The air electrified. There was no other way to describe it. Over five hundred people bent their knee to one man all at the same time. I could feel the force shift and alter itself around the Emperor, as though he were a darkness that drew all the light towards him. I could feel his power, I could feel him reaching out to all those around him who could sense the force but I did not want him to find me. Suddenly, I was terrified, I felt as though the walls were closing in on me and I didn’t know how to escape. I could feel panic rising and didn’t know how to quell it. I must have made a sound or moved because I felt a hand reach out and grasp me by the wrist, warm and strong, pulling at me to stay down. It stilled the fear. I fought to quell the rising terror that was beginning to make my heart race and breathing difficult. The hand at my wrist let go, but the momentary contact had been enough to ground me.
The Emperor made his way down through the room, the only sound was a strange tapping sound and the footsteps of his entourage. It seemed to go on forever. After an eternity of staring at the floor, feeling the cold hard marble bite into my knee, the Master of Ceremonies banged his staff upon the floor and announced that all might rise.
Slowly I got to my feet and like everyone else I looked to where the Emperor sat. It was difficult to see over everyone and the Emperor was shrouded in an elegant, dark coloured cloak, standing on either side of the throne were two of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. Behind him flanked the mysterious Royal Guard. No one moved as the Emperor began to speak. A short welcoming speech but I heard none of the words. The sense that he was vaguely familiar to me, a thought I had dismissed as being from the dream I had had, was replaced with a certainty that I knew this man. Fear shot through me. I swayed on my feet as the world began to swim around me.
“Passing out at the Grand Ball is a bad thing to do.” Thrawn hissed in my ear. I focused on his voice and glanced at him. The look on his face asked if I was alright.
I nodded. My mouth was dry and I struggled to gain control of my fear. The Emperor finished his speech and the Master of Ceremonies banged his stick once more and announced that the Grand Ball had now officially begun.
It was as if a switch had been thrown and everyone who had been statue still was now suddenly animated and talking. Music played and the waiters once again made their rounds with trays of canapés and drinks.
“Now the evening begins in earnest.” Said Thrawn dryly.
I nodded but could not shake the sense of dread I felt. “So that’s the Emperor?” I asked. I fought to get my shaking knees and hands under control.Thrawn nodded his head. Then he looked just beyond my shoulder. I turned around in time to face Lord Vader.
“Lord Vader, always a pleasure.” Thrawn said with a courteous bow.
Lord Vader nodded. “Likewise, Captain Thrawn. I see you have made the acquaintance of my young assistant.” He was being awfully polite.
“Yes, Lord Vader. A most interesting and efficient young lady, I hear.” Thrawn said with a sudden cold disinterest.
“Her reputation precedes her, I see.” Vader said tartly.
I really hated it when people talked about me as if I was not standing right in front of their noses but I had learnt my lesson on what happened when I spoke out of turn and I kept my mouth shut.
“Miss Gabriel, the Emperor wishes to meet you. You will accompany me.” Lord Vader said reaching to grab me by the arm.
“Yes, my lord.” I said as I side stepped him. He had a habit of hurting me whenever he dragged me off somewhere. I turned to Thrawn “Captain, it was a pleasure to meet you. I hope that you enjoy the evening.” I said, since we were being very formal now, I could play that game too and it hid how nervous I was.
Thrawn nodded. “Perhaps with Lord Vader’s indulgence you would do me the honour of a dance later on?”
I looked at Lord Vader because there was a moment’s pause before he replied. “If that is your wish, she will honour you with a dance.” He sad then he looked at me. “Now you will come with me.”
I gave Thrawn a polite curtsey and not knowing what else to do with it, I also handed him my empty glass and trotted after Lord Vader as he strode through the room, a path was cleared for him as people stepped back out of his way.
There was an area of perhaps two meters in a semi circle around the dais where the Emperor sat that was clear of people. Imperial Guardsmen completed the circle standing around and behind him. The Emperor sat upon an ornate high backed throne which in turn was situated up on the raised dais, so that he looked over everyone and every thing. It was very intimidating to say the least, no matter where a person was they were forced to look up at him.
Lord Vader swept into that forbidden two meters and bent to one knee as gracefully as I had ever seen before the throne. His black cloak spread about the floor around and behind him like water at night. ‘Show off.’ I thought. I stayed a little behind him also dropping to one knee and bowed my head to this old man I did not know for the second time that evening.
“Ah, Lord Vader,” the Emperor said. “How good of you to join us.”
Lord Vader said nothing, stayed on his knee and did not look up.
“I see you have brought your new assistant to be presented. You may both rise.” The Emperor said. I waited until Lord Vader stood and then did the same. My heart was thumping so fast and so hard that I was certain everyone could hear it above the noise and the music of the gala behind us. I took a deep breath to calm my nerves and stood in a dance position that was elegant and easy to maintain for long periods of time. I still did not look up into the emperor’s face. I could feel his power radiate about him and it scared me to death. I had never experienced anything like this before in my life. I could not quite believe that this was the same old man I had met that one night in the old part of the palace while I had been practicing. I could feel his eyes upon me, studying me. I could sense him in the Force stretching out and seeking to connect with that little amount of ability I had. I did not want him in my head or even near me and as much as I didn’t want to I fought him. A grain of sand against the wind, as the sand people would say. He chuckled, it was not a pleasant sound and it made my skin crawl.
“Miss Gabriel, how refreshing to meet you again.” He said. “You may approach me and you may look up."
I moved forward so that I was standing even closer to him than Lord Vader and I looked up. The eyes that met mine were yellow and fierce. Power radiated and moved about him like snakes in a pit. I could feel surprise in Lord Vader's thoughts. He had not known that The Emperor had already made my acquaintance. That angered him, but how could I have known? I was quite certain there would be words about this later on.
“I can certainly understand why Lord Vader has chosen to retain your services, girl, I am told you are …efficient at your job and I know you will be of value to the Empire.” He said and paused a moment before continuing, “Lord Vader did not, however, inform me of your talents in so many other areas.” He said. I kept very still and very quiet because I was not exactly sure of what other talents he was referring to but I had my suspicions. I felt Lord Vader shift a little behind me and realized that the words the Emperor had spoken had not been meant for me. There was threat and annoyance underlying everything the Emperor had said. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end and I shivered and then the mood shifted once again.
The Emperor sat back a little returning his attention to me. “No matter, we have met and I am most pleased to welcome another loyal member to our Imperial family. I am certain you will fit in well here and I look forward to further conversations with you.” He said and he gave me a smile that did not improve his looks any.
“Yes, your Eminence, thank you.” I whispered. My mouth was desert dry.
“You may go.” He said with a wave of his hand. I made a motion to step back and then he added. “Miss Gabriel, enjoy the evening, I am looking forward to seeing you on the dance floor. I am also quite certain this gala event will be as nothing else you have ever seen before.”
I nodded and dropped a curtsied and then took my three steps backwards and without caring if it was rude of not vanished into the chattering, glittering crowd. Once I felt I was a safe distance away I looked back and saw the Emperor deep in conversation with Lord Vader. I was quite certain that was a conversation I did not want to know anything about. I also noticed the young woman to the right of the Emperor staring directly back at me, the one with the beautiful red-gold hair. She was regal and elegant, with the body of a well trained dancer and the poise of a manner born princess. The look she sent me made me shudder. It was one of pure hatred. I wondered what I had done to deserve that and then turned my back on her as well. The sooner I was away from that part of the room the better.
I must admit I was at a loss of what to do next. There was an orchestra and a singer beginning to start the entertainment for the evening but I had no interest in that now. All I wanted to do was find a quiet corner and hide. The crowd was over whelming and as people moved about me I found myself suddenly quite disorientated and without meaning to I accidentally backed into someone much larger than me.
I turned around to offer my apologies and found my self face to face with the head of Xizor Transport Systems. I knew him by name only. Lord Vader had many dealings with him and his corporation. He was, I had heard, the third most powerful man in the known galaxy.
He was not a handsome man to me, although I had heard whispers of his prowess with women. He was tall and arrogant looking, reptilian in origin with a top knot hair style I found vaguely disturbing. He gave me a single glance.
“My humble apologies.” I said.
“Think nothing of it.” He smiled politely, coolly in return. I went to turn away when he said.
“Wait, do we not know one another?” he asked, with a smile I suddenly found alluring.
I shook my head. “No I don’t believe so. I am fairly new here I am afraid.” I said, suddenly hoping he'd ask to get to know me better and wondering why in the name of Sarlacc I would think that all at the same time.
“Allow me to introduce myself, Prince Xizor.” he said. My heart fluttered a little. I was confused by this, I did not know this man nor had I wanted to a moment ago.
I gave him a very polite nod. “A pleasure to meet you, your Highness.” I said, and I meant it, I was suddenly finding him more and more attractive than I had a moment ago. I felt as though there were bees buzzing around in my head.
He smiled, it was dazzling smile but it was also preditorial. “And you might be?” he asked.
My knees felt suddenly weak and I was about to give him the answer when a hand grabbed my arm painfully.
“There you are!” I have been looking for you all over, you know better than to vanish like that!” I turned around to see Shiv looking at me, seemingly furious. I was about to argue with him but I picked up on something and played along. I bowed my head as if embarrassed or ashamed and mumbled an apology.
Shiv moved me out of the way and stood before the Prince, giving Xizor a deep courtly bow. “My humblest apologies, your Highness, I cannot control all the girls here. I am afraid, and they will flock to you for attention. I hope you will forgive the breach in etiquette. You know you have so many fans, I cannot keep them from bothering you. This one is completely besotted.”
Xizor gave me a bored look and as suddenly as the attraction to him had been there, it was gone. “Think nothing of it Siavaan.” Xizor said with a wave of his hand, “I commend you on your impressive work. The palace ball room is once again stunning with its…decorations.” he said giving me a nod. Suddenly, I was decoration now. I was starting to get really cross.
Shiv bowed again. “Your highness is, as always, most gracious.” He said and then he backed away still holding my arm in his death grip. He dragged me out of the main room. Up a set of side stairs and out onto a large terrace that over looked the city in the open air. I had not known it was there so well was the entrance incorporated into the design of the room.
“Is your head clear now?” he asked me as I turned around to give him a piece of my mind. I stopped before I had even gotten a word out.
I shook it. Then I nodded. “Explain.” I said.
“That was the almighty Prince Xizor.” he said
“Yes, yes I know that I am not completely stupid you know.”
“What you don’t know is he is Falleen. He does something with his pheromones to make himself irresistible to women.” Shiv said. He was really angry. “not many people have this knowledge. Too bad, really, it might save a lot of heartache.”
It was starting to dawn on me, that sudden fuzzy headedness and instant desire for a man I had initially found repulsive.
“Now he thinks you are just some fawning palace courtesan. He won't have any interest in you. He likes the chase. A devoted, star struck fan is not a lot of chase or fun for him. Better for you.” Shiv said. “He and Lord Vader do not get along. If he had figured out who you were he'd have made a bigger play than he already was, just to annoy Vader, and that would have been ugly. I don’t know how you have managed to survive this long in Vader's presence but sleeping with Xizor would have ended it pretty quickly.”
“I would not have slept with that man.” I stated hotly.
Shiv shook his head. “Yes, yes you would have, you might not have wanted to in your deepest heart, and maybe you could have fought him for a while but eventually you would have succumb to him and he would have had you anyway. He does not stop until he gets what he wants. I have not yet met a female who could resist his charms.” He almost spat that last word out.
I knew he was right and I felt somehow tainted and ashamed. “How do you know all this if no one else does?”
Shiv drew a deep breath. “He destroyed someone I cared for deeply. Played his little games until she could not resist, she was his mistress for a short while and when he was bored of her he gave her a very expensive gift and told her never to contact him again. She was so young and so in love she could not bear to let him go. They say it was suicide, but I think he had someone deal with her. He has a reputation for being ruthless that way. Do not get in his way.”
“Shiv, I am so sorry, who was she?”
He clenched his jaw and fought the anger and emotion that welled up within him I did not need to be force sensitive to see how much he hated Xizor.
“She was my baby sister, Mahriella.” He said with a shake of his head. “Her whole life, all she wanted was to be a courtesan and work here with me. She loved the palace and all the glamour.” He shook his head. “If I had known then…”
I touched him on the arm. “You didn’t know then. It wasn’t your fault.”
He shook his head. “No, maybe not, but since then, I have made it my mission to find out all I could about him and his kind.”
I sighed and turned around so that I was leaning with my back on the balustrade. “Thank you. You probably saved my life.” I said.
“You’re welcome. It was the least I could do after forcing those stupid Bounty Hunter drinks on you.” He said with a grin tying to lighten the mood again.
I smiled. “Better the devil you know…”
“You got that right.” He said and then his comm went off again. He looked at it and sighed. “Another world shattering disaster I suppose. Gotta blaze.” He said. “Stay away from that man, though.” He added. “Oh, and save me a dance!” he told me.
“Gosh I don’t know if there is room….” I said making a face.
He grinned. "You owe me one Rim-Girl, make room!" and then he left to go and sort out what ever it was that needed his attention.
The Terrace was large and just as elegant as the inside hall was. There was soft lighting and incredible plants all over, perfectly positioned. I turned around and stared out over the city. It was a blaze of lights, those from the never ending stream of vehicles and those from the buildings all around us. Inside the music had begun and through the open archway, when I looked, I could see the dancers take to the floor. It was indeed, elegant both inside and outside. Yet, behind all this opulence and beauty lay a hidden core that was dark. Everywhere I turned it seemed there were layers upon layers of intrigue and deception. It was just depressing. I was having a hard time figuring out where I was fitting into all of this. I did not want to cry but suddenly there were tears in my eyes. I choked them back. This was neither the time nor the place for weaknesses to be seen.
“I suppose you will consider this sneaking up on you again.” said a familiar voice from just behind me.
“You do seem to excel at it.” I said without turning around to look at him.
Thrawn came to stand beside me and he handed me a glass of cold white wine. “I thought that after your meeting with His Excellency, the Emperor, you might need this.” He said.
I took the glass gratefully. The wine was crystal clear, very dry and cold. I sipped at it thoughtfully.
“Are you well? You seem troubled.” He asked.
“Do you really care or is this just more games? Polite palace banter?” I said more sharply than I had meant to. I regretted the words immediately. “I’m sorry, that was uncalled for. It has been a stressful evening so far.” I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. He seemed always to be around when I was at my most vulnerable.
“I do understand, Miss Gabriel,” he said. “A face to face meeting with the Emperor can be intimidating at the best of times. Here, in this arena, I imagine it must be quite overwhelming.” There was genuine kindness in his voice. I looked up into his face.
“I am fine. It is just, as you so aptly put it, overwhelming.” I said.
He studied my face carefully. The words said one thing, the remnants of my tears said another. He was polite enough to let it go.
“Then perhaps you would honour me with a dance.” He asked.
I smiled. “As long as it is a simple one, I am not all that familiar with most of the court dances here.”
He gave me one of those hunter and hunted smiles that made my stomach drop and my knees weak. “How fortunate for you then, I am well versed in many of the Palace dances and I happen to be an excellent leader.” He said.
“I'll bet you are.” I whispered not knowing if he heard or not.
He offered me his arm and I took it as though I were a manner born noble and not just an Outer Rim nobody who was so far out of her depth she was starting to drown.