Living on Hjal had changed me. I hadn’t felt it happen or really noticed the subtle differences as they had occurred but as my time on the planet with the Dantassi drew to a close I realised that I had grown up in more ways than I could count. This did not escape Thrawn’s notice either and although he didn’t come right out and say it I felt he welcomed the change. We had spent nearly all of the day talking to each other about pretty damned near everything. Some of the conversation had been pleasant, some of it had not but through it all there was no yelling or temper tantrums, no hurling of half full tea cups and no storming off in tears. We had simply talked. What had started off in the kitchen had ended in the underground gardens which supplied the Dantassi with all of their fresh produce because while we could talk a lot, sitting for hours was another matter. I had always found it easier to think and talk while walking rather than sitting still and Thrawn did not complain.
The garden cavern was beautiful and I had often spent time here alone when I needed to think. It was the only warm, humid place on the entire planet and it reminded me of Naboo a lot. Created in one of the largest caverns deep underground, the Dantassi had managed to simulate sunlight and harness the geo-thermal properties of the planet to create an enormous botanical style gardens, much like the Emperor had owned on Coruscant. The difference between the two was that the Emperor’s gardens had been a selfish indulgence only for him and invited guests to enjoy, filled with rare and beautiful plants, many of which the cost for one alone could have fed entire families for years, the Dantassi gardens were designed to feed the enclave as well as be a place of peace and harmony, filled with fruit bearing trees and plants as well as greens and vegetables. Everything that was grown in this cavern could be harvested and eaten or used for other purposes, not a single thing went to waste. Dantassi technology never ceased to amaze me, it was as clever as it was invisible and the fact that when one walked into the massive cavern it was as if one had walked out into another world only heightened this sense of wonder.
Our day long discussion had come to a quiet close by a small waterfall which was part of the complex irrigation system. The roaring sound it made echoed about us, reminding me a little of the winds in the desert or thunder rumbling about the hills on Naboo. I found it hard to believe that meters above us was a planet mostly covered in ice and snow, where a raging blizzard scoured the surface making it impossible for traffic to land or take off and where every living thing cowered in its shelter for fear of being devoured by the storm. I sat on the grass and breathed in the sweetness of it deeply, while Thrawn lay down and rested his head on my lap, allowing me to run my fingers through his hair. I wondered what the rest of the galaxy would think if they knew that such a place as this existed on this sarlacc forsaken planet. This huge cavern was a miracle of sorts and I felt blessed to have been able to see it, to walk in it when ever I wished to. The silence between us was comfortable. I could not remember the last time I had felt so carefree, so at ease with everything. When Thrawn glanced up at me I just smiled.
“So, you’ll come back to Nirauan with me?” He asked after a long period of quiet.
I nodded. “I already said I would.” I said. “That’s the second time you have asked now, did you think I would change my mind?”
“Well, one never knows with you.” He teased and caught my hand before I could swat him lightly on the head.
“Where else do I have to go and what, in sarlacc’s name, would I do?” I asked, freeing my hand from his to pluck at the grass idly.
He drew a deep breath. “You could return to Tatooine and work for your father again. Mechanics, especially good ones, are always in high demand.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so. I would drive everyone crazy there just as I would drive Navaari crazy if I stayed here. You’re stuck with me, so deal with it.” The truth of the matter was I didn’t know how to go back after everything I had experienced. Going home to work at the docking bay would be like Thrawn asking me to go back to just being his friend. I had changed too much. I had not realised it until this moment but I had outgrown my home. The thought made me a little sad but it also made me smile.
“Good.” He replied watching my expression, “We should arrange a trip to Coruscant so you can pick up some of your things. I also know that Siavaan would love to see you again. Every transmission I receive from him, he asks how you are. I understood that you did not want to write to me, but why did you not reply to your friends or family, Tekari?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. It was as if I needed to just shut out everything from my past. It was just all so painful. I knew that papa would understand because we went through all this when my mother was killed. I just needed time, a lot of time. It was selfish; I guess I will have a lot of explaining to do when I see him again.” I had no idea how to put this all into words but I knew that it had been the right thing to do. In order to get past the terrible things that had happened I needed to cut myself off from everything I associated with that life. It was only now, after passing through the ritual of Sju’ru’arwy’kha did I understand how appropriate such a mourning period really was. It was difficult enough to part with the ghosts of the dead as it was, but to have constant reminders around me of how everything used to be would have made the transition that much harder.
“I doubt that Siavaan will think it selfish. He seemed to me to have a remarkably clear idea of what was going on in that pretty little head of yours after I let him know you were still alive. He knows you very well and much to my surprise he wasn’t past giving me an earful either.” He paused to smile. “Still, you should go back to the core sooner rather than later and when you do you need to give him my heartfelt thanks.”
“Why is that?”
Thrawn sat up and looked at me. “Because he gave me some advice which helped me through a difficult moment.”
“It had to do with me?” I asked, digging a little.
He gave me a look, “Not everything in the galaxy is about you, my dear.”
“So what was the advice?” I pushed.
He just smiled. “I will let you ask him that when you see him, if he wishes to tell you then you will know.” He replied.
“Hey, no fair you having secrets from me with my friends.”
Thrawn smirked a little. “I do believe we now share friends, tekari and I am certain that you have secrets with Kirja’navaar’inkjerii that you would not wish him to divulge.”
I sighed letting him know he had won this round. “Is Shiv okay? I mean in the data discs he sent he babbles about life as usual but I wondered if he was just being all happy because he didn’t want to worry me.”
“Things have changed a great deal on Coruscant and I think that he made the best of a bad situation. He still works in the same position he did before the Emperor’s death but the job itself has changed a great deal.” Thrawn said quietly. “I think that Siavaan does what he can to survive under the circumstances.”
“Isard is making things hard for him then isn’t she?”
“Isard makes life hard for everyone, my dear. She is as ruthless as she is beautiful.”
“You think she’s beautiful?” I asked, failing to keep the twinge of envy and surprise out of my voice.
He answered with a smile. “She is a very striking woman, even you could not deny that but she is, of course not nearly as beautiful as you are.”
I pinched him on the arm. “I wasn’t fishing you know.”
“I know, I just enjoy the pain you tend to inflict on me when I tease you.” He said, “You do know that she was rumoured to Palpatine’s lover….”
“Eww, just stop right there! These are pictures I don’t want in my head!” I said. I could not imagine anyone wanting to bed with the Emperor and the very thought made me shudder with repulsion.
He laughed and then sighed. “I have not been on Coruscant in such a long time. My information that comes from there is not as complete as I would like. Siavaan helps, of course but he needs to be careful with what he says. I do have other sources but again it is all bits and pieces.”
“Sounds like you need a spy in the palace.”
“Are you volunteering?”
“No, I make a lousy spy.” I said thoughtfully. “But you know, there might be other ways.”
“Lord Vader had a vast spy and information network set up. He and Price Xizor spied on each other all the time, hell even lord Vader’s spies had spies. I wonder if there would be something of that network worth salvaging that you could use.”
“I would imagine that Isard and the Intel division would have dismantled most of that.”
I shook my head. “I would not be so quick to assume that. Lord Vader circumnavigated Isard many times. He felt she had too many fingers in too many pallies. He didn’t trust her, hell he didn’t trust anyone.”
“He trusted you, my dear.”
“I wasn’t any sort of a threat to him.” I replied. “I am sure that there would be a way to tap into his surveillance network in the palace, I am certain Isard and her sweepers didn’t catch all of it. I would have to go back and look for this stuff though, probably at his house or his office.”
“I doubt there would be much left of his office and I don’t know how comfortable I would be with you wandering around the palace trying to look for ways to secure me a covert Intel network.”
I gave him a slight smile. “Lord Vader was super paranoid just as the Emperor was. They had so much covert security systems in place that I don’t think either of them could have told you were all of it was and what all of it did. I’m betting I’d find something to use in Lord Vader’s office and I am sure it hasn’t been touched. Isard may be brilliant but she doesn’t know all the secrets of the palace. I am also sure I can move around the palace without alerting security or causing trouble. I should also check his home on Coruscant as well, maybe there is something there of use as well.”
“How would you get into Vader’s Coruscant fortress?”
“I have a key?” I replied giving him a 'what did you think?' look.
“He gave you a key to his private sanctuary?”
“It saved him from hearing me bitch about the length of time it took for someone to let me in every time he hauled me out of bed to work from his home. I still had to pass through his security but at least I could open the damned doors for myself. I didn't poke my nose where I wasn't supposed to. I repected his privacy and that earned me his trust on this matter.” It had never occurred to me to consider this unusual but looking back in restrospect it was.
He sighed for a moment and was very quiet, lost in thought. “I am not happy about you even considering this and if you were to get caught you could and probably would be tried for treason.”
“Well, then probably it would be best if I didn’t get caught.” I joked. “Seriously though, you need information and I could probably get something to work for you. I would just have to plan it out very well.”
“You mean no rushing in head-long?”
“No.” I confirmed. “It’s either that or we could take a secret holiday to the Core posing as newlywed Dantassi and initiate a spy network of reprogrammed mouse-bots.”
He shook his head in dismay. “Still under the influence of Jeb Holloway I see.”
“Entirely your fault.” I said poking him in the arm. For a moment we just grinned at each other.
He nodded then went back to the topic at hand. “Would you want to return to the Core as soon as we leave Hjal?” He asked.
I thought about this for a moment. “No, let me get settled on the base first. I would need to study the plans of the palace before I went back in and find some of the more quiet ways to get around.”
“You still have the blue-prints?”
“There is a copy on the Ahnkeli Su’udelma’s main on-board computer.” I confirmed. “Plus I don’t think that the little library the Emperor allowed me access to would have been discovered or disturbed, so there are also copies of the plans there.”
He nodded. “As soon as you wish it, I can arrange to trip back. Isard will not trouble you if she thinks you are harmless and I will make certain that you still have high enough security clearance so that no one will question your return to the planet or hinder you from at least enteringthe Palace. After all, you are still working for the Empire. There is no reason why that should change.” He said thoughtfully. “You would have to be very careful though. This is a dangerous game you are planning.”
“I know.” I said. “But you need eyes and ears in the Palace. I can’t believe Isard lies to you and keeps you out of the loop. She should be taking advantage of your brilliance not shoving it away in the farthest corner of the galaxy.”
He smiled slightly. “Your faith in me is heart warming, tekari but she sees me as a threat nothing more and nothing less.”
“Then she’s an even bigger egotist and even more stupid than I ever imagined.” I spat, sounding very petulant.
He made a tsk sound and shook his head. “An egotist perhaps but she is not stupid and you should never make the mistake of thinking this. Do not underestimate her. She is very dangerous and very unforgiving. I do not want you ending up being held prisoner in the Lusankya facility.”
I shivered. The Lusankya Correctional and penal facility was the most feared Imperial prison next to the Spice mines of Kessel. People who were sent to Lusankya almost never came out and those few that did were never the same. No one knew where it was not even the people who worked there. If people had thought Lord Vader’s interrogation methods were cruel, they had obviously never heard stories about Isard’s methods.
Thrawn watched my face carefully and drew a deep breath. “If I tell you that this is too risky and I won’t allow such a thing will you go all stubborn on me?”
“No, I would not go all stubborn on you. It is risky, but I think it could be done.” I said sounding a lot more sure than I actually felt. It was one thing to have worked day in and day out with Lord Vader and his constant mercurial temper, it would be quite another to try and circumnavigate the Director of Imperial Intelligence.
“Let me think about it for a while, tekari. We have time to consider this option which makes planning easier.”
I nodded, it wasn’t a yes to my idea but it wasn’t a no either. “Is the shuttle I flew from Endor in still at Nirauan?” I asked changing the subject.
“Yes, and no one has touched her by my express orders.”
“Not even to repair her?” I was surprised by this. A damaged shuttle taking up hanger space was a waste.
“No.” He said carefully. “I thought that you would want that job when you felt up to it, when you came back. She is, after all, your ship now.”
“Technically she belongs to the Empire.” I said.
“Actually she was part of Vader’s personal fleet of shuttles which he paid for out of his own money, so she is now yours, unless you don’t want her?”
I shook my head. “Of course I want her.” I said and swallowed the sudden sadness that had rushed up from my gut to greet me. That ship had managed to get me to Nirauan safely and I was kind of attached to her though until this moment I had not realised how much. “There are a lot of files on her on-board computer as well which might be useful.” I said by way of explanation.
He just nodded and I could see the worry in his eyes. I knew he was not happy about the suggestions I had made but he was considering them, which was a start.
“Look, I won’t be rushing off to go track you down a spy network any time soon and I have no intention of tangling with Ysanne Isard and getting on her bad side. First I need to get my life sorted out with you on Nirauan. I need to settle down and make a home for myself. Once I know what I need there, I can see about getting my things from the Coruscant flat and then decide if it would be worth while looking into a way to get you more intel. So if I do go backand try to dig about, it would be considerable planning involved, planning which would definitely include you.”
“I see your time on Hjal has curbed some of your impetuousness.” He said softly.
“I don’t think it was being on Hjal that did that, Za’ar, I think it was nearly dying and nearly destroying everything I held dear and loved.”
The look he gave me was tinged with a sorrow that seemed fathomless. He understood something about loss and regret. “A hard lesson to learn in the hardest possible way.” He said stroking my hair possessively.
It was my turn to sigh, but he was right. He wrapped an arm around my shoulder and hugged me close. “We’ll head back to Nirauan in a day or so, as soon as this storm is over. Kirja’navaar’inkjerii has made it clear there will be no sneaking off, so there will be a big gathering to say farewell. He tells me you have managed to win over the enclave’s heart and that you will be greatly missed.”
I smiled but didn’t say anything more, what was there to say to that anyway? I would miss everything here but I had learned this was the universal truth about living in more than one place. No matter where one was currently something else was always missing. ‘Everything changes,’ Lord Vader had once told me, ‘Even the galaxy will eventually change as the stars die out.’ Lord Vader had been in a particularly melancholy mood when he had told me this but for all intensive purposes, it was the truth. I just wasn’t sure it was such a bad thing because there had to be change, without change everything stagnated, just as without goodbyes, there would be no hellos, and hellos could be very sweet indeed. Still, the prospect of saying good-bye to Navaari weighed heavily on my heart and I thought I had no more than a day or so to prepare for this but Hjal’s weather had other ideas about that.