The Virulent’s docking bay was cold and I didn’t want to linger making sorrowful farewells. It was hard enough to go without the pain of saying farewell to one of the few friends I had left in the galaxy.
“You don’t have to leave for good, Merly.”
I gave him a look. “It won’t be for good. I might have cleared out my quarters on board this ship but I still have a life of some sorts on Nirauan. You make it sound as though I’m dead too.” I instantly regretted the words as soon as they were out of my mouth but he just shook his head.
“That’s because I’m concerned for you.” He said. “I don’t like you going off all alone to do this thing. You shouldn’t be alone.”
“It’s what he requested and I’m sure he had his reasons.” I gestured vaguely towards the cargo hold of my ship and we both knew what was stored there. “I’ll be fine. I’m not as fragile as you like to think I am.” There was strange anger in my words and I didn’t understand where it was coming from.
“That doesn’t stop me from worrying.” He took a step closer and brushed away a lock of stray hair which had fallen into my face. His gentle gesture undid the angry knot in my gut and tears welled up in my eyes. I nodded, feeling that awful sensation of loss rush through me like a freshly open wound, raw and full of pain.
I didn’t like saying goodbye so instead I said. “Thank you. You’re an extraordinary man and I am grateful to have you in my life.” We stared at each other for a second too long then I looked away and the moment between us wavered and vanished.
“Once you do this thing, once you’ve completed this task then what?” Ged asked after taking a deep breath.
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “I really have no idea. First I just have to get through this. I can’t think beyond that.” I looked at him, “I’d like to say maybe I could go home but honestly I don’t know what or where that is any longer.” For such a long time now my home been with Thrawn and now that he was gone I wasn’t sure where I belonged anymore.
Ged moved suddenly, cupping my face in his hands, “There will always be a place for you with me wherever I am no matter what, no matter where, no questions asked. Always. So when you have completed this task, delivered his body and passed on his secrets and have done whatever it is that you need to do then come back. Come back.”
I didn’t know how to answer that so I flung my arms around him and held onto him as tightly as I could hoping he would understand all the words I couldn’t say to him. I didn’t care what anyone looking at us might think. He kissed the top of my head making me all the more terrified of what was to come. I didn’t know how I was going to do this task Thrawn had set out for me, I had no idea how I was going to face it on my own and just for a moment I seriously considered taking Ged up on his offer but that moment also passed. I was tired, scared and beyond sad and Ged was a light in the dark. I didn’t want to let him go but in the end I did.
“Merly....” He started but I stopped him with a fingertip on his lips.
“Don’t...don’t say it. I know you want to wrap me up in a protective blanket but you can’t. It’s done. He’s dead.” I shook my head and blinked fresh tears from my eyes, “You have to let me go. I have to do this and you just have to let me.”
He took a really deep breath and nodded. “It’s against my better judgement.” He said unhappily. “I hate him for making you do this.”
“I know.” I nodded. I understood because I also felt the same way.
“I’m here for you, whatever you need you only have to ask.” He stroked my face gently.
“Thank you.” I said again blinking tears out of my eyes. “Just promise me one thing.”
“Please, please stay alive.”
He smiled ever so slightly, “That’s my plan.”
“It was Thrawn’s plan as well and look at how that turned out. Stay alive Ged Larsen I mean it.”
This time his smile was genuine. “I shall do the very best I can Merly I can’t promise more than that.”
He paused for a second, “I meant what I said, no matter what ship I am commanding you have a home on board it. You have pass codes from Vader use them and I will find you. No matter what, remember this!” Then suddenly there were no more words to say. We stared at each other just a little longer before I turned to go up the ramp into my ship without looking back. It was bad luck to look back and I had already had more than my fair share of it.
The trip to Csilla was long and lonely. Time stretched out the way uncharted space did and it never seemed to end. I spent much of the journey in the cockpit, staring out into the whirling void while paying attention to Thrawn’s last instructions which he had carefully laid out on the data-disk that had been in the packet for me. He explained in excruciating detail how I was to approach Chiss territory, what I should tell them and what I would most likely expect. I listened to his words over and over again with a dull sort of rage that ate its way through me. When he had told me again and again that he had taken care of things, that he had planned against the visions I had seen and had warned him about this was not what I had imagined and I was angry, so very, very angry. It was an unexpected emotion mixing into my grief making me almost ill.
When I wasn’t gazing mindlessly out of the cockpit window, or sleeping fitfully I spent time in the cargo bay sitting on the floor leaning against the cold-stasis box which held Thrawn’s corpse. I had triple checked that the seal had not been reopened since my visit to the morgue. There could be no mistakes. Alone and beyond caring I often found myself talking to the body in the box and, when I wasn’t holding angry, one sided conversations with the dead, I wept. The sense of loss was overwhelming and where I hadn’t been able to cry for the death of my child it seemed I could not stop when it came to the death of my mate.
I had plenty of time to think about all the people I had loved and lost but none of their deaths compared to this. There were so many things I had wanted to say and should have said to this man which would now never be voiced, never be heard. Never in my life had I known so many regrets or so much unfinished business. Why was it we did not say what we felt to one another when we had the chance? Why was it we did not take more time to be with the ones we loved? Duty, honour, war what were these things compared to love?
Our lives, from the moment we had met, had been wound together like threads on a Dantassi blanket until I could not fathom a life without his presence in it. From that very first meeting on the balcony of the Imperial palace we had connected in a way that had been magical and terrifying. I had known even then that he was dangerous to me, that he could and probably would break my heart I had just not ever imagined he would do it in this way. I could not come to terms that he was dead even though I stared at his body for hours on end and I didn’t know what to do with the knowledge that he really was gone. With no idea how to think or feel all I could do was cry. This was a sorrow that knew no end and by the time I finally came into Chiss space I was nothing more than a shell of a human being.
Csilla was well guarded and not at all easy to reach. Thrawn had left specific instructions on how to enter Chiss space, what to broadcast and where to send the proper signals when I came into contact with his people. I followed his instructions to the letter. I was met by Chiss Defence Forces and my ship was escorted to a landing pad in the capital city of Csaplar. That I had spoken to them in their native language had confused them, the news I brought with me had only seemed to make this worse. In the end I didn’t really care. I wanted to carry out Thrawn’s last wishes and then somehow try to salvage what was left of my life.
I did as I was instructed by the small defence task force that had been sent to escort me and marvelled at the sheer beauty of a world totally hidden by ice and snow. The Csilla sun gave off a cold light with little warmth and in turn bathed the planet with a pale bluish tint. Three moons, Arista, Cserce, and Scerac, orbited Csilla, each with their own legend. Thrawn had told their stories to me once in the quiet of the bedroom we had shared on Coruscant, weaving their tales for me as he caressed the pale of my naked skin with his gentle fingertips. I could still hear his voice, warm and husky, in the aftermath of our love making. The memory was as painful as it was sweet.
I knew a great deal more about Thrawn’s home world than most people. He had made certain of that through his stories and gifts of books containing legends and histories but none of these things had prepared me for actually being on the planet. The Chiss were a stoic race, bound up in formalities and traditions. Their strict non aggression policies were something Thrawn had disagreed with and it had gotten him exiled in the end, although he had hinted that this had been an outcome he had desired. Being exiled allowed him to work for Palpatine with no political repercussions from his own home world and I sometimes wondered if there were not people on his planet who also welcomed this.
The Chiss were governed by an oligarchy of extended Ruling Families. The actual seat of power was a building known as the House Palace, located in the city of Csaplar, and headed by leaders known as Aristocra who wore particular colours to indicate their clan and family loyalties. The system of clan colours was complex and intricate and I had not managed to memorise them all.
Their system of rule was democratic; day to day decisions were made by a democratically elected parliamentary body from each of the twenty-eight colonies. When things became more complicated they were channelled up through the parliament to a cabinet of appointed governors, and then to the ruling families, where a decision made by the parliament and or the cabinet could be approved for action. It took a while for things to get done on Csilla with each decision being carefully considered. The Chiss did not like their politics messy nor did they like to make mistakes. They were an exacting and careful people.
Each of the extended ruling families were responsible for a set of government affairs to manage and the house that Thrawn had been adopted into, House Nuruodo, was responsible for military policy and foreign affairs and was considered to be the second highest in their ranking system. They had an amazing, well trained military and in spite of the non aggressions rules which governed them, the Chiss were a force to be reckoned with but as long as you left them alone they would not attack first. They were enigmatic and mysterious to the rest of the galaxy. No one even knew the Chiss origins although it was a popular belief that they had descended from a colony of humans lost thousands of years prior and Doctor Thracer had once told me there were enough genetic markers to indicate this might well have been the case. The planet had once been lush and warm although just like the stories that Tatooine had once held oceans I kind of found it hard to imagine.
Careful not to deviate from the instructions I was being given by the escort ships who had accompanied me as I set my ship down. The landing pad was on the surface of the planet but it didn’t stay there. I watched with some fascination as the whole landing deck sank under the ground, into an enormous cavern like structure. I followed the instructions given to me and when I had shut down the engines and opened up the ship I was given leave to disembark.
I walked down the ship’s gangway and was met by black uniformed, well armed military guards who did not say a word. From behind the armed guards came a tall elegantly dressed man, a little older than Thrawn and from his clothes I guessed he was a member of the eighth ruling family. I executed a bow and remained silent. Thrawn’s lessons and discussions about his people and their formalities had not gone amiss.
The man did not smile but I sensed a small amount of surprise in him. Tired, gaunt and drawn looking, I was not what he had been expecting. He studied me for a few moments and then in a rich voice he spoke to me in Cheunh. “I am told you speak our language.”
“I endeavour to do so but I hope you will forgive my errors.” I replied. His accent was far stronger than Thrawn’s and I suddenly became self conscious of my own.
He nodded but made no further comment on my language skills. “I am Aristocra Chaf’orm’bintrano. You will follow me now.” he said.
I hesitated for just a second, looking back over my shoulder at my ship’s entrance ramp which was wide open. He followed my gaze and answered my unasked question.
“I assure you no one will enter without your permission but leaving the entrance hatch open will signify you have nothing to hide.” Aristocra Chaf’orm’bintrano said. “Please, if you will come.”
I let him know I understood with a nod of my head and did as he had requested. None of this felt real. I was led down through a series of wide, open and well lit tunnels to a small but comfortable room. Two guards stationed themselves outside the door way and two more entered with us and took a place to stand behind the Aristocra. While I may not have been treated as an enemy, I was also not a friend.
He was graceful in his hand gesture as he motioned to one of the two comfortable chairs by a low ornate table. “Please sit. I understand that your journey here has been long and arduous, that you come under the most grievous of circumstances. I know that you must need to rest and refresh but we must first talk. May I offer you something to drink, tea perhaps?”
I sat as ladylike as I could and perched on the edge of the chair. “That would be very kind.” I replied.
He took note of how tense I was but said nothing. I watched as he keyed a small comm device to make the request. We waited in a neutral silence until tea had been brought, served and I had taken a drink. It was sweet and soothing. I cradled the delicate cup in my cold hands grateful for its warmth.
The Aristocra nodded and spoke. “Shall we get down to business?”
I nodded and without further ado or fuss I told him everything that Thrawn’s data disk had instructed me to tell him.
The Aristocra listened without interruption and when I was done he merely nodded and then said. “Do I have permission for my people to retrieve the cold stasis casket from your hold?”
“Yes.” I said swallowing my sadness down hard, “Of course.”
He nodded again and with a slight hand motion signified to the two guards behind me that they could go. His instructions to them were clear. Go in, remove Thrawn’s body and leave the rest of the ship untouched. They would obey him without hesitation and only once they were gone did I feel a slight lift of the tension in the room. The guards were uncomfortable with my alien presence but the Aristocra, surprisingly, was not.
“Please, be at ease. No harm will come to you here.” He said gently once more gesturing to the chair I very nearly wasn’t sitting in. He waited patiently until I visibly relaxed and sat back into the comfort of the chair.
“More tea?” He asked, breaking the silence. I nodded and let him refill my cup. Once that was done he looked at me carefully as though I were a book or a work of art to be studied. I had seen Thrawn regard me in much the same way sometimes and my heart ached sharply. I held his gaze for a moment then with a deep, deep sigh I looked away and still the Aristocra studied me.
“Do you fear me?” The Aristocra asked after an eternity.
It was not a question I had expected. I glanced up at him. “No, do I have cause to?”
“I have already assured you of your well being.” He replied. “If you are unafraid of me then I can expect the truth when I ask you a question?”
I frowned a little. “The truth?”
“It would be appreciated.” The Aristocra nodded.
“Do you expect me to lie to you?” I asked more than a little surprised.
“My experience with humans has been interesting with regards to their abilities to bend the truth to their advantage.”
“Ah,” I said quietly. “Then I shall endeavour to be honest.”
“Did you know Mitth’raw’nuruodo well?”
I drew a deep breath. “Yes, probably better than most people,” I replied carefully, “Although, he was not one to share himself easily.”
For a moment the Aristocra regarded me. “You must have been close for him to teach you our language and customs.”
He was digging for something specific but I wasn’t sure what. “I had an aptitude for it and he felt it was a talent worth exploring.” I said. “I think that he was ... happy to have someone to share a little of his private life with.”
He nodded, “And what of your relationship?” He asked, again dancing around what he really wanted to ask me.
I sighed and swept imaginary lint from my dress. “Our relationship was...complicated.” Now who was dancing around the topic I wondered.
He nodded slowly and studied me some more, trying to read underneath my words and when that didn't work he decided it was time to be more direct. “It is perhaps impolite of me to ask this but duty dictates I must, were you mate-bound to him?”
I wondered where this was going so I gave the standard line that Thrawn had used so often on me, “Not in any official capacity.” It was the truth. Thrawn may have bound himself to me under Dantassi law but he had left me free to do whatever I wanted and he had made certain to tell me this many, many times.
“I see.” He replied with a satisfied nod. “Then you are not his wife in legal terms?”
“No, Aristocra, I am not.” I said frankly. “I am not his bound mate or wife by Chiss laws or my own. Thrawn was quite insistent on that.” I decided to leave any reference to the Dantassi out of it. “May I ask why this is relevant?”
“Especially as a non Chiss, had you been his legal wife, there would have been some difficult complications that I do not think you would have liked or have been prepared for.” He did not elaborate and I didn’t ask. “I am grateful it is an avenue we will not have to contend with and perhaps with this we shall let this particular matter lie.” He added.
Once again I was left in awe at Thrawn’s ability to plan many steps ahead. He had never made me his wife and although I had never asked or expected it, I had sometimes wondered why. All this time, he had known, had foreseen this as a possible path and he had prepared for it. A tiny part of me hated him for it.
“Does he not have any family here?” I asked wondering if I would get to meet anyone related to him.
Aristocra Chaf’orm’bintrano watched me steadily. “He had a brother who went missing in action many years ago and is presumed dead. His birth parents are also long dead and his sister passed away from a sudden illness last year. His ties as trial-born to the House Nuruodo were severed when he was exiled. He has no other family that I have been made aware of.” He paused for a moment then went on, “Under normal circumstances it is usually a member of the family by blood or by marriage who accompanies the body of a fallen one to the hall of remembrance and speaks on their behalf. You are neither so this rule does not apply. I hope you will understand.”
I felt a pang of sorrow on hearing about the death of Thrawn’s sister and wondered if he had known about it. He had said nothing to me if he did. “I see, yes, thank you.” And once again the room was silent as we sipped our tea politely until the comm. on his desk peeped softly and a voice let him know that Thrawn’s body had been transported off my ship.
He looked at me and said, “Once the body is certified to be that of Mitth’raw’nuruodo through simple DNA testing we can proceed with the formalities that will end with the remembrance ritual. It will be a small affair, with far less ceremony because he was exiled, but he is still of the Chiss, his life will be honoured as is our way. You returned his body to us so you will be granted leave to attend but you will not to speak on his behalf. You are not Chiss and you have no marital claim to him so it is not permitted.”
“Of course.” I replied deeply grateful not to have to get up in front of Thrawn’s peers and talk about him. There was a moment’s hesitation then I took the package I had carried with me in my small satchel out. “I apologise, I do not know the correct formality here but Mitth’raw’nuruodo left instructions for me to give this to you.”
I handed him the sealed packet which he from my hand and studied for a moment before opening the packet and to pull out several data discs.
“Are you aware of what information these hold?” he asked as he studied each disk with great care then slipped them back into the little hard-shell packet.
I shook my head. “No, my task was to deliver that packet to your hands not to open it.”
He regarded me for a moment then sat back, relaxing slightly. “While you are not the first outsider I have ever heard to speak our tongue, you are the first to speak it almost flawlessly and your accent is not at all what I would have expected.” He said. “It is quite remarkable.”
“Thank you, that is gracious of you to say. I had a very good teacher.” I said suddenly having to control the unexpected surge of sorrow that welled up in me like a tidal bore. I set the tea cup I had been clinging to down on the table and rested my hands in my lap so he would not see how much they had started to tremble.
Another long silence settled over us again and then the Aristocra rose from his seat. “I apologise for the awkwardness of the questions I had to ask.”
I Looked up at him and nodded. “I understand, I was briefed on how matters would be handled here.” I replied also getting to my feet.
A slight smile touched the Aristocra’s lips as if I had confirmed something he had suspected but not asked about. “Of course.” He said, “I’m afraid I have work I must attend to. Preparations for the remembrance service will take some time. If you do not mind me saying so, you look a little fatigued.”
I sighed and nodded. “That is very polite of you to say, I’m quite sure I look like death warmed over, Aristocra. It has been a difficult....” I stopped for a moment to quell the sudden wave of aching sadness that rushed through me. “...a difficult time.” Gritting my teeth I fought my emotions back and then realised that it had been almost three weeks since I had been given the news that Thrawn was dead. The journey from Bastian to Csilla had taken that long but I had no idea where the time had gone.
“I understand. Please allow us the honour of providing you with some comfort. We have prepared guest quarters for you in one of our finest suites.”
“That is very gracious, thank you.” I said, looking forward to sleeping on clean sheets and having a really hot shower.
“I am afraid I must ask you to remain in the guest quarters and not wander around this facility. If you require anything there will be someone ready to aid you. If you require anything from your ship then I suggest you retrieve it now and after, if you still need anything, one of the guards will be happy to accompany you, I am sure you understand our need for security.”
“Of course.” I had expected this as well and, oddly enough, welcomed the chance to do nothing, to be free from any responsibility. “I am most grateful for your kindness and hospitality.” I replied relieved that I no longer had to deal with any of this and that it was now out of my hands.
The Aristocra raised an eyebrow and gave me a slight smile “He did indeed teach you well.” He said softly not bothering to hide his surprise.
I acknowledged the compliment with a slight nod but it made me sad. With the interview at an end, the Aristocra summoned one of the guards who stood outside. I was escorted by to my ship and allowed to fetch my travel pack which held some clean clothes and toiletries among other things, after that I was taken to a different part of the vast complex and shown to one of the most elegant suite of rooms I had ever seen and then I was left alone. The Aristocra had been right, I was exhausted. I unpacked a few items of clothing and then I found the ‘fresher and was grateful to see a deep bathtub. I ran the water and pulled out the half full bottle of brandy from my pack and found a glass. As I sank into the too hot water I felt a bizarre sense of déjà vu but I drowned it away with a large gulp of my drink. I laid my head back against the rim of the bathtub and closed my eyes just grateful to be somewhere where no one expected anything from me.
Waiting in an unfamiliar place was difficult at the best of times but now I also found myself in a strange netherworld between despair and depression. I was listless. I picked at the food that was brought me, causing concern amongst my hosts that it was not to my liking and I had no way to assure them this was not the case. I tried to eat but I simply had no appetite. If I had thought I had no more tears to shed I was wrong and when I wasn’t crying, I was sleeping fitfully, too weary and heartbroken to care about anything else at all. The time passed strangely.
The remembrance service was held the morning two days after my arrival on the planet. It was a small sombre affair with only a handful of people in attendance. I kept forgetting that here Thrawn was in disgrace. I wore one of the dresses that had once belonged to Navaari's daughter. It was a deep, dark blue colour and it had felt right. I had wrapped a similar coloured shawl about my shoulders because I was freezing cold. If my clothes were out of place I didn't care, no one had given me any indication of what was appropriate to wear. When I entered the hall I was silently escorted to a place up front. I ignored the stares and the whispers as I passed by people. Now I just wanted to get through this so I could leave.
They had moved Thrawn’s body from the stasis box I had transported him in to an elegant rounded coffin. It was opaque except for where his head and shoulders were so that everyone could see his face. They had dressed him in a black uniform and I guessed this was also tradition, a cloth of house colours had been draped over the rest of it, even though he had been exiled. I didn’t ask why but I was grateful, after all he had done it felt only right he should have some honour amongst those who stood on ceremony. The mood in the room was solemn. It was hard not to break down but I used every ounce of training I had ever been given and managed to keep a hold of my emotions. If anyone took insult at my tears well that was their problem not mine. It was unusual enough that I, a human, was allowed to be here and view this, tears were just part of the package but I wept as silently as I could.
The entire ceremony was formal and aloof. A spiritual guide spoke over the body and after that there was a listing of Thrawn’s accomplishments. They ended with his exile which made me even sadder because he had done so much more. I listened to what was being said but it was meaningless to me. An accumulation of words that had nothing to do with the man I had known and loved. When the death rites were done I was grateful it was over. We all stood to honour him as the Spiritual Guide walked with the repulsor lift that held Thrawn’s coffin to leave the hall. As it passed me I reached out to almost touch it and said goodbye for the last time to the man I had loved more than anyone else in the galaxy.