The tension in the hall had ramped up to the point where the air seemed to shimmer. The last lot up for auction had finally finished and when Mawbro had announced the winner a collective sigh had run through the hall.
Most of the lots had gone for nominal prices, mostly junk which many of the off worlders were not interested in but one item had fetched a surprising price and that had been a holograph of Anakin Skywalker. We had seen it on the table and it had made me smile. The image had been taken of him just after he had won the Boonta Eve Classic. Baraq had spoken softly about that day, he had watched the race. I had stared at the holo image of the smiling young boy, with bright blue eyes full of joy and bright innocence. It still amazed me that this young boy had twisted and turned into one of the galaxies most feared and cruel leaders.
I had wavered for a moment about bidding on the holo but in the end I decided not to. I had memories of Lord Vader and many of them were also of him before the suit, before the mask. I didn’t need a holo to remind me of my time working for him the memories were more than enough. The holo had made me sad, dredging up an ache of loss which I thought I had buried. The only thing that countered this was the fact that here, on Tatooine, Anakin was still regarded as a hero. I had watched that auction with interest and had smiled when the holo had fetched a hefty price, thirteen hundred credits to a very pleased looking Gotal.
As he had promised, my uncle bid on several of the glass bowls for me and just as Baraq had predicted as soon as people saw who it was they were bidding against the bidding dropped off a bit. In the end Uncle Vahlek managed to win three at a reasonable price. I am not sure the Barabel was too pleased but in the end I thought the prices I ended up paying were fair because without any expert there to verify the Barabel’s claims it was hard to say if the bowls were authentic Tusken artefacts or not. I just liked them because they were extraordinarily beautiful and would look good in my rooms on Nirauan. I stayed put to keep our places while my Uncle went to finalise payments and pick up the bowls he had won.
When the last auction was cleared from the main stage and Mawbro announced the auction for Killik Twilight would now begin a subtle change fell over the hall. With a gesture that struck me as overly majestic she waved her hand and the crew of Gamorreans who had been doing guard duty earlier marched onto the stage surrounding the Codru-ji who carried the painting in carefully in all four arms, setting it down carefully on an easel that had been set up just for this purpose. It looked much smaller and more fragile than I remembered from the viewing but of course on a large stage the painting which was only fifty centimetres wide was tiny. All heads tilted to look at the giant holo projection of it that was now being displayed. We were standing further back in the hall because we were not bidding and I wanted to see the crowd as well as the painting.
Mawbro got the bidding underway by asking the Imperial officer who identified himself as Commander Quenton if he was willing to start it. He did so at a quarter of a million credits. There was a moment’s pause and then a squib over bid him and the whole show was off and running.
It was like watching some weird sport and even couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement being generated between the squib, Commander Quenton and a few other bidders. The bidding war seemed to last forever until suddenly the price shot up to five million credits and things got a bit tense when people were asked for funds verification. It looked as though quite a few people had suddenly lost their fund transfer chips. There were some scuffles and some protests but soon enough the bidding began again and the price jacked up to Thirteen million. I gasped at the sum, which was a lot of money. When the bidding climbed to fourteen-nine I glanced at my uncle who was watching the entire thing with a bemused look on his face.
“Your mate said it might get expensive but I doubt he was expecting this.” He murmured.
I nodded. “Well I am not surprised. The rebels want this painting pretty badly.” I whispered back smugly.
Just as the bidding reached the ridiculous price of fifteen million credits Mawbro appeared in the stage. I watched the Imperial officer closely, he had begun to suspect that something wasn’t right and things were not going to go his way. I could see him communicate with his people and then he upped the bid to fifteen-five but Mawbro ignored him. I glanced at my uncle who was slowly backing us away from the majority of the crowd.
“What are you doing?” I hissed.
“The Commander just called for back up. My guess is it’s about to get ugly in here and I don’t want to have to explain to your Ta’kasta’cariad why you were in the middle of it all.”
I made a face and was about to argue when Mawbro who had continued to ignore Commander Quenton’s bids began to speak. “The owner has decided it would be an outrage to sell the painting to the same empire that destroyed Alderaan.” She said loudly enough for all to hear.
I opened my mouth in surprise and then all hell broke loose, just as Uncle Vahlek had predicted. He was in the process of trying to pull me further away from the crowd which had gone nuts to someplace a little safer when blaster fire sheared through the noise.
“Oh crap!” I hissed. “This is really going to piss Za’ar off.”
“Come on, time to go.”
I didn’t resist when Uncle Vahlek yanked on my arm to get me to safety just as someone set off a thermal detonator. The explosion was loud and violent but had taken place right up front by the stage where the painting was. The shock from the blast ripped past me but there was no serious harm done. Still holding onto my arm my uncle managed to navigate us through the chaos and get us outside to someplace fairly quiet as well as safe.
“Did someone just blow the painting up?” I asked in utter disbelief.
“They tried to.” He nodded looking around.
“So much for Thrawn’s theories that the auction would be safe.” I said a little crossly.
“Why is it that where ever you go something insane happens?”
“No my fault, I swear.” I retorted. “Are my bowls still in one piece?”
Uncle Vahlek grinned and pulled the wrapped bowls from under his coat. “Yes.” He said as he handed the bowls all wrapped up in some sort of soft paper to me to hold on to.
I grinned at him. “I’ll have the credits transferred when we get home which I hope we are doing now, or is there more excitement still to come?”
Uncle Vahlek just shrugged as we headed in the direction of the spaceport to try and catch a transport back home.
The Spaceport in Mos Espa is busy and usually full of people. Mos Espa was a large city and today was no exception; if anything it seemed even more busy than usual. My guess was the auction had brought a lot of off worlders and even more of Tatooine’s inhabitants. Now that it was over, everyone was trying to go home or on to their next destination. I sighed as we nudged our way through the crowds to the ticket vendor. My uncle had just started to punch in the destination code when a stormtrooper approached and clapped his hand on my shoulder.
“Would you please come with me?” The trooper said calmly.
My uncle gave the stormtrooper a look which said ‘why?’ but before he could utter this thought the trooper added, “The Admiral wishes to speak with you, it is a matter of urgency.”
For a moment no one moved. I wondered if my uncle would try to fight this but something about the trooper’s manner calmed me. I nodded, “I’ll be fine, Zte’sa.”
My uncle didn’t really like it but in the end relented. “I will expect her back in one piece.” He said as he took the package from my hands again.
The stormtrooper nodded curtly. “Yes sir, those were my orders.”
Without further argument I followed the stormtrooper to a private dock and a waiting shuttle. Without waiting for a sign from the trooper I entered the shuttle and waited until the door had shut before I asked for an explanation.
“If you would take a seat Miss Gabriel, I am certain the Admiral will explain everything once we reach our destination.” Was all the reply I got.
“And that would be?”
“Sir,” The trooper said into his comlink, ignoring me and my question, “We are a go.”
“Where are we headed?” I asked again, phrasing it a little differently this time.
“I am not at liberty to say.” He replied.
I made a face, sighed and did the only thing left to do, strap in and wait to see where I ended up. The stormtrooper strapped him self in opposite me and in silence we stared at each other as the shuttle lifted up from the ground, freeing itself from the grip of Tatooine’s gravity. I smiled to myself as the shuddering came to an abrupt halt once we left the last vestiges of the atmosphere behind us. If the stormtrooper seated across from me noticed he gave no indication.
I was tired and the sudden turn of events at the auction had done nothing to improve that. I sighed and closed my eyes allowing the sensation of motion from the ship to flow through me. Time always seemed to slow down when I left a planet’s surface and headed into the space. There was something magical about being in the black and despite the ship’s artificial gravity I still felt the lack of a planet’s pull, especially my home world. Without meaning to I fell asleep.
The journey took roughly forty minutes and the shuttle landed with enough of a bump to wake me up. Without being asked I unbuckled and got up, waited for the ramp to unlock and release before following the Stormtrooper onto the deck of a Star Destroyer. I looked around for the waiting Deck Officer but there was none.
“This way, Miss.” The trooper said as he walked across the unusually quiet deck to the turbo lift.
I did as he asked and followed him without saying anything else until we arrived at guest quarters in a quiet end of a deserted hallway. When the door closed and folded my arms across my chest. “Can we dispense with all the cloak and saber stuff now?” I asked.
The trooper waited a split second and then removed his helmet, revealing blue skin, blue-black hair and glowing red eyes that held just a hint of amusement in them.
“You knew.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes.” I said.
“How, your force powers?”
I shook my head. “Your voice gave it away for me. No one else speaks Basic quite like you do. ”
“The Tze’yusha’Jin did not appear to know.”
“Maybe not, hard to say with Uncle Vahlek sometimes, and I think he was more interested in just getting out of Mos Espa since he just saved us from a thermal detonator and a stampeding crowd. I don’t think he was expecting you to be running around the place dressed as a lowly stormtrooper. The comm unit in the helmet disguises your actual voice well but it’s how you say certain things and the cadence of your speech that gave it away. And really, Za’ar, I knew it was you how could I not?”
“Thermal detonator?” He asked removing his gloves and gesturing for me to sit down on the couch in the living area of the quarters.
“Someone blew up the painting.” I said, remaining standing.
“Well, they tried.” Thrawn nodded, setting his helmet down on the table and pouring two cups of something hot and steaming from the carafe that had been set out. I had been expected.
“Actually the painting was stolen before the detonator could do any damage. A man named Kitster Banai, if my information was correct.” Thrawn handed me a cup of tea and motioned for me to sit and this time I did smiling a little as he sat beside me awkwardly in the armour he was wearing. It looked decidedly uncomfortable.
“So my dear, what is it about that painting that has someone trying to destroy it rather than let it fall into Imperial hands?”
“It carries a shadowcast code key, what ever that is.” I said simply. “An old one by the memory of it.”
Thrawn’s eyebrow arched as he smiled slowly. “Ah, well now that explains many things. I had suspected as much but it is always nice to have these things confirmed. Shadowcast is a code one we suspect the rebels have been using for years but without the keys to slice it is virtually impossible to break. Even an older one would allow my slicers insight into how it works and breaking it would be a huge step into discovering where the Rebels have spies.”
“Well I guess that explains why they’d rather destroy it than have it fall into Imperial hands.” I nodded.
What else did you learn?”
“Nothing unusual aside from the code key. It hung in the palace on Alderaan until it had been taken off world for an exhibition, on the return journey it was stolen by a guy named Threkin Horm who hung on to it until he thought it was safe to unload it. I saw lots of little flashes but nothing extraordinary.”
Thrawn nodded and then said. “And what is it you’re not telling me about the painting?”
I sighed. “You mean aside from the fact that I didn’t like it one bit and touching it made my skin crawl, or that the artist took months to create it at the expense of his health, or that Princess Leia was fascinated by it or that my mother had touched it once because she had wanted to see what the mossy surface really felt like?” I sipped at the tea. “I am not keeping anything back.” I added crossly.
“Well hopefully we can retrieve the painting before the Rebels manage to remove the code key, if not then I hope to still obtain the painting, it would go well with my collection.”
I made a face, “Sometimes I think you do these sorts of things out of spite, just so that Princess Leia can’t have it.”
He raised his eyebrow at me again, disdainfully. “Tekari, really….”
I just rolled my eyes. “Why the big show to get me here. I could have told you all of this stuff on a secure line.”
“I need you to do a job for me.” He said casually.
“What about the painting?”
“Don’t worry about that, it is all being dealt with.”
I sighed noisily. “You hauled me off planet just to tell me this?”
“I wanted some privacy.” He said studying his fingernails for a moment. “I need you to courier information to Ged Larsen. I did not want to risk anyone on the ground hearing his name.”
“Oh?” I said flatly letting him know I had sensed the lie.
“Just as no one knows who I am at the moment outside of a very small circle, neither do many know that Admiral Larsen is still alive and building up his own Imperial fleet. I have vital information for him concerning the up coming campaign I will embark on and I do not wish to trust it to just anyone, not even my own people.” He took a small sip of tea. “You will be flying a non Imperial ship, you have underworld connections and you have certain skills that …”
I held up my hand. “I get the idea. You want unofficial and harmless.”
“You may be unofficial, my dear, but you are anything but harmless.” He quipped. “And perhaps I just wanted to make sure that you were still in one piece after that somewhat unusual auction.”
“You were there.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes, though not actually in the main hall, the weequay was quite firm about allowing no troopers inside. Very shortly I will return to the planet so let me brief you on what I need done.”
“You make it sound as though playing courier will be dangerous.”
He smiled and reached over to caress my face. “Anything you seem to be involved in turns somewhat dangerous. Now shall we get to work? I do not have much time.”
I nodded and then listened as he briefly outlined what he needed from me. By the time he was finished I wasn’t sure who was nuttier, him for the plan or me for agreeing to follow through with it.
When he was done I sat back and stared at him. I wasn’t overly happy with the idea he had presented to me. “Why am I not using my own ship?” I asked, “It would save time.”
“Because I am not sure you’d forgive me if it was damaged during this mission.” He replied, “And it is possible that your ship is known to the rebels, on this I am taking no chances. You will travel on board the frigate Tornado. No arguments.”
“A frigate?” I made a face. “How much time do I have to make sure she actually flies then?”
“You don’t need to do that, you will not be piloting you will be a liaison on board. I’d like you to be ready to leave as soon as I am done with Tatooine and this ridiculous art chase. In the mean time I want you to stay here, study the plans and the information on this.” he handed me a data disk.
“Why do I need to stay here? You can use my skills on Tatooine.” I asked staring at the datadisk in my hand.
“I will have all the help I need, my dear. The Tze’yusha’Jin is more that willing to aid in the search for Killik Twilight.”
I gave him a look. “You are keeping me here to keep me safe?”
His smile was slight and not overly friendly. “I need you to be very clear on what I am asking you to do. You need to study the information on the disk and I doubt very much that you will concentrate on Tatooine. Knowing you, you will find some excuse to come running after me and the painting and maybe get yourself killed in the process.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“No,” He smirked. “Not in this instance, no and your uncle more than agrees with me. When I have the painting secured I will return, it shouldn’t take that long and then we can discuss in more detail what this job entails.”
“I don’t have clothes here for an extended stay! I don’t have anything here that I need!”
He pointed to a large bag that was sitting on the floor. “That has been taken care of.”
I opened my mouth then closed it again. “You know….” I began but he held up his hand.
“I do, but you won’t win this argument.” He leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees, the armour clacked as he did so. “Do not make this complicated. You went to the auction at my request and if I had known they would be trying to blow the painting up I would not have made that request. It is part of my job to keep you out of harm’s way which is what I am doing now.”
“What’s on this disk that you don’t want it going off the ship?” I asked sensing another lie underneath his truth.
“Very sensitive data on Ged Larsen for one thing and some details about the up coming campaign which I think you will need to know in order to pull off the ruse.”
“Ruse? What ruse?”
He did not answer my question, “The Tornado is currently in orbit around Chenini on a survey mission. Captain Daurma knows to expect you. The official story is that you are there as a liaison from Captain Pellaeon to make sure the courier drop off to Larsen goes smoothly.”
“And the unofficial story?”
“You are working for me, top level security.”
I frowned, “And just how is this supposed to work?” I asked. “No one will believe that I am anything other than your mate.”
“Actually you would be surprised at how few people on my fleet know about your more intimate relationship with me and those that do either think it is a rumour or know enough to remain silent about it.” He said, “There is a reason why I have not allowed you to travel with me and keeping our relationship private is one of them.”
“So I am not on the Chimaera then?”
“No you are currently on board the Death’s Head.”
“Can’t you come up with better names for your ships?” I asked trying not to get more annoyed than I already was.
“I did not name her, for that you would have to discuss Imperial ship naming policies with Palpatine and that might be a tad difficult at this time. Merlyn, really it is just for a short while.”
I made a face. “So just why will the captain and crew of the Tornado believe any of this story?”
“Because, my dear, they will all believe you are one of the dreaded Emperor’s Hands. That knowledge alone will terrify them into believing what ever you tell them.”
“But I’m not an….”
Thrawn held up his hand. “I know that and you know that but the official data which is available to those with high enough clearance will say otherwise.”
“You’re using Uncle Vahlek’s ruse to get me in close to Ged Larsen so you can spy on him?”
He laughed. “Oh Sj’iu tekari you really do read too many Holloway novels. I don’t need you to spy on him at all I need a liaison who is, shall we say, able to cut through the ….”
I interrupted, “Ged’s force sensitive you know, he’ll soon see through any games.” I sighed, “And I don’t want to lie to him. I won’t lie to him.”
“Perhaps if I were playing games that would be something I would worry about but I assure you, there are no games. I need his help as much as he requires mine. It is a mutually beneficial relationship which you will help facilitate. He liked you, he’ll work with you, which will make my job easier, and because you will not be someone the rebels will immediately watch out for, you can move back and forth a lot easier than any imperial could. Plus, I don’t trust anyone else with this.” He regarded me for a moment, “You won’t have any reason to lie to him from me.”
I digested his words, sifting through them for any untruths but I found none. “The dispatches I will be carrying, will they be real?”
He nodded. “Very, so be mindful of this.”
“Navaari will be so pissed about you using me like this.”
“Yes, well I will deal with his wrath should it ever come up and you can say no. I am not forcing you to do this job. You have a home and work enough waiting for you on Nirauan if you want it but I got the impression that you were a little bored there as well as on Tatooine and when you get bored I start to worry, when you get bored….”
I sighed deeply and let the air out noisily. He was right and he knew it. I was curious about all of this and he knew that as well. “Okay, you win.” I said cutting him off.
He smirked in a fashion which said, Yes, I usually do.
I waved at the Stormtrooper helmet, “This disguise…you’re using this whole painting thing as a training exercise for the fresh meat on the Chimaera aren’t you?” I said changing the subject while shaking my head slightly and finishing my tea.
“How well you know me my dear.” He said with a tight smile and before I could comment back or make some sort of retort he shut me up with a kiss that was too short and left me wanting an awful lot more. I didn’t like this, any of it and I let him know with a look. He just smiled and stroked my cheek with the back of his fingers.
I nodded. “How long do you think it will take? This painting thing I mean?”
He gave me a slight shrug as he pulled on the armour gloves and reached for the helmet. “I do not know, hopefully not long. While I do enjoy spending time on your planet, running around after known criminals in this uniform is not the most efficient use of my time but as you pointed out it is a good way to initiate some training and to evaluate the ground troops, something I do not often get the opportunity to do. They will have to be ready to face a hell of a lot in a short amount of time, many of the troops we have are far too young and inexperienced for my taste and even Pellaeon will not argue with me on this point. We’ll just have to see how this plays out. Now that I know why the rebels want the painting so badly it gives me a better idea of what they’ll do to get it.”
“You don’t think that this Kitster Banai was working with them?”
“No.” He said but didn’t elaborate. When his comm peeped he made a slight face. “Time to go.” He said as he picked up the helmet and stood up. “In this armour I am simply a squad leader escorting you back to the planet. Try not to give the game away my dear.”
“Have I ever given your games away?” I asked following him to the door.
He didn’t answer my question instead he reached for me, cupping my chin with one hand. I didn’t resist when he drew my face upward and gave me another kiss, this one a little more intimate than the last one had been. “Do not doubt your importance in my life, tekari but do not doubt the importance of what I now must do and the campaign that lies ahead. I can just as easily shut you out and send you to Nirauan for the duration or perhaps Hjal which ever you’d prefer. I thought you might like to take a slightly more active role, but perhaps I was mistaken.”
I shook my head. “You know me too well and I’m not sure how much I like that.”
“It’s part of being bound and you should know that by now.” He chided gently “Now will you do as I have asked and stay here until I return, study the data and try to relax a little?”
There was a second of tension as he waited for my answer and then I nodded. “I will.”
“if you get particularly restless I have assigned Rukh to spar with you and you’ll find everything you need in the bag over there.”
I shook my head, “I don’t need a babysitter.”
“No you don’t but I was thinking you might enjoy some time in the training suite with my Noghri body guard. You might want a diversion from reading for a while and I have no use for Rukh on Tatooine.”
“Bet he’s just as happy about this as I am.”
“Actually he said he was rather looking forward to teaching you some more Noghri moves.”
I rolled my eyes; I knew what that meant, me spending a lot time spent flat on my ass while he laughed in that husky creepy way of his. “Okay, have it your way, just come back in one piece and keep my uncle out of trouble while you are at it.”
He kissed my forehead and smiled, “I shall endeavour to do so. Wish me luck.” He said as he slipped the helmet over his head and then vanished without waiting to hear my reply.
The soft richness of his voice had been swiftly transformed behind the helmet’s microphone. He sounded just like every other stormtrooper I had ever heard except for the ever so subtle and unusual cadence in his voice which I doubted many others would even notice. It made me smile, his penchant for dressing up in disguises. Thrawn was like no other Imperial leader I had ever known. As the door shut softly leaving me alone, I wondered if any of his men really knew just how lucky they were.