When I entered the small, private dining room all conversation stopped and all eyes turned to look at me, as well they should. I had taken extra care to pick out a dress that was both flattering and revealing yet tasteful at the same time. I had made sure my make up was perfect and styled my hair in a way that was coquettish and pretty. If I was going to be hunted I might as well look the part, I had thought angrily at the time but as I walked into the room I wondered if maybe it was simply to show Thrawn what he had and Ged what he could not.
“Miss Gabriel, here you are at last, we thought perhaps you had gotten lost.” Ged said. “I was just about to send a search party out after you.”
I tilted my head to one side and smiled. “Admiral, you should know by now that it takes time for a woman to change from grease pit monkey to presentable dinner companion.”
Thrawn arched an eyebrow in my direction but said nothing.
“Well,” said Ged, “The results were worth waiting for. That dress is quite … stunning.” He managed.
“Thank you.” I replied failing not to blush. Thrawn didn’t miss this either.
“Miss Gabriel had a very adept dress maker on Coruscant.” Thrawn said.
I smiled at him and nodded. “It was one of the advantages of working for Lord Vader and being based in the Imperial palace. Dressing up was required by the Emperor so the appropriate clothing was provided.” I explained.
“Well,” said Ged, “Whatever the reason I am more than grateful that you are here to brighten things up.”
I inclined my head and took his offered hand so he could show me to my seat. Grateful that Cati’s dresses still served me well.
Once I had been seated everyone else took their places so that at the Head of the table was Ged, despite being a lower rank than Thrawn it was his ship, I sat to his left and Thrawn to his right. Next to me was seated Gilad Pellaeon, the Chimaera’s captain and next to Thrawn sat Benjamin Morrish, the captain of the Virulent. Once the aperitif had been poured and beautiful plates of tastefully arranged appetizers set down on the table, Ged toasted to the Empire and the meal began.
One of the finer things about being asked to dine at the Admiral’s table was the food. It was almost always excellent, especially when compared to the standard chow that was served in the regular mess. The meal was perfectly served by silent junior officers who wore their finest uniform complete with white gloves. Over the actual meal the conversation was kept fairly light, mostly by Thrawn who deftly steered it in the direction he wanted despite Ged’s attempts to pull it in other directions. It was like watching two alpha males vie for territory and it would have been amusing had it not been for what had occurred earlier. Instead it just made me feel uncomfortable and guilty. The two captains joined in when it was appropriate and when I was asked I offered my opinion. It was pleasant until desert when Corellian spice cake was served. I stared at the beautifully decorated slice of cake and glanced at Thrawn, then as politely as I could I ignored it. After about two minutes this aroused curiosity especially as everyone else at the table seemed delighted with the desert choice but were waiting for me to go first.
“Is there a problem with the desert?” Ged asked, “Our chef is trained to make it to the high standards I’m sure you have become accustomed to.” There was reproach in his voice.
“I’m sure it’s lovely but I can’t eat Corellian Spice cake.” I said. “I have an adverse reaction to it.”
Ged cocked his head to one side, “Is that so? How unusual.” He motioned for one of the servers to come and remove the offending plate and I could tell from his manner that he was unimpressed. He had thought I would be delighted by this rare treat and he was disappointed in my reaction.
“Miss Gabriel was very nearly killed when she ate from a Corellian Spiced cake that had been poisoned while on board Lord Jerec’s ship working for me a few years ago.” Thrawn said quietly, explaining what I had not wanted to.
Ged looked at Thrawn and then to me. I nodded to confirm what Thrawn had said. “It was not an experience I ever wish to relive.” I said quietly, glancing under my lashes at Thrawn.
“No I dare say not. Was anyone else affected?” Ged asked, looking from Thrawn to me.
I shook my head, “The cake had been laced with glow-spice which doesn’t have an adverse effect on most people. I am very allergic to glow-spice, I was the intended target.”
“Why would anyone wish to harm you?” Captain Pellaeon asked gently, genuinely shocked.
I gave a slight shrug, I didn’t wish to get into it.
“She was the unfortunate target of someone who wanted to attack me.” Thrawn interjected, “It was hoped that by ending her life while on my watch I would come into disfavour with Lord Vader and the Emperor.”
Gilad Pellaeon shook his head. “Such an act is the work of a coward.” He said, “I hope that the person responsible was caught.”
“He met with a suitable end Captain.” I said quietly. “However, one of the unfortunate side effects of this is that I cannot face Corellian Spiced cake, no matter how well it is prepared. I apologise, meant no insult to your chef Admiral Larsen.” I shuddered slightly at the memory of that incident which had very nearly claimed my life.
“No need to apologise my dear,” Ged said. “Allow me to have the kitchen prepare something else for you? It would be rude for us to eat while you sit there without anything.”
I knew if I refused it would be an insult so I nodded. “A small bowl of fruit would be most welcome, thank you.”
Satisfied that he had somehow made everything better Ged nodded at the young man waiting by the wall and the request went out to the kitchen, five minutes later I was staring at one of the most beautiful displays of cut fruit I had ever seen.
“I must admit, Miss Gabriel, I am grateful that the attempt on your life was unsuccessful, you are delightful company for a group of men who have long forgotten what it is like to be in the presence of non military females.” Gilad Pellaeon said with a smile, his eyes met mine and I felt the sudden and unexpected pang of tears in my eyes. His open kindness and acceptance of my strange place in this Imperial man’s world was unusual and I was touched by it. He was a good deal older than Ged or Captain Morrish and his looks made him seem older than Thrawn as well. I had heard many good things about him but our paths had never actually crossed.
“Thank you Captain. Though to be honest it was one in a long series of moments where I wasn’t sure I’d live.”
Thrawn chuckled. “Miss Gabriel has a rather nasty habit of facing death on a regular basis, luckily for us she also seems to be blessed with as many lives as that of a bearded jax.”
“I suppose that was a plus for someone working under Lord Vader.” Captain Morrish said.
I grinned. “I guess you could say that.”
Captain Pellaeon smiled, “So Miss Gabriel, I’m curious. What was it like working as a civilian under Lord Vader?”
“It was a very interesting experience, Captain.” I said diplomatically.
Thrawn smiled enigmatically and Ged laughed.
“Well what do you expect me to say, Admiral Larsen?” I asked him point blank. “We all know what Lord Vader was like, his temper and his passion were… legendary. People still talk about him in whispers as if conjuring up his name will suddenly bring a bad case of force choke. He was a complicated man with a very complicated past that haunted him until the day he died. Bureaucrats hated him and the men who served under him both feared and loved him at the same time.” I toyed with my napkin ring. “I, for my part, admired him however working for him was anything but easy.”
“Yet you survived where so many didn’t, how did you manage to avoid his wrath?” Morrish asked.
I shrugged. “I really don’t know.” I answered, “Though it wasn’t so much that I survived his wrath but rather dodged it more often than not.”
“Perhaps he simply enjoyed having you around.” Ged suggested with a smile. “After all you are quite delightful company.”
I glanced at Thrawn who held my gaze a moment too long with a stare that held questions in it I didn’t feel like dealing with. I shook my head ever so slightly then I replied, “I did my job well. If there was more than that he never elaborated.” I said. “What I do know is that he is missed and not just by me.”
“That’s true.” Captain Morrish replied. “I often hear my men speak of him positively despite the fact that he could be an absolute monster.”
I nodded, “He was often cruel and difficult. He could be very sarcastic and more often than not his temper ruled him. His reputation as difficult was well deserved. I do not defend him on that but he was also brilliant and brave. He would often personally lead his pilots in a battle and he never shied away form facing danger. He was very smart and he was also very good with his hands, building things and with general mechanics.”
“Did he know he had children?” Captain Pellaeon asked.
“He knew he had a son, though not until after the battle Yavin but that he also had a daughter, I believe was unknown to him.” I said.
“It must have been a terrible shock for him to discover he had a son and that his son was a traitor.” Morrish said.
I drew a deep breath. “You know, I don’t think he saw it that way.” I replied.
“Oh?” Ged asked.
“He was proud of Luke.” I said quietly.
“Really?” Morrish asked, “If that had been my boy I’d have skinned him alive.”
I smiled. “Well Lord Vader would never have admitted this but sometimes when he spoke about his son, which was rare, there was a sense of pride in his voice. I mean, the boy was raised on Tatooine as a moisture farmer and ended up being one of the rebellion’s biggest heroes, as a father how could he not be proud.” I said remembering some of the conversations we had had about Luke. “I think that he felt it was one of the only worthwhile things he had accomplished as Anakin Skywalker and it was a link to the woman he had loved and lost.”
Thrawn smiled at me and it warmed my heart. “One of the more unusual things about Miss Gabriel is her rather amazing ability to see the best in even the worst of people and situations.”
I shrugged, dropping my gaze to the table. “You kind of have to be like that growing up on Tatooine.” I said with a shrug.
“I heard that this Skywalker was a bit of a trouble maker.” Morrish said after a moment, “Someone commented that he apparently whines a lot. That doesn’t sound like you at all, my dear.”
I laughed looking at Thrawn who could not prevent the smile that lit up his face, “I assure you captain I can do my fair share of whining when I have to. It’s a pity Lord Vader is no longer around he would have given you a long list of my whines and rants.”
Thrawn chuckled and Ged glanced sharply at the two of us. We had just shared a private joke and he hadn’t liked it much. I sighed inwardly at the fragility of the male ego. Ged caught my eyes and held my gaze. “You must find working under the Grand Admiral here to be a refreshing change then.”
“How so, Admiral?” I asked blushing without wanting to. If the other two men at the table caught his insinuation they made no sign of it. Thrawn’s eyebrow twitched just a notch.
Ged smiled and with a nod to Thrawn said, “Well if Vader was passionate, unpredictable and cruel, Grand Admiral Thrawn must be the exact opposite if all I have been led to believe by Palpatine about his favoured tactician is true, which means working for him must be quite… uneventful.”
There was a barb hidden deep within the truth of Ged’s words. I glanced at Thrawn whose features gave nothing away. He simply sat, his expression neutral, his manner attentive and like everyone else waited for me to answer.
“Well, I would not say that working for the Grand Admiral is uneventful, after all he is the leader of the Empire at the moment.” I said sweetly, sending a little barb right back, “And to be honest, everyone I work for and with offers me new and interesting challenges, Admiral. Each have their own peculiarities and their own positive points. Working under the Grand Admiral is very different from my time spent working with Lord Vader. The two working relationships are nothing alike and comparing them would be like comparing living on Tatooine with living on Naboo. I would also not say that the Grand Admiral lacks passion or emotion, he simply has a much better control than Lord Vader ever did, you just need to know what topics to bring up to engage his …enthusiasm. Working with and for these two men brings me experiences that are entirely different, one is neither better nor worse than the other, just different and each brings its own unique lessons to bear. However, I can tell you that working with the Grand Admiral is far less stressful than under Lord Vader’s somewhat volatile command.”
Captain Pellaeon smiled. “Bravo, Miss Gabriel, that was a very good answer.”
I beamed at him, absolutely liking this man who seemed to have taken a liking to me.
“Well, it seems you have a fan Grand Admiral.” Ged said lightly but his words were heavy, weighted.
Thrawn arched and eyebrow and smiled enigmatically, his face and expression remaining unreadable. “Indeed, Miss Gabriel is not shy about stating where her loyalties lie. Her openness is a trait I have very much come to appreciate.” He said and I inwardly sighed. Whatever undercurrents Ged and I had brought to the table with us had not gone unnoticed by Thrawn.
“I have noticed that she is not shy about a great many things.” Ged remarked. “She is a remarkable force of nature.”
I glared at both men and said. “I am sitting right here. Stop talking about me as if I were not in the room.”
“My apologies, my dear.” Thrawn said. “Although Admiral Larsen is correct in his observation, you are indeed a force of nature.”
I shook my head and let out a noisy sigh but before I could further the conversation in its very odd direction Ged raised his glass. “To interesting work environments, then.” He said and everyone sipped politely to the toast, hoping the moment and all its underlying awkwardness would pass quickly.
“So am I to gather that you actually liked working for Lord Vader then?” Morrish asked, coming back to a topic he assumed was safe.
I nodded. “Very much so. I mourned his passing greatly, I still do.” I said honestly. “But I cannot go back and change what has happened so now we all need to look forward and I cannot think of a better man to lead the Empire into a new age than the Grand Admiral here.”
For a moment there was stillness as everyone turned to Thrawn, leaving me grateful to be out of the spotlight for the time being.
“How fortunate you are Grand Admiral to have such a loyal member of the Empire working for you.” Ged added. “If only we were all so lucky to have such unadulterated admiration from such a beautiful woman.”
Captain Pellaeon chuckled, “It would appear that you have an admirer my dear.”
“It’s a burden I think I can live with.” I said with a grin.
Ged smiled, “I find that as a naval officer I must steal little pleasure where I can. Being in the company of beautiful woman is one such pleasure, would you gentlemen not agree?”
There was a consensus of nodding and I blushed again, unused to being the center of such scrutiny. Thrawn glanced at me and the second our eyes met, desire mingled with guilt shot through me. I had to fight the urge to look away in haste for fear he would see something was wrong, or see what had happened between Ged and I earlier written all over my face.
“You will have to forgive Miss Gabriel she is rather enthusiastic in her praise and very passionate in her ideals, both traits of the young and somewhat naive.” Thrawn said with a smile, his eyes never leaving mine. I bit back any retort I might have had about him calling me young and naïve, we’d been down this road many times before. He waited a second then continued. “But the sentiment is not unappreciated.” He held my gaze a second more then looked at each of the others seated at the table in turn. “I do not joke when I say that winning back the ground we have lost will be no easy feat. The New Republic has gained much respect since they took Coruscant from the Empire and while they are still experiencing teething problems, many worlds now choose to align with them rather than stay loyal to an Empire they see and feel is past its prime and filled with nothing more than power hungry petty crooks. Isard did not do us any favours with her decision to poison Coruscant with the virus that slaughtered millions. We will have to work hard to regain our standings but I believe it can be done.”
Everyone nodded to this but Thrawn wasn’t finished.
“I understand that we both have untried crews and that with the destruction of the Executor at Endor we lost far too many mid level experienced naval officers and crew but as Miss Gabriel said, the past is the past and we must look forward. In doing so we must be patient but firm in our resolve and training of these green recruits. But this is not enough, we lack the numbers needed which is why I am hopeful that with Merlyn’s help I will be able to local a cloning facility and boost our numbers quickly enough that the New Republic will not know what hit it.”
There was a sudden, tense silence at the table as Thrawn’s words sunk in. It was Ged who broke it.
“Clones?” He said carefully. “Do you really feel that is necessary?”
“I do.” Thrawn replied cooly. “Do the math, we have neither this ships nor the manpower to retake the territories lost and while I think it is possible with stealth and guile to do a great deal of damage to the New Republic without the numbers to hold it, this will not be enough. Aside from press-ganging able body beings into naval service I know of no other suitable way to boost numbers without affecting moral severely. It has been my experience that forced conscription does not make a better military might, it simply boosts numbers and adds to problems.”
“And do you have a source for these clones?”
Thrawn’s mouth twitched in a slight smile at Ged’s question. “Not yet Admiral, but I am hopeful.”
“And in the meantime I suppose that means I will get little to no sleep due to all these crazy drills you keep running.” I muttered. My comment had the desired effect breaking the heavy tension that had built up between Ged and Thrawn, making everyone smile.
“Grand Admiral if I may, as we are speaking of passions, I have heard that you have a great interest in art.” Captain Morrish asked, while the desert plates were removed, a bowl of fresh fruit was laid down and a very good stim’caf was served.
“That’s an understatement.” I blurted with a smile. “The Grand Admiral is probably one of the most knowledgeable art historians I have ever met.”
“Really?” Ged asked looking at Thrawn with interest. “I would not have thought art to be something that would interest such a brilliant strategist as yourself.”
“I study art as a means to an end, Admiral.” Thrawn said giving me a smile. “I find that by learning about a race’s art and culture one can learn a great deal about how they think and, by inference, how they will act.”
“So you use art as a form of tactical espionage?” Ged asked. “As opposed to just enjoying it as the rest of us do?”
Thrawn shrugged ever so slightly, “That is one way to put it, I suppose, though I would not have described it so crassly.” He said, his tone now cool and distanced. “Loving art is nothing to be ashamed of but when one understands the nuances that go into creating the art, the architecture and so on of a particular culture then one has a far greater insight into that culture. I do not mean that by looking at a work of art from a particular peoples I can discern all there is to know but the insights I gain help me to form a larger picture of who and what I am up against and every bit of information goes in to helping with a strategic solution to a problem presented.”
“The late emperor was also an art connoisseur.” I said. “He had vast stores of priceless works tucked away where only he could enjoy them but I think he just liked having them.”
“Palpatine was not terribly fond of sharing.” Thrawn said evenly.
“That sounds as though you and our Emperor did not get along.” Ged said carefully.
“Palpatine and I often did not see eye to eye, Admiral, but that made our working relationship extremely interesting. He found me to be infuriating because I was one of the very few people who would tell him exactly what I thought of his plans when he asked for my opinion. When I felt he was wrong or making a mistake I did not try to pander to his ego I told him what I thought. It was, I believe, a sort of game for him but there were days when I sensed he did not enjoy it much. He did not like being told he was wrong and he disliked being shown he was wrong even more.”
“So do you think he was a bad leader?” Morrish asked quietly.
“Not at all Captain, on the contrary. One only has to see the state of disrepair the Empire fell into after his unfortunate and untimely demise to see just how well he ruled. He was a brilliant statesman and a consummate politician who not only had the love of the people on his side when he first took on the role as Emperor but also had an incredible power, one which I have no personal understanding of, but that helped him rule absolutely.”
“You are not force sensitive then, sir?” Morrish asked.
“No.” Thrawn said.
“What about the rest of your people?” Ged asked, genuinely curious.
Thrawn shrugged slightly. “To the best of my knowledge no Chiss has ever been a force user but that is not to say there has never been one who could use or sense it. Such powers would have been seen as weakness among my people and would have bred imbalance in our delicate ruling system. Therefore anyone possessing such powers would more likely have kept quiet about it.”
“Weakness? How so?” Ged stared at Thrawn as if to challenge him. I wasn’t sure if Ged knew that Thrawn was aware of Ged’s own force sensitivity.
“The Chiss rely on their power to think logically and clearly. Our strengths come from this, not from some strange power that seems to be about as predictable as a Tatooine sandstorm.” He said with an arrogant wave of his hand, “While I understand it can give the user a great strength, as well as some other unusual talents, I do not see it as a tactical advantage necessarily. I think it could easily be something that detracts from a person’s ability to think on their feet or with a clear mind, especially if a person who held this power was untrained and used it wildly and without thought. It seems to me that when you rely on any one tool for long enough you become so dependant on that tool. You lose the ability to function without it. Palpatine had exactly that problem, he was so reliant on the force that he utterly failed to see how the simple power of love could over throw him.”
“So you are saying that love is stronger than the force?” Ged pressed.
I glanced at Thrawn, catching his eye, wondering how he would answer this. He held my gaze a fraction of a second too long and smiled slightly. “Yes.” He replied quite simply. “Love over came everything else when Vader killed the Emperor rather than watch his son die at his master’s hands.”
“I had no idea you were such a romantic.” Ged said in a bemused manner, “I can only suspect that Miss Gabriel here is in part responsible.”
All eyes turned to me and I tried to keep my expression as neutral as possible, unsure of who knew what and how much about my relationship with Thrawn but I could not prevent the soft blush that coloured my cheeks, all I could do was ignore it and hope that everyone else would as well.
Thrawn arched an eyebrow. “I would not call it romantic to have the ability to see how a very human emotion influences and, more often than not, wins out over everything else time and time again.” He countered, then glancing at me he said, “I also do not underestimate the power of love to corrupt and destroy either. I have seen first hand what love turned into something else can do to people and the results are often devastating.” He added casually. “Would you have me believe that you have never come under the influence of love and have been positively or even negatively swayed by it?” He asked neatly sidestepping Ged’s underlying implication.
“I have had my share of that particular folly, Grand Admiral.” Ged smiled, looking at me as if to say something more. “However some women are worth the effort, don’t you think?” I looked away from Ged’s gaze feeling a renewed flush of heat and guilt mingled into one. I bit my lip and that small tell tale sign did more damage than anything else. I felt the weight of Thrawn’s curiosity rest on me, the unasked questions which no one else would notice flickered briefly through his eyes.
“I think,” I said carefully, “That the biggest love of any Naval officer’s life is his ship.” I glanced at the two captains seated at the table and smiled when they nodded in agreement. “I think that any woman who falls for an Imperial Navy lifer is more of a mistress than a wife in any true sense of the words because space and duty will always come first, as it should.” I allowed myself a smile, “It’s a rare relationship that can survive the long separations, the constant fear of death and the never ending presence of that other, more demanding, space worthy, woman. I do not think it is an easy life but I do believe it is a rewarding one.”
“You have a remarkable insight into the mind of military men.” Pellaeon said with a smile. “We do indeed love our ships and both duty and space are often referred to as our mistresses by lonely wives and girlfriends.”
“My father was a spacer, Captain. He flew transports and then when he settled down he owned a docking bay on Tatooine. I grew up with ships and pilots, I knew how to fix an engine before I was legally allowed to fly and I could fly before I was legally allowed to do so.” I grinned, “I learned at an early age that a man with stars in his blood was about as tameable as the desert winds.”
“That sounds like a rather lovely way to grow up” Pellaeon said with a smile.
I laughed. “You’re one of the very few who have ever said that and yes I suppose it was though at the time I did not realise what I had.” I paused for a second and then dared to ask a personal question of the man seated next to me. “Are you married captain?” I asked.
“Only to my ship but I certainly do enjoy the occasional foray into the world of female company often enough to be well aware that women are far more dangerous than any enemy I have ever faced and twice as devious to boot, yet we men do love you, we can’t help ourselves, you are a delicious distraction and the lie we tell ourselves about how we don’t actually need you is a delicate one to be sure.” He said with a laugh that somehow managed to clear the tension which had slowly been gathering in the room.
After this the conversation turned to other, lighter subjects and once again I became an observer rather than a participant and was more than grateful to be out of the spotlight. When all the desert dishes had been cleared and no one wanted anything else to eat or drink from the servers, they were dismissed. I politely excused myself before the usual brandy and cigar moment came not wishing to be an intruder in what was traditionally a man’s moment to talk shop without the flirty distractions of female company. Unlike some women I had known in my life I did not feel the need to be a part of every single thing in this Imperial world. Men needed their secrets just as women needed to have their mysteries. Thrawn, before anyone else could, got and politely pulled my chair for me, offering me his hand as he did so.
“I wish you a pleasant evening, my dear.” He said and the others murmured the same sentiments. He escorted me to the door and very quietly whispered in my ear in Cheunh before I left the room, “I think you and I need to have a little chat before I head back to the Chimaera.” He wasn’t angry, not yet but there was a tension in his words that let me know he wasn’t overly impressed by this evening performance either and that he had questions. All I could do was nod and smile, wish everyone a good evening and then leave.
I was tired, tense and more than happy to escape the testosterone filled room. The conversational fencing and Ged’s earlier sudden declaration of open hunting season on my affections had left me restless as well as on edge. Despite what Ged might think, Thrawn’s instincts were well honed when it came to me and my moods and the strange tension which had manifested several times through out the dinner had alerted him to something going on, the fact he felt we needed to talk only jammed this home further. He would eventually come and look for me to explain and that was a moment in time I hoped to avoid for as long as I could so I decided to try and relax with a nice hot bath, a glass of brandy from the bottle I kept with me. The hot water and the fine brandy helped to ease some of the tension that had settled in my shoulders. By the time I was done soaking I reckoned that the dinner must also be over and sooner rather than later Thrawn would show up.