I took a convoluted route to the
He had shrugged. “What were they supposed to do, instantly replace every single person on the staff? That would have been disastrous, they don’t have a clue how a lot of the things work in the palace. After hours of interviews and some background checks, they decided that mostly it would be okay if many of the civilian staff returned to work, with certain conditions of course.”
It was easy to be mad at Shiv because I wasn’t in his situation and I didn’t have to work. Thrawn’s flat was paid for and I was, by current standards, considered wealthy. My salary, which had been paid directly to a bank account, had accumulated over the years and since I had been given an expense account for clothing, a ship with fuel included for my transportation it wasn’t as if I had ever actually spent much of the money I had earned. My uncle, having been through galactic upheavals before made some investment suggestions and with his advice and help I soon had most of my earnings and wealth shifted into precious metal commodities. He assured me that while currencies had a tendency to come and go like fashion, the commodities I now owned would only ever increase in value, especially in times of civil unrest. The whole discussion of money had left me somewhat bewildered, it was never something I had worried much about because I had never wanted to be rich and I had never been truly poor. As long as I could pay for ship fuel, buy food and water and clothe myself, money wasn’t something I had ever thought about. On Tatooine credits meant nothing compared to the value of water.
Finally I stopped giving him the silent treatment and had asked why he had gone back to his old job and not chosen to do something new.
“It’s what I know Rim-girl and I know it very well. This makes me valuable.” He had said with a small shrug. This had been a half truth but before I could call him on it he clarified it for me. “Plus, it will allow me to get a handle on what this new government is all about. Maybe it won’t be so bad. I need to understand them and their way of doing things. I can’t spend the rest of my life hating them because they took a stand against Palpatine’s rule and let’s face it, Merlyn, Palpatine was evil.” I had been more than shocked to hear him say this, even though I agreed with it, but before I could argue with him he had added, “You don’t know the half of the stuff that went on in the palace. You didn’t work for the Empire that long and Vader kept you sheltered whether you want to believe it or not. You had his protection and you had his favour. When you hooked up with Thrawn that became two very powerful men who made it quite clear to the rest of the scyks in their circles that you were off limits. You, yourself told me that Palpatine had plans for you and that they were not good plans. He would have twisted you and used you until there was nothing left but a shell and now that won’t happen. Now you don’t need to be scared to use your force powers or explore the different paths and options. If you wanted to you could seek out Vader’s son and ask him to teach you in the Jedi arts.”
It was a long speech for Shiv and his tone of voice had been both bitter as well as pleading. I didn’t need to use any of my witchy ways to know he was torn by what had happened and during his time working at the Imperial palace under Palpatine’s rule he had seen many terrible things happen but he had rarely spoken of them, maintaining an appearance of fluffy and even simple-minded cheerfulness. I had had no idea he had felt this way up until now and the really frustrating thing was that he was right.
“Merly, you got lucky. Palpatine left you alone for a long time, choosing instead to subtly manipulate you rather than force you down a path that could and probably would have broken you. Vader liked you and you did your job well. As weird as it sounds you meant something to him and that saved you a world of grief. I could tell you horror stories that would make you vomit about things which were done behind the scenes. And for all the good things the Empire did for this galaxy, there are enough negative aspects that I, for one, am relieved to see some change.”
I had just stared at him and then glanced at my uncle who had watched and listened to this exchange with his usual guarded quite. Uncle Vahlek had nodded in agreement but a little part of me had still felt as though Shiv was betraying something I could not define or let go of and that had shown on my face.
“The Empire, as you knew it, doesn’t exist any more Lei’lei.” Uncle Vahlek had chided. “Don’t you dare judge your friends for wanting to adapt and survive.” He had said with an edge to his voice I seldom heard. “You have no idea how lucky you truly are. Thanks to Thrawn’s generosity you co-own property on Coruscant outright, and because of him you also have a mate who will provide you with everything you would ever need, should you but ask. You have never known poverty or faced the threat of losing your home in your life. You are both spoiled and lucky and it is only your unusual nature that has kept you from turning into the kind of person you yourself despise.”
He had spoken so sharply that tears had sprung to my eyes but he had been right. What did I know of these things? I was spoiled and I was lucky and above all I had never known the sort of uncertainty Shiv and Ynyth were now facing before in my life. No matter what happened Thrawn had seen to it that I would be provided for and until my uncle had so bluntly pointed this out I had never really given it much thought.
When I had begun to work for the Empire one of the things that had struck me the most was the wealth, the opulence and the arrogance that went along with it. Money and power, the two were inexplicably linked, but I didn’t understand why that was. What had amazed me even more was the disparity between the very rich and the very poor especially on Coruscant. Tatooine had its share of wealthy people, most notable were the Hutts, but none of them came even close to the money I saw wasted on Coruscant. What my wardrobe alone had cost could have purchased a docking bay and several houses on my home planet.
I had talked with Thrawn about this at great length because it was a subject that sometimes worried at me. I felt guilty for the amount of credits spent on frivolous things, like the pretty dresses I wore to the Imperial events, especially when I knew that other people struggled to get by. In the end I had donated a portion of my salary to a charity and left it at that because I hadn’t known what else to do.
“You cannot change the way the galaxy works, tekari.” Thrawn had told me somewhat exasperated one day. “Greed and commerce will rule it. There will always be those who have and those who have not. Credits, like anything else are just a tool. Damned annoying when you don’t have enough, but having too much can also be problematic.”
“How do you figure that?” I had asked crossly. I hated it when he lectured, especially when he was right and I knew it.
“What do you do when you have everything you could ever hope for and more? When there is nothing more you hunger for? What happens to your soul?”
I had sighed. “You end up like Prince Xizor.”
Thrawn’s smile had been sunlight. “Exactly.” He had said. “Be happy that you live well and can experience some of the finer things this planet, this galaxy has to offer, give what you can when you can but do not feel guilty for what you earn from a job most people in this galaxy would not do even if it made them billionaires over night. Personally, I do not think you get paid enough to take the abuse you do.”
I had made a face then and his reply, a not so gentle kiss, had been a pre-emptive strike against what would have been a tirade on my part about how I liked my job, an argument we had often and one which was usually settled in the bedroom where we would agree to disagree and leave it at that.
Once I had gotten over my prejudice of Shiv’s decision to work for the
“They are renovating much of the buildings back to the style it had been before the Emperor took over. I have the connections and the experience to deal with the contractors and the workers. I can broker the best deals. I know how the system here works they don’t, so they need me.” He had said a little smugly, “They have explored but not touched much of the old part of the palace yet. Security is limited at best, and the internal surveillance system was shot to poodoo when the palace was bombed. Your old apartment was hit as was your office but I am not sure about your balcony or your old training room.”
“Maybe I’ll have to explore a bit.” I had grinned.
“Like bloody hell you will, Lei’lei!” My uncle had interjected with an explosive growl that had made even Shiv raise his eyebrows. “You will stay away from that place or else!”
At the time I had just made a face and rolled my eyes because I really had no intention of going back to the palace. Now, as I manoeuvred my speeder around the enormous complex to survey the actual damage done I felt a strange sense of sadness mixed with apprehension. This had been home once. Not that I had ever really felt at home here but I did have a strange attachment to the place and it was distressing to see parts of it reduced to piles of shattered rubble. I flew as close as I dared to the area where I had once lived, Shiv had been right, it had pretty much been obliterated. Then I steered to look over what had once been my favourite place in the world to go. What I saw made my heart ache.
The balcony where I had first met Thrawn was gone, sheered off leaving only ragged stone and duracrete behind. Despite the damage to the outer wall the doors to the balcony had remained intact so my guess was that part of the palace had managed to escape major internal damage but through the darkness and the rain it was impossible to say for sure.
That the balcony was gone made me sad. This place had been special. It was here that Thrawn had kissed me for the very first time. I closed my eyes for a second, bringing up that particular memory. He had seemed so dangerous and he had made me so very nervous yet at the same his manner had been beguiling and his seduction had been so very full of promise. “Working for the Empire may not always agree with you, Miss Gabriel,” he had said in a voice that reminded me of fine, warm brandy, “but I get the distinct impression that being with me does.” Neither of us had reckoned on how much that single kiss would change our lives or just how right he was.
For a moment I was lost in thought and then realised that mourning the past was a waste of time. This building was no longer my home and until Thrawn came up with some bold and daring plan the Empire would never rule from it again which meant I had to find something to help him. I wasn’t going to do that sitting in my speeder weeping for an old stone balcony on a building that was never mine to begin with.
I veered away, making it appear as though I were just another nosey passer-by and then doubled back to where I originally wanted to go. When I found the perfect spot, I carefully landed my speeder on one of the lower maintenance landing pads and hoped that Shiv’s unwitting intel on the state of palace security had been correct.
At the height of the Empire these areas were mostly used by service personnel and maintenance droids. It was dark, quiet and the surveillance equipment which the Empire had used to maintain security in this area was now no longer working, at least this was what Shiv had told me.
“They had to shut off most of the power to these old maintenance areas because of the damage from the bombing. Apparently the entire internal surveillance and security systems were completely messed up, probably something Isard set into place should the Palace ever be taken. The Republic’s slicers still have not figured out how to bypass the old codes so they had to shut the whole system down and use droids or guards as watchmen, but they don’t have the manpower to do this job adequately.” He had said. “It’s sad actually because looters get in all the time and steal anything that isn’t permanently fixed in place and aside from trying to patrol the major problem areas there isn’t enough people to watch all the entrances all the time, bad for the palace and the New Republic but good for me.
I made sure to park the speeder where it could not easily be seen or found, using the slot furthest away from the building to look as though I was just someone abusing the parking space to avoid paying fees. As I glanced around I saw I was not the only one doing this. Parking was always an issue on Coruscant and in the Imperial center it had, for as long as I knew, been outrageously expensive. There were a number of bars and clubs situated around the area so it would be a plausible explanation for leaving the speeder here without drawing too much attention. I figured the
The rain was coming down in sheets and I was grateful for the heavy over cloak I wore which was both dark and waterproof. Not only did it keep me dry, as well as hide my body from view making me look like a shapeless shadow, but with the hood pulled up and low over my face all that anyone looking would see was a dark figure trying to escape the gloomy weather. I was anonymous and almost invisible which was just the way I wanted it, especially as I was actually trying to get into the palace not run away from it. The entrance I came to was half hidden by an overhang and had been a small service entrance used mainly by droids and technical personnel with a specific clearance. When my uncle had erased me from the Imperial databank he had managed to do so in a way that had maintained my security clearance and kept my codes intact. To this day I still wasn’t sure how he had managed this feat but I wasn’t going to complain.
Taking a deep breath and hoping that I wasn’t about to set off a billion alarms I punched in one of the few codes I knew which had given me access to the majority of the palace entrances. While working for Lord Vader had been dangerous and often painful, it did have its up sides and one of them was almost unlimited access. The door-lock’s light blinked from red to green and with a soft hiss it opened for me. I slipped inside like a shadow and held my breath as the door closed gently behind me, waiting to see if anyone came running to arrest me or worse. When, after what seemed like an hour but was really only a few moments, nothing happened I heaved a sigh of relief and began to make my way into the palace. I had no idea what I was looking for only that something had drawn me back to this place and the nagging sensation had grown more intense now that I was actually inside the building. Of course getting in had been the easy part, the hard part was now to come…actually figuring out what it was I was here for and how to find it.
The small corridor was dimly lit and I could by the dust build up tell that it had not been recently used. I knew that if I kept walking straight I would eventually hit one of the main service areas and the likelihood of bumping into a watchman or guard was much higher so I wanted to find an alternative route towards the core, towards the areas the Emperor would have used. I was certain that what I wanted to learn was hidden deep within his chambers and I had been to a part of his private area once before so I had a vague idea of where I needed to go.
Once I was absolutely certain no one had discovered my break-in and no one was coming to get me I rummaged around my satchel and brought out the data card with the palace blue prints on it and the hand held reader I had brought with me. I had hoped that it would help me orientate myself because the palace, with its over twenty thousand rooms and chambers, was an enormous place and I knew only a very small portion of it by heart and those were well used areas which had been busy and populated by palace staff. Now I wanted to use the service tunnels and perhaps even secret tunnels to stay out of anyone’s way. I did not want to have to explain what I was doing in the palace in the early hours of the morning without the appropriate clearance from the current occupying force.
According to the technical readout I was on the south west side of the main building, near a service area primarily used to deal with power routing and back up generators. This would have been an area deemed Cresh-clearance, important but not vital. Most C-class technicians would have had mid-level access which meant I should not have problems bypassing any security I came across. The big problems with that would come later when I delved deeper into the Emperor’s secrets; at least I hoped I would make it that far. I studied the data for a long moment trying to get my bearings and then fairly certain of where I had to go next, I tucked the reader and the data disk back in my satchel, pulled out a small hand torch and set off.
The service corridors ran parallel to the main corridors, sort of narrow passages large enough for droids and humans to walk through without having to interrupt the daily routines or the prettiness of daily palace life. Who among the Palace elite wanted to see technicians at work? These corridors allowed day to day maintenance to be done without anyone knowing it was being done, maintaining the illusion of perfection within the palace confines. I also though that it was partly to keep the maintenance guys from being hassled by everyone who had a problem but didn’t feel like going through the appropriate channels to get it fixed. In some ways these passages were very much like secret tunnels in that most of the palace population never knew about them and the entrances to these service ways were hidden from view to keep from ruining the beauty of the palace interior, only accessible by code key clearance and labyrinth like without some sort of a map, for while they often ran parallel to the main hallways they also deviated when rooms, stairwell and turbo lift shafts got in the way. It would have been very easy to get lost in one of these tunnels and I was grateful I had a map.
Palpatine’s main audience chamber was atop the highest point in the palace complex. While I knew that he had spent time in this place I also knew that he had built, for himself, secret chambers else where. When he had taken me to see the small statue that my mother had posed for when she was a child, we had been mid level and on the east side. The room with his treasures, including The Waiting Dancer, had been in a part of the palace which had remained untouched since before the fall of the old Republic, old and stunning it architecture and it was to this place I now headed, drawn without even realising it. He had told me it was a part of the palace that few ever visited and at the time I had assumed this had been because he did not allow it but as I slowly navigated my way through the labyrinth of services corridors and turbo lifts, drawn partly by instinct and partly by guess work using the technical plans I had, hoping no one would notice me, I began to wonder if it was because people had been led to believe that part of the palace was no longer usable or somehow had the idea it simply didn’t exist.
The Emperor had been strong enough with the force to create such an illusion, after all he had manipulated the entire fleet through the force, and it would have been a hell of a lot easier to assert this sort of will over a small area of the palace he did not want trespassers in than setting up elaborate security which would have called attention to a place he wished to keep secret. Palpatine had been a master at illusion and hiding in plain sight, why should this be any different?
I walked for a long time and even with the use of some of the service shuttles and turbo lifts it took me the better part of an hour to get to where I thought I wanted to be. It wasn’t just help from the data I had that led me to this place, I was also following my gut because on some level I was being led to the place I wanted to go. If this had not been something I had experienced before I would have been unnerved by it, now I was just worried that whatever it was I was being drawn towards would be as awful as the time I had found the Jedi Council room.
After a few wrong turns and some tense moments where I thought I heard someone in the tunnel with me but actually turned out to be a stray hawkbat I came to the exit I needed. For a long moment I stood at the access door with my ear pressed to the cold metal and listened for any sound or sign of life on the other side. I closed my eyes and stretched out with my force powers but there was nothing unusual or dangerous there as far as I could tell. I punched in the same access code I had used before and a quiet snick let me know the lock had released. I touched the panel and it slid sideways opening to a hallway I immediately recognised. I stepped out into the hall and was suddenly overcome by a strange sense of repulsion and fear all at the same time.
My initial instinct was to bolt straight back into the service tunnel and run for home but then a voice in the back of my head cut through my panic and I understood that I had been right about the Emperor and his protection of this place. I swallowed back my rising fear and steadied my breathing, allowing my senses to shift and move around me. There was no one here, but that made sense. There was such an over powering sense of unwelcomeness, of fear here that most people would simply turn away without even realising they had done so and never question why. I drew a steadying breath and let the force flow around me, through it I could sense the power Palpatine had left here and it was an awe inspiring thing, so simple yet so effective.
I walked towards the ornate doors that hid the room where the little statue I had been allowed to see and touch had lain. A ripple of apprehension slithered across my back. What if the Emperor wasn’t actually dead? What if his death had been a ruse and he lived, and was here? What if, what if, what if? The pervasive sense of fear that pressed upon my shoulders was terrifying. It reminded me of some of the nightmares I had been having. The closer I got to the ornate doors, the worse the fear became until I though it would drive me mad. Logically, a part of me knew that there was nothing here which would harm me but the feelings I had were a whole other story. I had not experienced this when I had been here before but of course, then I had been a guest of the Emperor and had been protected from this rather unusual security system.
I was certain anyone else who had ventured into this part of the palace had also experienced this unnamed dread and unless they had been really well trained to over come their natural instincts to run or were a super power in the force it was my guess no one had actually managed to step beyond these doors since the Emperor’s death. I bent my own will against that of the now dead Emperor and forced myself to ignore the screaming sensation of danger which pounded in my skull and reached for one of the door handles. Without even thinking about it, I shut my eyes, gritted my teeth and I tried the door. To my great surprise it opened, allowing me to slip through unharmed. As soon as the doors had closed behind me, the feeling of utter dread vanished leaving me bathed in a cold sweat and shaking but otherwise unharmed. I exhaled loudly, then opened my eyes and swore in disbelief.