Flanked by Imperial Guardsmen, a lonely man in a shabby uniform stands in a busy antechamber.
There was activity around him, yet this man was the epicenter of a perceptible doldrum. Many people moved past him, into and out of the Emperor’s audience chamber, but all were visibly distracted by him. Groups that were previously speaking amongst themselves would grow quiet on seeing him. All conversation stopped when they recognized him. Some of them paled visibly. On seeing him, some decided to alter their reports to the Emperor. If he was here, the Emperor would be in a very bad mood indeed. Officers who passed him did not salute. They would apologize later - if he survived his appointment with the Emperor. Several passers-by made a note to reschedule later conferences. Best to put off any other business until after His Eminence disposes of this one. Palpatine was always in a forgiving mood after an execution.
He was flanked by Imperial Guardsmen, but it was not at all clear if he was a prisoner. The lonely man was unfettered. Palpatine did occasionally have prisoners brought to him in chains. Not always metaphorical chains, either; sometimes it was the Emperor’s Will that actual wrought-iron manacles and chains be used on prisoners of interest. Modern energy binders were much more effective since they doubled as a means of controlling the prisoner, to the point of termination if necessary. Palpatine enjoyed using crude ancient restraints on certain individuals. It may have had something to do with the vulnerability of energy binders to certain kinds of energy. More than a few Imperial Guardsmen had ‘disappeared’ in the aftermath of a prisoner escape that occurred several years ago. It was rumored that the prisoner’s energy binders were damaged by Palpatine himself. Thus the Emperor had ultimately been responsible for the prisoner’s escape. The small purge was a pointed lesson in discretion to the surviving Guardsmen, and intense fury over the rumor itself.
The pair of Imperial Guardsmen who flanked him weren’t sure what to think. Not that they had any business forming any opinions. Guards who developed opinions quickly found themselves patrolling the outer rim as rookie Stormtroopers - if they were fortunate! Sympathy was an undesirable quality, one that was strongly weeded out by the Emperor Himself. Imperial Guardsmen were not promoted or recruited from any normal ranks. Battle-hardened veterans, and others of similar unfeeling nature could apply, but many were turned away. Clones had almost no chance of being accepted, unless the individual had done a great service to the Emperor - and even then a trip to Camino for ‘adjustment’ was absolutely required. Even given the strict requirements, some Guardsmen still slipped up. You couldn’t hide your feelings from him, he just knew. This time was different from other assignments. This lonely man had quite recently been in Lord Vader’s favor. Favorites of Lord Vader had the tacit approval of the Emperor. The guards struggled to control their feelings. The temptation to sympathize with this man was very strong.
Even the smart-looking young man who expedited the Emperor’s audience schedule felt some apprehension; and he was usually safe from any Imperial Fury that took place in the next room. This was highly unusual. The Emperor’s schedule was always tightly controlled, except if the Emperor himself made an exception. Exceptions to the Imperial schedule did happen, but very seldom, and on those occasions, it was more likely that the Emperor was clearing his later schedule than seeing an unscheduled visitor. He always had time for his Sith minions, but that was certainly not the affair of the Imperial Scheduler. Palpatine merely made his audience wait while he communicated with his agents, and occasionally his commanders.
As the lonely man awaited the Emperor’s pleasure, only one of Palpatine’s vistors behaved differently than the others. He abruptly moved away from his escort, marched up to face the lonely man, stopped, and saluted smartly. “Sir! It’s a great relief to see you! I’ve... ”
The lonely man interrupted him with a quick motion, but returned his salute with a stern look. “As you were. You have business to attend to. It’s best that you go about it. Right now.”
“Yes, sir!” The officer tried not to betray his disappointment at being cut off, saluted again, and rejoined the Imperial Guardsmen that had been on the verge of warning him away. They continued into the audience chamber. The lonely man watched him move away, and made a mental note to discover who that officer was. Loyalty (admiration?) in the face of possible Imperial Wrath was a valuable quality. Many of the self-important officers that Lord Vader had disposed of would have made apologies for behavior like that in junior officers, and then have the offender transferred elsewhere.
His thoughts were interrupted by the Guardsman on his right. The Emperor was free, and they would appear now. The lonely man paled, and moved with the Guardsmen. He chided himself for feeling such anxiety about this meeting. It was the same cold feeling that he had felt many times before. And precisely like he did on all those other occasions, he found the strength within himself to go on. This meeting was his own idea, even though he knew it could go... badly. Many times before, he had found himself in questionable circumstances, with incomplete information. On every such occasion, he had come to one conclusion or another, and presented that conclusion or decision to his superiors. His results had little justification in reason - he just knew. His trepidation was usually self-consciousness at his lack of justification. He had been wrong, and had his failures. Yet time after time, when it mattered the most, he had been right. He hoped that this was one of those times. It could mean the end of his life, but this felt like the best thing to do. And with that, he did the Unthinable; he spoke out of turn in the presence of the Emperor. He saluted crisply, and then suddenly, he knelt down - as he had seen Lord Vader do - and said:
“I have failed, your Imperial Majesty!”
The Emperor was amused; he had actually been surprised by this gesture.
“My dear friend, don’t be silly. Please rise, Admiral Piett.”