The room felt oppressive and too hot with my anger pushing at every which corner looking for an excuse to fly. I stared at him, waiting for an answer, waiting for words that would make sense out of a situation my brain wasn’t handling very well.
He drew a deep breath and began to explain patiently, “I wanted to see if selective memory and conscience transference would work. I wanted to see just how accurate I could make a clone and one of the things I didn’t want was anyone discovering the truth of what I was planning. What better way to do this than to involve you? No one knows me as well as you and if the clone could fool you then I knew he would fool the galaxy and if you figured it out then I would have to revamp the process. If he could pass the test and you accepted him as me then I knew this plan had great possibilities. If you discovered that he was an imposter, a clone well...” He gave a slight indifferent shrug. “Then I would have to rethink the process.”
“But I didn’t see the differences as anything wrong. I just got angry at you...him for being an ass.” I snapped remembering back to those strange days when he had seemed so distant, so alien to me. As though he had become a person I didn’t really know at all. I had put his strange behaviour down to the stresses of war and combat but now when I thought about it I should have seen it for what it really was.
“I know.” He nodded with a slight smile as though this had amused him highly, “The clone knew who you were, had back ground and was aware of the relationship between us, enough to play the part, but he did not have any emotional bond with you nor did he share all of my memories of everything we have been together so he wasn’t interested in you in that way.”
“In that way?” I just shook my head in bewilderment. “You couldn’t even share me with your clone, could you?” He stared at me and I glared right back at him not giving an inch. Eventually he backed off because he knew I was right. Then he made an elegant gesture with his hand as if to dismiss this thought and it reminded me so sharply of the Aristocra, blending the reality that was with this new one, that I felt sick.
He gave a small one shoulder shrug and continued, “I felt it was a risk I was unwilling to take. I would wager that you would have known for certain he was not me if he had taken you to his bed. Even a clone is not exactly the same in personality as the original, he would, I wager, have done things differently. I couldn’t risk that and no, to answer your question, I did not want to share you with him.” He paused for a moment, “And if you had slept with him I think now you would have been even angrier with me than you already are.”
I doubted that last statement very much because I wasn’t sure it was possible to be any angrier but didn’t say it out loud, “So what, now you’re telling me you were protecting me?”
“In more ways than you will probably ever know.” He replied cryptically.
I shot him a look. “You let your clone, with only a partial memory transfer run your flag ship during a crucial battle? I have a hard time believing this.”
He sighed and I could tell I was trying his patience but I didn’t much care. “The only parts of my personality the clone was not given was my relationship and emotional bond to you. He had all he needed to be every bit a leader as I am. What better way to test his abilities as a commander?”
“I’d say he failed the test.”
He arched an eyebrow at me.
“He died.” I said flatly.
Thrawn shrugged ever so slightly, “So he did but not due to an inability to command. His strategies were flawless, he did the same things I would have done and neither of us could have completely foreseen what happened with a hundred percent accuracy just,” he added carefully, “as I have never been fully able to plan for your erratic and unpredictable actions.”
He may have been right but it didn’t matter. “You must have been planning all of this for a very long time.” I said coldly, ignoring his dig at me.
“Yes, but only because you made it possible.” He said moving closer to comfort me.
I shrugged his hand off and curled up into myself as far away from him as I could be, making myself small and untouchable. Suddenly another terrible thought occurred to me.
“That’s why you stopped taking the evexelhan. It wasn’t you the drug was interfering with it was the cloning process wasn’t it?” I shook my head in complete disbelief and when he didn’t say anything I pushed. “Tell me the truth! I lost a baby because of that screw up so you damned well better explain this to me!”
The muscles on his jaw clenched. “Yes. Evexelhan had some negative side effects that showed up while trying to start the clone. It inhibited the clone cells’ growth.”
“Well of course it did,” I snarled, “It’s a form of birth control.” I just stared at him. I wasn’t sure I knew this man at all.
“I had no idea you would become pregnant.” He said with a touch of sadness in his voice.
I just stared at him as all the grief of that terrible nightmare rushed back to me. My hand went to my belly and tears welled up in my eyes.
He reached out for me, “Tekari...”
“Don’t you dare call me that!” I snapped slapping his hand away from me with a surprising savageness. “Right now you do not get to use pet names for me. What you did, what you planned, you left me out of it all and you have no idea of the hell I have been living in these past weeks so you do not get to call me that name. I am not your beloved one because no one treats someone they care about like this. No one!” I brushed the tears off my cheeks angrily.
“You’re wrong about that.” He replied quietly but I ignored his comment.
“When did you ...” I struggled for the right word, “...activate him?”
“Just after you miscarried.” His answer was flat and devoid of emotion. We could have been talking about a shopping list.
I blinked at him bringing to mind that awful time and then I recalled the snippet of conversation I had overheard between him and the doctor. “The Wayland project?” I whispered.
He nodded, “Yes.”
“Doctor Thracer knew? He knew what you were planning and he never said a word and he knew.”
“Yes but he was under orders and sworn to the utmost secrecy.”
I shut my eyes tightly and struggled to think in a straight line. “I remember he was so angry at you, I remember he was worried about me but I thought it had to do with the baby....” I could bring to mind the conversation I had overheard with such clarity it almost made me ill. I recited it back to him now flatly, angrily, “The Doctor said, ‘And Merlyn, is she part of that business? Have you told her what is going to happen? What you have planned? What about her future? She needs you now more than ever.’ and you replied with: ‘I am aware of her needs and her future is not your concern at this time, her health is. When the time is right she will be apprised of the situation.’” I paused, “Let me tell you this, your idea of the right timing really sucks.”
His jaw muscles clenched as he heard the words, “He was in charge of the medical aspects of the project. I could not have done all of this without his help.”
“Sarlacc’s teeth, I am so stupid! How the hell could I have been so stupid and so blind?” I spat, more hurt than I thought possible.
“No, you are not stu...” He began but I shook my head at him and something in my expression or my abrupt hand gesture shut him up.
“You lied to me! You lied to me all this time and I never even suspected, of course I’m stupid or blind or both! How could you do this to me? how could I not have seen any of this?” Words failed me.
He watched me for a second and then, ignoring my question, continued, “You made a lot of it possible as well, you know. Your visions of my future, the discovery on Myrkr and even your dreams about a reborn Emperor, they all went into helping me formulate this plan of action. I had hoped it would not be necessary to utilize a clone like this but several occurrences in the last few months made me realise that no matter what I did certain events had already been set in motion leading to only a few conclusions, many of which ended badly. There were a few which culminated in my death and the failure to achieve the goal of reuniting the Empire and these were the possible outcomes I planned against. ”
“So you know what happened at Bilbringi then?”
He nodded, “Yes, I have my sources and they’ve kept me well informed. I am well aware of what occurred on board the Chimaera and how it all played out.”
“I take it that means there are others who know you’re not really dead?”
He let his silence answer for me and I knew a sliver of hate for him in that second. “And you know who it was that murdered you... I mean murdered your clone.”
“I do know and although it was somewhat unexpected it was not a complete surprise.” He nodded. “Well, that is I suspected that there was discord within the clans of the Noghri, so I had a feeling about their loyalty, but nothing indicated that Rukh would actually assassinate the person he was honour bound to protect. The Noghri were allowed to roam with relative ease due to their status, so in the end it could have been any one of them.”
I opened my mouth then closed it again. “If I didn’t know any better I would say you have some latent force ability to see into the future.”
“Not at all, my dear, as I have said, it was you who told me everything I needed to know.” He replied and when I frowned he explained. “Your first vision of my death, the one you had at the art exhibition on Coruscant told me possibly who and probably where. You saw me sitting in a white uniform, which meant I would be a Grand Admiral, on a command seat in a star destroyer. You also told me there was blood running freely down my chest which meant some sort of bladed weapon would be used. Blasters and your lightsaber do not create wounds that bleed. The only beings I would allow on board of my ship who have bladed weapons would be the Noghri, so that is how I came to these conclusions.” He sipped some of his tea, “I had suspected that it would only be a matter of time before the Noghri saw through the deception of Vader and the Emperor that was keeping them bound in servitude and when that happened I would be the one chosen to pay the price for the destruction of their home-world as I was the figure of authority representing the Empire. It wasn’t difficult to put the clues together. The only real question was when everything would take place.”
I sat still, silently trying to process everything he was telling me, everything that had happened. It all seemed so inevitable when he put into words. “So now what happens? Is the Empire is really dead?”
He drew a deep breath and stared thoughtfully at my face for a moment before answering, “The Empire as we knew it, yes, I believe it is. The New Republic fought harder with less resources than even I gave them credit for and that Jedi master I was using was, well, let us just say it did nothing to renew my faith in that mystical force of yours. I had hoped he would be able to do what the Emperor had done and add a great cohesion to the fleets across light years but his madness was stronger than anything else and he eventually failed me in so many ways.”
He gave a small shrug. “When I returned to normal space from the Unknown Regions after the Emperor’s death it was to unite the people in this galaxy under one rule, one leader not because I wished to replace the Emperor but because everyone will need to work together if they are to face a worse enemy who, make no mistake, will come. When I realized that no matter what I did, no matter what course of action I took the Empire would not return to its former strength, that there would be resistance at every turn and that this campaign of mine might fail, I decided it was time to put one last plan into action. I drew up, along with my clone, the idea for placing Coruscant under siege so that the New Republic’ fleets would be divided and then the battle at Bilbringi for the ship yards should have been easy. I did not take into account that the smugglers and thieves of the galaxy could be united. I underestimated Talon Kaarde’s strange version of loyalty and your little friend, Mara Jade also made some rather surprising choices which helped to shape this outcome. This was, perhaps, my biggest mistake but I had already left the Chimaera and was no longer in direct contact with my clone so no matter what happened he was on his own. Even so, ultimately everything we were attempting to do ended with Rukh. My death, or rather to say, the Grand Admiral Thrawn’s death and the leadership vacuum his death left decided everything else. In the end it doesn’t really matter any longer. The Empire, as we know, it is truly gone and what will replace it, I fear, will be so mired down in politics and bickering that if and when an invasion eventually comes no one will be prepared.”
“Except for you.” I said snarkily.
“Perhaps, although it is difficult to prepare for something I know very little about.” He said carefully, ignoring my sarcasm “However, I swore an oath to protect my people and now I am free to do so in any manner I choose. The man the galaxy knew and feared as Grand Admiral Thrawn is dead which leaves me free to do what I can for those who are willing to listen.”
“Your people do not care about you. I was at your remembrance ceremony. You are a disgraced soldier to them and nothing more.” I spat.
“When I say my people, my dear, I am not only speaking about the Chiss.” He replied patiently. “And there are those among my kind who do not see me as an exile or feel I disgraced the name of our people.”
I sighed remembering my conversation with the Aristocra. “So Grand Admiral Thrawn is dead and now what, now you are Nikätza’arth’pavjäska?” I said.
“Yes. It will be easier to move about under the guise of Dantassi warrior.”
“Just like that you switch identities?”
“But they are just names; you’re still the same person.” I asked a little unsure.
“Yes.” He smiled just a little.
I got up, no longer able to sit still, and paced around the room. It was so much, too much to take in that I didn’t know what to do or say. He let me work through the information without saying another word all the while never taking his eyes off me. Finally, after a very lengthy silence, I stopped pacing to stand in front of the fire. It was warm and comforting but I noticed neither. Tears welled up in my eyes again and I let them fall. I was so tired of weeping for the death of the man I had loved with all my heart but now I didn’t know why I was crying, he was alive and well and I should have been relieved and happy instead I was angry, hurt and very confused. Eventually the silence became too much, he got up and came to me, turning me around gently raising my chin with the crook of his forefinger so that our eyes met but I wouldn’t hold his gaze.
“I am sorry. I did not think it would be so difficult for you to accept this.” He said and he meant it.
I just shook my head at him, speechless. Simple apologies were not going to cut it.
I still didn’t answer him because I didn’t know how to feel or what to say instead I pulled back from his touch and turned away.
“Look at me.” He commanded gently.
I shook my head, “No, this isn’t real, you can’t be real....” I told him while I tried to remember how to breathe. “You were murdered, I saw.. it felt.. no, just no....” words scrambled in my head and tumbled out of my mouth, jumbled and confused. I fought with the dizziness that threatened to engulf me as two vastly different realities crashed together in an ugly way.
He caught me as I swayed and held my shoulders with warm, strong hands. “Merlyn, look at me, Look. At. Me. I am here and I am alive and I promise you I am very, very real.”
I did as he requested. Tears ran down my cheeks. My heart beat painfully in my chest and there was a rawness deep in my body I couldn’t define, couldn’t explain. His voice was gentle as he repeated what he had already said so that maybe, just maybe his words would sink in, “I am so sorry you had to go through all of that but there was no other way.”
“No other way? There is always another way. You did not have to do this to me.” I lowered my gaze and stared at the ground shaking my head. News of his death had been a terrible shock, one that I had lived with for long enough now that it was deeply embedded in my body and mind but suddenly seeing that he wasn’t dead at all was beyond surreal. I wasn’t coping with it very well and this surprised him. Gentle fingers guided my head so that once again I looked into his unfathomable, unreadable eyes.
“Yes, yes I did. You, of all people, had to believe I was dead. You had to believe it absolutely and without question. There are some things that cannot be faked no matter how great of an actress one is and for all your amazing talents being a great actress isn’t one of them. You do not do a good job of hiding your emotions. Pellaeon had to see and completely believe in my death so he could retell the story, a credible eye witness to the entire galaxy and you had to believe because without your honest and real grief there was always the chance that someone might start to suspect something wasn’t quite right and begin investigating further. The risk was too great. Everyone needed to think, without question, that Thrawn was gone for good.” He sighed. “His, my time with the Empire is at an end and that is for the best for all concerned.”
“Why all the theatre, the whole song and dance about me bringing your body back to Csilla?” I asked unable to stop crying.
He cupped my face with both hands and wiped away my tears with his thumbs. “You speak my people’s language; you know Chiss customs and you are a neutral party. You also had your own ship so it made sense that I would choose you to do the honour of bringing the body of Mitth’raw’nuruodo home. No one would question your right to do this or that it should be done and no one else knows enough about Chiss death rites to even consider questioning this action. I needed the body brought back to my home world because on Csilla all they would do is a simple DNA scan to verify it was who you said it was and nothing more. I had been exiled and disgraced, there would be no further investigation into my death and the body would be cremated. I could not risk anyone discovering that this Thrawn was a clone, something that would not have been too difficult if anyone had cared to look deeply enough. I needed a way to get the clone’s body out of prying hands and eyes without raising suspicion. I knew that Captain Pellaeon would honour my wishes as I knew you would as well.”
I twisted away from his touch as my anger surfaced again. “There is so much more to that, you used me somehow to bridge a gap on Csilla, you used me for some political gain with the Aristocra. He called me bait. Is that what I was?”
His jaw tightened and I knew I had hit a mark. “I had hoped,” he said carefully, “that through you he would see there were advantages in becoming slightly more open to learning about other cultures. I know how good you are with bringing people together, your openness and honesty disarms even the most stoic of creatures. You bridge the gap between humans and Chiss so well it appears effortless and I hoped he would see this and perhaps it would do some good for future relations between our peoples, there was no other motive than that I swear.”
I felt numb and when I didn’t answer or add to what he had just said he continued, “The man known as Grand Admiral Thrawn needed to be dead to the rest of the galaxy in order that I may continue with what must be done next in peace and on my own terms and so that the rest of the galaxy could move forward. I fear the storm which is coming will be beyond all reckoning.” He spoke with such utter conviction that I shivered. “This galaxy no longer wants an Empire, they want something softer, easier and it will be their undoing. If I remained alive I would always be seen as a great threat regardless of I tried to do and, as a threat, no matter what my intentions I would be dismissed and fought against. It would be a pointless waste of time. The New Republic is so wrapped up in their idealistic view that once the Evil Empire is destroyed everything will be perfect that they completely miss the boat, so to speak.” He sighed heavily. “Now they will perhaps concentrate on building something up rather than jumping at shadows and, as I said, I am free to live my life and do my work without the constant need for the strategic planning of a war I cannot win. If this galaxy does get invaded then my skills will be required by people who are happy to have them unfettered by bias and prejudice.”
I stood still for a long time trying to absorb his words and somehow make sense of it all but I wasn’t doing a good job of it. “All of this, all of this elaborate ruse to fool the galaxy into thinking you’re dead. You could have let me go on believing you were dead too. I would never have known. You always said I was a complication you didn’t need so you could have vanished to live your life without me ... you cou....” but before I could find more to say he stopped me by placing his forefinger gently on my lips.
“I could have,” He agreed, “a life without attachments would be easier and for a one single moment that thought did occur to me.” He told me carefully.
“But you didn’t.” I said stupidly, returning my gaze to his face.
His whole expression softened. “No, I did not.”
“You could have gone anywhere but you came here.”
He nodded, his lips curved into a slightly bemused smile. “I knew you would be arriving here after your time on Csilla.”
“The package I had for Navaari made that a given.” I said flatly.
“You probably would have come here anyway, I just wanted to make certain of it.”
“So that I would know exactly when and where to find you.” He replied.
I just shook my head, “Why?”
“Is it not obvious?” He asked with a frown.
I looked away from him, shaking my head because nothing he did was obvious or easy to understand.
For a long moment the silence between us lay heavy, oppressive and then he gently lifted my chin so that our eyes met once again. Whatever he had to say next he wanted to make certain I not only heard it but that I believed it as well.
“Because I love you,” He caressed my face with the backs of his fingers, “and I am not willing to let you go or live a life without you in it.”
It was the most honest answer he could have given. It was also the one I least expected but most needed to hear. I opened my mouth but before I could argue, counter or contradict him he kissed me as though his life depended on it and, because perhaps my life did, I kissed him back. His kiss was sweet. His body, which pressed tightly against mine so that I could feel the beating of his heart, was very real and warm. His hands touched my face so gently that one would have thought I was made from glass. Pulled back from him and rested my forehead against his chest. He stroked my hair and said nothing. I stood there, crying, unable to come to terms with anything that had happened in the bitter weeks that had passed.
Something inside of me had broken when I had been told of Thrawn’s death but finding him suddenly alive and well had not miraculously fixed it. I leaned into his body, and his arms tightened around me as if he also knew that I was no longer the same girl he had left behind.
“I believed you were dead. Hearing that you had been murdered was the worst moment of my life and I have spent all the time since then trying come to terms with a life without you. Now I find out this was not the truth and I don’t know how I am supposed to...” I couldn’t find the right words.
“There really was no other way to do this.” He replied quietly.
I shook my head because I didn’t believe that. “You broke my heart.” I didn’t think he really understood what it had done to me. “I thought you were dead. Do you not understand this? Don’t you remember what that felt like? Because when you thought I had died you sure as hell were not happy about it when I clawed my way back from the dead zone I was in. Did you think somehow I would not believe it was you? That I would guess what you had done? That I would see all these clues you laid down and figure it out for myself? I wish I was as clever as you are, I wish I was as clever as you seem to think I am but I’m not. I did exactly what everyone else did I believed it was you because in essence it was and there was nothing except your missing bond bracelet to prove otherwise and even that had an explanation of sorts. Now you’re surprised by my reaction? What the hell were you thinking?”
He looked at me carefully, as though it finally dawned on him that for me, learning he was dead, dragging his body to Csilla and then sitting through his funeral and then learning it was all a ruse might have been a tad more difficult than he had thought it would be. “I am sorry, tekari, I am so sorry for everything I have put you through.”
But I couldn’t look at him. His few words of apology were just not enough.
When I said nothing he bent his head to my ear and whispered, “It was never my intent to cause you so much sorrow. Forgive me.”
I understood then, in that single moment, that nothing would ever be the same between us, not as it had been before. I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to forgive him for what he had done. When I didn’t answer him he sighed and kissed the top of my head. It was enough that I was there and for the moment it was all I had to give.