The way to the ship’s med-lab was too long and we travelled there in heavy silence. There were no words to be said and the grief was too great. The morgue was cold, colder than I had expected and I was wearing a light dress with no sleeves. I shivered as we entered the sterile looking room faltering amidst the scents of cleansers and disinfectant as well as the remnants of other chemicals I couldn’t identify that were strong enough to make the gorge rise in my throat.
Once Captain Pellaeon had made the request to view the body, the doctor, pale faced and tired looking, unlocked the doors and led us through to the small, secure cold room where Thrawn had been placed. I watched as he punched in the code for the magnetic seal and we walked in shivering as a blast of almost icy air caressed my skin. The doctor keyed in another security code and the lid to the cold-stasis body box opened. I swayed and Ged’s hands steadied me. I was surprised at how warm they were against the bare skin of my arms.
“You don’t have to do this.” He told me quietly but he was wrong, I did.
The doctor stepped back allowing me to approach the cold-stasis box alone. Completely naked, Thrawn lay as though asleep. His eyes were closed and his face had a slack expression that I had never seen before, as though someone had stolen all his personality away and left an empty shell behind. His hands had been folded over his abdomen below the fatal knife wound which seemed far too tiny to have caused his death.
Rukh had been a trained killer. He had known exactly where to strike, driving his long knife directly through Thrawn’s command chair right into his heart from behind, stabbing Thrawn in the back quite literally. There was no blood because everything had been cleaned and if it hadn’t been for the small wound on his chest where the knife tip had pierced through I wouldn’t have believed he was dead at all. I covered my mouth with both hands and forced my grief down. Then because I had to, I reached out to his body and ran my fingers through his beautiful blue black hair. It was still silky and soft.
“Merlyn…” someone spoke my name but I ignored them.
I stroked Thrawn’s face, following his jaw line with my finger tips. His skin, an even paler shade of blue than usual, was ice cold. A sob burned my throat but I did not make a sound as I cried. It was as though I were in a different world. When I blinked tears splashed onto his body, tiny sparkles of warm salty liquid on his cold blue skin. I picked up the hand nearest to me and traced the length of his fingers with my own.
His hands, which had once been so warm and gentle, which had known and caressed my whole body, bringing me to life in a way I could never have possibly imagined were cold and limp. I traced over the palm of his hand that I held and stroked up his arm stopping at the crease of his elbow. I laid the arm back down and caressed the length of the other one feeling the subtleties of his skin. Once upon a time these arms had held me tightly, comforted, and cradled me. Never again. I took up his hand again, as if to be certain of his death, and for a moment I stood holding it against my cheek, trying to warm it while my tears ran over his lifeless fingers. I shut my eyes tightly, squeezing out the overwhelming sense of loss that engulfed my soul. This wasn’t fair, it just wasn’t fair.
It was Ged who moved first, touching my shoulder but I shrugged him off. I got the message that it was time to let go. I set Thrawn’s hand back to its resting place and then with a deep breath I leaned over the edge of the cold-stasis coffin and I laid one last kiss on Thrawn’s icy lips, tasting the salt from my own tears.
“Ariathe’ka Ia.” I whispered in Cheunh.
It was the very first time, the only time, I had ever told him that I loved him and now it would also be the last. In all the years we had known each other, been with each other, laid with each other we had never once said these words out loud. I thought I had understood our reasons for this but now I wondered why.
“Merlyn, we need to go now.” Ged said softly in my ear, “The cold-stasis chamber must be re-sealed.” And before I could answer him he pulled me back letting the doctor move back into to reseal the chamber and lock the doors.
I stared at Thrawn’s body through the clear dura-glass until Ged put his hands about my shoulders and led me away.
“Wait.” I said as I pulled away from Ged’s grip. “Where are his things? His clothes?” I asked.
“Why?” Ged asked puzzled.
“Where are his things? What he was wearing?” I repeated. “Please?”
“Doctor Evram?” Ged asked knowing there would be no peace with me until I had an answer.
“As per the Grand Admiral’s last request they were destroyed.” The doctor replied.
“Destroyed? Why?” Surprised, I blurted my questions angrily.
“His instructions said it was in accordance with his people’s customs. All that he was wearing at the time of his death was to be incinerated, his body was to be cleansed and then sealed. The only exception to this was that if you requested to see his body you would be allowed to do so.” Captain Pellaeon said softly from behind me.
I shook my head in disbelief. “Everything he was wearing? Everything?” I asked not caring that it came out sounding more like an accusation.
The doctor didn’t like me very much and I wasn’t making it easy for him. “I assure you Miss that everything was done according to the Grand Admiral’s wishes. Everything he was wearing at the time of his death was removed from his corpse and destroyed. His body was examined to determine the cause of death, cleaned and laid to rest in the stasis chamber exactly as he requested be done in the event of his death. We run a tight ship and nothing was done without the Admiral’s request and Captain Pelleaon’s authorisation, now do you mind telling me who you are and what this is all about?”
I opened my mouth to speak, to say something indiscrete and stupid but Ged stepped in front of me and pulled rank. “That will be all Doctor. I am sure that everything was done according to regulation. Thank you.” He manoeuvred me towards the door, signalling Captain Pellaeon to come with us. “Captain I think Miss Gabriel could use some quiet, could you please take us to the Grand Admiral’s quarters?”
“His quarters Sir?”
Ged nodded, “If you would, Captain.” He said in such a way that Captain Pellaeon understood it was not a request but an order.
“Of course sir, it’s this way.” He nodded and began to walk in the direction of the turbo lifts. “When the Grand Admiral came on board he had the luxury entertainment suite converted for his personal use. It was his secondary command room. He meditated there and it was where he would display holos of art so that he could study it.”
“He did love art.” I said softly to no one in particular.
“He used to tell me that if you understood a species’ art you understood the species.” Captain Pellaeon replied to me.
“I know, he has...” I corrected myself, “... had an amazing art collection. It used to be in the flat on Coruscant but he moved it,” and my mind flashed back to the exquisite ma’arilite stone carving he used to have there. “Some pieces were on Nirauan and now I guess the rest ended up here.” I was babbling now but no one seemed to mind.
“Oh he only had one real piece that was not in hologram form. I wasn’t aware he had an entire collection.” The Captain replied. “Right now his command center is in command lock-down because of the nature of information stored in the data banks, I’m sorry Miss Gabriel but you cannot have access to that however right next to it is his personal living space.”
I nodded. “I understand.”
He didn’t say anything else as he unlocked the door to what had been Thrawn’s private sanctuary and let us in just as him comm peeped. “I’m afraid I am needed on the bridge, there is too much to do and we have had little time to deal with this crisis.” He said. “Admiral? I would be grateful for any assistance you might care to provide.”
Ged looked at me. “I need to attend to this, do you mind if I leave you here on your own?” He asked as he glanced around and set the courier’s pack that he still carried down on the nearest table.
“Go, I’m fine.” I said, repeating the earlier lie but the numbness that had spread through my body made it an easy lie to tell. “They destroyed his things.” I added to no one in particular.
“Why are you so upset about that?” Ged asked in a hushed voice.
I just shook my head. “It doesn’t matter. He’s gone, so now it doesn’t matter anymore.” I shook my head. Ged was puzzled but he didn’t press.
“I will have a crewman stationed outside if you need anything.” Captain Pellaeon said. “All you have to do is ask.”
“Thank you Captain, you’re very kind.”
He nodded and then he paused, weighing his next words with great care. “I don’t mean to be forward but you were in a serious relationship with the Grand Admiral weren’t you, I mean the two of you had something remarkable?”
I nodded, unable to speak.
The Captain watched my face for a moment and then he said, “The Grand Admiral was an incredibly private man but he had a holo-capture of you which he kept on his desk. It’s an exquisite image. He caught me staring at it one day, sometime after the dinner we all attended on board of the Virulent, and told me it had been taken at your first Grand Ball on Coruscant. I asked him if you and he were close, because I recalled how familiar, how at ease you both seemed to be with each other at that dinner but did not want to presume anything. I suspected there was much more to your relationship than met the eye but it isn’t my way to ask about his personal life. I wasn’t certain he would answer me but he did.” Pellaeon paused and the room become very still. Lost in memory he spoke softly. “Thrawn picked up the holo capture and looked at it then he said to me, ‘She is the most extraordinary creature in the entire galaxy and she graces me with her presence, reminding me that not everything is war or strategy and that sometimes even men, such as myself, may know what it means to be touched by such grace in spite of our faults.’”
I looked up at the Captain who had the beginnings of tears in his eyes and I had to look away for fear of losing the little amount of self control I had on my own emotions. My fingernails dug into my palms, the pain helped to steady me. He took a moment to collect himself and then continued.
“He was the most brilliant tactician and strategist I have ever had the fortune to know. I watched him forge such bonds with the men and woman under his command that not one of them would hesitate to give their lives for him but until that moment I never saw the man beneath the uniform or the rank. That moment was a gift, Miss Gabriel, and I have you to thank for it.” His voice wavered for a second and he breathed deeply to steady himself. “I don’t claim to understand the exact nature of the relationship between the two of you but I do know this, he cared deeply for you. I don’t have to be a genius to know that you felt the same for him. I am sorry, truly, truly sorry for your loss.”
All I could do was nod, covering my mouth with my hand because I didn’t want to fall apart, not here, not now. I just looked at Ged and hoped he understood.
“Captain, I think it’s time you showed me to the bridge.” He said.
“Of course Admiral.” Captain Pellaeon replied.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Ged told me.
I just nodded and without further conversation the two men left me alone so that they could attend to the business at hand. The silence left in their wake was heartbreaking.
Thrawn’s living quarters on board the Chimaera were surprisingly sparse. I walked about the small suite of rooms aimlessly, careful not to touch anything at first. The place was kept spartan and impossibly tidy, nothing was out of place. I stared at the rooms and took note of the lack of decoration, there might have been art here once but nothing was here now. He had worked here, and slept here but he had not lived here. Gingerly I opened some of the drawers in the bedroom but they were mostly empty aside from the basic items of clothing that were neatly folded. Nothing I touched spoke to me.
On the desk in the small ready room sat a holo-image in a plain frame. I guessed it was the one that the Captain had spoken about. I looked at it not knowing who that girl was anymore. She seemed impossibly young and far too happy to be me and slowly the shock which had stripped away my ability to feel receded leaving unbelievable grief in its wake.
I had known death my whole life. Each loss had brought with it a pain so great I had not believed I could ever find my way back from it and yet I had. I had nearly lost my sanity when I had miscarried my baby but even that nightmare had passed into a strange kind of strength I never knew existed. Each death had been a shock to my system yet I had somehow been able to work through the darkness but not this one, not this time.
This one I should have been prepared for and this made it all the more terrible. From the very first waking vision at the Nona Shyr gallery until this moment I had subconsciously known this day would come and yet I had not, and could not believe it would ever happen. I had been warned over and over and still I had dared to hope. Now I had to cope not only with the fact that Thrawn had been murdered by his trusted bodyguard but also the loss of all hope that he had somehow found a way to prevent it all from happening and I didn’t know how.
Alone and not knowing what else to do I made my way to the small couch and sat down, hugging my knees close to my chest. I tried to bring Thrawn’s face to mind but all I could picture was him lying in the cold stasis box. The ache in my gut grew so unbearable I thought it would choke me to death until finally I broke. Deep ugly sounds wrenched from my throat and I was powerless to stop it. I could not wrap my mind around a galaxy without him and it broke me completely.
I cried so hard it almost made me ill. I was grateful in this moment to be alone and when, eventually exhaustion took over from grief, I fell into a dreamless sleep until Ged woke me gently.
“I’m sorry, “I mumbled as I sat up slowly, “I must have dozed off. How long have you been gone?”
“About six maybe seven hours.” He said. He looked shattered.
I sat up feeling like something a bantha had dragged in. I was stiff and achy from sleeping in a strange position. My eyes were swollen, sticky and sore from crying, my throat was raw and I was quite sure something had died in my mouth. He had a cup of tea in his hand, when he offered it to me I took it and sipped the warm, sweet liquid gratefully.
“I’m sorry, things took a lot longer than I thought they would but you slept, that’s good.” He said. “I had them bring you something to eat as well.” He gestured to the tray on the table in front of me, beside it sat the unopened courier packet from Thrawn
“Thank you.” I nodded knowing I wouldn’t touch the food. I wasn’t hungry. “How are you holding up?” I asked as he sat down beside me.
He drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Honestly? I’m exhausted, angry and frustrated.” He replied after a moment. “We lost one of the greatest military leaders this galaxy has ever seen and we lost one of the single most important battles ever fought. Now we have to decide what to do about it. It won’t be easy.”
“Was he wrong to withdraw?” I asked. “The Captain, was he wrong?”
Ged shook his head slightly. “No. Under the circumstances he did the very best thing he could do and he saved a lot of lives as well as ships. Thrawn always knew when to withdraw and it seems he taught his protégé well.”
“What happens now?”
“Now you and I will have some food and drink some tea and then you will open that.” He indicated the pouch on the table. “I know you don’t want to but you have to. That’s why I felt it would be better for you to have some quiet space. No one will come in here.”
I stared at it for a long moment then put my cup down and picked the sealed pouch up. I braced myself for a barrage of memories but nothing happened. I put my thumb on the seal to open it and emptied the contents on the table, four small sealed packets and another envelope, this one smaller and made from fine paper tumbled out.
I picked up the envelope as it had my name on it also expecting to see the memories it contained but again nothing happened and then I understood that when he had put this package together Thrawn must have worn gloves. He had known what would happen to him and he had known about my gift so he had protected me as best he could. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I opened the letter and sat back to read it but there wasn’t that much to read. His last instructions were clear and concise. When I was done I handed it to Ged so that he could read it as well. Thrawn had written in basic.
I looked at the four slender packets, all secure-sealed, identified and encoded for the person they had been designated for. I picked up the one for Ged and handed it to him. One was for me, one for Navaari and the fourth one was to be delivered to a member of the Chiss Aristocra named Chaf'orm'bintrano with whom I was to meet with when I returned Thrawn’s body to his home world of Csilla.
“I can’t allow this.” Ged said as he set the letter and the data-disk case down on the table.
“You don’t get a choice in the matter.” I told him wearily.
“It’s dangerous and stupid to travel right now.” He replied angrily.
“Thrawn’s instructions are very clear. Timing is everything to the Chiss and I’m the person he has given this task to, no one else may interfere. Not even you.” I was amazed at how detached I sounded.
“I won’t let you.” He was fierce and I understood he was just being protective.
I looked up into his face. “You have to.” I said gently, “I need to honour his last request and you have work to do here. He’s given you the fleet, now you need to decide what to do with it.”
Ged sat back hard against the couch and ran his fingers through his hair. “Oh, I didn’t sign up for this.” He said with a short bark of a laugh. He reached out to pick up the packet marked for his eyes only, turning it over and over with his fingers. “All I ever wanted to be was a pilot.” It was a half truth but I let it slide.
“You mean you don’t want to be supreme warlord of the Empire?” I asked with a small, tight smile. It wasn’t a job I would ever have wanted and I understood Ged’s reticence to take on the mantle himself, though I thought he would probably be good at it. “You could always give the job to Captain Pellaeon and go back to being Ged the super spy in charge of the Imperial Order.”
He looked at me for a second and then he leaned over and kissed my cheek. “You know, you’re brilliant. Who better to lead the fleet right now than Gilad Pellaeon, Thrawn’s protégé? I can promote myself to Grand Admiral and then do the same for him. It’s not as if anyone is left to argue about this is it?”
I just shook my head and fought the immense lump of sadness that had suddenly welled up to the surface. “No, not anymore.” I said and finished drinking my tea. I set the cup down and looked around me, then picked up the pouch and stuffed the remaining packets in it along the Thrawn’s letter. Ged never took his eyes off me and I knew what he was thinking.
“Don’t say it.”
His jaw clenched. “You should return to the Virulent and rest, properly. Make the decisions on a clear head.”
“There is no decision to make; it’s already been made for me. Now I have to prepare for the journey to Csilla. I need the cold stasis chamber taken to my ship. Do you think you can arrange that? I’m not up to arguing with anyone or explaining the intricacies of Chiss mourning rituals and ceremonies plus you out-rank them all.”
“Right now?” He asked. “Merlyn it’s...”
I cut him off, “I have a deadline to meet. The Chiss have a strict burial code and if I am to comply with that I need to leave as soon as possible. Please don’t argue with me on this because you won’t win and I don’t want to have to fight with you.” I paused to get a grip on my grief. “Please Ged, just don’t...” My voice wavered and I had stop and take a deep breath to get myself back under some sort of control.
“I’m sorry, Merly, I’m sorry. Just tell me what you need, I’ll see to it. ”
I nodded, pinch-faced and utterly bewildered at how calmly I was able to make the requests. “Do you think you can get the Chimaera’s crew to fuel my ship and set me up with food and supplies as well?”
“I’ll arrange for everything including an escort.” He answered.
“No escort.” I told him firmly.
I shook my head. “No. Trust me, you need all the pilots you’ve got and I am far safer travelling in my own ship alone than with a formation of TIEs at my side. Such an escort might be seen as an act of aggression and believe me when I tell you do not want a war against Thrawn’s people. Please, you have to do this for me. You have to trust me and you have to let me go.”
“Let you go....” He murmured and then swallowed hard. “How can I do that knowing you might be killed?”
“I don’t know, you just do.” I said quietly.
He shook his head and sighed. “This is against my better judgement so you had better return in one piece. Don’t make me come after you just to tell you I told you so.”
My resolve gave out and I couldn’t answer him so I gave him a kiss on the cheek before laying my head on his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around me and when I broke down and cried he just held me more tightly without saying another word. We sat like that for a very long time.
Eventually I pulled away from him. “I had better get ready; I have a lot to prepare for and not much time.” I said wiping the last of my tears from my face. “Once Thraw...once his body is on board my ship I have to head over to the Virulent to pack my things. I’ll take you back over, if you like.”
“Let me know when you’re ready to go.” He said, “I will have to brief my people on what has happened and then need to start making some plans for the future.
And because there really wasn’t anything else to be said about it I nodded and with that we set into motion the last journey Thrawn would ever take; his journey home.