father.  Let the adults handle it.  This is not your concern.”

 

“You don’t think this is my concern??” Decimus advances now.  “You cheat on Dad and he sends you to the Temple and we lose our Mom.   Because our Mom is a whore!  And you think that’s not my concern??”

 

Lucius pulls back from Tosca to step between them.  “Deci, you promised Dad—"

 

“You disgraced us! You have ruined our family!” the older boy vents.  His anger isn’t dampening.  If anything, it’s growing stronger.

 

Poor Lucius keeps trying to make amends.  He looks back and assures her, “I still love you, Mommy,” with an earnest face that breaks her heart.  “I don’t care what you did.”

 

“I only came to do this,” Decimus announces as the sword hanging at his waist leaps to his hand to ignite. 

 

Tosca can’t help it.  She flinches.

 

“That’s a training sword,” his little brother disses the threatening stance. 

 

“It won’t kill her, but it will hurt her,” Decimus retorts with awful menace.  He looks prepared to start swinging. 

 

Suddenly, Tosca is alarmed.  Very alarmed.  But trying not to show it.  “Put that thing away!” she orders. 

 

But her oldest son has no such intention.  He is angry, so very angry at her.  The Force betrays all his disappointment and dismay at the situation.  And as an arrogant, impressionable young teen at the Sith elite military academy, naturally his first recourse is violence. 

 

Just then, the door slides open and Lord Tenebrae walks in.  Startled Decimus turns to him and freezes, distracted by his unforeseen entrant.  It changes up the dynamic of the room instantly.  Decimus hesitates.

 

“Put that thing away!” Tosca orders again, trying to stand her ground and not appear intimidated.

 

Lord Tenebrae says nothing.  He just looks the kid with the sword over in silence.

 

“Who the Hell are you?” Decimus demands of the newcomer.

 

Tosca answers, “Address him as ‘My Lord.’  That is Lord Tenebrae, the Master Sorcerer of the Temple.  Do not dare draw a weapon in his presence.”

 

Decimus slants contemptuous eyes her direction.  “He’s a sorcerer?  You mean he’s one of the priests?”

 

Tosca nods.  “He’s the chief priest in residence.”

 

“Does that mean you’ve slept with him?” her oldest son jeers.  At his side, ten-year-old Lucius doesn’t really understand what sex is, but he’s sensitive enough to pick up on the awful connotations at play.  He gulps audibly and looks about cry.

 

“Stupid baby!” his brother hisses at Lucius’ telltale sniffing.  “No wonder you’re going to be an engineer—”

 

“Enough!” Tosca intervenes again.  She endeavors to lower her voice, which has grown shrill from the stress of the confrontation.  “Turn that sword off, sit down, and let’s talk.”

 

For his part, Lord Tenebrae merely watches.  He says nothing.

 

Still, Decimus eyes him with hostility as his lit sword buzzes.  “I can’t feel you in the Force,” the boy observes.  “Why can’t I feel you in the Force if you’re a priest?  You feel like a servant in the Force.”

 

It’s a question Tosca has wondered herself but never asked. 

 

Lord Tenebrae answers slowly and quietly, and that alone takes some of the heat from the room.  “You cannot sense me because I cloak my Force signature to appear anonymous.  It’s an old trick that has fallen out of favor in recent years.  But back when I was your age, it was commonplace.  There were Jedi who hunted us and so we employed defensive tactics.” 

 

That rationale is not quite correct in his case, Tosca knows.  Because young Carl Veradun was hunted by his own Sith Lord father and not by the enemy Jedi.

 

Lord Tenebrae shrugs.  “It long ago became a habit.”

 

Young Decimus is skeptical.  “We haven’t been hunted by Jedi in over a thousand years.  Not since the re-founding of the Empire.”

 

“Lord Tenebrae is older than the re-founding of the Empire,” Tosca discloses.

 

“Wow,” young Lucius reacts.  He exchanges glances with his similarly shocked brother.  “Wow.”

 

Lord Tenebrae continues.  “These days, hiding in the Force is a mark of distinction.  The Emperor requires his most powerful Lords to do it.  He himself does it.  It helps to hide us from the Jedi. Otherwise, some astute Lightsider might be able to pinpoint our location.”

 

“The Republic doesn’t know we exist.  The Jedi think we were wiped out,” Decimus quotes the official history.

 

Lord Tenebrae debunks it.  “There are Jedi who know we exist.  They just don’t advertise it.  But they can sense us, like I can sense them.  Powerful Darkness has its counterpart in powerful Light.  Those of us with enough Force and training can sense Jedi in our meditation.”

 

“They know?”  Little Lucius looks scared.  “They know we’re here??”

 

“They know we exist, but they don’t know where we hide.  We are a phantom menace for them, and the Emperor wants to keep it that way.”

 

“Wow,” Lucius reacts again.

 

“It’s a handy trick.”  Lord Tenebrae smirks.  “The Emperor himself could be standing in front of you, and you’d never know it.” 

 

“If you’re so powerful, then where’s your sword,” Decimus challenges.

 

“Decimus!” Tosca reproves.  “Where are your manners?  You will not address Lord Tenebrae disrespectfully.”

 

“So, he’s old.  He didn’t say he was powerful.  He’s a sorcerer, Mom.  Just a magician.  His kind ceased to be important eons ago.  The greatest Sith Lords are warriors and always have been.”  This is said with all the arrogance of a low-level Academy cadet who is convinced of military supremacy as the be all, end all of glory.

 

“Wars don’t make one great,” Lord Tenebrae answers smugly.  “Neither do weapons.  The Force makes you great.”

 

“We are modern Sith.  We’re past the point of conjuring monsters to scare the enemy away,” young Decimus retorts.   “Go back to your Temple, priest.  Go chant some prayers.”

 

“Decimus!” Tosca bellows once more.  “Be quiet and put that sword away!”  This time, the sullen boy relents and obeys.  But it’s mostly because Tosca shoots him a death glare.  “Forgive his ignorance, my Lord,” she mumbles red faced at Lord Tenebrae, “he’s just a foolish boy.” And now, forgetting the priest’s earlier warning in the stress of the moment, Tosca asks her boys, “How’s your father?”

 

“How do you think?” Decimus sneers.  “He’s a mess!  He keeps breaking things that remind him of you.  Every day, it’s something new.  He fired the cook last week when she said she missed you.  So now, your friends keep bringing over casseroles and that just makes it worse because he has to talk to them.  They ask questions he won’t answer.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Dad’s decided to go back to his post and he’s taking Lucius with him.”

 

“What??”

 

“Lord and Lady Vile have agreed that I can stay with their family between semesters.  I’ll have a Master in a few years so I’ll foster with him and live elsewhere anyway.  Lucius here is the real problem.”  Big brother disdains little brother mercilessly, as usual.  “He won’t get into the Academy.  He’ll never have a Master.  And there’s no respectable training on Ziost where Dad is stationed.  But here there are only servants to look after him.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“It would be fine if Dad could move on and remarry and get a new wife to raise Lucius. But he can’t since he stuck you in the Temple.  He’s screwed himself!”

 

Lucius now tattles, “He told Dad that he should have killed you.”

 

Decimus doesn’t deny it.  In fact, he doubles down.  “Well, it’s true!”

 

Artless Lucius keeps talking.  “Dad got angry.  He started yelling.  And then, he started crying.”  Little Lucius now pleads, “Come home, Mom.  Everything’s falling apart without you.”

 

Looking from one teary boy to the other angry one, Tosca’s heart sinks.  Because this is getting worse by the moment and she’s dismayed for how to salvage it.  “I’m not going home.  This is where I live now,” Tosca reiterates firmly.

 

But the message won’t get through.  “Why not?” the youngest Struct boy wails.  “Why can’t Dad say it’s okay and you agree not to do it again and we all go back to normal?   We can pretend like it didn’t happen,” Lucius suggests with ten-year-old logic.  Because saying ‘I’m sorry’ still resolves arguments at his age. 

 

“I’m not going home.  This is where I live now,” Tosca says a third time.  Because three weeks as a Temple girl is surely not enough to offset Marcus’ clemency from Proscription.  The Emperor will expect more of his bargain.

 

“This is all your fault!” Decimus accuses loudly.  “You knelt before Father even as you betrayed him!” 

 

From her son’s perspective, he has a right to be angry.  But Tosca can’t defend herself and keep the lie that saved Marcus’ life.    So, she accepts the blame.  Taking refuge in the evasion she gave her friend yesterday, Tosca freely admits, “I made a big mistake . . . I made a big mistake and your father was merciful under the circumstances.”  She looks to both boys and says, “I’m sorry.  I’m so very sorry about what happened.  If I could change things, I would.”

 

The Force must tip Decimus off to her half-truths.  “You’re lying!  I can tell that you are lying!  What are you hiding??”  He advances on her again.  This time he eschews the sword but his right hand is raised.  The threat of violence is real, even if the thirteen-year-old is still five inches shorter and many pounds lighter than herself. 

 

Tosca’s eyes instinctively find Lord Tenebrae, but he declines to insert himself.  Still, he’s watching very closely, she sees.

 

“Why?  Mom, why??” miserable Decimus demands.  He’s in her face with a raised fist seeking answers she cannot provide.  “Tell us the truth!  The whole truth!  Why won’t anyone tell me the truth??”

 

Tosca takes a deep breath.  “Boys, we need to move beyond blame.  I understand that you are angry and you want an explanation, but the details are between your father and I.”  She swallows hard.  “I’d like to talk about life going forward now.”

 

“Tell me who he is, so Dad and I can kill him!” Decimus persists with hormonally fueled Dark teenage bravado.  Then her son starts suggesting exculpatory explanations.  “Did he force you?  Was it blackmail?  Did he seduce you?”  The poor kid sounds so hopeful, as if he’s looking for a way to excuse her bad behavior.  “Did he drug you?”  He’s run out of scenarios.  He’s just looking to her for an explanation he can reconcile with the mother he knows.

 

“No,” Tosca answers.  “It was none of those things.”  Her eyes involuntarily find Lord Tenebrae again.  The priest is watching the conflict avidly with a strange expression. She can’t decide if he’s enjoying it or hating it. 

 

Poor Decimus is rapidly losing his resolve to violence.  The poor kid seems just befuddled now.  “I mean, why you?  I could see Junius’ mom doing this or maybe Lady Marrow—she’s hot.  But you?  You’re . . . you’re you . . . I mean, look at you . . . you’re the fattest mom at school and . . .”

 

“Shut up,” Lucius tells his brother loyally.  Then he ruins it with his cluelessness.  “Mom has a pretty face.  That’s what everyone says.  She has such a pretty face . . .”

 

The boys begin bickering now and Tosca stands there mute and miserable.  This confrontation has devolved into everything she ever feared for this meeting.  Seeing her hurt and righteous older boy and her whining and scared younger son, Tosca feels trapped by the bargain she made with the Emperor.  She’s unsuccessfully navigating the intersection of guilt and blame, and rapidly losing all authority she has as a parent in the process.  But maybe none of that matters any longer.  Because for all intents and purposes, she’s not really these boys’ mother now.  Servants will raise them.

 

“I thought you loved us,” Decimus rages anew.  He looks so betrayed and hurt.

 

She can’t really fault him for those emotions.  And so, Tosca sort of deflates as she sighs.  “I do love you.”

 

Her oldest shakes his head sternly.  “No.  If you loved us, you would not have done this.”  Decimus is now the picture of the patriarchal authority of the Sith that he someday will become.  This is the mantle of masculine authority he and his brother will one day inherit.  For it is the birthright of every Sith Lord to rule their household and demand utmost loyalty from all who dwell in it.  But for now, young Decimus steps back to disengage, both his hands raised high as if in defeat.  “Okay, I’m done.  We’re done,” he rasps, his teenaged voice cracking with intensity.  “I don’t want to see you again!  You can stay here and rot for all I care!  Fuck all the priests you want!”

 

“Deci—“

 

“I hate you for this!” he snarls as he pushes past her and heads for the door.  Tosca stands flustered and stung in his wake.

 

Lucius stays behind. “He’s getting teased for this.  It’s why he’s so mad.  At school, guys are saying he’s soft like Dad.”

 

“Soft?”  Tosca isn’t following.

 

“Soft because he sent you to the Temple instead of killing you.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Soft like me,” discouraged little Lucius adds.

 

That comment gets through to Tosca.  “Enough about Deci.” She wipes at the emotion that overflows her eyes and considers her youngest.  This sensitive, impressionable boy always seems to get overshadowed by the hot-tempered dominance of his overbearing big brother.  It’s why Tosca feels the need to give Lucius so much attention.  Maybe babying him hasn’t helped matters, but he needs more attention than he demands.  Lucius is far more like his low-key father than his sibling. 

 

“How are you?  How are you really?” Tosca probes.

 

The boy deflects the question.  He keeps reporting on others. “Dad’s really sad or he’s mad.   It’s one or the other now.   He won’t answer Deci’s questions either.  He just tells him to go away.  Then he says that he has failed all of us.  Dad says not to blame you because it’s his fault really.  Mommy, what does that mean?”

 

Tosca gulps.  But she persists.  “Lucius, how are you?  Tell me.”

 

The boy looks away.  “I don’t want to live on Ziost.  All my friends are here.   And I want to stay here and wait for you to come home.”

 

“I am not coming home.  I’m sorry, but you are going to have to accept that.”

 

“Not ever?” the troubled boy clarifies.

 

“Not for a long time.”

 

“You mean like a year?”

 

“Like maybe several years.  Maybe never.”

 

“Oh.”  Lucius thinks a moment and then nods.  “I can wait.   I can wait for you, Mommy.   I don’t care what you did.  And neither will Decimus then.  By the time you get out, he won’t be mad.  He’ll just be glad you came home again.”  Lucius, who has been struggling to hold his composure all along, now dissolves into tears.  “I m-miss you,” he cries.  “Deci misses you too though he won’t admit it.”

 

Tosca gathers him into her arms.  “Oh, baby, I miss you too.  I love you.  I love your brother too.    And your fath—“

 

“That’s enough.”   Lord Tenebrae finally asserts himself.  “We’re done here.  Say goodbye.”

 

Tosca reluctantly nods and turns back to Lucius.  “Tell your father—”

 

“That’s enough!” Lord Tenebrae is abrupt.  It’s a tone she’s never heard from him before.  Tosca shuts up fast.

 

Lord Tenebrae gestures to the door and it opens with the Force.  It’s a clear cue for Lucius to leave.  The crying boy untangles himself from her arms and dashes out.  Following him to the doorway, Tosca sees Decimus standing down the hallway.  He’s next to his father.

 

“Marcus . . . ” Tosca whispers as they lock eyes at a distance.   

 

For a moment, she cannot breathe for the extreme anxiety of the situation.  Does Marcus hate her now?  Or does he understand her decision?  Is he guilty for his role in their predicament?  Tosca has no way of knowing as she stares from meters apart into her husband’s bleak face.  He’s strangely unreadable even after all their years together. 

 

“Marcus . . .”

 

There stands her immediate family so close, and yet so far.  The boys in their school uniforms and Marcus in his ceremonial armor.  Deci looks sullen, Lucius’ shoulders shake with muffled sobs, but Marcus just looks blank.  Like he’s afraid to show any emotion.

 

She must linger too long on the threshold because Lord Tenebrae approaches from behind.  He leans in very close to murmur, "It’s done.  That went fine."  Then he tugs her away from the doorway with a firm hand at her waist.  It’s an intimate gesture very much at odds with the formal courtesy of the Sith, their official Temple setting, and the hovering guards.  Unrelated Lords and Ladies do not touch like this.  And that makes the moment an intentional display.   It’s a show of power designed to emphasize her deference to the chief priest in her new role as a Temple girl.  And subtle though it is, Lord Tenebrae might just as well have reached a hand up under her skirt.  For that’s the response it elicits.  Even from this distance, she can see Marcus tense and frown. 

 

This is it—this is Marcus’ chance to storm over and reclaim her as his wife.   To grab her and march straight to the Emperor to renegotiate this abhorrent arrangement.  But he doesn’t.  Marcus just stands with a restraining hand on glowering Decimus.  

 

Throwing her head over her shoulder as Lord Tenebrae leads her back into the room, Tosca can’t help but feel let down. 

 

Several hours and many tears later, Tosca is back in the very same setting to greet the new girl and her family.  Now very calm and subdued, Tosca introduces herself as the Temple matron as she welcomes a very exasperated Sith Lord.  He has dragged his resigned looking wife and mutinous glaring adult daughter to the Temple.  The Lord, Tosca appraises, looks like he would very much like to dump them both here and be done with them. 

 

She starts with him as head of the family. “My Lord, tell me why you are here today,” Tosca invites. 

 

He vents at length.  The gist of his complaint is that his daughter keeps refusing good marriage contracts for capricious reasons.  Her dowry isn’t sizable and her midichlorian count is lackluster, so her prospects are limited.  She’s no great beauty either, the father says in a scathing tone.  Why can’t she just choose a Lord, marry, and move on with life like her sisters did?  At this rate, she’ll never leave home.

 

That’s the cue for the daughter to announce that she refuses to marry some ugly old geezer with three kids which he wants her to mother.

 

Beggars can’t be choosers, the Lord snaps back.

 

That prompts the beleaguered looking mother to warn the daughter that if she doesn’t choose a husband, she will end up wife to every priest in this Temple. 

 

Then, the loud arguing starts.   Tosca listens to the torrent of emotion pouring out from all three family members.  Is this how Lord Tenebrae felt earlier as a spectator?   Tosca wonders.   But with Poppy’s story in mind, she is alert to any deceit. One benefit of having the matron be a Lady is that these interviews now have a Force user on both sides. 

 

Finally, there is a lull in the fracas.  Tosca speaks up.  “This is a Temple of study and worship.  Not a repository for unruly girls.  What makes your daughter suitable for vocation as a nun?” she inquires.

 

No one is expecting that question.  They, of course, view the Temple as punishment.  As the ultimate social sanction short of death.  The parents look at Tosca blankly, uncertain how to respond.

 

“Tell me about your religious calling,” Tosca now invites the daughter to speak for herself. “What makes you an asset to the Temple?   How long have you had this burning zeal for Darkness?”

 

“Uhhhh . . . I don’t know?? ” she answers awkwardly.

 

“Temple girls participate in twice daily rituals and they assist at other ceremonies.  We do a lot of singing and chanting.  Do you have a good voice by chance?” Tosca solicits.

 

“Not really.”

 

“When the girls are not assisting in the liturgy, they mostly read and study,” Tosca stretches the truth a bit.  The only studying that goes on is studying fashion and beauty blogs on the holonet.   But whatever.  “Did she do well in school?” Tosca asks the mother.

 

“Not really.”

 

“She did fine.  Just fine,” the father speaks up.  And that’s the first positive thing he’s said about his daughter, even if it’s self-serving.

 

“Then perhaps she is better suited for marriage and a family, after all,” Tosca says evenly.  She looks to the grumpy daughter.   “I fear you might be very unhappy here—“

 

“That’s the point, isn’t it?” the father grumbles.

 

“This is a Temple of study and worship.  Not a repository for unruly girls,” Tosca repeats herself. “We have no need of an additional girl at the present. We are full up currently,” Tosca decides unilaterally.

 

“Then make room,” the Lord growls. “Look, the Palace told us that all we had to do was drop her off.”

 

“Unless the Emperor himself told you that, you have to go through me, my Lord,” Tosca asserts herself.  “And I am sorry, but we are full.”

 

The Lord shoots Tosca a hard look. “Make room.”

 

Tosca endeavors to respond as politely as possible.  “I fail to see why we should do that when your daughter would contribute very little to our cloister. We would give up a valued member of our group for a new girl who knows nothing.”

 

The parents have no rejoinder.  The Lord looks to his Lady and then back to Tosca.  “When did skills and enthusiasm become the standard for taking the veil?”  He’s clearly skeptical.

 

“I’m afraid that the public does not fully appreciate what it means to be a Temple girl,” Tosca improvises.  “People tend to focus on the more sensational aspects and overlook the entirety of the experience.”  Did she just say that with a straight face?  She did.  Tosca now attempts to play mediator.  She’s not a therapist, but here goes.  “Perhaps this matter can be resolved privately within your family instead?”

 

The Lord gives her a pained look. “We wouldn’t be here, if it could.”

 

“Is there not a family member who your daughter can stay with—say an aunt or a sister—while she reconsiders her life choices?”  Tosca slants the young woman a reproving look.  “It would give everyone some time apart while she adjusts her attitude.  And then, if things do not improve, we can discuss her admission when we next have an opening.”  Which will be never, but Tosca leaves that part out.  “I’m afraid the Temple is not an option currently,” Tosca says, playacting much regret.  “I wish we could accommodate you, my Lord.  But unfortunately, we cannot.”

 

The discussion continues as the father keeps pressing and Tosca keeps refusing and suggesting alternatives.   But at least Tosca detects no undercurrents of hidden abuse like poor Poppy endured.  This young woman seems capable of knowing her opinions and speaking her mind.  And that might actually be the problem.  Perhaps life ought to offer women of her class more opportunities than only being a wife and mother.  But that’s how things are in the Empire.   This isn’t the Republic where according to Lord Tenebrae it’s all about self-fulfillment. 

 

And it’s not as if men in the Empire get many more choices, Tosca reflects.   Decimus is destined for the military like his father and his father’s father going back generations.  Poor Lucius will forever be deemed a disappointment for failing to uphold that legacy.  Because whether male or female, your birth largely determines your future amid the rigid Sith. 

 

After a protracted negotiation, the daughter interrupts to say that she will agree to go live with her sister and reconsider her marriage options.  But no more old widowers, she complains.  They must be under age forty.

 

Tosca smells a compromise. She looks to the parents. 

 

The father is not going for it. “That’s just another delay tactic.  You’re twenty-six.  That’s practically an old maid.  I’ll be paying for you forever,” he complains.

 

“Give it six months more and see what you can arrange.  If it’s still an issue, then check back with me,” Tosca suggests.  She stands now to indicate that the interview is done. Offering her hand to the woebegone mother, Tosca wishes her good luck.  Next, Tosca admonishes the daughter that marriage doesn’t need to look perfect to be good.  Sometimes life doesn’t present you ideal options, but you still need to choose.  So, choose wisely and move forward.  Make it work, Tosca shares the advice she lives by.  Then, she ushers everyone out as soon as possible. 

 

As the trio exits the Temple, Tosca exhales and silently declares victory.  Having that family leave intact counts for a lot.  It makes her very jealous, to be honest. 

 

Two family scenes in one day is too much.  Tosca is emotionally exhausted. But, sure enough, after Compline she is summoned for dinner with the chief priest.   And, frankly, she’s not up for it.  But she dutifully dons the hood and troops along with the guards.

 

Lord Tenebrae must sense how depleted she feels, for he makes dinner his own monologue at first.  Tosca speaks up now and then with one-word responses.  But mostly, she drinks and broods.  Only when he has spoken at length and she has downed two glasses of wine, does Lord Tenebrae raise the topic of her family. 

 

“There was never any danger,” he assures her quietly in a complete non-sequitur that tells her he knows exactly what she’s been dwelling on.  “I would never have let that kid take his play sword to you.  I would never have let him land a fist either.  I would have snapped his wrist with the Force rather than let him hurt you.”  It’s gallantly said.  For when a Sith Lord promises you violence, it’s something of an endearment.

 

Tosca looks down.  “Thank you.”

 

“Your children are ungrateful.”

 

“They don’t know that they should be grateful,” Tosca comes to their defense.   “And besides, they are children. They don’t see the bigger picture.  Childhood is selfish.”

 

Lord Tenebrae is unconvinced.  He grunts.  “They are unworthy of your sacrifice.”

 

Tosca shakes her head.  “Parents are supposed to sacrifice for their children.”  It’s a sentiment that’s firmly, if softly, said.

 

He grunts again.  "This is how sacrifice always works.   It means far more to the doer than to the recipient,” Lord Tenebrae gripes before he takes a drink.  “The little one is just like you. Full of compassion and ready to forgive.”

 

It’s true.  Tosca nods.

 

The priest continues:  “We’ll make a Sith Lord out of the older one yet.  He’s got the Dark instinct he needs to succeed.  He reminded me of myself.” The pensive cast to Lord Tenebrae’s face tells Tosca that he’s thinking of another boy full of misplaced rage at his innocent mother.  Of another boy frustrated and upset with an unchangeable situation who was looking for someone to blame.

 

“His count is low,” she volunteers.  “They both have low counts.”  Like herself.

 

He waves it off.  “Midichlorians are just an indicator.  They are not the true measure of a Sith.   Some Lords with high counts never fulfill their potential.  And circumstances can take an average man and make him something truly special.  It’s too soon to write your oldest boy off.  I will find him a decent Master and we shall see how he develops.”

 

Tosca is touched.  “You can do that?  You would do that?”

 

A slow, sly smile creeps across his face.  “My dear,” the priest confides, “I may be a mere magician, but I am very well connected.”

 

“Thank you,” she breathes.  That’s one issue solved, at least.

 

Lord Tenebrae sits back in his chair now.  “The little one is more of a problem.  That boy would make a good Jedi.”

 

She groans, “Don’t say that—“

 

“He needs a cause and a laboratory.  Perhaps medicine or engineering.  Something with some altruism as an outlet for his Light,” the priest assesses.  “He’ll never make a military man.”

 

“He’s hopeless,” Tosca sighs.

 

Lord Tenebrae disagrees.  “No, he’s hopeful.  That’s the problem.”  His right hand reaches forward to cover her left hand on the table. It’s a gesture of sympathy and comfort.  “He’s just like you,” Lord Tenebrae says thoughtfully as he intertwines his fingers with hers.   “Determined to see the best in everyone.  Even in ancient Dark me.”

 

Tosca just nods sadly.  She worries for Lucius.

 

“We will get Struct reassigned somewhere here on Dromund Kaas so he can look after the boys while they are schooled.”

 

Again, Tosca is surprised by his magnanimity.  She must have mistaken Lord Tenebrae’s gruffness earlier for jealousy, because he keeps offering to help.  “Can you do that?  He’s military.”  The Sith army has its own chain of command unto itself.  Tosca is skeptical that a religious sorcerer type can influence it.

 

But Lord Tenebrae nods.  “We will see your family well settled for the future.   That way, you can let go.”

 

“Let go??” she echoes.   Tosca looks up with alarm.

 

“Yes.”  He squeezes her hand he’s holding.  “It is best for all involved to create distance.”

 

Her heart says no, but her head says yes.  Torn Tosca mumbles, “Maybe you’re right.”  More ugly scenes like today won’t help any of them cope in the long term.  As much as she wants to see her boys, Tosca doesn’t want to upset them.   Maybe her family needs to reach a new normal and stick with it for a while, she ponders.  That might relieve some of the initial anxiety of the change and eventually allow them move forward.

 

Lord Tenebrae now re-ups his offer from last night.  “I will let the boys come monthly for a visit, if you wish.  It’s up to you.”  It’s the same offer he made allowing her to venture outside the Temple--leaving it up to her to set limits.  But like with yesterday’s public outing, after this morning’s ugly reunion Tosca is ready to draw the line at never again.  Neither experience had been the joy she was seeking.  Being outside the Temple didn’t feel like freedom. Instead, it was threatening and diminishing.  And meeting her boys this morning didn’t feel like the loving family she misses.  It was full of conflict, guilt, and recrimination.  

 

Looking across at Lord Tenebrae’s handsome face, she sees concern.  Perhaps he is right:  outside the walls of the Palace complex, there lies only pain for her now.  

 

So she decides:  “It’s a bad idea to see the boys again soon.   It will keep the pain fresh for us both.”

 

He nods gravely.

 

She takes a big drink of wine and confides, “I don’t think I want to go out much either.  Today, I made arrangements to have the dress fittings for the girls and me done here.  None of them wanted to go out in public in the first place.  I think that instinct was right . . . “  More and more, Tosca thinks she needs to stay here for now.  To hide.

 

He holds her gaze steadily as he approves, “All you need is here.  You can be happy here.”  And after the last two days, Tosca desperately wants to believe him.  “I will make you happy,” he promises sincerely.  “I will be your refuge.”

 

Maybe in that Republic custom of dating Lord Tenebrae described, declarations like this would seem extraordinary.  But not for her.  As a rule, the Sith are all-in for commitment.  The adherents of the Shadow Force make no equivocation.  Whether it’s promising lifelong marriage on the basis of a few chaperoned meetings, pledging forever loyalty to a Master as a teacher and mentor, or swearing to uphold the Emperor and topple the enemy Republic, the Sith rush in.   Because they are intense and focused like that.  The democratic Republic may be a culture of debate and handwringing, but the Sith are all about action.  Obsessive, dogged commitment is their thing.

 

Lord Tenebrae still has his hand covering hers on the table.  He grips at her fingers as he counsels her, “Let the past die.  There’s nothing for you there now.   Know that you have helped your family as much as you could and move on.”

 

“I feel like I have abandoned them,” she whispers.

 

“You did the best you could under the circumstances,” he soothes.  “You need to look to the future now.”

 

Tosca takes no solace in these words.  “I don’t have a future.  That’s the problem,” she complains.

 

He squeezes her hand again to get her attention.  “Your future is here with me.”

 

“I don’t know what that means,” she is candid.  “We can’t marry.  We won’t have children. What sort of future is that?”  It has none of the hallmarks of commitment to a life together.  It’s a far cry from what traditional, conventional Tosca was raised to expect.  But maybe she’s gone so far off the normal life script, that she can’t expect those things any longer.

 

“We would have each other,” he offers.

 

“Not really.”

 

“Yes, really.  Behind closed doors where no on sees.”

 

Tosca isn’t sure she’s ready to settle for that.  “Escorted by guards with a hood over my head?  Seeing you nightly for dinner and that’s it?  Why do you live like this?   Does it make you happy?”   Just how isolated is he?

 

“Living here is necessary.”

 

“Because the Emperor requires it?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“It’s lonely, isn’t it?”

 

“It was until you showed up.”

 

Miserable Tosca sighs.  “I don’t know what I want anymore.”  And that’s not precisely true.  She does know what she wants.  She just can’t have it. 

 

Lord Tenebrae looks empathetic as he instructs, “Sometimes you have to embrace what the Force asks of you, even if it’s not what you envision for yourself.   After I killed my parents, I hid on the run for years.  Uncertain what to do next other than to survive.  It took time for me to realize that the Force had opened a far greater destiny for me than I could ever imagine.  But once I committed to a new future and killed my father, I was on my way to a life of significance.  That was the first big step.  And then, when the war ended, I took another big step.” 

 

“Supporting Vitiate?” she guesses.

 

“Yes.  That’s how a colonist farm boy with the Force took his place where he belonged.  I effectively became the Sith invader I hated as a kid.  Because to remain who I was born to be was no longer an option.”  He urges her now, “Embrace change, Tosca.  Trust me, that attitude makes everything easier.” 

 

Tosca thinks now of the adult daughter she met earlier who refused to move on.  She was a young woman entirely too comfortable in her rut, rancorous as it were.  That girl needed a new attitude to move forward.  Maybe, Tosca thinks, she needs one herself.

 

“I think you’re right,” she breathes out, still uncertain.

 

“I am.”  She feels a tug as the priest pulls his hand back from hers.  She looks down to find that he has slid off her wedding band.

 

“Let the past die,” he repeats. 

 

Tosca stares hard at her wedding ring that he is toying with.  “I’m still married whether I wear that or not.”

 

He turns her point around. “The marriage is over.  The trust, the closeness, the connection, the love . . .   You saw for yourself today that it’s all gone.  Wearing a ring won’t change that.”

 

“I never even spoke to Marcus—”

 

“That’s because he asked not to see you.”

 

“Oh.”  That news feels like a punch to the gut.  Tosca is thrown for a loop.

 

Lord Tenebrae is contemptuous.  “He is a coward to let his wife fight his battles for him.  To allow you to be the one to answer for his shortcomings.  The man’s failure is complete.”

 

Tosca is still focused on the ring.  “What are you going to do with that?” she worries.

 

“I will keep it for you.  Would you like it back?” he offers it across the table.  “Tosca, the decision is yours whether to wear it or not.  I’m not a tyrant looking to control you.  You make your own decisions here,” he purrs.

 

She stares at the plain gold band that she has won for years.  Does she want to wear it?  Should she cling to a life she’s no longer able to live?  To a commitment that is de facto impossible to continue?   Her eyes fall.  “No, you keep it for now,” she decides.  Then, she chokes out, “I guess I’m alone now.”

 

“You don’t need a family.  You only need me,” he assures her with confidence.  But he must realize how close she is to tears from dwelling on this upsetting topic.  He changes the subject.  "What happened with the new addition to the cloister?"

 

Oh yes.    There is that.   Tosca has been so preoccupied with her own family’s plight that she has largely ignored today’s other dramatic interview. 

 

She can’t quite meet her boss’ eyes.  "There is no new addition."

 

"Oh?"   He raises an eyebrow. 

 

She tries to phrase it neutrally.  "The parents changed their minds."

 

He smirks his skepticism.  "Did they now?"   Is he angered or pleased?   She can’t tell.   She never knows where she stands with this man.

 

"The family is going to try harder to work their problems out."  Tosca looks down. "Their family will stay together even if mine does not."

 

Saying those words out loud hurts.  Tosca closes her eyes to hold back tears.  She's the worst mother ever.  And now probably the worst Temple matron to boot.  Today has been a total disaster.   She's failing at everything, drowning in the consequences of the situation she herself created.  Still, taking the veil was the best solution, Tosca tells herself for the umpteenth time.  For as unhappy as her boys and Marcus seem, at least they are all alive. 

 

And that troubled family she met today?   Well, they still have a chance to salvage things.  Tosca wasn't about to let them drop off their daughter at the Temple if there was the slightest chance at reconciliation.  That's probably overstepping her role as matron, but Tosca couldn't stop herself from intervening.  If she has her way, there will never be another girl joining the cloister. 

 

She feels his eyes on her.  Is he annoyed by the tears she is unsuccessfully suppressing?  She knows he doesn’t like crying women.  Abruptly, Tosca rises to cross the room. She pretends to look out the window as she regains her composure.  She’s cried enough for today.  It’s time to rally. 

 

And still, she feels his gaze on her turned back.

 

“That Lord seemed very certain of his decision,” Lord Tenebrae observes offhand. “How did you change his mind?”

 

“I told him no,” she admits to her subversive act.  Warily, Tosca turns her head to ask her boss, "Was it a test?   Did I fail?"

 

He stands to join her. "You passed," he breathes out, his yellow eyes gleaming.

 

His arms intercept her from behind.  He always hugs first from behind.  One hand reaches up to her breasts while the other splays across her hip.  He presses closer.  Leaning his body into her backside he so admires.  It gives no doubt of his intentions.  She can feel him growing stiff against her. 

 

"I knew you weren't too good to be true,” he rasps as his hands covet her. “You're just too good.   Too good for me.  Too good for Darkness.”

 

And there he goes again with his confusing dirty talk of power.  She told him not to insult her as Light.  She draws the line there. 

 

"So good.  So strong.  So beautiful,” he croons into her ear.  “So soft but so resilient.   You don’t break, you bend.”  He whispers now, “Let me bend you.”

 

He’s grinding behind her and Tosca’s body can’t help but respond.  This man’s hands are like a drug that soothes and pacifies her.  He’s insidious like that.  What’s worse, she’s growing very comfortable in his embrace. This is heading fast for sex, and they both know it.

 

He tugs her around for a thorough kiss.  Tosca participates fully, snaking her arms around his neck as she arches against him.   Because after this painful day, she’s craving pleasure.  Decimus and Marcus may have rejected her, but this man seeks her out.  It’s the positive reinforcement she needs just now.  More than anything tonight, she wants comfort.  For someone to hold her tight and promise it will be alright.

 

“My Lord,” she gasps as he laps at her neck. 

 

“Carl,” he corrects. 

 

“Carl . . . Carl . . . ”  Her head lolls as she relaxes more and more. 

 

“Yes, my Lady?” he whispers.

 

“Don’t stop.”

 

“As you wish,” he nearly growls.

 

He takes her by the hand to lead her back to the table.  With one sweep of his arm and the help of the Force, the table clears of everything. Glasses, wine, plates, food, napkins, even her wedding ring, clatter and crash to the floor.   He ignores the mess and presses her down face forward.  Soon, her skirt is up, her panties are down, and her legs are spread as he slips inside.  She’s head down on her elbows, feeling her feet leave the ground with the help of the Force as he tilts her forward to maximize his angle.  This might be even wilder than sex in the garden.  Because he’s standing up with a vice grip on her hips as he thrusts hard for deep penetration. 

 

“Yessss.”  It comes out as a hiss.  “Be my good girl so I can corrupt you,” he pants.   “Stay his wife so I can seduce you.  Live in my temple so I can own you.”

 

“H-Harder,” she demands as she tries to tune him out.  This guy needs to shut up.  Enough with the possessive trash talk narration.

 

But it just eggs him on.  “Did you feel that?” he grunts with a hard thrust.  “Can you feel this?”

 

All she feels is wildly disorienting pleasure. It’s the friction of hot, primal passion.  And it’s in just the right spot.  Tosca is losing her mind from all the sensory overload. Grunting and moaning and heaving with abandon as he dominates.

 

As with any encounter like this, it flames out fast.  Tosca is a quivering, shrieking mess at the finish.  He’s there right behind her with a triumphant guttural shout.  The rush of adrenaline recedes and Tosca is a bit mortified, to be honest.  He steps back and she straightens up, busying herself with yanking down her skirt to cover her embarrassment.  Because oh Force, just hours ago Marcus had been here and now look what she is doing?   Truly, she is a fallen woman.  Every bit the whore her son had accused her of being. 

 

“I don’t know why I need this. But I do,” he confesses between pants.

 

“All men need sex,” Tosca mutters.   Women too, but no one ever talks about that. 

 

“It’s not just the sex,” he tells her, sounding honestly befuddled. “It’s you.”

 

She looks up now and her world tilts as Lord Tenebrae suddenly sweeps her feet from under her.  It’s so unexpected that she yelps and frantically grabs for his neck and shoulders.  He’s doing this with the Force, of course, but it’s still a shock.  And she’s a lot to carry. 

 

Lord Tenebrae’s eyes are as yellow as they have ever been as he commands, “Indulge me, my Lady. I need more of you tonight.” 

 

He strides forward and somehow through the wall.  This must be like the entrance to his hidden apartment she saw before.   Some trick of the Force that she doesn’t understand.  But one moment they are next to the table with dinner splattered on the floor and the next thing she knows he’s marching towards that big bed she remembers with the window to the stars. 

 

He lays her down, climbs on top and starts in on more Jedi dirty talk between kisses.  “Be my Light.  Be my secret vice. Be the good in my world.”

 

Light?   Her eyes pop open.  Maybe this is harmless roleplaying in the bedroom, but he’s picked a dangerous topic.  This is forbidden.  And it’s killing the mood. 

 

She protests.  “My Lord—“

 

“Carl.”

 

“Be careful!   These walls could have ears!  Someone could overhear and tell the Emperor.”

 

“Shhhhh,” he soothes.  He nuzzles her neck as he chuckles deep in his throat, “It’s fine, you sexy Jedi.”

 

She nearly chokes.  “I am not the enemy,” she grinds out.

 

“I know.”  She’s talking personally but he’s thinking politically.  “More and more, I wonder if the Republic should be our ally.”

 

“Whhaat??”  She half-sits up to push him off. 

 

He resists, pressing her down. “Kiss me.”

 

She shoots him a look. “Only if you shut up.   I won’t be your accomplice for treason.  I like my head, my Lord.”

 

He laughs again. “I like your head.  But I especially like your—”

 

“I’m serious!”

 

“Yes, dear.  Long live the Emperor,” he smirks.  “Now kiss me.”

 

Chapter Text

After Lord Tenebrae removes her wedding ring, the other priests, staff, and even the guards cease referring to Tosca as Lady Struct.  She is Lady Tosca now at the Palace.  It’s the moniker of an unmarried young girl of the Sith elite.  Married women are customarily known by their husband’s title.  But whatever. Lady Tosca, it is.  She goes with it.

 

Other things begin to change too. Tosca and the girls receive their new black dresses and red cloaks.  The hated veils are dispensed with much to everyone’s relief.  With their hair now uncovered, the girls begin spending hours with the new grooming droids learning ornate hairstyles.  And every time Tosca turns around, another girl is applying her lipstick.  Perhaps this emphasis on appearance is frivolous for their Temple setting, but it lifts the mood considerably in the cloister.  Every woman feels better when she feels pretty, Tosca rationalizes her expenditures. Somedays, it’s like an endless slumber party with happy giggles and groups of girls clustered together.   Sure, it’s silly and does nothing to improve the girls’ situation.  But no one remains closeted in her room all day any longer.   Tosca privately declares that true progress.

 

Lord Tenebrae, who happens upon their group in the garden one morning, remarks dryly, “It’s getting downright glamorous around here.”

 

Is that praise?  Does he disapprove?  Tosca speaks up, “It’s harmless fun for the girls.   They need something to keep them occupied.   It’s an outlet for their creativity.”

 

“This isn’t summer camp,” he harrumphs before he walks off.

 

And whatever.  Carl might grumble, but he hasn’t made any effort to curtail her decisions.  So, Tosca keeps pushing for more changes.  No one wants to venture out in public, so she begins to arrange for the public to come to them.  Tosca reads about an esteemed music group that has come to play a sold-out concert in Kaas City.  On a whim, Tosca boldly reaches out to invite them to play a truncated version earlier that same afternoon in the Temple sanctuary.  Her request must be mistaken for a command performance at the Palace, because the answer is a quick and emphatic yes.  The concert becomes the first of several private music recitals in the Temple. Because once Tosca figures out that she has some unexpected clout, she starts to use it.  It’s all classical music, not that thumping electronic stuff Decimus and his friends listen to.  These performances are well suited to the gravitas of their Temple setting, she tells herself.

 

One night, laying in Carl’s arms, he asks about it.  “Where are you going with all this?”

 

She’s not really sure.  It’s still very ad hoc. But she has some vague ideas. “I think I’d like the Temple to be a cultural center.  A place where we can glorify Darkness through art and music as well as prayer.”

 

“Does that mean you are planning to open the concerts to the public?” he asks. 

 

That hadn’t even occurred to Tosca.  “Can we do that?” she sits up.

 

“With sufficient security,” he allows. 

 

And that’s when things really take off. Soon, people are asking to perform at their venue and a growing group of public attendees forms.  One of them is a Lady who approaches Tosca after a performance.

 

The Lady turns out to be the mother of one of the Temple girls.  Tosca meets her for an interview the next morning.  The Lady recounts that her husband has recently died.  Her Lord was the one who insisted their daughter go to the Temple.  Now that he is gone, the mother wants to know if her daughter can come home.  She plans for them to live quietly together as a family again.  Tosca instantly accepts, and the cloister sends its first girl home on Tosca’s watch. 

 

One down, eleven more to go. Tosca is still determined to end the tradition of Temple girls.  But no more family members appear at the concerts.  Tosca keeps hoping that her own family will show up.  But they never do.

 

Still, she keeps providing opportunities for them to come by.  It randomly occurs to Tosca that the wide, blank hallways near the entrance to the Temple are conspicuously bare.  So, encouraged by her experience with the concerts, Tosca contacts the local art museum on behalf of the Temple.  Days later, the museum director is sitting with Tosca in the lounge area that the girls now refer to as her office, hatching a plan to display a rotating series of paintings on loan from the museum.  But once Tosca and the museum director walk through the large open space, the idea mushrooms.   They begin discussing a full-blown exhibit.  The museum will loan their works in exchange for the opportunity to host small donor receptions in the space.  Everyone will come, the museum director gushes, since it’s a chance to go to the Palace.  Tosca and the girls do not attend the festivities, naturally.  But they do get the benefit of the art that will hang all season.

 

“What’s next at summer camp?   Poetry readings?” Carl jokes in private that night when they are cuddling in bed.

 

Tosca considers. “You know, that’s not a bad idea.  The Palace should be a beacon of art and culture that the Empire can be proud of.  Poetry . . . I like that idea.  It’s different, but I like it.”

 

“Vivamus, mea Tosca, atque anemus,” Carl starts paraphrasing a famous Kittat love poem into her ear.  Let us live, my Tosca, and let us love.  But after that sure start, he falters. “I forget the rest.”   He thinks a moment. “Da mi bassia mille, deinde centum, or something like that.”

 

“Give me a thousand kisses, and then a hundred more,” she translates, marveling, “who knew a farm boy from a colony world would know his ancient Sith literature?”

 

Carl grunts. “I had no Master and no schooling beyond the basics.  I taught myself Kittat from the library in my father’s house.  Old Dramath must have been something of a rake. He had volumes of love poetry and a rather extensive collection of porn.  My thirteen-year-old self was thrilled with that inheritance,” he snickers.

 

“I can imagine,” she giggles.

 

“The porn was an education unto itself,” he recalls. “But never fear, my Lady, I learned my elegaic couplets as well.”  He starts reciting some more. “Odi et amo.  Quare id faciam fortasse requiris. Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.”  I hate and I love. Why I do this, perhaps you ask. I know not, but I feel it happening and I am tortured. It’s a famous declaration of conflicting feelings and self-loathing.  A classic Sith lament.

 

“Love poetry might not be the best fit for the Temple,” Tosca muses aloud, still considering the idea seriously. 

 

“Don’t look at me.  I’m not performing a reading.”

 

“Maybe I could persuade the guy from the throne room to do it?”

 

“The Emperor?” Carl smirks.  “You aim high.”

 

“No, his announcer guy.  That man has a great voice and a flair for the dramatic.  Hey, maybe some epic poetry?   You know, recanting the founding of the Empire?”

 

“Arma virumque cano Korribanae qui primus ab oris?” Carl shows off some more as he recites the first line of the most famous Sith epic poem that recounts the original founding of the Empire.  I sing of war and of a man who first came from the shores of Korriban . . .   Every school kid learns it.  Including, apparently, the hayseed Lord Tenebrae.

 

Tosca is warming to the idea fast. “Black Sabbath is coming up.  That’s the perfect season for some patriotic poetry. The girls and I are already planning to decorate—“

 

“Will there be a tree?”

 

“Of course.  Where else will the Spirit of Darkness know where to leave the gifts?”

 

“There are gifts?”  Carl fixes her with a look.

 

“Er . . . small ones.  Very, very small ones.  Teeny-weeny unimportant ones,” she answers meekly.

 

“Tosca, what are you doing to my Temple?” Carl complains even as he gathers her closer.

 

“It’s perfectly appropriate for the Temple to celebrate Black Sabbath.  It is a religious holiday,” she argues.

 

“Music, art, maybe poetry, Sabbath trees.   My Temple has never been so . . .  so . . . ” He’s searching for the word.  He settles on, “So happy.”

 

His word makes her smile.  Tosca snuggles down into his arms. “It needed a woman’s touch.”

 

“We’ve always had a woman matron.  This isn’t the female touch.  This is you.”

 

“Well, maybe a little—“

 

“How do you get away with this again?” he whispers as he nuzzles at her neck.

 

“Don’t tell anyone,” she whispers, “but I’m sleeping with the boss.”

 

“You bad girl,” he teases as he drops kisses onto her shoulder.

 

“It is a very lusty affair.”

 

“Show me,” he responds as he snakes a hand between her legs.

 

Theirs is a lusty affair.  Every night they dine and then Carl opens the wall with the Force and they end up in bed.  Tosca wakes up the next morning in the cloister and the day begins again. As the weeks creep into months, she mostly loses her guilt from it.   Although, she can still go from blithely accepting of her situation to crying in the shower homesick for her family all in the same day. 

 

It helps that Carl is in her life.  More than anything, Tosca feels grateful for Lord Tenebrae.  He isn’t exactly nice, but he is permissive.   At times, he is quite caring.  And, as he said he wanted from the outset, they have become fast friends.  At times, their relationship reminds her of a marriage.  He has his work, she has her work, and they come together at night to share it and be together. Given all the fears she had at the outset for life at the Temple, things are surprisingly good. 

 

But every so often, Lord Tenebrae surprises her.  Tonight is one of those nights.  She has been summoned as usual for dinner. Carl plucks the hood from her head.   “Ah, my dear, there you are.”  He’s grinning ear to ear.  Mischief is written across his features. Uh oh, she instinctively thinks. 

 

“My Lord.”  Tosca smiles hello even as her eyes find six—six!—praetorians with Force pikes brandished at a strange man standing in handcuffs.  The man is unremarkably dressed in a baggy brown tunic, pants, and boots.  His hair is long—far too long for the military style conformity of the Imperial proletariat.  It’s also half pulled back in a bun like a woman.  Tosca blinks.  “Oh.”  Because along with the rigid gender roles of the Sith comes an equally demarcated dress code.  In the Empire, no man sports hair that long.  Looking closer, Tosca sees that he is even wearing jewelry. She sees several rings and a necklace with a pendant.  Yes, he must be an outlander.

 

She looks to Carl with alarm.  “Is there a p-problem?” she asks even as her mind suddenly registers that the captive has the Force.  So, yes, there is most definitely a problem.

 

“Oh, no problem.  No problem, at all,” Carl says breezily. “Tonight, we dine with a guest.”

 

Tosca’s eyes dart towards the strange man again.  He shows an expression of utter calm.  Like anything could happen and he would be prepared for it.  “The . . .er . . . prisoner?”

 

“Tonight, he is our guest.”  Carl is irrepressibly smug as he performs the introductions. “Lady Tosca, may I present Jedi Master Tavo Crutcher.”

 

“J-Jedi??” Her mouth falls open and she whirls on Carl. “Jedi!!” she half-shrieks.  Lord Tenebrae looks pleased by this reaction.  The Jedi’s face reveals nothing.  But Tosca automatically turns to the retreating praetorians who brought her in to call out, “Stay!  Guards, stay!”

 

“No, go,” Carl countermands her.  “My Lady, you are perfectly safe.”

 

Tosca is doubtful.  Her eyes find the prisoner again.  At least he has those handcuffs on. 

 

But not for long.  With a wave of his hand, Carl unlocks the Jedi’s restraints and they fly into his grip.  Then he tosses them onto a nearby couch.  “The rest of you, go.  Leave us,” Carl commands to the six pike wielders. 

 

“But, my Lord,” the lead praetorian speaks up as Tosca enthusiastically nods to encourage him. 

 

“Go!” Carl waves them all away.  “I will summon you when you are needed.”

 

Tosca watches in dismay as the guards comply and file out.  Since she’s the one standing closest to the dinner table, she impulsively snakes out a hand quickly to grab a utensil.  It’s not much, but it’s something.   She’s not going down without a fight. 

 

Courtly as always, Carl appears over her shoulder to pull out her chair. “Allow me, my Lady.”  Then he motions to the Jedi to sit across from her.  “I will sit between you,” he offers, “as a buffer.”

 

“Don’t try anything,” Tosca growls across the table at the Jedi, using her best mean-mommy-who-will-follow-through-on-her-threats voice. 

 

“You are the current threat,” Carl points out calmly. “Keep an eye on her, Master Jedi,” the priest advises sotto voce just between men.  “She’s got a butter knife up her sleeve.”

 

Tosca shoots Carl a glare for outing her.

 

“Next time, grab a fork,” he smirks. “That at least is sharp.”

 

Since they are openly discussing the threat, Tosca points and hisses, “He’s dangerous!  You should kill him. Kill him now!”

 

“So bloodthirsty!”  Lord Tenebrae flashes a wide appreciative grin.  But then he reassures, “Truly, my dear, there is no danger.”

 

“How can you say that?” she refuses to be talked down.  “He's the enemy among us!   Here in the Palace!”   This is folly surely.  She jolts to her feet.  “The Emperor will not stand for this!” she declares. 

 

“Sit, my dear.”  Lord Tenebrae waves her back into her chair. “The Emperor knows he’s here.  The Jedi is our guest.  Now be your normal charming self.  Give him a smile and let us welcome him properly.”

 

Tosca eyes the man across from her.  He still wears a thoughtful, calm look that is very much at odds with her own agitation.  “Welcome, my Lord,” she grumbles sulkily.

 

Their host leans in to chide her in a stage whisper. “He's not a Lord.  He's a Knight.”

 

“Welcome Sir Crutcher.”

 

Carl snorts.

 

She glares.  “What??”

 

The Jedi ignores their exchange.  The man gives her a dignified nod. “My Lady.”   He looks to Carl and marvels, “She is Sith?”

 

Carl nods. “Lady Tosca is the matron of my Temple. She is an administrator of sorts. She oversees the girls who serve at the rituals.”

 

“And she is born and bred Sith?” the Jedi questions again, sounding slightly incredulous.  Like she’s the freak and not him. 

 

Tosca is not relishing this conversation.  But it’s not the first time she has drawn curious looks.  What is it tonight?  Is it the hair?  Maybe her blue eyes?  She bristles and lays claim to her status as a Sith elite. “I am wife to Darth Struct, daughter of Darth Vehement, and granddaughter of Darth Stain.” Obviously, these words mean nothing to a Jedi. But they bolster Tosca’s confidence.  

 

Their guest is still peering at her like she’s a lab specimen.   “How . . . extraordinary.”

 

What’s worse, Carl plays along. “I know!” he exclaims as though he has found much needed confirmation. “No one around here recognizes it.  No one except me has lived long enough to actually have experienced the Jedi and the Light.  They don’t even know one when they meet one.”

 

“Know one what?” Tosca’s eyes narrow.

 

“A kindred spirit,” the Jedi answers, sounding and looking puzzled.  It’s the first emotion he has betrayed yet.  “A practitioner of the Light here amid the Sith,” he considers her suspiciously.

 

“We have nothing in common and I am not Light,“ Tosca sniffs. “I might look different than you expect, but that is superficial.  Not all Sith Ladies are red with black hair.  We have a diversity of peoples in the Empire.”

 

“This has nothing to do with your beauty,” Carl intervenes.  “It is your Force he recognizes.”

 

The Jedi now turns confused eyes on Lord Tenebrae. “So, she is politically a Sith but not Dark?”

 

“I’m Dark.  I’m very, very Dark!” Tosca grinds out, looking from one man to another with consternation.

 

“Yes.  She’s all Sith, trust me,” Carl chuckles. “Just a Light Sith.  Sith-lite, as it were,” he smirks.

 

“Stop talking about me like I’m not here,” Tosca informs both men tartly.

 

They ignore her.  Carl leans forward to smirk some more. “She’s feisty too.  Watch out for that butter knife, Jedi.”

 

“She’s got the fork you recommended now,” Master Crutcher points out.  

 

“Indeed, she does.  Use the fork, my Lady,” Carl quips. 

 

Tosca isn’t laughing.  She puts down the fork she has lifted and shoots Carl a quelling look.  Then, she has an idea.  “Perhaps before we dine, we should offer up a prayer,” she suggests with some unholy glee.

 

“May the Force be with us,” the chief priest intones solemnly.  Then he crosses himself in the traditional gesture of blessing.

 

The Jedi nods along but Tosca speaks up to add the additional benediction, “Come holy spirit of Darkness and baptize us in the glory of war.  Republica est delenda!” she proclaims the Kittat for ‘the Republic must be destroyed.’ 

 

Lord Tenebrae chuckles before he translates for their lost guest.  “That’s more a popular drinking toast for the army than a true prayer,” he chides Tosca.   “You’re supposed to down a shot of whiskey after that shout.  The last one standing wins the glory of being most drunk.”

 

Well whoops, she must have heard it from Marcus.   But whatever. The sentiment is what counts. Let there be no doubt of her feelings on the matter of religion and politics.   Tosca lifts her chin indignantly.  Then she lifts her wineglass. 

 

Carl joins in the toast and the Jedi begrudgingly goes along.

 

“Lady Tosca is right,” Carl muses as they begin to eat.  “The Empire is not a monolith of thought.  Nor are we a people of conformity. Yes, our Lords and Ladies have a type.  But they are not representative of the whole Empire.  The Lords are but one part of our society.”

 

“You don’t appear Sith either,” the Jedi observes frankly.  He’s picking at his food, she notes.  Probably worried it is poisoned.  “How are you the chief priest of the Sith without the Force?”

 

Carl shrugs cheekily. “Lucky, I guess.”

 

“In my experience there’s no such thing as luck,” the Jedi drawls.

 

“So true, so true.”  Carl laughs and flashes a sly look.  “I have the Force.  I have plenty of Force, but I hide it so Jedi like you can’t find me.”

 

“You hide in the Force?”  The enemy Jedi is taken aback. 

 

Carl leans forward. “I am very good at hiding.”

 

“Show me,” the Jedi goads.  “Show me your Force.”

 

Tosca speaks up now to brag.  “Be careful what you wish for. He killed four hundred men months ago by absorbing their Force.  Lord Tenebrae is powerful.  He’s very powerful.  If he shows you his power, it might kill you.”  So there, she thinks.

 

Carl’s eyes flash bright yellow.  Those are his bedroom eyes, she recognizes. But he turns his attention back to their guest and the moment is fleeting. “She’s right,” he agrees amicably as though they are discussing something innocuous like the weather.  “I am a powerful Lord.  If I showed you, I might kill you.  But it’s too soon to kill you.  And bad form at dinner.”

 

The Jedi shoots them both hard looks.  “She’s full of Light and you’re a priest without the Force.  Forgive me for being skeptical that I’m being misled.  You could be anyone,” he accuses. “You Sith are known for deceit.”

 

Lord Tenebrae is mischievous in his retort. “Indeed.  I could be the Emperor. She might be my consort.”

 

“My Lord!” Tosca objects to this contention even if it is in jest.  Carl is way too curious about the enemy, and every now and then he verges on treason with his freethinking ways.  No one should ever speak as though they might usurp Lord Vitiate.  Tosca glares her reproof at Carl.

 

The Jedi does not miss the look.  “Emperor?  I think not,” he judges.

 

Carl merely shrugs. “She has no poker face.  What you see is what you get with Lady Tosca.  It’s part of her charm.  She hides nothing.”

 

“What is your Emperor like?” the Jedi probes.

 

Carl thinks a moment.  “He’s okay, I guess.”

 

Tosca blinks at this answer. 

 

The Jedi is a bit annoyed. “I’m not asking about his personality.   Tell me about his goals.  About his abilities.”

 

After Lord Tenebrae’s less than ringing endorsement, Tosca jumps in to Lord Vitiate’s defense.  “He’s the most power Force user to ever live.   He is the savior of our people.  When we had fallen into disunity and defeat, he rallied us.   Took us into hiding.  Led us to regroup and prosper.”

 

“You Sith sure like to hide.  Let me guess—he hides in the Force too?” the Jedi asks.

 

Carl nods.  “Lord Vitiate is very good at hiding.”

 

“Like you.”

 

“Like me.”

 

“Why hide?” the Jedi challenges.  “If he’s so powerful and wants revenge on the Republic, why hide?”

 

“Why hide?” Carl echoes.  “Isn’t it obvious?  The first responsibility of any leader is to protect his people.”   Lord Tenebrae’s mercurial mood shifts and he is suddenly absolutely serious. “The Republic more than decimated us.  Millions upon millions dead.  Our territory completely ceded. We lost everything!  Our survivors had to journey twenty years wandering wild space to find a homeland and re-found our Empire. Vitiate is no fool.  He won’t rekindle a war unless he has to. But if we re-emerge and the Republic attacks, he will have no choice.  It will be all-out war with all the risk that entails.  So, we lie in wait.  Hidden while we prepare to defend ourselves, if necessary.”

 

The Jedi raises an eyebrow.  “The Sith were the aggressors, if I recall my history.”

 

“I lived that history, Jedi.  I was born during the reign of Ragnos.  I watched his foolish successor lead us into defeat with his expansionist dreams.  So did the Emperor.”  Carl leans forward in his chair and his voice is truly menacing. “I too want revenge on the Republic, but I am not willing to destroy our civilization to achieve it.”   He sits back now and lets that message sink in.  Then, he continues.  “Tell me, what would happen if we sent you back unharmed to report to your government that the Sith Empire still exists.”

 

The Jedi considers a moment before he answers honestly.  “If the Senate knew you were here, they would act.  They would judge it too risky to wait and allow you to strengthen further.”

 

“It is as the Emperor fears then,” Carl concludes.  “The Republic would be the aggressor this time.”

 

The Jedi does not mince words. “Your values conflict completely with our own.  The oppression of the Sith will never return.”

 

Carl sidesteps that remark, refusing to take the bait. “And the Jedi?  What would the Jedi Order do?”

 

“They would concur with the politicians. The Sith Empire is an existential threat to our way of life. The Dark Side must be opposed,” Master Crutcher replies, sounding as calm and uncaring as usual.  It’s maddening for Tosca to hear these words stated so matter-of-fact.

 

“Yes, that too is as the Emperor expects,” Carl nods.  “But what do you know of the Dark Side, Jedi?”

 

“Just what the history books tell me.  It is forbidden to a Knight.”

 

“Why?” Lord Tenebrae challenges.

 

“Because Darkness is dangerous.”

 

The answer makes the priest smile.  “That is true.  Do you know why?”

 

“Because once you start down the Dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny,” the Jedi Master recites.

 

“That is false.  I invite you to consider this Lady here.”  Carl gestures to Tosca at his side.  “Raised in the oppression of the Sith, taught the Dark Side, but yet full of Light.  Softhearted, compassionate, and merciful.  How do you explain that?”

 

The Jedi freely admits, “I cannot.  Not based on my current knowledge of the Lady and your culture.”

 

“Neither can I,” Carl concedes, “but there is a lesson there.   Can you be both Light and Dark?   Can you channel emotion for power like a Sith to achieve a compassionate goal?  And can you be remote and detached like a Jedi and summon power for a selfish end?  Does the means dictate the result for the Force?  Is it how we summon the Force that matters for our end goals?”  He looks to his guest for a response.  “Tell me what a Jedi thinks:  is this Lady Dark or is she Light?  Or is she both?”

 

“No one can be both committed to good and an agent of evil,” the Jedi scoffs.  “If she’s Sith, then she’s Dark.  Even if she’s not there now, she will be.” He quotes his dogma again.  “Once you start down the Dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” The strange man now looks them both pointedly in the eye.  “The Dark Side will never win.”

 

“I agree,” Carl nods.

 

Tosca, who has been silently following this exchange, speaks up. “My Lord!”

 

“It’s true,” Carl doubles down on his assessment. “But the Light Side will never win either.”

 

“We already did,” the Jedi reminds them.

 

Lord Tenebrae cocks his head and needles, “Is this victory?”  He gestures to their luxurious surroundings.  “You won a war.   And yet, we exist.  We persist.  We endure.  Darkness is eternal,” Carl counters.  He is very engaged, she sees, relishing the chance to confront his adversary.  But rather than promote conflict, he solicits more information.  “Our guest is a negotiator sent to broker a sector trade dispute,” Carl gives Tosca some background.  Then he turns back to the prisoner to ask about the organization of the Jedi Order.

 

The Jedi starts talking.  He is surprisingly forthcoming for a captive, Tosca decides. Either that, or the Republic is much more transparent about its governance and the information he shares is common knowledge.  Life among the Sith is very much on a need-to-know basis.  Information is hoarded and secrecy is the general rule.  If Marcus were a Republic captive, they would have to beat even his name out of him.  So that context makes Tosca skeptical that what she’s hearing is the complete truth even though she doesn’t detect any outright lies.

 

Still, she listens as the captive describes how the Jedi Order is organized with a Temple on each major system. The Temples function as houses of worship, study, administration, and education.  A Jedi has a home Temple where they begin their training, but as they mature they are often assigned to other posts according to their vocation. Jedi are loosely organized into three branches:  Guardians, Consulars like this captive, and Sentinels. 

 

Jedi Guardians seem to be the most analog to Sith warriors.  Tosca hears them described somewhat incongruously as peacekeepers with swords and starfighters.   They help police the galaxy, working with the Republic military and law enforcement to defend the state from enemies within and without. What Jedi Guardians achieve through combat, Jedi Consulars attempt to achieve through words, she learns next.  Jedi Consulars are negotiators and mediators who act on behalf of the Republic Senate to promote diplomacy and non-violent resolution of conflict.  The final group of Jedi Sentinels have a special field of discipline in addition to their knowledge of the Force.  These Knights are healers, scholars, explorers, investigators, artisans, and inventors.  They promote peace through knowledge while their brethren keep the peace through diplomacy or, if necessary, war.  But whatever their area of discipline, the mission of a Jedi Knight is the same: to promote peace and democracy so that prosperity and justice extend to all.

 

“Fascinating,” is all Carl has to say to this detailed exposition. 

 

Tosca forces herself not to roll her eyes.

 

And the Force?   Well, a Jedi’s approach to the Force is very different from a Sith, Tosca learns.  We view purity of thought and detachment of emotions as essential to enlightenment, the captive explains.  It gets even weirder from there in Tosca’s opinion.  She learns that the Jedi denounce emotions as the root cause of mortal suffering.  They believe fear, anger, greed, and love cause people to lash out in conflict and impede rational action. The perfect Jedi is a completely objective being who disdains strong emotions, whether positive or negative.

 

“So you have no opinions or feelings of you own?  You do not desire self-fulfillment?” Tosca asks, recalling Carl’s view that the Republic is all about happiness.

 

The captive answers that the Jedi philosophy emphasizes self-improvement through knowledge and wisdom, adherence to servant leadership, and selfless acts of charity, citizenship, and volunteerism. Frankly, after he’s said this grand speech, Tosca still isn’t sure what he means.  Who are these people exactly??  “Tell us about the lives of the Jedi,” she requests.  Perplexed Tosca is far more interested in who these people are than what they do.

 

“Yes, how are you trained?” Carl wants to know.  And that’s when it gets downright bizarre to Tosca’s ears.

 

“Force-sensitive children are taken from their families at a young age and brought up in the local Temple, without connection with their biological relatives.”

 

That sounds familiar.  “My oldest boy will foster in a few years at seventeen when he becomes an Apprentice,” Tosca nods.  “He will leave the nest then.”

 

“Oh, we begin earlier.   Much earlier,” the Jedi explains.

 

“How young?” Carl asks.

 

“Usually about age three.”

 

Tosca chokes.  “Three years old??   But they are babies still!  They need their mothers.”  Lucius wasn’t even potty trained at three.  Just how crazy is Jedi childhood?

 

Master Crutcher elaborates, “We foster a sense of community among our Temples.   We are a collective family even if we are not biologically related.   And the younglings get lots of attention,” he assures her.

 

She’s still not following.  “So . . . the women Jedi take care of the children?” she guesses.

 

“No, adult women Jedi work at their assignments.  We have childminders to look after the younglings.  They are laywomen.”

 

“Without the Force?” Tosca guesses, still trying to cut through his jargon.

 

“Yes, like your servants.”

 

“Oh.  I see.” Tosca looks to Carl, but he just sits back watching to absorb it all.  He seems content to let her ask the questions and provide the counterpoint to the Jedi’s perspective. 

 

“Jedi women are highly trained and very educated,” Master Crutcher tells her.   “We want them to contribute to the community with their talents.  Not be stuck at the Temple for nap time.  That would be a waste.”

 

“Yes, of course,” Tosca says somewhat acidly, having herself had her share of afternoons at home for napping little ones.  Wasting her life, apparently.  “And Jedi women accept this?   They want this?  They don’t wish to care for their own children?” she cross-examines.

 

The man answers patiently.  Truly, this guy’s zen aura is annoying.  Especially when he’s saying such inflammatory things.  And now, it gets worse.  “Jedi women do not bear children.  The Jedi do not marry.”

 

Oh.  “Why not?”

 

“A Jedi’s commitment is first to the Order.   We are taught unconditional love to all people, but we are forbidden to focus that love on individuals.  Romantic attachments—whether formalized in marriage or not—are prohibited.   Similarly, familial attachments to parents, siblings, or other relatives are discouraged.”

 

“Why?”  Tosca is appalled and she’s not bothering to hide it.  She comes from the Sith culture where kinship is everything. Theirs is a society in which the genealogy of Masters and Apprentices is as revered as biological ties are.  Quite simply, the Sith adore attachments.   They brag about them.

 

The Jedi explains his perspective, “Attachments are dangerous.  Fear of losing your loved one can be a path to the Dark Side.”

 

“Darkness is possessive,” Carl nods thoughtfully. “Love can become obsessive . . . extreme.”

 

Tosca begs to differ. “Love is never extreme.   Hate is extreme.”

 

“Love and hate are rather closely related,” the Jedi dismisses her view. 

 

“No,” Tosca says flatly, “they are not.”

 

But the men ignore her once again as they agree amongst themselves. “Yes,” the Jedi concurs with Carl, “love can be extreme.  Moreover, responsibilities to family can promote conflicts with duty to the Order.”

 

Oh, assuredly, Tosca thinks.  Because a Jedi woman with a baby might want to waste time at nap time and end up throwing away her life.  She speaks up, “So really, you are just trying to maximize the work you can get out of women, is that it?  ‘No attachments’ means your women are always available to the Order?”  No one is inconveniently pregnant and throwing up.  Or, Force forbid, home with their kids?

 

The Jedi has a reasoned, dispassionate answer to this, too.  “We prefer to encourage devotion to the Order.  To strengthen the bonds between Jedi Masters and their students, and to promote collegiality among Knights in general.  The prohibition on attachments also ensures that there are no dynasties in the Force that might consolidate power or divide the Order.  The Force is strongly hereditary in some species.”

 

“Of course,” she nods. “We have that here as well.  But your women—they have no natural proclivity to nurture?   To want to bear and raise children?  To run a household and look after a husband?”

 

“Any ordinary woman can do that,” the Jedi answers. “But women blessed with the Force have a higher purpose.  They do important work.”

 

“But what higher purpose is there but love?” Tosca wonders aloud. 

 

“Power,” Carl answers automatically.

 

Just as the Jedi simultaneously answers, “Justice.”

 

“Forgive me, Sir Jedi, but this is very different from my experience,” Tosca tries to be diplomatic.  But she knows she’s not fooling anyone with her disapproval.  “The lives of Sith Ladies revolve around attachments.” And maybe Sith Ladies ought to have more opportunities in life, she thinks, but not if it means losing their families.

 

“We liberate women from all that,” the enemy Jedi responds with irritating condescension. “In fact, we do not limit the aspirations of our knights by gender in any way.”

 

“I see.  So those Jedi Guardians you spoke about—they include women?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Is she understanding correctly?  “You send women to war?   To the frontlines?”

 

The captive nods.  “It is no different than sending a man.”

 

“I suppose not.  You’re not sending someone’s wife or mother.”   Chivalry apparently is dead in the Republic in the name of female empowerment. 

 

The Jedi keeps calmly putting forward explanations.  This must be his skill as a negotiator showing.  “The ‘no attachments’ rule liberates both men and women from traditional social roles.  It eliminates a great deal of frustration and angst as a result.”

 

Yes, because love is hard sometimes and families are messy, Tosca knows firsthand.  But that is the stuff of life among the family values of the Sith.  “I see,” she’s trying to see his point of view but failing miserably.  It’s just too different.

 

“Jedi women make great achievements.  Many have considerable influence,” the man brags.

 

“I guess I have no great achievements. And no influence,” Tosca concedes softly. 

 

“I wouldn’t say that,” Carl speaks up to defend her.   And did he just wink?   She can’t be sure. 

 

When dinner finally concludes, Carl summons the guards to take the prisoner away.  Good riddance, Tosca thinks, as the Jedi is led away with a Force pike at his back. 

 

But Carl sees it differently. “That was fun,” he flashes a satisfied smile as the security detail exits.  He cocks his head as he muses aloud, “Do you think he will escape?”

 

“You sound as if you want him to escape,” Tosca observes.

 

“I want him to try.”

 

“Where did you find him?”

 

“Some patrols found his ship just inside the Ziost system.  He miscalculated a hyperspace jump and got marooned in our territory after a malfunction.  We responded to a distress call and found him.”  Carl chuckles that wicked wry laugh of his.  “I don’t know who was more surprised, him or us.”

 

He waves his hand and the door to his private hidden lair opens from out of nowhere.  Tosca is very used to this now.  She just steps on through.

 

“Well, I'm glad that's over.  He gave me the creeps.   He kept giving me looks."

 

Carl agrees.  "Some people are born to make an entrance, like it or not.  They draw every eye in the room. You are one of them.  That Jedi couldn't stop looking at you and who could blame him?”  Carl slides up close, from behind as usual.  “If I were a Jedi, I would break my vows with you,” he croons. 

 

She scoffs at his goofiness. "No attachments, remember?"   And actually, that whole dinner has put her in a sour mood.  Hearing Lord Tenebrae joke about being a Jedi makes her uncomfortable.  And it raises another concerning issue they need to discuss.  She now informs Carl sternly, “I don’t buy any of this Light business.  I’m no Jedi.  So, don't you get any ideas about sending me to the Republic. Because I won't go.”

 

He smirks. “Force help the Republic if you did.”

 

“I'm serious!” she contends.  Deadly serious. “Please don't tell anyone about what that Jedi said about me being Light.  That could get me killed!  If the Emperor found out—“

 

“He knows.”

 

“He knows??” she yelps, feeling the blood drain from her face. “He knows!”

 

“Yes.  You were in the throne room.  He would have noticed it right away. You can't hide it.  The Light shines out from you.”

 

“Oh.  Oooooh,” she frets, raising a hand to her temple as she begins to pace.  “That’s not good.”

 

Carl downplays it. “You're not the only one.”

 

“Yes, I know about Lucius.   He’s just like me.”   Carl had seen that instantly as well, come to think of it.

 

“Plenty of Sith elite have the Light in some degree or another.  Some of what people perceive as low skills in Darkness is really the Light at work,” Carl explains.  “It’s something of a counterbalance, I suppose.  But since no one alive has ever seen the Light in action, they do not recognize it.”  He shrugs. “Sometimes in life you have to know what you are looking for in order to find it.”

 

“You did.”  From the very beginning, Carl has remarked on how good she is. It’s his favorite refrain in bed.  Now, that makes more sense.  And that makes it all the more threatening.

 

“I'm fourteen hundred years old, remember?  I predate the war.   It was a different time. We were besieged by the Light. The Jedi were relentless.   They even succeeded in turning a few of our Lords to their cause.”

 

“Oooh,” Tosca doesn’t like the sound of that.  She paces some more.  “Don't tell anyone!   Please don't!  I am no threat to the Empire or the Emperor.  I promise!”

 

Carl looks almost amused at the thought.  “He knows that.”

 

“I won’t be seduced by the Jedi,” she proclaims staunchly.

 

“The only Jedi around is headed back to his cell. That just leaves me around to seduce you,” Carl chuckles.   "I loved it when you told him how powerful I am."

 

She makes a face. "You would."

 

He cozies up close again. All this talk of Jedi and power is getting him hot as usual. "I love it when you flirt,” he teases.

 

She shoots him a look. "You were the one flirting with the Jedi."

 

Carl snorts. "He's not my type.”

 

"Really?  Because to me, you were practically ready to join up.  You were hanging in his every word.”  She puts a hand on her hip and tells him plainly, “Carl, you need to stop with your curiosity for the Republic.  Nothing good will come of that.”

 

"I'm only seeking knowledge."

 

"Yes—the dangerous kind!  Careful or they will seduce you to the Light,” she warns.  “You might end up like those Lords during the war who lost their souls!  Carl, I don’t want that for you!” 

 

He smirks. "Only you can seduce me."

 

"Keep it that way, my Lord,” she snaps.  “Because if they could lure someone like you to their cause, it could be our undoing. You know too much, you have too much power and influence."

 

"I love it when you talk to me about power—“

 

“Oh, stop!” He’s not listening. She might as well be talking to teenage Decimus for all the good this is doing.  “What will the Emperor do with him?"

 

"The Jedi?  Kill him."

 

"Good."

 

"But first I get to read his mind and get as much information as possible from him."

 

She blinks. "You can read minds?"

 

"I'm very good at it."

 

Of course, he is.  Lord Tenebrae is good at everything that involves the Force.  She slants him a curious look.  "What am I thinking right now?"

 

"How much you want to take that dress off and get naked for me."

 

"I'm serious!"

 

"So am I.  Take off that dress.  And stop worrying about me being seduced by the Jedi.  The only one getting seduced tonight is you.”

 

That comment gives Tosca an idea.  Because if you can be seduced to the Light, shouldn’t the converse be possible too? “Wrong,” she announces as she reaches to unzip her dress. “Tonight, you are getting seduced, my Lord.”  She tugs her dress off one shoulder and flashes what she hopes is a smoldering look.

 

Carl’s eyes flash bright yellow.  Oh yes, he’s liking this.

 

Tosca starts offering sex and talking power.  She knows him well enough to know it will appeal.  Slowly, she strips her dress off one arm and then the other. Languidly she pulls off each long sleeve. "What's so great about the Republic anyway?  Is it all that freedom? All those high achieving Jedi women? Because I can top any Jedi woman."

 

"Can you now?" he breathes.

 

"Yes. I can be as independent and unattached as any Light Side girl,” Tosca declares as she shimmies the dress over her hips to the floor.  They have come a long way since that first night together when she was shaking with fear as her clothing came off.

 

Not anymore. “I don’t need a husband.”   She flashes her empty left hand.  Then she unhooks her bra and lifts it off.  For good measure, she throws it at him.  It hits him squarely in the chest.  “I don’t need a man.”

 

His eyes are practically glowing now. His mouth hangs half open in anticipation.

 

She now starts issuing commands in her best imitation of a Sith Lord.  “Get in bed.  Take off your pants."

 

"Yes, ma'am.”

 

She is leisurely unwinding her hair now, reaching to fluff it so it half covers her bare breasts. His attention is rapt.  But he’s not removing clothing. 

 

“I said to undress.”  She summons the Force and does her best attempt at Force lightning.  Not aimed at him, of course.  She aims for the wall.  It comes as a faint blue fizzled spark from one hand.

 

Is he going to laugh?  No, he’s not.  He can’t peel his clothes off fast enough now. 

 

“Your turn,” he prompts her.  So, she sucks in her stomach and eases down her half slip.  Next, she dispenses with her black lace panties.

 

He does a double take. “What happened down there?" he wonders aloud.

 

She tries to be blasé about her latest daring outside-her-comfort-zone choice. "The girls keep playing with the new grooming droids I bought them. Everyone got a bikini wax this morning."

 

"Seriously?” he chokes.  “My Temple girls are doing that all day?  Grooming their—their—“

 

She tosses her hair and postures like a true Sith, willing herself far more confidence than she feels as she boasts, "The only hair left on me is on my head."

 

"Oh Force,” he breathes as he steps forward to intercept her. “That’s hot. Can I check that?  I will inspect every inch of you."

 

"No." She puts him off, prancing away. 

 

He’s confused.  They’re both naked and she’s pushing him away?  No, she’s keeping control.  “Open the bed and lay down,” she issues more curt commands.

 

“Okay.”  He plays along.

 

And now, she does something truly daring.  She climbs into bed and straddles him.

 

"What are you doing??” he demands as he half sits up.

 

She pushes him down.  None too gently either.  Then she grabs his hands that reach for her.  She laces them with her fingers and anchors them to the bed.  "I'm dominating you.   Prepare to submit."  It comes out a little squeaky and the inflection ends up like a question. But she got it out.

 

He raises an eyebrow. "I'm not the submissive type."

 

"You are now."

 

"This isn’t you.  Why are you doing this?"

 

"So you will not have your head turned by the enemy. All you need is here.  In the Empire."  To underscore this point, Tosca starts to grind her hips into his.

 

He closes those yellow eyes.  "Oh yes, I like this."

 

She knew he would. Tosca keeps rubbing away feeling his body respond as hers grows slick. And oh, she’s liking this too.  This feels amazing.  She throws her head back and enjoys the feeling of being so in control.   Their foreplay is usually lots of kissing, so this feels very different. 

 

When she releases his hands to brush her hair back, they find her waist and then creep up to her bouncing breasts. He’s pinching and teasing her just like she loves.  “Let’s go,” he pants.  And that’s a good idea. Tosca is up on her knees reaching down to reposition them when she stops.

 

Her eyes narrow. “Say the Code."

 

"What??  Let’s go.”  He bucks beneath her.  It’s a not-so-subtle hint.

 

But she holds off, demanding again, "Pledge allegiance to Darkness,” as she poises just above him.

 

“Sheath my sword, woman,” he groans impatiently. “It’s lit for you.”

 

"Not yet.  You are going to beg, Apprentice.”

 

"Padawan.  Jedi trainees are Padawans."

 

"I hate that you know that.”   Tosca leans forward to kiss him deeply.  With plenty of tongue.  “You're not a Jedi.  Not if I can help it."  She starts grinding again, teasing him mercilessly.

 

"Oh Force, that feels good.  Let’s go.  Let me in.”

 

"I'm saving your Dark soul. You're already way too much of a heretic. What kind of priest are you?"

 

"A bad one.  I didn't choose to become a sorcerer, remember?”

 

“You don’t even know the Code, do you?”  But she grants his request and settles down, enveloping his body with hers.  

 

Carl lets out a long sigh of contented pleasure.  “Oh, that's good.  Jedi girl, you feel so good.  And I love this view.”

 

“Stop calling me a Jedi.  I am Sith,” she pouts.  “I’m a bad Dark Sith.”

 

“I like you bad,” he gulps as she begins to move. “Bad is goood,” he groans. “Very goooood.”

 

"That's the spirit. Now give yourself to the Dark Side."

 

"Yesssss."

 

She finds her rhythm now, rolling her hips as she raises up and down on her knees. "We have more power than you can possibly imagine."

 

"Yessss."

 

"We have a wise Emperor who is as immortal as the Darkness he wields."

 

"Yessssssss."

 

"Join us or be destroyed,” she pants as she picks up the pace.

 

His hands clamp down on her waist now urging her to be harder, rougher. "Oh Force, hurry up—“

 

"Repeat after me:   Peace is a lie. There is only passion."

 

"Passsssion.”   The word comes out as a long hiss.  His eyes are closed. His face is intense with sensation. 

 

She keeps reciting the Sith Code.  "Through passion, I gain strength.  Through strength, I gain power."

 

"Powerrrrr,” he growls.

 

"Through power, I gain victory."

 

"Powerrrrr,” he repeats.  Louder this time. “Virtus,” he mumbles the Kittat.  “Virtus et vis.”  Power and Force.  The two pursuits of this very enigmatic man. 

 

Those are also the twin strengths of the Empire.  It’s time to remind him of their purpose.  "The Republic must be defeated.  Republica delenda est," she declares.

 

"You’re hot when you speak Kittat.   Do it again,” he pants.

 

“Vincemus galaxiam,” she gasps out.  We will rule the galaxy.   And now, Tosca is the one starting to beg because this is about to peak fast.  "Hurry up.  Hurry up, Carl because I—I--"

 

She never finishes her sentence. Her mind blanks and reboots as her body tips into ultimate pleasure.  And in her hazy immediate aftermath, Carl surprises her. One second, she’s on top. The next thing she knows, she’s on her back under Carl. 

 

"Well done, Jedi,” he commends.   But I'm not done yet.  My turn to dominate."  He nudges at her.  “Open your legs for your Sith.”  Time to change positions for him to finish.

 

When it’s all over, they lie sweaty and sated together.  But content as she is, Tosca’s mind is still very much on the conversation at dinner.  “I guess I am more like a Jedi woman these days,” she realizes ruefully.  “Not really a wife.  Not really a mother.”

 

“You’re mothering twelve girls in the cloister,” Carl reminds her.

 

“Eleven.  One went home.”

 

“Did I approve that?”

 

“The matron did.” She yawns.  “I used to live a life of attachments.  But not anymore.  I’m unattached now, I guess.”

 

“No, you’re not.  We are attached. You are mine.”

 

She begs to differ. “Technically, I belong to Lord Struct.  I will never be yours.  Not really.”

 

“Not officially. But that doesn’t matter.”

 

“Yes, it does.”  Tosca scoots closer now to lay her head on Carl’s chest. And, like always, he absently strokes her back.  It feels so good. “Besides,” she adds, “you need a respectable wife, not a Temple girl.  One young enough to give you those sons you don’t want.”

 

“I’m never getting married.   But we are still attached.”

 

“I don’t know what that means,” Tosca sighs. “Does that mean I can’t cheat on you with another priest? Because now that I’m a loose woman, I might be tempted to sleep around,” she threatens playfully.

 

“Don’t you dare.”

 

“There’s a new guy coming next week,” Tosca teases.  “Lord Something.  I forget.  But he’s purebred and from a fancy family, I hear.”

 

“Lord Fulsome.  If you sleep with him, I’ll kill him.   And I might kill you,” Carl warns halfheartedly, sounding sleepy.

 

“You sound like a jealous husband.  When, really you’re the lover who’s cuckolding Lord Struct.” Tosca sighs again.   “I still can’t believe I’m in this situation.  At age forty, I’m a Temple girl sleeping with a priest.  This is so not me.”

 

“It’s what you signed up for.”

 

“I know.  But I’m not supposed to like it.”

 

“You know you like it,” he chuckles deep in his throat as he tugs her closer.  

 

“Yeah, yeah, I do.  This is so wanton of me.  I can’t believe I have a lover.”

 

“See?   That proves you’re not a Jedi,” he argues.  “It’s dull on the Light Side.  No sex.  No family.   Only Force. And even that you don’t get to use for your own gain.  It’s all a lot of self-sacrifice.  And that’s no fun.”

 

“Tell me about it,” she moans.  And that’s when the hand stroking her back gets frisky.  “Hey!” she objects.  “Tickling is not allowed!  It is strictly forbidden!”

 

“In the Republic, it’s no attachments.  But here in the Empire, it’s no tickles,” he deadpans. 

 

“Why are you so interested in the Republic and the Jedi?” It’s a serious question.

 

“They say you can learn from your enemies.”

 

“That’s what some military intel guy would say.   Not a priest,” army wife Tosca points out. 

 

Carl thinks a long moment.  “I guess the Light intrigues me because I have learned all there is on the Dark Side.  I need a new challenge.”

 

“You’re bored?

 

“More like restless. At my age, you have to work to find new challenges.  I always have plenty to do, but it doesn’t necessarily engage me. And,” he muses, “I wonder if learning more about the Light will teach me new things about Darkness. Perhaps I need to study the Force from all its angles to truly master it.”

 

“But you don’t actually want to be a Jedi,” she seeks to confirm. “Right??”

 

“I can’t be a Jedi.  I’m attached, remember?”

 

Tosca grumbles, “That’s sweet, but you and I both know that this is just an affair.”

 

“It doesn’t have to be.” Carl leans in close to propose in a stage whisper, “Want to run away to the Republic with me?  We could get married there and no one would know.”

 

Tosca laughs it off. “That’s treason.  Plus, I think your boss the Emperor might be mad.”

 

“He might surprise you.  Especially if I tell him we’re going to topple the Republic from within.  We will avoid the risk of war altogether.   Once I seize control, I will announce who I am and claim the Republic for the Empire.”

 

“You’re singlehandedly going to overthrow the Republic?”  Her tone conveys all her skepticism. She snickers.  “Not a chance.”

 

“I might do it,” he contends in a husky voice, “with you at my side.”

 

“No, you won’t,” she automatically objects.  “Find some other Temple girl for that.”

 

“Too late.  Alas, my Lady, I’m attached.”

 

 

Chapter Text

A few days later, the chief priest of the Empire makes a rare appearance at his own Temple for Prime.  As the other girls make their way towards the garden for some fresh air, Tosca lingers in the back of the sanctuary.  “My Lord,” she greets Carl coolly as she eyes his companion.

 

“I brought along a tourist.”  The corners of Lord Tenebrae’s mouth twitch at the cheeky blasphemy of inviting a Jedi into the Emperor’s Temple. Even for Carl, this is blatant disrespect.

 

“Master Jedi,” Tosca dutifully nods as her eyes freeze the unwelcome guest. 

 

“That’s her way of saying she’s disappointed you are still alive,” Carl informs the Jedi.  The man doesn’t even have guards, Tosca sees.  She herself gets paraded through the Palace with praetorians, but this Jedi gets the treatment of a trusted Lord.  It’s like Carl is just begging him to escape. Which, of course, he is. 

 

Tosca thoroughly disapproves, and she says so. “He profanes our Temple with his presence.” 

 

Carl is unconcerned. “There is no harm. If our religion cannot withstand the scrutiny of the Light, then maybe it is not as true as we believe it to be.”

 

She bristles.  “You bring our enemy into our holiest of places—“

 

“Darkness does not reside in this Temple.  All this ceremony is meaningless.  Darkness is everywhere and nowhere, for it resides in the soul,” Lord Tenebrae proclaims.  He’s every bit his usual iconoclast self, even in front the enemy.  Tosca glowers her silent censure.

 

He ignores it. “Come. Walk with us into the garden,” he invites Tosca.  They begin to stroll, and Carl teaches Dark Side catechism to the captive.  “Aggression is natural.  Like all emotions, rage makes a man who he is,” Carl instructs.  “You should use your aggressive feelings.  Only the aggressive survive to thrive . . . ”  Tosca only half-listens to the men’s ongoing debate.  In her opinion, Lord Tenebrae should be teaching to an Apprentice or the other priests, not to some random captive Jedi.  Carl’s Dark wisdom is wasted on the enemy.

 

The girls are in the garden already, bored Tosca sees.   Some have removed their scarlet cloaks, but all have pushed their concealing hoods back now that they have exited the Temple.  They chatter in groups.  A few are playing tag like little children. A pair tosses a ball. It would be a charming scene were the underlying reason for the girls’ presence not so sordid.

 

“Come Aunt Tosca,” someone calls for her attention.  “Come see the bunny.”

 

“Bunny?” Carl perks up.  “Shall we?”  Their trio investigates the rabbit.  The animal must be used to all the morning activity.  He sits chewing grubs unphased by his small crowd of onlookers.

 

This too is a teachable moment for the Master Sorcerer of the Sith.  “All life feeds on other life,” Lord Tenebrae muses. “That is the way of things, the way of the Force.  The universe cannibalizes itself over and over again in its ecosystems, in its politics, even in its art.  We steal from others to survive and to thrive.  They become prey to nourish us, their resources bolster and sustain us, and their ideas challenge and refine our own beliefs.  So it is on an individual level and for great societies as a whole.  Everything comes from something else.  Everything has its place in the pecking order, including us.  We are, naturally, at the top in our Empire.  Someday that will be true for the universe.  For one day, at long last, the Sith shall rule the galaxy.”

 

That’s a sentiment which Tosca can endorse.  “Amen.”

 

But the Jedi resists quietly.  “The oppression of the Sith will never prevail.”

 

“It will,” Carl is equally as certain.   “I have foreseen it.” 

 

Lord Tenebrae must decide that they have spent enough time in the garden.  Carl now requests, “Show us the new paintings, my Lady.”

 

“There is only one to see,” Tosca answers as they head indoors to the front of the Temple where the art on loan from the museum hangs.  “The big showpiece is here.  The rest of the exhibit will be installed next week once the lighting is adjusted.”

 

“Lead the way,” Carl urges.  “I’m told it is something to see.”

 

Tosca dutifully directs them to an enormous life-size-and-then-some rendition of the Sith’s most revered Dark Lord.  He is a ruddy skinned human-pureblood hybrid, with the dark eyes and black hair that are typical of that heritage. The Lord wears full armor with a swooping ornate cape that echoes the filigree on his extravagantly horned half mask. The mask alone makes him instantly recognizable to any in the Empire.   But for the benefit of the ignorant Jedi, Tosca proudly presents, “Lord Marka Ragnos, our Dark Lord during the Golden Age of the original Empire.   He is a much beloved leader of our people.”

 

The Jedi studies the lifelike painting for a long moment.  Is he impressed?  Tosca can’t tell. The Jedi is inscrutable, just like she remembers.  Finally, he comments and, naturally, it is petty.  “That’s some head gear.”

 

Carl seems to agree with this paltry assessment.  “Overcompensating,” he sniffs. Because amid the Sith, everything is a competition and Lord Tenebrae apparently feels the need to compete even with a long dead Dark Lord.  This one-upmanship is endemic to their kind, Tosca knows.  For even Sith Lords who like each other feel the need to disparage one another from time to time.

 

That attitude makes Tosca feel compelled to spout the conventional wisdom. And now, here she is again playing the straight man to Carl’s irreverence.  “Nothing says evil Dark Lord like a good mask,” she proclaims her approval. “It goes with the cape.”

 

“Looks uncomfortable,” the Jedi once again damns old Ragnos with faint praise.

 

Carl nods. “He didn’t wear that getup except for ceremonies.”

 

“What was he like?” Tosca asks, curiosity getting the better of her.

 

Lord Tenebrae thinks a moment before he responds.  But his answer reveals this to be a topic Carl has thought plenty about.  And here again, Carl deviates from the conventional wisdom that heralds Dark Lord Ragnos as the ultimate Sith.  “He was far less adept with the Force than most knew.  Ragnos cultivated a team of rivals on the Dark Council and relied on them heavily.  You can do that when you are respected and admired,” Carl explains, sounding almost wistful.  “His talents lay mostly in his management style.  Ragnos was a leader who cultivated power through his personality.  Others were smarter or stronger in the Force, but none could match his judgement and renown. He made people want to obey and feel good about themselves for doing so.”

 

“So, he was charismatic?” the Jedi concludes.

 

“Very much so,” Carl confirms.

 

“What’s with the scepter?” In this portrait depiction, Lord Ragnos holds an old-style cross guard lightsaber pointing down in one hand and a regal scepter in the other.  Both red, of course.

 

Carl is irreverent as usual. “That’s just a prop with a kyber crystal. It was his gimmick. Back then, talismans were in vogue.  Sort of like masks were for a bit.  We are modern Sith now.  We eschew that sort of hokey pageantry. Only wannabes and throwbacks employ these sorts of theatrics today.”

 

“I take it your Emperor does not wear a mask?” the Jedi surmises. 

 

“He doesn’t need to,” Carl scoffs. “These trappings of power were merely symbols.”  He points to the components of the painting as he names them.  “The horns suggest virility, the mask deceit.  The sword is military prowess and the scepter represents command over the Force. It’s simplistic and largely unnecessary. Vitiate has no crowds of onlookers to impress.”

 

Tosca watches as Carl studies the portrait some more. “It is a good likeness,” he remarks. “That’s how I remember him looking.  Most think he is our pinnacle,” Carl explains for the benefit of the Jedi. “His influence extended long after his death. Never again would the Sith find a leader so universally acclaimed.”

 

“A hard act to follow?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And your current Emperor—is he not respected and admired?”

 

The question is greeted with an awkward moment of silence that persists until Tosca rushes to fill it.  “No one knows who he is.”

 

“Really?”  The Jedi is intrigued. He looks to Lord Tenebrae for more commentary.

 

Carl sounds defensive as he elaborates. “Lord Vitiate is a shadowy figure whose influence is strong but anonymous.”

 

“Can I take it that means he is not beloved?” the Jedi probes.

 

Carl’s answer is rather pointed.  “Not all men are Marka Ragnos. Vitiate is not charismatic. He rules by stealth and fear.”

 

“Does he?” the Jedi’s eyes narrow.  “Sounds dreadful.”

 

Carl shrugs. “It works.  Vitiate has ruled longer than any other Dark Lord.  Far longer than Ragnos here.”

 

“So no one knows much about your leader?” the Jedi persists.

 

“His past is lost to over a millennium of history,” Carl answers.  But watching him, Tosca suspects Carl knows far more about his boss than he lets on.  Thankfully, he’s not spilling secrets about Lord Vitiate in front of the enemy.

 

Just then they are interrupted.  It’s the new priest in residence sauntering up like he owns the place. He is the picture of pureblood aristocratic Sith manhood.  With true red skin, deep purple lips, black eyes, and straight black hair.  His cheekbones are appropriately sharp and his nose aquiline.  Like all red Sith men, he has a tentacle ‘beard,’ the analog to the elegant cheek tendrils of red Sith females.  Maybe to eyes used to full humans, he would look exotic.  But in the context of the Sith, he is everything others aspire to be.  For to say this Lord is handsome for his kind would be an understatement.  As he walks up, Jedi Master Crutcher’s eyes widen.  This is probably what he expects a proper Sith Lord to look like, Tosca realizes.

 

“Fulsome.”  Carl acknowledges the newcomer.

 

“Tenebrae,” the imposing priest answers back with equal coolness.   “My Lady,” he favors Tosca with a slight smile.  Then the new priest stands toe to toe with the Jedi Master as he looks him over in silence.  “So this is the enemy Lightsider I’ve heard about,” the new priest drawls.  “If I were in uniform and not a priest, I would murder you now, Jedi,” Lord Fulsome growls.

 

“He is the Emperor’s guest.  No one gets to kill him but Vitiate himself,” Lord Tenebrae informs his new subordinate sharply.  “Until then, this is a diplomatic mission, Fulsome.  A quest for knowledge and for insight.”

 

“I know all I need to know about the Jedi,” Lord Fulsome growls and army wife Tosca can’t help but agree with this sentiment.   “We will wipe your filth from the galaxy—"

 

“Brute tactics did not succeed for us last time,” Lord Tenebrae interrupts.  “Perhaps a little more knowledge will light our way.”

 

“We know why we lost.  We needed better leadership,” Lord Fulsome quotes the widely agreed explanation for the Sith defeat.

 

Carl nods.  “Agreed.”

 

“We needed better coordination in the field,” Fulsome adds.

 

“Agreed.”

 

“We needed better weaponry—“

 

“Perhaps,” Carl allows, “but beware entrusting too much faith in the latest technological terrors.  Their power is insignificant next to the power of the Force,” he sniffs.  “Fulsome, that’s a lesson you can learn here in during your residency at my Temple.  True, lasting victory comes from more than bombs.”  Then Lord Tenebrae departs with his new Jedi frenemy at his side.

 

Watching the pair go, Tosca thinks that for such a freethinking man, Lord Tenebrae can be very sanctimonious when he wants to be.

 

Lord Fulsome also observes the pair depart. “I don’t know why the Emperor keeps that old fossil around,” he gripes. 

 

“I suppose Lord Tenebrae is the only one left from Vitiate’s own time,” Tosca guesses.  She glances to the new priest and adds, “I find it very odd that a man of his years would be so welcoming to a Jedi.  I would have thought Lord Tenebrae more than anyone would bear a grudge since he lived through the war.”

 

“What do you expect?  He’s a scholar, not a warrior.  The man doesn’t even wear a sword,” Darth Fulsome complains.

 

“He doesn’t need a sword,” Tosca says softly, remembering the Proscription ritual. 

 

“Do you think he is the Emperor’s brother like some say?” the new priest wonders aloud.

 

“I hadn’t heard that one.”

 

“It’s an old rumor that comes and goes.  Nepotism seems like the only way to explain a chief priest who can’t be bothered to do anything for his own Temple.   The man acts like Darkness bores him.”

 

That observation is far more correct than Fulsome knows.  But Tosca speaks up loyally in Carl’s defense.  “He shows up for the important things,” she volunteers, thinking again of the Proscription ritual. 

 

But enough about Carl.  Tosca turns to smile graciously at the newcomer to the Temple.  “My Lord, I have not had a chance to properly welcome you.  How are you settling in?”

 

“I miss my command,” he grumbles good naturedly.  

 

“Army or navy?”

 

“Army.”

 

The answer makes her smile.  “Well, I cannot promise you the excitement of your command, but I can promise you art.  The rest of this exhibit will be hung next week,” Tosca explains, gesturing to the portrait they stand beneath.

 

“You can stop with old Ragnos here. He’s all we need.  Now there was a Dark Lord,” Lord Fulsome lauds.  “It’s too bad Vitiate isn’t more like him.”

 

She’s not following. “You mean more public?”

 

“No,” he says cryptically. 

 

Lord Fulsome looks her over now and she senses approval.  A woman can always sense when a man approves of her.  “You are the Temple matron, right?”

 

“Yes.  I look after the girls and help to arrange the concerts and exhibits here at the Temple.”

 

“Good choice on the portrait,” Lord Fulsome approves some more.  “Good day, my Lady.”   Then, he exits leaving Tosca to study Lord Ragnos alone. 

 

But soon she is off on an appointment outside the Temple.  Ever since her unanticipated return of one Temple girl to her family, Tosca has been trying to replicate the feat.  But rather than wait for families to approach her, Tosca has opted to approach the families directly.   Some have outright refused to meet with her.  As one Lady told her tearfully, that painful matter is settled and they have moved on.  To reopen the issue of their daughter will only invite more heartache for everyone.  But a few families have been somewhat receptive. They will at least agree to meet with Tosca for an hour as she attempts to broker a reconciliation.  So far, not one family has gotten past ‘we’ll think about it and let you know,’ but Tosca keeps trying. Because if she can just get a few girls back home and keep them from being replaced, perhaps the Temple girl tradition will die a slow death.  And then, no one will have to take the political risk of affirmatively killing it. 

 

Unfortunately, today’s interview is the same as the rest.   The mother cries and the father looks uncomfortable and then everyone promises to stay in touch as they consider the matter.  It’s a lie and all three of them know it.  Yet another girl will not come home, Tosca reluctantly concludes on the ride home. She has her hood pulled low to hide her discouragement and disappointment from the driver and guards who accompany her.  Tosca is very glad that she has kept these interviews a secret.  It would only hurt the girls more to know that their families have rejected them a second time.

 

The truth is that social change is hard, particularly for the tradition bound Sith.  And few things are harder to change than shame.  Women, Tosca observes sourly, seem to bear more than their fair share of scorn.  What’s worse, a disheartening portion of it seems to originate from their fellow women.   Women, far more than men, seem to be the enforcers of social norms.  It might be angry Sith Lord fathers who show up at the Temple dragging their recalcitrant daughters, but it is the wagging tongues of their wives’ friends who precede the trip.  For women’s virtue is a closely guarded commodity in all patriarchal societies.  Too many whispers and the price of the dowry goes up.  Enough ugly rumors and a young girl becomes unmarriageable as a result.  Firsthand, Tosca knows that adultery makes a heretofore unremarkable wife a social pariah. A woman’s good name is a fragile thing and a reputation once tarnished is very hard to redeem.  For unlike men, who are largely judged on what they do, women seem to be judged on what they decline to do. 

 

Back at the Temple, the afternoon drags.  Compline drags, too.   Tosca finds herself going through the motions counting the minutes until she sees Carl.  She fairly leaps across the room when the nightly knock at the cloister comes for her.  Tonight, she is summoned by the regular Palace guards in grey uniforms rather than the customary red armored praetorians.  But Tosca recognizes the men from the Temple and she figures they omit the security hood because she must be meeting Carl in the garden.  In fact, she chats with the guards the whole way as they escort her past the priests’ offices to the wing of residence apartments. Only when they abruptly halt before the last doorway does it occur to Tosca that something is amiss.  Because this can’t be the correct destination for her.  Can it?

 

The door opens to reveal Lord Fulsome. He’s taken off his cloak and his undertunic is loose at the neck.  “That will be all,” he dismisses the guards like the smooth patrician he is. “Welcome, my Lady,” he waves her inside with relaxed courtesy. 

 

Wary Tosca enters.  "What is this?" she asks plainly as she surveys the luxurious private apartment.  Two things jump out at her:   the table set for two and the open doorway to the bedroom.

 

"What does it look like?” he smiles.  “Have you eaten?   Dine with me, my Lady,” he invites.

 

With a glance towards the bedroom, Tosca realizes this is far more than dinner.  Has she been summoned by the new priest in her capacity as Temple girl?   If so, then there must be some mistake.  Because Carl assured her months ago that this was not a possibility.

 

Tosca takes a deep breath and informs Lord Fulsome, “I will be eating later.  I'm expected elsewhere tonight.”

 

"Let's get better acquainted. Wine?"  He holds out a glass to her. 

 

Tosca refuses. "No, thank you." She gives him a pointed look.  "I will wait for dinner."

 

"Dinner is here.  There's no need to wait,” he says easily, still not registering her refusal. 

 

He’s not being coy or obtuse, she suspects.  He’s being himself.  The Sith elite are not humble.  Arrogance is in their genetic code.  But even amid the elite, there is a pecking order.  Many of the finest families overtly lord it over all others, while some prefer to express their superiority in a condescendingly patient attitude of noblesse oblige.  Lord Fulsome is one of the latter, Tosca judges. He's no doubt pedigreed for generations back with an impressive midichlorian count to prove it.  This man was born a winner.  And when you add in an enviable military career with a senior post, Lord Fulsome is a man very used to being obeyed.   He meets refusal now not with anger, but instead treats it like a misunderstanding on her part.  Like she couldn’t possibly be turning him down. It’s like he doesn't quite understand the concept of no. Maybe because he hears it so seldom.

 

Tosca flashes a tight smile and offers an alternative. "Why don't we meet tomorrow morning after Prime?  That would be more convenient for me."

 

He cocks his head at her and takes a sip of his own wine. "Lady Struct.  It is Lady Struct, isn't it?"

 

Tosca nods stiffly. She feels her face flush.  "Yes."

 

"I thought so.  Your husband was under my command in the border systems."

 

"Oh?"

 

"Until he caught the notice of someone important when he sent you here to the Temple.  Adultery, I believe?"

 

She looks down.  "Yes." 

 

"You're not what I pictured.  Not at all.    You're very . . . different,” Lord Fulsome decides.  “But in a good way. I see why all the other girls like you.”

 

“My Lord—“

 

“Brutus,” he offers his given name.  Then he steps closer to look her in the eye.  Lord Fulsome's good looks are the furthest thing from the pale skin, light eyes, and soft, broad features of the fully human Lord Tenebrae.  It is in contrast to this consummate Sith nobleman that Tosca sees how clearly the chief priest resembles his colonial peasant forbearers.  The disparities will extend beyond their faces, she suspects.  Lord Fulsome wears the same simple black tunic and pants as the other priests, but Tosca instinctively knows that beneath this man's robes his body will be honed to sinewy perfection.  Purebloods have a lot of naturally lean strength and military types are always vain about their personal fighting prowess.  All that training usually makes for very chiseled bodies.  And that's nothing like the unremarkable male physique of Lord Tenebrae that Tosca clings to nightly.  Carl has a great set of broad shoulders.  Otherwise, he's not particularly intimidating, especially since he doesn't wear a weapon amid a culture of open carry for all sorts of personal armaments.

 

But this man?   Well, he looks and acts so polished and yet feels so dangerous.  Tosca feels the strong urge to flee as Lord Fulsome’s eyes wander downward to linger on her busom.  And so, she offers again, "If after Prime works with your schedule, I will see you then, my Lord."

 

She’s heading fast for the door when the conversation finally becomes a confrontation. “I did not dismiss you.”  The words are quietly said, but they have authority behind them.  Tosca freezes.

 

She whirls and smiles to soften her response. “This isn't the army.  I'm not one of your troops, my Lord.”

 

“Obviously. But you are a Temple girl, are you not?”

 

“No.  Not in the usual sense.”

 

He considers this answer before he responds, “Yes, I can see that.  I've been watching you.”

 

Really?  “You've been here a week.”

 

“You're hard to miss.  I see you taking charge.  The others say you have made your presence felt.  I hear you're far more hands on with oversight than the prior matron and yet Tenebrae has let you loosen all sorts of long held standards.”

 

Tosca opens her mouth to speak, but he waves her silent. 

 

“Oh, don't mistake that for criticism. Making change without encountering resistance is a talent I admire. You must be very charming when you wish to be,” Lord Fulsome concludes.  “Everyone says you are very intelligent.”

 

“Goodnight, my Lord,” Tosca reaches for the door mechanism.

 

“You are not dismissed.”

 

He puts down his wineglass and moves to intercept her.  “You appeal far more than the young ones.  Most could be my daughter.  I will leave them to my Apprentices,” he says with a mix of entitlement and magnanimity that grates. 

 

Tosca eludes his hands.  “Go home to your wife, my Lord.”

 

“Is that the issue?” he wonders aloud.  “I have a wife but we are not together.  We haven't lived together since the children were small. That was years ago. You know how it is. Not all marriages work out.  Yours didn't.”  Lord Fulsome seems genuinely befuddled by her reluctance.  He’s clearly not anticipating rejection.  “My Lady, I mean you no harm,” he assures her, no doubt feeling very gentlemanly.  “I just want some company tonight.” 

 

He feels entitled to her company, she knows, since compelling the Temple girls is a job perk for priests.  It’s galling on so many levels for Tosca.  But at the forefront of her mind now is the fact that in her prior life outside the Temple this guy would never have given her a second look.  She would be so far beneath him socially that it would not occur to him that she might be a candidate for marriage.  But casual no commitment sex on a random Tuesday night to pass the time?   Well, why not?   Tosca is realizing fast that she was wrong to assume that the priests would leave her alone and choose the younger, slimmer, prettier versions. 

 

“I will be missed elsewhere,” she warns.

 

“Another priest?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Fulsome frowns.   And even that expression manages to appear elegant.  Maybe some Ladies would think Tosca a fool for turning this Lord down, but she’s not about to cheat on Carl.  She needs to extricate herself from this situation fast.

 

“I was under the impression that it is first come, first serve.” Lord Fulsome raises a questioning eyebrow.

 

Ugh.  That statement makes Tosca want to cringe.  But she just lifts her chin.  “It is not.” Not where she is concerned, at least.

 

“Who is it?” he wants to know. “Which priest?”

 

“That doesn't matter.”  Tosca wants to keep her and Carl as discreet as possible.

 

“Do I have to get in line? Is that it?”

 

She openly bristles now. “My Lord, you insult me.”

 

“Is that possible?  You're a Temple girl,” he responds with an obnoxiousness that stings.  “Now don't be coy. It won't be anything exotic.  Just dinner and we'll take it from there.  Just two adults enjoying each other's company.   No one will be hurt,” he assures her.  Then he switches tactics and lays on the flattery as he cups her cheek. “You know, you are very beautiful.  Just not in the usual way.  But there’s something about you—“

 

“Goodnight, my Lord.”  She lunges to depress the door mechanism.

 

But he waves a finger and overrides it with the Force.  Then he peers at her thoughtfully. “There is more going on here than I realize?  Is that what you are telling me?”

 

“Yes, my Lord.  Please do not take offense.  I mean no disrespect.  I have no wish to quarrel with you.” She says this hoping to prevent things from escalating further.  And did she unwittingly lead him on?  Tosca worries now that she gave him the wrong impression during their brief interaction earlier in the day.  She was trying to be friendly, but perhaps he misconstrued. 

 

“Please my Lord,” she pleads, “if you persist, this will not end well for either of us.”

 

He considers for a long, agonizing moment.  Then, he surprises Tosca by backing down.  “Very well. You disappoint me.  But I'm not giving up.  I will see you tomorrow after Prime.”

 

Lord Fulsome waves his finger again and the door slides open. Tosca exhales her relief.  “Goodnight.”  She darts through the open door straight into a red armored praetorian.  He has three of his brethren behind him.

 

“Here she is,” the guard says, his voice sounding slightly robotic through his mask.  “My Lady, you have been summoned,” he says sounding slightly annoyed.  “Twice.  He’s not happy you’re late.  It’s best not to keep him waiting.”

 

“Yes, thank you.” Tosca is thrilled to have these guys show up so Lord Fulsome can see them as proof of her words.   “I was . . . unavoidably detained on a matter,” she improvises. “Where’s the hood?”

 

Fulsome is still hovering behind her.  “You’re going to the Palace?” he observes thoughtfully.

 

“Yes.  As usual.”  Is he getting this?  She is spoken for.  Hands off.  “Let’s go, gentlemen.”  Tosca can’t leave fast enough. 

 

She’s dipping her chin to tug on the security hood when Carl charges up. “Are you alright?  What happened?” he demands breathlessly as he snatches the hood and looks her over. “Because I sensed—“

 

“My Lord!” Tosca is ready to jump into his arms, but that will have to wait for later.  Still, her tone of relief says it all.  “I’m fine now.”

 

Lord Tenebrae’s eyes find Lord Fulsome and narrow.  Then, they dart behind him through the open doorway to find the table set for two that Tosca declined.   

 

Carl whirls on her.  “Fulsome here is your delay?”

 

Hearing his tone and seeing his expression, Tosca instantly downplays the situation.  “It is nothing—just a misunderstanding, that’s all. It is resolved.”

 

“That’s not what the Force is telling me,” Carl growls.  He pauses suddenly, looking around.  “Danger,” he whispers slowly.

 

“Whatever you are sensing, it is not here. Let’s depart.” Tosca wants this situation over.

 

But Carl is still visibly alert, and his eyes keep finding the new priest.  “What are you doing here with him?” Carl demands.  “Him of all people??”

 

“I was just leaving.  We are done with our discussion.”

 

“Discussion?”  Lord Tenebrae’s eyes again find the table set for two and he makes the obvious assumption.  It prompts him to brush past her to advance on Fulsome into the apartment. “Who do you think you are?”

 

“Don't.”  Tosca tugs at Carl’s arm.  “Please don’t.  There is no issue here.” And with four praetorians watching, this is far from private.

 

Tenebrae keeps moving forward, getting in Fulsome’s face.  “Did you think you get to have her?” he snarls. 

 

“Let’s go—“ Tosca tugs again.

 

Lord Fulsome stands his ground.  “She’s a Temple girl, is she not?

 

“She is the Temple matron,” Carl hisses. “That’s different.”

 

“So, I have been told,” Fulsome drawls, looking to her.

 

“He backed off.  It’s fine.”  Tosca keeps trying to dampen down this rapidly escalating situation.  “It was an honest mistake.  Lord Fulsome meant no offense.”

 

“I am offended!” Carl snaps back.  He’s angry. 

 

But Fulsome looks unconcerned.  He crosses his arms and smirks.  “So the chief priest and the Temple matron are a couple?   It’s almost cliché.”

 

“No, it’s not. You can have your pick of the others, but Lady Tosca is off limits,” Carl pulls rank. 

 

“Let’s go.  This is settled.”  Tosca tugs again at his cloak.

 

Carl relents.  “Stay close with the guards,” he tells her curtly.   “I still sense something . . .”

 

But Lord Fulsome can’t leave things there.  He had backed down fairly gracefully with her alone, but now that Carl is present, he prolongs the argument. As she turns to leave, he calls after her suggestively. “I’ll see you tomorrow after Prime, my Lady.”   It’s a goading ploy to tweak the already irritated and suspicious Carl. 

 

It works.  Carl shoots out a hand and throws his rival into the wall with the Force.  Hard. If Lord Fulsome is alert enough to block or blunt the attack, it doesn’t show.  But maybe he is just simply overpowered.

 

“You think you can dare anything, don’t you?  Guys like you always do,” Carl observes as Fulsome picks himself off the ground.  He has reached for his sword, Tosca sees.   But it remains unlit.  Still, the threat is there.  Her pulse quickens.

 

“Take her and go.  She’s yours,” Lord Fulsome concedes.  But he adds his own nasty spin.  “You’re a matched set.  She’s a Lady who looks like a pretty servant and you are a priest who looks like a peasant.”

 

Carl doesn’t answer with words.  He just raises his hand and makes a fist. 

 

Lord Fulsome begins to choke.  He instantly grasps at his throat with his free hand.

 

“No!  Stop!  Let’s go!” Tosca has run the gamut of emotions now from scared to relieved to scared again.  Now, she’s verging on angry at this unnecessary violence.  That she herself is the subject of this possessive display is downright embarrassing. It needs to end soon before it becomes a full-fledged jealous brawl.  Fulsome’s got his sword and Carl, as usual, is unarmed. He could get himself killed. 

 

“Stop it, both of you!” Tosca wails.  “Drop that sword and stop that choke!”

 

But instead, gasping Lord Fulsome lights his weapon.  The distinctive snap-hiss-hum has the praetorians immediately shoving her away as they brandish their own weapons at Carl’s defense.  There’s about to be a melee between two Temple priests and four guards here in the Temple living quarters. She would start summoning help from the other priests, but Tosca knows that having an audience makes things worse.  Men are far less likely to back down when there are onlookers to impress.

 

But far from being intimidated by his foe’s lightsaber, Carl is enraged. “Don’t you dare draw your sword on me!” he hisses. 

 

“Let’s go.  Please!” Tosca wails again.  But now, even tall as she is, Tosca can’t see anything.  Three praetorians have surrounded Carl in the small space and the fourth is blocking the doorway escape route. Tosca flinches as she hears the unmistakable sound of crackling Force lightning.  The blue fire is blinding with brightness.  Who’s frying who?  She has no clue. But the acrid ozone smell of fire meets the awful stench of charring flesh.  Tosca would gag were she not so terrified.  She’s an army wife and a boy mom, so she’s seen her share of combat drills, but this is different.  This is real and this is deadly.

 

“You military types are nothing without your weapons!   You are textbook soldiers whose strategy is focused on your own advancement!   Let’s see you fight without an army at your back, General!”  It’s Carl’s voice.

 

Fulsome is panting but adamant in his reply, “We don’t get to fight because that coward Vitiate won’t let us invade the Republic!”

 

“He’s no coward.  You are a fool!” Carl accuses. And now, more Force lightning ensues.

 

When the barrage ends, Lord Fulsome doubles down. “Vitiate is a coward!  There’s no reason to delay. We are ready to take our revenge, but your pal the Emperor won’t do it!   Everyone on the Dark Council says YOU are the impediment.  A fucking professor priest keeps us from fulfilling our destiny!   If I kill you, the Empire will be better for it!”

 

“You can’t kill me!”

 

More lightning flashes.  Tosca still can’t see what’s happening, but she is fast realizing that the true conflict here is politics.  This confrontation was only ever superficially about her.  Maybe accidentally about her. 

 

“Vitiate is saving you from your own hubris!” Carl hollers.

 

“Don’t lecture me, you know nothing of war--”

 

“I know all about war!  I lived through the last war and its shameful aftermath.  You generals talk a good game, but you are ill prepared to fight a real adversary--”

 

“Whereas you cry friends with a captive Jedi!  Sucking up to the Light!”

 

“Rolling tanks through unarmed colony worlds is not the same as sacking Coruscant and killing Jedi--”  

 

“Fuck you, you coward priest!”

 

“Do you know why you were relieved of your command and assigned to the Temple?   Do you??”  Carl’s tone is vicious now.  Ugly and cold.  “He knows all about you. He knows you plot.  He knows you create rumors. He knows your ambitions.  So, he’s giving you an opportunity.  Go ahead, strike him down.  He will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

 

“He’s not immortal.  That’s just a lie he promotes to deter the regime change the Empire desperately needs.  A thousand years of Vitiate is too long!”

 

More lightning. But Tosca still can’t see what’s happening. Or who’s winning.   And what happened to that sword?  She’s frantic for Carl and frustrated that the praetorians seem to be doing nothing.  They are standing by watching.  Shouldn’t they be helping??

 

Fulsome sounds weakened but still determined. “Watch your back, Tenebrae!  I’ll be coming for you, like I’ll be coming for him!   All who oppose the future of the Empire will perish.”

 

Carl sounds grim.  “That is the plan.”  Then there is a final burst of lightning.  It ends quickly and the praetorians part to allow Carl to exit.  She’s relieved to see that there’s not a mark on him. Fulsome, she sees, is smoking in a heap on the floor. 

 

“My Lord?  Shall we arrest the traitor?” a praetorian asks.

 

“No,” Carl decides in a move that floors Tosca.  “Leave him here.  If he’s more than talk—if he gets up the courage to make a real attempt, I will kill him then.  Never let it be said that I am not a tolerant man.”   And this statement is strange but true, Tosca realizes, as she recalls Carl’s attitude toward the Jedi. 

 

Lord Tenebrae grabs for her arm now.  His tight grip bites into her flesh.  “Come on.”

 

“But he needs help—“ she sputters, looking over her shoulder at the fallen Lord Fulsome.

 

“Not from you, he doesn’t!” Carl preempts her.

 

And it doesn’t seem possible for this night to get worse, but it does.  There is a commotion down the hallway as a very distressed Poppaea suddenly appears.

 

She looks up and begins, “Aunt Tos—“  Then, she falters as she perceives the chief priest and the praetorians.  Suddenly, the girl panics and flees.

 

“Poppy!” Lord Fulsome’s treasonous rant is instantly forgotten as Tosca shakes free of Carl and rushes after her.  Tosca finds the girl around a corner gulping down air as she moans.  “Poppy, what’s wrong?  It’s just me.  Tell me what’s wrong so I can help—“

 

“I need to run—“

 

“Why?   What happened?”

 

“I need to hide—“

 

“Are you hurt?” She doesn’t look hurt.

 

“I—I—“

 

“Yes??”

 

“I killed him.”

 

“Oh, no,” Tosca groans.  It turns out that the danger Carl was sensing wasn’t Lord Fulsome after all.  “Poppy, what have you done?  Show me!”

 

The girl nods, grabs Tosca’s hand, and dashes back down the hall to the apartment of the naval command priest who has chosen Poppy as his favorite.  The door is wide open.  Inside, Tosca makes the gruesome discovery that Lord Screed is now separated from his head. 

 

“Oh Force!” she shields her eyes and looks away.  And that’s when she realizes that Poppy is still holding the lightsaber she must have done it with.  “Gimme that!” Tosca grabs the sword hilt with the Force and checks the safety lock. 

 

“Distract them and I’ll run,” Poppy hisses.

 

“No.”  Tosca shakes her head slowly.  “You can’t run from this.   You killed a priest.   This is serious.  Very serious.”

 

Poppy must realize this because she bursts into tears.  Tosca gathers the sobbing girl to her with one hand as she keeps a firm grip on the weapon in her other hand.  Poppy sags crying on her chest when Lord Tenebrae and the praetorians appear from down the hallway. 

 

Carl sizes up the situation at a glance.  “What happened?” he asks as he steals the murder weapon from Tosca’s hand with the Force. 

 

Tosca speaks calmly and slowly into the crying girl’s ear. “Tell us what happened.”

 

The girl shakes her head and says something unintelligible. 

 

“Poppy, look at me.”  Tosca untangles herself and puts her hands on the slight girl’s shoulders and shakes her.  “Just look at me—only at me--and tell what happened.”

 

“I killed him!” she confesses.  “I killed him and I’d kill him again!”  The girl’s eyes flash yellow like Tosca remembers from their conversation on the way home from shopping.   She repeats a line Tosca remembers, “I am tired of being the victim!”

 

“What happened?  Walk us through it.”

 

The story comes out in fits and starts between sobs.  “I was summoned like usual.   It was the normal thing.  Except tonight he left his sword on.  I saw it and I grabbed it.”

 

“And?”

 

“I lit it and did what I watched my brothers practice.  I swung upwards for the head.”

 

“You got him.”  It’s Carl’s dry voice.

 

“Did he threaten you?” Tosca asks.

 

“No.”

 

“Did he harm you?”

 

“No.”

 

“Were you afraid for your life?”

 

“No.  I was just tired of having sex with him.  He’s an old man!”  Next, Poppy says something truly cringeworthy. “Sleeping with him is way worse than sleeping with my Dad.  At least my Dad said he loved me.”   Then, Poppy succumbs to more tears. 

 

“You’ve got a date with the Emperor tomorrow morning,” Lord Tenebrae now announces.  “You can explain this to him and receive your punishment. Guards, take her away,” he orders harshly.

 

But Poppy refuses to be parted from Tosca.  She clings with a desperation and neediness that has Tosca herself close to tears.   The mother in her is moved.  For this poor girl has been so betrayed time and again.  People who should have protected and helped her failed. And tonight is the awful result. And so, Tosca volunteers for the task.  “It will be alright. Poppy, whatever happens, I will be there with you.  Do you understand?   I will appear with you before the Emperor.”

 

“No, you won’t—“   It’s Carl.

 

Tosca whirls and proclaims, “I am the Temple matron!  I am responsible for this girl.  I will be there when she answers for this act.”

 

“He’s going to kill me, isn’t he?” Poppy chokes out. 

 

“Lord Screed is the fifth highest man in the Imperial Navy.   You can’t take his head and just walk away.   You’re a Temple girl, so you are here to submit to men like him.  How will it look to allow you to murder a priest and get away with it?” Carl demands.

 

“He’s going to kill me.   I know he’s going to kill me!” terrified Poppy wails.

 

Tosca sees confirmation in Carl’s eyes even if he doesn’t answer aloud. And now, Tosca is more determined than ever to help Poppy.  If this is indeed the end, Tosca refuses to let her meet her fate alone.  “I’ll be there with you,” she tells the distraught girl as she gathers her into comforting arms. “I promise.”

 

“No, you won’t!” Carl forbids. 

 

“I’m scared,” Poppy cries.

 

“I am too,” Tosca admits.  “But we will face this.  Together.”

 

Poppy raises yellow eyes to hers.  “I’m going to drag you down with me, aren’t I?” she whispers.

 

“You might,” Carl says brutally. Then, he turns to the praetorians and orders, “Take her away!”

 

It all happens so fast, that Tosca doesn’t know what to think.  But later, alone with Carl closeted in his secret Palace apartment that can only be entered with the Force, Tosca is a wreck. Carl, however, is his usual cynical self.  As if violent confrontations and death are commonplace for him. Like it’s all in a day’s work.

 

“Why didn’t she kill Fulsome instead?” he complains between bites of dinner. “Two fights in one night in my Temple and a seventeen-year-old girl is the victor?”  Carl sounds like he’s feeling shown up by Poppy.  “Perhaps I should have killed Fulsome,” he second guesses his actions, “but it felt premature so I went with my gut. Now, come sit and eat.  I’m getting lonely and your dinner is getting cold.”

 

“No.” Tosca whirls from where she stands pensive across the room.  She’s too upset to eat.  Just the thought of food threatens to make her ill. “You have to end this Temple girl tradition!” she cries.  “Not just for me but for all the girls.”   That close call with Lord Fulsome tonight has her thinking of the other girls who don’t get to say no.   Girls like Poppy.  “If you don’t end it, there will be more tragedies like tonight,” she warns. 

 

Carl grunts.  “I thought you were trying to end it by sending the girls home.”

 

Tosca blinks.  “You know about that?”

 

“I know about everything.”

 

“Well, there are no takers so far.  Only one of the families has shown any real interest in taking their daughter back,” she sighs. 

 

“Well, naturally.  The girls are unmarriageable now,” he points out the obvious.  “If they go home, what will the parents do with them?”

 

Tosca has plenty of suggestions. “Love them, care for them, help them . . . ”

 

“You know that’s not a long-term solution.  They aren’t all teenagers.  Several are adult women.”

 

Tosca frowns as she resumes pacing.  “I used to think that our society protected women, but now I'm not so sure.  There is an underlying misogyny to it all.   It’s seems like more control than care,” she worries.

 

Carl shrugs like this is self-evident. “We’re the Sith.  Control is our thing.”  But then, he raises his favorite theme. “Our society protects power.   Only power.”

 

“Then women should have more power.  Or at least more avenues for success other than marriage,” Tosca decides.

 

Carl downs a swig of wine. “Are you aiming to be Darth Tosca?  Shall I get you a sword?”

 

“Oh no,” she automatically recoils.

 

He chuckles. “I didn't think so.”

 

“But some women might want that, even if I don't,” she considers.

 

“There were a few female assassins back during the war.  The Republic knew we didn’t train women as a general rule, so they were very effective.  The enemy didn’t expect them.  Still,” Carl muses, “I don’t know many women who can withstand the rigors of traditional training.”

 

“Maybe not the physical ones.  But they could handle the emotional ones,” Tosca argues.  “Women cope with a lot.  Don’t underestimate us. These girls in the cloister—they cope with a lot.”

 

“By coping, do you mean executing the priests?” he smirks.  “Because that’s how little Poppy apparently copes.  Maybe she should be an assassin,” he snickers. “Did you see the yellow eyes on her?”

 

Tosca has something else in mind. “What about careers other than war?  Surely, there are many things a Sith Lady could do.  Research, technology, or medicine?  Maybe education or academia?  Social work?”

 

“Are you going to organize a women's revolt?   Going to overthrow the patriarchy so you can all get a job?” Carl goads.  

 

He’s mocking her so Tosca doubles down. “I don't know.  Maybe.”  She is getting very free thinking these days.  Maybe it’s the emotional juggernaut of life in the cloister, maybe it’s the influence of Carl’s inveterate irreverence, and maybe it’s the fact that her current life in no way resembles the values she holds dear, but Tosca is starting to question things . . . a lot. “Marcus would be shocked.  Absolutely shocked by this talk,” she sighs. Then she looks to Carl.  “Are you shocked?”

 

“Not at all,” he assures her.

 

“Is that because of who I am now?” Tosca challenges.  “Because I'm a nun?  Because I am a fallen woman with a lover?  I can’t shock you because I’ve sunk so low?  Is that it?”

 

His answer is philosophical. “Sometimes when you are an outsider, you can see things others don’t.  Those who don't belong are often those who perceive the group most clearly.”

 

“Like you,” she nods.   Like the bastard son with talent but no mentor.  Knowing Carl as she does, Tosca couldn’t miss the undercurrents of his argument with Lord Fulsome.  In fourteen hundred years, Lord Tenebrae hasn’t moved as far from his origins as he pretends. 

 

“You may find it liberating to be an outcast,” he says slowly.  She instinctively knows that he is speaking more of himself than of her. 

 

“Ooooh, why are we talking about me,” Tosca resumes fretting, wringing her hands.  “Our issue is Poppy—“

 

“Let the Emperor deal with that bloodthirsty little bitch,” he dismisses.

 

“Carl!”

 

“Well, she did murder Screed,” he points out as he waves his fork at her. “He died with his pants down. Do you think she killed him while she was sucking his—“

 

“Carl!”

 

“What a horrible way to die.  Killed by a teenaged girl with your own sword and your dick out.”

 

“Carl!”

 

“What??  She had no cause to kill him. She’s a Temple girl.  She was doing her job.”

 

“Like Lord Fulsome summoned me to do my job tonight?” Tosca challenges. 

 

“That’s different.  You’re different.”  Carl draws the distinction she’s heard before.  “You volunteered to be a Temple girl. The rest of them got there the traditional way—they were little whores who couldn’t keep their legs closed and wait for marriage.”

 

“Carl!” Tosca seethes now as she rages, “Don’t you dare slut shame some seventeen-year-old girl who has been abused!  First by her own father and then here at the Temple!  Those weren’t her bad choices—they were others’ bad choices!”

 

He makes a face. “You don’t know her story is true.”

 

“I believe her!  Why would she make that up?”  She has not betrayed any confidences, Tosca rationalizes, because Poppy herself volunteered the information before witnesses.  Twice.  And besides, under the circumstances, disclosing all of Poppy’s sad tale to the chief priest might be in Poppy’s best interest.

 

Carl picks up his wineglass and swirls it around. “Tosca, you are so good that you always seek the good in everyone else.  Your nature is trusting.  You wouldn’t know guile when you heard it.”

 

She bristles at his condescension.  “Are you calling me gullible?   Do you think I’m foolish?”

 

“I think you are sympathetic and empathetic.  And I think you are very, very good.”

 

“Yeah?” she jeers. “Well, you’re wrong! You’re wrong about Poppy and you’re wrong about me!”  She’s nearly shouting now, but she doesn’t care.  Tosca is very agitated.  She’s terrified for what will happen tomorrow. It has her barely holding herself together.

 

For his part, Carl is calmly magnanimous. “I will let you see Poppy tomorrow before her audience.”

 

“I’m going to that audience with her!” Tosca announces for probably the third time tonight.

 

“Don’t do it.”  Carl shakes his head. “That won’t help.”

 

“It might!”

 

“Or, it could land you in trouble as well,” he reasons.   “Now, come sit and eat your dinner.”

 

Tosca stays where she is and crosses her arms. “Are you forbidding me to go with Poppy for the audience?”

 

Carl cocks his head at her. “When have I ever forbid you anything?”

 

“Never,” she concedes.  It takes some of the heat out of her outrage.  Because Carl is on her side, even if he’s not on Poppy’s side. 

 

“I prefer to let people make their own decisions.  But they must answer for them,” Carl warns.  “I don’t want you to do this.  It could backfire.”

 

“So be it,” she nods back. 

 

Her resolve sets him off. “You are a stubborn, meddling woman!” he accuses.  Then, suddenly stopping himself, he muses, “Wait—are we having a fight?  Is this our first fight?”

 

“Yes,” Tosca growls.  “We are most definitely fighting.”

 

He smirks.  “Can’t we just skip to the makeup sex?”

 

“Carl!”

 

He warms to his theme. “We should probably do it tonight to be on the safe side.  You know, in case Vitiate busts out the red lightning.”

 

“R-Red lightning?”

 

“Yep.   That’s the lethal stuff. Only he can do it.  One jolt of the red stuff, and you meet the Force.  So, in case you die tomorrow with Poppy, I’d like one last hurrah—“

 

She gulps. “You really think he’s going to kill her?”  She gulps again.  “And me??”

 

Carl shrugs.  “She’s a goner for sure.  She murdered a Lord.  And, as you say, her family won’t want her back when the time comes, so she’s going to die anyway—“

 

“But surely Lord Vitiate will listen to her circumstances?  Poppy never should have been a Temple girl in the first place.”

 

“Why should Vitiate even care?” Carl demands testily.

 

“Because Marka Ragnos would listen,” Tosca snaps.  “Lord Ragnos wouldn’t let a Sith Lady be killed without a fair hearing.  If Vitiate is as great as you say, then he will care about Poppy’s case.  Because how you treat the vulnerable members of our society says something about us as a culture.”

 

Carl has no rebuttal to her contention.  He just looks mulish for a brief moment.

 

“I wish I had never talked her out of escaping,” Tosca now moans.

 

That prompts Carl to quip, “Lord Screed agrees.”  He’s back to being his usual wry self.  “I shall mourn you, my Tosca.”  He smirks and sniggers, “Alas, my love is lost, martyred for a girl so talented that she could swing a sword while she sucked di—“

 

“Carl!” 

 

“Now you know the real reason I don’t wear a sword,” he jokes. 

 

“Carl!  This isn’t funny!  Nothing about this situation is funny!”  Shifting her feet uncomfortably, Tosca worries, “I don’t want to fight if this might be our last night together.”   She’s gulping air now as she outright wails, “I don’t want to die either.”

 

“Then don’t go tomorrow and we will have many more nights together,” Carl reasons calmly.  “Plus, as many fights as you want,” he adds with a mischievous grin. 

 

It’s tempting, but Tosca recommits. “I promised Poppy.  I don’t break promises.”

 

Carl flashes a sly smile. “Then promise you will be mine always.”

 

“Don’t start in on that again,” Tosca complains. She’s irritated by his self-interest at a time like this.  “You have known all along I am another man’s wife.  And the issue is Poppy, not us,” she admonishes sternly.   “She needs help!”

 

Carl is undeterred. “Promise me you will always be mine and I will intercede with the Emperor,” he bargains. “Vitiate won’t care what happens to Poppy.  Normally, this would be a matter for the local authorities, except it happened at the Palace.”

 

“Do you think he would listen?” Tosca asks hopefully.  She has no idea if Carl has any real influence with his boss.   She’ll have to take Lord Fulsome’s word for it.

 

“It’s worth a try.  But only if you promise to stay with me,” Carl wheedles.  “That’s one reason why I can’t get rid of the Temple girls.  Because then, you would go home and leave me.”

 

Tosca shoots him a look.  “This isn’t about you.”

 

Carl chuckles. “I’m a Sith Lord. It’s always about me.”

 

“Will you make sure any new priests know that I am hands off?” she demands. 

 

He accepts blame. “Yes, yes, my bad with Fulsome.  I overlooked it.  I’m a poor details guy.   I’m better with the big picture vision stuff. Now, come here, promise to stay, and let’s have some makeup sex.”

 

Sex?  Again with the sex??  “How can you think of that at a time like this??” she fumes. 

 

Carl gets up from the table and crosses the room. He’s got his bedroom eyes.  “I can’t get enough of you when you play the martyr.  And, I’m coming off a seven-hundred-year dry spell,” he reminds her. 

 

It’s annoying.  “I’m still angry,” she harrumphs.

 

He is affable about it.  “Okay, then it’s hate sex, not makeup sex.”

 

“I don’t hate you,” Tosca moans.  “I’m just scared and worried.  Hold me, Carl.”  She throws herself into his arms, laying her head on those broad shoulders she loves. “Just hold me.”

 

“It will be alright,” he says gruffly.

 

“But the red lightning—“

 

“It will be alright. Trust me.”  But Carl being Carl, he wants an answer.  “So . . . is that a yes?  Will you be always be mine?”

 

“How about we agree to be attached instead?” she counters.  “We are friends, remember?  Close friends who are attached.”  Intimate lovers who care for one another but cannot actually be together in any legitimate sense.   She’s fine with that, marriage isn’t an option, and he had disavowed commitment from the beginning. 

 

Carl thinks it over.

 

He’s taking too long.  Nervous Tosca rushes to sweeten the deal.  “Plus sex.  Makeup sex, hate sex, happy sex, grumpy sex, whatever sex you want—”

 

“All of the above?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And can I get the Screed treatment?”

 

She pulls back from him, confused.  “You want me to decapitate you?”

 

“No,” he leers.  “I want you to suck my—”

 

“Deal!” she quickly accepts. “But you need to come through with Vitiate.”

 

Carl chuckles.  “I’ll put out, if you put out.”

 

“And I’m going to that audience tomorrow.  I’m going and that’s final!”

 

He sighs.  “Yes, dear.”

Chapter Text

This is Tosca's second trip to the Emperor's throne room. This time, she won't be cooling her heels waiting in dread for hours in the ornate antechamber. She and Poppy are first on the list of audiences for this morning. They stand together, nervous and scared, trying to ignore the many curious and disapproving looks from the Lords who mill about in full ceremonial armor, each waiting for their own interview with Dark Lord Vitiate.

Lord Tenebrae stands with them as sponsor, a silent supportive presence as Tosca gives herself and Poppy a last-minute pep talk.

"It will be okay." Tosca says it a second time. Trying to convince herself as much as she reassures Poppy. "It will be okay."

"No, it won't. But so be it." Young Poppaea swallows hard. She lifts her chin and squares her thin shoulders. "This is my destiny," she chokes out gravely.

Tosca nods. She is familiar with this fatalism. Destiny is a very Sith concept. But Tosca is going to do her best to influence destiny today. Because for as much as stoic acceptance is embedded in the Sith psyche, so too is dogged determination and a willingness to take on big challenges. We are a people who tried but failed to conquer the galaxy, Tosca reminds herself. But then we rose from the ashes of defeat and moved forward to flourish once again. Because we are the Sith and we do not give up. Darkness is determined. And this morning, so is Tosca.

Self-conscious Poppy reaches to pull her scarlet hood lower, but Tosca stays her hand. "No." Tosca folds the hood all the way down instead. She wants the Emperor to see how young Poppy is. Seventeen but looks more like fifteen. Pretty in a delicate, small featured way that matches her compact build. She's a child still. Far too young to be having sex with a Lord in his fifties. Or any other Lord, for that matter.

"Tell the truth. The complete truth," Tosca advises as motherlike she tucks a wayward strand of Poppy's hair behind her ear. The girl is wearing a high ponytail. It's a schoolgirl's hairstyle that Tosca chose intentionally.

"Speak when spoken to. But speak loudly and slowly. And don't let him rattle you if he interrupts. He interrupts a lot," Tosca recalls.

"O-Okay."

"Try not to cry," Tosca continues her instructions. She instinctively knows that crying won't help. Weakness tends to provoke contempt, not compassion, in their culture.

"I'm done crying," Poppy declares staunchly even if her red rimmed eyes say otherwise.

"Good girl," Tosca approves. "I'm done crying too." She had cried for an hour last night after Carl had fallen asleep. It had started as tears over Poppy's fate and morphed into tears over her own predicament. She misses Marcus and the boys. She still mourns the life she left behind. But after that emotional release, Tosca had rallied. She lay awake, thinking her way through today's audience. She knows Emperor Vitiate will not be moved to mercy. She needs a reasoned defense to save Poppy.

The majordomo approaches Carl now to indicate that it's time for them to enter the throne room. The Emperor's master of ceremonies gives Tosca and Poppy a look of severe censure as he pointedly addresses their male companion in lieu of them. Luckily, Tosca has experienced this man's disdain before. She is unphased this time around.

Carl turns to her. "I'll be right here waiting."

She nods. "Thank you for this." She knows Carl thinks this is a dumb move. But he's letting her do it anyway. And that's probably more than Marcus would do if he were still calling the shots.

"Don't do anything stupid," Carl admonishes. Then he looks to trembling Poppy and smirks, "Hope for the blue lightning, not the red." With those less than encouraging words, Carl nods to the majordomo. "Send them in."

"Ready?" Tosca turns to Poppy. The girl nods a resigned yes. Tosca takes her hand and squeezes it for support. Then, with one last glance over at Carl who mouths yet again 'don't do anything stupid,' Tosca tugs Poppy forward through the door into the presence of the Emperor.

The throne room is as dim, cavernous, and foreboding as she recalls. This place literally feels like entering Darkness. For the setting seems to promote fear and misgivings, to foster uncertainty and second guessing. But Tosca swallows all that self-doubt and walks resolutely with Poppy to stand under the single shaft of light that illuminates the chamber. The mysterious Emperor sits on high far above her sight line, no doubt staring down at his unusual visitors. What is he thinking about the two women who appear before him? What does he know about what happened last night? Tosca wishes she knew. She has no idea what to expect.

She and Poppy sink to their knees in submission, their scarlet cloaks fanning out around them. Hands clasped in their laps and chins ducked, they wait to be spoken to.

"Lady Struct," the deep, disembodied voice from above rumbles. "Daughter of Darth Vehement and Granddaughter of Darth Stain. You are making a habit of appearing uninvited in my throne room."

"Your Excellency." Tosca bows her head even lower at this inauspicious beginning. Her heart is pounding in her chest even as her face is a mask of calm. She needs to project stately dignity for the sake of the high-strung girl who trembles at her side. Tosca knows that if she loses her nerve, poor Poppy is likely to fall to pieces. And then, who knows what will happen.

"Is this the girl who murdered Lord Screed?"

Tosca speaks up. Loud, like she was admonished during her last appearance. "Murder is the wrong word, your Excellency."

The Emperor ignores her. "Who are you, girl?" he demands of Poppy.

"Lady Poppaea," she squeaks.

"Louder."

"Lady Poppaea, D-Daughter of D-Darth Maraud and G-Granddaughter of Darth S-Shatter and Darth Insidious."

"The title Lady might be a stretch for you, girl." The Dark Lord's voice is scathing. Poppy seems to shrink in response. "Temple girls who murder priests will not be tolerated," the Emperor intones.

Tosca attempts to intervene again. "Yes, but she should never have been a Temple girl-"

"Silence!" The command is sharp and both Tosca and Poppy visibly flinch. "Let the accused speak for herself."

Tosca nods to Poppy at her side. "Tell him," she whispers. "Tell him what you told me. Tell him why you you were sent to the Temple." Then she grabs Poppy's hand and holds tight for moral support.

The girl begins timidly. "I'm not who they say I am."

"Louder! I can't hear you, girl!"

"I'm not who they say I am."

"Then who are you?" the Emperor growls. "And why should I care?"

"I was a girl like any other girl," Poppy begins, "until I turned thirteen." She tells her sad tale of abuse and coverup that culminated in her being sent to the Temple. It isn't eloquent, but it is sincere. Through it all, the Force resonates veracity as well as deep, deep pain. Somehow, Poppy gets through it. Maybe it's because she seems so numb. When the girl speaks, it's almost as if she is talking about someone else and not herself.

The Emperor listens without interruption. Then, he complains, "What does any of that have to do with killing Lord Screed?" He sounds bored.

The comment sets Poppy off. All that dispassionate narrative instantly disappears as rage rushes in fast. "I killed him! I killed him and I'd do it again!" Poppy defiantly proclaims, doubling down on her guilt. Her face is the picture of peevish teenage petulance.

"Hush!" Tosca clamps down on her hand with bone crushing firmness.

"Owwww!"

Tosca ignores the objection and answers the Emperor's question. "Poppy's past has everything to do with killing Lord Screed."

"And why is that?"

Tosca starts spinning the best defense she could think of while lying awake last night. "Because she should never have been at the Temple. That matters. Because had last night happened anywhere else than the Temple, her actions would be considered justified as self-defense. A Lady is allowed to defend her virtue and her person. Had Poppy not killed Lord Screed herself, then her father, her brothers, her uncle, or her grandfathers would assuredly have killed him for his actions. Debauching young girls is not tolerated in our society. Her menfolk would have been praised for defending her honor."

When the Emperor declines to interrupt, Tosca barrels forward with her argument. "But because Poppy was unfairly sent to the Temple, and because every single man in her life failed to protect her, Poppy had to defend herself." Looking over at the terrified girl at her side, Tosca staunchly declares, "Lady Poppaea was forced to become her own champion when the rest abdicated their responsibility."

"And what of Screed?" the Emperor demands. "How was he in the wrong? This girl has been living at the Temple for how long?

"Almost two years," Poppy answers.

"How was Screed supposed to know to treat her any differently than the others?"

"He didn't know," Poppy admits. "I never told him."

"He was in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing," Tosca surmises.

"Clearly," the Emperor's voice is dry. "And why does that merit murder?"

"It doesn't," Poppy allows. "But I don't care! I killed him and I'd do it again!" Her eyes flash yellow now, like Tosca remembers from last night. She's shrieking at Emperor Vitiate, near hysterical. The stress of the situation, combined with her youth and inexperience, have triggered another outburst. "I'll kill any man who—"

"Hush!" Tosca hisses. She clamps down hard again on Poppy's hand.

"Owwww!"

"Your Excellency," Tosca intercedes again, trying to salvage this increasingly out of control interview. "Lord Screed is as much a victim of the situation as Poppy is. From his perspective, he was not in the wrong. Please know that we are not arguing that his actions merited his death." Tosca is not here to argue against the tradition of Temple girls in general. She's just here to make the best exculpatory argument she can for Poppy.

"Enough!" the voice from on high orders. The Emperor sounds impatient. Like he's ready to move on to more important matters for the Empire. "Girl, I cannot send you home and I cannot send you back to the Temple. I will neither reward nor tolerate this behavior."

"Then kill me and get it over with!" Poppy demands as she breaks free of Tosca's grip and defiantly stands to her feet. "I've been dying slowly for four years now, so you might as well. But mark my words, your Excellency, I am going to haunt you and everyone else who refused to believe me! You'll see me again in the Force!" Incredibly, the slight girl is shaking her fist angrily up in the direction of the Dark Lord.

"Poppy!" Tosca is aghast. She reaches up and yanks the girl bodily to the ground. Then Tosca looks up towards the throne and tries to make amends. "Your Excellency, she is overwrought. The events of last night have her forgetting her place." With a death glare at mulish Poppy, Tosca grinds out, "It won't happen again."

"I rather doubt that," the Emperor rumbles from on high. "All that pain . . . all that suffering. It would be a shame to waste it," he muses. "Pain is power, girl. So, let's see you use it. Impress me," he invites.

"Whaaat?" Poppy isn't following.

But Tosca is. "Do something. Use the Force," she encourages. Tosca thinks she knows where this is going. At least, she hopes she does.

Poppy is still confused. "Whaaat?"

"Just do it," Tosca whispers.

So, with nothing more to lose, the now yellow eyed Lady Poppaea raises her hands, grits her teeth, and shoots Force lightning straight at the Emperor. It's a reckless move that speaks volumes about Poppy's desperation.

The energy deflects to bounce right back at its source, nailing Poppy herself. The shrieking girl ends up sprawled on her back in an ungainly pose and a puddle of black and red fabric.

"POPPY!" Tosca bellows her outrage. "How dare you?"

"You must have a death wish, girl," the Emperor observes. "But you also have the Force. And because the Force is with you, Lady Poppaea, you will not die today. You will be sent along with several of your fellow Temple girls to be trained in the ways of the Dark Force. The Empire has need of your talents in other arenas. Depending on how you progress, you may become a spy or an assassin. Perhaps a priestess back here at the Temple."

"Oh," Poppy is dumbfounded at this turn of events.

Tosca wants to cry with relief.

"You are not the first female Apprentice. But perhaps you will be more successful than your predecessors. Only time will tell. We shall see."

Tosca thinks fast and speaks up. "This training—it cannot require her to continue her activities at the Temple."

"If you mean killing Lords, I agree," Lord Vitiate purrs.

No, that's not what she means. "I mean— I mean—"

"Yes?"

"S-Sex." Blushing Tosca forces herself to spit the word out—and to the Emperor of all people. "Your Excellency, this cannot be another forum for Poppy to continue her current duties." Tosca doesn't want her to trade sex with a priest for sex with a Master.

"Her days as a Temple girl are done. She will be a proper Apprentice to a real Master, with all that entails. But nothing more."

Satisfied, Tosca nods and looks to Poppy. The girl looks shocked and bewildered. Like this outcome had never occurred to her and she can't quite believe it. Tosca herself is very surprised, but grateful as well. And since Poppy seems unable to speak, once again Tosca speaks for her. "Thank you for this opportunity, your Excellency. Lady Poppaea and the other girls will rise to the occasion, I assure you. We are humbled by your mercy and understanding for their situation. The girls welcome this chance to serve the Empire and fulfill your will in a new capacity."

"Does that fine speech mean she accepts?" the deep voice drawls.

"Y-Yes," the relieved but confused Poppy breathes out.

"I can't hear you—"

"Yes! Yes, I will do it!" Poppy yelps loudly. "And, er . . . sorry about the lightning . . . "

The Dark Lord seems to chuckle. "You dare what many Lords merely dream about. Put all that zeal and desperation into training and perhaps one day we will be calling you Darth Poppaea. Lady Struct?"

"Yes, Excellency?"

"Make sure last night never repeats at my Temple."

"Yes, Excellency."

"I should hate to have to take your pretty head."

"Yes, Excellency," Tosca manages. "Please know that we are very sorry for Lord Screed's family. All at the Temple send our deepest condolences to his family."

"Except the girl who killed him," Lord Vitiate observes dryly. "She is apparently quite proud."

"The rest of us are dismayed and dishonored by this act," Tosca grovels.

"Indeed? Then you may call upon Lady Screed and express those sentiments yourself on behalf of the Temple," the Emperor orders. Then, he barks, "Ladies, you are dismissed."

Tosca slowly climbs to her feet and leads dazed Poppy out by the hand. Once safely outside the throne room, Tosca smothers the girl in an impromptu bear hug, rocking her back and forth. "You're alive . . . you're alive . . ." It's a conspicuous display of emotion before the hall of waiting Lords. But Tosca could care less. Judgmental looks are nothing new to her. "You're alive!" she laughs joyously. "Poppy, he gave you a second chance!"

"He doesn't give second chances. He is not merciful," Carl corrects sternly as he watches. "If the Emperor declined to kill her, it was because he had an alternative goal in mind that comports with yours. Her interest and his interest were aligned, that's all."

"Who cares?" Tosca grins at Poppy. "It worked out fine, all things considered."

It's starting to sink in now. Poppy is smiling back. A little.

"Let's go tell the others," Tosca urges.

"You go tell the others," Lord Tenebrae inserts himself. "I will introduce Poppy to her new Master."

"He's here?"

"Yes. Training starts today."

"Oh."

Carl sends Tosca to the cloister now. "Go find me up to four more girls to join her. Poppy and the rest will leave the Temple this morning."

Tosca nods and shoots him a curious look. "You knew this was going to happen, didn't you?"

"You asked me to intercede," he reminds her. "I suspected this would be the outcome, but you never know with him. Now, go find Poppy some training partners," he shoos her away.

Tosca hurries back to the Temple. All ten girls are waiting huddled, quiet, and worried in the cloister. They know about Poppy and Lord Screed, of course. Everyone in the Palace knows a Temple girl murdered a priest last night. As Tosca walks in, she is swarmed and peppered with questions. She sits everyone down and tells the story of the interview in the throne room. Of how the wise Emperor looked beyond the violent act to see the potential Poppy represents in the Force. He offered her an alternative means to serve the Empire. It's unorthodox and will be hard, but it gives Poppy a chance for a new, meaningful life.

The girls' reaction is mixed. Some think Poppy's fate might be worse than prison or death. For the only thing more shameful than being a Temple girl would be to be treated like a man and trained like a man. Gender roles die hard, slow deaths, Tosca is realizing. The Sith are a long way from the Jedi ethos of equality. Because if this small sampling is any indicator, Sith women don't want to be equal. Not yet, at least.

But others are intrigued. They realize that being trained as an assassin or spy is just a different degree of social ignominy. But it won't involve sex and it has at least a chance at a real life. It won't be the life they were raised to live, but it's something at least.

Tosca lets the girls discuss it awhile. They ask a lot of questions she can't answer. Then, Tosca asks the four girls whose families she has approached to stay with her in the cloister. She sends the rest to the garden. And that's when Tosca extends the offer to join Poppy to the four who stayed behind.

But first, Tosca discloses that she has recently met with each of their families in an attempt to broker a reconciliation. There were no takers. It's possible that your families might change their minds when the issue is ripe and your time at the Temple ends, Tosca supposes. But then again, they might not. And everyone knows what that means for a Temple girl. This is a chance to move on to a new life. To let something other than the Temple define who you are, Tosca argues. As scary and as uncertain as this choice is, it might be the safest bet. Because even if you do eventually return home, it is very unlikely that any of you will marry. You will forever be someone's unmarried daughter who was sent to the Temple.

A girl asks Tosca would you do it? Yes, she would. Why? Because she would want to claim as much control over her future as she could. If my parents had forsaken me, I would not want them to have any further authority over me, Tosca decides. How much time do we have to decide? This morning, Tosca answers. Then, she leaves the four girls alone to think it over. About an hour later, they have an answer. It's unanimous. They will all join Poppy.

After that, the cloister is a scene of tearful goodbyes. Some girls are upset to be leaving. Others are upset to be staying behind. All in all, it's a lot of emotion after a very eventful morning. Eleven Temple girls are down to six now. That's progress, even if things didn't resolve the way Tosca anticipated. But she is reluctant to claim victory. Once the immediate adrenaline of the throne room interview recedes and the remaining girls are settled, Tosca finds herself feeling all sorts of emotions. She is relieved, upset, frustrated, fearful, and yet hopeful. Stressed Tosca seeks solitude to process all that has occurred.

She avoids the garden and the cloister—too many weepy girls. She won't venture to the lounge for fear of running into Lord Fulsome. So she wanders to the formal Temple entrance. Ostensibly, Tosca is admiring the looming portrait of Marka Ragnos. But in reality, she's hiding.

Carl walks up. He always sneaks up on her thanks to his lack of Force signature. Tosca startles.

"My Lord," she raises a self-conscious hand to smooth her chignon and then her skirts. Can he see that she has been crying? Just how runny is her makeup? She had taken such pains with her appearance this morning in advance of her official audience with the Emperor. But once that was done, Tosca had given vent to her emotions like a good Sith should. But she worries that means she now looks a fright.

"H-Hello," she looks over, furtively wiping at her cheeks.

"Hello." Carl walks up beside her. They stand side by side, both pretending to admire the painting for the benefit of the guards at the door ten meters behind them.

She's glad he's here. It gives her a chance to thank him more privately. "My Lord, in all the drama of this morning, I think forgot to thank you—"

He brushes it off and observes out of the blue, "You remind me of him."

What? "Him?" Confused, she points to the greatest Dark Lord ever to rule the Sith. The man whose death ended a golden age of Darkness and sent their people headlong into disunity and defeat. For nothing was ever the same after Marka Ragnos' reign. "Him? You mean Ragnos?"

"Yes."

Oh. "Really?" She squints her skepticism.

"Well, minus the dramatic headgear." Carl folds his arms as he muses. "You have charisma like he did. He made people want to agree with him. To believe in him."

Well, that's all wrong. Tosca shakes her head. "No one agrees with me. I couldn't get any of those families I approached to take their daughters back. They listened and then they showed me the door as fast as they could."

He disagrees. "I'm not wrong. You've got it. You're a natural leader. And not because people fear you, but because people like you."

What? Tosca shakes her head. "Oh, no. You've got it wrong. I'm not a leader. I'm a team player."

"That's how Marka Ragnos would have described himself," Carl says softly. "My Jedi captive would call it servant leadership. And you have it."

"Oh."

"You don't compel. You can't compel. You have barely any Force and you have no authority. People agree because they admire you or they admire your goal."

"Oh."

He glances over and studies her a moment until she starts to squirm. "You managed to charm Vitiate again. You were good. You were really good in there today. You could teach some seasoned Lords who make repeat appearances a few things."

Tosca feels a bit bewildered by this assessment. Because today wasn't about her. It was about Poppaea. "I'm just glad Poppy made it out alive," Tosca sighs.

"Darth Tempest is a decent Master. A well respected one who will give her credibility. If anyone can train her, he can. And she won't be doing it alone."

"It helps that her friends will be with her," Tosca thinks aloud. That part was rather inspired, in her judgement.

Carl grunts. "Normally, an Apprentice would see others as competition. But I suspect the girls will benefit from the mutual support. I told Tempest not to train them like young men. That will never work."

"I agree," Tosca nods. She looks to Carl with clear trepidation as she voices her concern. "Will this be as hard for them as I fear?"

Carl considers. "Formal training always begins with breaking down the Apprentice. Then, with discovery of knowledge through the Force and self-discovery of inner strength through suffering, a man is refashioned to be born again in Darkness."

Yes, she knows. That is why the tradition is to take a new name as you begin your new life on the Dark Side. Because once you emerge from the training process, you are forever changed in ways that matter, with a soul forged strong and valiant through Darkness. Ready to defend and protect the Empire from all enemies within and without.

Carl continues. "The trial period when an Apprentice experiences physical pain, powerlessness, and self-doubt is critical. It fuels the lust for power that is the essence of a Lord of the Shadow Force."

"Pain is power," Tosca quotes the old Sith maxim. Spare the rod and spoil the Sith is, unfortunately, very true. But normally, that sort of thing is how a boy becomes a man. It's not how a girl is expected to mature. Sith girls become women upon marriage and then motherhood. It is a very different path to adulthood. But in some ways, Tosca suspects, no less hard. Any mother who has been up all night for months with a colicky newborn knows all about suffering and deprivation for a cause she loves.

Carl muses now, "I suspect that Poppy and the other girls are already well positioned to channel the Dark Side. The preliminary work has already been done here. By their parents and the priests." He adds, "I saw Poppy's yellow eyes. She's well on her way."

"Is that how it was for you?" Tosca asks, remembering that Carl has no formal training.

He looks away and suddenly she's sorry she asked. "I was different and far younger," he sighs. "No one betrayed me like Poppy was betrayed. I made my own Hell by accident. Then, I had to live with it." He turns back to Tosca. Suddenly, Carl looks every bit his fourteen hundred years and more. "No one broke me down. I broke myself."

For a moment, his expression makes her want to throw her arms around him. To soothe all the hurts of his formative years. Because anyone who has lived long enough knows that time does not heal all wounds. Especially the self-inflicted kind. They fester and persist to flare up from time to time. Because no matter what we achieve and who we become, some important part of us will always be ten . . . or thirteen . . . or whatever age we were when we first confronted the struggles that will forever define our self-image. Everyone has demons. No one lives without pain. And for the Sith, that's generally considered to be a good thing. Their culture doesn't shrink from the unsavory, hard experiences of life. Instead, it teaches to embrace them. To use them to better yourself. And now, Poppy and the other four girls will get that chance.

"I guess this is as good an outcome as all five girls could hope for. It gets them out of here, at least." But Tosca worries aloud, "What happens if they fail?"

Carl shrugs. "They don't have to become Lords. Actually, I don't expect that of any of them. But they can still be useful as assassins and spies. We need to learn more about the Republic. Fulsome and his friends may be clamoring to invade, but we are far from prepared. Subduing the enemy will be hard enough. But ruling them may prove very difficult. The mindset of the Republic is very different from ours. Until we understand them, we will never truly conquer them."

"This all sounds so dangerous."

"It will be," Carl confirms. "But it will be a life and a future. And that's more than the girls have now."

"I know. I keep telling myself that." This isn't what Tosca would want for her own daughter, but that's not the standard, she knows.

"The Emperor is looking for a way to infiltrate the Jedi Order. One of these girls might present an opportunity for that goal," Carl supposes. "It might not work, but it's worth pursuing. I need to get someone we trust high into the ranks of the Jedi. Maybe even their Senate."

"That makes sense, I guess. I don't really know anything about military intelligence," Tosca concedes. She's way out of her league on that topic. She tries again now to express her gratitude. "Thank you for interceding for Poppy," she tells Carl with utmost sincerity. "I know your influence was key." She sees his hand in all of this. From their conversation last night to the angle of infiltrating the Republic, this all smacks of Carl.

He nods. "It was the right decision. The girl presents an opportunity that we would be foolish to squander."

It's more than that, Tosca knows. "This is an opportunity others would not notice. They would laugh at the idea of training a girl like Poppy."

Carl flashes a smirk. "I'm not like others."

"I know. You're not like anyone else. You don't think like everyone else." He's far from conventional. Not hamstrung by tradition. Willing to consider what others will not. Carl is just so unexpected and so different. Tosca is beginning to understand his fight with Lord Fulsome more and more. Because it's Carl's whole person—not just his politics and his influence—that sets him apart. "You're—well, you're you," she finishes lamely.

He gives a rueful chuckle. "I'll take that as a compliment."

They lock eyes and she smiles. "It is a compliment."

Those yellow eyes of his are snapping at her, as he now jokes, "I need to keep you out of the throne room. If you make another appearance, I might lose you to Vitiate. He'll claim you for his Empress, he's so impressed."

"Hardly," Tosca scoffs. "I'm a disgraced Lady sentenced to the Temple for adultery, remember?"

"He knows better."

"And I'm already married," she points out.

"That doesn't matter. He can make you anyone he wants. There are no limits to what he can do here in the Empire."

Tosca raises an eyebrow and plants a hand on her hip. "Then tell your boss he'll have to get in line. Because if I'm not Struct's, then I'm yours. Unofficially, of course."

Carl grunts. "You're getting sassy."

She just laughs. "Worried I'm gonna get some red lightning?"

"Maybe."

She throws up her hands. "Oh! This is a ridiculous conversation. I'm the Temple matron. I'm nobody."

"Not to me," he says softly. And once again, they lock eyes and she smiles. "You can handle anything, can't you?"

"Marcus once told me that," Tosca remembers aloud.

"I'm not talking domestic crises. I'm talking murder, an audience with the Emperor, that obnoxious traitor Fulsome making passes at you . . . "

Tosca shoots him a playful sideways glance. "You know, he's not the first priest to make a pass at me."

Carl bristles. "That's different. We're different. You were sent to me by the Force."

That claim makes her shake her head. "You romantic," she teases.

"It's true! I was in my garden early one morning when I saw you in a vision. Then, later that day you showed up here at the Palace."

"What was the vision?" She's curious.

"Just images really. Feelings."

"Tell me. I've never had a vision."

He is serious now as he recalls, "I saw you with your hair down. I remember long blonde waves. Your dress was disheveled and falling off one shoulder. You had a lit sword in your hand. It was . . . striking . . ."

"Me? A sword? Really?"

He nods. "You were scared and upset. You needed my help."

"Oh." Tosca isn't sure she likes the sound of this vision.

He looks sheepish now. "I assumed you were my mother. But the vision wasn't the past, it was the future. Hours later, you showed up here dressed formally and hiding your hair under a veil. But it was you. Unmistakably you."

"Why? How did you know?"

"The Light." Tosca makes a face but he ignores it, like always. "Fulsome senses it too, even if he doesn't know it. The General is the strongest priest we've had here in a while." Carl explains, "The more powerful you are with the Dark Side, the more sensitive you are to the Light. It's a curious phenomenon. I think it's a defensive talent. Our ability to sense the Light . . . the tendency to be drawn to the Light . . . it is so we can stalk our enemies."

"I'm not your enemy."

"I know. You're my—"

"Temple girl," she finishes.

He grunts. "I was going to say my gift from the Force."

Now, it's her turn to smirk. "You are a romantic," she accuses.

"Only for you. Until tonight, my Lady," he bids her goodbye. They do not touch hands or kiss, of course. There are guards watching and she and Carl are something akin to colleagues in this setting.

As he walks away with a sweep of his cloak, Tosca cocks her head and calls to him as a thought occurs to her. "How do you know how things went with the audience with the Emperor? You were waiting outside the whole time." Carl was in the antechamber when she went in and when she came out.

He just flashes that enigmatic smirk of his. "I have my sources and my secrets."

Yes, she knows. It is a statement of trust how much Carl confides in her already. So, she won't press for more. With one last glance up at old dead Darth Ragnos, Tosca decides to check on the remaining girls. That's enough alone time for now. She heads for the cloister down the main Temple hallway.

Up ahead, Tosca sees Lord Fulsome coming before he notices her. He's limping as he walks head down with a stiff gait. Just by looking at him, Tosca can tell that everything hurts. Seeing his discomfort makes her frown. With all the uncertainty surrounding Poppy's fate, Tosca had mostly forgotten about last night's other melodrama. But seeing the injured priest brings it all back.

Does he sense her eyes on him? He must, because he looks up to find her. And now, his shuffling gait improves instantly. This is a proud man and he does not wish to appear beaten.

He walks up to where Tosca has stopped because she's uncertain how to handle this situation. She can't run away, even though that's her first instinct. But she's also tapped out on aplomb for the day. She used it all up in the throne room earlier.

So, Tosca decides on distant professional courtesy. "My Lord," she greets him neutrally.

Lord Fulsome nods back. "My Lady."

And, oh, this is as awkward as she feared it would be. Tosca tries to say something positive and yet not encouraging. She settles on, "I am glad to see that you are recovered."

He is cool in his response. "It was nothing. I let him win."

"Yes, of course," she agrees just to agree. But she remembers it differently. She remembers Lord Fulsome on the floor smoking in defeat. "Well, good day, my Lord." Tosca begins to walk past.

"Don't go."

She pauses.

"Walk with me to my office. I want to apologize."

She hesitates some more.

"Come," he coaxes with his square jawed patrician smile. "It will only take a moment. I will not delay you long."

But still, she is undecided. Tosca doesn't really want to be in this man's company. It feels disloyal to Carl and she suspects Carl would be livid if he knew of even this brief interaction. But to refuse an apology feels churlish. Plus, Lord Fulsome isn't going anywhere since Carl let him live. That means Tosca and the new priest are going to cross paths twice daily at Temple services. So, perhaps it would be best to clear the air now and get it over with.

"Very well," she agrees. They begin the short walk to the row of priest offices.

"I meant no offense last evening. I was not aware of the circumstances," he begins.

"Lord Tenebrae should have told you," Tosca concedes. "All the others know. I am not a Temple girl."

"Hands off. I get it. He's a lucky man to have you." Fulsome glances over with an apologetic smile. "My Lady, I had no intent to harm you or to scare you."

"It was a misunderstanding," she agrees. "The matter between us is resolved, my Lord." The matter between him and Carl, however, is far from settled, Tosca knows. And that's why she is anxious to depart. She doesn't trust this man.

"Can we not cry friends?" he wheedles as they come to a halt together outside the door to his office. "You're a woman. You don't have political opinions. So there is no need for animosity between us." His reasoning isn't intended to be obnoxious, but it succeeds anyway. This guy just oozes elite male privilege with his condescension. "Leave the future of the Empire to the Lords to decide," he counsels. Darth Fulsome all but tells her not to worry her pretty little head over things she can't possibly comprehend or influence. It's annoying, but Tosca declines to fight that particular battle. She just wants to end this conversation.

He cocks his head at her and flashes a charming smile. "Friends?"

"Friends," she nods agreement. Arm's length friends. Not friends like her and Carl. "I'm glad we had this talk," she concludes the discussion as he opens the door. "I will see you at Compline, my Lord."

She turns to leave when she feels his restraining hand on her arm. Tosca looks up as he yanks her hard into his office and immediately shuts the door. It all happens before she can react. But now, she makes her objection known.

"Take your hands off me!" Tosca struggles against his superior strength.

"This is my consolation prize," Fulsome sneers. "I don't get you, but I get something better—information." Then he holds her still in his vice-like grip and looms closer. His forehead touches hers. But he's not going in for a kiss, he's jumping into her mind. This isn't sex, it's power.

"Oh!" Tosca gasps and recoils. She's heard of mental intrusions like this, but she's never experienced one. They are an advanced skill and something normally reserved for a prisoner interrogation. "Stop!" she wails. "Stoooop!"

"Don't fight me. It will only hurt worse," he warns. And, actually, it hurts plenty now. Tosca feels like her head is on fire.

"I'm not giving you anything," she says through gritted teeth. She's determined to thwart this man.

"You can't stop me," he rasps. His lips are inches from hers and his breath is hot on her cheeks. It's like he's everywhere at once—in her face, holding her captive, and in her mind as well. "You know I can take whatever I want," he gloats.

It's true, he can. Because try as she might, Tosca cannot force him out of her consciousness. She lacks the power. The morning has left her emotionally drained, and now she is physically incapacitated and mentally overcome. Fighting him only makes her head hurt worse, so she quickly relents. She's just going to have to endure this. But oh, it is galling, very galling. Because this man who last night felt entitled to her body this morning feels like he can take her thoughts and memories, too. Never before has Tosca felt so powerless. She's not a violent person, but right now Tosca would dearly love to repeat Poppy's stunt from last night.

He begins by looking for information on access to the Palace. Lord Fulsome watches the night of the Proscription ritual when she walked Carl back to his apartment. Fulsome sees the corridors that all look the same and the clone guards who feel the same in the Force. He sees Carl wave a hand and open a doorway out of nothing. Carl does it that night the first time but he does it other nights from the grand living room where Tosca often joins him for dinner. It's like Carl can carve an entrance to his secret lair from multiple rooms.

Fulsome also sees her don a security hood night after night to be walked to two separate sets of elevators and down long hallways. Fulsome replays those memories again and again, counting steps and guessing directions to deduce patterns. Looking for a way in. Clearly, he plans to follow through on his threat to kill Carl.

When Fulsome is satisfied he has figured it out, he goes looking for information on Lord Tenebrae the man. What he sees are mostly intimate moments. Private moments. Things that others shouldn't see. It's all from her vantage point, so Tosca is not on display, but Carl is. He's absently twirling a strand of her hair around his finger as they lay face to face in bed speaking drowsy pillow talk. Next, Carl's face is intense and focused above her as he pants and thrusts hard in the final, ultimate moments of intercourse. Now, his voice is pensive and unsettled as he lays in her arms and speaks freely of the distant past. Then, she can't stop giggling as his beard tickles her upper thigh and it totally ruins the mood. Carl throws up his hands and gives up.

Fulsome probably ought to be interested in their dinner with the Jedi, in Carl's views on politics, and with his teachings on power. But instead, Fulsome is drawn to their bedroom antics. Like a mental voyeur, he sifts through her memories of their encounters in detail like he's watching porn on the holonet. What's worse, he offers humiliating commentary.

"Look at you with your fat legs in the air. Such a whore for him. No wonder Struct sent you to the Temple."

Tosca is in total agony now. She's betrayed important security measures she knows she shouldn't, but this disclosure seems far more intrusive. Sex is not something that she likes to talk about, let alone show anyone else. So, this is the worst by far. It's like a highlight reel of their nights together. Tosca has never been more embarrassed in her life.

"You let him do that? Oh, that's hot. That's really hot," Fulsome groans as he keeps spying. And he likes it enough that he experiences that particular memory twice. Seeing her laying down as Carl straddles her torso with his hands on the headboard and his body in her mouth. "My wife would never let me face fuck. Did you swallow? I can't tell." So he watches again a third time. "If you were mine, I might keep you just so you could suck my balls like you do his. I think I hate old Tenebrae even more now . . . "

It's lurid and graphic and horrifying. Tosca strives again, but fails to end the mental connection. And so, she has to endure more of this man's intrusive obnoxiousness.

"Oh, I could last longer," Fulsome brags as he watches Carl collapse on top of her, sated and spent. "I could go all night. There wouldn't be a round two because you wouldn't need one," Fulsome postures. "You just need my sword inside you. You'll see. Once you go purebred red, you never go back."

She's begging now. Please, please can he stop? Her head is splitting and her heart is breaking. Where is Carl to save her like he did last night? And why had she been fool enough to be lured by this wretched man twice?

"He will kill you for this," she pants, eyes squeezed tight against the pain.

Fulsome snickers. "He'd have to know first." Then, he pulls back. His forehead no longer touches hers and his hands no longer act as restraints. The movement brings immediate relief. For when the physical connection breaks, the mental connection breaks too. Once more, Tosca's mind is her own.

She sags against the wall, eyes closed. She feels him wipe at her nose and chin. The tissue he uses comes away bloody. He has to wipe again. "I told you not to fight me," he grumbles. "This is your own fault."

As she squints at him weakly, Lord Fulsome waves a finger before her eyes. "Forget," he intones with a heavy coating of Dark Force. "You came into my office, we spoke amicably, and you accepted my apology. You are tired now and will go back to the cloister to lie down. We part as friends."

"N-Nooo—" Tosca resists this latest mental trick.

But he overrides her objection with his second attempt and more Force. "Forget." It's an insidious whisper and it works. "Forget."

She does.

Chapter Text

Prime has ended, and Tosca and the girls have entered the garden.  It’s been a week since Poppy and the others left.  Things are finally settling down for the remaining residents of the Temple cloister.  As Tosca stands watching her charges enjoy the morning sunshine, she can’t help but wonder what will become of these final six. 

 

Her reverie is interrupted by a croaking voice deep with advanced age.  “What a fine morning it is, my Lady.”  The comment is from Darth Azamin, the sole member of the Dark Council who appears with any frequency at the Temple services.  This Lord is wizened and stooped over his cane, shrunken to the size of a small woman by extreme Force-prolonged age.  Tosca herself towers over the man.  But you don’t judge this Lord by his size, for his power is as formidable as his influence. 

 

Never once has Lord Azamin acknowledged Tosca’s presence.   So, she is somewhat taken aback by his offhand casual conversation.  But she smiles hello and ducks her head in deep respect.  This man is a pillar of the Empire, after all.  “My Lord Azamin,” she greets him formally.

 

“Know who I am, do you?”  From beneath the black hooded cloak, the yellowed eyed geezer looks amused. 

 

“Everyone knows who you are, my Lord.   I was a schoolgirl when I learned your name,” Tosca answers pertly.  

 

“A schoolgirl?  A mere two years ago then?” he teases with a toothy grin. 

 

Is the old guy flirting??   Tosca laughs.  “More like twenty.  More than twenty, actually.”  Her schoolgirl days are long behind her.

 

Lord Azamin leans forward conspiratorially as he looks up. “Lady Struct, your secret is safe with me.  And besides, you are a schoolgirl to these old eyes.  I’m pushing five hundred.”  

 

That’s considerably younger than Lord Tenebrae who seems to show no effects at all from his Force prolonged life.  But Darth Azamin is more the norm, Tosca knows.  Those adherents of Darkness who can achieve extreme age do not escape the effects of time entirely.  How Carl manages to remain perpetually vigorous in his prime middle years must speak to his immense power, she decides.

 

Darth Azamin takes up position at her side to join her watching the girls at leisure.  “I see your flock has thinned since I was last here,” he remarks.  “I had fewer pretty faces to look at during Prime.”

 

Tosca hastens to explain, “One girl returned home and five left us on a special assignment last week.”

 

“Yes, I am intrigued about that training,” Lord Azamin reveals that he knows more than he pretends. 

 

Tosca worries, “You disapprove?”

 

“No.  It was a good solution for the Screed affair.”  The old guy harrumphs.  “It seems strange to cultivate so much aggression and ambition in our boys and yet expect our girls to be timid and meek.  Men and women are different, to be sure.”  Azamin slants her a roguish smirk.  “I quite enjoy our differences,” he says with a gleam in his yellow eyes.  “But women are an underutilized talent base in our society.  When I heard of the Emperor’s decision to train them, I was surprised in a good way.”

 

“Others were shocked.”  One of the priests in residence complained at length to Lord Tenebrae about it, in fact.

 

“I’m not surprised,” Darth Vitiate nods.  “Change seldom happens around here.  That has its advantages and disadvantages.”  The ancient Lord looks her up and down now before he proclaims, “You are an agent of change, my Lady.” 

 

Tosca has another explanation.  “I believe that credit goes to the prisoner Jedi.”  All that talk of equality among the enemy suggested a heretofore unrecognized opportunity for women to infiltrate them.  “Jedi women apparently have equal opportunities with Jedi men.”

 

“The Light Siders have that bit right, at least.  Women can be quite formidable,” old Azamin observes wryly.  “I could tell you stories about the late Lady Azamin that would prove it.  She could be terrifying,” he shudders.

 

Tosca giggles before she can stop herself.  The thought of this ultra-powerful man, a consummate insider in the Emperor’s inner circle, fearing his angry wife strikes her as funny. 

 

“It’s true!   By the Force and on my honor, it’s true!” the old guy swears as he grins ear to ear looking downright silly.

 

Just then, Lord Fulsome exits the Temple. He spies Lord Azamin and immediately walks over to join them.  He won’t miss a chance to hobnob with the ultimate insider Azamin.  “Looking for me?” the priest asks solicits.

 

“No, no, Brutus,” the elder Lord chides him.  “I’m fixing my attention on the lovely Lady Struct just now.  Can’t a man flirt with a Temple girl in peace?”

 

“Flirting with Temple girls has gotten dangerous. Haven’t you heard?” Lord Fulsome smirks.

 

“Indeed, I did hear,” Lord Azamin outright snickers.  “That was hot gossip.”   Tosca isn’t certain whether he’s referring to Lord Screed’s demise or whether Darth Azamin knows about the fight between Lord Fulsome and Carl.  “Will I be the next to fall?  My Lady, have you a sword secreted upon your person?” the ancient warlord inquires.

 

Tosca dimples in response to his devilish look.  “No, my Lord.”

 

“A blaster perchance?”

 

“No, my Lord.”

 

“A vibroblade then?”

 

She shakes her head.

 

“Alas, then she will have to slay me with her beauty, eh Fulsome?”  Azamin chuckles as he advises, “It’s every woman’s secret weapon.   And I am a willing victim every time,” he assures Tosca. 

 

Lord Fulsome grumbles, “She’s already made a conquest.”

 

Old Azamin is coy.  “You, Brutus?”

 

“Tenebrae.”

 

The Sith elder turns back to her. “Well done, my Lady,” he winks.  “Start at the top.”  Then he cackles so hard that he starts to wheeze and cough.

 

This is not the topic Lord Fulsome wishes to pursue.  Like every ambitious man, he’s not about to waste an opportunity to advance himself with a chance meeting with one of the Emperor’s cronies.  So Fulsome practically elbows Tosca out of the way as he slides up to Azamin. “I have a new strategy for the neutral zone under consideration,” he tells the Dark Council member sotto voce.  

 

“Not now, Brutus. Can’t you see I’m flirting?” Darth Azamin puts him off.  “You young Lords are all business, all the time.  And you’re a priest now, not a general.  Shouldn’t you be off practicing your spells?”

 

“That hocus-pocus bores me,” Lord Fulsome freely admits.   There is considerable arrogance to his blatant bad attitude, Tosca thinks.   Most Lords would consider their stint as a Temple priest to be the crowning achievement of their career.   No one gets these appointments without notice of Lord Vitiate himself.  But this guy seems to view it as a hindrance.  “Conjuring the Force for hours in meditation is a waste of effort in modern times.  Power is different now,” Fulsome sniffs.

 

“I find your lack of faith disturbing.”  Darth Azamin’s hooded eyes narrow.  All humor is gone.  Disapproval replaces it. “Do not denigrate this position.  Dark alchemy could take you far.   It has taken others far.   Very, very far,” he admonishes with a wagging finger that is near skeletal. 

 

“Tenebrae?” Fulsome guesses. 

 

“Actually, I was thinking of Naga Sadow,” Lord Azamin answers, citing the sorcerer Lord who followed his expansionist zeal to invade the Republic, leading the Sith into a humiliating defeat.  “Sadow would be a hero of yours, would he not?” 

 

“Except he failed.”

 

Azamin nods slowly.  “Overconfidence has been the weakness of many a Lord.  Perhaps you should take a lesson there.”  Darth Azamin’s words become even more pointed now as he lectures. “Perhaps a more temperate tone with your peers, my Lord?   Less sedition and more results?  It is a strange strategy you have chosen.”  Ancient Azamin raises his eyebrows and the diminutive Lord somehow seems seven feet tall.  The little guy who moments ago was joking and witty, now is thoroughly intimidating.  “Normally, those who stoke discontent do it more anonymously and far less obviously,” he observes with withering disdain.  Tosca almost wants to cringe for Fulsome.

 

But the man himself is undeterred by this reprimand. “Someone has to speak truth to power.”

 

“Indeed.  But speaking truth is different from speaking treason.  Do not set yourself up in opposition to the Emperor and his counselors.  Nothing good will come of that,” Lord Azamin warns.  “Take it from this old campaigner, Brutus.  I know how things work around here.”

 

“Darth Tenebrae doesn’t scare me,” Lord Fulsome declares.  “Don’t try to frighten me with his sorcerer’s ways.  It won’t work.”

 

“It should. Consider, my Lord, that Darth Tenebrae has been here long before you were born and will be here long after you die.”

 

“Did he send you to speak to me?”

 

“No. Neither did Lord Vitiate. I’m here to meddle of my own accord,” Darth Azamin answers.   “I’m an old man who appreciates both a spirited debate and the meaning of absolute power.  So, I am here to share some unsolicited wisdom.”  The wizened elder looks up at the towering red Sith prince and his face softens.  “I recognize your many talents, Brutus.   There is much of your father in you.  And you know how much respected him from our years together on the Council.” 

 

“Fall in line—is that your message?” Darth Fulsome complains. 

 

“No.  My message is rather more pointed.”  Old Azamin speaks slowly and carefully now.  He might look feeble and frail, but his words are direct and forceful.  “It goes like this:  desist or die.   You were brought here to bring the issue to fruition.  You now have a choice to make.  But I warn you:  do not underestimate the power of the Emperor. You don’t know the power of the Dark Side until you face Darth Vitiate.”

 

“He’s been in power too long.”

 

Tosca bristles uncomfortably at this overt dissent.  Her alarmed eyes find Darth Vitiate who snaps back, “That is for the Force to decide, my boy.  Not you.”

 

“I reject that!” Lord Fulsome huffs. 

 

“That is why you and your co-conspirators will fail,” Azamin concludes.  It prompts angry Lord Fulsome to stalk off.

 

“Young fool,” the elder Sith sighs as he watches him go.  “The Emperor will tolerate only so much of him.”

 

Tosca, who has watched this interaction in silence, doesn’t know what to say.  She’s come a long way from her quiet genteel life as an army wife. Never did she dream that she would be privy to the high stakes game of power at the highest levels of the Empire.  Marcus and the boys would be very impressed if they knew.  But for her part, Tosca is nervous.  In her entire life, no one she knows has ever questioned the fitness or authority of Lord Vitiate to rule the Empire.  Even thinking such a thing feels wrong.

 

“I heard about his fight with Tenebrae,” Lord Azamin drops casually.  He slants eyes her direction.  “Over you, I believe?”

 

Tosca blushes as she nods.  “It was awful.”

 

“Carl merely humbled him.  And not enough, I see,” old Azamin says dryly.  “Every generation, there is one who thinks he can do it.  They throw their lives away for the pipe dream of supplanting Vitiate.”

 

“I don’t understand men’s lust for power,” Tosca confesses.   She’s befuddled as to why a man as highborn, well-connected, and successful as Lord Fulsome can’t be content with his current life.  Why does he need more?  He already has so much.

 

Darth Azamin tells her, “That’s because you’re a woman.  Women’s ambitions tend toward creating security.  Women take risks for others mainly.   For the betterment of their families and children.  We men are more focused on our own vainglory.  Never believe any Lord who claims to be in it for the good of the Empire.  Because the root of our ambitions is never selfless.  If it were, we’d be Jedi,” the ancient sage sniffs. 

 

“Force forbid!” Tosca exhales, reflexively disavowing all things Light.

 

“Agreed.”  Darth Azamin signals his departure now.  “Well, my dear, I have enjoyed our chat. I need to run along to a Council meeting.  Duty before beauty, alas,” he quips.  “Has Tenebrae killed that Jedi yet?” he asks offhand.

 

“I don’t believe so,” Tosca answers. 

 

“That Jedi probably wishes he was dead just to get away from all Carl’s questions,” Azamin jokes.  “Carl’s having way too much fun interrogating him.”  Then feeble Azamin begins his slow, steady progress into the Palace. 

 

Darth Azamin’s assessment is correct:  Carl is enjoying his odd couple bromance with the Jedi captive.  Carl and his Jedi frenemy have a strange rapport.  They obviously like one another personally, even if they agree on just about nothing.  It’s an ironic type of respect.  Tosca decides it arises from the fact that they are both serious men of the Force who recognize a fellow believer. And that’s how conversations like this one arise at dinner. 

 

They are mostly through eating.  Carl is lounging in his chair with one arm hooked over the back and the other arm swirling his wine glass.  “Tavo, I have been meaning to ask you,” he begins, “how should I kill you?”

 

The Jedi raises an eyebrow, but as usual betrays no emotion.  The man is preternaturally calm.  It’s unnerving.  He cocks his head and probes, “Is that a real question?”

 

“Yes.  How do you want to die?” Carl solicits as though he is asking something casual like whether his guest wants more wine.  The Jedi nods and proclaims solemnly and smugly, “I do not fear death.”

 

Carl balks.  “I sure do.  I hate the idea of death.”   He shudders at the very thought.  “That’s why I have been successfully avoiding it all these years.”

 

The Jedi smiles patiently and intones, “No one’s ever really gone.”

 

“Yes, yes, they meet the Force,” Carl impatiently waives away this advice.  “But the essence of the self is diffuse.  And that pretty much makes you gone. A few of us manage to haunt our tombs or masks or holochrons for a bit.  But that’s not the same as living.”  Carl makes a face now as he opines, “Plus, Force ghosts are kind of cliché in my opinion.”

 

Tosca frowns.  She takes issue with this assessment.  “What about Marka Ragnos appearing during the duel between Naga Sadow and Kressh?  Because Ragnos was so concerned for the future of our people that he—“

 

“Didn’t happen,” Carl interrupts dismissively.

 

 “Really?”   Because that story is Dark Side lore that every Sith schoolkid learns.  

 

“Regrettably so,” Carl confirms.  “All that old dead warrior showing up to impart wisdom to the next generation and to anoint a successor stuff is crap.  Just a made-up story to promote Sadow’s legitimacy.”

 

“Oh.”   Tosca sort of deflates.  

 

“You look crushed,” Carl observes as the Jedi nods his agreement.  

 

“You do.”

 

“I am crushed.  I don’t like our history to be a lie,” Tosca bristles. 

 

Carl grunts. “Much of history is a lie.  Especially the colorful bits like that.  There might be a kernel of truth, but that gets lost in the exaggeration.”   

 

Tosca does not approve of his cynicism.  She demands, “What else of our history is a lie?”

 

Carl immediately comes up with another devastating reveal. “That bit about Vitiate agreeing to become Dark Lord after a vote by acclamation of the few surviving Lords.”

 

“That didn’t happen?” she blinks.  

 

“Nope. He got all his opponents in a room and killed them.  If the leftovers supported him, it was because they wanted to live. Vitiate stole power.  He took it, like a true prophet of the Dark Side.”

 

Tosca scowls.  “Don’t tell me anymore.  You’re ruining it for me.”

 

“Ignorance is a poor choice,” says the Jedi who has been watching this exchange. 

 

“Maybe,” Carl smirks.  “But ignorance is also a common choice.  People will believe all sorts of things if they want to believe them.  

 

“Well, I for one want to believe the best of our Emperor and our Empire,” miffed Tosca announces.  “So do not disabuse me of my illusions.”

 

“As you wish,” Carl beams his approval on her.  “Such a patriot you are, my dear.  Anywhere, where were we?  Ah yes, your death.   How do the Jedi kill their captives?” Carl wants to know. 

 

“We don’t kill them,” his captive guest answers.  “We turn them over to civilian authorities for due process in our justice system.”

 

Carl finds this response unsatisfactory. “That’s fine for a common criminal.  But what about someone like me? What would the Jedi Order do if they captured me, a power mad Lord of the Sith, Master Sorcerer of the Shadow Force, and evil incarnate?”  His eyes are twinkling at this glorified self-description. 

 

Ever the straight man foil to Carl’s colorful tendencies, Master Crutcher replies, “You would be brought before the High Council and given a chance to repent.”

 

Carl laughs at the very premise. “Oh, I am not repenting.  Not a chance!” he chuckles. “I’m a damned soul if there ever was one.  You won’t convert me.  So . . . then what?” 

 

“Then the Grand Master would strip you of your Force.”

 

Carl recoils at this punishment.  “Wow.  That’s cold.”  He almost sounds impressed.  “Who knew the Jedi Order could be so ruthless?”

 

Tosca does him one better.  “That’s barbaric!  Absolutely cruel!” she judges.  

 

The Jedi explains in his usual dispassionate, declaratory style. “You would live, but you would live without the Force.  Like an ordinary man.”

 

“Perish the thought,” Carl smirks.  “Seriously, just kill me.  Kill me now.  Or at least try to.”  Then he laughs like that’s an inside joke.  

 

“It is considered to be a merciful choice,” the Jedi Master explains. 

 

“Well that’s a crock—“

 

“My Lord!  You offend our guest,” Tosca reproves.   

 

“We’re discussing how to kill him,” Carl counters.  “A little vulgar language seems appropriate.  But seriously, Tavo, I want you to die with dignity.  As a respected enemy and worthy adversary.”

 

The Jedi nods like he’s fine with that fate.  Maybe he truly doesn’t fear death, Tosca marvels.  Master Crutcher now asks plainly, “What are my options?”

 

Carl thinks it over.  “Let’s see . . .   Firing squad.  But don’t choose that—it’s for criminals.  There’s also Force lightning. But I warn you, that hurts.   Well, the blue stuff does.  The red stuff is pretty much instant like the firing squad.  I suppose there’s always the sword.”’ Carl looks Tosca and asks innocently, “Think we could get Poppy back for a repeat performance?”

 

“No.  Definitely not,” Tosca replies in a quelling tone. 

 

“Who’s Poppy?” the Jedi wants to know.

 

“One of Lady Tosca’s protégés.  She took the head off a priest not too long ago with his own sword.”  Carl chortles.  “I think she was angling for my job as Imperial executioner.”

 

“You’re the chief priest,” the Jedi points out. 

 

Carl shrugs.  “This is the Dark Side.  We kill people.  Me especially. So . . . how would you like to go?”

 

The Jedi gives it some consideration before he suggests, “How about a duel?  If I win, I go home alive.”

 

Carl’s yellow eyes light up.  He’s excited, Tosca recognizes. “I like that idea!  Bring it on!”

 

Wait—is this a duel with Carl?   Suddenly, Tosca is alarmed. “My Lord,” she hisses, “can you even use a sword?”

 

Carl makes a face. “What is it with everyone and swords??  Swords are overrated.  The bigger problem is that I don’t really want to kill you.  And you should fight someone who wants to kill you,” he muses. “I regret that I have a conflict of interest where you are concerned, Tavo.”

 

“Make Fulsome do it,” Tosca speaks up. 

 

“Excellent idea!”  Carl beams at her.   “My Lady where have you been these last thousand years or so?   You are full of good ideas.”   For the Jedi’s benefit, Carl reminds him, “Fulsome is the big red guy who threatened you in the Temple.  But don’t let that go to your head.  He wants to kill me too.”

 

“And the Emperor,” Tosca scowls.  

 

Carl nods. “He’s quite the traitor.”

 

“And that is permitted?”  The Jedi looks confused.  

 

Carl shrugs. “I keep him alive hoping he will make a real attempt.  Like I keep you alive waiting for you to escape.”   

 

The Jedi betrays no emotion as he counters, “You keep me alive because you like me.”

 

“That too,” Carl admits good naturedly. “But duty calls and I can’t let you go back home and announce that the revenge of the Sith is imminent.  That would spoil all our fun.  So, I will do what must be done.  Tavo, regrettably you must meet the Force.  Sorry about that.”  Carl looks almost sheepish now.  “It’s just business, you know.   Nothing personal. I kill a lot of people in my line of work.  It sort of comes with the territory.”

 

“Fair enough.  What if I win the duel?” his foe probes. 

 

“You won’t.  But if you somehow manage to win, sure you can go home,” Carl agrees magnanimously.  

 

“My Lord!” Tosca speaks up.  “The Emperor will never allow that!”

 

“I’ll talk to him,” Carl assures her.  “He might be open to the idea of Tavo going home just to make the Republic the aggressor.   War is inevitable, I’m afraid.”  

 

Now Carl starts envisioning the contest the Jedi has proposed.  “So . . . a duel with Fulsome.  I bet he’d like that.  How good are you with a sword?”

 

The Jedi responds coolly with complete confidence. “I can take care of myself.”

 

“Yes!”  Carl punches the air.  “This is going to be fun!  But this is a duel to the death either way, got it?  You have to kill Fulsome to win.  There is no last-minute Jedi mercy.  Is that clear?  You have my permission to take Fulsome’s head or otherwise maim him as gratuitously as you want, but it must be a mortal wound.”

 

“I accept those terms,” the Jedi nods gravely. 

 

“Very good!   I win either way then!”  Carl is very animated now.  “My Lady, you are genius,” he commends.   “Alright, what are the rest of the particulars?  Shall we do it in the garden?   No, maybe the throne room.  That way, the Emperor can watch . . . ”

 

“Throne room.   I want to meet this Lord Vitiate,” the Jedi requests.  

 

“Alright,” Carl agrees. “But I warn you that he’ll make a speech first.  Death to the Republic, death to the Jedi, we will stamp out hope in the galaxy . . . it will be the usual thing.”  Carl rolls his eyes and waves a hand.

 

“Does anyone believe all that bluster?” Master Crutcher asks.  

 

Tosca speaks up on cue. “I do.”

 

Carl explains very seriously, “Everyone does.  That’s why he says it.  So expect a lot of that theme. He’ll probably be all like,”—Carl lowers his chin, lowers his voice, and speaks his syllables slowly and his vowels broadly in his best impression of the Emperor—"your feeeeble skills are no match for the power of the Daaaark Side.”

 

“That’s good!” Tosca laughs.  “You sound just like him!”

 

Carl’s eyes are twinkling as he continues his Emperor impression.  “Everything that has transpiiiiired has done so according to my deeesign.”  Tosca laughs some more and Carl reverts to his normal self, telling the Jedi, “He’ll be chewing the scenery big time.  Old Vitiate lives for this sort of drama.  I think he’s mostly bored and asleep up there on his throne all day.  A duel will be good to wake him up.”

 

“My Lord!” Tosca objects, sending him a glare.  “That’s going too far!”  She turns back to their captive guest and starts apologizing. “With his longstanding position, I’m afraid Lord Tenebrae has become somewhat overly familiar with our Dark Lord—“

 

“You could say that,” Carl interrupts. It earns him another glare.  

 

“—And so, he at times does not display the proper respect due to our beloved Emperor.”

 

“Beloved Emperor, eh?  Good girl.  I like that sucking up,” Carl grins.

 

“Stop mocking him!” Tosca fumes.  “It’s disrespectful!”

 

“I’m not mocking him.  I’m honoring a long-held tradition.  Posturing is very Sith,” the chief priest declares.  “And no one does it better than old Vitiate.”

 

“I’ve noticed all the posturing,” the Jedi nods.  “You guys love your dramatic capes and armor.”  And was the sarcasm from the Jedi?   Tosca isn't sure.  Jedi Master Tavo Crutcher is so calm that it’s hard to tell when he’s being humorous or just being himself.

 

Carl shrugs. “Yes, well the more important you are, the more impressive you must seem.  It wouldn’t do at all for Vitiate to turn out to be an average guy with some cool tricks.   That would be such a letdown.  The illusion of power is part of power.”

 

“Posturing is just another way to deceive,” Master Tavo muses.  He’s often succinct and profound like that.  It’s annoying.

 

“See, this is why I like having you around!” Carl crows.  “Your outsider views are fun.”

 

“Does that mean I’m correct?” the Jedi drawls.

 

“Yes.”  Carl is irrepressible, as usual.  “Trial by combat . . . I like it.  It’s very Sith.  We will decide your fate man to man, with arms and the Force.”

 

“Do you think Lord Fulsome will do it?” Tosca worries.  

 

“Oh, his ego will never let him turn it down.  But if he does,” Carl’s wicked grin is wide, “I will make it an offer he can’t refuse,” he promises.  

 

After that is settled, dinner concludes and soon Tosca and Carl are alone in his hidden apartment.  “You’re going to miss your Jedi friend,” she muses as she finishes undressing before she joins Carl in bed. 

 

“Yes.” Carl stares up at the window to the heavens above his bed.  “I have enjoyed learning his perspective.  The Republic is just so different than we are.  The whole concept of democracy is bizarre. Imagine having to get at least half of everyone to agree on things.”

 

She groans as she crawls under the covers to snuggle up close.  “That would take forever.”

 

“Exactly!  The endless debate, the inevitable corruption that comes from needing to sway people to your side, the infighting . . .    It would be like the chaos after the war all over again.  That was a nightmare.  There was no order,” Carl scowls.

 

“What does leadership look like if no one is in charge?” she wonders.  “Is there no chain of command?”  Hierarchy is everything with the Sith. Each person has their place and their supervisor and subordinates.  It’s in all aspects of military and civilian life.   Even in families, there is a Lord who heads a household of his Lady and children.  The Lady supervises the children and the servants and handles all aspects of the domestic sphere.  The Lord is the public face of the family and the one responsible for it all.  In the large ruling families, there is often a presiding patriarch grandfather or even great-grandfather who outranks his sons and grandsons.   The Sith can be very tribal in their outlook. The famous families figured out long ago to band together to increase their influence. 

 

“From what I can tell, the Republic leaders focus on building consensus.  Or, at least, building a coalition.”

 

“What happens to the minority position?  What if you’re one of the people who oppose the prevailing views?” Tosca frowns.

 

“They attempt to subvert the majority.  That’s how you win in the Republic.  You scheme to discredit or triangulate the majority.”

 

“So, it’s constant gamesmanship?”

 

“We have that here, too.   People are people.  The always want more.   But the Republic seems to revel in that. There is a lot of dissent.”

 

“Ugh.”  Dissent is not a Sith concept.  Not overtly, at least.   Their whole culture is predicated on the value of unity of purpose and orderliness.  “Dissent destroys societies,” Tosca quotes what she learned as a child.

 

“Agreed.  But if we conquer the Republic there will be a constant, low grade resistance, mark my words.   We will have to hold power by tight control.  And a populace used to freedom will not respond well to that.   We will be putting down rebellions left and right.  We will be slaughtering them with regularity.”

 

“That’s what they did to us,” Tosca reminds him.   

 

“Whether it’s us or them, it’s still disorder,” he gripes.  “I hate disorder. I think the trick will be to convince them of the need for order.  To have them welcome our point of view.”

 

“How do you do that?”

 

“I don’t know.  Maybe we destabilize them like what happened with us?  Maybe plot a civil war?  Whatever we do, we need to make them question their democratic values.  We need democracy to fail so that they are looking for an alternative.  Then we appear on the scene as their saviors, not their invaders.”

 

“I can hear your mind working,” she teases. 

 

Carl sighs.  “Look, Fulsome might be a brash traitor, but he speaks sentiments that will resonate with others.   Vitiate organized our society around opposition to the Republic.  He can only put off acting on that goal for so long.”

 

That makes sense.  “What will he do?” she wonders.

 

“Well, he can placate everyone and do some creeping tactics that give the generals and admirals something to do. Or he can actually attempt to overthrow the Republic, with all the risk that entails.”

 

“Isn’t beating the Republic what we have been working for all these generations?”  Tosca points out.

 

“That’s what you think you are working for.  Vitiate uses it as a way to organize our Empire.  To keep peace and prosperity.”

 

“Peace is a lie,” she quotes the first line of the Code of the Sith.  “Conflict is everywhere.”

 

“So true, so true.  But the illusion of peace has value,” Carl contends.  “We’re not so much at peace as we are fighting a long, secret cold war.  But it works.  Keeping the Lords focused on a common enemy cuts down on the infighting and the coup attempts.   It’s how Vitiate keeps control.”

 

“That Jedi has had a profound effect on you,” Tosca observes.  She’s not sure how she feels about that.  Because if anything, Carl seems to be increasing his opposition to invading the Republic.  “I worry that Master Crutcher has talked you out of war.”

 

“Yes, he has.  Which reminds me.” Carl rolls over on his side to look at her.  “He told me about a trick I want to try.”

 

“Trick?”  Her eyes narrow.  Tosca doesn’t like the sound of this. “What trick?”

 

“He calls it a Force bond.   It’s a connection common between Jedi Masters and their Padawans.  Through the bond, you can communicate thoughts, feelings, sometimes even knowledge.  You can influence one another even at a distance.”

 

She’s confused.  “You mean like mind control?”

 

“No.  Nothing that strong.  Tavo describes it as Jedi kinship.  It promotes closeness.”

 

“How does it work?”

 

“Some bonds arise without effort.  They are a natural consequence of two Force users living in close quarters.   As a form of empathy and understanding. Other times, bonds arise during moments of extreme stress or danger.  It’s the self reaching out for help to the mind it is closest to.  But Tavo says that some Jedi just seem to have a knack for bonds and they can create them at will.  That’s what I want to try.” 

 

“I’m not sure I understand.”  This all sounds vague to Tosca.

 

“The bond usually depends on the Force sensitivity of the participants.  The stronger they are with the Force, the stronger the bond becomes.”

 

“I barely have any Force,” she grumbles.  “Don’t bother bonding with me.”

 

“I have enough Force for both of us,” Carl boasts.  “But physical proximity and emotional closeness help too, and we have lots of that.  So come on, let’s do it.  It will bring us closer.”

 

Tosca is reluctant. “Is this like getting Jedi married?” she complains.

 

“Jedi don’t marry.  No attachments, remember?  But we’re Sith and we’re attached, so let’s bond,” he urges.  “It could be fun.  And it’s something new and different to try in the Force.”

 

The more he wants this, the more Tosca pulls back.  “Carl, this is just an affair, remember?  Those were your ground rules from the beginning.”  He was the one trying to dampen her expectations for any sort of commitment.  Telling her he’s not the marrying kind and under no circumstances should she get pregnant, and talking about what happens when they eventually part.  So this Jedi bond request feels confusing.  “We can be attached, but nothing more.  That’s what we agreed on.  Right?”

 

Carl looks her in the eye.  Suddenly, he seems utterly sincere.  “What if I told you I want you to love me like you love your boys?  That I want you to be loyal to me like you are to Struct?” 

 

What?  She squints at him.  “I thought we agreed that there is no future to this—“

 

“If we could have a future, would you want it?”

 

That’s a serious question.  Flustered Tosca punts and looks away.  “Why are we even having this conversation?  You know that’s impossible . . . ”   She’s married to Marcus and has the hand slash scar to prove it.

 

“Nothing is impossible,” Carl dismisses her objection.  “I see how fierce and determined you are for those you care for.  It makes you vulnerable as a result.  Strong but weak.  I like that mix.  It’s very Light.  Very you.  Shine your Light on me, my Lady,” Carl says cheekily as he steals a kiss.  “Bond with me.”

 

What’s prompting this?  Is he feeling insecure for some reason?  “Carl, you know I care for you,” Tosca soothes.  “Wherever this goes, however it eventually ends, I will always care for you.  You don’t know how grateful I am for you--”

 

“It doesn’t have to end—”

 

“Of course, it does. I’m a Temple girl.  One day, I’ll find a solution for the remaining six girls and then you won’t need a Temple matron—”

 

“You want to leave me??”  Carl looks stricken.  A look of anger crosses his features.

 

“No!” she yelps.   That’s not it at all. 

 

“Okay.  So . . . if we could have a future together, would you want it?” he presses.

 

Tosca is confused.  “I thought the deal was no future . . . that we would care for each other and be happy now in the moment . . . that we would be together without expectations . . . “

 

Carl stares her down, doing his best Emperor Vitiate impression from before.  “I am altering the deal.  Pray I don’t alter it any further.”

 

“Oh stop!” she scoffs at his silliness.

 

“Seriously,” he argues some more.  “Think about it.  Think about starting over with me.  But in the meantime, I think this Jedi bond might help me protect you in case Fulsome does something stupid.”

 

“Oh.”  That risk hadn’t occurred to her.

 

“Fulsome’s not the cowardly type to strike at me through you, but you never know. When I saw you in the Force, you were scared and in danger,” Carl reminds her.  “And while I can sense danger in the Force, I can’t sense everything.  Don’t tell anyone, but I’m not all-powerful.  So, come on.  Let’s do it,” he cajoles. “Let’s bridge our minds and face life together—you and me.”

 

“You’re getting romantic again,” she teases.

 

“I can’t help it.  I’m attached.”  He grins as he assures her, “This isn’t normally me.  I’m a stone-cold killer.”

 

She disagrees with his characterization. “Not really.  Not at all.  You’re killing the Jedi, but he is the enemy,” she points out. “And the Emperor made you kill the Lords who were proscribed.”

 

“My kill count is considerable.”   Carl leans in as he whispers.  “It’s a state secret.  If I told you, I might have to kill you too.”

 

“Now, you’re just bragging.”

 

“It’s not bragging if it’s true.  So bond with me, the ruthless Jedi killer.”

 

“How long does this Force bond thing last?” she worries.

 

“Master Tavo says it’s often a lifelong connection.”

 

“Then, no thanks.  I’m already lifelong connected to Marcus.”

 

Carl leans over to kiss her shoulder. “Only in law.  In the Force, you will be mine.”

 

“I don’t have any Force.”

 

“Then there’s no risk,” he reasons.  “Come on, let’s try it.”

 

“Light Side magic could be dangerous,” she warns.  “I mean, what do you really know about this bond thing??”

 

“Be daring with me,” he coaxes, going in for more kisses.  “You know you can’t resist me.”  He rolls atop her now.  Drowning her with even more deep kisses. 

 

“Is this going to hurt?”

 

“I could never hurt you,” he croons into her ear.  “Now hold still.”

 

“What do we do?” she whispers worriedly.

 

“Trust me.  Close your eyes and find the Force and trust me.”

 

“I do trust you,” she murmurs as she wraps her arms around Carl and he touches his forehead to hers.

 

“Vis nobiscum.”  The Force is with us, he tells her. Then:  “conjugamus ad vitam.”   We join together for life.  And wait—that sounds like a real commitment. Her eyes blink open just as he pulls back. 

 

“Is that it?”

 

“Done.”

 

“Did it work?”

 

“I don’t know.   Do you feel any different?” he asks.

 

“No.  Do you?”

 

“No.”

 

“I don’t think it worked.  Maybe you have to be a Light Sider for it to work?” she posits.  “Or maybe I just don't have enough Force to bond with anyone.”  Ugh, she’s such a loser when it comes to the Force.  “Is it instant?”

 

“I don’t know,” Carl admits.   “We can wait and see if anything develops.  Maybe the Kittat ruined it,” he thinks aloud.  “But a spell just isn’t a spell without some Kittat.  Well, whatever.  In the meantime, I feel ready to connect a different way,” he murmurs suggestively.  Carl pulls back to move lower now down her body. 

 

“Ummmmm . . . yes.” Tosca arches up beneath the attention he lavishes on her breasts.   “Ummm . . . ” she moans.  And now he goes lower still.  Down to her waist, to kiss her navel, to nuzzle his beard against her hip bones, and then lower still . . .   “Forget the Jedi mind tricks.  This is better.   Much better.”  Tosca wants his bodily Sith passion, not some esoteric Jedi mental connection.

 

He chuckles into her thigh. “As you wish, my Lady.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Wow." The word slips out almost involuntarily.

"Wow is right," the girl standing closest to Tosca breathlessly agrees. "And to think I thought he was handsome in just his priest cloak."

The object of their admiration is Lord Fulsome dressed for battle. Putting aside his general obnoxiousness and extremely questionable political motives, the man sure looks good in full armor. Darth Fulsome approaches sporting sleek black shielding with a half cape slung at a jaunty angle. The cape is black lined with crimson satin. It bobs and sweeps majestically with his stride. Lord Fulsome's hands are gloved to better grip the two swords that bounce at his hip. The only part of the man that is unprotected is his classically handsome face.

"Let me see." One of the shorter girls pushes her way to the forefront for a better vantage point. "Oh, my," she sighs as she joins their ogling. "What a Lord. He looks like a hero," she gushes.

"Indeed," Tosca concurs under her breath. The traitor Lord Fulsome is textbook perfect warrior eye candy for her and the other girls to swoon over. The pureblood Lord is the picture of strutting confidence as he makes his big entrance for the duel. He sweeps past Tosca and the Temple girls who stand with the other priests, heading for where his three Apprentices await him. Tosca can barely tear her eyes away from all that Dark male magnificence.

She glances over to the far side of the throne room antechamber where Lord Tenebrae stands alone beside the kneeling Jedi. Carl, she sees, is staring daggers at her. Something about his expression makes her wonder if he caught her admiring Lord Fulsome. Or maybe Carl knows what she's thinking. Did that Jedi bond trick actually work? She wonders. But to smooth things over, she gives Carl a slight nod of acknowledgment. The Jedi is kneeling beside him in some sort of meditation pose with his eyes closed and his expression blank. It's very him, Tosca decides. Because that guy can't manage to get excited about anything, including his own execution. Jedi Master Crutcher looks entirely too relaxed for this occasion.

The Temple Lords and Ladies, together with the Dark Council members, will soon file into the throne room to pay homage to the Emperor and watch the epic battle Carl is calling the Duel of the Fates. With Lord Fulsome as the champion of Darkness and the captive Jedi Master fighting for his life and his freedom as the representative of the Light Side, this showdown promises to be epic. It's Sith versus Jedi, Empire versus Republic, Dark versus Light. The anticipation is enormous and so are the stakes. The excitement in the antechamber is palpable.

It has been decided to keep the actual witnesses in the Emperor's presence to a minimum. But outside the Palace, throngs of populace—Lords and commonfolk alike—stand at the ramparts awaiting news of the outcome. That's a lot of pressure. But if Lord Fulsome is feeling nervous, it sure doesn't show. He's backslapping and laughing at the well wishes of his Apprentices. Tosca watches as several of the Lords on the Council, including the mincing ancient Azamin, approach to give their words of encouragement too. Fulsome is eating up all the attention, she sees. Team Sith looks ready to declare victory already.

Across the room at Team Jedi, things are different. Carl stands glowering with his frenemy in silence. The Jedi has climbed to his feet, but he looks as calm and centered as usual. Truly, the man is unflappable. Carl is the one who looks a bit nervous. The signs are subtle, but Tosca recognizes them. Others probably do not, but no one is looking at him. Everyone is looking at Lord Fulsome who is exchanging high fives and handshakes left and right. It makes Carl glower even harder.

All this pregame leadup ends when the door to the throne room opens and the Emperor's majestic majordomo appears. "My Lords," the master of ceremonies announces in his booming bass-baritone. "Let us commence."

The Dark Council members, the highest-ranking Lords of the Empire, file in first. Then the Temple priests are announced individually to kneel before the reigning Dark Lord. Finally, the Temple girls are ushered in. Tosca and her flock of six are not announced by name, unlike the rest. They are simply referred to as the Dark Ladies. They bob a knee to their Emperor and then skitter to take their place at the far left with the priests. Truthfully, Tosca isn't really sure why they are here, except that Carl clearly wanted to include himself and her, and so the logical solution was to invite the whole Temple staff as a pretext.

Finally, the combatants enter the chamber. First comes the man with home court advantage. He kneels his obeisance to the Emperor he openly seeks to supplant, announcing himself as Lord Fulsome, brother of Lord Fraught and Lord Fear, son of Lord Vanquish, grandson of Lord Stymie and Lord Succor, and great grandson of Lord Mortis and Lord Inimicus. It's a pedigree that includes two generations of Dark Council members and various decorated senior army officers. Lord Fulsome is essentially a Sith prince, born and bred to the highest echelon of command. No wonder he thinks he can overthrow the Emperor, Tosca thinks. He's the closest thing to the Emperor the aristocracy has to offer. Tosca catches sight of Carl's face watching this announcement and reads deep resentment there. That's no surprise given their personal animosity and Carl's own unorthodox background. She knows he hates guys like this.

The Emperor welcomes Lord Fulsome with gracious courtesy. "Arise, Lord Fulsome," ancient Lord Vitiate rumbles down from on high. Tosca thinks this a magnanimous gesture given the political context.

Next comes the Jedi. He does not kneel before the Sith Emperor. Instead, he inclines his head in respect. "My Lord. I am Master Tavo Crutcher, a Jedi Councilor of Temple Coruscant."

"Jedi," the Emperor intones, chewing each syllable. "It has been a long, long time since your kind ventured into our land."

"I came by accident. A mishap landed me in your Empire," the man explains.

"And our navy came to your aid to save you," Lord Vitiate finishes.

Master Crutcher gives his obligatory thanks. "Your mercy and hospitality are appreciated."

"We are the Sith," Lord Vitiate proclaims proudly. It is the first of several times wherein the Dark Lord will school the enemy prisoner. "We do not hesitate. We show no mercy. If you were saved, it was for our own aims. Not for your wellbeing."

"The intent may be different than I describe, but the effect is the same," Master Crutcher counters. And now, everyone holds their breathe collectively waiting to see how the Emperor will handle this quiet disagreement. Will there be lightning?

No. Lord Vitiate responds with words, not with the Force. "You have been remarkably easy to interrogate. It would have been hard to find a more cooperative and forthcoming prisoner. You betray the Republic secrets so willingly," he purrs.

The Jedi sees it differently. "I seek to foster understanding. To promote peace. The Republic is an open, transparent society. We have nothing to hide."

"Pacis est mandacium. Peace is a lie," Vitiate translates for the Jedi. And does Master Crutcher even recognize the opening line of the Code of the Sith? Probably not, Tosca thinks. The Emperor continues now in his slow, drawling style. "If the Republic and the Empire are at peace now, it is because we lie in wait, choosing our opportunity to strike back, to take revenge for the billions dead at the hands of your brethren."

"Don't do it, my Lord," the Jedi warns. "Do not invade the Republic. It will be your downfall."

You could hear a pin drop in the cavernous chamber as everyone waits with anticipation for the response. Finally, Darth Vitiate drawls, "Are you threatening me, Master Jedi?"

"No, my Lord," the Jedi answers with respect. "I'm giving you the best advice you will receive on this matter. The oppression of the Sith will never return. The Republic will fight you until its dying breath and you will conquer nothing in the end. It will be mutually assured destruction at best. My Lord, you are mistaken if you believe that the Sith will ever rule the galaxy."

Vitiate's response is withering. "Oh, no, my young Jedi. You will find that it is you who are mistaken . . . about a great many things." The disembodied voice from on high sounds smugly confident. "The Republic will fall. I have foreseen it."

"The future is difficult to see. It is always in motion," Master Crutcher contends. "Your faith in the future is misplaced, as is your faith in the Dark Side."

Vitiate is unimpressed. "We do not fear the Dark Side as you do. We do not suppress our desires and shrink from our emotions. We embrace who we are fully to master the Force."

"You're only a master of evil, Darth Vitiate," the Jedi shoots back.

That comment provokes a chuckle from the Emperor. "Master Crutcher, you have the spirit of a true Jedi. And because of that, you must die. Aut cum scuto, aut in scuto," the Dark Lord decrees. Come home with the shield or on it. It's an old Kittat military phrase from days of yore back before lightsabers, when Sith Lords fought with shields as well as swords. It means no quarter. This is a fight to the death. "The last man standing wins and lives," the Emperor states in Basic for the benefit of the heathen Jedi combatant who is not fluent in the sacred language of the Sith. "Lord Fulsome?"

"Yes, my liege?" The Dark Side's representative steps forward, a sword hilt in each gauntleted hand.

"My worthy general and faithful priest, son of Darkness, heir apparent to our forefathers fallen in countless battles before this day, I anoint you our champion. This man is our enemy. Kill him. Kill him now. For the glory and honor of our Empire."

With those words, Fulsome lights both his weapons simultaneously. The snap-hiss-hum sounds almost deafening in the silent chamber.

The Jedi now lights his own weapon.

The two men circle one another briefly before Fulsome swings with both swords. Red blades meet a blue blade with a crack of static electricity that rains down sparks. And thus, the duel begins. One man uses his aggressive feelings and gives in to hate. The other man uses the Force for defense as he fights for his freedom and the Light. It is an aggrieved contest a thousand years in the making as once again Jedi meets Sith in mortal combat.

Above it all can be heard the gleeful cackle of Sith Emperor Vitiate, who sits in the catbird seat. For Tosca recalls keenly Carl's summation of this contest: no matter who wins, both he and the Emperor win. For before them today, two enemies fight. No allies.

Tosca herself doesn't know who to root for in this contest. She's no fan of the boorish traitor Lord Fulsome who threatens Carl. She won't shed a tear if he loses his head. But she's equally unenthusiastic about the creepy quiet Jedi Master. Tavo Crutcher is just so passive and accepting. It's . . . different. Tosca is used to men full of bluster and bravado, men who rage against fate and strive to shape destiny for themselves and for others. There are no willing martyrs on the Dark Side. There are only warriors who win and warriors who lose. And that context makes the calm Jedi Knight seem effete by comparison. She's half expecting Master Crutcher to throw down his sword and announce that he will not fight. Because that seems like a very Jedi thing to do.

The contest is strangely silent. There's none of the trash talking bluster Tosca is used to hearing. There is just the crack and hum of sabers whirling to connect time and time again. This duel is also less of a spectator sport than Tosca expected. For the Emperor's throne room is as dimly lit as always. The glowing laser swords are easy to see, naturally. But the black armored Fulsome blends into the gloom, as does the Jedi at times in his medium brown robes.

The Jedi is the smaller of the two men, and the younger. He's closer to Tosca's age than his opponent's years, she judges. That combination of factors makes him quicker than Lord Fulsome. But he lacks the wider sweep and longer stab of his seasoned foe. The Jedi is very agile, leaping about like a gymnast at times. His balance and speed are impressive. These must be classic Jedi moves, Tosca guesses. She's never seen anything like them before.

For his part, Lord Fulsome fights with precision and power. It's like he's giving a master class on classic Sith fighting forms and saber passes for those in attendance. But he's used to fighting other Sith with a similar style, and his moves are far less effective against the Jedi who does not respond in the usual way. Moreover, the Jedi is freakishly right-handed—an oddity as rare among the Sith elite as Tosca's blonde hair—and that makes even his familiar moves somewhat novel to defend against.

All in all, Lord Fulsome's classic Sith moves prove equally as ineffective against the Jedi as Master Crutcher's classic Jedi moves do against his Sith opponent. It's all a bit of a mismatch really. The two men fight less in opposition than they do in skew, at times. And perhaps that's appropriate given the wide gulf between their two religious and civic traditions. It's like these two men's perspectives are so far apart that they don't intersect.

Again and again, one red sword—sometimes two—are beaten back by a blue blade. And then, the blue sword is parried or deflected by a red one. Lord Fulsome lands a kick once, but then abandons that strategy when it almost costs him his foot. The Jedi throws in Force pushes now and then, which his opponent quickly learns to anticipate and block.

But on the whole, Master Crutcher hangs back, mostly answering his enemy's offensive moves. Is his strategy to tire Lord Fulsome and conserve his own strength? Tosca judges that a risky gamble given Lord Fulsome's years of conditioning. These military Lords pride themselves on their marathon long dueling tournaments well into their middle years. A guy like Fulsome could probably do this at least an hour or more before waning.

The Jedi allows some close calls, she notices. But each time, he manages to slip in an unexpected jab or stab. One of them nicks Fulsome's chest armor, melting a broad slash mark. The Jedi himself wears no armor. He has no protection from such a glancing blow. One touch is all it will take to wound him.

Tosca can't decide if these two combatants are evenly matched or whether they are so dissimilar that they each lose the benefit of their best skills. But one thing is for certain, this duel is not a cakewalk for either of them. Both men are breathing heavily now. They wear intense expressions that reflect their depth of concentration.

The longer they fight, the more comfortable the opponents become with one another. And now, things truly become dangerous. Fulsome keeps going in with disarming passes. It's considered the most stylish, elegant way to win a duel. But the quick Jedi unencumbered by armor keeps evading him. One failed attempt backfires big time, and Master Crutcher manages to dislodge the sword from his foe's right hand. He grabs the saber hilt with the Force and demolishes it with a well-placed swing. And now, it's one red blade versus one blue blade.

It's interesting that Lord Fulsome chose to fight with two sabers in the first place against an opponent who wields just one. Tosca has listened to enough Lords debate strategy at dinner parties to know that two swords are not always an advantage. They restrict your maneuvers lest you trip yourself up. They also blur your focus and divide your strength. But two swords are sort of a fetish for army types, Tosca knows. It's usually the naval Lords who show up with one sword and feel superior about it.

The Jedi lands another grazing blow, this time on Fulsome's sword arm. It melts his armor at the elbow, fusing it. So Fulsome does some fast work to detach and shrug off the whole sleeve. And now, the duel becomes a little more equal with both men swinging a single saber with unprotected sword arms.

Tosca exchanges looks with the worried girl at her left. Despite all his flair and considerable expertise, Lord Fulsome is the man who keeps taking blows. If this were a weekend dueling tournament with practice swords, the Jedi would be scoring points and winning.

The Jedi is driving him back now towards the Emperor's throne. It's a series of spinning swings and slashes that forces Fulsome to yield ground fast. Moving backwards, he stumbles slightly and almost goes down. That's when the Jedi stabs hard. But he misses. The men are very close now, so Fulsome kicks up. He connects with the Jedi under the chin, causing Master Crutcher to stagger back. And that's when Fulsome swings to strike his sword arm at the wrist. It's an instant amputation that brings the Jedi to his knees and prompts a collective gasp from the small crowd of onlookers.

As the stricken Jedi reacts, Lord Fulsome makes sure to destroy his weapon still clutched in the severed hand. Fulsome won't take the risk that the Jedi will rally to resume the fight with his left arm. And, realistically, there's no chance of that. This sort of injury wins a duel every time.

The girls around Tosca exhale their relief. I knew he could do it, one breathes out. But Tosca herself isn't sure she likes this outcome.

"Good." The voice from on high speaks up to approve. "Gooooood." It lets loose a satisfied cackle. "You have fought well, Lord Fulsome. They will call you the Jedi Killer for this." The Emperor now shifts his attention to the wincing, struggling Master Crutcher. "Now, Jedi, you will die."

"I'm not afraid to die. I do not fear the Force," the Jedi pants out through the pain.

"Prepare to meet your destiny," the victorious Fulsome snarls as he better positions himself for the death blow.

"Young fool. Only now, at the end, do you understand," the Emperor purrs.

"I understand! I understand it all!" Master Crutcher retorts, staring indignantly up into the inscrutable darkness that veils the mysterious Emperor. "I'm the only one who understands!" The fallen Jedi now turns to his foe Lord Fulsome and proclaims, "It's all a lie! He is a lie! And he will lead you further and further from the truth if you let him. You're not serving the Force, you're serving him!" he jabs his good arm in the direction of the Emperor's throne. "You are slaves to his megalomania and schizophrenia!"

"End his nonsensical ravings, Lord Fulsome," Emperor Vitiate commands.

The Sith champion complies. He swings true, and the Jedi speaks no more.

The Dark Council members all break into applause and the Temple staff join in. Lord Fulsome stands beside his headless, handless victim, soaking in the adulation with an ugly smirk. Tosca wonders what he is thinking. Today's performance will only embolden him, she fears, and that won't be good for Carl.

Will the Emperor descend from his throne to congratulate the victor? No, he does not. Tosca can't decide if this should be considered a diss or not. She files out of the throne room with the other priests and Temple girls. It gives her a chance to interact briefly with Carl.

"Did you understand what Master Crutcher said at the end about the Emperor?" she asks.

"Yes, I did," Carl answers without elaborating. "It's ultimately why he had to die. The risk was less that Tavo would tell the Republic about us and spark a war, and more that he might foster a civil war from within the Empire."

"I don't understand." How could a Jedi start a civil war here among his enemy?

Carl's answer does nothing to explain things. He tells her, "You must be careful when you look at the Light Side, for the Light Side looks back. Tavo and I had many conversations over these long weeks. I saw the truth of the Republic through him. And Tavo, in turn, saw the truth of the Empire. Outsiders always see with eyes others cannot." Carl sighs. He's rattled but trying to hide it since they are in public. But under his breath, he confides, "Tavo was an astute and thoughtful man. A worthy adversary. It's been many long years since I came across a worthy adversary." Carl sniffs. "Fulsome was hardly his equal. Today, the better man lost."

This is all very cryptic for Tosca. But there's no opportunity for more conversation. Carl now deliberately walks away as the victorious Lord Fulsome approaches to receive the praise of his fellow priests. It's a public slight that does not go unnoticed. Many in the Palace hierarchy know of the two men's violent confrontation.

As Tosca stands watching with the other girls, slow Darth Azamin finally makes his way out of the throne room last. "My Lady Struct," he wheezes out his hello as he pauses to take a rest.

"My Lord Azamin," she greets him formally as well.

"That was a good show, wasn't it? Something to tell your children and grandchildren about, eh?"

"Yes, my Lord."

"Were you not pleased with the outcome?" Her tepid response did not go unnoticed apparently.

Tosca chooses her words carefully now. "I glory in the supremacy of Darkness. But I cannot help but worry that Lord Fulsome will be encouraged in his aspirations now." She's choosing neutral language and speaking softly, but they both know she alludes to treason.

Old Azamin gets right to the point. "You worry for Lord Tenebrae?"

"And for our Emperor," she nods. To think that having Fulsome fight today was her own idea. What was she thinking when she suggested that?

The ancient Dark sage pats her hand. "Never you fret, my dear. The subtext to this little performance was the best part."

She's not following. Tosca looks down on Lord Azamin blankly.

He beckons her closer. "Fulsome just showed the Emperor and Tenebrae his best moves. That was no accident."

"Oh." Ooooh. Now, she gets it.

Many hours later, their nightly dinner is over and Carl stands to open a passage into his hidden lair with the Force. Not surprisingly, he's subdued tonight. Tosca has been doing all the talking, trying to distract him and hoping to cheer him up. He's normally so cheekily insouciant and cynically provoking that she hates to see him glum.

So, she chatters away aimlessly. She jokes, "You know, if someone had told me a year ago that I would be in the Emperor's throne room not once but three times, I would have called them a liar." She's trying to keep the conversation light and upbeat.

But she fails to distract Carl from his melancholy. "Did you ever think you would meet a Jedi?" he sighs.

"No. Never. But I'm glad I did. I'm also glad I didn't stab him with that butter knife during our first dinner." Tosca snakes a comforting arm about Carl's waist as they wander into his apartment together. "I'm sorry about your friend," she says softly as she leans in.

He nods and wraps an arm around her shoulders. His lips are pursed and tight. His expression is resigned. "It was the right choice. Sending him back had too much risk. Now is not the time for war."

Carl exhales loudly and suddenly looks so world weary. As though the weight of the whole Empire rests on his shoulders. "In the end, Tavo Crutcher was every bit the effective Jedi Councilor he aspired to be. He convinced me to forestall an invasion. That will keep the peace a few more years, at least."

"Do you still think war is inevitable?" she yawns.

"Yes," Carl is unequivocal. "The stronger and more prosperous we become, the more likely we are to be rediscovered. Some trading partner will sell us out or word will simply leak out. If not, then the Republic will continue to expand their reach and bump up against us eventually." Carl tells her solemnly, "We are two great civilizations on a collision course. But I want to choose the time and place of our rematch. I won't let it be said that I foolishly led the Empire into defeat like Naga Sadow did. We have come too far to throw it all away for chest thumping vainglory."

Beleaguered Carl plops down on a couch and sprawls out. He's in a reflective mood tonight, instead of the usual romance. And oddly enough, moments like this are when Tosca feels closest to him. Because in the macho culture of the Sith, it means something for a powerful Lord to allow himself to appear vulnerable before you. It's a different intimacy than sex, but no less important.

"I want to give Tavo a proper burial. Tomorrow, we will light a funeral pyre in the Temple. Then, I will sow his ashes into my garden."

Tosca approves, "He would like that. He will be part of the Force he loved so much."

Carl's lip curls as he recites with heavy sarcasm an old platitude, "No one's ever really gone, right? Except they are. In every way that matters, they're gone."

Tosca sees the grief writ large across his face. She can't erase the pain of loss. All she can do is gently reassure Carl, "I'm still here."

He looks up and nods. "I'm surrounded by men like Fulsome. They are supposed to support me but they seek to supplant me. It's the enemy prisoner Jedi who turns out to be my friend."

"I'm your friend," Tosca speaks up softly.

"You're much more than a friend," he tells her. Then, he gripes bitterly, "That fucker Fulsome is probably celebrating tonight." The uncharacteristic profanity speaks volumes about how upset Carl is. So does the slight provincial accent that has crept into his normally flawless patrician Basic. Lord Tenebrae is rattled and it shows. But only here behind closed doors, cocooned in the Force with her. This is his only safe space, she suspects.

"Do you really think Fulsome will challenge Lord Vitiate?" Tosca asks, looking to change the topic as she starts unwinding her hair to prepare for bed.

This attempt at distraction works. Carl instantly scowls. "Absolutely. Fulsome's got to do it. He's been far too vocal in his treason not to go through with it. Plus, now he has public acclaim to egg him on."

That's the answer she fears. "Carl, I'm worried for you," Tosca confesses as she abandons her hair and sinks down beside him. She raises a hand to forestall his immediate objection. "No. Don't tell me how powerful you are. Because I've never once seen you hold a weapon. And yes, I know you think combat is beneath you. But Lord Fulsome will be coming for your head."

"I know," Carl admits. "Today has no doubt emboldened him."

"Lord Azamin said that the duel gave the Emperor an opportunity to observe Fulsome's fighting style."

"That's true."

Tosca fixes Carl with a pointed look. "And were you watching too?"

"I was."

"Good." She reaches to take Carl's hand and squeezes it. "I don't want anything to happen to you. Or the Emperor," she adds as an afterthought. And now, seeing Carl's hardened expression, she changes the topic once again. "So . . . what's he like? There are all these rumors. No one really knows what to believe about our Emperor."

"That's the point. Vitiate obfuscates things. It keeps people guessing." Carl looks over and offers, "What do you want to know? I'll tell you."

She thinks a moment as she resumes unpinning her hair. "Well, they say that he transfers his soul into different host bodies every few decades so you never know what he really looks like. Some say he's more of a spiritual being than an actual person."

Carl snorts. "He doesn't do that. And yes, he is a person."

"Pureblood, right?"

"Nope, he's not red. Fully human."

"Really?" She's surprised. Most of today's Sith elite trace their lineage back to the red skinned humanoid species from Korriban. Being pureblood today is far from pure, since eons of interbreeding produced a hybrid human-Sith race long ago. But present day red Sith still have the bone spurs, face tentacles, ruddy coloring, left-handedness, and Force inherited from their distant ancestors. That's why she and Carl look so atypical for their class. In that context, for Lord Vitiate to be fully human is indeed unusual.

"Wow," she reacts. "Never would have guessed that. Super old, right?"

"Define super."

"Ancient and wizened. Slow and stately. Like Darth Azamin only more shrunken."

"No. He's spry. He looks about my age," Carl judges.

"So fourteen hundred?" Tosca smiles. Then she teases, "Is he as handsome as you are too?"

"I'm not handsome," Carl grumps.

"Yes, you are," she corrects him. Then, she's back to asking about the Emperor. "They say he's a vampire of the Force. That he leaches life from others to sustain his immortality."

"That's sort of true. Or it was for a while. It's no longer necessary."

"Does he wear a mask?"

"No."

"Armor?"

"Sometimes. Not often. Almost never, actually."

"Black or red?"

"Black. Red armor is tacky."

"Cape?"

"Of course. With cowl and hood. Old school style. All black. No stripes or borders or flashy stuff."

"I like it," she approves. "Scepter?"

Carl slants scornful eyes her direction. "Are you kidding me?"

"Ragnos had one," she points out. "It's in his portrait."

"No scepter," Carl answers firmly. "No props or gimmicks of any kind. Vitiate is a modern man who disdains pageantry."

"Alright. One sword or two?"

"He doesn't wear a sword."

"Really?" Tosca is a bit disappointed. "Well, I guess you don't either."

Carl sniffs, "I'm a sorcerer, not a warrior. I'm no dumb brute."

"You're such a snob," she playfully accuses. "Just not a snob in the usual way."

"I'm a snob about power," he agrees. "I don't care about money or pedigree. I only care about power."

"So how powerful is Lord Vitiate really?" she whispers.

"Immensely powerful and still growing in the Force."

"Yeah? So, what's his best trick?" Tosca challenges.

Carl thinks a moment. "He's been working on creating life for a few years now. But he hasn't mastered it."

"Creating life?"

Carl quotes a basic tenet of Sith catechism, "Life creates the Force and makes it grow. He's trying to do the reverse. To create life from the Force. To conceive a child in the Force."

"Wow. Does he want an heir?" Tosca draws the obvious conclusion.

"Oh, no," Carl recoils. "Nothing like that. He doesn't actually want the kid. He just wants to be able to create the kid."

"Why?"

"To be a Dark god of the Force. He can already prolong life. Now, he's trying to create life. Maybe someday he will even resurrect the dead."

"No one can do that," she scoffs as she finishes with her hair and shakes it out.

"He will," Carl says with complete confidence. "If anyone can do it, he will. Any other questions?"

"Nope. That pretty much covers it. Except I still don't know much about him."

"That's the point—remember? Now it's my turn for a question," Carl turns the tables on her. Tosca knows what's coming next. And, sure enough, he doesn't disappoint. "So about our future . . ." he probes expectantly, adding, "I don't want to lose the only friend I have left."

He keeps bringing this topic up and she keeps putting him off. It's not that Tosca hasn't given it thought like he asked. But she hasn't gotten very far. Time to fess up, she decides. She can't avoid this issue any longer.

"Our future," she echoes his words as she cocks her head. "What would that look like exactly?" It's a sincere question. Tosca isn't sure what Carl has in mind.

"You would live here with me happily ever after." He smiles absently at the thought and it's endearing. A lot about this enigmatic man is endearing. Plus, that's his first smile tonight, she notices.

"Happily ever after. That's cute." Cute but equally vague. So she starts asking more questions. "Would I be the Temple matron?"

"If you wish. Or we could create another job at the Palace for you. I'm open to your ideas. There's no real script for this role."

"So, we would be openly acknowledged lovers instead of me just being your latest Temple girl favorite?" Tosca makes a face even as she says this. 'Openly acknowledged lovers' is not something Sith society will accept. Adults are either married, widowed, or betrothed. No one lives in sin without the blessing of the church and state. So whatever Carl is offering, it's not a step up from Temple girl status.

"I think of it as being my consort, but we could be whatever you wish. I'm flexible on the label. In time, we could even officially marry once Struct is gone."

That willingness to wed from a self-proclaimed confirmed bachelor makes Tosca blink. "M-Married? I thought you weren't the marrying kind."

He shrugs. "I could be for you. These things mean a lot more to you than they do to me. I don't live by conventional rules. But if marrying you will make you happy, I will do it." His words are honestly and sweetly said. But Tosca hears the fear of loss that lies behind them loud and clear. The death of the Jedi has him feeling anxious about her, she realizes. He's insecure tonight.

"Well, I appreciate the sentiment," she smiles blithely, "but Marcus is a hale and hearty fifty-two."

Carl is nonplussed. "Time is on our side."

"No, it's on your side. I'll be getting older while you remain as you are." And that raises another issue. Fourteen-hundred-year-old Carl will remain frozen in time while she ages. How might that affect their relationship?

"I can fix that," he offers offhand. "When you're ready, you too can live outside of time." He tugs her closer towards him and now they are holding hands. "Happily ever after, together forever in the Force," he intones. It sounds like a lover's promise.

"Oh."

"Normal couples grow old together, but not us. We will be ourselves like now ad aeternam." Forever to eternity.

"Oh." Tosca isn't sure she wants that. Suddenly his view of their future seems almost threatening. And incredibly permanent. She's not ready for immortality and she doubts she ever will be.

So, she balks. "Oh, why are we even discussing this?" Skittish Tosca pulls away and stands to cross the room. "I doubt the Emperor would allow it. I'm here to pay off the debt for my husband's life, remember? I agreed to be a Temple girl."

Carl crosses his arms and announces. "That's not a problem."

"It will be," she counters. "Carl, we never agreed on a timeframe. I have no idea when this stint ends. I was so anxious to save Marcus that I didn't ask how it ends."

"It doesn't end. That's the point. We stay together. If anything, Vitiate gets more for his bargain, not less," Carl reasons.

"I don't know." She's still not sure what Carl is proposing. Tosca starts to pace. "What would I tell Marcus and the boys?" she wonders aloud.

"That the marriage is over. That you chose me over him."

"But we would remain married," she protests. There is no divorce among the Sith. Sure, there are couples who separate permanently. But that is very much the exception. With so many Lords gone for months at a time on long deployments, most unhappy couples grin and bear it. There's little to be gained by separation anyway. Neither party is free to remarry and then there are two households to upkeep on expensive Dromund Kaas.

Carl now casually volunteers, "If you let me kill him, I will marry you immediately."

"Don't you dare!" Tosca stops short and looks up. "Don't you dare! I wouldn't be here in the first place if it weren't for my wanting to save Marcus!"

He nods as though her reaction is what he expected. "I didn't think that was what you wanted. That's why I haven't offered it before."

"And my boys?"

"You will always be their mother. You can see them any time you want. It's the same as always. You just can't see Struct."

"I don't know . . ." Tosca frets. "Carl, you know how much you mean to me. But I have responsibilities to my family—"

"Let the past die," he overrides her, sounding gruff and impatient. Worried, too. Anxiety must be what's fueling his possessiveness. Possessiveness is nothing unusual—in general, Sith Lords are the jealous type—but it's oddly clingy for a man who for over a thousand years has disavowed commitments. But lately, Carl seems to have changed his mind. She wonders whether his insistence tonight is because she got caught staring at Lord Fulsome earlier? Because that casual look meant absolutely nothing. Fulsome is nothing compared to Carl.

"Stop holding on. Eventually, you will need to let them go," he argues firmly.

"I'm a mother. Holding on is what I do," she retorts indignantly. And now, thinking of that awful shopping outing months back, Tosca confesses, "I don't know if I could live openly as your lover. No one would understand that. But people understand the Temple girls. Can't I stay as a Temple girl? Can't things remain as they are? Can't we just be friends and lovers in secret here? I don't see why anything has to change . . . "

He looks a little hurt. "I want you to affirmatively choose a future together with me. Without the complications of Struct's Proscription and your Temple girl status as factors." As she hesitates, he urges softly, "You've already betrayed him to save him. Now take the next step. Leave him for me. Choose me. Choose us."

Torn and confused, Tosca looks away.

Carl gets up from the couch. He walks to look her in the eye. "Tosca, I can offer you everything. I can give you all the status and prestige you could ever want. I can give you all the luxury and security Struct cannot. And I can give you immortality in the Force."

"And the price for all that is to leave behind everything I hold dear," she wails. "To betray the people I love and the values I was raised on . . ."

He doesn't deny it. He instead points out, "You love me, too."

Tosca raises a fretful hand to her forehead and wipes at her face. She's very uncomfortable with this conversation. "You know how much I care for you . . . how much you mean to me . . . " she stammers, not really knowing where she is going with her words. She is very grateful for this man. Things might have been so much worse for her here, she knows. In her months at the Temple, she and Carl have grown very close. Probably too close, given the circumstances. But he was lonely and she felt lost, and somehow after those first few weeks of uncertainty, awkwardness, and guilt, things felt easy. Tosca didn't really make peace with the situation, but she accepted it. And little by little, what started as nightly dinner and sex blossomed into the true friendship Carl said all along that he wanted. And somewhat shockingly, Tosca discovered that she wanted it too.

"You know you love me." Carl says it insidiously.

Tosca closes her eyes.

"It's alright to admit it. I see it in so many small ways. We're more than friends. We're more than casual lovers. So stop telling yourself you love Struct out of a sense of duty. Because we both know you love me."

She doesn't disavow it. She can't. Instead she counters, "You only love power."

"Until you came along."

Tosca nods. Because she knows he loves her back. He's never said it but she senses it anyhow. Love is one of those things you don't have to say out loud to reveal.

But love is not a basis to make life decisions on. The Sith are strategic and pragmatic about these things. Passion might be the root of their power, but they think with their head and not with their heart. The Sith don't marry for love and they certainly don't abandon a marriage for love. Maybe had she met Carl before Marcus. But, oh, who is she kidding? Her family didn't move in the same circles as this guy. And besides, he wouldn't have been looking to marry anyway. She and Carl would never have crossed paths were it not for Marcus' Proscription. But here they are—two adults far too mature, responsible, and established to be contemplating what they are discussing. Tosca sighs because she knows better.

But still . . . she is tempted. Because like Marcus, Carl is a good man. And given her situation as a Temple girl, Carl might be the only man she is ever likely to get. Tosca didn't go looking for happiness out of the Proscription bargain, but she might have found it nonetheless. But why is Carl so insistent on a commitment? Can't they just leave well enough alone?

"I don't think I can be who you want me to be," she sighs. "I am loyal to my family—"

"I love your loyalty. Give it to me," he urges.

"-And besides, love is not enough to base a future on."

He persists. "Love is enough. I can give you everything else."

"No, you can't! You can't give me anything," she grumbles. "Everyone thinks I'm an adulterous wife sent to the Temple. I'll only confirm everyone's opinion of my character when I end up the mistress to a priest. It's more disgrace, Carl!" Conventional conformist Tosca doesn't know if she can take much more shame, to be honest. "Look, you're stuck here under Vitiate's watchful eye until he decides you're too much of a threat and kills you, or Fulsome does it first. This Palace is a bit of a prison for you and don't deny it! That's not what I consider security. And it might be luxury, but it's not yours. None of this is yours! I doubt you can even support a mistress on a church salary. Women are expensive, Carl."

He shakes his head. "None of that matters. Tosca, I can give you everything."

"That's not how I see it! It feels like I would be giving up what little I have left to be with you. And I've already given up so much to save Marcus and help the boys!"

"I can give you everything. I can give you a life of significance. You'll see." Carl holds his hand out now as he boldly appeals, "Join me. We can rule together and bring a new order to the galaxy."

"What?" She squints, confused by this grandiosity. But it's probably just Carl's romantic nature showing again. He has a sentimental streak at odds with his role as Palace executioner. Just like he has an idealistic bent that seems in conflict with his general cynicism. But that's Carl—he's a marvelously complex, unique guy. The freethinking iconoclast Lord who is the natural foil to her pragmatic, conventional, conservative self. But it works somehow. Probably because it's all behind closed doors and they don't have to explain it to anyone.

"Look, you're right. I do love you," she lays bare her feelings now. It's a rush of fretful words. "But I love Marcus too and oooh, this is so complicated and I can't just walk away from my—"

"Don't say no," Carl preempts her softly. "Please . . ." He forestalls the rejection poised on her lips. "There's something I need to tell you. Something that I hope will ease your fears."

"Okay." Something about Carl's tone of voice gets her complete attention. Tosca walks forward to accept his outstretched hand. They stand together as he searches her face for understanding. Carl looks so vulnerable as she watches him swallow hard. Whatever he's about to tell her looks like it will be hard to say. "Tosca," he begins, "I am a very private man with a very public job—"

He never gets any further. They are interrupted by a loud crash from the far end of the rambling apartment. Both of their heads instantly swivel in that direction.

Carl is on alert now, their conversation immediately forgotten. He pushes past her to investigate. "Crawl under the bed," he orders in a taut command that invites no debate. "Don't come out until I tell you it's safe. Trust no one but me. Understand?"

"What's going on?" Tosca breathes out as she rushes to comply.

"Hide!" he hisses. "They're coming for me, not you."

Chapter Text

From her spot wedged under Carl’s massive bed, Tosca can’t see how many men storm into the apartment.  But she sees many pairs of boots.  The air is thick with trash talk, profanity, and the sound of sabers igniting in rapid succession.  Moments later, she sees the first body hit the floor as a desperate melee begins. 

 

“Kill him!” someone shouts.  “Don’t let him get to Vitiate!”

 

The crack and sizzle of Force lightning sounds.  Tosca smells its acrid stench and wrinkles her nose.  Whatever Carl is doing, it’s making quite an impression.  “What the Hell is THAT?” someone demands as another man falls.  Then another. 

 

“Fucking priest!  Fight like a man, not like a wizard!” a voice sneers.

 

Tosca gulps back panic as she realizes that it must be close to ten men here to confront Carl.  She doesn’t like those odds.  No matter how powerful Carl is, he is unarmed and facing a team of formidable attackers.   She wishes there was someone to help him.  Where are all the Palace guards??

 

“Where is he?   Where is your fucking brother?”  The intruders don’t seem to know where their real foe Vitiate hides.  “We know you know.   Tell us and you might live.”

 

That’s an empty offer, Tosca is sure of it.  No one who supplants Lord Vitiate will ever allow a Force user as powerful as Carl to live.  He’s too much risk as a rival and as a reminder of the old regime.  Plus, if Lord Fulsome is to be believed, many Lords blame Carl for the Emperor’s reluctance to confront the Republic.  Lord Tenebrae’s considerable influence has put a target on his back.  Whatever happens tonight, Tosca is certain that Carl’s fate is tied to the Emperor’s . . . and probably hers is as well.

 

Another body hits the floor. Is it Carl?  Tosca can’t tell.  All she sees is a smoking black shape slumped and that could be any Lord.

 

“Vitiate’s reign is at an end.  It’s time to move past him . . . and you!   Prepare to meet the Force, priest!” a new voice crows above the sounds of the battle.  But it seems like Carl is putting up quite a fight.  Because when Tosca hears a Lord yell “Kill him!” again, the frustrated reply “I’m trying!” is the response.

 

That prompts a new tactic.  “He’s got a woman.  Find her!”

 

Uh oh.  That’s not good.  Tosca’s heart sinks.  Hiding is not a very effective tactic amid Force users, since they can sense that she’s here.  But in a pinch, it was at least something to get her out of the immediate line of fire.  But that protection will soon be forfeit.

 

Sure enough, seconds later she is found.  Strong hands grab for her foot and start to haul her out.  But Tosca is not giving up without a fight. She starts kicking viciously and clawing her fingers into the bed frame to slow down her inevitable reveal. But with little room to maneuver, Tosca can’t seem to get much traction or leverage. And now, it feels like two men are yanking her out.  With a few concerted heaves, first her legs and then the rest of her emerges from her hiding place. 

 

Tosca can’t see her attackers through the curtain of long blonde hair that obscures her vision, but she fights the hands that seek to subdue her.  Twisting and elbowing and throwing her weight around.  But it does little good against two men in armor.  She’s the one who’s getting all the bruises.  Finally, one man lands a blow that sends her reeling.  It’s a backhand across the face that makes Tosca momentarily see stars. 

 

“Easy.  She’s no good to us dead,” someone complains.  The voice sounds vaguely familiar.  When Tosca finally blinks and lifts her head, her hair has fallen away from her face and she can see clearly.

 

So can her attackers.  “T-Tosca?” It’s Daria’s wife Lord Marrow.  He looks as stunned as she feels to be recognized.  “Tosca?  You’re with Tenebrae??  Oh, fuck!” he swears under his breath.

 

“Septimus?” she answers shakily, staring back at her best friend’s husband in horror.  Like Lord Fulsome, he’s a man with an impeccable service record and an impressive pedigree.  Everyone knows Lord Marrow is destined for the Dark Council someday.  Why ever would he throw that away?

 

“Wait—she’s not some servant?” the other man asks. 

 

“She’s Lady Struct.  Get her up,” Lord Marrow orders curtly.  Then he mutters under his breath, “My wife is going to kill me for this . . . ”

 

His subordinate starts wrestling Tosca to her feet, which is no small task given her size and stature.  But with an assist from the Force, he prevails.  Tosca is upright now, held fast in a tight headlock with a hot blaster barrel pressed to her temple.  The safety lock is off.  He’s poised to fire. 

 

Tosca swallows hard.   Her heart is pounding in her chest.  She knows she just became leverage against Carl. 

 

Being on her feet gives her a better view of the fight.  Finally, she can see what’s going on.  Tosca spots at least four bodies on the floor, maybe five.  In the midst of this carnage and lots of broken and overturned furniture, unarmed Carl is surrounded by three Lords each swinging swords.  Carl ducks, bobs, and weaves to avoid them.  It doesn’t seem possible, but somehow Carl manages to evade their blows.  He’s moving so fast that at times he appears a blur.  It’s Force augmented speed, for sure. 

 

“Desist or she dies!” Lord Marrow orders, brandishing his own lit sword.

 

It’s a false choice.  Tosca recognizes the tactic and so does Carl.  No one really expects him to surrender to certain death for them both.  Instead, they want to distract him so the three men with swords can kill him.  And then, most likely they will kill her too.  Because in the high stakes game of power, you have to do more than just kill the Emperor.  You have to stamp out the regime’s inner circle in order to prevail in the coup.  And . . . leave no witnesses to tell tales. 

 

She’s shaking now as the realization sets in that she’s a dead woman.  All Carl’s talk of the future only moments ago now seems terribly ironic. 

 

“Tenebrae??” Lord Marrow growls.  “Desist or she dies!  This is your only warning.”

 

“F-Fight!” Tosca chokes out to Carl.  “Don’t stop—fight!”  It’s a split-second choice that is the only choice.  Because she’s lost either way and if Carl dies, then he won’t be able to protect the Emperor.  So she urges again with conviction, “Fight!” as the grip on her neck tightens in warning. 

 

“Shut up, woman!”

 

Suddenly, Tosca understands Master Crutcher’s demeanor from this morning’s duel.  It’s a moment of calming clarity to know your fate and to accept it.  Now, if only she could master her fear.  Because while the Jedi might not have been afraid to die, Tosca most certainly is.

 

Still, she brazens it out.  She hisses at Marrow and his fellow traitor holding the gun to her head.  “Shame on you for fighting a woman!  Do your worst, cowards!”

 

They never get the chance.   Suddenly, a duplicate of Carl appears at her side.  It happens so fast, that she’s confused.  Because she’s watching Carl across the room dodging saber passes while she sees him simultaneously right next to her.   Do her eyes deceive her?   How can there possibly be two of him?

 

The Lord holding her from behind in a headlock suddenly collapses—she’s not sure why.  But as he crumples, he takes her down with him to the floor.  Now on her hands and knees, Tosca scrambles for the blaster he drops. It’s hot from use, singeing her bare palms, but Tosca ignores it. Desperate with fast but fumbling hands, she raises the gun and aims for the only unarmored part of Lord Marrow: his face.  Ordinarily, a Lord would deflect or freeze the shot, even at this close range.   But with Carl now frying him with Force lightning, Septimus fails to act in time.  Tosca gets her man.  Lord Marrow falls. 

 

“Forgive me, Daria,” she gasps out as she sits back on her heels and surveys the gruesome horror of the dead man’s injury.   This is a man she has sat across from at dinner parties.  Never in her wildest dreams would she have imagined she would kill him.  But this is what it means to live at the Palace in the orbit of the Emperor and his advisors, Tosca realizes.  You become an impediment for other’s ambitions, and that makes you a target.  One minute you’re taking down your hair and talking about the future, and the next minute it’s kill or be killed.

 

As she reels from her narrow escape, Carl—at least she thinks it is Carl—strides back across the room.  He’s got Lord Marrow’s sword lit in one hand and the sword hilt of the man who held her captive in the other hand.  Incredibly, Carl tosses the deactivated sword to his duplicate.  And now, the three remaining traitor Lords face not one, but two versions of Lord Tenebrae.  Plus this time, both Carls are armed.  Suddenly, the fight becomes a whole lot more fair. 

 

“Fucking sorcerer,” the shortest of the trio of attackers swears as he disengages.  “I knew he would pull some shit like this.”

 

“Shut up and fight,” his companion growls.  “We’ve got to kill him or keep him busy.  We’ve got to give the others time to find Vitiate.”

 

The men obey and the talking stops as the battle resumes three on two.  The two Carls fight back to back.  It’s remarkably graceful, like a choreographed dance.  Except it is lethal combat in close quarters in a coup attempt.  And it’s all happening so fast that Tosca dares not interfere for risk of interrupting Carl’s concentration.   She just stands there by the bed as a trembling, gaping spectator.

 

It turns out that there is little need for concern.  For while Carl might disdain the use of a sword, Tosca learns that he is plenty adept with one.  She watches as the three attackers go down in rapid succession, each one cleanly losing his head.  Then the two Carls morph into one and he turns to face her. 

 

“Are you alright?” he rasps between panting breaths. 

 

“Yes,” she nods blankly.  “I’m fine.”   Her lip might be split—she can taste blood—and her cheek is throbbing from where she absorbed that blow.   But she’s fine.   Absolutely fine.  She is alive, Carl is alive, and that’s all that matters. 

 

Relieved, Carl starts pacing the perimeter of his rambling apartment, one hand outstretched as if to sense for people outside.  His eyes are closed in deep focus.

 

“What w-was that?” Tosca demands as she watches.  “There were two of you . . .”

 

“Yes.”  Carl starts calling out bad news as he works methodically around the room.  “There will be more coming,” he warns grimly.  “Lots more.  Once they figure out that they can’t find the Emperor, they will all come for me.”

 

“What do we do?”  She’s trying not to panic.  “Where are the guards?  Are they with Vitiate?”

 

“The guards are dead,” Carl answers bluntly.  “There is no one coming to help us.”  He keeps making his way around the walls of the apartment, issuing instructions without looking up.  “Grab a gun.  I’m going to open an exit when I find a safe spot.  I want you to run out and keep running, understand?   Shoot anyone who gets in your way.  I don’t care who you kill.  Just get away from the Palace and the Temple.”

 

“But the girls—”

 

“Save yourself!” he orders sharply.   Carl looks over his shoulder to inform her curtly, “They may already be dead.”

 

“Oh no,” Tosca whimpers, then gulps.

 

“You’ll be dead too if you don’t listen,” he warns.  His eyes are blazing yellow.  It’s a telltale sign of deep concentration and extreme emotion, she knows from experience.  “You have to get away from me.   Trust no one and do not go home to Struct.  Fulsome knows who you are and that’s the first place he will look.  They probably have conspirators out watching the Council members’ homes right now.  Waiting for the go-ahead to attack them next.” 

 

Carl resumes canvassing the perimeter of the large apartment.  Flustered Tosca waits and her eyes involuntarily wander.  She can’t avoid looking at all the bodies.  Most are lying face down, but a few are not.   Stepping forward, she recognizes the young Lord who serves as an assistant to Carl who Tosca had originally mistaken for his Apprentice.  She has seen this man interrupt their dinners on more than one occasion with news.   “This was an inside job,” she surmises.  The betrayal went up to the highest access levels at the Palace.

 

“It’s always an inside job,” Carl confirms bitterly.  “This one’s better than most.”

 

“You’re sure this is Fulsome?” she questions. 

 

“Yes.  I can sense him.  He’s waiting for Vitiate.”

 

“Where?”

 

“Where they always wait.   The throne room.   When they can’t find him, they will camp out and wait for him.  Fulsome’s men are here to provoke him to appear.  You duel with a Dark Lord, you don't kill him in his sleep.  To merit the title, you have to best your predecessor before witnesses.”

 

“Oh.” Is that how this works?  She’s confused. “But you said that Vitiate stole power. That he killed all the others.”

 

“That’s right.  But he is a peasant.  These guys are gentlemen.”  Carl says the word with a curled lip like an ugly epithet.  “These men play by the rules. They respect rules because they are the type that makes the rules.  And the rules inevitably protect them.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“I don’t play by the rules. I upend the rules.  Deception has always been my best strategy.” 

 

Tosca nods, remembering how proud he is of hiding.  Because this man’s initial Force skills were self-taught improvisations as a boy fugitive. 

 

“I have always been hunted.  I will always be hunted.”  Carl has a look of defiant determination as he keeps assessing their situation.  Watching him now, Tosca can almost see a semblance of the young man she once met in the garden.  The renegade on the run, equal parts cocksure reckless youth and lost orphaned loner.  Many, many years later, everything and nothing has changed. 

 

“This looks good.”  Carl looks up and beckons her over to him impatiently.  “I will find you when it is safe.  That may be a day or two.  Are you ready?  Where’s your weapon?”  Carl prepares to open his Force sealed apartment for her to escape.

 

“I’m staying.”

 

Carl whirls to bark, “You need to run!  This is no place for a woman!”  His face is deadly serious and his tone is harsh.  “It’s going to get ugly.  It always does.”

 

Can it get uglier than the ten dead Lords lying about them currently?   Some of them dismembered?   Tosca thinks not.  She lifts her chin as she walks towards Carl.  “I’m staying.”

 

Tosca stops along the way to pick up a sword from one of the fallen Lords.  She lights it.   It throbs and buzzes in her hand, its kyber crystal powercell resonating with Force, imbuing her with resolve and focusing her adrenaline.   “I will not leave,” she announces.  “We need to defend the Emperor.  We can’t let them win.”  Her chest rises and falls as she inhales a fortifying deep breath.  “I will do my part,” she vows solemnly, but looks scared.

 

Carl stares at her.  Like a man transfixed. His mouth slightly open in a round ‘oh’ of surprise.

 

“We have to defend Lord Vitiate,” she stammers out through trembling lips.  Tosca is terrified, but trying to keep it in check. “If the Emperor dies, there will be civil war for sure.  Like after Ragnos died.  Even if Fulsome wins tonight, others will want to be Dark Lord.  Carl, if we don’t stop this, it could go on and on for years--“

 

“This is my vision,” he interrupts softly.    “You here now.  The torn dress, the hair everywhere, the fear, and the bruised face.  The lit sword.   This is how I saw you in the Force.   A damsel in distress, I assumed wrongly.”

 

Why is he going on about that now??  “Carl, we have to save Vitiate!   Tell me how to do that.  Should we lead them away so he can escape?” Tosca strategizes. 

 

But Carl is still focused on his premonition. “I thought that you needed my help.  That I would be the one to save you . . . ”

 

“You did save me.”

 

“ . . . but here you are offering to save me . . . ”

 

“The Emperor,” Tosca prompts him, impatient with his ramblings at a time like this. “I know you know where he lives in the Palace.   How do we help him??”

 

Carl looks invigorated now.  “The Force is with us.  This moment proves it.  Oh, you are the perfect woman for me.  The Force makes no mistakes . . . ”  He looks her in the eye and breathes out emphatically, “I think I love you.”

 

Yes, she knows.  “I know,” she snaps, feeling exasperated.  This is not the time for grand declarations.  “Now, let’s go help Lord Vitiate.  Carl, he won’t know who to trust.  And we can’t stay here.  It’s too dangerous!”

 

“I prayed for a consort.  I asked only that you be loyal to me and to the Empire. I never expected you to be so beautiful, so wise, and so Light.   What does it mean for the Force to send a Lady full of Light to an old Dark Lord?” he wonders.

 

“Who cares!  They’re coming!” she wails shrilly as she hears a commotion close by. 

 

“Come out!” a muffled man’s voice hollers.  “We know you’re in there!   We know you’re with Tenebrae!   You’re surrounded.   Show yourself and prove that you are worthy!”

 

“That’s Fulsome.”  At the sound of his foe’s voice, Carl snaps out of his reverie.  His eyes dart to hers.  “It will be easier once we get out of here.  I’m wasting too much Force keeping them out right now.”

 

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” she whispers.   Carl starts to protest but she overrides him.  “It’s okay.  You can tell me.   It helps that we will die together.”   She gives him a weak half smile as she blinks fast.  “I always knew Marcus or my sons might die for the glory and the honor of the Empire.   But I never thought I would.”    Her lips are quivering now as she tries to make peace with her fate.  “It’s a good way to go, right?”

 

Carl grunts and looks her in the eye. “They are going to die.  Not us.”   He lays a heavy, comforting hand on her shoulder.  “Don’t worry.  I’ve got this.”  He looks agitated, indignant, and excited all at once.   But unafraid.   And that bolsters her flagging courage immeasurably.

 

He frowns at the sword she’s holding down.  “You don’t know how to fight.”

 

“Neither did Lady Scathe,” Tosca reminds him of the greatest heroine of the Sith.  Of the Lady who put down her baby and took up a sword to defend her wounded husband from his Jedi attacker.  “I’d rather die trying to save the Emperor than wait for them to find me and kill me.”

 

Her comment makes him smile.  Incredibly, Carl looks almost happy.  “This is very you,” he approves. 

 

Tosca nods.  “I am Sith.  Loyal to the Emperor and consecrated to Darkness for power and victory,” she recites.   It’s the civic duty of every Lord and Lady to uphold the Empire.  Tosca lifts her chin defiantly now.  “I refuse to be their victim.  I choose to die a patriot instead.”

 

Carl is grinning ear to ear now.  “This is so you,” he repeats.  “Very well, you can join my reinforcements.  Trust me,” he orders as he snakes a hand behind her neck to wrench her face to his.  It’s not for a kiss.  It’s for their foreheads to briefly touch as he jumps fully into her mind.

 

“What??” she yelps.

 

“Trust me.  Don’t fight me.”  She hears his voice with her ears and in her head.  “Do not fight me.  Understand?”

 

“Yes,” Tosca nods automatically.  And that’s the last moment of free will she will experience for a while. Her mind is no longer her own.  She is an extension of Lord Tenebrae’s consciousness now, an instrument of his will, a slave for him to control.  Just like the duplicate version of Carl that she witnessed earlier.

 

“Good.   Goooood,” he approves as she raises her sword to classic ready position.   “Let the Force flow through you.  Surrender to my mind.”

 

Then Carl concentrates and replicates himself again.  Only this time, there are ten Carls, not two.  Each Carl opens his left palm to call a weapon from a fallen Lord to himself with the Force. 

 

Armed with their attackers’ weapons and the conviction of the Dark Side, together their throng approaches the wall at the far east wall of the apartment.  A passageway opens in the Force.  Tosca follows Carl and his lookalike projections through the exit.   They emerge into the dim throne room where Lord Fulsome and his small army of supporters awaits. 

 

“Looking for me?” the ten Carls ask in unison.  It might be a silly moment were it not for the utterly serious context.

 

“No,” Lord Fulsome answers honestly as he steps forward. “But you’ll do.  You can be the warm up act.”  He lights two swords and swings them with obnoxious flair.  The traitor casts his eyes about the throng of duplicate priests and smirks.  If he’s impressed, it doesn’t show.  “Up to your old tricks, I see, Tenebrae?  Force projection won’t save you.  A few swings and we’ll know exactly which one of you is real.”  

 

Fulsome’s eyes now flit to land on Tosca standing at the far back with a sword.  “And look, you brought a woman to the fight.  Is it just you and your Temple whore left to protect Darth Vitiate?   How pathetic,” he sneers. 

 

Without thinking—she can’t think—Tosca raises her right hand.  She lets loose an incredible arc of red Force lightning that Lord Fulsome barely dodges.   The reflexes of the man on his right are not quite so fast.  That Lord crumples to the ground dead.  “Do not underestimate my power!” Tosca shrieks like a madwoman.

 

It’s the end to the parlay.  Tosca just unwittingly threw the first punch. All Hell breaks loose in the throne room.

 

 

Chapter Text

As an army wife, Tosca has listened to her share of war stories.  They are usually tales of heroism or daring, stories of remarkable luck or long odds.  But none of them prepare her for the experience of real combat. It is chaotic and confusing, random and terrifying.  It’s a good thing that Carl is controlling her mind. Otherwise, Tosca knows she probably would freeze in the moment.  That’s not an option now.  A wild fight ensues between the Lords supporting Darth Fulsome and the small army of Force projections supporting Lord Vitiate.  Tosca is in the thick of it. 

 

Fulsome’s Lords outnumber them considerably, but Carl has a strategy. He manipulates Tosca to continue to shoot red lightning while he and his duplicates engage with swords.  All around her, ten separate lightsaber duels rage—some two-on-one and even three-on-one.  The fierce man to man combat requires intense concentration.  It’s the perfect distraction to permit Tosca to nail Fulsome’s little army one by one, thinning their ranks considerably.  For this strange red lightning cannot be deflected or repelled.  Anyone it touches—even with a glancing blow—it instantly kills.  

 

It takes only a few seconds for the traitors to realize that the ten Carls are not ordinary Force projections.  They are no mere mirage designed to confuse, no sleight of hand stalking horse.  These are real combatants with lethal weapons who act both independently and in coordinated attacks.   It’s like Lord Tenebrae is his own ten-man strike team.   He gets as many Lords with his sword as Tosca does with red lightning.  By ten minutes in, the traitors’ numbers advantage evaporates.  

 

Curiously, Lord Fulsome himself remains out of the fray.  He stands at the back of the room like a general observing his troops. Why isn’t he engaging?  Is he waiting for Lord Vitiate appear?  Tosca wonders.

 

Her own role in the battle is key, and that does not go unnoticed. Several traitor Lords disengage from their duels to approach her.  But they seem reticent to attack.  Is it the intimidating red lightning that keeps them at bay?   Could it be because she is a woman and normally within the category of noncombatant?  Finally, one Lord barges forward and swings his saber at the hand she’s shooting lightning with.  But she evades him and thrusts hard with the sword in her left hand, piercing him in the gut below his chest armor.  He falls, but another Lord takes up his fight.   Whatever inhibitions the traitors may have had about fighting Tosca, they evaporate fast.   And now, she is as much a target as anyone else. 

 

There are some Ladies who are accomplished swordsmen, whose punishing fitness routines and Force prowess rival true training.  But Tosca is not one of them.  She wasn’t born with much Force and she has even less athletic grace.   But you’d never know it now as Carl directs her movements like she’s a twenty-five-year-old star Apprentice.  She slashes and stabs, lunges and spins, deflects and disarms like she is a trained Lord.  Interspersed with all this physicality are repeated doses of the Force courtesy of Carl’s power.  These are pushes, freezes, stuns, and other tricks designed to confuse, harm, or distract.  

 

It’s not Tosca doing these feats, of course.  It’s Carl acting as the puppet master in her mind, channeling his knowledge, power, and reflexes through her.  But, honestly, it is still very hard.   Tosca isn’t used to this level of physical exertion and she’s wearing a floor length dress.  So every so often, the version of Carl nearest to her intervenes to give her a breather.   

 

Through it all, the traitors keep falling.  Now, the tables are turned and the duels are two-on-one or three-on-one with the duplicate Carls holding the majority advantage.  Suddenly, this melee feels shockingly winnable.  And then . . . minutes later, it is won.  Tosca stands on alert scanning the room for enemy combatants, but there are none.  The Force must be with them because the team of Tosca plus ten Carls are the last ones standing.   

 

That just leaves Lord Fulsome left to kill. 

 

If the systematic death of his co-conspirators is causing the Jedi Killer to waver in his resolve, he doesn’t let on.  From across the room, Lord Fulsome projects all the strutting confidence he displayed this morning when he faced Master Crutcher.  Tosca can’t decide if Fulsome is posturing or whether he is truly arrogant enough to believe that he will succeed where all others have failed.   Because it takes that level of foolhardy pride to do something as daring as challenge Lord Vitiate. 

 

The would-be usurper now stares them down with a raised eyebrow and downturned lips.  He is the picture of patrician disdain.  “Am I supposed to fight you and your clone army?   And your Temple whore?” he drawls.

 

“No.  Just me,” Carl answers.  The duplicates disappear on his command, leaving behind just one Carl.   The real Carl.  It’s the version standing closest to her.  He turns to Tosca and breaks their mental connection.  She staggers a moment and he steadies her.  “Easy,” he murmurs as she adjusts to being alone in her consciousness once again.  It’s a disorienting feeling.

 

“Now would be a good time for your boss to show up,” she pants out her worry.   Because where is Lord Vitiate??

 

Carl shakes his head.  “It’s just us now.”  

 

“Kiss her goodbye.  You’re going to die,” Fulsome jeers from across the room.  

 

Carl ignores him.  “Climb the stairs and stand behind the throne,” he instructs Tosca.  “You can take cover there.”  He gives her a stern look.  “You are done fighting.  This is between him and me now.”

 

She nods blankly and half-walks, half-stumbles over to the dais steps.  Weary Tosca concentrates on putting one foot in front of each other. It’s hard.  In the wake of that fierce battle, Tosca feels utterly drained, both physically and mentally.   And if now is any indication, she’s going to be sore for a week.  Everything hurts.

 

As she shuffles up, Tosca realizes that the towering throne is something of an optical illusion.  For the Dark Lord’s chair is a mere five meters or so off the ground.  It is nowhere near as high or as far off as it appears from the center hot seat of the Emperor’s audience chamber.   She was much closer to Lord Vitiate during her interview than Tosca had ever suspected.  But such is the posturing of the Sith.  There is much deceptive showmanship to their menace. 

 

That she has survived this long tonight seems nothing short of amazing.  Tosca credits it to Carl’s remarkable power, of course.  But it’s not over yet.  One foe—the ultimate foe—remains.  And unlike Carl who has been fighting for his life through two brutal melee brawls, Lord Fulsome has been biding his time as a spectator.  He’s completely fresh for this fight.

 

It’s annoying how cool and confident he looks as he twirls his two swords showily and waits for her to ascend the steps.  “I’ve been looking forward to this,” Fulsome calls out in a taunting tone. 

 

“Yes,” Carl’s grimace is tight and his tone is clipped, “I’ll bet you have.  Guys like you think they deserve it all.  Well, I’m here to tell you no.” 

 

“You’re the past, Tenebrae.  You and Vitiate are the past.  It’s time for you both to go.”   Fulsome is pacing back and forth now, walking a wide perimeter around Carl.

 

It’s posturing designed to intimidate. To establish that he is in control and has the upper hand.  But Lord Tenebrae is unimpressed.  He cocks his head and smirks.  “You beat a Jedi and you think you can topple an Empire?  You think you will be the one to end a thousand-year reign?   Not a chance!” he scoffs.  He curls his lip.  “Better men than you have tried.”

 

“There are no better men this generation. There are no Lords alive who can equal me,” Fulsome boasts.   And having seen his victory over the Jedi Master this morning, Tosca worries his claim is true. 

 

But Carl snorts.  “I’m not talking about your pedigree or your resume.  I’m talking about true Dark merit.”  When Fulsome looks at him blankly, Carl spells it out for him.  “Pain.   I’m talking about pain.”

 

“It won’t be a man like you who prevails over Vitiate.  No coddled, entitled aristocrat will ever succeed.  You and your kind are not hungry enough.  It will take a slave or a farm boy.  Some fatherless, uneducated, impoverished upstart wretch who is desperate enough to summon the murky depths of Darkness.  A humble man who will stumble blindly into power that you cannot even fathom!”  Carl shoots his foe a resentful look.  “He’ll probably be a random born to the Force by accident.  A boy awakened to a great power he doesn’t understand and must struggle to control.  Because no one lusts for power like the truly powerless.  No one understands power like the weak.” 

 

Carl is talking about himself, Tosca knows.  This conflict is far more than a political contest for the fate of the regime, she realizes.  This is intensely personal.    Lord Fulsome and his thugs have arrived tonight to threaten everything that Carl holds dear:  his power and position, his Emperor . . . and her.

 

The Master sorcerer’s yellow eyes are full of bitterness as he continues his tirade.  “Your experience will never prepare you for this job.  Too many things have been handed to you for you to understand true want.   Too many people have approved of you for you to understand rejection.  Your path to success was largely preordained by your birth.  And that means you have never experienced failure.   You have always been a Have and never a Have Not.  And so, you do not understand resentment.  You live a life of luxury and security, so you do not know fear.”  Carl sniffs dismissively.  Then he throws some truly scornful shade:  “Fulsome, you are soft.  You do not hate.” 

 

“I hate you!” his foe hisses back. 

 

Carl grunts.  “No, you don’t.   You just think you do.”

 

“I hate you!”

 

“You don’t even know who I am.   You cannot hate a man until you know him.”  Carl nods his head slowly.   “That is the test.   For superficial dislike tends to fade when you get to know someone and discover commonalities.  But when you know a man and still hate him, then you know hate.   Then, you are true enemies.”

 

“Are you done with the lecture?”  Fulsome complains.  “Did that give you time to catch your breath, old man?”

 

“Yes.  I’m ready to move on to the execution now.”  With those words, Carl attacks.  He shoots blue lightning with one hand, while he swings his sword with the other.  But Fulsome has a sword in each hand.  He deflects the lightning with one weapon while he fences with the other.  He manages to direct the Force energy right back at Carl who dives left to avoid it.

 

Amazingly, Carl is smiling. It’s almost like he’s enjoying this.  “Nice try,” he laughs.   Like that close call was fun. 

 

This is anything but fun for Tosca to watch.  And where is the Emperor??  Is he going to let Carl fight all his battles?   Now would be a good time for Lord Vitiate to show up and do his own dirty work, Tosca thinks resentfully.  Carl has done his part as the loyal lieutenant or little brother or whatever their true relationship is.

 

As the battle continues, Carl observes his opponent clinically.  “You fight foremost with your body, like a warrior. Whereas, I fight with my mind.  With the Force.”  Carl punctuates his words with a shot of red lightning.  It’s the lethal Force energy that Carl used her to shoot earlier.  Fulsome watched his Lords fall to it again and again.  He knows its power.  The man leaps high with the Force to evade it . . . just barely.   

 

Carl laughs.  He does it again.  And again.  Chuckling smugly as he toys with his leaping and springing foe.   Like this is a child’s game and not a deadly duel.  Fulsome keeps attempting to retaliate with a Force push or other trick of his own.  But every time he raises a hand to summon the Dark Side, Carl must overpower him because nothing happens.  “In the battle of brains versus brawn, brains always win,” Carl chides with much condescension.   “True power comes from knowledge of the Force, not from weapons and workouts.”

 

They continue a few minutes, trading saber blows as the increasingly frustrated Fulsome continues dodging and diving to evade Carl’s red lightning.  This is a very unorthodox way to conduct a duel.  And so belittling to proud Lord Fulsome. But that is the point, Tosca suspects, knowing Carl. 

 

The priest appears to be growing bored.  “Enough of that.”   Carl casually casts aside his borrowed sword.

 

The move is very Carl, but the tiring, winded Fulsome looks floored.   He blinks in disbelief.   Then, his yellow eyes narrow with suspicion.  He’s clearly expecting another trick. 

 

“Give me your best stuff,” Carl commands, tapping his chest.  “Come on.  Let’s see it.”

 

“Alright.  You asked for it.”  His handsome face determined, Lord Fulsome charges at unarmed, unarmored Carl.  He doesn’t get far.  Carl freezes him in motion mid-stride. 

 

“No, no, no.  Enough with the swords.”  Irritated Carl flicks a finger and both weapons are snatched from Fulsome’s grip with the Force.  They clatter to the ground and deactivate.  Then, Carl releases his opponent from the freeze hold.  “Fight like a Dark Lord, not like a foot soldier,” he complains.  “Fight like a Master of the Shadow Force.  Like a man who rules the Lords of the Sith.”

 

Worried Tosca doesn’t like the sound of this.  She holds her breath.  She can’t bear to look, but neither can she look away.  Everything depends on the outcome of this fight, and yet Carl is treating it so breezily. 

 

Grim faced Lord Fulsome now raises both hands and shoots some Force lightning of his own.

 

Tosca gasps audibly.  But Carl deflects it away with nonchalance.  “Try again.  I had a teenaged girl shoot lightning at me not long ago, and it was more potent than that,” he goads.

 

Stung, Lord Fulsome again channels his rage into power, sending streaks of pure Dark energy at his nemesis.   This is the power of the Dark Side made manifest in its most lethal form. 

 

“Better,” Carl comments as he effortlessly deflects it once again.  “Now,” Carl commands, sounding very much like a Master schooling a young Apprentice in training, “give me your very best stuff.  Focus and concentrate.  Don’t rush it.” 

 

This time, Carl does not deflect the lightning that Fulsome directs his way.  Carl stands there and takes it.   Blue sparks crackle and dance around his skin while Carl remains unconcerned.  If he is in pain, it doesn’t show. 

 

Tosca is confused and so is Lord Fulsome.  What strange power is this?

 

“Die!”  Fulsome howls as he redoubles his efforts.  His face contorts with ultimate concentration.  “Die you fucking gatekeeper!”

 

Carl just stands there passive.  Tosca does not know what to make of this. 

 

Finally, Fulsome stops.  He’s breathing very heavily from his efforts. His consternation and growing despair are written across his chiseled features.

 

“Oh, keep going,” smirking Carl instructs.  “I’m still very much alive.   I’m a long way from dying.”

 

“H-How??” the traitor rasps in frustration.  “How are you doing this??”

 

“You can’t kill me.  No one can kill me.  I am Darkness made flesh,” Carl proclaims, “and Darkness is eternal.”

 

“Don’t feed me that crap about being immortal!” Lord Fulsome yells.  It’s clear that he is sensing his imminent defeat.  His fellow traitors are gone and neither sword, nor lightning, not any of his other tactics have succeeded in putting a mark on Lord Tenebrae.  Clearly, this is as galling as it is disheartening.  “You’re not immortal any more than Vitiate is!  Everything that lives will die in the end!”

 

Carl grunts his contempt.  “Your efforts only make me stronger.  I feed off men like you.  And when we are done here, I will do the same for you.  You will die, my Lord Fulsome.  But first, you will yield me your Force.”

 

Like the Proscription ritual, Tosca understands.  Carl is too greedy for power to let the Force of this formidable Lord go to waste with a customary death, she suspects.

 

“Want to try again?” Carl offers cheekily. 

 

Fulsome rallies.  He calls his discarded sword to him with the Force and makes a last-ditch running dash at Carl’s head. But he never gets close.  Darth Fulsome and his sword part ways.  The traitor Lord ends up held aloft in the Force, helplessly frozen, while his sword makes a wide circle around the throne room to bonk him hard in the head.  It’s a petty, humiliating gesture for this proud Sith prince.   And it is very Carl, Tosca thinks.  Because it isn’t enough to simply beat Lord Fulsome, he wants to humble him as well.

 

But a win is a win as far as Tosca is concerned.  Somehow, Carl has come through it all unscathed and the Emperor—wherever he is—remains safe and in power.  Tosca sags with relief against the wall behind the throne.  And that’s when she starts to process just how perilous and traumatic the last half hour has been.   It is a blur that she only now starts to unpack.  So much has happened, so fast.   She doesn’t know whether to cheer or to cry.

 

Lord Tenebrae now crosses his arms and complains up at his opponent, “First, you dare to try to take the woman sent to me by the Force.  Then, you dare to try to take the Empire.  Both foolish moves,” he reproves.  “Never set yourself up against the will of the Force.  It always ends badly.  Now,” he commands as he raises up a hand, “give me everything.”

 

Lord Fulsome, captive and held high in the Force, begins writhing in agony. 

 

Tosca can’t help it.  She winces.   Much as she wants to punish this man for his insurrection, this is very hard to watch.  She looks away only to find herself looking at the dozens of bodies lying about.  Everywhere she gazes, there is suffering and carnage.  Tosca reflexively closes her eyes to shut it out.  But she can’t shut out the tormented screams that echo off the walls of the throne room.  This is over, Tosca tells herself as she hugs her arms tightly to her body.  This is almost over . . . please be over soon . . .

 

Carl’s uncomfortably gleeful torture is interrupted when an unfamiliar Lord bursts into the throne room followed by six others.  All have swords lit for battle.  Apparently, they are belated reinforcements.  “Is it over, Tenebrae?” the lead newcomer demands, looking first to screaming Fulsome and then to the many bodies that litter the room.  “Every guard we passed is dead—“

 

“It is done,” Carl confirms.  “Fulsome here will be the last to die.  Who sent you?”

 

“Azamin.   He sensed the disturbance in the Force.”

 

Carl nods his approval.  “Very little gets past the senses of Cornelius.”

 

“And the Emperor?”

 

“He’s fine.   He will be appearing shortly.  General, did you bring troops?”

 

“They are outside.”

 

“Good.  Leave me, search the Palace and the Temple for any surviving traitors, and bring them here for interrogation.  The Emperor will want a full investigation and you will need to report.  Is Cornelius here?”

 

“Yes.  He’s coming in now.”

 

“Good.  Send him in.”

 

The unnamed general now makes a face up at the star prisoner.  “I never liked that guy.  He’s going to take a lot of Lords down with him.”

 

Carl shrugs his indifference.  “They knew the risk.”  Then he turns back to torturing Darth Fulsome as the general and his accompanying Lords depart.  Whatever Carl is doing, it must be excruciating.  Tosca can feel the pain in the Force, washing over her mind as Lord Fulsome begs for mercy.  And though she fully realizes that this man would have cheerfully killed Carl, Lord Vitiate, and probably herself, Tosca can’t help but feel sorry for him.  It makes no sense, she knows.  But she has compassion for Lord Fulsome’s suffering nonetheless.

 

Carl pauses again when the door opens to admit Lord Azamin.  He is moving slowly as always and relying heavily on his cane.  “Ah, my Lord,” the wizened Dark Council member greets Carl with a smile, “how happy I am to see you victorious.”

 

Carl raises an eyebrow.  “Was there ever any doubt?”

 

They exchange looks.  “Long live the Emperor,” Darth Azamin proclaims with a wily chuckle.  His rheumy hooded eyes glance up at the captive Fulsome.  “That was fast.  He didn’t even wait a full day before he made his move.”

 

“He was flush with victory, I suppose.”

 

Lord Azamin nods.  “Likely so.   I tried to warn him. But Brutus wouldn’t hear of it.”

 

“He’s got too much of his father in him,” Carl sniffs. 

 

Azamin nods with resignation. “It’s too bad.  I sort of liked him.”

 

Carl grunts.  “Don’t say that again or I might have to kill you too.   For bad judgement.”

 

Old Azamin laughs so hard in response that it turns into a wheezy cough.  When he recovers, his eyes find Tosca creeping gingerly down the throne dais.  She feels very out of place up there.  Any minute now, she suspects Emperor Vitiate will emerge to reaffirm his control.  She dreads being caught skulking where she does not belong. 

 

Darth Azamin frowns.  “Lady Struct?”   He peers up at her unsteady descending figure amidst the dim gloom.  “Are you alright?”

 

“Yes, my Lord.”  Even to her own ears, the words sound unconvincing.

 

“Marrow clocked her hard across the face,” Carl growls. 

 

“Marrow was part of this?” Darth Azamin is surprised.  

 

“Marrow, Furor, Expire . . . they were all in league with Fulsome. It is a veritable who’s who of the senior army commands in their age group.”  Carl looks angry as he gripes, “This will never stay quiet.  I fear I’ll be wiping out an entire generation of the army.   All those damned fools wanted to follow Fulsome on his idealistic crusade against the Republic.”

 

“That’s too bad.  And so soon after the Proscription.  This will be bad for morale,” ancient Azamin judges.  “Carl, this discontent runs deep . . . ”

 

“Yes,” Lord Tenebrae grouses.  He looks up at her slow and careful descent down the steep throne dais.  “Stay there,” he tells her.  “I’ll come up.”

 

Tosca wrongly concludes that this means he is coming to provide a steady arm to help her.  But instead, Carl marches right past her to the throne and sits down. 

 

That makes her move fast.  She marches back up herself.  “Carl!” she hisses angrily under her breath.  “Get up before someone sees you!”

 

But Carl’s attention is all for that late arriving general who has reentered now.  Tosca worries she is visible from below—she’s not quite sure who can see what from down below, but she sees everything from up here.  So, she climbs the remaining steps to stand behind the throne, safely out of sight.  “Carl!  What are you doing??” she whispers her outrage.

 

"Stand there," he approves of her position hovering over his right shoulder.  "I like you there."

 

The general kneels his obeisance below, his sword held down. The man thinks he is appearing before the Emperor.  "Excellency," he reverently bows his head.

 

"But Carl--" Tosca protests some more.

 

"Not now, my dear."  Carl intones his best Emperor Vitiate impression next.  It’s the deep sepulchral drawl that is so characteristically Lord Vitiate. “Wellllll?  Report.”

 

Is Carl pretending to be Vitiate to be the stability and chain of command everyone needs right now?   Tosca is savvy enough to realize the optics of having the Emperor appear immediately after a coup attempt. But still . . . a nagging suspicion takes hold.  Carl looks very comfortable in that chair.  And that might make a lot of things make sense . . . especially that red lightning which supposedly only the Dark Lord himself can shoot.

 

The general makes his report, even as he keeps glancing furtively over at the captive Fulsome still suspended aloft in the Force.  The entire Palace guard has been slaughtered, including the praetorians, the general reveals.  Many of the staff on duty are dead.  Everything has been ransacked.  The Temple was left alone, the general announces his only good news. The attackers focused solely on the Palace.  All of the Temple priests are accounted for.  The general doesn’t bother mentioning the fate of the Temple girls, unfortunately.

 

There are a few gravely injured but surviving traitor Lords.  The groaning, bleeding men are dragged in now by troops to be laid prostrate before the Emperor’s throne. 

 

Carl nods.  “Bring me the bodies of the fallen Lords,” he orders.  “I want all of the conspirators accounted for.  Dead or alive.”

 

“Yes, Excellency.”

 

“Listen closely, General.  Have someone with a datapad take a list.”  And now, one by one, Carl begins interrogating the wounded, dying Lords with the Force.  He calls out names as he goes, ignoring the men’s death throw screams as he reads their minds with ruthless efficiency.   It’s very hard to watch.  Tosca keeps closing her eyes but she cannot block out the sounds of their anguish.  It’s every bit as bad as Lord Fulsome’s torment earlier.  And all the while, Tosca keeps thinking . . . wondering . . . doubting . . .

 

When he has finished with the dying Lords, Carl turns his attention back to Lord Fulsome.  Carl calls out more names now.  The list is at least fifty and counting.  This is a broad and deep plot.  That in itself is disheartening.  Carl finishes with a grim order to the waiting general. “Bring them and bring their sons and Apprentices.  They will all pay the price for their lack of vision and their treachery.”

 

Watching this unfold in silence, Tosca swallows hard.   She knows far too many of the names on that list.   They are the preeminent men of their generation in the Imperial army.  They are the men who Marcus’ commanding officers report to.  Men who set the standard for others to achieve. Men like Lord Marrow who had too much to lose to join such a foolhardy plot.  Men who professed allegiance and loyalty but who turned traitor in the end.  And now, they, their Apprentices, and their sons will forfeit their lives.   All to ensure the continued reign of Lord Vitiate, who Tosca is beginning to think does not exist.  Because as her mind keeps spinning, Tosca convinces herself more and more that Fulsome and his men will die for a lie they did not even recognize. 

 

Carl raises a hand to the back of the throne to cover Tosca's white knuckled fingers that grip the chair tightly.   He steadies her as he dismisses the general. Then, he rises to step down the dais, escorting her along with him.   The dim chamber below is especially littered with bodies now.   Only Darth Azamin remains, along with the captive Darth Fulsome. 

 

“I’m sorry this happened again, Carl,” old Azamin says with deep sincerity followed by a heavy sigh.   “But they knew what they were risking.”

 

“It’s a waste!” Lord Tenebrae explodes.   “Every time, this is a needless waste!   This isn’t like Proscription.  It serves no purpose.  I am not a butcher!   But I am forced to be one by fools like you!” He glares up at the immobile Fulsome, still frozen and held aloft in the Force. 

 

Now, Carl turns back to the stooped sage who sensed treachery in the Force and sent help.  “At least you, my old friend, are loyal. You do not know how much I prize your wise counsel.”

 

“It has been my great honor to serve,” Lord Azamin croaks out as he bows low over his cane.

 

“Go, my friend.  Leave me.  You have done your part,” Carl gently dismisses the rickety, frail Lord who surely ought to be in bed at this hour.  Azamin slowly makes his way out of the throne room, leaving Carl and Tosca alone with Lord Fulsome. 

 

Carl turns to her now.   But Tosca instinctively turns away.  She doesn’t want to have the conversation she fears is coming next.  Suddenly, she wants to avoid it at all costs.  

 

It all makes sense now.  The man who can replicate himself into ten independently functioning Force projections is a man who can pull off the ruse of being both chief priest and Emperor.  He says he’s very good at hiding and he is right. He’s his own gatekeeper and influencer, protecting the secret that the shadowy, mysterious Vitiate is entirely fiction.  Just a deep voice from an unseen figure who speaks with authority in a dark room.

 

All the clues were there all along.  From Carl’s extreme age and immense power, to his praetorians and secret Force-protected Palace apartment, to his tendency to talk about matters of the Empire like they are his to decide.  Then there is his uncanny ability to sway Vitiate’s views behind closed doors.  It was all a strawman pretext because the men were one and the same, meaning Carl was the decision maker all along.  It turns out that Emperor Vitiate did conduct the Proscription ritual after all.  That was the Emperor replicating on a smaller scale the stunt that gained him power in the first place.  And tonight, he had used Tosca herself to shoot his signature red Force lightning.  Of course, only she and Carl know that because all the other witnesses save Lord Fulsome are dead.   But what precarious position does that now put her in??

 

It’s not the trickery of Carl’s ruse that upsets Tosca so much as its implications.   They go to the very foundations of the Empire.  To what she and every other Sith citizen has been taught to believe.  Because it turns out that Emperor Vitiate—the savior of their people and the reigning Master of Darkness—holds heretic views about the Force and the Republic.  He cried friends with an enemy Jedi he reluctantly killed out of duty.  He doesn’t even want the war that their civilization has been preparing to fight for a thousand years.  But he pretends it all to keep control and retain power.  That’s one aspect of Carl that she’s certain is not a lie:  he loves power.

 

Oh Force, Tosca thinks as she glances up at the doomed prisoner Lord.  Darth Fulsome was right even if he himself never figured it all out.  Because a millennium of Lord Vitiate’s rule probably has been too long.  To say this guy is entrenched is an understatement.

 

To think that she foolishly made a deal with this man to save Marcus’ life.  It made her the unwitting mistress to the Emperor.  No wonder she wasn’t a regular Temple girl—no doubt the disguised Lord Vitiate didn’t think he should have to share her. 

 

In fact, all along Carl had all the power to decide things even though he pretended otherwise.  Whether it was her husband’s Proscription, or how to handle the Temple girls, or what to do with the Jedi, Carl had complete discretion all along.  But he made everyone go through the pretext of beseeching the Emperor himself.  Carl was the man she knelt to terrified that first time in the throne room.  Carl was the man to whom she pled Poppy’s case.  It’s no wonder Carl can do such a spot-on Vitiate impression.  He’s just being himself.   

 

Tosca gulps, realizing now what it means to know this dangerous secret.  Darth Azamin knows, she suspects.  And Jedi Master Crutcher evidently figured it out but he’s dead now.  So . . . what does that mean for her?  Maybe if she pretends not to know, they can just avoid addressing the issue.   She won’t let on and maybe he will let the issue drop.  This can be an unacknowledged open secret between them.   She won’t go there, if he won’t go there.

 

So, Tosca too prepares to take her leave.  “I should go back to the Temple and check on the girls,” she says as casually as possible.

 

Carl doesn’t go for it.  “No.  Stay.”

 

She looks away and murmurs, “I will leave you to your work.  I’m sure there is much to be done—“

 

“You will stay with me until everyone is rounded up,” he instructs firmly.

 

But Tosca resists.  She is done.  She needs to get away from this danger, this death, and this deceit.   More than anything, she just wants to run away from this whole situation.  So again, Tosca makes to pull away.  “I will see you tomorrow—“

 

“Stay.  That’s an order.”  He gives her a stern look.  “This isn’t over yet.  There is still danger.”

 

“I am responsible for those girls.”   It’s true, but it’s also a pretext.  Tosca just wants to flee.  “I’m not one of your Lords to order . . .”

 

It’s the wrong thing to say.   “Look at me.”  Carl nabs both of her hands now.  They stand face to face in the center of the throne room.  Quietly, he tells her, “I order everyone in my Empire.”  Emphasis on the first person. ‘I’ and ‘my’.  It’s confirmation of what Tosca doesn’t want confirmed.  She swallows hard.

 

“Non ducor, duco,” he whispers.  I am not led, I lead. “Sum Imperat—"

 

“Stop!” she cuts him off as her eyes find the floor.   “I don’t want to talk about this now—“

 

“Why not?” he persists.

 

“Why not?   Why not??” she wails in distress.  “For starters, because I just killed Lord Marrow!”  Tosca has no idea what her kill count was here in the throne room.  And, actually she would rather not know the number.  But those men were strangers, not her best friend’s husband.  What’s worse, that is just the beginning of this evening’s drama. 

 

Tosca is not a woman who revels in scenes.  In the look-at-me vanity culture of the ever aggressive Sith, Tosca prefers to be a low key, peripheral presence.  She doesn’t go looking for conflict and she tends to choose her battles. And tonight, she’s done fighting.   Because while the actual battle might be won, suddenly she feels utterly defeated.   Like she is a complete fool for ever believing in this man.  She has been duped like the rest of his citizens, although in her case it is a much more personal deception.

 

“A lot of men died tonight.  More will die before it is done,” Carl warns.

 

“Well, I am done.   Goodnight.”

 

He tugs her back.  “You can’t walk away from this.   You can’t ignore it—“

 

“I don’t want to talk about this!” she yells.  Not now.  Not ever.   Suddenly, Tosca is on the verge of hysterical tears.   She swallows hard to clamp down on her composure.  “Finish putting down your insurrection.  Do what you need to do.  But leave me out of it!”  She shrugs him off, realizing now for the first time that her left arm really hurts.  “Owww!” she groans as she clutches at it.

 

“There is still danger.  Tosca, there are those who will seek to harm you for who you are to me.  You saw that tonight once already.   And you heard the general—all the guards are dead.  You will be unprotected at the Temple.”

 

“So are the girls.”

 

“They aren’t a target.  You are.  I don’t want you hurt--”

 

“I’m already hurt!” she cries.  “You hurt me!”

 

This is the conversation Tosca doesn’t want to have but can’t seem to avoid.  She hasn’t had time to process things, to make logical sense of what she has learned and what has happened.  And so, her words spill out in a disorganized stream of consciousness rant.   It’s very uncharacteristic, but that too speaks to her distress.  These are not the measured words and tempered tone of the dignified Temple matron.   Tosca sounds more like one of her high strung, immature Temple girls having a meltdown.  But she can’t help it.  She feels so disillusioned.

 

“This is the real reason you killed your Jedi friend,” she hotly accuses, “because he figured it out!   Master Crutcher was right!   It's all a lie!  The Emperor is a lie!  Just like the Temple is a lie!   The war against the Republic is even a lie!”  And here comes the humiliating punchline:  “And like a fool, I believed it all!  You are a fraud!” she wails.  “A man play acting at power!”

 

She sounds hysterical, but he is very composed. “Nothing about my power is an act,” he informs her curtly.   “Every Lord knows that the illusion of power is part of power.  I just take it to the next level.”  His face softens now and so does his tone.   “You might not have known the truth my position, but you know the truth of me.”

 

“It was all lies, wasn't it?” she sobs.  She has given up any attempt at holding back tears now. 

 

“No.  It’s true.  All of it.  Every wretched awful bit of it.  All the mistakes.  All the regrets.   All the fears.  They are true,” he maintains. 

 

“I don’t care!” Tosca cries recklessly. “Because I will never trust you again—“

 

Carl is growing indignant now.  He sneers, “The joke’s on everyone—the bastard peasant outlander is the Emperor and he doesn't give a damn whether we defeat the Republic or not!  Because the outcast is really the insider!  The powerless boy now rules it all!  The ultimate Sith Master himself has no training!  And the Dark Side we worship is not truly supreme!”  He gives her a hard look and his words grind out. “Still, we pretend all that, and it's how I keep control.  Because power is what matters most.  Power keeps order.  And that allows us all to prosper!”

 

Tosca nods miserably.  “Yes, I get it.  You love power.”   She wipes at her cheeks and shoots Carl a withering look.  “You're not a leader, are you?  Fulsome is right.  You're just some placeholder in history who has outlived his time—“

 

He cuts her off.  He’s getting truly angry now. “You are upset.  Tonight has gotten you upset.”

 

“I wish I didn’t know this—“

 

“I was about to tell you when the attack began—“

 

“I don’t want to know this!“

 

“Well, too bad!  Grow up, Tosca!   You can’t run an Empire on sacrosanct ideals and simple virtues!  You want transparency?   Go to the Republic!”   He glances up at the captive Fulsome and makes a face.  “Are you getting all this?” Carl jeers in disgust.  Then he shoots Tosca a dirty look.  “Too bad you didn’t recruit her to your cause.”

 

Frozen in the Force, Lord Fulsome struggles to speak as Tosca announces yet again that she is going to the Temple.  She begins to stumble away when Carl waves a hand and permits his prisoner to speak.  Carl looks smug, like he wants to gloat over his prisoner’s reaction to the truth of Emperor Vitiate.

 

Lord Fulsome’s voice is loud and clear.  And his words are not what either of them expect.  “She did help us.  Lady Struct betrayed you!  It’s how we knew where to find you!”

 

Whaaat?   Tosca stops in her tracks and begins issuing denials.  She gets as far as “I did not” when she is overcome with Force sleep and slumps.  The last thing she remembers is Carl catching her to break her fall.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Wake up, Sleepyhead.”

 

Tosca opens her eyes and looks up into Carl’s concerned face.  “Ooooh,” she whispers as she realizes that she is lying in his bed. From the skylight above, sunlight shows where starlight usually does.  Did they oversleep?  It must be past time for her to go back to the cloister.  But she is tired still, oh so tired. 

 

“Five more minutes,” Tosca wheedles as she closes her heavy eyes and snuggles deeper under the covers.  “Five more minutes . . . ”   Still more asleep than awake, she slurs her words.

 

“Time to wake up,” Carl persists as he gently brushes hair back from her face.

 

Eyes closed, she smiles at the gesture and snuggles some more.  “I miss you already,” she yawns out the words.  “Five more minutes with you.   Pretty please??”

 

He grunts.  “Not today.”  Then he stands and the bed shifts as his weight lifts.

 

And that’s when Tosca’s mind awakens enough to register a few meaningful discrepancies from their usual routine.  First, she’s in bed fully clothed.  And Carl was sitting on the side of the bed looking down on her, not lying beside her.  He’s also fully dressed, she sees.   And now, groping curiously at her throbbing left arm, she realizes that she has one of those expensive sticky bacta bandages near her shoulder.   Er . . . what??  Tosca blinks and half sits up. That’s when she becomes aware of her dull headache.  Did she drink too much wine with dinner last night?  Woozy Tosca squints as she automatically raises a hand to her forehead.  Glancing around, she takes in the shambles that remains of Carl’s Palace apartment.   What happened here??  Her eyes automatically find Carl looming over her.  “Whaaat??” she wonders aloud in confusion.

 

“You are safe,” he tells her firmly. “It is over.” 

 

“O-Oooh,” she nods blankly.   But it all comes flooding back fast as her mind reboots.  The coup attempt . . . the battle here and then in the throne room. . . Carl in her mind . . . the awful truth of Emperor Vitiate . . . and then Lord Fulsome’s vicious lie . . .    Tosca is fully alert now as she sits up stone faced and chagrined.  “I remember,” she whispers.

 

“You are safe,” Carl repeats.  “It’s over.”

 

“Over,” she echoes and he nods.  Her eyes look to him for more reassurance, but then she realizes how impertinent that must appear.  This is the Emperor.  And to think that the last thing she recalls is arguing with him before Lord Fulsome tried to implicate her as a fellow traitor.  Just remembering that disrespect makes Tosca cringe.

 

Suddenly, she dives for the floor.  She’s on her knees, hands clasped and head bowed respectfully as a supplicant should.  The pose puts her loose hair falling in her face, so Tosca furiously tucks it back behind her ears.   It’s a bit humiliating how bedraggled she appears before the Emperor himself.   But one thought is foremost in her mind:  “M-My Lord—your Excellency—I did not betray you!” she rushes her words out.

 

“There is no need—“ Carl cuts her off.

 

But she dares to interrupt him.   That’s how anxious she feels.  “I would not enable the usurpers!   Never would I seek to harm you—“

 

“I know that,” he grinds out, shifting his weight and sounding almost annoyed.  “You would never consciously betray me.”

 

“He lied!  Fulsome lied!” she cries out.  Her voice is shrill.  “Your Excellency—“

 

“Don’t call me that.”

 

“—I am not a traitor!”   Does he believe her?  He has to believe her.  She would never, ever betray him.  

 

“Yes, yes, I know.  I saw it all.  I read his mind.  He read your mind for information and hid the evidence. There's nothing you could have done to prevent it.”

 

“He did that?”   Tosca swallows hard.  “Ohh . . .”  So, she did betray Carl.  Her eyes close with horror.  She’s certain that treason is a crime for which the law does not require intent.  Anyone and everyone who has any connection to the coup plot—no matter how tangential—will die, she suspects.  And if Lord Fulsome is to be believed, she herself had a starring role. 

 

Tosca hangs her head in shame. “I did not know . . .  Truly, I did not know . . .” she whispers with halting dread.  “I’m s-sorry . . . I’m so s-sorry,” she gasps through trembling lips.

 

“He was aiming to incriminate you for maximum damage.  I’ve seen this sort of tactic before. This isn’t my first plot.”  Carl shrugs.  “Fulsome will pay for it.  He will not get a quick, clean death like the rest.   He will suffer for his actions, including his crime against you.  Now, get up,” he complains gruffly.  “The medics are here.”

 

Still uncertain about her situation and wary to be overly familiar in the circumstances, Tosca quickly yelps, “Yes, your Excellency.”

 

“I said don’t call me that!” 

 

Tosca hastens to correct herself.  “Yes, my Lord V-Vitiate.”  The name sticks on her tongue, a fact not lost on either of them. 

 

“Just get up,” he harrumphs grumpily.  Frowning Carl looks like he finds this conversation as awkward and uncomfortable as she does. 

 

Tosca now struggles to her feet, hampered by her twisted skirts and her aching, sore body.  She’s so slow and clumsy about it that Carl reaches down to assist.  He tugs her to her feet. 

 

Embarrassed to be so ungainly, Tosca flushes bright red.   “My Lord, I wish to apologize—“ she begins anew.

 

“Don’t bother,” he cuts her off impatiently.  “Your loyalty is not in question.  Now, let’s move on.   The medics are here to examine you again.  You have a slight concussion and that blaster graze probably needs a new bacta patch.”

 

“Blaster graze??” she echoes blankly.

 

He gestures to her left arm.  “It’s minor.  You were injured in the battle.  I think the adrenaline kept you from feeling it.”

 

“Oh.”   She doesn’t remember being hit.  She only remembers the chaos and the terror and the awful danger.   And then the screams . . .   Tosca will never forget the screams of the traitors as Carl interrogated them.

 

“We need to try again for that Jedi bond,” Carl tells her offhand.   “The closer I am to your consciousness, the easier it will be for me to protect you against future threats.”

 

“Oh.  Yes, of course,” she agrees automatically.  Tosca looks around the apartment now.  She’s relieved to see that the bodies have been removed.  But her eyes find a dark red stain soaked into the rug and linger.  Is that where she killed Lord Marrow?   Tosca sucks in a quick breath and looks away.  She doesn’t want to revisit that trauma.

 

Carl sees her alarm. “The danger has passed.  You are safe now,” he reassures.  

 

“I'll never feel safe here,” she mutters the truth.  When he looks to her with alarm, she yelps the formal honorific reflexively, “Your Excellency.”  

 

It makes him frown again.

 

But jumpy, skittish Tosca is very uncertain about what their relationship is now.  The news that Carl is the Emperor was a surprise, and not a welcome one.  It makes her automatically default to the formal arm’s length courtesy of the Sith elite.  And maybe that is too lax even when they are alone, but Carl seems to want her to eschew the normal protocol for being in the Imperial presence. 

 

She never really knew this man, Tosca realizes miserably.   Months of nightly dinners and so much wild passion in his arms, and yet he was a mystery all along.   She was just one of his many deceptions. And now that she knows the truth, Tosca wishes she didn't.  She’d much rather be in the dark than know this terrible, dangerous secret.   She is very worried about the implications.  Especially since there are men like Lord Fulsome who could pry his identity from her mind completely unaware. 

 

So, tentatively she sets out to broach the subject.  “Your Excellency—"

 

“Don't call me that.”

 

Oh, right.  “My Lord Tene—Vitiate--”

 

“Call me Carl!” he snaps.  “My name is Carl!”  His tone is testy, and it makes her flinch.  He looks increasingly annoyed with her, and that makes Tosca even more fearful.   This is not a man to anger.

 

So now, she cowers, eyes on the floor as she babbles.  “Yes, your Excellency, I mean my Lord . . . er . . . C-Carl . . .”

 

He sighs.  “Stop it, Tosca.  I don’t need you groveling too.”

 

“Yes, my Lord.”  She defers automatically.  Because when a Dark Lord makes a request of you, the only answer is ‘yes.’

 

Carl is fuming now.  “I said stop it!”

 

“I can’t!” she wails.  “Oh Force, I have been such a fool.”  Tosca raises a trembling hand to her face and stammers out, “I’m such a ridiculous fool!  To think that I fell in lo—“

 

“This changes nothing!” he decrees hotly. “Do you understand?  Nothing changes between us!”

 

“Yes, my Lord,” she answers immediately.  They both know it for a lie.

 

He wisely changes the subject.  “The conspirators are rounded up now.”

 

“Already?”

 

“You’ve been asleep for two days.  They die tonight in the Temple.”

 

“Oh.”  And, wait--“Two days?”

 

He nods.  “The medics thought it best for you to rest.  And I wanted you to wake up to order.   It’s over.”

 

Yes, and they are over too, she knows.   Nothing will ever be the same after that coup attempt.  Now that the true danger and deception of this man are revealed, she is terribly disillusioned.   And hurt.  Oh, so hurt.  Humiliated, too.  For she had been duped into being the Emperor’s mistress when he took advantage of her offer to take the veil.

 

Carl keeps providing status updates. His mind on the coup, he is seemingly oblivious to her concerns.  “Your Temple girls are fine.  They think you are in the hospital because you were injured in the revolt.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“This changes nothing between us.”  He keeps saying this and she couldn’t disagree more. 

 

Tosca is not looking for an argument.  Given her precarious position, she seeks to be amenable.  Still, before she can stop herself, she blurts out the truth. “This changes everything!”  The words come out loud and insistent.  That’s a completely inappropriate tone to address the Emperor.  Tosca blanches and postures contrite yet again. “Your pardon, your Excellency.”

 

“Stop that—Stop calling me that!  This changes nothing,” he decrees yet again.  

 

This time, Tosca nods emphatically. “Yes, Excellency.  As you wish.”

 

“I said stop that!   I don’t want that!”   Bizarrely, she’s being corrected for her obedience.  Carl gives her a look of frustration. 

 

She shares his emotion because she is very confused.  Tosca doesn’t know how to handle this situation. Her trepidation cannot be underestimated.   Because she was unwittingly part of the coup plot and she has stumbled onto a secret she was never supposed to know.  Either of those two facts could justify her death, so angering Carl is a bad strategy.  But she’s succeeding nonetheless.

 

“Tosca,” he looks her in the eye, “I want you to speak to me like you always do.  Tell me what you think.  And drop all this Emperor business.  It feels wrong coming from you.”

 

Does he want her to speak candidly about how she feels?  Okay, then.  Here goes.   Nervous Tosca starts in and quickly lets loose.  “I am such a fool!” she wails out her dismay.  “You are known for deceit.  I even saw you disguised in the Force in the garden . . . but I never figured it out.  Because I am such a trusting fool . . . like all the rest of your subjects . . . “   She wonders now at the deep seeded insecurities that gave rise to this scheme.  Why has this man never felt worthy enough to publicly claim the title he earned?   He’s so very proud of his power, but ashamed of everything else, she worries.  

 

“This changes nothing between us.”  Carl keeps speaking in conclusory statements.  Like if he says them enough, they will become true.  “I am a very private man with a very public job,” he explains.  But she’s heard that line before and it is woefully inadequate for the situation.  He continues:  “You and I are like we always have been.  I don’t want my job to come between us.”  And that attitude feels like he is denying her reaction to the news entirely.  Like this is something she’s being unreasonable about and not him.  Because ‘by the way, I’m the Emperor’ is apparently just the next stage in their relationship. 

 

So, she calls him on it.  “How can you say that?  This changes everything!  This ruins everything!  Of course, you were too good to be true. . .”   Tosca looks away and sighs.   “Maybe this is for the best since we never had a future anyway . . .”

 

He looks aghast.  “Don’t say that!  Tosca—“

 

She interrupts.  All concerns for a demure, respectful posture are gone.  Emperor or not, she’s going to give this man a piece of her mind.  “Is that how you are going to resolve every argument—put me to sleep in the Force?”  

 

He doesn’t even have the good grace to look sheepish about it.   “I wanted us to talk in private.” 

 

“So did I!   But you wouldn’t let me leave.  So you used that power you love so much to shut me up. Because surprise!”  Tosca throws up her hands.  “You're the Emperor and you can do that.”  

 

“You were hurt,” he points out. 

 

“Yes, I’m hurt!”

 

“Injured!”  He quickly amends his choice of word.  “I meant that you were injured and it was still dangerous and you were upset and I didn’t want you to do something rash.”

 

“I just wanted to check on my girls—“

 

“They are fine.”

 

“Yes, but no one knew that then.”  Tosca’s eyes search his now.  “Were you ever going to tell me?” she asks.

 

“I wanted to tell you,” he hedges, looking away.  

 

“Answer me!  Were you ever going to tell me?”

 

“I was trying to tell you,” he offers weakly.

 

And maybe that is true, but Tosca seethes. Because Carl had plenty of opportunities before that to come clean.  “You were afraid to tell me!” she accuses.  

 

Carl is defensive. “It was to protect you!”

 

Tosca sees a different motivation. “It was to protect you!” 

 

“I didn’t want to lose you,” he admits.  “I never meant to hurt you.”

 

Tosca closes her eyes and moans, “How could I have been so stupid??  It all makes sense now . . .”

 

Carl looks as miserable as she feels.  He confesses softly, “I kept hoping you would guess.”

 

She calls him on this.  “No, you didn't! You kept misleading me even as you left clues everywhere--”

 

“I never lied to you.”

 

“How can you say that!  It was all one big lie!” she vents.  

 

He stiffens.  “It was not.  You know far more of the truth of me than anyone else,” Carl claims.  “Everything I told you was the truth, except my position.”

 

She folds her arms and narrows her eyes.  “Yeah, right, Lord Tenebrae.”  

 

He scowls at her very uncharacteristic sarcasm.  “That was my name before I seized power,” he reveals.  “Marka Ragnos gave me that name.  At thirteen, he dubbed me Lord of Darkness because he knew I would become more than an ordinary Lord.  He had foreseen that I would become the Dark Lord.”

 

Tosca rolls her eyes.  “Don't start in about your power.  I'm far less impressed than you are with

your power.”

 

“That power saved your life!” he grinds out.  

 

“That power was the whole reason I was in danger in the first place,” she shoots back.  And whatever.  That’s not really the issue.  She gets to the crux of the matter.   “I came here to save my family.  I made a bargain with you to take the veil.  Not to be the Emperor’s duped lover!  Dragged down into your dangerous life of lies!”

 

He raises an eyebrow. “Would have preferred to be passed around the priesthood?”

 

Tosca seethes.  “All along, you were the one who proscribed Marcus.”

 

“Your loser husband is to blame for that!”

 

“You're the loser here,” she jeers.  “Marcus is an honorable man who didn't need to trick me into sex.”

 

He refutes this.  “I didn’t trick you!  I am the chief priest of the Temple.  You got what you bargained for—“

 

Not really.  She got a whole lot more.  But Tosca just turns away.  “Whatever.  I don't care.  It doesn't matter,” she lies.   Tosca sighs and wipes at her brimming eyes.  “Did you just do this on a whim?   Were you bored?” she wonders aloud.

 

He is indignant. “I do nothing on a whim.  Everything is strategic.”

 

She nods.  “So what was your angle with me?”

 

“I told you.  The Force sent you to me.”

 

“Yeah riiight,” she scoffs. 

 

“It’s true!  I told you—I saw you in a vision before you showed up in my throne room. I knew that we would be something special.”  Carl looks her in the eye as incredibly he claims, “That was why from the beginning I was so open with you about myself.  I knew you were safe to confide in because we were foretold by the Force.”

 

“We?   We??   There is no we!  We were a lie!” Tosca bemoans.  “You're pathetic, you know that? You’re the most powerful Lord there is, but you are so desperate that you have to coerce another man’s wife for yourself?”   She feels terribly manipulated and she’s not shy about saying it.  But maybe that came out a bit harsh . . .

 

Carl’s eyes glitter at her pointed criticism.  “You know I can take whatever I want,” he growls back.  But then, he is hurt.  He shoots her a reproachful look.  “It's not such a terrible thing when your lover turns out to be the Emperor, you know.”

 

Tosca blinks.  “What is this?   Some fairytale where you kiss the frog and he turns into a prince?  Only he's Emperor who proscribed your husband?”

 

“That wasn't personal.  It was business.  I had never met you when Struct’s name went on that list.  And besides, not too long ago you were grabbing a sword rushing to defend me!”  Carl’s face and his tone soften as he wistfully recalls, “Oh, Tosca, you were magnificent in that moment.  So valiant . . . so noble . . . so good . . .”

 

“That was when I believed in you,” she sighs wistfully herself.   Then, she bursts into tears.  

 

“Hey . . . ” Carl approaches to envelope her in his arms.  He lays her aching head against his shoulder and soothes, “Nothing has changed.  Just my job.  I don’t influence the Emperor, I am the Emperor.  So what?  This ought to be good news.  And you were just fine with the rest of it before.”

 

Yes, she had been.  But in her mind, Carl had been a bit like herself—a man making the best of a situation he didn’t really want but was forced to contend with.  And if he had some crazy unorthodox views, he was one outlier voice among many influencing Lord Vitiate.  But now, it turns out that those views are the Emperor’s own views.  And while Tosca is not a particularly political person, she finds it galling that the Sith Emperor seems to believe less in the supremacy of Darkness and the Empire than the subjects he rules. 

 

“I know it’s a bit of a shock.  In time, you will get used to it,” he promises.   

 

“No.  I won't.”  Confused and upset as she is, Tosca is very certain about this.   She sighs as she pulls away.  “You said we were equals in this arrangement.  That either of us could say when it is over.  Well, it's over,” she chokes out.  “I want to go h-home,” she hiccups.

 

His eyes flash bright yellow.  “You're still a Temple girl until I release you.”

 

“Fine,” she snaps.  Recklessly, she threatens, “I’ll sleep with the other priests now.   I agreed to that.  But I won't sleep with you!”

 

Again, Carl looks hurt.  “You know I don’t want that!   And you don’t want that either!” he accuses.

 

It’s true.  She immediately backs down.   “You’re right.  I’m sorry.”

 

“Are you trying to hurt me?” he pouts.  “Is this punishment?”

 

“No.”  Yes.  She can’t meet his eyes. 

 

“In time, you will get used to it,” he repeats with far more conviction than the situation merits.  

 

“And if I don’t?” she challenges.

 

“You don't get to walk away.  We have to sort this out.”

 

Her eyes narrow.  “Right, it's you.  No one gets to disagree with you.  You just kill them.  Your family, your old girlfriend, and probably countless others, right?   Well, go ahead,” she stands before him, arms outstretched, “kill me now and get it over with.”

 

Carl fumes.  He refuses to be goaded.  “That's not what I want and you know it!  What’s gotten into you?” he complains. “You are never this dramatic.  You are acting like one of your girls.”

 

Chastised, Tosca flushes.  Maybe she is going overboard.  But she is so hurt and Carl seems unwilling even to acknowledge it.  

 

“I like that we can fight without trying to kill each other,” Carl takes the high road. He’s the one keeping a cool head in the face of her reckless anger.   “Look, I kill plenty of people.  It ends conflicts, but it does not resolve them.  Trust me, there is a difference.  Plus, it says something about a couple when they can fight and still stay together.  I like that we are adults who can discuss hard things rationally.  And I enjoy that you are woman of experience and tact, not like the rest of those ditzy girls.  Tosca, I want you to speak your mind to me.  I don’t need another yes-man.”

 

Alright.  Tosca lowers her voice and reconsiders her stance.  She is calm and detached when she speaks.  “Well, then.  I am telling you now that this is over.”  How’s that for speaking truth to power, she thinks.

 

It goes nowhere.  Carl shakes his head patiently. “Slow down. There’s no need to rush to extremes.  Take it from someone who has made a lot of decisions, kneejerk reactions are usually a bad idea.  Never make decisions based on emotion.”

 

“But—“

 

“You will get used to it.  In a few days, it will be just like always,” he cajoles as he squeezes her good arm.  “We will love one another and be happy.”

 

“I don’t know . . .” she wavers in the face of his optimism. 

 

“Fate has chosen you for me.  Accept it.  Don't fight it.”   He smiles as he encourages, “The Force is with us.  You’ll see.”

Again, he is negating her feelings and wishes.  But he’s not pulling rank as Emperor to get his way. Instead, he’s cloaking his personal wishes in the will of the Force.  It is a bit galling coming from the chief heretic himself.  Now, it’s Tosca’s turn to fume . . . and to second guess herself.  Is she overreacting?  Could this be good news, not bad news?

 

“But—”

He preempts her again.  This time with a light kiss on her forehead.  “Don’t let this ruin things between us.  We are so good together.”

 

As she stands there, uncertain what to think, he urges, “Come.”  It ends the argument.  “The medics are here to check on your progress.   Let’s get you healed,” he instructs as he leads her from the apartment. 

 

The medics examine her.  They pronounce her concussion to be minor and proscribe more rest.  They warn of lingering headaches over the next week.  If she has dizziness or vomiting, they want to be contacted.   Otherwise, the injury should heal in time.  Every day will be better, they promise.  

 

They leave her swollen cheek alone, telling her it is superficial and will heal completely in a few days.  But when Tosca looks in the mirror at her bruised face and still swollen lip, she cringes.   Stop it, Carl chides her.  You are beautiful. 

 

The flashburn blaster graze on her left upper arm has already scabbed over with puckered, tight skin.  The bacta patch accelerates healing, the medics explain.  In a week’s time, it will be gone.  But they warn she may always wear a faint scar from the injury.  

 

“You got that scar for me,” Carl muses when they are alone afterwards.  “Think of it like a hand slash,” he smirks, referring to the matching mark married couples traditionally wear on their left hands. “It marks you as mine.”  The comment reveals that Carl didn’t hear a thing she told him earlier.  Or, if he did, he refuses to accept it.   But rather than argue further, Tosca just looks away.  

 

She wants to go back to the Temple cloister to check on the girls.  To take a shower and change out of her torn dress that smells like sweat, blood, and blaster fire.  But Carl insists that she return to his apartment to lie down.  And, he points out, she’s not supposed to get that new bacta bandage wet for the first few hours.  Weary of conflict, she agrees.  If you feel up to it, you can watch the ritual tonight and see the girls, Carl offers.  

 

As it turns out, Tosca does need her rest.  Despite all that Force sleep, she takes a long nap.  She only wakes when Carl comes to check on her.  He’s about to begin the ritual punishment of the traitors.   Does she want to come?   Not really, but it’s her chance to see the girls.  So she washes her face and secures her hair in a messy bun with some hair pins she finds in the apartment.  Next, Tosca locates her Temple girl cape she discarded days ago after dinner.   She throws the scarlet cloak over her shoulders and pulls the hood down low to obscure her face.  It hides her torn and soiled dress, bandaged arm, lack of makeup, and bruised features.  She’s presentable if you don’t look closely.  

 

She walks with Carl and his praetorians to the Temple vestibule.   There she reunites with her girls.  There is much embracing and a few tears.  Everyone is concerned about her, but Tosca reassures them she will be fine.  

 

She opts not to participate in the ritual.  Instead, Tosca takes Carl’s advice to sit and watch from the far back of the sanctuary.  He knows her well enough to know that she will find it distasteful.  For he specifically warns that there will be a lot of children killed and that may trigger her.  Their only crime is being born a son to one of the conspirators.   Many of the boys are far too young to have lent their knowledge and talents to the insurrection.  If this is too much for you, sneak out the back, Carl advises under his breath.  I know you’ve seen a lot of death lately.  But this is Dark justice, and it must be done.  That attitude horrifies Tosca, although it does not surprise her.

 

Carl is unapologetic about the fate of the condemned.    For, in truth, Carl is rarely overly concerned with the suffering of others.  He is first and foremost concerned with power.   After all, this is a man who puts to death boy infants who are born with exceptionally high midichlorian counts.  He won’t even allow an innocent child with the potential to rival him to live.  And so, he will never permit the men who actually attempted to rival him to survive.  But, to his credit, Carl has always been forthright about his primary loyalty.  Tosca just failed to appreciate the full context.

 

Putting the fate of the children aside, the majority of those dying tonight are truly guilty.   They are adults who knew the risks of their decisions and associations.   Lord Fulsome had been remarkably transparent about his aspirations.  That means none of the Lords present tonight can claim to be misled.  They are each a traitor, dying a traitor’s death.   There is some justice here, she knows.  This isn’t like Proscription.

 

But it will probably end the same way, Tosca guesses as she watches the ritual begin.  There will be a pile of bodies.  Carl will send everyone away so they cannot witness his unstable aftermath.  Then he will stumble blindly into his garden, looking a wreck and seeking comfort in her arms.  And remembering how weak and vulnerable he had seemed after the last one of these rituals, Tosca knows that she will be tempted to help him.  And then, he will want things to progress from there.  But Tosca will be damned if she will end up in bed with Carl tonight.  She’s not about to acquiesce to his contention that nothing has changed. 

 

Her eyes now sweep over the throng of prisoners standing in chains.  There are at least three hundred, she guesses.  And though these men came for her personally in their violent coup, Tosca can’t help but consider their perspective.  Could Lord Fulsome and his would-be military junta be actual patriots?   Tosca cannot decide.  But it’s not lost on her that a lot of what these men wanted are the stated goals of the Empire.  With Lord Vitiate dragging his feet, they took matters into their own hands.  What other choice did they have?   In a regime of absolute power, even the Dark Council only has so much influence.  So, short of swaying Carl to their cause, a coup was the logical solution.  Tosca has no doubt that these men took up arms to overthrow the Emperor thinking it would save the Empire.  So . . . knowing Carl’s views as well as she does, Tosca considers:  were they justified?   She doesn’t know. 

 

In the Republic that Master Crutcher described, there are regular elections and multiple branches of government with specific spheres of authority.  The Senate Chancellor might lead the Republic, but he does so for a finite time and with limited authority.  So no matter how bad he is, his tenure is limited.  Someone else eventually comes along and they are a fresh start.  Not so in the Empire.  Lord Vitiate has been in control for a millennium.  And, if that revolt was any indication, he won’t be overthrown any time soon.  Carl will hang on until the bitter end—which may well be forever since he is immortal.   Change will only occur if and when he permits it.  

 

That seems like a flawed system to Tosca.   For without a means of open dissent and discussion, without any accountability to the citizenry, what’s to stop Carl from leading the Sith into disaster?    She knows that is not Carl’s intention.  He very much wants to do the right thing, she believes, even despite all his deception.  But . . . what if his judgment is wrong?  What if hiding from the Republic is a mistake?

 

These are issues that Tosca is ill prepared to determine.  Heretofore, she has never been a very political person.   She watched the news and current affairs programs on the state-run holonet and trusted them.  She also believed that the Emperor was wise and that his advisors and Lords uniformly supported his decisions.  It was only when she came here to the Palace that she became aware of deep divisions among the highest-ranking Lords.  As wife to a low-ranking army administrator, Tosca didn’t move in social circles where these matters were openly discussed.  But now, she’s at the epicenter of it all.  It’s like blinders have been pulled back from her eyes.  And what she sees is confusing and disturbing. 

 

Tosca’s attention now wanders back to the proceedings.  She watches Carl summon the Force with his big black kettle pot.   This isn’t really a Temple, she decides.  It’s more like Carl’s execution chamber. For the only thing that seems to get the chief priest onto the altar is a ritual of death.  And that seems so wrong.  Like he is profaning the sacred with his personal politics.  Lord Vitiate is not committed to Darkness so much as he is committed to himself.   And, all in all, he seems to be taking the revolt in stride, like it’s more an annoyance than a true threat. 

 

The ritual keeps progressing.  From the Proscription ceremony, Tosca knows what’s coming next.  Soon the blue mist of Force energy will emerge from each of the prisoner’s bodies as Carl absorbs their very souls.  They will be annihilated and Carl will be weakened and overcome from the sheer Darkness of it all.  Then, he will go seeking life and the Light to right him back to an equilibrium.

 

This is how their affair began, Tosca recalls.  With Carl weak and in need of help, only to rebound fast and seduce her for a wild marathon of sex.  She fears he will come looking for a repeat of that night once he’s done here.  With that in mind, once the blue mist first appears, Tosca abandons her post at the back of the sanctuary.  She doesn’t take refuge in the garden.  She’s knows it’s the first place Carl will head.   And she’s not anxious to return to the cloister where she knows she will have to retell the story of her role in the coup attempt.  So instead, she wanders to the Temple entrance to the portrait of Dark Lord Marka Ragnos. 

 

Now here is a leader to admire, she thinks.  A hero who repeatedly showed his face and revealed his plans to his people.  Not an insecure poseur who hides behind an elaborate mystery to cloak his illegitimacy, lack of formal training, and impoverished colonial background.  Marka Ragnos presided over a golden age for the Sith, a time when the Empire and its proud Lords lived in the open. Unapologetic for their Darkness and ambitions.  Not like now when the Empire exists in hiding, just like its reclusive leader.  Carl is afraid to confront the Empire’s enemies and fearful for the future.  It is the antithesis of all that Marka Ragnos envisioned for his people.   And that causes Tosca to again wonder if that loathsome Lord Fulsome was right.  Because unless Carl gets bored one day and decides to abdicate and go become a Jedi, then it’s going to take a revolt to replace him as Dark Lord. 

 

Feeling stressed and needing to breathe, Tosca tosses her cloak hood back. It lays bare her brutalized face and messy hair, but this isn't the Temple chamber proper, so she judges it acceptable.  Plus, there’s no one here to see but the new temporary replacement guards conscripted from the local police force.

 

Tosca hears the girls’ voices from down the hallway now.  The ritual must be over if they are heading back to the cloister.  Then, there are long minutes of silence before she hears a solitary man’s footsteps.  They stop at the threshold to the Temple foyer.  Tosca looks up.

 

It’s Carl.  She knew he would come looking for her. 

 

Even with his cloak hood pulled low to obscure all but his beard, Carl has a haunted, hunted look about him.  He’s a blank in the Force, as usual.  But something about his aura strongly suggests desperation.  Is this that Jedi Force bond they tried to forge asserting itself?  Or is this just a telltale sign of how close they have become?   Because Tosca doesn’t just know on an intellectual level that Carl needs her.   It’s like she feels it in her heart.  And that makes him especially hard to resist.  Looking up at Carl now, she has a strong urge to run to him and wrap her arms around him.  But she resists.

 

Still, her voice conveys her concern.  “Oh, Carl,” she commiserates.  “It is done?"

 

"It is done.   They’re all dead except for Fulsome.  I plan to take my time with him."   The menace with which Carl says this matches his blood specked yellow eyes.  Tosca involuntarily shudders and turns away.  Because this is not a man to argue with tonight. 

 

"Very well, then.  Goodnight, my Lord."  She makes to head to the cloister. 

 

But he stays her with a heavy hand on her still sore arm.  "I need you, my dear." 

 

"My Lord," she squirms, her eyes darting over to the men who flank the Temple entrance.  “The guards,” she reminds him under her breath.

 

Carl ignores this concern.  In full view of the watching eyes, he leans in close to kiss her uninjured cheek and whispers in her ear.  "I need you tonight."

 

“Carl—“

 

"Yessss," he breathes out. "Call me Carl.   Come, let us reconcile.  Shine your Light on me, my Lady."  He nuzzles at her neck and rasps, "I will be a lost Dark soul without you.”

 

“But Carl—”

 

“Take pity on me.   I need to feel your arms around me.  Give me your love.  Tell me you care.”

 

“Not tonight—“

 

“Shhhh,” he soothes, still pressing his case.  “I know you are hurt.  I will be gentle.”

 

Tosca pulls back and shoots him a hard look.  She’s not in the mood for this.  And that he expects it feels nothing short of astounding.  She raises an eyebrow coolly.  "Is this a command performance?"

 

He frowns.  Then pouts like a little boy.  "Don't make it like that."   And now his lips find her throat.  They are giving the guards quite a show.   But she'd be lying if she said she isn't tempted.  Because, in truth despite all that has happened, she is weak for this man.  And that's what makes this moment so difficult.  Because it feels so tempting to say yes.   She knows he’s in bad shape tonight and doesn’t want to be alone.

 

“We are the will of the Force,” he whispers between kisses that trace her jawline.

 

“For what purpose?” she challenges.

 

“I don’t yet know.  But I can’t wait to find out,” he rasps huskily.

 

He’s got his hands reaching under her voluminous cloak.  They wander and squeeze her curves, careful to avoid her sore arm.  It’s a bold move in this public space, but her body is starting to respond and her resolve is wearing thin.  A few minutes more of this and they will be naked in his nearby garden making love.  Tosca knows that she needs to put a stop to this now. 

 

"It's over," she sighs without heat.  "You can't order me to love you.   Love doesn't work like that.”

 

He is undeterred.  "When have I ever ordered you around?  Even when I try to command you, you ignore me and do what you want.  You are very disobedient," he accuses softly.  He doesn't sound at all angry about it.

 

"That was before I knew who you were," she hisses under her breath. 

 

"Does that mean you will obey from here on out?" He chuckles low in his throat. 

 

It's the wrong thing to say.  Irritated Tosca thrusts him back from her.  "Take your hands off me!" she snarls abruptly.  "I told you--this is over!    And stop calling me Light!  I am a Sith Lady born and bred for Darkness.  Maybe you should learn from it," she jeers, “since you are hardly devout.”

 

They are eye to eye now, for Carl has at most two inches over her remarkable height. His feral yellow eyes, so painful looking with bloodshot marks, pin her down. "I am Dark enough for you,” he promises. 

 

It feels like a threat.  Tosca takes a step back. 

 

Still, she verbally stands her ground.  “I won’t do this.  This is over!”   She is brutally honest now.  Perhaps that’s foolish given who this man is and the condition he currently is in.  But the rawness of her emotions combined with the enormous lie she has unwittingly discovered have her craving truth.   Her hushed words now come out fast, like a crescendo of regrets.   “I don’t trust you . . . I refuse to love you . . . I don’t even know if I respect you,” she admits.  “I spent most of that ritual wondering if the traitors were right all along and you should be deposed!”

 

He stands there facing her in inscrutable silence. 

 

It makes her take another involuntary step back.  She hangs her head.  “I-I’m s-sorry, but that’s how I feel right now.   This isn’t something you can fix with an apology.”   And come to think of it, Carl hasn’t said that he’s sorry for his deceit.   His approach has been more to expect her to deal with it.  Like it’s no big deal. 

 

“You’re so angry,” he rumbles, like it is finally registering. 

 

“Yes, I am.  Good night, my Lord.”  Once more, she tries to take her leave. 

 

“Don’t do this.   Please don’t do this,” he mutters as he catches her arm.

 

She snatches it back and chokes out, “I just watched you murder innocent children—“

 

He grunts.  “It’s not the first time.  It won’t be the last.”

 

“Stop being so proud of it—“ she accuses.

 

“I’m not!” he snaps.  “I’m not proud of any of this!   But there are things I must do.  It’s the price you pay for power.  For order.”

 

She nods solemnly.  Yes, she gets it.   There is nothing this man won’t sacrifice for power.   And really, that ought to tell her everything she needs to know about how different their core values are.  Tosca inhales a ragged breath.  Looking away, she tells him, “Well, maybe I am part of that price too.”

 

“This isn’t goodnight—” he begins.

 

She interrupts.  “You’re right!  This is goodbye.”  She looks him in the eye.  “I fear that we have both made a terrible mistake—”

 

“The Force makes no mistakes.”

 

“It did with us.”  Blinking back tears and biting her lip to keep her composure, Tosca chokes out, “Carl, I hope you find what you’re looking for.  Whether you realize it or not, I don’t think it’s power.”

 

“Don’t do this.   Please don’t do this.  You could damn us both with the Force.”

 

Tosca doesn’t care.  Almost on instinct, she walks towards the Temple entrance this time, and not towards the interior exit that will lead to the cloister.  As the distance between them grows, she picks up speed.  She’s worried he will stop her.  But he doesn’t.  He just watches her walk away.

 

With her back turned, she doesn’t see his face.   She doesn’t know that as Dark as Carl is in the wake of the ritual, his forbearance requires remarkable self-control.  For the Lords of the Sith are known to be obsessive and possessive, emphatic and insistent, aggressive and determined.  And this man is the Darkest Lord of all.  But in truth, that is the reason he hangs back and watches her go.  Because this man, unlike all others in his Empire, has begun to reassess the role of the Light.  And so as the Light in his life rejects him, he quashes his strong instinct to chase and subdue it. 

 

But that does not mean he remains silent.  “You cannot leave me!” Carl hollers after her.  “We are Force bonded!   We are tied on a string!  I bridged our minds!”

 

Tosca picks up her pace.  She’s afraid to turn around.  She’s also more determined than ever to flee the Temple.  Because if she doesn’t get away now, she fears she will lose her opportunity forever. 

 

And still, he rages, an angry fist held aloft to punctuate his words.  “You cannot leave me!  No matter where you go, no matter what you do, I will always be with you!” The words sound both devoted and malevolent, like a lover’s promise and an enemy’s curse. 

 

They also ring completely true in the Force. 

 

But Tosca keeps walking.  Past the guards, out the Temple entrance, and onto the Palace grounds.  Then, out to the street.  No one stops her.  Because even though these guards are filling in for dead men, someone has evidently told them what all the regular Palace guards knew:   that the tall blonde woman is the Temple matron and she can come and go as she pleases.  She’s a special case.  The exception to every rule.

 

Tosca hasn’t even left the Palace grounds when she whips off her scarlet Temple girl cloak and casts it to the ground.   Like the hated red veil she once hurled into the street, it marks her for a ward of the state.  A cloistered concubine of the Temple priests.  And, a blissfully unaware pet mistress to the Emperor himself.  Well, no more.  Only days ago, Carl had asked her to affirmatively choose to be his consort—whatever that meant.  Well, she rejects that offer.   She will return to the quiet life she once happily led as wife to an unimpressive Lord and mother to his sons.  She’s no longer Lady Tosca, Temple matron.   She’s back to being Lady Struct. 

 

She heads home.  It's where she wanted to be in the first place.  Because long before there was Carl, there was Marcus and her boys.  But it’s a long walk.  Tosca isn’t surprised when the cops pick her up after about an hour. She’s wandering alone at night, tired, bedraggled, and bruised.  Thankfully, the officers who intercept her are not from the Palace.  It’s just a routine patrol on the quiet, orderly streets of Kaas City.

 

They shine a bright light that makes her squint and start asking questions.  Tosca gives her name and her address. Why is a Lady out walking alone at night?  She is walking home.  Please take me home, Tosca requests.  The cops clearly think this is some sort of domestic disturbance.  That she had a fight with her husband and ran away.  So, they put her in the speeder and head for the Struct residence.

 

The Struct family lives in a small home in a very respectable part of town.  But it’s not the sprawling multigenerational compound that the grand families live in.  And so, when the police walk her up to the front door, a servant doesn’t answer.  Instead, it is the Lord himself.

 

Marcus has taken off his cloak, breastplate, and shoulder armor.  He stands in his boots, pants, and undershirt.   He just watches in silence as the police present her. 

 

“Good evening, my Lord.”  Both officers salute to show respect to their betters.  “We found this woman walking downtown near the Palace.  She asked us to take her to this address.  She claims to be Lady Struct.  Is this your wife?”

 

A long moment of tense silence ensues.   Marcus looks at her.   She looks at Marcus. 

 

He looks terrible.  He’s aged ten years in the months she has been gone.  His hair is much grayer and thinner now.  Longer, too, and unkept looking.   In fact, everything about her normally spit-and-polish military husband appears neglected.  He is thin, even for him.  It makes his clothes hang loose on him. It also gives his long face jowls and hollows she doesn’t remember.  Maybe she shouldn’t be surprised that Marcus isn’t at his best given there is no one to look after him, but his new appearance is jarring. Of course, she looks a wreck too with her yellow-green-purple hued cheek, fat lip, and slightly black eye.  Add to that her bedraggled and dirty hair, and a once lovely and conspicuously expensive dress that is now torn in multiple places and missing most of its left sleeve.  Tonight, it seems, neither Lord nor Lady Struct is looking their best.

 

The lead officer keeps looking between them both expectantly.  He’s clearly cognizant of underlying tension, but chalking it up to an ugly fight based on her battered condition.   Finally, after an even longer uncomfortable silence has occurred, the man clears his throat and prompts, “My Lord?” 

 

Marcus silently steps aside from the doorway to admit her. 

 

Tosca takes her cue and walks inside.  Behind her, she can hear the officers speaking with Marcus.  He’s thanking them for their service and their discretion in this matter.   In return, they wish him goodnight.  The cops don’t ask questions about what prompted the incident.  They leave things in the hands of the Master of the household.  Because by long custom, wide deference is given to Lords of the Sith in family matters.  

 

Once inside, Tosca observes that her home matches the state of its Lord.   Things are askew and haphazard.  It’s not dirty, so much as neglected.  The maid appears to have cleaned around the clutter, but the detritus of two boys and a husband have piled up.  Tosca spies an open backpack on the floor with two sword hilts spilling out.  Several pairs of shoes and boots appear to have been left where someone walked out of them.  There are jackets and capes piled on the couch and one sock lays in the middle of the living room rug.  Is that a training remote on the credenza?   Yes, it is.  Plus, there are datapads and datafiles littered across most surfaces.  It’s the flotsam and jetsam of family life, except it’s everywhere she looks.  As Tosca starts reflexively picking things up, Marcus comes in from the foyer.

 

“Leave it,” he commands.  “Now, report.”

 

Tosca straightens up and faces her reckoning with her husband with as much dignity and grace as possible.  “I left the cloister.”

 

“Does this mean your debt for my Proscription is paid?”

 

She is honest.  “I don’t know.”

 

“Then why did you leave?”

 

“I couldn’t stay any longer.”

 

“Because someone beat you up?”

 

“No.  I got hurt by accident.”

 

“In the coup?”

 

She looks up sharply.  “You know about that?”

 

“Everyone in the army knows about it.”

 

“Oh.”

 

This is no heartfelt reunion.  Their exchange is terse and factual.  All the important things are left unsaid. 

 

“Are the boys in bed?”

 

“Yes.  How did you get hurt?”

 

“In the coup attempt.  But I’m fine.  It’s all healing.”  Tosca tells a version of the truth now.  “After that coup, I couldn’t stay at the Temple any longer.”

 

Marcus raises an eyebrow. “But no one let you go?  You are here without permission?”

 

“Yes.”

 

He makes a face and runs a weary hand over his features.  “So, I should expect the house to be raided by praetorians any minute now?  Is that it?”

 

“The praetorians are all dead.  But yes, someone might come for me,” she concedes.  She’s really not sure how Carl will handle this.

 

“I’ll go get dressed,” Marcus sighs. 

 

“No!  No, wait!   This is my problem, not yours—“

 

That sets him off. “NO!” Marcus roars.  It’s a complete departure from his demeanor heretofore, and it makes her jump.   “This was my problem originally and you made it yours by interfering!   Never did I dream that you would go behind my back and bargain my life in exchange for taking the veil!   You had no right!” he accuses hotly.

 

Tosca stares him down.  “I saved your life!”

 

“And you stole my honor!”  Marcus looks livid.  Like a man on the verge of losing control.

 

“I was protecting the boys!  There was far more than just your honor at stake!  Look, it would have happened somehow anyway.  He saw me in the Force.  We would have met eventually—“

 

“Who is he?   That bearded priest with the old-time name?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I don’t trust that guy.”

 

“You shouldn’t.”

 

This is a confrontation too long delayed.  The pent-up emotion on both sides feels overwhelming.  Marcus rages, “We used to make decisions together!  We consulted each other—“

 

“You never would have let me go.”

 

“Precisely!  You knew that and you went anyway!  You call me Lord, you kneel to show your place, and yet you undercut me when it matters most!”

 

“You never would have let me go.”

 

“Well, you’re not going back.  If the Palace guard shows up, I will answer for this.  As I should have all along.   Do you understand??  My wife does not fight my battles!”

 

In the face of his indignation, she caves.  “Yes.”

 

“Yes, what?” Marcus snaps.

 

“Yes, Master.”

 

He shoots her a withering look.  “You’re not wearing your wedding ring.  What does that mean?”

 

“He took it.”

 

“Who took it?”

 

“The Emperor.”

 

“Did you sleep with him too?” Marcus jeers.

 

“Yes.”

 

Lord Struct now does something he never does.   He swears.  “Fuuuuuck!”  She opens her mouth to speak but he waves her quiet.  “No.  Don’t tell me anymore.  I don’t want to know.  Don’t tell me any of it!”

 

Marcus turns on heel to stalk away towards his study.  His shoulders are back with the erect military posture he learned from his father.  But his head is bowed, and that’s very unlike him.  Like all Lords, Marcus is a proud man.  But tonight, he appears humbled, and it’s hard to watch.  Tosca blames herself. 

 

She wants to run after him.  To let Marcus lash out further until his anger is spent.  She will gladly accept his blame and anger.  And then, she will hug him and they will begin anew.   It’s the reconciliation Carl had been looking for from her, but Tosca wants it with her husband instead.  Only in this scenario, the roles are reversed and she is the one standing alone watching her hope for the future walk away.  It’s dispiriting.  This long-awaited homecoming already feels like a mistake and she’s five minutes in.

 

Tosca trudges over to the couch and sinks down.  Looking around at her surroundings that look so familiar and yet so different, she can’t help but think that the old saying is true.  You can never go home again.  Carl had said that the Force is with them, but it sure doesn’t feel that way right now. 

 

END OF PART ONE

 

More to come.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Thanks for reading.  Here are some thoughts on this story so far.

 

When I wrote DARKER last year, I envisioned the Sith Empire as something akin to the latter days of the Roman Republic. For those who know their Roman history, think the days of strongmen like Marius or Sulla with the elites jockeying for position or maybe to seize power themselves.   A few aristocratic families functioned as the ruling class and very few others were able to break in.  Even then, they were never fully accepted.  Merit only goes so far in a caste system based on genealogy.  The alliances through kinship and marriage, the military-bent and fixation on glory, the ambition for oneself disguised as ambition for Rome—those are all attributes at work in Ye Olde Sith Empire as well.  I liked the analogy so much that I even made Latin my stand-in for the ancestral Sith language Kittat.  Please forgive any syntax mistakes—it’s been many years since I translated the Aeneid.

 

Anyhow, I like the era of the Sith Empire.  With the Skywalker saga coming to an end soon, I’m looking for other aspects of SW to enjoy.  And, honestly, this is a story that has been rattling around my head for a while. Bits and pieces of it are scattered throughout my recent fics.  But Vitiate is a man whose life spans thousands of years.  And during that time, he changes.  That’s why the Vitiate of Taking the Veil is not the same man you meet later in my other stories.  But for as much as people change, they also stay the same in important ways.  And so, I want readers to be able to recognize the later version of Vitiate in this character.

 

This Vitiate is a disguised manipulator who convinces you to agree with his wishes, often making you think it’s your own idea.  He purports the veneer of mediator or peacekeeper who is looking to avoid conflicts.  But, in fact, he stokes and ripens conflicts for his own aims.  His does this on a small scale with Tosca and he does it on a large scale with the Imperial elites.  This guy knows someone is plotting against him so he gives him a job at the Palace to egg him on. 

 

He’s also bored.  Vitiate has done basically all there is to do on the Dark Side other than defeating the Republic.  So . . . now what?  He’s seen the limits of Dark power.  He’s begun to question the Sith religion. He’s curious about the Republic and the Jedi.  Drawn to Tosca for reasons he does and doesn’t understand.  Because balancing the Force isn’t a concept that has even occurred to him.

 

He’s also wholly dissatisfied with the Sith society he rules over and is, rather ironically, an outsider in.   Why will Vitiate go on to create another hidden empire posing as Valkorion?  Why thousands of years later disguised as Snoke will he not call himself a Sith?  Because Vitiate was never really a Sith by birth, never really trained a proper Sith Lord, and he will ultimately move away from the Sith religion altogether, even if he retains his Dark allegiance.  This story is Vitiate at a crossroads he doesn’t understand and is just beginning to recognize.  It starts when into his life walks a woman who unwittingly volunteers to be the change agent he didn’t know he was looking for.

 

I first came across the character of Sith Emperor Vitiate when I was writing DARKER, the tale of Darth Malgus.  I have never played the KOTOR video games nor read any of the Star Wars Legends EU, so I had to read Vitiate’s Wookieepedia entry about a dozen times to make sense of the guy.  His exploits verged on the ridiculous and his bio is super complicated since he managed to live multiple lives ruling multiple empires.  But I liked the idea of him being the remote big baddie and so I concocted his backstory and had him lurking at the fringes of DARKER.  He is mentioned in passing by other characters, but Vitiate  himself only appears in the final chapter.  Less is more of Vitiate for that fic because Malgus is such a striver. He’s an ambitious man looking for recognition that is persistently withheld.   The answer to that riddle—and to the riddle of why Malgus is a household name in the Republic but mostly under the radar in his own Sith Empire—is revealed at the end.   Vitiate has conspired to covertly thwart Lord Malgus’ rise all along because he fears his potential. 

 

The Vitiate character also appears here and there in the fleeting memories of the amnesiac Revan in Recalled to Life.  Vitiate plays the same role as in DARKER—the remote mastermind father figure who is at once encouraging and discouraging.  But he’s not a real character in the story—more like a cameo. 

 

Still, I liked Vitiate and wanted to use him.  So he became the ultimate baddie/Skywalker family Force patriarch/Sith fairy godmother in my Reylo drama Versions of You.  Vitiate becomes the guy behind it all who connects all the dots through the various SW eras.  In his various Force projection disguises, Vitiate is everyone from Jedi Master Sifo Dias to Darth Plagueis to Snoke and others.  Why?   Because he’s bored and in jail.   He’s still the most powerful guy around but he’s imprisoned in the Force and only someone who can balance the Force can set him free.  Enter Kylo and Rey.  Or course, Vitiate gets out and he’s free to wreak havoc on the galaxy as the epic troll to Kylo Ren, pulling all sorts of stunts that were delicious fun to write. 

 

I like things to make sense, so I always write in-universe and canon compliant.  So . . . how to make sense of the EU canon version of Vitiate together with my own fan fic version of the character?   My solution was to explain and amplify Vitiate’s official childhood backstory to reason through why hiding and disguises are his go-to trick.  Vitiate is my Yoda-like trickster/Wizard of Oz of the Dark Side (the meddlesome Loki of SW for Marvel fans).  He lives life in a disguise long after he needs to do so.  That’s part habit, part strategy, and part insecurity.   But the illegitimacy, the parent murders, the takeover of his home world at age thirteen . . . all of that is canon.   I like it, too.   Killing your father (or parent figure) is a vintage SW Dark Side coming of age moment.   And hiding is also very SW.  Whether it’s Obi-Wan hunkered down on Tatooine, the separated-at-birth Skywalker twins, or just the concept of masks in general, hiding who you are is very SW.  But yeah . . . all Sith Lords are fucked up.   They are some of the most achingly human characters, and that makes them endlessly fascinating in all their various iterations.  Still, Vitiate takes being a hot mess of Darkness to a whole new level.  

 

The real defining aspect of my fan fic Vitiate/Snoke is his double threat of Dark knowledge combined with a begrudging respect for the Light.  Vitiate in Taking the Veil has a long way to go to become a man who can balance the Force in Versions of You, but I wanted the seeds of some of those ideas to be taking hold here.  The concepts of Dark and Light as complimentary and equally important are yet to occur to either the Sith or the Jedi (in my stories, poor Revan was a prophet largely ignored by both traditions).  But Vitiate is blindly groping towards those revelations in fits and starts.   He has already broken with much of the orthodoxy of his own Sith culture.  And that has him open to new ideas.   The real character arc for Vitiate in Taking the Veil will be how his love affair with Tosca impacts his views on the Force.   

 

The simplistic Jedi/Light=good and Sith/Dark=bad is a SW trope that I delight in upending time and again.  All my stories are written from the perspective of the Dark Side.  My heroes are always Dark.   No moralizing here.  But whether it’s Darth Malgus or Kylo Ren, my heroes believe they are the good guys making the right decisions in the circumstances.  That’s the drama of these men:  they want to save the galaxy just like their Jedi counterparts, they just have very different solutions.  This is key for me.  I like my Sith to be multifaceted characters not just nihilistic, incel bad guys.  Taking the Veil also plays with the concept of being politically Dark but not being actually Dark in Force orientation.   That’s a complexity that gets addressed in some of my other tales.  In particular, in quite a few of my Reylo tales, the First Order has better solutions to the galaxy’s problems than the New Republic.

 

I like to change up what people expect—I write SW ‘from a different point of view.’  Think the Sith are all power mad, uber confident warlords who can’t wait to attack the Republic, right?   Not Vitiate. He’s not a military man and he’s more afraid of the Republic than anything.  He’s the one seeking to avoid a war—mostly because it might threaten his position at the top of the heap.  Vitiate is far less ideological than he is self-motivated.  It’s less ‘I hate freedom/the Republic/the Jedi/let’s kill hope’ and more ‘I love me.’  The powerless orphan who needed love grows up to be the paranoid narcissist Emperor.   And . . . he’s still seeking love.   Because power is isolating and it’s never enough.  The lonely Sith is a trope for a reason!  (See, e.g. Vader, Kylo et al.)

 

Therein lies the overarching theme of all of my tales.  If there is one theme I can’t get away from, it’s the intersection of power and love.  What will you do for love?  What will you do for power?  Those are complicated questions for a Sith.  Sometimes, my Sith get the galaxy and the girl (that’s the Dark Side happily ever after), sometimes not.  And sometimes the sacrifices they make along the way are extreme:  children, family, truth, etc. all have a habit of being cast aside by my determined heroes.  Even when my bad guys win, they tend to lose something along the way. 

 

Incidentally, some readers hated the given name Carl for Vitiate/Snoke in Versions of You.  They thought he needed a more impressive name.   But I stand by Carl and the humble backstory that goes with it.

 

In the EU, Vitiate had spies in the Republic called the ‘Emperor’s children’ who were brainwashed from a tender age to act as his eyes and ears throughout the galaxy.  In my mind, Poppy is the first of these such figures.

 

I also love the idea of untutored Dark Force talents who stumble into their power and sometimes do terrible things by accident as a result.  Vitiate does that here to his stepfather just like Ben Solo does it to Luke Skywalker in Son of Darkness.  Kylo responds to Luke Skywalker standing over him with a sword by reflexively unleashing a Dark trick of great disproportion.  It kills his friends at the Jedi Temple by accident. Is he to blame or Luke to blame?   You decide. 

 

For our heroine, I chose an anti-Rey.  Tosca has very little Force, but plenty of education, status, family, social confidence, and sophistication.  She’s not an equal to Vitiate, but that doesn’t stop her from making her influence felt.  Tosca draws her moral authority from traditional female relationships—she is first and foremost a wife and a mother.  That’s why she ends up in the Temple in the first place.  And those are the roles she recreates at the Palace as the pseudo-wife to Vitiate and mother to her Temple girls.  This is very old school storytelling, I know.  But to me, it’s so retro that it feels almost subversive.

 

Tosca is no trained duelist and she only fights in this fic as an extension of Vitiate’s mind.  It’s the complete antithesis of the Strong Female Character that Disney keeps pushing on us with aggressive and worryingly Mary Sue-ish Rey, the disappointingly one-dimensional Captain Phasma, and emotionally flat Captain Marvel.  In fact, Tosca is as conventional and conformist as her society wants her to be.  The whole concept of the ‘improper princess’ who chafes at the expectations and limitations society places on her (see every Disney animated princess since the 1990s) has no bearing on this story.   If Tosca finds herself outside of Sith societal expectations, it’s because she feels forced into that position, not because she wants it.

 

I like it when being female is not the whole point of a character—tokenism is so trite.   I also like it when being female is part of the drama of the character.  Seeing a character act (and react) like a woman matters. Because men and women are different and any story that ignore that fact feels underdeveloped.  My boys have been watching all the Marvel flicks this spring and summer, and that’s been interesting.  (My oldest to me:  Mommy, my heart is half Star Wars and half Marvel now.  Me:  I forgive you.  This is what’s called unconditional love, son.)  Anyhow, forced to watch the entire MCU, I have become a fan of how Black Widow’s character is written.  She kicks ass but the far more interesting part of her character is how she interacts with the other Avengers.  From her understanding compassion for Hawkeye, to her pseudo romance with Hulk, to her compassion for Captain America, Black Widow bridges the differences between the male superheroes and inserts herself to help resolve their conflicts.  It’s very female.  She’s a peacemaker and a peacekeeper and a moral compass. 

 

Back to Tosca.  I imagine her as very soft and feminine looking.  A thick, tall woman with a beautiful face.  Think Hunter McGrady plus 15 years and 2 kids.  Or think Meghan McCain.   Tosca is a woman who is undeniably attractive even if her allure is somewhat outside the norm of Sith beauty standards.  She looks different and she is different.  Her attraction is more than physical, of course.  Tosca has the dignity and confidence of a lady to the manor born.  But she’s easily moved to compassion among the context of the hard ass, tough love Sith society.  All that empathy draws Vitiate like a moth to the flame. 

 

It doesn’t hurt that Vitiate thinks Tosca is sent by the Force.  My Dark heroes are always fools for the Force—true believers and incurable romantic dreamers.  They might not go seeking love, but they find it anyway.  And, naturally, it’s destiny!  But it’s also fucked up.  Because when you’re a paranoid, insecure, ultra-reclusive, power obsessed thousand-year-old-plus-some Sith Lord from a repressive society, you’re not good with people.

 

Vitiate’s deceit is very him.  He spends half of Version of You marching around in various Force disguises.  And, I’ve written similar plots before in His Padawan and the beginning of Ghosts of the Past.   Disguises, masks, secrets . . . it’s all very Sith.  Sith Lords are rarely who they outwardly appear.  My Sith lords are complicated, sometime contradictory men with big ambitions and big lives.  And that tends to draw their ladies into a web of deception and danger.  Once my Sith meets his lady, things are irreparably changed for both of them.  Though you can try to get away from these men (or they can try to push you away, as is the case in DARKER), that never works.  My Sith and his fated lady keep having their paths cross until love blooms.  And then, things tend to get really complicated. 

 

Next up comes the Force bond.  That’s cliché Reylo fangirl stuff, right?  Yeah, I suppose.  I’ll admit that I have long disdained the Force bond plot device, even though I have written it a couple of times because I feel compelled to conform to the current canon.  Warts and all, I am a slave to canon.  So since my Vitiate will become Snoke and Snoke at least claims he makes the Kylo-Rey Force bond (please!  Let that be true!  I want EVERY SINGLE LINE of what Snoke says in TLJ to be true), I wanted there to be a context for that move.   Vitiate/Snoke knows the power of the bond because he experiences it firsthand himself.  The love affair with Tosca will be a learning experience for Vitiate that will leave its mark in all sorts of ways.

 

Our heroine’s name Tosca is taken from Puccini’s opera Tosca.  The lead character in that opera is a woman who bargains sex in exchange for her condemned rebel boyfriend’s life.  Everyone is double crossing everyone else, so it works out badly for all involved.   Puccini heroines tend to be trusting to a fault, so I thought that also made the name appropriate for my deceived character.  If Vitiate is an opera character, he’s Wotan from Wagner’s Ring cycle.

 

Anyhow, more to come when I dream it up . . .  Thanks for reading.

Chapter Text

Darth Azamin stands in silent solidarity with Carl in the morning sunlight. They are both late for the Council meeting, but Carl doesn’t care. Nothing starts before he appears. And today, he is loath to leave his garden for a day of wrangling his most powerful Lords.

At his side, the stooped Lord Azamin observes offhand, "I miss seeing our Temple matron."

Carl doesn’t take the bait.

But Azamin is gently persistent, as always. Those hooded yellow eyes that miss nothing slant up towards him. "Lady Struct was not in attendance last week when I was here for Prime either. Tell me she is not still recovering.”

"She left."

"Got scared?"

"Yes."

Azamin pokes his cane at the ground, stabbing around as he purses his lips. "Well, I suppose that is to be expected. She probably saw a lot of carnage. Women don't like that sort of thing. It is the rare woman
who can appreciate violence."

Are they talking about this? He doesn’t want to talk about this. Well, alright. They can talk about this. Carl sighs. "She didn't just see a lot of carnage. She caused a lot of carnage."

"Did she now?" Azamin is intrigued.

"She nearly blew the head off Marrow with a blaster shot. It was completely her own doing. But then I used her as my reinforcements.”

Approving Cornelius chuckles deep in his throat. "I think I admire her even more now. That is a damned fine woman if she will kill for you. Carl, my friend, were I two hundred years younger, I would give you a run for your money where Lady Struct is concerned."

"She's too tall for you," Carl grumbles. Azamin probably doesn’t even come up to Tosca’s shoulder. Cornelius has shrunk with age, but he was never a tall man in the first place. Still, he is a giant of the Force. And he has the best strategic mind in the Empire.

"Nonsense,” Azamin protests. “She's just right." He looks around at the remaining Temple girls standing in a clump talking quietly. "Things are different around here without her.”

Carl looks away and shifts his stance uncomfortably. "Yes." Her Light is gone. It was in her force of personality as much as it was in her Force. In her absence, things are changed.

Powerful Darth Azamin senses it just like he does. For like Darth Fulsome and himself, Azamin was drawn to Tosca. She caught the eye of the Lords of the Empire who are strongest in the Shadow Force. Carl is still not sure why. But there is meaning to it, he's sure. Because when the Force sends you a woman, she is bound to be something truly special.

"Are you going to fetch her back?"

"No."

Azamin raises an eyebrow. "Playing hard to get?"

"No!" And did he say that too fast? Too loudly? Carl now strives to look completely bored of this topic, like it bears no consequence at all. When in reality, he has been obsessing over it ever since she left.

Azamin is not fooled. But he takes the hint. "Well, good luck."

"There's no such thing as luck," grumpy Carl harrumphs.

"So true, so true," Cornelius easily agrees.

Carl reverts to business now. He starts talking about the border system trading partners. About how those who deal with both the Republic and the Empire are the biggest security risk they have. “I like your plan to establish covert control of those systems,” he endorses Azamin’s proposal. “I’m going to announce it at the meeting. We already have considerable influence there, but it’s time to take it to the next level. That way we can do more than just monitor things. We can overtly favor our interests.”

“It will take time,” Azamin warns.

“Two years?”

“Five year’s minimum to do it right. You can’t erect a slew of puppet governments on advanced worlds in an afternoon.”

“That’s fine,” Carl shrugs. “I’m in no hurry.”

Azamin shoots him a look. “Are you sure about that?”

“Yes.” Carl refuses to let Fulsome’s ill-fated, but regrettably public revolt push him into acting stupidly. “If we do invade the Republic, we can claim those border systems as allies. Before the first shots are fired, we will control all the key hyperspace lane routes in and out of the Outer Rim.”

“That’s fine, but we need to get to the Core if we are to subdue the Republic. There is no victory without Coruscant.”

“Yes, yes, I know.” Carl waves him off. He’s heard this argument before. It’s a good one, but Carl has no intention of invading the Republic’s capital world. Not if he can avoid it, at least.

“Will we use the Mandalorians again as a stalking horse?” Azamin probes.

Carl shakes his head no. “That was Fulsome’s plan, although I doubt the Republic will fall for that ruse twice. But we can use the Mandalorians to stir up trouble. They are pragmatic in their loyalties. Despite all their rhetoric of clan and country, for the right price, the Mandalors will do just about anything.”

“That also means they could turn on us if the Republic is the higher bidder,” Darth Azamin points out.

“That’s true of all of our trading partners and border worlds. That’s why we’re going with your plan.”

Darth Azamin nods. “What else did Fulsome promise his supporters?”

“It was a lot of symbolic stuff,” Carl snorts. “Get this—he was going to kick off the invasion by taking back Korriban.”

“Korriban? There’s nothing of strategic value there. It’s just a Republic outpost.”

“It wasn’t strategy, it was sentiment. Fulsome wants to liberate our long abandoned homeworld,” Carl smirks with derision. “He wants to reclaim our stolen fatherland from the infidel Jedi.”

Azamin scoffs. “Who cares?”

“My thoughts exactly. It’s just a bunch of old tombs. When at last we reveal ourselves to the Jedi and the Republic, it will be for a real target. You only get the benefit of surprise once.”

Azamin concurs, “Agreed. But you cannot avoid war forever.” Cornelius now speaks in private the advice Carl knows he will not speak openly in the upcoming Council meeting. Darth Azamin tends to listen while others pontificate at length with emphatic opinions. Carl tunes them out. The louder people speak, the less he hears. In that context, the sparse, succinct opinions of Darth Azamin make an impression.

“Do not underestimate how much popular support exists for Fulsome’s ideas,” the stooped strategist of the Empire warns gravely. “This coup is common knowledge in the army, and soon all the Lords will know of it, if they do not already. Do not make Fulsome a martyr. Do not allow this revolt to become a rallying cry for a larger insurrection.”

Carl waves a hand dismissively. "Oderint dum metuant." Let them hate so long as they fear. It’s an ancient Sith general's famously flippant response when asked about a rebellious colony world.

Azamin is not amused. “Careful, or you might eat those words. And we all will suffer.”

With a sigh, Carl concedes, “I know.”

“My friend, do not let your arrogance blind you. Stop thinking that you will get to choose the time and place for this war. The Republic may already know we are here.” Azamin’s hooded eyes narrow and his voice is a hoarse whisper. “There are Jedi who know we exist. They know to look for us. Our prosperity and growing power increase the risk of our discovery every year.”

Again, Carl concedes, “I know.”

“If you are not careful, my friend, you will risk attack from without and attack from within. You must give the Lords some of what Fulsome offered, only with you in charge. Compromise on the easy things, Carl.”

“That’s the plan.”

Azamin looks surprised. “So, we are going to war?”

Carl shrugs. “Maybe in about twenty years. Don’t work too hard on those puppet governments just yet.”

“We cannot hide forever.”

“We won’t. But I don’t want a protracted full-scale war. To avoid that, we need a superweapon. And those things take time.”

Darth Azamin is not impressed. “Is this like the Star Forge? Because if I recall correctly--”

“No, it’s not. I’m taking your advice and giving the Lords what they want. Fulsome promised his supporters a giant planet killing weapon. He even gave it a colorful name: the Death Star. We will conscript a colony world to begin work on it immediately.”

“Can we really build that?” Azamin raises an eyebrow.

Carl shrugs. “Our tech guys say it’s doable with enough time and resources.”

“How long to completion?”

“A decade, give or take a few years.”

“So, it’s another delay tactic?”

Carl rephrases it. “It’s strategic preparation.”

Azamin frowns. “Do you even have a timetable for an attack?”

“A decade, give or take a few years. When we are ready, I will await a sign from the Force.”

“Ah, yes.” In this, at least, devout Azamin stands corrected. “Well, the Force must be with us, of course.”

Carl changes the topic. He is weary of talk of war. “Did you review that list of names for army promotions?” Fulsome’s coup involved far too many senior commanders. As a result, there are lots of vacancies to be filled in the chain of command.

“Yes, I read it.”

“And?”

“The army needs new blood. I would fill all those spots with navy Lords.”

“Now, that’s an idea,” Carl muses. The navy Lords never revolt. They fall in line and do as they are told. “The army will hate it.”

Azamin shrugs. “Tell everyone you want to bolster collaboration and trust between the service branches. We will need less rivalry and more respect between the army and navy Lords when we go to war.”

“I like that solution. More preparation. My friend, you give good counsel,” Carl nods. And now, in need of more good counsel, he reverts to his most troublesome topic—Lady Tosca. “I let her go,” he blurts out. It’s a complete non-sequitur but they both know what he is talking about. “I could have stopped her . . . but I didn’t.”

For once, Azamin approves. “Wise move.”

Carl grunts. “This is why you are my head of military strategy.”

Azamin chuckles. “So, I can concur with decisions for your love life?”

“Yes.” Carl shoots his old friend a reproving look. “These days, you concur with little else.” The words come out especially sharp and defensive.

Azamin’s eyes find him and linger. “It’s that bad, eh?”

“Of course, not.” Carl bristles, now wishing he had kept his mouth shut. He feels his face redden so he looks away. “I let her go, remember? I’m waiting for the Force to bring her back.”

“What makes you think that will happen?”

“I foresaw her before I met her. We are destiny,” Carl answers quietly.

“Oh dear.” His devious friend reacts with a genuine smile. “Well, that settles it. You’re in love.”

“Of course, not!”

“Oh, don’t be shy about it. It is a good thing. Passion is our path to power and the Empire has been too long without an Empress,” Darth Azamin decides.

“She’s already married,” he grumbles.

“Surely that is not an impediment. Carl, you know better than to have scruples.” Old Azamin chuckles again. “All’s fair in love and war, right?”

“Right.”

“Shall we go to this meeting?”

“Do we have to?” Carl complains.

“Yes,” Azamin answers as he starts his slow plod towards the Palace. “Will his Excellency be joining us today?”

“No, just me.” Today, he’ll be Lord Tenebrae.

“Have you killed Fulsome yet?” Azamin asks out of curiosity.

“I’m working on it.”

He’s enjoying the task, too. Some people like to pretend otherwise, but the Sith know that there is a strong connection between sex and violence. On a primal biological level, a man’s body is built for both acts. But withholding one can stoke the other. Every prize fighter knows that sleeping on the couch makes him more aggressive in the ring when it counts. So too, Lord Fulsome now knows that chasing away Lady Tosca by involving her in his plot has only increased the pain of his punishment.

For with no tempering voice to plead for mercy and closure, Carl is free to employ his Darkest deeds. With no soft yielding body beneath him, Carl is especially frustrated and aggrieved. He doesn’t have anyone to dine with and to talk to when the day is done. His abrupt loss of consortium has him channeling lust for sex and desire for companionship into lurid violence. He wanders nightly into Fulsome’s cell and vents his retribution.

But he’s no brute. He’s not chopping off limbs and singeing skin. Fulsome’s not getting flayed or whipped or beaten. For in this, as in all things, Carl employs his mind to do his dirty work. He tortures with the Force in ways that do not leave a mark but cause exquisite pain and lingering trauma. He prefers his torture to be elegant.

He goes to excess . . . and beyond. For this traitor might not have succeeded in stealing his Empire, but he robbed him of something very precious when his coup stunt terrified Tosca. His full identity was revealed in the worst way and at an unfortunate time. His beloved saw him at his Darkest—killing innocents and the guilty alike in defense of his power. And like a true angel of the Light, she recoiled from him.

She denounced his deeds, took back her love, and questioned his fitness to rule. It was the role he’s beginning to suspect Tosca was sent to play: to be his conscience and his sounding board. To check him from time to time. To question him and raise a perspective that no one but she can bring.

He was disappointed. And angry. But he could deal with it. Until . . . she panicked and fled. To think that he drove her back to her loser husband. It’s sort of humiliating.

Now, weeks later he endures her absence. It is lonely. While they only spent their nights together, Tosca’s constant daily presence in his Temple was comforting. He need only stretch out his consciousness to seek her small, quiet Force imprint. It balms his mind. Whether she knew it or not, Lady Tosca was a beacon of decency and goodness in his Palace. She showed up, foretold in the Force, and brought with her hope and change. But she’ll be back. In time, he’s certain she will return. Carl can be patient when it suits him. For if there is one thing he has, it’s time.

But the anticipation is killing him. When he’s not tending to the Empire or tormenting Fulsome, Carl conjures spells in his mother’s old pot. He has decided to solve the problem of his broken heart like he solves every other problem—with the Force. And while he fully believes that the Force that brought Tosca into his life will soon send her back, Carl is not content to remain wholly passive. He takes matters into his own hands. After all, the Force helps those who help themselves. And he has been its faithful servant all these years.

Carl performs every love spell and commitment ritual he can think of. He makes a few up. For good measure, he even does a few designed to make himself more attractive in her eyes. But that doesn’t seem to influence her, so he contents himself as a voyeur.

Watching people in the Force is an easy trick when you are close to them. All Carl has to do is remember the mental feel of Tosca and the Force reveals her whereabouts. It’s a bit addicting. Once he starts, it becomes an obsession. Carl sneaks away from his duties multiple times during the day to perform his magic over his cauldron and eavesdrop on his beloved. This isn’t spying, he tells himself. This is so he can make sure to protect her.

Carl sees Tosca going about daily tasks. The maid only comes a few times a week, he deduces, so he watches her do a lot of menial housework. It’s so beneath her, he sniffs. But there she is wiping counters and loading dishes like a servant. Once she gets back to the Palace, Carl vows that she will never lift a finger for these sorts of things. An Empress doesn’t do the laundry.

At home, she’s got an apron on. But she never looks like a servant in public. Tosca is dressed up, makeup on, and hair pulled back. Her meticulous preparation betrays just how aware she is of the censure of others. At times, it’s cringeworthy. Lady Struct stands alone at afternoon kid saber tournaments while the other mothers politely shun her. No one wants their son to play or train with the Struct kids. For everyone knows that Lady Struct was sent to the Temple. She’s a social pariah and the entire family is suspect as a result.

So too is her ironic friend Lady Marrow. Carl watches a tearful lunch between the two women. Tosca doesn’t reveal her role in Lord Marrow’s death nor does she explain why she is home from the cloister. Instead, she commiserates with her friend on their shared outcast status. It’s clear that Tosca had a fairly wide circle of friends who have all now turned their back on her.

Watching Tosca go about her mundane tasks as a disgraced Lady makes him angry. Carl sees the sideways looks and catches the not-so-subtle whispers and finger pointing. Still, through it all, Tosca keeps her dignity. What a remarkable Empress she will be, he thinks. But he also sees the facade crumble when she’s safely behind closed doors and able to be vulnerable. Watching her wipe away tears is hard. He wants to be there to console her. Still, he’s well aware that the more miserable Tosca is, the more likely she is to return to him. So, Carl finds himself alternatively rooting for the haters who plague her and taking names of their husbands for future reference.

Truthfully, he’s bored watching all the kid stuff. You’ve seen one ten-year-old saber match and you’ve seen them all. Carl is far more interested in Lord Struct. From what he sees, the guy is a mess. He is taciturn and hungover at breakfast while Tosca smiles too brightly and tries too hard. Her loser husband pointedly ignores her relentless cheeriness. The kids just exchange looks and the oldest rolls his eyes. That oldest Struct boy could use some Force lightning, Carl decides.

Most nights, Lord Struct drinks his dinner. He sits at the table with an open bottle to refill his glass, sipping whisky nonstop. The kids and Tosca dutifully report their daily activities while Struct doesn’t even pretend interest. Tosca blithely endures it. Then she’s nagging about showers and homework, and setting out school uniforms and backpacks for the next day. Carl watches as the older boy treats her with chilly contempt and the younger needy one clings. But it doesn’t take long to realize that the little one is coping far better than his worldly older brother who masks his fear and hurt in scathing resentment.

And Tosca? Well, she has her good days and bad days. But she’s determined to make it work. She has genuine affection for her husband. Struct seems to return it somewhat when he’s sober. More than anything, the guy seems deeply depressed. He clearly blames himself—as he should—for his family’s predicament. Carl wonders now if he made a mistake by accepting Tosca’s offer to take the veil in the first place. Because knowing what he knows now, Carl would have refused her, proscribed Struct, and married his widow immediately.

It’s such an irony that he shunned women for so many years, worrying that no woman would ever love him for himself. That they would only ever see him as the Emperor. As a means to further their family’s ambitions. As a chance to grab status and wealth. As an opportunity to become an Empress. So Carl spent centuries repressing desire and managing loneliness to channel it into power. It was a successful strategy. For like a Jedi, he confined his personal life to his work of unlocking the secrets of the Force.

Then one day, feeling especially bored and alone, he decided to risk it. He beseeched the Force to send him a consort. He had only one request: that she be loyal. Loyal to him and to his Empire. But the moment of weakness was fleeting and quickly forgotten.

Still, the Force answers the prayers of the faithful. Usually in its own time and in its own way. And so, when months later Carl experienced a vision in his garden, at first he did not recognize it as fulfillment of his wish. Not until later that day when a determined woman talked her way into his throne room and snatched off her veil to reveal pale blonde hair that was a light as her soul. Tosca’s reveal had taken his breath away, for the Force had heeded his call in a most unexpected way. Knowing that the Force in its infinite wisdom makes no mistakes, Carl went with it. You don’t second guess Darkness.

And besides, Tosca was so beguiling. She was the fiercely protective mother figure he remembers with regret from his own youth. The loyal wife to another who he wants for his own. She’s a grown woman with plenty of savvy and yet she’s full of childlike idealism. It tempers the cynicism of his many years. She believed in him, she loved the Empire, and she made him smile. Before he knew it, Carl was unburdening himself to her, disclosing his past and worrying for his future. For while skittish Tosca had clear misgivings, he strangely had none. The reclusive persona he had honed for a thousand years fell away fast until . . . it came back to bite him.

He will remember this for his future plots: that a lie can be useful, but nothing is more effective than a devastating truth.

Because far from jumping at the chance to ally herself with his power and position, Tosca ran from him. She’s been a creature of convention and conformity all along, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that she chose to seek out what she left behind. But suddenly, his worst fear that she would want him because he is the Emperor was exposed as false. He got it all wrong. She didn’t want him because he was the Emperor. With his fixation on reaffirming his power in the aftermath of Fulsome’s coup, Carl failed to appreciate how truly disillusioned Tosca was. And that’s why he now finds himself alone and hurt, watching in his mother’s pot as Tosca looks up from doing the dinner dishes at her husband seated at the table with his face in his hands. Carl watches the Struct family’s drama and pain like a bystander. As though he were not intimately connected to it all. It’s both cathartic and gratifying to see.

As a collector of wisdom, Carl ruefully sees the lesson taught: that the worst outcome might be getting what you want.

Watching over Tosca from afar in the Force takes on a whole new meaning one night as he returns from punishing Fulsome. It’s late when Carl opens his hideaway apartment sealed in the Force. Pretty much everything is new in here after the coup attempt wrecked his home. It looks fresher now and appropriately luxurious, but it’s also kind of sterile. This place needs some laughter and a woman’s touch to make it feel like a home. Right now, it still seems like it belongs to someone else.

Carl is locking himself in for the night, obscuring the evidence of his private space from all others, when suddenly he finds himself looking right at Tosca. She’s brushing her hair, looking pensive.

“You!” She clearly sees him because she startles. It’s not an encouraging reaction. But Carl chooses to chalk it up to surprise mostly because he can’t take any more rejection.

He himself doesn’t speak. Instead, he stares. Her face looks completely healed, as it should by now. It’s been two months. And look at her. She’s got all that lush blonde hair spilling over her shoulders. Tosca is wearing a lacy black peignoir and nothing else. Enticing bits of her peek through the fabric. It’s romantic and sexy at the same time. Carl can’t tear his eyes away. He remembers how soft all that creamy skin is.

“What are you doing here?” she demands. She’s flustered as she wraps her open robe around herself primly and ties it tight.

“I’m not there,” he breathes out. Although he dearly wishes he was. Just look at her. Soft and pretty and ready for bed. It’s entrancing. He’s wholly preoccupied with staring at her. Tosca is even more beautiful than he remembers.

She’s confused and alarmed. “Is this a projection? Can you do this all the way from the Palace?” she hisses.

“No. I’m not doing this. Are you doing this?” And what is he thinking? “No. You couldn’t. The effort would kill you.” He drags his fascination away from her loveliness and fixes it on this new, unexpected but very welcome development. “This confirms it. We are destiny.” And wait, did he say that out loud?

He did. “Oooohh. No. No, that can’t be!” she frets, wringing her hands.

Carl is grinning ear to ear now. He is both elated and relieved. His words come out gleefully smug. “Search your feelings. You know it to be true.”

“No! No! That’s impossible! We are over and I’m back with Marcus now—“

“I’ve been waiting for this,” Carl confesses breathlessly. He has prayed for this. And now that it’s actually happening, Carl can’t quite wrap his head around this trippy experience. It feels dreamlike and yet everyday ordinary. This is akin to a vision combined with a projection mixed with a true physical interaction. It’s sudden, immersive, and intimate all at the same time. And yet, he’s certain that they are each in their enclosed reality. Connected by the Force. “Wow. It’s like you are right here with me,” he marvels. “But you’re not.”

“I’m in my house.” Tosca looks over her shoulder furtively like she might be overheard. Like she fears to be caught. Clearly, this feels just as real to her as it does to him.

“I’m in the Palace. In my apartment.”

They are miles apart. And yet, she looks like he could walk a few paces and touch her right now. She’s so close, and yet so far.

Tosca is spooked. “Then what is this?” she squeaks. “Why is the Force connecting us like this?”

“I think it’s the Jedi bond,” he guesses with audible awe. “It actually worked.”

“It worked??” she yelps.

“Well, I amped it up with some good old Dark magic.” He’s been trying to provoke something like this to happen ever since she fled into the night. Apparently, something he did worked. He’s not sure what.

“You did this?” she shrieks.

“We did it together, remember? But it was mostly the Force. You cannot bond two people unless it is the will of the Force. That’s what Tavo said, at least.”

“You can’t trust a Jedi!”

“Can you see my surroundings?” He’s curious about the specifics of this connection.

“Carl, what have you done?” Tosca moans.

“I can’t see yours . . . just you.”

“Make it stop!”

“This is something else.” He’s still lost in wonder at this fresh magic. Even after all these years, the Force never ceases to surprise and impress him. Just when he thinks he knows it all, it humbles him.

“Tavo never described it like this. I’m going to have to learn to control this. This is a great trick. It could have all sorts of uses.”

“Make it stop!” She nearly shouts this time.

“I can’t.” And he wouldn’t if he could. This is too good to waste. Carl looks on his estranged love and admits, “I miss you. How are you?” Does she miss him too?

Her words are curt and clipped. “I’m fine. Everything is great. It’s good to be home again.”

“Liar.”

She doesn’t deny it. She just equivocates. “Well, things are getting better. Marcus is coming around. Decimus will take his lead from his father, I’m sure. I mean, I hope . . .”

“Are they mean to you?” he asks gently. Carl fears what transpires when he isn’t watching.

Tosca bites her lip. “They are angry and hurt.” She glares at him pointedly. “Lies hurt people. I want to tell the boys the whole truth. I think it would be easier for them to understand if they knew the truth. But Marcus thinks it’s a bad idea . . . he wants them to respect him . . .”

Carl frowns and grouses, “So he’s content to let you take the blame?”

“It’s not like that—“

“That’s how I see it. Tosca, come back,” he beseeches. “Come back to me.” He will forgive her everything if she will return.

She looks away. She’s trembling. “I c-can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t!” she snaps.

“Why not? Give me a reason.”

“Because you’re . . . you. And because I have recommitted to my family. They have been through enough already. They need me. I can’t leave them again.”

“I need you too.” He’s whining, but he doesn’t care. With Tosca, he’s not the proud Sith Emperor, he’s his private self. Just a man with a broken heart that he worries he broke himself. There is an old saying that the Sith love sparingly, but completely. In his case, truer words were never said. In all his years, he has loved two people and she is one of them. There was no way he was ever going to hurt her as she fled. He won’t make that mistake again.

“I miss you,” he chokes out.

She says nothing in response. She just looks at him with a troubled expression. Like she wants to say more, but fears to do so.

Seeing her fidgeting and uncomfortable in her lacey lingerie, it dawns on Carl that she’s not wearing it for him. Carl now impulsively asks a question he probably shouldn’t. “Are you sleeping with him?”

Tosca looks down. “Look, I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to rehash things. I don’t want to drag things out. I didn’t think you wanted that either . . . since you never came for me.”

Did she want him to chase her? He didn’t think so. But did that disappoint her? Carl rushes to explain. “I didn’t come for you because I didn’t want to treat you like a prisoner.”

She nods, still refusing to meet his eyes. “Thank you for that. A clean break was a good thing. Goodnight, Carl.” Tosca turns and walks away.

“Wait—don’t go!”

“Goodnight.”

But the connection remains. “I can still see you,” he calls loudly. “I’m still here.”

She doesn’t turn around.

She’s in three quarter profile now, speaking with someone he can’t see or hear. Is it Struct? Carl is suspicious. Those concerns grow as Tosca unties her robe and lets it slip from her shoulders. It’s a casual movement but it has all the allure of a striptease to his longing eyes. The loose chemise beneath her robe is demurely revealing. Carl can’t look away as she apparently climbs into bed . . . presumably with her husband.

And why the Hell is the Force showing him this?? He doesn’t want to see this. It’s killing him to see this. If he could break their connection now, he would. If it doesn’t break soon, he’s going to march over to the Struct house and make her a widow. It all looks very chaste, but still . . .

Thankfully, the bond abruptly evaporates. He’s back to looking at the wall of his apartment. Thoroughly unsettled and needing to vent his confused emotions, Carl heads back to the cell where he keeps Lord Fulsome. That traitor will pay for this tonight.

Chapter Text

It’s morning when the bond next opens.  Carl is lingering in his garden. And at a house across Kaas City, though it’s still early, the kids and husband are already off to school and work.  Tosca is seated folding clothes at the kitchen table.  Carl can see the clothes she touches and bits and pieces of her immediate surroundings.

 

The bond has grown stronger. 

 

When the connection opens, she seems to sense the disturbance in the Force because she looks around with alarm.  It takes a moment before she sees him.  But she sees him, alright.  Tosca blinks and gasps, “You’re back!”

 

“Good morning,” he nods.

 

He’s encouraged that she has dropped all the honorifics and groveling.  Tosca is direct and that’s good.  This is how they used to converse.   As equals, each unafraid to speak their mind. 

 

She puts down the shirt she is folding.  “I didn’t know if this would happen again.”   He can’t tell if she thinks it’s a good thing or a bad thing.

 

“I will always be with you,” Carl quickly promises. “That’s how this works.”   It is why he tried this Jedi stunt in the first place.  Because it held the ultimate lure of intimacy.  He would never be alone again because they would be bonded for life. 

 

Tosca looks nervous.  He sees her swallow hard.  Then she tries to get rid of him.  “Don’t you have an Empire to run?”

 

“Yes, but you are important too.  I will always make time for you.”  Carl is doing his best to appear as devoted as he feels.  “And, I have people to help me,” he shrugs.

 

“Yes, I forgot.  There’s your chief adviser Lord Tenebrae.”   She says this tartly.  Then she demands, “Who else knows the truth about you?”

 

“Right now, it’s just you and—“

 

“Azamin,” she finishes for him.  

 

“Yes.  There used to be more, but they have all died off.  It is a closely guarded secret for obvious reasons.”

 

“Did your old girlfriend know—the one who got pregnant?”

 

He frowns.  He doesn’t like to be reminded of that matter.  Why is she asking about this?  “Yes, she knew.  But not at the beginning.”   She took the news far better than Tosca did.   She had been delighted, Carl remembers.  After the shock of the initial reveal, it became an inside joke between them.

 

Tosca looks nervous again.  She starts talking fast.  “I haven’t told anyone.  I won’t tell anyone.  I swear—“

 

“I know.”   Damn, she looks so earnest and her words ring absolutely true.  For there is no guile in this woman.  Tosca never takes refuge in vagaries that are technically true like so many cagey Force users do.  It prompts him to assure her, “I trust you.”  She probably has no idea how important that statement is.  Because this woman trusts easily, unlike himself. 

 

“It must be exhausting to keep up that ruse.”

 

“Not really.  I’m used to it.  It’s far simpler than you think.”

 

“So when you were with me—with me, in bed, I mean--“

 

“It was always me.   Never a projection.”  She needs to know that.  Carl fakes a lot of things, but he doesn’t fake sex. 

 

“Okay.”  She looks incredibly relieved.  “I didn’t want to think that I was with—that it wasn’t always you who I—“

 

Seeing her embarrassment, he cuts her off.  “I’m good at projections.  I can fool anyone standing next to me or even touching me.   But I’m not that good.  And besides, I wanted to be with you.”  Crap, that came out awkwardly.  This whole conversation feels stilted and hard.  She’s so angry and he’s still hurt.  That’s not surprising, but Carl moves on.  He wants to discuss what has driven them apart:  his reveal as the Emperor.   Carl wants a chance to tell his perspective again since he bungled it the first time.

 

But he’s nervous, so it begins a bit grandiose.  “Identity is a complicated concept. Who we are—who people judge us as—who we pretend to be—they matter.  None of us shows our true self to the world.  We’re not brave enough.   And the world never sees us as we truly are.”

 

She shoots him a look that says she knows he is bullshitting.  “Maybe so, but Lord Vitiate and Lord Tenebrae take it to a whole new level,” she observes acidly.

 

“True.  But consider it from my perspective,” he counters.  “Would you ever have acted like your true self before the Emperor?”

 

She admits, “No.”

 

“Would you ever have spoken your mind and contradicted me?”

 

“Never.”

 

“Therein lies the problem.  Lords don’t argue with Vitiate, but they will rant and rave and bore me with lengthy arguments as Lord Tenebrae.  Precious few respect my vocation as priest and so they never sugarcoat their assessment of things.  That means Tenebrae receives very little groveling and equivocation.  Lords tell him exactly what they think.”  Carl grins mischievously.  “A few have told him exactly where he can go.   And I value that.   A bunch of yes-men are a hindrance to governing.”

 

“Can’t you just read their minds?” she asks.

 

“Not really.  Mental interrogation works best for ascertaining concrete facts.  It’s good for figuring out what happened when.   It’s much less reliable for discerning opinions and predictions.  And, it’s all complicated by a person’s perspective.  I’m afraid you’ll find that many of the truths we cling to depend on your point of view.”

 

“Oh.”   She thinks a moment and allows, “Well, maybe.  But I don’t like the idea that all truth is malleable.”

 

“Neither do I,” Carl commiserates.   “Life would be much simpler if we knew unequivocally what is truth.   Then, we could easily determine right from wrong.”  He cocks his head at her.  “You know what’s worse than life being full of distressingly ambiguous issues?   It’s life being full of distressingly ambiguous issues and being the guy in charge who has to make the decisions.”

 

She’s unimpressed.  Tosca squints and asks somewhat incredulously, “Are you looking for sympathy?”

 

Yes, but he downplays it.  “Just understanding.”

 

“Yes, well I know you want to do the right thing for the Empire and,” she slants some serious side eye his direction, “for yourself as well.”

 

Carl doesn’t deny it.  “A win-win,” he smirks. 

 

She wonders aloud now, “Why did you ever want this job in the first place?”

 

Carl answers truthfully. “Someone had to do it.  I was the best option.”

 

“Oh, come on—“

 

“It’s true.   Tosca, if you were alive to see the state of the Sith in the wake of our defeat, you would understand why I took charge.  We were a beaten people, driven from our homeland in an exodus of immense proportions.  We were humbled and humiliated, not to mention decimated.   Billions of commonfolk were dead and, with few exceptions, only the very young and the very old Lords were left.   The Sith were about to become yet another lost civilization in the record books, our knowledge and perspective consigned to the dustbin of history.”  Tosca looks like she might interrupt, but he overrides her.  “That’s not hyperbole.  Our complete extermination was absolutely the Republic’s intent.   The Jedi would not rest until we were hunted down and eradicated.  As Tavo told us both, we are still considered to be an existential threat.”

 

Tosca looks chastised now.  She remains silent as he speaks of the distant past.  It’s a version that never made into the history books.   

 

“In the confusion and turmoil of our defeat, there were no leaders to emerge.  Only boys intent on avenging their fathers’ deaths and old men who were all talk.  They wanted us to be martyrs.  To fight until the bitter end and be destroyed.  It played right into the hands of the enemy.  Oh, it was couched in talk of honor and faith, heroism and patriotism, but it was suicide!  What’s worse—many were clamoring to do it!  It took a Sith Lord’s bastard who didn’t give a damn about honor to save us from ourselves.  I stepped up and took control to salvage what was left.”

 

“You stole the title Dark Lord and went into hiding,” she accuses.

 

“Yes.  I employed the same strategy that kept me alive when I myself was the hunted fugitive underdog as a boy—I hid!  This time around, I took all I could find into hiding with me.”

 

Tosca gives him a cool, knowing look.  “You also destroyed the majority of the remaining Lords to do it.”

 

Yes, he did.  And he would do it again.  “I didn't feel bad about that.  Chiefly because those fools had volunteered to sacrifice themselves to the Republic.  What did it matter who killed them?   At least my ritual harnessed their power for something useful.”

 

“Yes.  Making you immortal.”

 

“I didn’t know that at the time,” he admits.  A lot of the critical events of his life have seemed accidental as they unfold in real time.   Only in hindsight can they be recast as deliberate strategic acts.  For in truth, they were just Carl doing what he thought was right in the moment.  Following his instincts for the will of the Force.

 

“Tosca, I became immortal by accident.  For decades beforehand, I had searched for the secret to eternal life.  It was a peculiar obsession of mine.  I never found it.”  He flashes a rueful smirk now.   “Finally, I got what I wanted, just not in the way I expected.  That happens to me a lot, actually.   The Force likes to screw with me.”   That’s what it means to be a favorite of the Force.  The Force builds him up but it sure doesn’t make things easy. 

 

“So, when did you decide that we would hide forever?” Tosca goads him.   It’s a leading question but he overlooks it. 

 

“Hiding was necessary, especially at the beginning.  We were in no shape to take on the Republic for the first several hundred years anyway.  I focused on rebuilding our society to create stability.  Once we achieved that, I began to expand our reach to create a new Empire.  I was focused on recreating what we had lost, only better.   It was still very much a defensive posture.”

 

She raises an eyebrow. “Does that mean that the goal of revenge on the Republic was always a lie?”  It’s another leading question that indicates her hostility.  But he takes it in stride.   He wants a discussion not an argument.

 

“At the beginning, revenge was a unifying theme.  It gave the people a goal to work for that they universally accepted and were willing to sacrifice for.  It was like some Republic Senator’s campaign promise—an indefinite, someday, somehow sort of aspirational wish.  But it was never feasible.  Not until recently, that is.”

 

“And now, you are too entrenched to risk it, right?”

 

“You think me craven?” Carl challenges.  “You agree with Fulsome?”

 

Tosca doesn’t flinch at the tone that makes seasoned Lords quake in their boots in his throne room.  She just observes coolly, “I think you care more for yourself than for your Empire.”

 

Carl scowls and grinds out, “I am the Empire.”  He is responsible for everything the Sith have achieved for the past thousand years and more.  Sure, maybe he’s no universally acclaimed Marka Ragnos, but Carl has done his very best with the hand he was dealt.  He will make no apologies for the growth, stability, and prosperity of his people under his leadership.

 

But his irked beloved won’t give him credit.  “We won’t fall apart tomorrow if you disappear,” Tosca sniffs.

 

“Maybe not tomorrow or the next day, but in time . . . yes.   The infighting and jockeying for power would do almost as much damage as the Republic.”  Carl firmly believes this.  Because long ago, he saw it for himself.  “Unless the Sith become some father-son, Master and Apprentice single family dynasty, there will always be conflict, factions, and tribalism among the Lords.  It takes a strongman leader to keep those tensions diffused.”

 

But she doubles down with her fierce love of their people.  Tosca shakes her head.  “You underestimate us.”

 

“No.  You overestimate us.  I saw things in the last war that would shock you.  There were Lords who betrayed other Lords to the Jedi in order to advance up the Sith ranks.  How’s that for the chain of command?”  That part never made the history books, but it’s true all the same. 

 

“Oh.”

 

Carl tells it like he remembers.  “The most duplicitous and treacherous among us tended to end up at the top.  The Lords who could cooperate as a team were the most trusting ones and therefore the most gullible.  We ended up with a military full of men it for themselves.   That’s not how wars are won.”  As a sorcerer outsider among the mostly martial Lords of the Sith, Carl saw clearly the attitudes that plagued both the army and the navy during the last war.  “Our culture fosters aggression and competition, and we tend to condone betrayal.  I work hard to keep that in check.  I do it by keeping tight control over the Lords and by focusing them on a common enemy.  Those who fail run the risk of Proscription.  Those who refuse to play the rules eventually come to light.  Then, they are dealt with.”

 

“And it keeps you in power,” she concludes.

 

“Yes.”  It’s an argument now.  But it’s not a loud and profane confrontation full of accusations.  This is a composed and pointed exchange of viewpoints.   It’s very adult.  Tosca is no hothead.  She gets intense and a little sarcastic when she’s upset.  Never violent.  But this is good, Carl thinks.  At least they are talking and he’s getting to tell his version of things. 

 

“One of the benefits of being immortal is that you get to observe history.  It does repeat itself.  Largely because people believe that this time, it will be different.  That they are better men than their forebears.   That they will not make the same mistakes.  And yet, they always do . . . one way or another.”   Carl shakes his head.  “Every generation thinks they are the salvation for us all.  That they have the answers.   That their way is best.  Youth has an arrogance,” he says dismissively.

 

“Lord Fulsome was hardly young.”

 

“He is young to me.”

 

“Is?” Tosca picks up on his choice of verb tense. “He’s still alive?”

 

“Yes.  Don’t ask,” he discourages her.  “You don’t want to know.” 

 

“Oh.”  She looks uncomfortable.  She’s clearly imagining the worst, as she should.   But Carl doesn’t hide who he is.  He never has, despite what she believes.  This woman knows far more of the truth of him than anyone alive. 

 

“All my enemies die in the end.”  That’s not a boast, that’s a fact.  “Those whom I respect get a quick, honorable death like Tavo Crutcher.  Those whom I disdain tend to suffer like Fulsome.   But no one who seeks to subvert me lives.” 

 

She looks away and sighs.  “I’ve noticed.” 

 

“It isn’t just for my benefit.”  She clearly doesn’t believe him, so he persists.  “I’m not the bad guy.”

 

“What are you then?” she demands. “Because I’m pretty sure you’re not the good guy.”  She mutters, “At least, I hope you’re not.”

 

He shrugs.  This isn’t a topic he concerns himself with.  The moral theologians of the Force bore him and ethics has no place in government.  “Maybe I’m just the guy.  Neither all bad, nor all good,” he theorizes.

 

“No,” she disagrees. “That’s not how things work.  You don’t get to exist in the middle.  You choose a side.   It’s like Dark or Light.  You are either one or the other.  They are in opposition.”

 

He shrugs.  “Maybe they don’t have to be.”

 

“That’s treason.”

 

Carl smirks.  “Not if I say it.”

 

“It is!   This is the influence of that Jedi showing—“

 

“Yes.  Though it’s also the influence of you.”

 

“Oh, no!”  Tosca shows her palms to him. “Don’t pin this on me!”

 

“It’s true.  You make me less Dark.  I can go from killing hundreds to showing mercy in a matter of minutes.”

 

“When have you ever shown mercy?” she huffs.

 

Carl looks her in the eye.  “When I let you leave.  When every day goes by that I let you live apart from me with Struct.”  And wait, that came out a bit like a veiled threat. 

 

She looks away, flustered.  But then, she rallies.   This woman has never lacked for courage or convictions.  “This bond is going to make it impossible for us to move on, isn’t it?”

 

“I don’t want to move on.”

 

“Well, I do!”   She looks frustrated and angry now.  “I am trying to put my life back together.  For the sake of my family, I need to move on,” she informs him.  “You need to move on, as well.  There is no future here, just heartache and pain.  Carl,” her voice cracks, “I don’t want that for you anymore than I want that for myself.”

 

She’s still not getting it.  “We are the will of the Force.  You cannot subvert the Force.”   It risks disaster.  “Only a fool sets himself up in opposition to the Force.”

 

“I’m not impressed by that talk.”

 

“You should be!” Carl snaps.  Why is she being so stubborn?  There is potentially a lot at stake here.

“Carl, there are many good women out there.  If you don’t want a young, unmarried girl, then I can help you find a widow.  Someone free to start a new life with you.  Someone far better suited to be your consort.”

 

Is she trying to play matchmaker for her girlfriend Lady Marrow?  Carl has a better idea.  “Or, I could make you a widow.”

 

“Don’t you dare!” she hisses.  She’s never been more fierce.  Her eyes are practically shooting Force lightning at him.  “You have wronged Marcus enough already—“

 

“I don’t want another woman!   I want you!   I want us!”  Back the way they used to be before Fulsome staged his coup attempt. 

 

“No.”

 

“No??” he echoes, like perhaps he has misheard.

 

She crosses her arms and sits back in her chair.  “No one ever tells you that, do they?”

 

“I’ll admit, it’s been awhile,” he drawls.  Not since he was a child.  And he ceased to be a child at age ten when he made himself an orphan.

 

“Look, I’m not trying to hurt you.  From the looks of you, you’re very hurt.  I see that, and I’m sorry.  But everyone at my house is hurt too.  I am trying to contain the damage,” Tosca wails.

 

Carl’s eyes narrow.  He fears he’s getting dumped a second time.  And for that pathetic failure Struct of all people.  “Are you sleeping with him?”

 

“I don’t want to talk about this—“

 

“Just tell me.”

 

She isn’t meeting his eyes. “He’s my husband.”

 

“Is that a ‘yes’?”

 

“I don’t want to talk about this—“

 

Carl has watched from afar enough to see Tosca practically throwing herself at her husband.  Struct seems distant, but that might be how he keeps things before the children.   But behind closed doors?   Well, Carl worries that Tosca is doing everything she can to please that loser to get back in his good graces.   Based on their last conversation, she thinks reconciling with Struct is the key to reconciling with the oldest boy.

 

Carl glowers at her now.  Silence is a very effective negotiation tactic.  It makes people nervous.  They rush to end it.

 

It works.  She closes her eyes and stammers out as her face flames, “We have resumed our marriage. We do er . . . married things . . . ”

 

Fuck.  He knew it.   She’s sleeping with him.  “That drunk is nothing compared to me!” he declares hotly.

 

She opens her eyes.  “How do you know he drinks?”

 

“Do not underestimate my power!  I know lots of things.”

 

“Oh.”   And look at her guilty, scared face.   Yep.  She’s absolutely fucking that loser.   And terrified that he now knows it.

 

Tosca looks close to tears.  “Look, I need to go—“

 

“Come back to me.  We can start fresh,” he offers magnanimously.

 

“We can’t do that—“

 

“Of course, we can.  I’m still the same person, no matter what my job is.”

 

She shakes her head with resignation.  “Not really.”

 

“Yes, really.  Nothing changes about me.”

 

“Maybe not,” she concedes, “but the circumstances have changed.”

 

“What does that mean?” Carl grinds out.

 

She explains:  “I’m home now. I have committed to resuming our family life.  Carl, you and I were a mistake.  We should never have allowed feelings to get involved.  I only did that because—“

 

“Because we are so good together,” Carl finishes softly.

 

“Well, yes, we were,” Tosca allows.  “But that was when I thought there was no realistic chance of going home.”

 

He is dismayed.  “So, you settled for me?”   It comes out just as hurt and indignant as he feels.  Because this keeps getting worse. 

 

“No, that’s not it,” she rushes to assure. “It’s more that you offered me something I never thought I would find again.  Love is precious.”

 

Carl doesn’t miss a beat.  “I know.  Don’t throw ours away,” he outright pleads. 

 

She shakes her head as she tells him with tears in her eyes, “I love my family.  My commitment to them takes precedence.  I’m sorry, Carl.  I never meant to hurt you.”  She chokes out, “Trust me.  This is for the best.”

 

The bond abruptly ends.  It doesn’t open the next day or the day after that.  And given the circumstances, that’s probably a good thing.

 

In the meantime, Carl fumes and broods.  Because while Tosca is wholly preoccupied with her own concerns, there could be a lot more at stake if he is correct and their love is fate.  For while Tosca might think him a heretic, that’s far from the truth.  Just because he doesn’t believe the prevailing orthodoxy of Darkness does not mean that he is some atheist.  Carl has traveled too far and seen too much to ignore the role of the Force in his life in particular.  A thousand years has given him a unique perspective.

 

The Force isn’t fair, but few people realize that.  At best, it’s a rough justice over time and in the aggregate. The Force doesn’t bestow blessings and punish sins on an individual basis like some celestial parent.  Most of the time, it ignores individual concerns.  Except, of course, for its favorites.

 

To be a favorite of the Force is a special status.  You are part spoiled son and part whipping boy.  You will be indulged and yet tested time and again.  For to whom much is given, much is asked.  You also take on outsized importance. Because there are some men who drive history with their decisions and actions.  They are the harbingers of change and the agents of fate.  They make the course corrections, they usher in new eras, and they blaze new trails.   Often at great cost and with impressive body counts.  It seems abrupt at times, but that’s how the Force works—in fits and starts, in an ever-changing mosaic of secrets and revelations.  Carl’s immortal status has allowed him to divine patterns and see trajectories in hindsight, but he has yet to establish much in the way of causation.  The Force simply resists quantification.

 

But lately, Carl has begun to wonder about his standing with his master.  ‘O vis, fac me servum imperii tuae,’ he prays each morning.   Force, make me an instrument of your will.  For while he is not humble with his fellow man, he is prostrate with modesty before his god.  He knows that the fickle Force can raise you up only to cast you aside.   It’s not personal, he knows.  It’s how the Force operates.  And so, Carl aspires to stay ahead of its disdain.  To remain aligned to its will to keep the Force ever with him.  For immortal or not, he’s certain that if the Force ever decides it is done with him, disaster will soon follow. 

 

That’s a not insignificant part of why Tosca’s rejection hurts.  Missing his beloved is equal parts heartbreak and existential dread.  For Carl refuses to flout the will of the Force.  He will persist with Tosca for both their sakes.  She’s wrong to conclude that their separation is for the best.

 

This isn’t hubris.  Nor is it romantic foolishness.  The Force in its unknowable, infinite wisdom has made him the ultimate, eternal Dark power.  Carl has rebuilt the Sith and brought a status quo to the enduring fight of Light versus Dark.   It hasn’t escaped Carl’s notice that the Force seems to like that.  And lately, it seems to want more of it.  First it sends him Tosca and then it delivers to him an actual Jedi.  And that’s all happening at a time when his unruly Lords have become restless for war with the Republic.  It’s as if the Force is telling him to stay the course and resist the temptation to turn their cold war hot.  As if it is encouraging him to explore the ways of his enemy to promote greater understanding.  It’s yet another reason not to put Struct out of his misery and drag home Tosca.  Because Carl wonders if she is a test for how to handle the Republic.   He must be careful, he knows.

 

Carl decides that he must stop wallowing.  He should approach this problem with his head as well as his heart.  He devises a new strategy to win Tosca back by making her happy.  Because his rival Struct sure isn’t doing that.  That guy takes his wife for granted and pays her scant attention other than dirty looks.  It’s sort of pitiful to watch how hard Tosca is trying with him.   But Struct’s bad attitude is the opening Carl needs. 

 

No more whining.  Carl will win his love back by spoiling her.  But how to do that?  He knows it’s no use overwhelming Tosca with flowers and gifts.  That will get Struct suspicious and it might turn her off.  If Tosca wanted jewels and gifts, she would have leapt at the chance to be the Emperor’s consort as an upgrade from being a minor army Lord’s wife.  That leaves Carl with only intangible options.  He’ll have to make her happy by giving her attention.  By making her laugh and coaxing her to smile.   Carl now plots a charm offensive with all the zeal his Lords believe he should be focusing on defeating the Republic.

 

He just needs the Force bond to open again so he can implement his plot.  But, he’s in luck.  He’s bored one morning as he awaits his next official audience.  O vis, fac me servum imperii tuae, he prays again.  Then Carl feels a tingle in the Force seconds before he finds himself looking at Tosca. 

 

“Hello gorgeous,” he drawls.  How’s that for smooth?  He’s choosing to ignore their last argument.  They have both made their points.  Time to move past all that bitterness and rejection. 

 

Tosca blinks a few times in silence before she sighs.  “What are we going to do about this?”

 

He offers up the obvious solution. “Come back to me and I suspect it will end.”  This bond is probably only necessary because they are apart.

 

She looks down and kind of deflates.  “I can’t do that.”

 

“I understand.”  Carl is willing to compromise.  He is all magnanimous accommodation now.  “You don’t have to live here.  Come back and be my Temple matron during the day, then go home to your family at night.”   He flashes a smirk. “Tosca, there hasn’t been a recital or a poetry reading since you left.  It’s very uncultured around here again.  So uncivilized,” he sniffs in mock reproof.

 

She grumbles, “We never did any poetry readings.  Your guy said no.”

 

“Did he?  Fine. I’ll make him dance and recite the Sith Code backwards if you will come back.”   That provokes a small smile, Carl sees.  It’s the encouragement he needs.  Watching as often as he does, Carl knows Tosca rarely smiles these days.

 

“You also need to do something about the art when you get back,” he continues, trying to keep things light and friendly.   “The Ragnos portrait gives me the creeps.  It needs to go back to the museum.   This time, get a picture of a guy without horns and without a huge legacy to overshadow me.”

 

She smiles again.  Yes, this is working . . . until she shakes her head.  “Carl, I can’t come back.”  She says it like an apology. 

 

He pretends not to hear.  “The girls miss you.  Old Azamin’s been asking about you, too. Things aren’t the same around here since you left.  And not just for me.”

 

She sighs.  “I can’t come back.  Not even for the day.  Marcus would kill me if he knew I set foot in the Temple or the Palace.”

 

“No, he won’t.  I won’t let him,” Carl staunchly declares.  He will be Tosca’s champion in all things.

 

“Coming back would make things worse,” she frets.  “He would feel dishonored.”

 

“Too late for that,” Carl snorts.  And whoops, he went too far.  She frowns. “Just try it,” he cajoles.  Is she seeing how flexible he’s being??  “Come for Compline tonight.  Tell Struct you went to see Lady Marrow for dinner.”

 

Tosca, of course, declines.  “I don’t lie to my husband.  He would know anyway.”

 

“I bet you’re a terrible liar,” Carl gushes.  That’s praise actually. 

 

But Tosca bristles.  “I don’t know what kind of liar I am.  I don’t make a habit of deceiving people,” she informs him virtuously.  “And besides, you’re not really asking me to come back to see the girls.”

 

She’s right.  “After you stop by to see them, you can have dinner with me,” he beams. 

 

“Just dinner?”

 

Hopefully not.  But he sidesteps the point.  “You can leave whenever you wish.”

 

She recognizes his ploy and calls him on it.   “Oh, Carl.  You know what will happen if I come back.”

 

He grins.  “Am I that irresistible?”

 

She looks away.   “Maybe.  I don’t know.  But I won’t risk finding out.”

 

“Aha!  I am that irresistible!” he preens. 

 

“Well, a little,” she begrudgingly admits with a ghost of a smile about her lips.

 

“Give in, my Lady, give in!” Carl urges, his eyes laughing at her.   “Come to my lair so I can tempt you.   Let me seduce you again,” he leers.   It comes off more teasing than threatening. 

 

Tosca actually chuckles at his cheesy ridiculousness.  “I like you better like this,” she nods slowly.

 

“Like how?”

 

“Like your normal self.  This is better,” she judges.  “Pleading seems so wrong coming from you.”

 

“I know!” he wholeheartedly agrees.  He’s especially animated now. 

 

“It had me worried.”

 

“Me too!  See what you have reduced this proud Lord to?” he pouts. 

 

“Yep, that’s the Carl I know,” she assesses with a knowing look. “The smug and sardonic one.”

 

“There’s no one to talk to here now.  There’s no one to be smugly sardonic for,” he pouts some more.  “Alas, my Lady, I am bored without you.”

 

“I rather doubt that,” she counters dryly. But Tosca is serious now.  “Carl, I won’t come back.  I can’t.  But I’ve been thinking . . . maybe we can use this bond connection to be friends.”

 

“Friends?” he chokes.   Ugh.   This wasn’t in the plan.  He doesn’t want to be buddies. 

 

“It’s what you said you wanted from the outset,” she reminds him. 

 

“Did I say that?   I take it back.  I was wrong.”

 

Tosca chuckles again.   She raises both eyebrows.  “Wow, I didn’t think you would admit to that.”

 

“I’m wrong all the time, just like anyone else.  Maybe more than others since I make so many decisions.”  Carl leans forward to confide in a stage whisper.  “But don’t tell anyone.   The Emperor is officially infallible.”

 

“Right.  Got it.  But back to us.  Let’s be friends.   You’re right—we are good together.”

 

“Friends.”  His tone conveys all his lack of enthusiasm.

 

“Yes, friends,” she confirms brightly. 

 

“Is that your best offer?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“What if I came over there and was my irresistible self?   You know, all smug and sardonic.  Would that help sweeten the deal?”

 

“Nope.”

 

“Well, then I guess I have to take it,” he grumbles.

 

“Don’t look so sad.”

 

“I am sad.  I am very, very sad.  See how sad I am?   I’ll never be smugly sardonic again.   You have crushed my spirit—“

 

“Oh, stop!”

 

He wonders aloud now, “Can men and women be friends?”

 

“Of course.”

 

“Even if we used to—“

 

“Yes.”

 

He grunts.  “If you say so.”  He’ll never think of this woman as a friend.   They are way past friends.   You don’t lay awake at night fantasizing about your friends.

 

“Hey, wait—you’re on your throne,” Tosca realizes suddenly. “Right?”

 

“Yes, I’m at the office. Wait—you can see that?”

 

“Yes.  What can you see?”

 

“I see you in your speeder.  At least, it looks like a speeder.  Where are you?”

 

“I’m at the market waiting for my curbside pickup. It’s always late.  Half the time, the droids mix up my order.”

 

“You should send your maid to do that,” he gripes.  Empresses don’t buy groceries.

 

Tosca takes it in stride. “She’s off today.”

 

“Do I need to give Struct a raise so you can hire more staff?” 

 

“It’s not the money,” she sighs.  

 

Carl understands immediately.  It’s control.  “He’s punishing you.”

 

“Yes.”  Tosca looks down and flushes.

 

Ungrateful Struct has the gall to be angry at his wife for saving him.  Not only is he a loser, but he’s a cheap, petty fucker too.  “Can I kill him?” Carl complains hotly.  “Please let me kill him.” 

 

“No!”

 

“He doesn’t get to treat you like this!”

 

“No, Carl!”

 

“Alright.”  He backs down even as he grouses halfheartedly, “It was worth a shot.”   He’s more than willing to paint Struct as the cold, neglectful husband who Tosca needs rescuing from.  This is his secondary strategy:   Carl will make himself look good while making his rival look bad.  

 

“You know,” Carl cocks his head at her, “this bond is strengthening each time we talk.”

 

She thinks a moment and nods.  “I think you’re right. Everything looks and feels much sharper now.  You look so close.”

 

“Good.  I want us to be close.  Close friends,” he smiles.  He’ll give her what she wants to get what he desires in the end.  It’s a win-win, he silently decides.  “Are we good?” he solicits.  He wants their connection to end on an upbeat note for once.

 

Tosca smiles and looks very relieved.   “Yes, we’re good,” she declares.  “Thank you for being friends.  This is a really good step for us.  You’ll see.”

 

Carl forces himself to smile and nod in response to that comment.  But being himself, he calls cheerily as the bond closes, “Let me know if you change your mind about killing Struct.”

 

Chapter Text

They are not friends.

They will never be just friends.

But Carl is willing to pretend for now. And, all in all, being friends isn't awful. It's a definite improvement over getting the cold shoulder brush off from Tosca through the Force. And it results in conversations like this:

"So, what did you do about it?" Tosca is picking at a salad at her kitchen table while he eats a sandwich in his office adjacent to his throne room. The bond connection tends to open over lunchtime now. And perhaps it's the casual setting—she's usually wearing an apron and he's got his boots propped up on his desk more often than not—but things have become considerably more relaxed. It's a big improvement over the first few times they spoke.

Carl shrugs at her question. "I killed the general who made the stupid decision and told his subordinates to clean up the mess he made. We can't treat our colony worlds like the enemy and expect them to support us."

"Are you reopening the schools?" she wants to know. Tosca has a soft spot for every social issue in the Empire, Carl has learned, regardless of whether there are aliens involved.

"Yes, we're opening the schools," he answers. "The only thing worse than a bunch of disgruntled peasants is a bunch of illiterate disgruntled peasants." Carl smirks and adds, "I say that as a former illiterate disgruntled peasant myself."

She chuckles and her eyes soften. "I have a hard time picturing you like that."

"I've come a long way from those days . . . sort of." Some days, he's not so sure. Those were important, impressionable years. Some part of him will always been a teenaged fugitive who learned to trust no one he did not control.

Tosca now wryly recalls, "I once overheard my mother-in-law say that I have the legs of a peasant. I believe her words were something to the effect that 'I am built for famine.'"

Carl grunts. "Only people who have never known hunger think skinny looks best. I like my women ripe and juicy. Like forbidden fruit." Then, just to make clear that they might be pretending to be friends, but they aren't actually friends, Carl invites, "Come to my Palace and let me taste you."

She smiles and shakes her head at his goofy flirting. "You are ridiculous."

"I know." He is unrepentant, too. He leers across the bond. "Come wrap those peasant legs around this farmboy and let's get down to business."

"Friends!" she preempts him. "We're friends now, remember?"

He grunts. "If you say so."

Despite their new supposed platonic status, the physical attraction between them remains. Carl is certain of it from his end. And he suspects that Tosca is far less indifferent to him than she lets on. He sees her reaction when the bond opens. The subtle intake of breath. The intense stare, then the blink as she quickly averts her eyes. Her reaction is strong and immediate, yet demurely ladylike. It has him hooked. Once or twice he has caught her eyes lingering on him and watched her blush. Yes . . . she still wants him even if she won't admit it to him or even to herself. But the subtle charge of attraction buzzes between them in the Force. It's clearly mutual.

"I didn't realize that you worked so hard to keep the colony worlds happy," she remarks.

"It's a delicate balance of control and appeasement," Carl admits. "It's a tricky thing to be an occupying invader demanding loyalty and tribute from indigenous peoples. It takes time for entire populations to evolve from seeing us as the enemy to identifying as Sith themselves." He's speaking as much from his own personal experience coopting the Sith culture and identity as he is speaking as a ruler now. "With some worlds, it is a harder task than others."

"I'm impressed that you allow so much self-government. I never realized that," Tosca admits.

"It's mostly for social matters. Never for military or economic concerns," he explains. "We keep control of the aspects of life that matter to the Empire as a whole, and let the local traditions prevail for the rest. Although," Carl makes a face, "every now and then some local general oversteps and I have to make an example. That's the hard part of asserting control—knowing when to pull back. If you're not careful, you end up micromanaging and that's neither efficient nor prudent in the long wrong."

Tosca nods and asks, "Did your Jedi friend know that you allow so much local democracy?"

He frowns at her choice of word. Local tribal councils are hardly democracy run rampant within the Empire. They are examples of him tolerating the longstanding customs of his conquered subjects. "The will of the people does not matter. Only my will matters," he corrects her. She takes it gracefully.

All in all, Tosca seems to be getting better about his alter ego Vitiate. She has accepted his deceit even if she doesn't like it. On the bright side, Carl can now vent to her about his work. Tosca is not always approving of his views and decisions, but she's an attentive listener and a respectful sounding board. He values that.

They are back to talking about everything and nothing. Things now approximate their old rapport. It's casual and effortless feeling, just like he remembers. But it's not quite the same. Something about his reveal as Vitiate has shaken Tosca's trust and given her pause. He senses much fear in her. And though he continually reassures her that she is safe, Struct is safe, and her boys have good futures, she still seems uncertain and pensive at times.

Carl is tempted—sorely tempted—to reassign Struct to the far side of the Empire. To get him as far away from his beloved as possible. But he continually resists the impulse. He is willing to let Tosca stay with Struct—knowing it means she is sleeping with Struct—because Carl wants her to return to him of her own volition. He knows that throwing his weight around as Emperor will not succeed in wooing her. His big reveal as Vitiate was what drove them apart in the first place. So, he's keeping Struct around to be his foil. Carl is certain that dour, drunken Struct makes him look good by comparison. And when she does return to his Palace, he needs Struct around so she can dump the kids on him.

In the meantime, the bond keeps strengthening. The connection has always felt very intimate and immediate, even though they are miles apart. But two weeks since it first began, the bond is far more detailed. Carl can see Tosca's surroundings just as if he were standing in the same room as her. He can feel her strong emotions as well, even when the bond isn't actually open. It's like a constant, low grade awareness of Tosca in his mind.

He senses her upset one day and runs to conjure surveillance in his cauldron. Sure enough, the oldest Struct boy is mouthing off to her with profane criticism. Incredibly, the loser husband just looks on in silence. It is tacit approval. Carl fumes.

But he also senses her happiness from time to time. Carl witnesses Tosca congratulating her youngest boy on his perfect report card for all his academic courses at school. She's proud and Carl feels it miles away in the Force. She's wryly amused too when she peruses some silly fashion magazine editorial pictorial. It features mostly naked aristocratic-looking models wearing expensive lingerie. Some of the models have their faces obscured by scarlet veils, while others stand in bold postures with scarlet cloaks

pulled back. It's not hard to miss the reference to the Temple girls. Who knew Tosca and her flock were so chicly disreputable? This must be the result of her opening the Temple for those concerts and art receptions.

So far, all the closeness feels good. But Carl muses aloud, "One of these days, this bond is going to open when one of us is doing something truly embarrassing."

"Force, I hope not," Tosca sighs.

"It's okay. You've seen me naked. And I've seen you naked—"

"Friends, Carl. We are friends," she reminds him primly.

"—so if the Force wants to show me you getting sudsy in the shower, I won't mind."

Tosca chuckles. "I'd prefer the shower to the toilet."

Carl laughs. "You've seen me on my throne. Maybe I'll see you on yours."

"Oh, Carl," she giggles. It makes him smile. There's not enough levity in his life. These bond interactions are never long enough to satisfy.

"Did you find another matron yet?" she asks offhand.

"Why? Want to apply for the position? I'll pay you in kisses," he teases.

As expected, it earns him a look. "Why don't you just send the remaining girls home?"

He's considered that, mostly as a ploy to suck up to Tosca. But he discarded the idea. "Based on your experience trying to reunite the others with their families, that would seem risky. It could result in six honor killings."

Tosca nods soberly. "You're right. Forget I suggested it."

"Done," he agrees easily. Then, he floats an alternative just to see her reaction. "I was thinking of dragging Lady Fulsome to my Temple to be matron," he casually remarks.

Tosca is cool. "Oh?"

"What do you think?"

"I've never met her. I don't move in those circles," Tosca replies. "But hasn't she suffered enough? She lost her husband and her sons for her Lord's revolt. Sending her to the Temple on top of that seems cruel."

He shrugs. Cruel is exactly why he would do it. "I need someone to take the job if you won't return. And," he adds to make mischief, "from what I've seen in Fulsome's head, his Lady is very beautiful . . . " Carl lets that observation hang out there a moment.

Tosca's response is frosty. "Is that a job qualification?"

"For my Temple matron? Yes. You set a high standard, my Lady."

Tosca's blue eyes narrow. "So . . . does that mean she would be like me?"

"No one is like you." No one looks like his Tosca, no one acts like his Tosca, no one is his Tosca.

"I mean . . . would she . . . uh . . . "

"Yes?" he invites coyly.

Tosca comes out with it. "Would she sleep with you? I mean, are we talking about the job of matron as administrator or matron as mistress?"

Carl is enjoying her dismay immensely, although he tries not to let on. He blithely muses, "Oh, I don't know. What do you think? I'm asking hypothetically, of course. As a friend." Not too long ago, Tosca was practically volunteering to find her replacement. But now, she has apparently less keen.

Tosca face is red and her tone is clipped. "I think it's a terrible idea. You should end this whole Temple girl tradition. If you can't send the rest home, then train them like Poppy and the others."

Carl smothers a smile. "So, I shouldn't hire a new Temple matron?"

"No!"

"You're not jealous, are you?" he goads.

She stiffens. "Of course, not. We're just friends now." Tosca sniffs and lifts her chin. "All along, I've said that you should abolish the Temple girls."

"And the mistress bit?"

"I think you should get a proper wife who will be a proper Empress. And Lady Fulsome is a terrible choice. A traitor's wife is completely unacceptable for the role," Tosca contends, sounding a bit anxious and shrill. "You need a noblewoman of impeccable social standing and virtue who is above reproach in all things."

He smirks. "My paragon Lady Vitiate sounds boring. I think I'm ready for separate beds already," Carl groans. "On second thought, I think I'll stick with the mistress idea."

"Oh." Tosca looks crestfallen for a second. But she recovers fast. "Well, of course. As you wish, my Lord," she tells him as she looks away. It speaks volumes about how she doesn't think of him as a friend any more than he thinks of her in that role.

"You can come back anytime," he offers softly.

"You know I can't do that," she replies like she always does. Damn this woman and her sense of loyalty. Admirable though it is, it's very inconvenient when it isn't confined to him.

"She's too old, too," Tosca blurts out.

"Who?"

"Lady Fulsome. She's too old to give you sons if she's age appropriate for Fulsome."

"I don't want sons."

"You just think that. I think you would be an excellent father if you took the chance," Tosca informs him.

Carl grunts. "Not gonna happen."

"Your son would be your most trustworthy Apprentice. Loyal in a way no other man would be," Tosca persists. "Loyal not just for power and for glory, but also for blood." She says this like it's meaningful because his Tosca is fully committed to the concept of family.

Carl is far more cynical in his assessment. "Or, my son would be perfectly poised for an insider coup. Plus, even if the kid were loyal, there would be plenty of Lords looking to manipulate me through him. It would be a recipe for disaster," he predicts sourly. And why is she raising this issue?

"Don't you want to leave a legacy?"

He points out the obvious. "There's no need for a legacy. I'm not going to die." He is his own legacy.

But Tosca won't let go of the subject, arguing, "You could send him to take over the Republic from within. To claim it for the Sith. For you. Without a war."

"Oh, there would be a war once he announced who he was and where his allegiance lies," Carl predicts. "War is inevitable. And it's probably closer than I want it to be," he gripes. "What's got you harping on this kids business anyway?"

Tosca looks sheepish and uncomfortable. Through the Force, the bond confirms her emotions.

"Well, come on. Spit it out."

Now, Tosca looks almost terrified. She takes refuge in formality. "I have overstepped," she stammers out. "Forgive me, my Lord."

"Don't you 'my Lord' me," he complains as he squints at her. "Why do you care so much about this?"

"I'm jealous," she rushes out. Tosca is bright red as her eyes find the floor. "I'm jealous, alright? I don't want you taking up with Lady Fulsome. I've seen her pictures in the society blogs. She's elegant and skinny and red with perfect hair and gowns to die for. She's not a giant blonde with thick legs who looks like some fat Republic matron." Tosca must realize that she's babbling because her voice trails off. Flustered, she sighs. "That's all . . ."

Carl levels with her now. "I'm jealous, too."

"I know."

"It's not just Struct. It's all of it."

She looks up. "What do you mean?"

"Your happy family. Your home life."

"Well, we aren't the happiest these days," she admits.

Yes, he knows. But still. "Your family is happier than mine ever was. And they have you. Tosca," Carl stands as he steps forward as if to approach her, even though they are both firmly in their own spaces, "if Struct ever lays a hand on you—"

"He won't." She is certain.

"He's drinking. When my old man drank—"

"It's fine," she cuts him off. "Marcus isn't the type to explode. He's the intense type that tends to implode. And things are getting better." Tosca shoots him a look now. "You know, you could have a family for yourself, if you wanted—"

"I don't want a family. You know that."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. I was sure about that long before you came along. Look, I don't want to have a kid. I want to be a kid like one of your kids. I didn't have much of a childhood," he grumbles. "I had none of the advantages your little Lordlings have." There was never anyone to worry and fuss over him like Tosca nags and dotes on her sons. Most of what he remembers of his younger years was work. There was never any end to the work on the farm.

"Well, I want a family," Tosca tells him what he already knows. It's the reason that brought her to his throne room in the first place and it's the refuge that she fled to when she left him. "And since there is this bond . . . and since we're friends . . . there's something I need to tell you."

"Uh oh. I don't like the sound of that." He especially doesn't like how she refuses to meet his eyes.

"It's not bad news. It's good news. At least, I think it is," she gulps.

"Your face doesn't say that. And neither does the Force."

She takes a deep breath and claims, "Marcus is happy about it."

"That guy isn't happy about anything these days."

"How do you know that?" she demands.

"You just confirmed it. Now, spit it out. I hate it when people delay bad news. Let me hear it."

"Uh . . . Well . . . Promise me you won't get upset."

"How can I promise that?"

"You could promise to try."

"Why would I do that? I'm a Dark Lord. I'm supposed to embrace my emotions for power. That's the point of our religion."

She squirms. "Maybe we should talk about this another time."

"No, go on. You brought it up. Tosca, relax. You know you can tell me anything."

Still, she shies from him. "Maybe not today . . ."

"Now, you definitely have my interest." This is a woman who brazened her way into an audience to bargain for her husband's life. Tosca doesn't lack for gumption. The fact that she is intimidated now has him very curious.

"Okay . . . well . . . I'm pregnant."

Fuck. This isn't good. Now, he's going to have to kill her.

"It's another boy. Marcus wants to name him Gaius after his great-grandfather. Lord Mar made it to the rank of Captain back in the day."

Oh, whew. It's Struct's kid. He's going to have to kill Struct. Well, that's okay.

"I didn't really plan this. It was sort of an accident. The doctors can't really explain it given the procedure I did years ago when we decided not to have more kids . . ."

Carl quickly tunes out her nervous babbling as he processes the unwelcome news. Because fuck! This baby means she is never coming back to him. She'll be more tied than ever to Struct now. His strategy of forbearance has backfired.

" . . . we always talked about a third child. And now that the boys are growing up, it will be nice to have a little one around the house again . . . "

Carl fumes. How does this make any sense? One minute, she's jealous at the prospect of Lady Fulsome taking her place in his bed. And the next minute, she tells him news like this? He feels blindsided and confused, and that's a rare experience for him.

" . . . I'm not getting any younger. Forty is pretty much the last chance for this sort of thing to happen naturally . . . "

He feels their chance at a future slipping away. Carl seethes.

Tosca can sense it too. Her voice dies off. He watches as she stands from the table and takes a step back even though they are physically separate. All things considered, that's a good thing right now, he judges. Carl is very, very angry. And even more disappointed.

"S-Say something," she chokes out.

Carl stares her down. When finally he speaks, his tone is deceptively flat. "What is there to say?"

She snaps, "With you, there's always plenty to say."

Goaded, Carl explodes, "Alright. How's this? I'm going to kill him! And I might kill you too for being stupid enough to sleep with him! Have you no standards? I can't believe you whore yourself out to him—"

"Oh, stop! He's my husband. If I have whored around with any man, it's with you!"

"Do you want me to be happy for you? Is that it?" he jeers.

"Yeah, kind of. Marcus and I are starting over, and this baby marks a new beginning to our marriage."

"Don't tell me this! You know I don't want to hear this!" Carl's shoulders are rising now and his fists are clenched. His adrenaline races in anticipation of violence as Darkness surges within him.

"I'm not telling you this to hurt you! But I couldn't exactly hide it from you with the bond. So, since you are in my life for good, I wanted to tell you before you guessed. Because I care about you and we are friends!" she hollers.

"We are not friends!" he roars back. That was her euphemism, not his.

"We have to be friends!" she wails. "Because we can't be anything else!"

"Because of this baby," he hisses.

"Yes!"

"This baby is why you're staying with him!"

"Yes! Well, partly . . . there are the boys as well . . . "

At least she's being honest with him. She looks miserably honest. And the Force confirms it. Fuck, Tosca looks almost as unhappy as he feels right now. She's crying as she sobs out uncomfortable truths, "Carl, if we had met some other time or some other way . . . if you weren't you and I wasn't already married . . . if there wasn't this baby now . . . then maybe we could be together-"

"You still love me." He says it like an accusation.

She doesn't deny it. "That doesn't matter."

This conviction also rings absolutely true in the Force. His insight rushes up to confirm it. For no matter how much Tosca loves him—and Carl believes that she loves him—she will never love him like she loves those boys. And now, there will be another child to add to the mix. He just slipped from third place to fourth.

What's worse, it's hard for Carl to fault her. Because Carl remembers a woman long ago who sacrificed for the sake of her son. His own mother had conspired to hide him from his biological father and to protect him from his sullen stepfather. She schemed to shield him from villagers who would be hostile to any spawn of the Sith invaders, especially a child with the Force. Mother gave him her cooking pot and told him to practice his magic in secret in the woods. Promising young Carl that in time he would realize that his power was a great blessing, not a shameful curse. That one day, he would lead their people out of bondage and take his rightful place as a leader. Your destiny lies upon a different path from mine, Mother always said when young Carl asked about the future. Learn all you can and do great things, she bade him.

But the analogy only goes so far. The Struct boys are nothing special. Tosca's not shielding the next great Dark Lord from his unsuspecting father. From a man who would kill him if he had any inkling he existed. This isn't the Force at work shaping the future through some hapless bastard. This is just Tosca crawling into bed with her drunken loser husband to please him. And this new Struct kid is the result.

Carl feels livid. "So, I'm supposed to watch you carry and birth another man's child? Is that it? It was bad enough that you were sleeping with him, but this? This?"

"I'm not trying to hurt you. And this was as much a surprise to me as it is to you now."

"Can't you just get rid of it?"

"No!"

"No, I suppose not. You're the motherly martyr type. Willing to take the veil to save Struct and his brats. And here you are increasing the brood!" he sneers.

"Carl!"

"Just what the Empire needs—another lackluster kid with five or less midichlorians to his name who I will end up proscribing in fifty years—"

She reacts to that. "You dare harm my children and I will come for you myself!"

"I hate kids! I hate other people's kids and I don't want my own kids! I don't do kids!" he bellows.

She nods as she wipes at her eyes. This attitude is no surprise to Tosca. "Then maybe we can't be friends. Maybe this is a good time for us to go our separate ways."

"You know we can't do that!"

"Well, then think about this. Get used to it. It won't be so bad," she offers weakly. It's painfully obvious that Tosca is not even convinced herself of this claim.

"You're going to be all tired and grumpy now. The bond will open and you'll be eating pickles and ice cream while you complain."

"Yeah, maybe. Pregnancy isn't easy."

"Then get rid of it!" It's not as if this problem doesn't have an obvious solution.

But naturally, Tosca resists. "No. Life creates the Force and makes it grow. Every child is a gift from the Force." She looks away. "Maybe this one especially."

The Force . . . that's what got them in this mess in the first place. Fuck! He waited too long to deal with this awkward situation, preferring to trust in the Force to resolve things between him and the Struct family. And now, look at what happened? This is what he gets for playing the long game. For trying to coax his Lady of Light back to him, rather than boldly claiming Tosca for his own. There is a lesson here: he is the ultimate Dark Master and he can—and should-take whatever he wants. When he hesitates, when he shows mercy, he risks it all. Now, Carl can only blame himself . . . and her wretched husband.

He moves to collect his com from his desk and issues an abrupt order, "Bring me Lord Struct!" He will vent his rage on that drunken loser. With the red lightning, not the blue.

Tosca now starts walking towards him in the bond. "N-No! I came to the Temple to save my family! You will not renege!"

Carl glowers back at her. "It's time to settle this matter once and for all."

"It is settled! I fulfilled your terms. Now, I am back with my family where I belong."

"I am altering the deal—"

"The Hell you are!" she overrides him. "You harm Marcus and I will never forgive you! You and I will spend the rest of our lives bonded together in hatred! I will be haunting you in the Force!"

Carl shoots her a cold look that others know to fear. He curls his lip. "Unless I kill you too," he threatens. In the heat of the moment, it comes out in the tone of Emperor Vitiate speaking from his throne.

That shuts her up.

Tosca looks physically wounded a moment. She blinks, bites her lip, and steps back. Then she steps back some more, instinctively putting a hand on her belly region. It's a protective gesture that shows how truly frightened she is.

"I didn't mean that!" Carl yelps fast. "I would never hurt you!"

She is not reassured. He watches as she slowly sinks to one knee, her face pale and her eyes downcast. He can feel in the Force all her trepidation as she chokes out, "Your Excellency, forgive me. I have overstepped—"

"Oh, get up! And don't call me that!" he gripes.

"For the sake of my innocent unborn child, I seek your mercy—"

"Stop it! You know I hate this!"

"—for myself and for my husband." She lifts watery eyes to beseech him. "Don't be Lord Dramath," she whispers.

Oh, fuck. Why did she have to say that? And what is that even supposed to mean?

Abruptly, the bond closes.

Chapter Text

He doesn’t kill Struct.  Instead, he kills Fulsome in an orgy of Dark excess that conjures a blazing display of lightning, thunder, and funnel clouds over Kaas City and makes it rain for three days afterwards.  It’s not wholly satisfying, but it will do.

 

Carl has an underling inform Lord Struct that he has been reassigned effective immediately.  Struct will be stationed back on Ziost again. Ironically, with all the recent emphasis on the border trade worlds for Lord Azamin’s new strategy, the transfer is a bit of a promotion.  But whatever.  The guy is gone. 

 

The bond is gone too.  But Carl fully expects it to open again.  It’s as if the Force knows better than to connect him with Tosca when he’s angry.   It’s giving them both time to cool off. 

 

Truthfully, he misses her quite desperately. For the Darker he veers, the more he yearns for her love.   It’s a vicious cycle of brooding frustration that goes nowhere.  Discouraged, Carl fills his days with work and spends his nights feeling sorry for himself.  He never wanted things to turn out like this.  If only Tosca weren’t so hamstrung by convention and he could convince her to leave her family behind and begin a new life with him.  But still . . . Carl fully realizes that the values that tie Tosca to her home are part of why he loves her.   Because he doesn’t want a woman who will leap at the chance to be his consort, a woman greedy for his wealth and power.   So, on some level it is comforting that their conflicts are so meaningful.  Because there is nothing about Tosca that is superficial or selfish.

 

Does she wonder about him like he wonders about her?   After two weeks, Carl gets tired of waiting and prays to the Force for guidance.  

 

Shortly thereafter, the bond opens. 

 

Tosca is at home.  She is perched on the edge of the nearly waist high rim of the large rectangular stone planter that sits in the center of her home’s modest atrium.  Someone has pulled out all but the tallest of the plants in the center.   Lying to the side are several flats of replacement plants that Tosca is using to fill in the bare spots.  She’s at her most casual for this task.  Bare faced and wearing a grungy apron over a cheap house dress.   She’s got garden gloves on and her hair is in a loose side ponytail.  It’s a far cry from the impeccably coiffed, meticulously made up Temple matron who swept through the halls of his Palace like its unofficial Empress.  But to Carl’s longing eyes, she’s beautiful all the same.

 

Tosca looks up, sees him, then resumes what she is doing.

 

He’s getting the silent treatment, Carl surmises. 

 

Well, okay.   It’s better than their last screaming match.  Carl walks forward.  He’s alone in his garden at the Palace but somehow it feels like he is hovering right over Tosca.   Glancing up at the skylight above her small indoor greenspace, Carl observes neutrally, “You get only partial sun.  And with winter approaching, the days are getting shorter.”

 

“These flowers bloom in low light,” she informs him curtly.  “That’s what the guy at the plant nursery told me.”  She’s digging in the soil with determination, Carl sees. 

 

He nods.  “Good choice.   I’m in my garden now too,” he tells her what she can probably see. 

 

She ignores him. 

 

So, searching for something noncontroversial to talk about, he walks around to peer at the soil she’s working with.  “That looks a bit thin,” Carl judges, wishing he could grab a handful to feel its moisture and texture for himself.  “It’s probably because you don’t get rainwater inside.   Rainwater has more nutrients for the plants.”  He’s a farm boy.  He knows these things.  “There are commercial fertilizers, but a little of my ash would go a long way to beefing it—“

 

“No, thanks,” she cuts him off.  “I don’t want your dead men in my house.”

 

Her clipped, irritated tone provokes his equally sharp response.  “Your husband was almost one of those dead men.” 

 

“I know.”  Tosca puts down the spade she’s wielding and looks up.  Her words are sincere, if begrudging.  “Thank you for sparing Marcus’ life.” 

 

Carl grunts.  The less said about that guy, the better.   Why did he spare Struct?  For her, of course.  Something about this woman moves him to mercy.  But while reassigning Struct seemed like an acceptable alternative at the time, Carl is now sheepish about that weakness in hindsight.  Because how soft has he become that he can’t summon the effort to kill his romantic rival??

 

Her strategy of silence now abandoned, Tosca starts talking and soon can’t stop.   “It was actually good timing for a deployment,” she volunteers.   “Marcus wasn’t too keen on this surprise baby either.   Some time apart will help him adjust to the idea.  And I think he’ll drink less on base with his CO around,” she adds.   She picks up her tool and starts attacking the soil again. 

 

“Tosca,” Carl begins tentatively. 

 

“I’m glad he’s gone,” she blurts out.  Her lower lip is trembling as she confesses, “I can’t take both of you being angry at me.  It’s too much.”

 

“Tosca,” he tries again. 

 

“Now, it’s just Decimus left to hate me.”

 

“Tosca—“

 

“There are days when I wish I had let Marcus die.”  She flushes at her admission.  “Lucius would have ended up being a techie like he’s going to be anyway.   Decimus would have lost his future but maybe that would take him down a peg.   I’m tired of being lectured to by a smug fourteen-year-old who thinks he knows everything.”  As she continues speaking, her voice rises in pitch and volume.   It betrays the hot emotions under her words.  “It’s two and a half more years before Deci starts his Apprenticeship and then he is some other woman’s problem,” she gripes bitterly.

 

Carl says nothing.  He just lets her vent.  Without her circle of girlfriends and estranged from her husband, Carl realizes now that she’s probably as alone as he is.   They are back to being one another’s only confidante.  And . . . that could be a good thing.

 

“I used to worry about having an empty nest in a few years.  Marcus won’t ever take an Apprentice at his rank and with his skills, so it’s not like I will have a revolving door of young men to feed and look after during their training like other Ladies do.   My kids are it for me until the grandkids show up.”  Tosca wipes at a stray tear and it leaves a smear of soil across her cheek. “I never thought I would feel this way, but there are days when I can’t wait for the boys to grow up and move on.  I guess that makes me a horrible mom . . . ”   She looks away and gulps air to keep her composure. 

 

Carl frowns.   He doesn’t like to see Tosca mired in unhappiness and self-doubt.   If he could, he would hug her now.   He would take her in his arms and let her cry her eyes out on his shoulder.  But he’s in his garden by the gazebo miles away.  All he can do is listen and validate her feelings. 

 

And though it’s a little too late, his strategy did work.  She is glad Struct is gone.  She wants distance from her ungrateful, disapproving family.  This would be the perfect time to coax her back to his Palace.  Except . . . there is this baby.  Carl knows Tosca is never going to get rid of this baby. 

 

She grabs a plant and starts stuffing it into the hole she has made.  “I knew it was a risky decision to approach you about Marcus’ Proscription.  But I didn’t have a better option.   Sometimes you have to choose between two bad outcomes.   That’s life.”

 

“I know,” Carl commiserates.  He makes decisions for a living.  Rarely is he presented with an ideal option. 

 

“All along, I have been trying to do the right thing under the circumstances,” she wails as she pounds the poor plant some more. 

 

“I know.”   He does the same.  But people don’t see that.  They only want to assign blame.  Separating the world into good guys and bad guys is so childish, but grown adults do it every day.

 

“I was trying to save my family, but I ended up ruining it.  Things will never be the same between me and Marcus.”

 

Well, that’s good news, at least.   Carl continues his campaign to undercut Struct.  “He doesn’t deserve you.”

 

If she hears the comment, she doesn’t react.  Tosca just continues her tirade.  “He’s like an angry stranger in the house, except I know him so well.  When he left, I was relieved.   I worry that it showed.”  Tosca starts vigorously digging a new hole, unloading more regrets as she pokes around in the dirt.   “And now, there is this baby who will be born into this mess.   Honestly, I’m not sure if this baby is the fresh start Marcus and I need, or if it’s the beginning of the end.  We used to have such a happy home,” she whispers wistfully.

 

Carl has heard enough.  “Maybe you need to start thinking about yourself,” he suggests.  

 

“I did that once.  At the Temple with you.”   She sighs and lifts sad, tired eyes to his. “Oh, Carl . . . I never thought I would meet you. That’s such an awful place and I was so lost and you offered me something I never dreamed I would get a second chance at.  I went into the Temple expecting the worst and it was nothing like I anticipated.”   She looks away now as she laments, “I’m glad we were able to make each other happy for a time.”

 

“We could be happy again,” he says hopefully.

 

She shakes her head.  “All we do is hurt each other when we’re apart.  But if I come back, it will hurt others.  Either way, someone suffers.”

 

“Then you need to start thinking about yourself,” he urges again. 

 

She nods.  “I am.  This baby is for me.  He is a surprise, but I’ve decided that he is a good surprise.”  She’s blinking fast as she tells him, “I may lose everyone else who I care about, but I will have this baby.  He will love me, at least . . .”

 

Carl takes the cue.  “I love you.”

 

“I know.   Thank you for that,” she sniffs.  “But it’s impossible between us.”

 

“Nothing is impossible.”  He has seen and done and lived things that supposedly could not exist.   But they did—with the help of the Force.  “All things are possible in the Force,” he intones sagely.

 

Tosca is not reassured.  “Oh, Carl,” she complains, “this isn’t something your power can fix.   Not everything is the Force at work.”

 

“Maybe not for other people.  But for me, yes.”   He is one of the Force’s favorites.  Far removed from the anonymous horde of Sith Lords.  Nothing about his life escapes the notice of fate.

 

Tosca is shamefaced now as she asks, “If Marcus puts me out, will you help me?  I don’t have any property or money in my own name.  My dowry was spent years ago.  And I couldn’t go back to my parents.  They think Marcus sent me to the Temple.  If he puts me out, they will assume I was unfaithful again.  Carl, my father might take a sword to me himself at that point.”

He has a better idea.  “Come home to me now.”  They’ll deal with this baby somehow.

 

She sighs, “I can’t.”

 

“Why not?”  If Struct doesn’t want her, he does.  Carl can give her everything she could ever want.

 

But Tosca doesn’t see it that way.  “I can’t live at the Palace.  I know how dangerous your life is.   I know how dangerous you are.” He starts to object, but she throws up a hand to stop him.  “Look, I get it.  Power and paranoia are what kept you alive as a kid and they are what keep you in control as Emperor.  I understand—I was there for the coup, remember?   But I can’t live like that.  I don’t want to worry that some night someone is going to burst in to kill me.”

 

“I will keep you safe—”

 

“Are you sure about that?” she challenges.  There is an ugly edge to her tone.  “Because I also don’t want to have to worry that you might kill me yourself.” 

 

Carl is defensive.  “I didn’t mean that.” 

 

“Yes, you did!” she accuses.  “It’s you against the universe, isn’t?   The foes change and the issues differ, but it’s always you in opposition to everyone else.  Because if someone’s not with you, they’re against you.  And even those who are with you are potential enemies.  Everyone is suspect.  You don’t really trust anyone, do you?”

 

“I trust you.”

 

She raises an eyebrow at this claim.  “Not enough to tell me the truth.”

 

Carl says nothing.

 

Her brutal honestly continues now.  “There’s so much about you to admire.  So much to believe in.  So much to love.  And yet, parts of you really disappoint me.  And scare me,” she admits. 

 

“I will try to be better,” he promises immediately.

 

“Carl, you’re over a thousand years old.  You’re not going to change.  This is who you are.”

 

“So take the good with the bad,” he cajoles.  Surely, he’s a better bet than old Struct who is apparently close to throwing her out of the house.  Is he that bad of a catch?  He’s the Emperor, after all.  Shouldn’t that count for something?

 

She turns him down.  “I want to try and make this work with Marcus.  I want to give my children a stable, two-parent home.”

 

“Is the baby why you stay with him?   Or to stay with him, did you need another baby?”   Carl is starting to wonder if this new Struct kid is Tosca’s consolation prize for sacrificing their love.

 

Tosca begins babbling nervously.  She repeats some of what she already told him, but it’s not an answer.  “We always talked about a third child.  And I’m not getting any younger.  I mean, I know there are things the doctors could do, but I don’t want to mess with all that.  Anyhow, it wasn’t planned.   Marcus thinks I did it on purpose, but I didn’t.  In time, he will get used to it . . . I hope.  It helps that it’s a son.   I was kind of hoping for a little girl myself.  Mostly, so there would be less pressure on things like the Force.”   Tosca looks away.  “Our kids never have much Force, but who knows?  Maybe the third time is the charm and this one will have tons of midichlorians.”

 

She looks so woebegone that Carl tries to encourage her.  “You never know with the Force.  It can be strongly hereditary and yet skip entire generations.”

 

“Marcus’ family has more Force than mine.   His great grandfather had a lot of power.   We always hoped Decimus or Lucius would inherit from him.  Maybe his namesake baby Gaius will.”

 

“The most powerful Force users don’t always have the highest midichlorian counts at birth,” Carl reveals. “They tend to have awakenings as they mature.  Sometimes more than once, even as adults. It’s almost as if the midichlorians in their bodies are hypersensitive.   People get hung up on the numbers, but it’s more the quality of your Force sensitivity that matters.”

 

“Oh.  I’ve never heard that.”

 

“It’s not common knowledge.  We keep records on all of this.  It’s been empirically studied.”  Mostly by him.  Carl knows all there is to know about the genetics of the Force.  All that analysis has taught him that heredity is only one part of the riddle of power.  That helps to explain how a farm boy with only one known Force sensitive ancestor can turn into a Dark Lord. 

 

“Oh.”

 

He shrugs. “I’ve killed plenty of infants with extraordinary counts through the years only to watch some good-but-not-great kid at the Academy blossom into a fearsome Lord.  There is a lesson there: the Force can only be controlled so much.   There’s more to the equation than the sum of midichlorians.”

 

“Oh.”

 

He continues. “In some cases, the Force is a bit like intelligence.  It only gets you so far and then the rest of your talents come into play.  You don’t have to be the smartest guy in the room, you just have to be smart enough,” he explains.  “Marka Ragnos was like that.  He had plenty of Force but nothing compared to mine.  But he had other talents that I lack,” Carl admits, feeling sheepish.

 

“That is why Lord Fulsome is so dangerous,” she concludes.  As usual, his Tosca doesn’t miss a beat. 

 

“Yes.  Fulsome was smart enough, with enough Force.  And people liked him.  He managed to put together a broad and deep conspiracy.   I didn't see it, but apparently, he had charisma.  You combine that with elite prestige and he was a budding Marka Ragnos all over again,” Carl grumps.  

 

“Was?”  Her questioning eyes find his. 

 

“Was.  He’s dead.”

 

“May the Force be with him,” Tosca murmurs under her breath.

 

“No,” Carl corrects her churlishly.  Because why is she blessing a traitor who nearly killed her??   An upstart who tried to overthrow him??  “May the Force be with me,” he insists.  “For the sake of all of us.”

 

“Right,” Tosca nods.  And was that sarcasm?  He’s not sure.

 

Tosca turns back to her planting.  “So what happens now for us?” 

 

He answers honestly.  “I don’t know.”

 

“Neither do I.”

 

“I don’t like to see you so unhappy.  I wish I could make you smile,” he tells her sincerely.  “And I wish I hadn’t been so harsh about the baby.”  Carl believes her when she says it was a surprise.  And it sounds like Struct isn’t any more enthusiastic about the birth than he is, and Struct is the father.  “I can’t stand to think of Struct touching you,” Carl admits awkwardly to explain his reaction. “The baby was proof of that in a big way.”

 

“It only happened once,” she reveals, too embarrassed to meet his eyes.  “I thought it might help things between us . . . I was wrong.  He didn’t even remember it the next morning.  I think he was too drunk . . . “

 

Carl cringes.  He doesn’t want to hear more.

 

She lifts discouraged eyes to his.  “I didn’t do it to hurt you.  I wanted to move on and to salvage what I could of my marriage.  But like every other decision I make lately, it turned out to be a bad one . . . “

 

Carl takes the opportunity to press his strategy of undercutting his absent rival.  “He doesn’t deserve you.”

 

He must be making headway, because Tosca flushes and whispers, “He’s not you.  He will never be you.”

 

“Tosca—”

 

“I mean that in both good ways and in bad ways.  You and Marcus are just so different.  I think that’s why it’s possible for me to love you both.”

 

“He’s nothing compared to me,” Carl boasts.

 

“He’s a family man, and I value that.”  She looks away.  “I need that right now.”

 

Well, that’s one arena in which Carl refuses to compete.  So, he changes the subject, searching for another angle to woo her.  “Let me come to your house.  I want to help you plant your garden.”

 

She shakes her head.  “You can’t do that.  The neighbors would see if I had a strange Lord come to visit.  My reputation is bad enough as it is.  And you can’t exactly show up with six praetorians without attracting notice.”

 

“I’ll come alone to the side door disguised in the Force as a servant,” he offers.   Carl tries to coax a smile from her.  “Don’t worry—I’m be my humble peasant self.”

 

Tosca hesitates as she surveys her work.  “I don’t have much of a green thumb.   This is nesting mostly.   I get like this when I’m pregnant.  Suddenly every household task becomes a new project.  It must be the hormones.”

 

“I’ll bring you some cuttings from my garden to supplement what you have bought.  Put all that over there around the border,” he gestures to the collection of flowers she has yet to plant, “and I’ll bring you the rest from my potting shed to . . . mor . . . row . . . ” 

 

Carl frowns as his words die away.   He is standing in his own greenspace, not hers.  But for a moment, he could swear that the movement he just made brushed past her arm.  But that’s not possible . . . is it?

 

She must have sensed the touch too.  “Did you—“

 

“Yes,” he anticipates her question.  “I did.”

 

“I did too.”  She looks as shocked as he feels intrigued.  And now, she turns to him.  Yanking off her gardening gloves, she lifts up her right hand, her palm facing him.   Tosca is trembling as her eyes find his. 

 

“Go ahead.”  She nods her encouragement.

 

Carl sucks in a break and lifts his own hand in a mirroring gesture. For a moment, they hover an inch apart. 

 

“Do it,” she whispers softly as she closes her eyes in fearful anticipation.

 

“Vis nobiscum.”  Force be with us.  Carl murmurs a blessing and girds himself as he closes the distance between their hands. 

 

She flinches and gasps as skin meets skin and a stray spark of blue Force lightning results.  It crackles around their fingers and wanders up his arm.  Tosca’s eyes are wide open now. 

 

So are his.

 

He was a child groping at unknown power when he took his first steps into the larger world of the Force.  Carl still remembers vividly that sense of wonder and discovery.   Since then, he has experienced numerous breakthroughs as his burgeoning power constantly stretched the boundaries of accepted practice.   But never since those first forays has he felt this enchanted.  This is touching Tosca, but it’s also touching the face of god.  He is literally in the Force, with the will of the universe flowing through him and between them.  

 

It’s simply amazing. Overwhelming.  Humbling.  This feels like truth revealed at long last.  Like a peek into forbidden knowledge that only a privileged few are permitted to see.  As they stand frozen for a long moment, Carl fears he might cry.   Thank goodness Tosca is the only one seeing this.  She is a safe space to be vulnerable in.  And that’s the irony of his deceit as Vitiate—because Carl has never been his more authentic self than he is with this woman.  She sees him weak, she even makes him weak, and that’s okay.

 

He feels a stray tear leak out now.  Truthfully, it’s because this connection feels so life affirming.  More and more, Carl suspects life is the true purpose of the Force.  It is the reason why Darkness will never triumph permanently.  Because the Force yearns to create even though it lusts to destroy.  It renews even as it decays.   And so, Darkness needs the Light.   Whether the Light needs Darkness is something he has yet to divine.  But Carl worries that the age-old Dark/Light conflict between the Jedi and the Sith is an oversimplification.  Maybe even a complete misunderstanding.  That perhaps the conventional wisdom of their arch-enemy status is more a result of political and historical differences than a true religious schism.  For he had understood the Force remarkably similarly to Jedi Master Tavo Crutcher, even if he worshipped and used it differently. 

 

Across from him, Tosca now wears the same expression Carl remembers from his Force premonition.  She looks determined and frightened, resolved and resigned, all at the same time.  Carl catches her eye.  “Don’t be afraid.  I feel it too.”  The words are meant to reassure, but in the intensity of the moment, they come out like an order. 

 

Tosca nods.  Without breaking their connected hands, she rises to her feet from her perch on the rim of the planter.  They stand facing one another as she now raises her left palm to display it.  Slowly, he mirrors her movement.  Then, their hands touch again. 

 

Carl can tell with his peripheral vision that he’s still standing in his garden, peering into her reality. He is with her, but yet apart, somehow simultaneously. 

 

That is, until Tosca curls her fingers to lace with his.  It’s a small gesture that somehow tugs him forward.  And now, he’s standing in Tosca’s atrium.  Physically in her home.   All signs of his Palace garden are gone.  Because somehow, the bond has transported him bodily through the Force.   The tremulous rapture of their connection is gone, too.  He’s standing in front of Tosca, touching her just like he used to do.  This is completely ordinary now . . . except it’s extraordinary as well.

 

Yet again, Carl is humbled and impressed by the power of the Force.  It makes the impossible possible and the unbelievable real.   Miracles do happen.   This is proof.   Because seconds ago, he was in his Palace garden and now he’s standing in her home.

 

She knows it, too.  “You’re here?”

 

“Yes,” he breathes out.  When he told Tosca that he would always be with her in this bond, he never imagined his words would be true so literally. There can be no greater proof that the Force endorses their union than this moment.   For it has literally pushed them together.

 

“H-How??”

 

“Never underestimate the power of the Force.  All things are possible in the Force,” he marvels.  Carl has never been more devout than in this instance.  For this reunion is an answered prayer. 

 

Their hands are still intertwined.   They stand toe to toe.  She’s eye to eye with him.  Carl can feel her rapid breath on his cheek.  Tosca looks so beautiful in the moment, with her eyes wondrous and her lips slack in a round ‘oh’ of surprise.

 

This is the woman sent to him by the Force.  He saw her in a vision before her met her in the flesh.   Carl understands that moment better now in hindsight after Fulsome’s coup.   The Force was telling him in advance that when the moment comes, Tosca would stand with him.  And she did.   Only to be frightened away in the aftermath.  But the Force gets what the Force wants, and so the Jedi it sent him prompted the Force bond that now reunites them.  That series of events confirms what Carl has seen demonstrated time and again:  that there are no accidents and no coincidences.  All is as the Force wills it.

 

And, thank you, Force.  Now, Carl cannot resist. Enraptured by the magic of the moment and the very nearness of his beloved, he takes a leap of faith.  Slowly, far more tentatively than his usual bold self, Carl leans in for a soft kiss.  He is the ruler of a mighty Empire and the foremost practitioner of the Dark Side, but in this he is just a man hoping very much for love and acceptance.  For despite his armies and his temples, notwithstanding his achievements and his plots, in matters of the heart Carl Veradun, first Lord Tenebrae and later Dark Lord Vitiate, is very much a novice.  And though he is normally very decisive, something about this woman in particular gives him pause.  She does this time and time again.   Since Tosca first knelt before his throne in a puddle of skirts to bargain for mercy, she has thrown him off stride.    He is not his usual self with her.   And that’s a good thing.

 

Carl pulls back before she does.  And maybe it’s the bond, but he swears he can feel her heart pounding in her chest, quickening her pulse.   She’s excited . . . like he is.   Anticipation races around them in the Force.  Emboldened, Carl claims her mouth for a proper kiss.  He lowers their hands, still laced, and snakes them behind her back. He has all the physical leverage now as he leans into her body and deepens the kiss. 

 

This is the most erotic moment of his abnormally long life.  He has longed for this woman for many weeks now.  First, he absorbed her rejection.  Then, he swallowed the unwelcome news of her pregnancy by another man.  And through it all, he has stayed the course and shown patience and restraint.  Finally, the Force rewards him with the jaw dropping secret magic of Tavo Crutcher’s Jedi trick.

 

She is mostly Light while he long ago consigned his soul to Darkness.  He zealously hides his identity and she bravely endures public scorn for her stint at the Temple.  She’s an aristocrat born and bred and he’s the bastard country boy fugitive from a defunct colony world.  But he’s the Emperor now and she is powerless before him.  Except, she’s not.  For though he rules an Empire, she rules him.   If she will deign to do so, that is. 

 

Tosca is not pushing him off.  She’s participating fully.  She lifts her arms to encircle his neck.  It’s the encouragement he needs to let his hands roam freely over her body.  He luxuriates in the very realness of her.  For so long he has watched her in his cauldron or they have spoken through the bond.  And lately, he has mostly fantasized by his lonely self.   But no more.  Today, she is his wish fulfilled. 

 

“I need you,” he confesses between open mouth kisses.  “I need you like I need the Force . . .” His heart and his body are both so ready for this reunion.

 

He wants to bury his face between her soft bosoms and sheath his body between her thighs.  To glory in the soft, warm lushness of her figure that reminds him of nature’s bounty.  For there’s not a sharp angle on this woman anywhere.  From her breasts that overspill his hands, to the inward curve of her waist, to the wide flare of her hips, she is like a ripe fruit ready to pick.  On his homeworld, women like this were celebrated. A young Tosca would have been queen of the summer solstice, with a crown of flowers and stalks of wheat in her hair.  Men would have lined up to court her, bribing her father with gifts of eggs and fresh cheese.  All for the hope of the chance to do what he is about to do to her now.   The Sith elite might think Lady Struct to be slovenly déclassé, but to his eyes she is perfect.  And the Force knew it, Carl suspects.

 

She is entirely pliant in his embrace.  Head back, eyes closed, mouth surrendered to his.   Has she finally accepted that they are destiny despite all the obstacles between them?  Well, ‘just friends’ be damned.   He resolves to have this woman completely.   This torrid embrace is not nearly enough.  He wants more. 

 

“Give in to fate,” he urges.  “Give in to me.  We will find a way to be together.  Nothing will stand in our way.”  He’s not the Emperor for nothing.  Dark Lord Vitiate gets what he wants—that’s how absolute power works.

 

“Oh, Carl,” Tosca moans back.  That little whimper eggs him on and sends a shiver down his loins.   His seduction is working . . . on them both.   

 

“This is madness,” she gasps out.

 

 “I don’t care—”

 

“We shouldn’t do this—”

 

“The Force is letting us do this.”  That’s permission enough for him.   “Where’s the bedroom?” he rasps as he momentarily breaks their kiss.

 

“Down the hall at the back on the left.”

 

It’s a good answer.  He nabs her hand and starts heading that direction.  “Is the maid here?”   Will they be interrupted?

 

“No.  She comes back tomorrow.”

 

“Good.” He’s walking faster now.   Because he can hardly wait to get inside this woman.  She holds the promise of love combined with fate and sex.  It’s downright irresistible.  This woman is destiny made flesh. 

 

They are in the bedroom now.  Hands all over each other and mouths hungry for more. 

 

“How does this work when you’re knocked up?”  He’s never been with a pregnant woman.  He doesn’t want to hurt her. 

 

“Same as always,” she answers quickly.

 

“I was hoping you would say that.”

 

And now, they are back to escalating passion again.  Carl knows that he ought to be peeling back her dress with painstaking deliberation.  Worshiping the curves and soft skin that he has longed for since she left him.   This should be a romantic seduction.   A heartfelt, tender reconciliation.  But there is too much urgency from them both.  Too much pent-up need.  Plus on his part, too much fear that she will change her mind.  And so, neither of them fully undresses.  Her apron comes off but not much else.  She ends up with her skirt around her waist while he just unzips.  It’s not long before she’s on her back on the edge of the bed, legs spread wide open for him.

 

Oh, yes, this is absolutely happening.  And that gets him cocky with his dirty talk.   “Give yourself to your Dark Lord,” he growls into her ear as he nudges his body up against her secret parts.   “Betray him in his own bed.”   He’s going to fuck Struct’s pregnant wife in the man’s own house, and the Force enabled it.  This is excellent payback. 

 

Tosca is less moved by the delicious Dark irony.  “Shut up, Carl.”  She impatiently bucks beneath him for encouragement.  “Come into me,” she slurs out.

 

He grins like a randy teenaged boy who’s doing this for the first time.  “So be it, my Lady.”  Then he slips in and begins to thrust hard.  Next to the Force, this is his favorite pleasure.  He managed to live centuries celibate until Tosca showed up.  But once he took her to bed, Carl has not been able to quench his lust.  It’s what drove him to excess that first night they were together.  It’s what’s given him hot dreams ever since she left him.

 

Damn, this feels good.  But the physical union is not sufficient.  “Tell me you love me,” he commands.

 

She doesn’t respond.   She just keeps grunting, eyes closed and head thrown back, as he ploughs into her.

 

“Tell me you love me,” he demands again.  He’s so damned jealous of that loser Struct.  It’s not enough that she betrays him with her body today.  Carl wants her to betray him completely.  “Give me your love.”  It comes out like an order, but he’s really begging.  “Say it!”

 

“I love you,” she sighs.  “Force forgive me, but I love you.”  Tosca sounds like she’s apologizing now.  “I couldn’t help but love you . . . I wasn’t looking to love you . . . I didn’t try to love you . . .  but I still love you . . .  I know I shouldn’t love you . . . ”

 

It’s everything he needs to hear.

 

They end up with their clothes askew entwined on the top of the bedcovers.  He pulls her close, unwilling to relinquish her.  For who knows how much time they will have left together?

 

She too is cognizant that their intimacy will be fleeting.  “I’ll give you a ride back to the Palace if the Force doesn’t make you disappear first,” Tosca whispers huskily.   “Let’s not waste a second.”

 

Carl hears the unspoken subtext of that offer.  “You’re not coming back with me, are you?”

 

She snuggles her face deeper into his neck, her breath tickling his throat.  “I need to look after the boys.” 

 

It’s an excuse and they both know it.

 

“This is good.  No one will know.  Marcus is deployed.  The boys are at school,” she rationalizes.

 

Carl sits up and disentangles himself.  He gives her a hurt look.  “You still want to stay with him?”  Did that sex mean nothing to her??

 

“This is back to what we had, only better,” she claims.  “I’m out of the Temple and here for the boys.”

 

Yes, and he’s alone.  Carl scowls.  “We had more than this.   We were together—“

 

“It was an affair.  Like this is an affair.”

 

“You make it sound so sordid.  And temporary.”    

 

“It is temporary.  In a few months, I’m going to be big and round and neither of us is going to want to do this for a bit.”

 

“I can wait.”   He waited seven hundred years for this woman.   He will gladly wait a few months if he knows they are committed to each other.   “We are more than just a physical thing.  We are destiny.”  He firmly believes this.  

 

She, of course, thinks he’s being grandiose.  “You’re such a romantic.  I love that about you.”   Tosca smiles up at him.  It’s beguiling.

 

Carl grunts.  “I guess I should be happy that you’re not calling us friends,” he complains, still feeling stung.  So much for afterglow.

 

“Don’t be like that,” Tosca chides.  She tugs him back down, wrapping him in her soft, warm arms.  As beautiful as she is, so much of her allure is in her comfort.  Something about this woman changes up the energy in the room for good.  

 

“Think about it—this is the perfect solution.  I live safely and anonymously in my own home with my children.  Marcus is away and will never know.  You can come see me whenever you want during the day through the Force.  We are together but apart.”  As she speaks, she warms to the idea.  “It’s not like we can get married anyway.  And I don’t want to be publicly known as the Emperor’s mistress.  Plus, this way there is no security risk to either of us.  It’s perfectly convenient,” she declares brightly.

 

Carl grumbles, “If this is all I can get, then I guess it is enough.”   But he’s not happy with this outcome.  

 

Somehow, this woman always has him compromising.   He never gets what he wants with Tosca.  He’s always settling for less.  But she’s right, Carl realizes as he relaxes in the moment.  This is good.   This feels so good.  She’s happy and he’s happy.  Even if their relationship is as overly complicated and fraught with conflict as ever, stolen moments like this make it perfect.  Something about their love feels addicting.  He’s greedy for more but also grateful for what he gets.   The truth is that during their separation, he had felt uncomfortably desperate.   He had become far too obsessive over his estranged Tosca.  

 

“No one will know but the Force,” she whispers in his ear, knowing full well that line will persuade him. 

 

But he pouts some anyway.  “I want you to come back.  I don’t want to be alone.”

 

“You’re not alone,” Tosca promises with a kiss.  

 

“Neither are you,” he answers back as he tugs her closer.  And now, he counteroffers.  “I am fine to be together in the Force like this until we can be together officially.”

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she yawns, as she settles her head back on his chest.   In the Force, he can sense how contented she feels.   It soothes him as well.  “You know I’m married . . .”

 

“I will wait for you.  I have time.  I have forever.  I’m willing to call this an affair until your children are launched and you have no more responsibilities to your family.  But after that, you are mine at the Palace.”

 

“I’ll be an old lady when this latest kid is grown.”

 

“No, you won’t.  But I can fix that.  Once the baby is born, I can freeze you in time like myself.  You’ll forever be the age you are now.”

 

She lifts her head and gives a wry chuckle.  “Middle aged lovers.”  Then, she thinks a moment.  “Any chance your power can turn the clock back some?   I wouldn’t mind being thirty again.  You could stand to shave some years off too.”

 

“That’s not how the Force works,” he scoffs.  “And besides, who are you calling old?” 

 

“You.  You fourteen-hundred-year-old fossil.”

 

“I don’t look a day over eight hundred,” he teases.

 

“Well, you do seem spry compared to old Azamin,” Tosca concedes.

 

“Don’t change the subject.  Now, to be clear, I’m not waiting for Struct to die.  I’m just waiting for the kids to grow.  Tosca, I need you.  I don’t want to share you any longer than I have to—"

 

“Carl, this is good.   Stop pushing for more.  Let’s enjoy what we have.”  

 

“Fine.  But when the kids are grown, you will be my mistress at my Palace.  And when Struct becomes one with the Force, I will make you my Empress.   Do we understand one another, future Lady Vitiate?”

 

Again, he gets the brush off. “I don’t need to be anything official.  Being with you is enough,” she tells him. It’s not what he wants to hear.  This woman takes her commitments very seriously, which is why Carl keeps pressing for one from her.  But it feels like she will commit to everyone else but to him.  Instead of a ‘yes,’ Tosca muses, “I am content to be secret lovers in the Force with the Dark Lord.”

 

“Secret lovers in the Force . . .”   He likes that phrasing.  They will be a couple for the ages, he decides.  Their passion will burn bright and endure, even if it ends up forever private behind closed doors.  He will rule the Empire—maybe one day the whole galaxy—with this woman at his side.  She will assert her influence like she has all along even before she knew his full identity.  And with his mastery of Darkness and her steadfast loyalty and the compassion of the Light, they will face the future together with confidence and grace.   The Force will be with them always, he’s sure of it.  Secret lovers in the Force . . .  It’s perfect.  Secrets are sort of his thing, after all.   

 

“Say it again.  I like the sound of that.”   

 

She does.   

 

Mollified, Carl plots their next rendezvous.  “So . . . your maid is back tomorrow?”

 

“Yes.  Do I need to give her the afternoon off?” Tosca asks suggestively. 

 

“No.  Tomorrow, it’s my place,” Carl announces.  

Chapter Text

The next day is a work day like every other as Carl growls down from his throne, “Asteroids do not concern me.  I want that hyperspace lane clear.”

 

The business of the Empire is business, but few of his Lords realize it.  The martial focus of the ruling class has them disdaining trade as a rule.  That’s foolish, even in a war.  And it’s why so many Sith common folk died of starvation towards the end of the last conflict.  Ancient tactics like siege, broken supply lines, and scorched fields are still remarkably effective with modern weaponry, although far too few of his Lords recognize it.  Lord Azamin does, however.  Azamin’s strategic focus for centuries now during their long covert cold war has been to outflank the Republic on trade.  Darth Azamin might officially be the Minister of Military Strategy on the Dark Council, but he is the Empire’s foremost economic adviser as well.   Together he and Carl have worked to integrate all of the major Imperial systems, making them economically interdependent on one another.  It is a plot for unity and decentralization rolled into one.  That way, if the Republic ever attacks, the Empire will not be vulnerable to the takeover of a handful of systems. 

 

But to maintain that advantage, trade routes are critical.  Hyperspace lanes must remain safe and free flowing.  And that means they must be devoid of wandering asteroid debris fields.  “Admiral, you have five days to remedy the situation,” Carl sets a deadline for his navy to handle things.  Let them get in those expensive new starfighters he approved last year to get some target practice on those pesky space rocks.

 

Carl dismisses the man.  What’s next?   Ah yes, an update on the preliminary work for the traitor Fulsome’s Death Star idea.  Carl had thought the project foolish at first look, but the more he has considered it, the more intrigued he has become.   Darth Fulsome was onto something with his grandiose weapon. 

 

Carl turns his attention now to a terrified looking astrophysicist standing next to his weapons engineer colleague.  Neither man is a Lord. Normally, that would preclude them from entering the Emperor’s presence.  But with all Fulsome’s overseeing co-conspirators now ash sown into his garden, Carl finds himself dealing directly with the true brains of the project.  Feeling magnanimous towards the quaking pair, Carl listens to their presentation without interrupting—a courtesy he never extends to Lords.  Then, he starts asking questions.  Lots of questions.  Their answers are honest, even to a fault.  But Carl appreciates candor and he recognizes the sheer ambition of this project.  There is much yet to be determined and, in some cases, to be developed and discovered. But for a weapon that will consume an eye propping share of the gross domestic product of the Empire for at least the next ten years, some due diligence is in order.

 

Carl finishes with the two men, then summons into the throne room the navy commander he is appointing to oversee the project.  In the wake of Fulsome’s coup attempt, there will be no more traitor army Lords involved going forward.   A weapon of this caliber must remain in safe hands.  Loyal Imperial Navy Lords are now Carl’s go-to for all sensitive matters.  The entire army is in disfavor currently, and Carl has no plans to change that.  Satisfied, he dismisses the trio until their next progress briefing in six months’ time. 

 

Well, that took a while.  What time is it?  Early afternoon.  Excellent.   Carl is feeling upbeat from his productive morning.  But he’s even more encouraged by the prospect of seeing Tosca.   If history is any indication, any moment now the bond will open.  He can hardly wait.   Yesterday’s reunion was everything Carl had hoped for and more.   Things between him and Tosca had almost felt like they had before Fulsome’s coup outed him as Emperor.  And the sex . . . well, he needed that.   They needed that as a couple, too. 

 

Sure enough, today the Force doesn’t disappoint.  Carl is busy making notes on a datapad when the bond opens.

 

Lady Struct is dressed to go out. Or maybe she has just returned home.  Carl can’t tell.  She’s standing in her kitchen holding her speeder keys and her com. Her hair is pulled back to silhouette her beautiful face.  She’s presenting him her profile currently.  It’s all high cheekbones, slashing dark brows, and red stained lips.  It’s such high contrast to her unusual pale hair. 

 

Tosca senses him immediately and turns. A genuine smile transforms her face.  Oh, how lovely she is, Carl thinks.  Perhaps all the more so because she is so unaware of her allure.  There is nothing preening about this woman.  Her personal presentation is motivated more by self-respect and a sense of genteel appropriateness than it is by true vanity.  

 

“Carl,” his given name escapes her lips.  It sounds like the whispered secret it is. 

 

Her reaction pleases. “I’ve been waiting for you.”  He casts aside his datapad and stands from his throne.  Carl raises both palms to her and waits expectantly.

 

She rushes forward to match her hands to his.  And that look of girlish excitement on her face is everything he is hoping to see.  Yes, this will be his continued strategy—to make her happy.  To make their love a refuge from the pressures of real life.   To give her all the approval and attention Struct withholds.  In time, he plots, she will come to resent the duty that ties her to her lackluster husband.  And then, it will be easy to coax her permanently to his Palace. 

 

For if a thousand years on his throne have taught him anything, it is to assert control judiciously.  As a general rule, power does not have to be used to be effective.  Making an example every now and then can be a very useful tool, since fear is an excellent motivator. But fear is not how Carl wants to relate to his Empress.  Sure, he could compel Tosca to join him.   He could manipulate her with her children or her husband’s welfare at stake.  That’s effective in a very literal, but shortsighted way. 

 

Carl would much prefer to have Tosca reach the determination to join him on her own volition.  It is far more satisfying and lasting to convince someone of your position than it is to force them to accept your views.   It also requires much cunning and forbearance.  But he suspects that heavy handed tactics will backfire with Tosca.  Acting as his Imperial despot self will only stoke the fears that sent her running from the Palace in the first place.  So, he’s playing the long game with his beloved.  Carl can be patient for people and things that are worth it.   

 

But no waiting is required today.  As soon as their hands meet, the Force surges.  It’s a rush like no other.  But Carl reacts fast, as he planned.  He is the one to close his fingers over hers.  As hoped, the small movement pulls her into his reality.  In less than a second, Tosca is transported from her kitchen to his audience chamber.  She’s standing hands clasped with his at the top of his dais where his throne sits. 

 

It’s all so effortless and easy.   Tosca is even laughing this time.  Carl grins and exhales the breath he was holding in.  “I have you now!” he claims victory with an evil chuckle as he pulls her into a bear hug.  He wants to steady her where she teeters on the edge of the stairs.   “Welcome home.” His tone betrays his happy mood and his true relief that yesterday was not a fluke. 

 

Vis nobiscum.  The Force is with them

 

She leans into him and Carl sits back, taking her down with him into his lap.

 

“Oof,” she exhales.  “Yikes!  Sorry.  Did I just crush you?”  She squirms self-consciously.  Carl takes the opportunity to spread his knees wide to maximize the feel of her against him as she settles mostly between his legs. 

 

“I love every inch of you,” he croons.   Most especially those inches that are rubbing him warm and soft right now.   His arms encircle her possessively from behind.  He revels in their physical closeness that was until yesterday so long denied.

 

“Where are we?”  She’s disoriented a moment.  “Wait—we’re here?”  She sounds dismayed as she recognizes the throne room.

 

“I’m at work.”  He kisses her exposed neck where her hair is tied up.  “The Empire doesn’t run itself.”  

 

She squirms again.  “Let me up.  I feel like I should kneel.”

 

His arms become a vice-like grip now.  “Don’t you dare.  I’ve seen enough genuflecting for today.  Now, what do you think of my new project?”  He gestures his left hand toward a small projector laying close.  It activates with the Force.  A rotating holographic mockup of his new Death Star appears. 

 

“What is it?”

 

“Guess.”

 

“It looks like an ornament to hang on a Sabbath tree.”

 

“Wrong,” he snorts.  “Guess again. That’s a small-scale replica.   The actual size will be much larger.”

 

“Like how large?”

 

“Large enough to generate its own gravity.”

 

“Oh.  So, it’s like a small moon?” she wonders. 

 

“Nope.  That’s no moon.”

 

“I give up.  What is it?”

 

“A space station.”

 

“That doesn’t look like any space station I’ve ever seen.  Is it for navigational research?”

 

“It’s for war.  It’s a weapon,” he reveals.

 

“Oh.”

 

“The designers are still working on how to mount hyperdrive engines onto it.  But they feel confident that they can design a laser that can take out a capital ship with a single hit.  This thing could be a fleet killer.”

 

Army wife Tosca is appropriately impressed. “Wow.”

 

“They also theorize that if they can build it with multiple powercell reactors capable of uniting to fire simultaneously to create a single shot, they might be able to destroy an entire planet.”

 

“Oh.   Ugh.”  It’s her honest initial reaction.   But Sith citizen Tosca quickly corrects herself, “I mean, wow.”   Both impulses are very her.  She’s both Light and loyal.

 

Carl walks through the scenario now.  “All we would have to do is pick a strategic system to target in the Republic to demonstrate our destructive firepower to the enemy.  We drop out of hyperspace and blow it up.  Then we issue an ultimatum for surrender.”

 

“Would they actually give up?” Tosca is skeptical.

 

“I hope not,” Carl gripes.  “I’ll be pissed if the Republic doesn’t turn out to be a worthy adversary and I’ve wasted centuries worrying for nothing.”  He muses some more now.  “I expect they would launch an attack on the weapon.  Their obvious response would be to try to destroy it to remove the threat and our strategic advantage.  That’s where the design needs the most work.  Apparently, it never occurred to the tech guys that the weapon itself would be a target.”

 

Tosca considers.  “Can’t you just jump it to hyperspace to get away?”

 

“That was the tech guys’ lame answer, too.  And no, ‘run and hide’ is not a sufficient counterstrategy,” Carl sniffs.  Not for something that costs this much. 

 

Tosca shoots him a look over her shoulder. “I thought hiding was your favorite move.”

 

“I’m ignoring that comment,” he announces.   But he punishes her with a tickle.  It makes her squirm again in just the right place. 

 

“How do you fuel that thing?” she asks. 

 

“Lots of coaxium and kyber crystals.”

 

“Kyber crystals??” 

 

“I know.  Crazy, huh?  Think of it like one big lightsaber that shoots long distance.  We whip it out and snap . . . hiss . . . BOOM!   And then, my Lady,” he chuckles darkly, “you get to design a Palace for us on Coruscant.”  

 

“That’s . . . that’s something . . . ” she comments, clearly unsure what she thinks. 

 

“This whole project is going to cost a bundle.   But it’s a game changer if we can pull it off.”

 

She nods and speaks up. “Destroying an entire world will slaughter a lot of civilians.”

 

“Yep.  That’s the plan.”  When she bristles, he calls her on it.  “I thought you liked slaughtering Republic citizens.   You were all ready to sign up for Fulsome’s plan to implement the revenge of the Sith by year end.”

 

“I was not!” she objects.   Then a thought occurs to her.  “Wait—you’re not doing this to impress me, are you?”

 

No.  But he can’t stop himself from asking, “Is it working?”

 

“No.”

 

“Darn.”   Well, no surprise there.   Carl comes clean now.  “Actually, I’m doing this for two reasons.   First, we need a strategic weapon if we lose the element of surprise and the Republic attacks first.”

 

She nods along.  “Okay.  Defense.  Got it.”

 

“And second, it will slaughter a lot of Republic citizens.  That’s the goal.  It will bring them to the bargaining table fast.  I want to avoid a full scale, protracted war at all costs.  I refuse to fight the last conflict all over again.  This time will be different.  This time will end differently.  Hence, my new toy.   We’re calling it the Death Star.  Catchy name, eh?”

 

She frowns.  “Why not the Sith Star?”

 

“That’s good too.   Not as good.   But good.  Well, more like okay . . . ”  Actually, he hates it.  Sith Star is a sucky name.

 

“Is it really going to be green?” she wonders.   “Shouldn't it be red or black?”

 

“Who paints a spacecraft black?” he scoffs.  “Then you can’t see it bearing down on you.  It loses all dramatic effect.   Besides, that’s not paint.  That’s the color of the durasteel made from green ore indigenous to the Korriz system.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“But your point is taken.  We need to put our emblem on the side so large that everyone on the target world knows they’re being killed by us.”

 

Tosca shakes her head.  “They won’t recognize our emblem.   They don’t even know we exist.”

 

“You’re right.  Well, I guess we’ll need to write ‘RIP in the Force.  Love, Lord Vitiate’ on the side in Basic,” he smirks gleefully.

 

She’s not laughing. “Carl, if you destroy a major Republic planet, they will be bitter about it.  You won’t be assimilating Republic citizens in two generations like you do on our colony worlds.”

 

“I know.”  He sighs.  Carl grumbles out the truth, “I don’t think I want to defeat the Republic.”

 

“Yes, I know.”

 

“Some of their developing Outer Rim worlds probably belong in our Empire.  They are far more like our colony worlds than they are like Coruscant.  Mostly, the Republic strips them of their natural resources or uses them for cheap labor for manufacturing consumer goods.”

 

“Don’t we do that?”

 

“Yes.  But we give our colony worlds something in return.  The Republic mostly ignores its far-flung systems.  They don’t bother investing in them and they leave them underpopulated and poorly defended.”

 

“Then maybe you should liberate them.”

 

“That’s a polite word for an invasion,” Carl points out.  “But it’s a thought.”   He sighs as he confronts his persistent conundrum.  “Maybe we should just scale the whole revenge goal back.  Make it less about payback and more about claiming what rightfully ought to be ours.  The trouble is that the Republic and the Jedi won’t see it that way.   This won’t be a war that can be contained.  And it basically starts once they confirm with irrefutable proof that we exist.”

 

“You still don’t want a war.”   Tosca knows what few others do. 

 

“I have never wanted a war,” Carl softly admits.  “I would be happy to coexist while we continue to expand and strengthen the Empire.  But that’s not a long-term strategy.   Our success is what will get us noticed sooner or later by the Republic.”

 

“Are you surprised that they haven’t found us by now?” she wonders. 

 

Carl shrugs.  “We have been found many times over.  At least once a month we destroy a Republic starship that wanders our way.  They’re usually commercial freighters who veer off course, but occasionally they are military patrols.  The Republic also sends a lot of unmanned probe missions our way.  We destroy those too.”

 

“I had no idea.”

 

“It’s kept secret so as not to alarm or incite anyone.”   Carl tells her frankly, “I have been quietly killing Republic citizens for centuries to avert a war breaking out.  Get this—the Republic calls most of our Empire ‘the Unknown Regions.’  We’ve gotten ahold of navigational maps—both military and civilian star charts—that describe us as a dangerous collection of gravity wells and exploding supernovas.”

 

She looks to him.  “I guess that’s good, right?”

 

“Oh, yes.  Destroying everything that comes our way has created a helpful myth of danger.  We are the wildest of wild space in our enemy’s eyes.   But that won’t last forever. Technology keeps evolving fast.  The galaxy becomes a smaller, more connected place with each passing year.”  Carl gestures to the hologram and it turns off.  “But enough of that doom and gloom.”  He’s ready for some more sex.  Carl taps his lips.  “Plant one on me.”

 

“Here?” she squeaks, looking down at the vacant throne room below that is decorated mostly with guards. 

 

“Yes, here.”   Yesterday’s tryst was not nearly enough.  It merely whetted his appetite for more. 

 

Unexpectedly, she rebuffs him, saying, “You’re very Vitiate here.”

 

“Yes.  What’s that supposed to mean?” 

 

She looks sheepish.  “It means it’s easier to forget who you are when you’re not sitting on your throne greenlighting super weapons.”

 

Carl pouts.  “I thought we were past all that.”

 

“Uh . . . yeah . . . I guess.”

 

He sighs.  “That’s a no.”  Maybe bringing her back to the Palace was a bad idea.  Perhaps it’s too soon. 

 

She prevaricates awkwardly.  “I’ve gotten used to it.   Mostly.  But this place sort of emphasizes it.”

 

“Fine,” he decides, using his best Imperial overlord voice.  “Then think of me as Darth Vitiate.  Now, my Lady, your Dark Lord commands you to take off that dress.”  He reaches for the zipper at the nape of her neck to tug it down. 

 

“But I can see the guards from up here,” she yelps.  

 

“They can’t see you.”   Her dress parts at the back, revealing lots of pale skin and a bra clasp he starts to work on.  “They can’t even hear you.  The acoustics of the room are designed to make it hard for anyone at the exits to hear well.  I don’t like eavesdroppers.”

 

“I’m not taking that chance.”  Tosca starts wiggling away again as Carl pushes the dress fabric off her shoulders. 

 

“Oh, alright.”  Carl now booms out his orders, “Guards, leave me.”  Then he turns back to Tosca.  “Done.  Now, get naked.”

 

“Here?”  She half turns, clutching her unzipped dress and unclasped bra to cover her bosom.   “You can’t be serious.”

 

He answers with a kiss.  “Yes, here.”   This is a fantasy for him.   “Hike up that dress.”  The throne is plenty wide enough for her to straddle him.  “Get on top,” he requests.

 

Even in the dim light, he can see her flush. “I didn’t think you liked that,” she murmurs. 

 

Normally, that’s true.  But not here.  “You cannot unman me atop my throne where I rule our Empire.  And,” he purposely drags away the remaining fabric that covers her chest, “I do so enjoy the view.”  His hands find that view and now it’s time for more kisses.

 

That bit of seduction does the trick.  Soon, she’s as hot and ready as he is.  Still, Tosca is coyly demure when finally she pulls back.  She responds by reaching down to fondle him through his clothes.  “If you prefer, my Lord, I can kneel before you first.”

 

Is she offering what he thinks she’s offering?   Because that’s a whole different fantasy.  Carl instantly accepts and unzips.   “T-This,” he groans as she slips to the floor to bury her face in his body and take him in her warm, wet mouth, “This is the only way you are permitted to kneel to me.”  Oh Force, that feels great.  Perhaps she should pay tribute to him like this every day.  Yes, he decides, this is how his Empress will make her obeisance in private.

 

His hands find her hair and make a mess of it.   He wants to touch her.  The bond is buzzing in his head now, leaking her emotions and bits of fleeting thoughts without any effort on his part.   Yes, she’s enjoying this.  This is more than an effort to please him—this is a fantasy of her own.  Part of Tosca is very excited by the thought of being a supplicant pleasuring her Dark Lord in this very intimate way.   For all her spunk and determination, his beloved is a very traditional woman.  Like all Sith Ladies, she was reared to submit and she glories in it.  Theirs is a hierarchical culture of Masters and Apprentices, of aristocrats and servants . . . and he sits at the apex of it all.  So naturally, Tosca gracefully plays her role, prostrate before the Imperial throne to please her Emperor. 

 

He stops her before it’s too late, coaxing her up to take control as she writhes on him naked to the waist.  Her hands brace for leverage on his shoulders and on his throne, and those heavy breasts with upturned nipples bounce at eye level.  It’s wanton and brazen.   That this woman—of all women—can be persuaded to do this in this setting is a testament to her desire.  Tosca grinds away until she finds her pleasure and they both are sated.   She collapses onto him, clinging fast. 

 

Such a set of contradictions she is, Carl thinks as he strokes her back.  She’s a woman of convictions who rarely listens to his instructions and refuses his repeated requests to come back.  His Tosca definitely does not lack for independence. And yet, part of her wants nothing more than to obey and to please.  To be the virtuous, conformist Lady she was no doubt raised to be.   In practice, it means she runs from him and to him.  It means she tells him no and tells him yes.  It means she is a guilt stricken, dutiful wife and mother, and also an uninhibited adulterous lover.  

 

Carl is hooked. 

 

She keeps him guessing even as she exists squarely within his comfort zone for women.  She is challenging but not rebellious.  Loyal but not unquestioning.  Demure but not meek.  His lady of the Light knows her mind even if she avoids conflict.  And somehow, she manages to be simultaneously strong but also weak. 

 

Carl is hooked. 

 

He knows she won’t stay for good today, but he presses his campaign nonetheless.  “Do you want to see the girls?” he invites into her ear. 

 

She pulls back.  “May I?”

 

“Of course.”

 

They make a quick stop in his hidden apartment to right their clothes and attend to their appearances.   He stands before the bathroom mirror wiping a smear of her makeup off his face.  She fixes her hair back into its neat low and loose chignon.  Next, Tosca produces a lipstick from her pocket to reapply.  These are the more prosaic aspects of their affair.  Soon, they are convincing versions of Lady Struct and Lord Tenebrae. 

 

The apartment setting seems to unnerve Tosca much like the throne room did earlier.  Carl catches her frowning as she takes in all the recent changes. 

 

“It looks different in here.”

 

He nods.  “It was such a mess that I decided to update things.”

 

“That was an awful night,” she recalls, making a face and shuddering. 

 

“Things like that don’t happen all the time,” he assures her.  “And never once has the Force failed to warn me.   There was never any real danger.”

 

“Not for you,” she corrects him. 

 

Carl responds with an offer.  “I think I can make you immortal, if you let me.”

 

She doesn’t answer, she just looks even more scared now.  Yet again, he has gone too far.

 

Tosca’s mind is still stuck on the night of the coup.  “You brought Fulsome here as a priest to provoke it, didn’t you?”

 

“Yes.   I wanted to goad him into it.  To end it.   I always let the traitors try so they can fail.  It’s important that others know they failed.”   Killing conspirators preemptively makes him look weak and afraid.   But allowing conspirators to revolt and fail reestablishes his position.  Carl thinks of himself like the alpha dog in the wolf pack.  When challengers arise, he must defeat them to merit his position.  But he’s no fool.  He culls the pack of its most promising members at birth, dispatching all boy infants with exceptionally high midichlorian counts back to the Force.

 

Looking over at Tosca now, Carl thinks he can see the slight thickening around her middle from her pregnancy.   She’s wearing higher waisted dresses these days, so perhaps it’s his imagination.  Compared to the skintight costumes many Sith Ladies favor, Tosca has always worn looser, more practical clothing.  It’s a stately, queenly look that harkens back generations. To a time when the Empire was far less prosperous and showy.  When sex appeal was more subtle and a pair of bare shoulders was considered daring. 

 

She feels his scrutiny.   Tosca shifts her weight and looks away.  She smooths her dress over her belly

self-consciously.  “I’ve already started to show.  With the first baby, I couldn’t wait to get a belly.  But with every one after that, I’m poking out from the day the test shows positive.”

 

Her insecurity prompts him to lean in for a kiss.  “You’re beautiful.”   Pregnancy agrees with her.  Her skin is positively glowing.

 

“I’m getting bigger by the day,” she sighs.  “I hate that part.  It gets so uncomfortable towards the end.”

 

“When is the baby due?”  He’s never asked for details.  It’s not his favorite topic. 

 

She gives him a vague reference in next year.   Then she tells him that both of her prior boys came early.   Plus, at her age, the doctors warn of all sorts of complications.  She’s clearly very nervous about the birth.  Fretting that the child will be born too soon or that something will go wrong.

 

Carl frowns.  “Is that a real concern?”   Maybe he can still convince her to get rid of it by playing on her fears. 

 

But no such luck.  Tosca tells him that she is following the doctor’s orders and hoping for the best.  This baby is a gift from the Force, she tells him.  The Force and I will take care of him.   Tosca says it so solemnly—almost grimly--that his insight is aroused.   She is genuinely afraid, he intuits.

 

He calls her on it.  “You’re afraid.”

 

“Yes,” she freely admits.  “I really don’t know how the future will turn out.  For us . . . for this baby . . . for my family . . . “

 

Carl steps up to soothe her.  “It will be fine, I promise.  You’re not the first mother at forty—“

 

“Forty-one then.”

 

“— and modern medicine is an amazing thing.”  Women no longer die in childbirth like they did eons ago.  “The baby will be fine.  You will be fine.   And in time, you and I will be together.”

 

She looks down.  “I hope you’re right.”

 

“I know I’m right.”  He gives her arms a reassuring squeeze. “Tosca, I told you that I will help your boys.  I will help this little Gaius as well when the time comes.”

 

“Would you do that?” She lifts grateful eyes to his.  And is it his imagination, or is she feeling guilty?  Yes, she is guilty.  It must be because she knows that he’s not thrilled about her decision to keep the baby, but she’s doing it anyway.

 

Feeling very magnanimous and looking to score points with Tosca where it matters most—her family—Carl takes both her hands as he vows, “By the Force, I will help him.”   After all, it’s not the kid’s fault that he was so inconveniently conceived.   Carl will get him an Academy spot and a decent Master when the time comes.  Then, he can wash his hands of the kid along with the rest of the Struct family.

 

She looks so relieved.   Tosca throws her arms around him.  “Thank you. . . thank you . . . “  As Carl has long suspected, the road to her heart runs right through her family.   Begrudgingly, he knows he will have to tolerate this new baby to make her happy. 

 

But enough about that topic.  “Ready to see the girls?”  

 

“Yes.”

 

As they exit into the back hallways of his Palace, Carl explains.  “They think you were allowed to return home as a reward for your bravery the night of the coup.”

 

She nods.  “Got it.   I’ll play along.”

 

“They will be excited to see you,” he tells her what she already knows.  “You have been requested to come for a visit multiple times already.”

 

“I miss my girls,” Tosca confides. 

 

He’s picking up crosscurrents of guilt through the bond again.  Good.  “Do not forget that you have family here too,” Carl piles on.  The more ties he can keep between Tosca and his Palace, the better.  There’s no way he is letting the six remaining Temple girls go home anytime soon.   “We need you as well,” he tells her.  “Things aren’t the same around here without you.”

 

She is troubled and looks away.  “Carl, if circumstances were different, you know I would come back.”

 

“I can wait,” he assures her.  “You’re worth it.”

 

Chapter Text

At first, Carl makes it a habit to bring Tosca to his Palace each time the bond opens.  It’s a deliberate ploy to get her accustomed to being there.  She doesn’t seem to mind.  In fact, when Carl asks, she confesses that she likes getting out of the house.  She is still very socially ostracized, and the Temple is one of very few places where her peers are happy to see her and treat her with respect. 

 

He and Tosca are very circumspect in public at the Palace.   But the mere presence of Tosca raises eyebrows.   She is the Temple matron rewarded for her loyalty and bravery by being sent home.   And yet, months later she is sighted at the Temple frequently.  Plus . . . she is increasingly pregnant.  The Temple girls all think that Lord Tenebrae and Lady Tosca are a couple now and that the baby is secretly his.  It’s half right.  But rather than correct anyone’s misconceptions, they just ignore it.  No one asks, and they don’t tell.

 

It takes several months and much effort, but finally Carl learns to control their Force connection.  He can now trigger the bond and he can prolong it.   That skill opens up new possibilities.  With Lord Struct deployed, Carl starts to open the bond late at night to sleep with Tosca in her bed.  It’s the reverse of the evenings she used to spend at the Palace as a Temple girl.  Now, he’s the one waking early to discretely disappear back to his quarters.  Maybe it’s risky, but Carl delights in sneaking around in the Force.  And as her pregnancy progresses and the sex wanes, he enjoys the closeness of cuddling with her.  

 

Spending nights together makes their affair feel almost like they are living together.  Like it’s a normal marriage with a routine.  Tosca is the last thing he sees at night and the first thing he sees in the morning.  But more often than not lately, she’s already asleep when he shows up.  Her advancing pregnancy makes her increasingly tired.  Carl tries to be understanding, but part of him deeply resents that unwanted child.  She knows it, too.  Tosca rarely refers to the baby on the way. 

 

Thankfully, Lord Struct seems to be completely out of the picture for now.  Tosca doesn’t volunteer information about him either, and Carl doesn’t ask.  Like the baby, it’s a topic they both avoid raising.  He’s fine with that.  All relationships have things people don’t talk about.   Sometimes it’s done to avoid conflict, or to spare someone’s feelings, or to sidestep difficult topics that have no solution.  He and Tosca don’t have many of those unspoken items, Carl decides.  But the ones they do have are important.  Still, his strategy is time.  Carl will wait out the marriage and the children.  In due time, he will have Tosca all to himself.  And then . . . the future will be theirs. 

 

But somedays he is especially greedy for her attention.  Today is one of them.  Normally, Carl waits another hour before he triggers the bond to be sure that her kids are in bed.  But tonight, he wants company.  He opens their connection early.  Tosca is awake in her bedroom looking winsomely pregnant in her black lace peignoir when he surprises her. 

 

“Hello gorgeous.”  She looks up and her face says it all.  "Bad day?" he surmises.

 

"Yes.”

 

He commiserates.  "Me too."  There’s nothing easy about his job.  And though he’s been at it over a thousand years, it still presents new challenges and thorny issues.  Between the pressures of being Emperor, the constant ruse of being Lord Tenebrae, and his ongoing affair with another man’s pregnant wife, his life is pretty complicated. 

 

Tosca walks forward now to match hands.  She pulls him into her reality.   That’s not really necessary any longer, but it’s become a habit.  Carl doesn’t dissuade her.  It’s feels good to be so affirmatively wanted.  He is instantly transported into her bedroom where she melts into his arms.  Tosca hugs back tightly as she lays her head on his shoulder.   It’s the comfort they both need at the end of a long day. 

 

"Want to talk about it?"  Carl asks softly.

 

"Not really."

 

"Me neither.” Rather than rehash his frustrations, he would prefer to do this.   To just be in the moment with her.  For this is the support and understanding he has long needed.   They stand so close now that he can feel the hard lump of her baby belly poking between them. 

 

"I'm surprised you're still awake."

 

"I couldn't sleep.  As tired as I am, I couldn't sleep."  She confesses, “I was waiting for you.  I missed you.”

 

Carl drops a kiss on her forehead as they stand locked in an embrace.  And that’s when the bedroom door slides open without the benefit of a prior knock.  The newcomer is looking down at a datapad and mumbling as he enters. “Mom, I saw the light on—oh.”

 

It’s the youngest Struct boy.  He looks up and freezes.

 

“Oh.”

 

His expression . . . his reaction . . . it’s just like his mother, Carl thinks. 

 

Tosca disentangles herself fast.  “Lucius.”

 

The boy visibly swallows as his eyes linger on Carl.  “You’re not my dad.”

 

Tosca immediately takes charge. “Lucius, go to bed.  It’s late and it’s a school night.”

 

The boy keeps staring.  “You’re that priest guy at the Palace.”

 

“Lucius,” Tosca speaks sharply.  It sounds shrill.  She’s upset and it shows.

 

But the kid ignores her.  He takes a step back and starts hollering loudly for his big brother. “Deci!  Deci!”

 

“Lucius!” Tosca hisses. 

 

“Deci, come quick!”

 

The older brother answers the summons.  A second Struct boy appears in the bedroom doorway now.  “What’s—what’s going on?”  The older boy blinks as he takes in the situation.  Then, his expression hardens.  “Who let you in?” he snarls at Carl.

 

Carl smirks, “The Force.”

 

Tosca shoots him a warning look to shut up.  And, yeah, maybe that was a bit too glib for the moment.

 

“He was hugging Mom.  I saw it!” the little one tattles. 

 

His older brother nods grimly, his eyes still pinned on Carl. “I remember you.”

 

“Let me handle this,” Tosca tells Carl under her breath.   Then, she addresses the boys.  “Decimus, Lucius, go to bed.  We will discuss this in the morning.” It’s a ploy to stall for time.  She has no explanation for his presence, Carl knows. 

 

“No, we discuss this now!”  The sword hanging at Decimus’ waist leaps to his hand to ignite.

 

Tosca flinches at the snap-hiss-buzz of the weapon. 

 

Carl just groans, “This again?”  The eldest Struct kid just loves to whip out his toy sword. 

 

“Deci, turn it off!” Tosca hollers.

 

The kid pointedly ignores her. “You’re fucking around on Dad again, aren’t you?” he accuses.  “And while you’re pregnant??”  

 

The kid’s righteous look of moral condemnation makes Carl want to roll his eyes.  There’s nothing so certain as the arrogance of youthful convictions.  But Carl keeps his cool and tries to tamp down the confrontation.  “Turn it off, son.”

 

“Shut the fuck up!” the boy retorts.  “I’m not your son!  You’re not my Dad!”  And, really, that’s the crux of the problem. 

 

“Decimus!” Tosca corrects him.  “Do not speak to Lord—“

 

“Shut up, Mom!” the boy cuts her off.

 

The little one now volunteers, “He’s that priest guy from the Temple.”

 

“Yeah, I know.  I remember that beard.”

 

“Make him leave, Deci,” the little one eggs his big brother on.  “Make him leave.”

 

Tosca meets Carl’s eyes and yelps a not so subtle hint. “He’s leaving.”

 

“No, he’s not,” Carl quietly rebuffs her.  He’s not about to abandon Tosca alone with her hothead son and a lit sword, even if it’s just a practice saber. 

 

The oldest kid sticks out his chest and curls his lip.  “With Dad gone, I’m in charge here—“

 

“You are not!” Tosca hotly objects.  “I am your mother—“

 

The kid overrides her.  “I am the man of the house now!  And I will do what Dad should have done a year ago—“

 

“No! No—wait!”  It’s the younger one intervening.  He heroically leaps between his mother and his advancing brother.  “Deci, stop!   Don't hurt Mommy!”

 

“Get out of the way!”

 

“Don’t hurt her!” the younger boy panics.  “Hurt him, Deci!” the kid jabs a finger towards Carl.  “He’s the problem!”

 

But Carl keeps his cool as the kids flail around in uncertainty. “Turn the sword off,” he drawls. 

 

“Shut up, priest!  You die next!”

 

“But Deci, she’s pregnant!” the little one whines.  He looks aghast at the deadly force that he has provoked.  “Deci, she’s pregnant!”

 

“I know, it’s gross.”

 

“If you kill her, you kill our brother too,” Lucius wails. 

 

“If he really is our brother.  That’s probably this priest’s bastard--“

 

“Decimus!” Tosca snarls.  She looks madder than ever now. 

 

The little Struct boy digs in. “Dad told you that was our brother—Dad said it is his kid!”

 

“Yeah, well I don’t believe it.”

 

“Are you doubting Dad?  Why would he lie?” the little one persists. 

 

Long simmering tensions spill over now.  Young Decimus rails at Tosca, “I hate you!  I hate what you have done to Dad!  I hate what you have done to our family!  I hate the shame that follows you everywhere!”  The oldest Struct boy is very angry and very disappointed in his mother.  Carl suspects that he himself is at best an afterthought in this argument. 

 

Decimus prepares to swing, but yet again, the little brother is in the way.  “Deci, don’t!  Dad doesn’t want this!  You don’t want this!  Think, Deci!  Think!”

 

But no teenaged boy hopped up on hate and hormones ever thinks first before he resorts to violence.  Carl knows this from personal experience with matricide.  He watches the cringeworthy scene transfixed, his mind is only partly on the present.  He’s recalling another ten-year-old boy who stepped into the fray between his mother and her attacker.  That boy too had loved his mother and wanted to help.  He'd had the best of intentions until it all went awry and ended up with both parents dead.  Seeing the true anguish and fear in the little Struct boy’s face has Carl paralyzed with the long-repressed trauma of his own life.

 

“Fine!   Then, I’ll kill him first!” the elder boy decides abruptly.  He is rough as he pushes past his mother to advance on Carl.

 

And this too is uncomfortably reminiscent of the past.  Because Carl also remembers a young teen who sought revenge against a Sith Lord who he believed to be his mother's lover.  It was revenge and justice rolled into one.  And it had felt deeply satisfying at the time.  Young Decimus has a look in his eye that Carl completely understands.

 

Ugh. This is awful. Neither of Struct's sons are even a credible threat, but what arrests Carl are the gut-wrenching memories they dredge up.   Even after all these years, the pain is fresh.  Watching another version of his own personal melodrama play out before him with the Struct family has Carl very wary.   Maybe it’s nothing.  But then again, maybe it’s not.  This could be the Force at work.  Fucking with him.  Because the Force does that some times.

 

The little one’s voice breaks Carl’s painful reverie.  He’s tattling again.  “I'm telling Dad!   I'm telling him all of this!”

 

“Shut up!” his brother snarls as he swings and Carl dodges. 

 

That’s enough.  This has gone on too long already.  Carl freezes both kids in the Force and wipes their minds of the whole encounter.   “Forget,” he coats his words with heavy mental suggestion.  “You never saw me.  You will go to bed.  In the morning, you will treat your mother with gratitude and respect.”   Satisfied, but still very unsettled, Carl dismisses them. 

 

There’s no real harm done, but Tosca doesn’t see it that way.  Afterwards, she is anxious.  It gets him anxious too.  All these callbacks to the past have him concerned that Tosca not end up like his mother.  Carl is increasingly aware that the Struct family home is a powder keg ready to blow.  And if things are this bad with the kids, how bad are they with Lord Struct?  Carl suspects he knows now why he and Tosca do not discuss this conflict.  Probably because Tosca fears that if he knew the whole situation, he would pressure her to come back to the Palace.  Which, of course, he does.

 

“Come back with me tonight,” he urges.  “It’s not safe here.”

 

She looks away.  “I can’t.”

 

He’s tired of hearing those words.  “You mean you won’t!” he accuses.  This is an argument they have rehearsed far too many times.  They go around in circles and never resolve anything.  And then . . . things stay as they are.  Meaning he loses again.  All Carl does is compromise with this woman.

 

“I have responsibilities here to my family—“

 

“You have a responsibility to me.  To us!”  She is his future and Carl refuses to wake to the news that Tosca has died at the hands of the ungrateful sons she loves so much. 

 

As expected, she digs in.  “I’m not leaving them again.  They need me.”

 

“What if I’m not here the next time that kid loses his temper and pulls out his play sword to threaten you?   What then?” Carl badgers her. 

 

“Decimus is all talk—“

 

“That’s what you think.  He could prove you wrong,” Carl warns.  “Why do you insist on staying here?  You don’t need this abuse.  Are things really safer here than they are at the Palace?” he demands.

 

She looks away again.  “Things will be better when the baby is born.” 

 

“No, they won’t,” he snaps.  “And don’t tell me otherwise, because I know you don’t believe that.”

 

“Alright, I am worried!” she tells him, throwing her hands up in the air.   It’s a gesture of frustration.  “This baby is due in a few months and I’m worried!” she huffs.   Tosca looks away and sounds bitter.  “I keep trying to do the right thing, but I can’t make everyone happy.  These days, it’s like I’m making no one happy.  I can’t win.  I know that . . . ”

 

“Stop trying to make everyone happy,” Carl counsels.  He makes decisions for a living.  He gave up on pleasing everyone long ago.  “Just set your priorities and the path forward will become clear.”

 

“I have.”

 

His eyes narrow.  “You have?”  Did he hear right?

 

She nods.  “My family is my priority right now.  I’m sorry, Carl, but I thought you realized that.”

 

He did know that.  But hearing it spoken aloud hurts nonetheless.   He glares at her mutinously.  It stings to finish a distant fifth to the matricidal Struct boys, the accidental new baby, and pathetic, Proscribed Lord Struct himself.

 

Tosca starts stammering out apologies.  “I wish things were different . . . I wish I were free to choose a life with you . . . but I’m not.”  She has tears in her eyes.  “Somedays, this all feels so complicated and unworkable . . . I have such a bad feeling about it all . . . “

 

“I’ll wait,” he grumbles.  Carl backs down in the face of her obvious distress.  “I can wait.  You’re worth it.”  Carl knows he has the ultimate leverage—he has time.

 

“Maybe you shouldn’t stay nights,” she mumbles as she wipes at her eyes. 

 

He looks up sharply.  “Is that what you want?”

 

“No.”

 

He didn’t think so.  “If they see us again, I will wipe their minds once more.   It will be okay.  We’ll keep it under control.” 

 

She nods.  “Just promise me that you won’t hurt them.”

 

Begrudgingly, Carl complies.  He’s jealous of the regard she shows her condemning sons.  They don’t deserve her love.  He does.

 

“Don’t judge my boys by what you just saw,” Tosca makes excuses for her brood.   “They are good kids.”

 

“Maybe when they aren’t threatening to harm you,” Carl lays on the sarcasm.  This is why he doesn’t have kids.  Why put so much time and effort into someone who is ultimately going to become a rival?  Who might want to kill you?  That makes no sense.

 

Things settle into a routine again, and there are no more flare ups from the Struct kids.  Carl is back at home with Tosca every night and she’s at the Palace with him for an hour most afternoons.  Today, they are walking together in his garden.  Well, he’s walking.  She’s waddling. 

 

He looks askance at her lumbering gait.  “Do you want to sit down?”

 

“No.  This is good for me.  I need all the gentle exercise I can get.”

 

Watching her slow, uncomfortable movements, he feels dubious of this claim.  “Are you sure you shouldn’t be sitting down with your feet up?”  She’s super pregnant looking now.  Tosca appears more like she’s weeks overdue than like she is finishing her eighth month.  But he doesn’t have any experience in these matters.  Maybe all women are this big towards the end.

 

“This is good,” she smiles at him as she leans on his arm.  “Let’s go see the bunnies.  The bunnies are cute.”

 

“As you wish,” he indulges her whim.  He loves that she loves his garden. 

 

Together, they start towards the gazebo when Tosca stops short.  She clutches at his arm frantically.  Then, she sighs as her eyes roll back in her head.  Recognizing the signs, he steadies her and props her up.

 

She’s only out of it a few seconds.  But Carl knows from experience that it feels like forever.  Sure enough, when her eyes open, she is disoriented.  Confused and uncertain. 

 

“Did I faint?  I never faint.  What just happened?” she breathes out.

 

“Shhhh,” Carl soothes her as he pulls her into a hug.  “Catch your breath.  All is fine.”  It can take a few moments to get your equilibrium back after the Force relinquishes your mind. 

 

“What happened??” she worries again, sounding panicky.

 

“You had a vision.  You are fine.”

 

“A v-vision??’ she sputters.  Then, she protests.  “I don’t have Force visions.   I barely have the Force.”

 

“It’s the baby.   That baby has the Force and that’s giving you the Force,” Carl theorizes. 

 

“O-Oooooh.”   She gulps.  “Oh, no.”

 

“It’s a good thing,” he assures her. 

 

“Right.   You’re right.”  She sounds unconvinced. 

 

He’s puzzled. “You want this boy to have the Force, don’t you?”

 

“Of course.”

 

Carl gets to the point now. “What did you see?”

 

She takes her time before answering. “I think I saw you.”

 

“Me?”  His eyes widen.  Now, he’s really intrigued.  “Oh, do tell.   Was it our future?” he gushes.  

 

She squints at him. “Can’t you see your own future?”

 

Well, of course, he can. But he doesn’t. “I don’t look.”  He swore off peeking at his future centuries ago.

 

“Why not?”

 

“Because when you look to the future, you often delude yourself.  The future is always in motion.  That means you often see things that will not happen and it misleads you.  Trust me, I’ve lived long enough to see my future unfold over and over again.”

 

“But you saw me in the Force.”

 

“That’s different.  That was the Force showing me what it wanted me to know.  Not me looking to tease a preview from the Force.”  Those are totally different things, as far as Carl is concerned.  “Now, tell me what you saw.”

 

“It was you.  At least, I think it was you.  Maybe not . . .   It’s hard to explain.  It was images . . .  feelings . . . .”

 

He nods.  “Visions are rarely linear.   They are glimpses, not prophecy.  And their meaning can be very elusive.  Tell me more,” he invites.

 

“I —I—“  She has trouble putting it into words.  And that’s understandable.  Visions are notoriously befuddling.  Often, they are an overwhelming rush of information. More than once, Carl himself has dismissed a vision as chaotic gibberish and decided that if the Force has something to tell him, it will just have to try again.  

 

“I’m sorry,” her eyes find the ground, “I don’t think there is much to tell . . . I just saw a boy growing up.”

 

“Let me see,” he presses.  Carl has a lot more experience with visions than she does.  Maybe he can make sense of it.  

 

“Okay.”

 

Heedless of their location in public in his garden, Carl pulls her closer.  He tips his forehead to touch hers.  Physical touch promotes a mental connection, and he wants to make sure this is painless for Tosca.  Carl refuses to treat her like Fulsome did when he violated her mind.  

 

“Don’t be afraid,” he murmurs. “Relax and don’t fight me.”  It turns out that caution is unnecessary.  Their unique personal connection makes this mental eavesdropping nearly effortless.  As soon as he penetrates her consciousness, it’s like Carl is remembering his own vision.  

 

He sees a young boy sitting knees up on a dirt floor strewn with hay.  Is that a barn?   It looks like a barn. The boy’s head is bent down over a small data device he’s using.  A long mop of sun streaked dark blondish hair obscures his face.  At his side, sits an ugly mutt dog. 

 

A male voice calls to the child, “Are your chores done?”

 

The boy doesn’t look up.  “I’m doing my homework, Dad.”

 

“You can do your homework when your chores are done,” the male voice responds.  The speaker is not unkind, just irritated.  Because there is always work to be done and not enough hours to do it.  “Go on, get going.  The pigs don’t feed themselves.”

 

“Alright.”  The boy reluctantly pockets the device and slowly stands to his feet.  He’s in worn work dungarees and dusty boots.  The boy holds out his left hand and an empty bucket flies into his open palm with the Force.  Then he trudges off.  The dog follows. 

 

The boy is older now.  Much taller and broader, verging on hefty, but still baby faced.  He stands nervous in his ill-fitting school uniform before a trio of Lords who watch him closely. 

 

“Ever held one of these?” the eldest Lord asks as he holds up a sword hilt.

 

“No, Sir.”

 

“No, my Lord,” the man corrects gently. “This is not the real thing.  It’s a training sword.  It will bruise and sting.  That’s all.  Hold out your right hand.”

 

The boy offers up a big paw of a hand.  It is calloused from work, with the small scars and broken fingernails to prove it.  The Lord swats the boy’s palm with the weapon, immediately raising a big red welt. The kid doesn’t so much as flinch.  The two Lords looking on exchange glances. 

 

Next, the boy is introduced to an opponent.  “Son, we know you have never had any formal training.  We don’t expect you to win.  We just want you to try.  Julius here is your age.  He is our top swordsman for the incoming freshman class.  Spar with him a bit and see how it feels to use a sword.”

 

“Yes, my Lord.”  The boy accepts the weapon.   He has to be shown how to turn it on.   He swings the training saber a bit to test it out.  From his frown, he finds it awkward.

 

“Ready?”

 

“I guess,” the boy grumbles.

 

His opponent flashes his own blade up in the customary salute before he attacks. It’s a blistering series of advanced passes that the boy cannot begin to parry.  He simply holds his weapon up in a defensive posture as he rapidly falls back. 

 

“Again,” the ranking Lord instructs.  “Swing a little this time,” he encourages the boy. 

 

As directed, the opponent youth repeats his same moves.  But this time, the boy has a plan.  Shielding himself with his borrowed sword in his left hand, the boy opens his right palm.  The opponent’s weapon is stolen from his grip.  It deactivates and lands in the boy’s waiting hand with the help of the Force. But that doesn’t end things.   The boy now casts aside both weapons and launches himself at his far shorter, much lighter opponent.  The boy starts pummeling the other kid with his fists.  It takes two of the three Lords in attendance to break it up. There’s not a mark on the boy, but his opponent is bruised and bloody.

 

“That is not how a saber duel is conducted,” the disapproving senior Lord informs the boy.

 

“That’s how we fight where I’m from,” the boy answers back.  “If I’m going to fight, I want to win.  That means I want to fight on my terms.”  He looks confused at the Lord’s reaction.  “I won, didn’t I?”

 

It’s the first inkling of the ruthless strategist the boy will one day become.  But none of the Lords in attendance are impressed. When both of the children are excused from the room, the conversation goes like this:

 

“I was told we have to accept him.”

 

“What colony world is he from again?”

 

“Does it matter?  I guess he’s one of us now.”

 

“Nonsense.  He’ll never be one of us.  My Lords, war with the Republic is coming.   We may need him and others like him.  If only so we can send him to the front lines so our own sons don’t get slaughtered.”

 

“He’s scrappy, I’ll grant him that.”

 

“And big for fourteen.”

 

“Is this right?   It says he was recommended for the priesthood.  To be an altar boy, not an Academy recruit.”

 

“I am told we have to accept him.  Under no circumstances will he become a sorcerer.”

 

“Is this midichlorian count correct?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Time passes and the boy is now a man and a Lord.   He has the traditional black hooded cloak to signify it.  Carl can’t see his face, he just sees him from the back.  A tall, broad shouldered figure completely swathed in flowing dark fabric.  The man walks slowly through a garden green space, a pair of scary looking hounds trailing at his heels. 

 

One of the dogs has been digging.  There is a small bush half toppled next to a freshly dug hole.  It prompts the Lord to squat to remedy the situation. He puts bare hands to the soil to fill the hole and replant the bush.  Don’t dig here, he tells the dog firmly.  Then, he pats his pet’s head in forgiveness.  For though this man is merciless to his enemies—and there are many enemies—he is kind and patient with those he cares for.  It’s a telltale sign of the dirty little secret that the man himself doesn’t even recognize.  For few among the Sith alive in his youth know the Light when they see it.  And everyone would least suspect to find a persistent streak of Jedi Light in this man, widely known for his coldhearted tendencies.

 

A servant approaches now.  The man stops at a respectful distance and waits to be addressed.  The Lord knows he is there, of course.  He has the Force.

 

Without turning, the Lord stands and asks, “Yes?”

 

“Lord Azamin has requested a meeting.   This afternoon, if possible.”

 

“No.”

 

The servant looks nervous at this clearly unexpected response.  “My Lord, are you quite sure—“

 

“No.  Today, I wish to be alone in my garden.”  This Lord passes many long hours alone in his garden meditating in the Force.  It comforts him.  It reminds him of life before he became a Sith Lord at the epicenter of war, politics, and intrigue.   He has achieved so much and yet he is dissatisfied still.   There are days when he regrets his ambitions that brought him to this place.

 

The vision ends. Carl carefully retreats from her mind.  

 

“It’s you, isn’t it?” Tosca speaks up

 

No, it’s not.

 

“The work on the farm, the colonial with the Force, the garden . . . ”

 

It’s not him at all.  It’s the kid she’s carrying most likely.  The kid who turns out to be uncomfortably familiar.  Carl doesn’t know what to make of it. 

 

“Is it you?” she persists.

 

Carl doesn’t answer directly.  He just pulls at his beard as he puzzles over the vision.  “The Force can be mysterious.   But I don’t seem to remember ever owning a dog before.   Very interesting.”

 

“Oh.”    

 

Carl looks down at her protruding belly.  He stretches out a hand to rest against where the baby grows.   He can feel the vibrant pulsating life within her. 

 

“He just kicked.  Did you feel it?” Tosca smiles.

 

No, he didn’t.  But Carl does feel the child in his mind.  “The Force is strong with this one,” Carl says softly.  He’s not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. 

 

“Marcus will be relieved.“

 

“Who was his great grandfather again?” Carl wants to know.   “The one with decent power?”

 

“Lord Mar.”

 

Carl doesn’t remember a Lord Mar of note.  Whatever Mar managed to accomplish, it wasn’t overly impressive.  Carl grunts.   “Well, maybe this kid won’t need my help aftercall.”

 

A few weeks later, Carl is sleeping when Tosca shakes his shoulder to wake him up.  “It’s time.  Hand me my com, will you?”

 

“Time for what?” he asks blankly as he rubs his eyes.  It’s still dark outside, so he hasn’t overslept. 

 

“It’s time for the baby.”

 

“The baby??”  The baby isn’t due for weeks.  “Are you sure?” 

 

“Yes, I’m sure.  My water just broke.” 

 

“Oh.”  Carl jumps out of bed.  He’s wide awake now.  “Oookay . . . “  Now what?  He has no idea what happens next.  He knows nothing about childbirth.  Frankly, he’s fine to keep it that way. 

 

Tosca is very focused.  “Pass me my com.  I need to call Daria so she can come over to stay with the boys while I’m gone.”

 

“Right.”  He passes the com and listens as Tosca calls her friend Lady Marrow and starts talking about timing contractions.  When she hangs up, Carl is still making a face at the wet mess on the bed.

 

“The maid will wash the sheets when she gets here tomorrow,” Tosca remarks, seeing his revulsed expression.  “Carl, it’s going to get a lot messier than that, I assure you.”  And really, he didn’t need to know that. 

 

Tosca seems pretty calm.   Impressively calm.  Carl doesn’t feel calm at all.  “Should I boil water or something?” he mutters as he watches her disappear into the bathroom in search of towels.

 

“And scissors,” he calls after her.  “Don’t you need scissors?”  He doesn’t even know what the scissors are for, actually.

 

Tosca laughs and starts putting on street clothes.  “Are you planning to deliver this baby yourself?”

 

“Hell, no!”

 

“Then get dressed.  You need to leave.  I need to get to the hospital.”

 

“Shouldn’t you be screaming?”   Women are always depicted as screaming in childbirth. 

 

Tosca shoots him a look.  “I will be screaming if I don’t get to the hospital fast enough.   I don’t have long labors, Carl.”

 

“Let’s go!” he yelps nervously in response.

 

She laughs again.  “I’m leaving, I’m leaving.  I have a bag packed.    I just need to grab my purse and keys.”

 

“This is early, isn’t it?  Is it too early?” he frets.  Suddenly, Carl is nervous in a way he can’t put into words.

 

“It will be fine.  Now, go home,” she shoos him away. 

 

But Carl balks. He wants to make sure she gets to the hospital.  Mind you, he doesn’t know how to fly a modern speeder and he has no idea where the hospital is located.  But those are minor details. 

 

When they pull up to the hospital maternity ward, Tosca is the one flying.  She’s the one taking charge to be admitted, too.  Carl just stands there silent, feeling simultaneously out of place and very intimidated.  He must look bad because he’s the one the nurse directs to sit in a hoverchair, not Tosca.  Carl takes silent umbrage at that suggestion as he glares at the woman. 

 

It gets even more awkward when the hospital staff keeps referring to him as Lord Struct.  Tosca tells everyone who will listen that he is a family friend here for support since her husband is deployed.  But every new face that appears makes the same erroneous assumption.

 

The hierarchical Sith separate everything by rank, meaning that Sith Ladies don’t share birthing facilities with the proletariat.   So every time Carl ventures outside Tosca’s room, he sees more Sith Lords waiting on their wives.   Carl is loitering in a waiting room while the doctors examine Tosca when a young Lord plops down in the empty chair beside him.  “It’s a girl,” the guy breathes out with excitement.  “I knew that.  I just didn’t know I would be so happy about it.  Every Lord wants a son, of course.  But she’s just perfect.  My little princess,” the guy gushes to Carl, a perfect stranger.  Then another Lord marches in with his chest puffed out.  “Boy twins!” he crows as he pumps his fist.  He all but beats his chest to proclaim his arch-machismo.  “I can’t wait to put swords in their hands,” he laughs happily.  And ugh. Carl can’t take all this sentiment. 

 

It gets worse.  A seasoned Lord sizes him up pacing nervously in the hallway.  “First time grandpa?” he asks, counseling that “grandsons are the best.”  Carl scowls.  Does he really look that old?   Yes, he’s ancient. But he doesn’t look ancient.  He looks appropriately mature as a Dark Lord should.  So who is that guy calling grandpa??  Carl is just as virile and strong as he was a thousand years ago.  Seething, he makes sure to get that Lord’s name for future reference. 

 

But weird and uncomfortable as it is, Carl sticks it out. He doesn’t want Tosca to be alone.  She’s not the first wife to give birth while her husband is deployed.  But she has no family or friends here in case of a problem.  Truthfully, Carl could care less about the kid.  He stays for her.   He wants to make certain Tosca is okay.  All her past concerns now haunt him with a sense of dread.  So grumpy Carl goes in search of another cup of caf.   It’s going to be a long night. 

 

Halfway through, it occurs to him that this situation is the reverse of the coup.  That night, he had been the one to know what to expect.  He had things under control.   Tosca was the one panicked and sweating.  And now, their roles are switched.  Tosca’s got this.  He’s the one out of his league quietly whispering prayers to the Force beseeching for everything to go well.

 

Thankfully, those prayers are answered.  Hours later, an exhausted but happy Tosca cuddles Struct’s newest brat.  She looks down at the smushed, indefinite features with such doting love that Carl frowns.

 

He can’t help it.  He’s jealous. 

 

Just looking at mother and child makes him feel like a third wheel. 

 

“Do you want to hold him?” she offers. 

 

No.   But proud mama Tosca seems to expect it, so he gingerly accepts the little bundle. 

 

She beams at him.   “You look good with Gaius.”

 

Carl glances down at the snoozing newborn.  He’s okay, Carl decides.   All babies are cute.  But babies grow fast into demanding kids and then ultimately most become troublesome adults.  “He’s got a lot of Force,” Carl remarks offhand.    The kid has that going for him, at least. 

 

She’s searching his face for a reaction, clearly looking for some sort of connection.  But Carl has none.   “He’s little,” he says just to say something. 

 

“Actually, he’s big.  The biggest of all my boys.”

 

Right.  Okay.  Whatever.  Carl quickly hands him back before he can think to ask why a baby that came a full month early is so big. 

 

Struct will be arriving the next day to meet his newest son.  Fearful of upsetting things and quietly resentful of Tosca’s all-consuming baby joy, Carl makes himself scarce.   He will keep his distance until Lord Struct is gone and Tosca has recovered and had time to adapt to her new routine.   Maybe the shiny newness of her baby son will have worn off some by then.  So Carl kisses her on the forehead when no one is looking and heads back to his Palace. 

 

Three days later, Carl is wrapping up his work day when he is reminded that there is one official audience left.  

 

“What is it?” he complains. 

 

His assistant informs him it will be quick.   “It’s a high count case.”   Meaning this is a family come to surrender their child born with too many midichlorians. 

 

Fuck.  Carl loathes these interviews.  They inevitably put him in a sour mood. That’s why they always occur at the end of the day.   This had better not be another of Lord Gorge’s kids.  Carl has killed two of Darth Gorge’s sons in the last ten years, and he’d rather not kill more.  

 

Carl tries hard to avoid this outcome.   All Lords must apply to the Palace for prior approval of their marriage.  That gives the Palace a chance to consider the midichlorian counts of the bride and groom and their immediate family.   On rare occasions, marriage permission is denied on grounds that the parties have too much Force potential.  Because there is too great a chance that the would-be groom will end up like this unfortunate father has—tasked with holding his days old baby son for his execution.  No one wants that.  The marriage rejections are always handled with utmost tact, but the message is clear:  the union holds too much risk for all involved.  Find another less credentialed mate and apply again.

 

But every now and then, an approved marriage still produces a child with exceptional potential.  And then, Carl is forced to act.  It’s for his own good and it’s also for the good of the Empire—those concerns are pretty much synonymous in his eyes.  Continuity and stability of leadership matter. 

 

Carl always starts these interviews with the same speech about sacrifice and duty.   He talks about the Force as the ultimate destination for the child anyway.  Carl then puts the child to sleep with his power and stops his heart.  It’s a painless, merciful method of infanticide.  The ashen faced, bereft father walks out with a dead baby in his arms and the Emperor’s deepest condolences for his loss.  Carl tries to make it quick.  Dragging these things out runs the risk that they become too emotional.  No one wants that, least of all him.

 

Carl doesn’t enjoy this.   But it is a necessary evil, just like Proscription. 

 

How long has it been since he did one of these?  At least two or three years.  He sighs.   It must be time again.  The Force can only be engineered and preempted so much.  It always manages to elude him with a surprise now and then.   Luckily, the Empire’s mandatory midichlorian tests for all children at birth—elite and non-elite alike—make certain that even the random-born kids with lots of Force are discovered. 

 

Making a face, Carl gestures to his assistant to alert the majordomo.  “Send him in.”  Time to get this over with.  

 

As expected, in walks a Lord in ceremonial armor holding a slumbering babe to kneel before his Dark overlord.  But Carl’s usual speech dies on his lips.

 

The unlucky father is Lord Struct.