Living on Nirauan was quite unlike anything else I had experienced. It was quite unlike life with Lord Vader on board his various ships or living on Coruscant with all that Imperial court life had to offer. While the base itself was run like any Imperial military operation it wasn’t quite the same because at least one third of the population were not human and the Chiss had vastly different ideas on how things should be done, as well as, how people should behave than humans did and the two styles of military operations sometimes did not work well together. Thrawn along with Voss Parck found themselves mediators in some rather interesting disagreements on how things should work. Yet, in spite of the differences, most of the time things ran smoothly.
At first I had been a little worried that my relationship with Thrawn would get in the way of having some sort of normal life at Nirauan but it was, for the most part, politely ignored. Neither Thrawn nor I were fond of public displays of affection and our years of keeping the fact that we were seeing each other a secret from the
My place had been established when I had begun to teach language classes to both the Chiss and the humans. It was an odd job and never one I would have thought of doing when I was younger but I enjoyed it. However, teaching language classes only took up some of my time so when I was not teaching, I was working in the docking bay. Word had gotten around that I was a qualified mechanic and there had been no resistance when I had asked if I could help out. Once the chief engineer had figured out that I was actually pretty good at this job he welcomed my presence in the pit, especially since I could not only fix ships but act as translator between Chiss and human at the same time.
These two things filled up each day making my life fairly busy and when I wasn’t working or sleeping I was usually being badgered to death by Syal and Soontir Fel’s two little boys who had decided that I was a lot of fun to be with, though I could not for the life of me figure out why.
I enjoyed the boy’s company, their bright and mischievous countenance made a stark contrast to the often serious military feel to the base. They were at an age where they made their own fun and still young enough not to realise how far away and isolated they were from the rest of the galaxy. I would have thought that they were lon4ely for company their own age but they seemed to relish the company of adults and rather enjoyed having the run of most of the base to themselves. There were many places that were off limits to them, though sometimes that did not stop them from going there anyway and after a few months people mostly got used to seeing them run around when they were not in lessons or with their mother.
Syal was also wonderful company for me, another female who was not a member of the military and who had lived the court life, albeit from a slightly different perspective. We had a surprising amount in common despite our vastly different upbringings and lives. I greatly enjoyed the time I got to spend with her, talking with her about pretty much everything much to Thrawn’s consternation. I was unused to having a close female friend and apart from Cati and the girls on Hjal I had mainly spent my time in the company of men. It was a whole other experience to sit with Syal in her living quarters, with the two boys racing around, sipping stim’caf discussing men, fashions and pretty much everything else in between. Often we discussed our time on Coruscant during the time of the Empire, while the Emperor still lived and the life at court was at its height. It seemed that while we had never actually met before we had crossed paths many times and attended many of the same events.
“I remember that!” Syal had exclaimed as I had told her about my first ever Grand Ball, the one where then Captain Thrawn had swept me off my feet onto the dance floor. “He astonished many people with his grace on the dance floor and of course everyone wanted to know who you were.” She had said with a smile. “People whispered about that dance for a long time afterwards. He perfected it with that back bend he forced you in to.”
I had grinned. “He was showing off.” I had told her.
That had made her smile. “I find it hard to believe that the Grand Admiral would stoop to showing off, he seems so….” She had searched for the right word and couldn’t find it.
“So Chiss?” I had offered.
She had just nodded and smiled.
I had shrugged. “He was a captain then and he was trying to impress me I think. It seems like such a long time ago.”
“And did he manage to impress you?” She had asked with a smirk.
“He scared me to death, if you want to know the truth, and yes, he impressed me with his prowess on the dance floor.” She had glanced at me for a second, the question she longed to ask burned in her eyes but never made it to her lips but I had answered it anyway, “And yes he shows the same prowess with everything else he does as well.”
That had made her laugh which had made the boys curious and they had decided enough girl talk it was time for boy-talk and we had spent the rest of that afternoon amusing them.
As hard as the adjustment of leaving home, living on Coruscant and now living on Nirauan had been for me it was even harder for Syal. She had given up everything to be with Tir including her family which included the famous Wedge Antilles, her younger brother.
“They think Tir and I are dead.” She had explained to me. The sorrow in her voice was unmistakable. “What else could I do, it was either their world or his and I wanted to be in his. He is the love of my life, the father of my children. Perhaps one day things will change enough that we could all be reunited but right now this is impossible. I would not do anything to compromise the safety of my husband, our children or this base. If Tir thinks that Thrawn is worth serving then the Grand Admiral must be a remarkable man. Tir doesn’t give his loyalties lightly no matter what anyone thinks.”
It had been a sobering conversation and I had lain awake that night thinking about it until Thrawn, tuned to my restlessness, had asked what was on my mind. When I had recounted the conversation he too had stayed silent for a long time afterwards, thinking about how to answer.
“You are lucky in many respects but that your family has managed to remain more or less neutral throughout the entire galactic civil war conflict is a great advantage to both you and me.” He had finally said thoughtfully. “Our relationship was tricky enough under Palpatine’s ever so watchful eye without familial complications adding to it. Had your family been in any way connected to the Rebellion at the time I have no doubt that things in your life would have been quite different.”
That had made me smile a little. “Well according to Palpatine my father was and probably still is a smuggler, Bel is a hopelessly romantic Rodian accountant, Bedi is a crazy pilot, my uncle is some sort of mad assassin spy and sarlacc knows what I am anymore. I don’t think there was any room for rebels in the family because honestly we have enough issues as it is. I don’t think the word dysfunctional even fits and if you count the Dantassi side of things then life begins to get really interesting.”
Thrawn had nodded. “You are lucky.”
“Zte’sa Vahlek calls me spoiled.”
That had made Thrawn chuckle. “Well you are that as well but I try not to let it worry me too much. If you get out of hand I can always ship you back off to stay with Kirja’navaar’inkjerii.”
I had pinched him painfully. “No, you cannot. You promised me you’d never do that again.”
His chuckle had been soft. “Why so I did, foolish me.” Then he had replied after a moment’s quiet, “You told me once that you make your own family, tekari, and that is what Syal has done. Soontir and the two boys are her family now; she understands that in order to live in his world she had to leave hers behind. That happens sometimes and usually it is the woman who must make that choice although not always.”
“I can’t imagine doing that. I can’t imagine life without my home, my family on Tatooine.”
“And you do not have to, but you still made a choice when you came out here to be with me and this life cannot be easy for either you or Syal, so far away from civilization.”
That had made me laugh. “You’re calling Tatooine civilized? That’s funny.”
He had made a face. “In spite of all the complaining you did, you enjoyed your time on Coruscant far more than you ever let on. Like a mynock to a power cable you were drawn to glitter and the glamour even though it drove you mad. Now you are here all the way out at the edge of the galaxy on a planet with nothing. I often wonder what holds you here.”
I had rolled over on to my side to look at him then. “That’s not true.” I said calling him on what I knew. “You know exactly what holds me here and a tiny part of you relishes this, you just don’t understand why I am so happy.”
He had reached over and stroked my face. “I keep forgetting you are impossible to lie to and yes you are right. I suppose I don’t understand why you seem to love it here so much.”
“Well for one, no one is trying to kill me and two it reminds me of home.”
He had just raised an eyebrow and waited for me to explain.
“It’s quiet and isolated and I seem to spend a great deal of time working in a mechanic’s pit.” I had told him. “I have a place here, you’re here…well…” I amended, “some of the time, and I have friends here. I don’t need bright lights and a big city, nor do I need glittering parties and lots of money. It was sort of fun to play dress up and be a part of court life but that life came with a price, it always comes with a price. I am perfectly happy doing what I am doing now, being where I am.” That had earned me one of his rare smiles, he had wrapped his arms possessively around me and sleep had come swiftly without dreams or nightmares in its wake.
Time passed easily for me on Nirauan. Compared to the constant stress of even being near Lord Vader and under the ever present threat of being swallowed whole by the Emperor, my days at the base seemed almost blissful. The only disturbances in my otherwise almost dull routine were the Fel boys, Davin and Chak. I grinned to myself as soon as I heard the pounding of small feet on the stone floor. The Fel boys had found me.
“Aunty Merry, Aunty Merry!” Dav’s small voice echoed loudly through the corridor as he ran as fast as his little legs could carry him.
“You always say her name wrong it’s Aunty Merly!” Chak, who had stopped to let his little brother catch up, chided.
Dav had trouble with saying the letter r and he had mangled my name and pretty much any other words that had an r in them making that letter sound more like a w than anything else. This amused Thrawn greatly who thought that Mewwy was a fairly accurate nickname for me. I had retorted that his being dubbed Gwand Admiwal Thwawn was equally amusing and no more had been said about it.
I stopped and let them catch up with me. Dav flung his arms around my legs effectively rooting me to the spot whereas Chak, who considered himself almost a grown up carried himself with a lot more dignity, copying his father’s style of standing in military at ease. I hooked Dav under the arms and swung him up to my hip and carried him as I continued my way down the corridor. He was still small enough to be able to do this and still young enough that he didn’t mind being held or cuddled. Chak on the other had took great affront at any female sort of affection but he didn’t mind if I ruffled his hair because that’s what his father sometimes did as well.
“And what are you two up to this afternoon?” I asked Chak who was now walking at my side, still trotting to keep up with me even though I had slowed my pace down by half.
“Well, we were playing hide and hunt.” Chak said.
“And why did you stop?”
“Well we were told to go play somewhere else.” He replied a little sheepishly.
“Where were you playing?” I asked hefting Dav from one hip over to the other, he was heavy.
Chak shrugged slightly, “In the hanger bay but we got into trouble with Commander Rossler.”
“Ahh, well, the hanger bay isn’t exactly the safest place to play hide and hunt, you know.” I told him.
He made a face and nodded. “I know that but it’s the best place to play.”
I grinned. “I won’t argue with that, I love the docking bay, though I’ve never played hide and hunt in one.”
“But you can fix ships can’t you?” Chak asked. “My daddy says you’re a damned good mechanic for a sand-rat!” His imitation of his father would have been almost perfect save for the boyish tone of his young voice.
“Did he now?” I smiled at the nick name, “That’s high praise from Commander Fel. So what are you doing here if you were playing?”
“We came to find you, will you play with us?” Dav asked. “It’s boring with just us two!”
“What did you have in mind?” I asked.
“Hutts and smugglers?” Chak suggested.
I laughed. Hutts and smugglers was an odd variation of hunt and hide where the smuggler hid an object some place and the Hutts had to find it, who ever found it first became the next smuggler. “Sure, but first I have to talk with The Grand Admiral.” I told them both. “He asked to see me, that’s where I’m going now.”
Dav’s face darkened. “Are you in trouble?” he whispered.
“I don’t think so, why?”
“Grand Admiral Thrawn is scary.” Dav whispered and buried his face in my hair. This was all show, while Thrawn intimidated the boys somewhat they both adored him because he never spoke down to them or treated them as though they were in the way.
“He just thinks that any time a grown up says they want to see you it means you’re in trouble.” Chak explained.
“Well as far as I know I am not in trouble though I might be if I don’t hurry.”
“Are you going to come to dinner with us tonight?” Dav asked.
“I hadn’t planned on it, why?”
“Because I heard mommy telling daddy that you and the Admiral and a guest were coming to eat with us and that we had to behave and that we would have to go to bed early.” Chak explained without stopping to take a breath.
I gave him a raised eyebrow look. “Oh? I have not heard anything about that.”
“Will you come? If you come we might get to stay up a bit longer, mommy says when you come to visit the house is finally quiet.” Chak asked, looking at me with big hopeful eyes. He mostly resembled his father and I could see that Fel earnestness in him.
I just smiled and shook my head. “I see, so you only want me there so you can stay up past your bedtimes?”
Dav nodded, his blond curls bobbing about his cute little face. “yes!”
“No!” Chak countered at exactly the same time. “I want you to teach me how to read Cheunh and tell me stories about the Dantassi again.”
That made me smile. I had been telling the Fel boys about the Dantassi ever since they had seen my mask one day in my office and wanted to know what it was. Now the Dantassi were a great source of fascination for the two boys and they loved to hear stories about them. I enjoyed telling them stories and I found it almost strange how much I enjoyed my time with the two little boys. Thrawn had also been right in his summation that my spending time with them gave Syal a break, the two kids ran her ragged and now that she was pregnant with their third she was finding it hard to deal with their never ending, boundless energy.
“So you aren’t bored of hearing about the Bone Traders yet?” I asked.
Both boys shook their heads and I had to stifle the urge to laugh because their expressions were priceless.
“Will you teach me how to be Jhal’kai like the great Navaari?” Chak asked.
I raised my eyebrows then stopped walking because we had come to the entrance to Thrawn’s office and looked at him.
“Well you know that takes years of practice and you have to be very patient, very quiet and stay very still for long periods of time.”
“I can do that! I can be still!” He said. “Watch, look see, I am being still!” and indeed he was standing stick still as well as holding his breath.
I was trying to set Dav, who was struggling to stay in my arms, down while at the same time pointing out to Chak that breathing was an essential part of being Jhal’kai. Thrawn opened the door to see what the ruckus outside his office was. Dav stopped struggling and clung to me nervously, giving Thrawn a wary look. Chak, still holding his breath, side stepped to move slightly behind me.
Thrawn opened his mouth then closed it again, giving me that arched eyebrow look which said, care to explain this? The little smirk at the corner of his lips did not escape my notice.
“Voss said you wanted to see me?” I asked simply, still trying to untangle myself from Dav. It was a little like trying to hold water.
“Yes, I did but you seem to be a little busy at the moment.” He replied glancing down at Chak whose face was starting to turn red.
“He’s decided to be still like a Jhal’kai.” I explained.
“And Davin?” Thrawn asked.
“I’m protecting Auntie Merry!” Dav spurted out.
“You.” Dav said proudly.
Thrawn glanced at me, I just shrugged. “You sent for me, they think you are mad at me and I am in trouble.”
The twitch of his lips increased into a smile. “Ah I see. Well, Davin Fel in this instance you would be incorrect in your assessment of the situation.”
I grinned and translated. “He means he’s not mad at me and I am not in trouble so you don’t need to defend me.”
“So, if you could perhaps free Miss Gabriel from your protective clutches I have need of her for a short while.” Thrawn told Dav.
There was a moment of silence while the boy considered it and then he let go of his death grip on me and allowed me to place him back on the floor beside his brother whose face was now a very bright shade of red.
“Jhal’kai do not hold their breaths when they hunt, Chak Fel, so you may wish to reconsider your current action before you give your mother even more cause to worry about you than she already does.”
Chak suddenly exhaled loudly then gasped for air behind me and Thrawn had to turn away so as the two boys would not see him try to stifle a laugh.
“Will you play with us when you are done?” Dav asked, holding onto my hand with his.
I glanced at Thrawn because I actually had no idea what he really wanted to see me about or how long it would take. He was about to say something when Syal suddenly appeared down the corridor.
“There you two are!” She said sounding more worried than angry.
“But Mommy we told you we were going to look for Aunty Merly.” Chak protested. “We were going to play Hutts and Smugglers!”
“I am quite sure that Merlyn has more important things to do than play with you two and besides, you both have chores to do before your father comes home from work.”
The boys’ expression were priceless, looking as though they had been condemned to a fate worse than death.
“Awww mom!” Chak protested but it was falling on deaf ears.
“Now, young man!” Syal said sternly, offering her hand to her youngest son who let go of mine happily.
“I’m sorry Grand Admiral, I try to keep an eye on them but they will slip away.”
“Indeed.” Thrawn said failing to hide his amusement.
“I also wanted to ask if you and Merlyn would care to join us for dinner this evening? Fel suggested it might make a nice break from the usual routine, especially with the visiting Admiral.”
“We shall be there.” Thrawn said, in and unusual move speaking for both of us.
“Very well, at .” She answered looking at me with a smile. Then, with a sigh and two little boys in tow, she headed back to her quarters.
I followed Thrawn into his office and sat when he waved his hand at the chair in front of his desk. “Those two keep you well in hand, I see.” He said with a slight smile before I could speak.
“They’re little boys. They produce enough energy between them to power this entire complex twice over. It’s a pity we can’t harness it somehow.” I replied. “What did you want to see me about?”
There was a lengthy pause and I immediately knew something was up. “This was in the courier package that arrived in the supply drop this morning.” He said holding up a data card.
“What is that?” I asked, not taking it from his fingers.
“I do not know. The message is encrypted in a way I have not seen before but it has your name on it.”
“Who sent it?” Now I was puzzled.
“No one knows. It seems it mysteriously made its way in with the rest of the dispatches and no one I asked has any recollection of it being handed to them.”
I glanced at the little data card still in his fingers. “You’re concerned.”
“Someone managed to bypass all security and slip this in with intel dispatches. Yes, that concerns me.” He said. “The number of people, not a part of this base, who actually know you are here and exactly where here is, is limited. The courier drops are kept highly confidential but someone managed to intercept them and add this data card along the way.”
“How is that possible?”
A momentary flash of disdain passed across Thrawn’s face. “Anything is possible if one tries hard enough.” He said with a touch of annoyance.
I took the data card from his hands. He watched me carefully for any change in expression but I had learned to mask my reactions to the memories some objects gave me a long time ago. I turned the small card over in my fingers.
“I don’t want you to use it in the central system; it may carry a slicer code.” He said pushing a hand-held reader across the desk to me.
I slipped the card into the reader slot and watched the screen. The message was encoded but I recognised it immediately.
“I think this might be from Uncle Vahlek.” I said carefully. “But it will take me some time to decipher it. He’s used an encryption that he taught me as child and it’s one that uses a system of layers.”
Thrawn stared at me and the silence in the room was heavy. “I want to know what that says, tekari. No secrets. If the Tze’yusha’Jin is sending you encoded messages without revealing himself then I want to know why. He has direct methods of getting in touch with you.” This was Thrawn’s round-about way of saying he felt something was very wrong with this whole thing and he didn’t like it. Neither did I.
“When I get it decoded I will let you know.” I told him.
He sat back in his chair and nodded, his eyes never leaving my face. He knew me well enough to sense when I was hiding something but he also knew when to step back and give me some room. “You’d best go find something decent to wear this evening. We have a dinner engagement to keep. The Baron is actually trying to make the new Admiral feel more at home.” He said then added as an afterthought, “Best not to mention this at dinner until we know more.”
“Ged Larsen is here for a short reconnaissance trip. We have been discussing how best to consolidate our forces as he also has ships at his disposal but does not wish to leave his current base undefended.”
I nodded. “I remember him; you introduced us at your induction into the canted circle.”
“He arrived on base late last night and Fel thought a small dinner which included the company of females would not hurt in courting the Admiral’s cooperation.”
“He’s balking at helping you?”
Thrawn smiled. “Not at all but Larsen plays his sabaac cards very close to his chest and that makes Fel uneasy, since the two will be working closely together I am not adverse to this small get together.
“Oh, well this really will be interesting as I recall the Admiral was quite a charmer.” I said with a slight smile which never quite made it to my eyes. I was tired, this message had made me tired and I didn’t want to deal with it but I was going to have to. I got up out of the seat, cupping the data disk in my hand.
Thrawn studied my face carefully then, after a few seconds had passed he asked, “Is there something about that disk you have not told me, tekari?”
The corner of my mouth twitched as I shook my head. Then, staring him straight in the eyes, I lied. “No. You know as much as I do right now.” And with that I walked out of his office, the sensation of spiders crawling down my back worse than ever.