The small dinner party that Syal had arranged went well. Admiral Ged Larsen, just as I had remembered, was a real charmer and the conversation had flowed with an ease that had surprised even me.
The meal had been traditional Corellian food and how Syal, pregnant with her two boys underfoot, had managed to pull it off I would never know but it had been amazing. We sat eating the lovely meal, drinking a very fine wine that Soontir had magically produced, while discussing topics that normally Thrawn would have disdained from holding while dining. Only when the conversation turned to Ysanne Isard and what she had managed to do with the Empire did the tone of the evening turn serious in spite of Thrawn’s subtle attempts to guide it in a less negative tone.
“She was always ruthless. She arranged for her father to be executed so that she could take his place.” I said as I answered Syal’s question about Isard. “But after the Emperor’s death she turned mean and things got worse which is why Coruscant fell.”
“I don’t understand why, though.” Syal said. “She had the backing of the Imperial troops and the navy so she could have held Coruscant easily.”
“It was her obsession with your brother that did her in.” Ged told Syal as he studied his wine glass carefully.
Syal smiled but there was a touch of bittersweet in it. “Wedge always did have a knack of getting under people’s skin.”
“Wedge Antilles is a man who, in spite of his alliances, should be admired for the very fact that after all these years fighting a war that was deemed by many to be unwinnable is still alive. Your brother is an admiral man, Syal.” Thrawn said carefully.
Syal nodded her head gracefully, accepting the compliment that was given and Tir placed his hand gently over hers, a small gesture of comfort. “I still don’t understand why she did what she did.” She murmured.
Ged sat back in his chair, “She lost sight of the original goal of the Emperor, to bring peace and order to the galaxy and took on the mantel of Goddess, ruling the galaxy with her judgement. Goodness knows how many had to die needlessly because she poisoned Coruscant with that virus simply so that it would be rotten fruit for the New Republic to have to deal with.”
My expression had darkened and Thrawn had not missed it. “That virus was an abomination. Thankfully Derricote’s design was flawed due to her impatience.” I growled.
Ged cocked his head to one side, studying me the way Thrawn sometimes studied his art. “I heard you lost a good friend because of it.”
I opened my mouth to spit vitriol but Thrawn, who knew me far too well, held up his hand. “We do not need to hear the details at the table, my dear.” He chided ever so slightly, reminding me this was supposed to be a friendly evening not a battle ground to bring up old wounds and reopen them.
I bit back the words that burned in my mouth and took a less than polite sip of my wine. Ged watched the exchange between Thrawn and me carefully, still trying to decipher the relationship between the Grand Admiral and myself then he gave me a small nod. “Forgive me, Miss Gabriel, I had not realised how painful mentioning this topic would be for you. I am sorry for your loss.”
I accepted his apology gracefully. “We’ve all lost people we love, Admiral. While the methods of warfare might change, the outcome never does.” I paused. “This disease she had created was terrible beyond all imagination. No one deserved to die that way, no matter what they had done and most of the beings that died were innocent civilians. That was not the act of a leader, that was an act of a coward. No wonder the galaxy shudders at the word Imperial.” I locked eyes with Thrawn for a moment then glanced away.
There was a murmur of agreement from everyone at the table and silence descended between us until Ged said. “Well, let us hope that this new campaign we are planning will change some of that.”
I toyed with my napkin for a moment. “Do you think,” I asked, “do you really think that people who are now enjoying life under the benevolent rule of the new Republic, with its senate and democracy, will welcome Imperial rule again?”
It was Thrawn who answered me. “I think that people crave law and order. If the system of government is fair and able to maintain the infrastructure as well as provide security and strong leadership it is my belief that the majority of the people in this galaxy will not care one way or the other who is actually in charge. If we can avoid the rampant xenophobia of the Emperor and curtail the propensity for corruption then, yes, I think that people would welcome Imperial rule.”
Ged nodded his agreement. “Part of the issue has been the tendency toward megalomania, if that can be avoided then I don’t see why re-establishing an empirical style rule would fail.”
“And who would get to be Emperor?” Syal asked.
“If an emperor as leader would be the chosen way to go then that remains unknown.” Thrawn said archly. “But clearly it would have to be a person of great character, able to get past the power of the position and do the job.”
“An emperor without an ego.” I snorted. “That would be a first.”
“Perhaps some sort of democratic process that allows the people to have a say in the leadership?” Soontir suggested.
“As I recall it is was democracy that actually gave us Emperor Palpatine in the first place.” Ged reminded. “The people applauded his move to take over and form an Empire, if the holo-archives of that event are to be believed.”
“My uncle was there. He said it was a momentous occasion, people celebrated. He said that the Palpatine’s move to eliminate the jedi was one that was widely approved by most of the galaxy. Most people felt the jedi were over powered and far too arrogant. They were happy to have someone step in to end the Clone Wars and bring back peace to the galaxy, and for all the complaining about how he did this it is exactly what Palpatine accomplished until the rebellion began a civil war.” I said.
“So what changed?” Syal asked.
“The Empire did.” Soontir replied. “Somewhere along the line it ceased to be about protecting the galaxy and it became about self aggrandisement and power mongering.”
I glanced at Soontir. “It was always about power, but most people never knew it.” I said quietly, “The cruelty, the greed and the in-fighting came later.”
There was a moment’s silence at the table while everyone considered my statement.
“You don’t have much love for our late Emperor, do you?” Ged asked carefully.
“I have my reasons.” I said softly before Thrawn could interject hoping to avoid a tired from me about Palpatine.
“Perhaps one day you would tell them to me. My own experiences with his Excellency have left me with fond memories.” Ged countered.
“Then I doubt you would wish to hear what I have to say, Admiral.” I said coolly. For a moment Ged and I locked eyes and stared at each other, there was a strange flash of sensation between us and I looked away. Thrawn watched the exchange carefully, deciding whether or not to intervene but before he could say anything Tir spoke.
“What about Lord Vader? He was every bit as cruel and you did not seem to mind working for him.” He asked, more curious than accusing.
My eyes flicked to Thrawn to see if he would divert me from answering this question as well but he merely inclined his head ever so slightly. “Lord Vader was made cruel and, by definition, evil, but Palpatine was born that way. He manipulated people to his benefit whereas Lord Vader just vented his anger.” I shrugged, “If you knew how to circumnavigate his temper, you stayed alive, the Emperor on the other hand would kill you without blinking for no reason other than he felt like it.”
“So you justify Vader’s behaviour then?” Ged asked.
I shook my head. “Far from it, he chose every time he did something cruel and he knew it was wrong but his anger won over every time. In the end, he was still made that way, twisted by Palpatine who used Lord Vader’s love for his wife and his fear of losing her to his own advantage. Palpatine encouraged Vader’s cruelty because every step made in that direction condemned his soul to the dark side further.”
“Yet it was Vader, so I have heard who killed the Emperor in the end.” Soontir added.
I nodded. “So I have been told and given what Palpatine did to Anakin to turn him into Vader that would make sense. I don’t know too many parents who would choose the master they loathed above the child born from the woman they loved. In the end Padmé’s love for Anakin won not Palpatine’s manipulations of Vader.”
Ged gave me a smile. “Why Miss Gabriel, you’re quite the romantic.”
I shrugged nonchalantly to hide the sudden and unexpected blush that burned my cheeks. “It has been my experience, Admiral, that romance and the Empire don’t tend to mix all that well.” This earned me a sharply arched eyebrow from Thrawn and a smothered giggle from Syal.
“Ah well,” Ged said leaning back in his chair, “I am not sure that romance and anything mixes all that well but life would be awfully dull without it, would you not agree?”
Again our eyes locked for a brief moment . I knew in that second that he was baiting me and that he had not been told of my relationship with Thrawn but he suspected. “Yes Admiral, on that point I can agree, life without romance would be very dull indeed.”
And seeing an opportunity to divert the conversation in a less allow- Merlyn- to- vent- about- Palpatine- direction Thrawn lifted his glass and toasted to romance, breaking the combative mood which had managed to settle over the table but I had not missed the look that Ged had given me nor his smile which was predatory and neither had Thrawn.
The conversation turned to different, inconsequential things allowing Syal to suggest we move to the more comfortable surroundings of the living area. Our chatter steered away from the sombre topics of Isard and the Empire and laughter eased its way back into the evening as Syal, prompted by Ged, told some stories of her time as an actress. The two Fel boys had behaved and stayed in bed but sometime shortly after we had all retired to the living area for brandy and cake, Chak poked his nose out and it had not gone unnoticed. When Soontir caught him for a moment I though the boy would dive back into his room but instead he waited until his father motioned for him to come and join us.
“You should be asleep, young man.” His father admonished.
“I was waiting for Aunty Merly to tell us a story about the great Dantassi. She promised.” He said with a sly glance at me because this wasn’t exactly true, I had not actually promised anything but I held my peace.
Soontir smiled and explained to Ged that somehow I had become the champion teller of Dantassi stories.
“I thought the Bone Traders were a myth.” Ged replied, looking at Chak.
“Oh no Aunty Merly’s seen them!” Chak protested, “She even lived with them for a while.”
Ged looked at me. “Oh really? You become more and more of an intriguing mystery with each passing moment, Miss Gabriel.”
I arched an eyebrow and sipped my drink. “It’s a long story, Admiral, perhaps if there is time some day you will hear it.”
“I certainly hope so.” He flashed his charming smile at me. “So they are not the wild savages the rumours make them out to be?” He pressed.
I got up, smoothing my dress as I did so, “No indeed, sometimes they make us look like the savages.”
“Merlyn you really don’t have to, the boys are spoiled enough as it is.” Soontir began, giving his son a look which said he wasn’t impressed but Syal placed her hand gently over her husband’s and gave him a look which said let them be children for a little while longer before you start turning them into soldiers to fight your wars.
Tir relented and I vanished, grateful for the excuse to escape, from the circle of grownups to the bedroom Chak and Dav shared, settled in my familiar spot on the floor beside the bunk beds and wove them a tale about a young Dantassi hunter who had gotten lost while tracking and found something quite remarkable along the way.
This tradition of telling Dantassi stories had started one day when the boys, bored and fractious had driven me mad with requests to play Hutts and Smugglers. I had bargained a story for peace and quiet and had told them one of the traditional Dantassi mythical tales. This had naturally led to many questions eventually ending in my telling them a little about my time with the Bone Traders. I never gave them all the details of Dantassi life and they never knew that Thrawn had anything to do with it at all but they did know that I had stayed in an enclave and that some of the stories I told them were about real things that happened. It didn’t really matter to the boys if the tales were real or not, a story was a story as long as it was told.
By the time I had finished my tale, Dav was sound asleep and Chak was that on the edge, drowsy but fighting it. I planted a little kiss on both of their foreheads but before I could leave Chak caught my hand in his.
“Are you going away on a dangerous mission?” He asked softly.
“Now what would give you that idea, Chak Fel?”
“You have that same look in your eyes that daddy gets when he goes away on a dangerous mission. You are all worried but you are trying not to show it.” He murmured as sleep began to steal him away.
I stroked hair from his forehead. “Well, if I am it’s only for a little while.”
“Promise?” He mumbled.
“No, no promises this time.” I told him but he didn’t hear, he had already fallen asleep. I had stared at him for a long moment, amazed at how perceptive children could be then with a sigh, I rejoined the conversation with the adults in the living area.
Shortly after one in the morning we had called it a night. Thrawn and Ged retired to Thrawn’s private office to continue a conversation which had started shortly before we had left the Fel quarters, having to do with ship numbers and strategic placements. I thought they would be at that for hours so instead of heading to bed, I went to my own office and set about decoding the data chip Thrawn had handed me earlier.
Once I unravelled the message I sat staring at the data pad, its blue light was the only illumination in the dark room. I was no longer even seeing the words on the screen, let alone reading them. The encryption had been easy for me to break as it was based on an old code that my uncle had taught me as a child’s game. Like every riddle it was fairly easy to decipher once you knew how although whoever had written this had twisted the encryption slightly making me work at it, making me sorry once I had unravelled it.
A cool breeze shifted through the room from the open window and the sounds of the night animals broke into my silence reminding me that I was still on Nirauan and still safe. I could smell the odd, tangy scent of the trees which were currently blooming and for reasons I could never explain, it reminded me sharply of Tatooine. Homesickness washed through me so violently that I had to blink back the tears which had sprung to my eyes unwanted. A knock at the door made me jump.
Thrawn, who always knocked instead of using the chime, entered before I could answer. He did not turn on the light because he could see well enough in the dark. I glanced up and met his glowing red stare; we held each other’s gaze for a second then he moved to the window, standing with his back to me, arms clasped behind him, to stare out into the night. In that second I thought he knew I had not told him the truth and he had come to find out why not. I should have guessed that after all this time there was not much I could hide from him. Unravelling the lies and the tangles other people made was something he excelled at, why should I be exempt from this? But he surprised me.
“Tekari, what could possibly be so important that it keeps you from joining me in bed this late?”
“Lesson plan for tomorrow,” I said as I shut the data pad off and the room was plunged into darkness. “I thought you and Admiral Larsen would be up all night plotting your overthrow of the New Republic.” I said getting up from my chair to perch on the desk edge closest to him.
I sensed his smile. “He’s quite brilliant, you know.” He said, “But he’s human and the journey here was taxing. He was quite exhausted, although I think that had more to do with Syal’s lovely meal, Soontir’s fine wines and your ability to charm the twinkle off a star.”
“I am quite sure my charm had nothing to do with it.” I shrugged. “Though I did get the impression he enjoyed baiting me.”
“Yes, that did not go unnoticed. You intrigue him.”
I shrugged and made a face. “Perhaps I should tell him what I did to Zaarin. I intrigued him too.”
Thrawn chuckled. “I do not think that Ged Larsen would try to force himself on you and I would ask you not to damage him, I am in need of his assistance.”
“Well seeing as how you asked so nicely.” I quipped. “How long is he staying on Nirauan?”
“We will leave tomorrow morning.”
“We?” Both my eyebrows went up.
“He has invited me to view his base of operations in the Ryloth System and after some consideration I have accepted the invitation. I feel it would be advantageous to see how he runs things.”
“How long will you be away?”
“A few days, perhaps a week.” Thrawn shrugged. “This is more about being seen, about rallying the troops, as it were. He has ships and men; I am in need of both.”
“And having him on board would not be detrimental either, would it?”
“Larsen is quite brilliant in his own way.” Thrawn agreed, “Having him help in this campaign would be very beneficial.”
“I heard that he was clever.” I nodded. “The Emperor favoured him greatly.”
“Tell me,” Thrawn asked thoughtfully after a moment, “is he like you?”
“Like me?” I frowned.
“Does he have this same force power you have?”
“That was the rumour but if he’s a force user he keeps it well hidden.” I said. “What I did get from tonight’s show was that he admires you greatly.”
“Yes and that will be advantageous.”
“So does Tir.” I said. “I told you if you led, people would follow. We would not need an emperor when we have you. You draw people’s devotion with such ease and you don’t even seem to know it.”
Thrawn smiled as he turned to look at me. “As do you with Fel’s children. Which story did you tell them tonight?” He side-stepped the topic more neatly than he dressed but I didn’t mind so terribly much. There had been enough politic talk for the evening as it was.
“Ekash’kah’s tale, you remember the one about the lost hunter finding the wind’s voice.”
“Ah yes, Kirja’navaar’inkjerii used to tell his daughter that one often, I believe it was one of her favourites.”
“It’s a lovely story, full of hope and magic.” I said, remember how I had felt upon hearing it for the very first time.
I stifled a yawn and got up from my desk. Relieved that he did not ask anything about the strange data card he had given me earlier. I went to him gratefully and wrapped my arms around his waist. He returned the embrace, stroking my hair and kissing the top of my head. “It’s late. Shall we finish this conversation in bed, my dear?”
“Sounds like a good idea.” I grinned and followed him out into the empty corridor to the quarters we shared. “And I can’t wait to get out of these shoes, they are killing my feet.”
“So, remove them. As I recall you used to wander around the Executor barefoot more often than not.” He answered and then waited for me to slip the delicate, high heeled shoes off. “By the way, Larsen mentioned he was looking for some office personnel and asked if you might be interested in working for him as his personal assistant. He said you came highly recommended.”
“Now why would I be interested in doing that?” I asked carefully, “Or is this your way of trying to get rid of me?”
He let me enter through the door to the quarters we shared first and waited until it had closed to continue. “After that fine display of charm this evening I was not certain if it was perhaps you that had decided to switch allegiances.” He purred.
“Jealous?” I asked turning around so that he could undo the fasteners on the back of the dress I wore.
He brushed the slender straps of my dress off my shoulders as though he were brushing dust of a priceless sculpture and the silk I had been wearing slithered to the floor. “No, merely curious.” He said as his fingertips grazed up and down the bare skin of my back. I let him finish the undressing job and sighed under his touch.
I turned around to face him, helping him with the removal of his own clothes, “Curious?”
“If you wished to work for him? It could be an interesting job, he is an interesting man.” The casual tone of his voice belied a sliver of concern. He had noticed the Admiral’s interest in me over dinner and he was letting me know this in his usual subtle manner.
“Not really, I have had my fill of being someone’s personal assistant.” I shrugged, “I am quite content where I am actually.” Even as I spoke those words I tasted the bitterness of them. Every time I found a measure of happiness something came along to change it. He caught the edge in my tone of voice and looked at me sharply. “It was simply a question and I doubt his offer was in earnest. Is something else wrong?” He asked.
I paused for a second then said “Yes.”
His eyebrow arched.
“You are talking to me about a job I do not want offered by a man I do not know while I’m standing here naked. I’m cold.” The lie was told well enough and he accepted it.
“Well this is easily enough changed, my dear.” He said, scooping me up. “Is there anything else I can oblige you with?” he asked as he lay me down on the bed and then lay over me.
“Yes,” I reached up to pull him to me, “remind me why staying with you is a good choice.”
“As you wish, my dear.”
I was grateful that our passion countered my sorrow and hoped he would not notice the one hidden beneath the other. I let him sweep me up in his world, this world only the two of us knew about and I tried to forget about everything else. In the morning he would be gone and then shortly afterwards, I thought ruefully, so would I.