The trip from the Devastator to the landing pad on Coruscant was a long and tense one. A pilot I didn’t know was at the helm and both Lord Vader and I, along with two storm troopers and my protocol droid sat in the back. No one said a single word during the entire trip. I busied myself with sorting through files, making the necessary adjustments to Lord Vader’s appointment calendar but mostly I was doing everything I could not to look at him and not to pester him with questions. My mind was in turmoil.
We landed and disembarked. There was a small reception party of more Imperial Troopers and Palace officials. Lord Vader said nothing as he swept by them. They waited for him to pass then followed after him. I, not knowing what else I was supposed to do, trotted along after them. We walked through the palace in silence. All around us were people and they all stared, and then hurriedly turned away. It was not comforting. Lord Vader stopped when he had reached the Grand Entrance, the place that led to all other places.
It was a huge foyer, really with an enormous stairwell in the center of it that led upwards in two different directions. He stopped at the foot of the stairs and dismissed everyone, except for me, with a snarl and a wave of his hand. The Troopers all saluted smartly, turned on their collective heels and marched off in one direction, the palace officials, our welcoming committee, all bowed and scurried away in another. He climbed the stairs and I followed.
On the third floor was the entrance to the passage that led to the Emperor’s private audience rooms. I took a deep breath but before he opened the doors Lord Vader turned to me.
“When I have need of you, I will summon you.” He said.
I looked up at him and blinked. He could have told me that before I had climbed all these stairs.
“Yes, my Lord.” I said and turned to leave.
“Miss Gabriel,” he said, I stopped and turned around again.
“Yes, my Lord?” I asked, sensing that he was choosing his words with care.
“You would do well to stay out of sight. No more incidents with your Human Resources friends.” He said.
So, he had heard about that as well. I made a face and with out even thinking about it said. “What the hell am I supposed to do?”
The air crackled just a little as he just stared at me. I put my hand over my mouth to stop anything else from just slipping out.
“Go file something.” He said and then he opened the ornate door and went through it. I resisted the urge to peek before it closed silently. I wanted nothing to do with the Emperor. If Lord Vader feared him, I could not imagine how I would feel.
I stood in the hallway for a moment and then made my way back down the stairs, through the main foyer to the part of the palace where my office was, where my apartments had been. I still had the key so I thought I would try it out. I was a little surprised when it still worked. Even more to my surprise was that my protocol droid was waiting for me along with my luggage. I guessed this was still a home of sorts after all, but it didn’t feel like that, it felt like a prison.
In spite of his last words to me, I actually had nothing to file, I was mostly caught up on the office day to day work. The disbanding of the Imperial Senate had done away with some of the internal memos and nonsense, taking the bureaucracy out into the regional governors’ hands. As Lord Vader was neither a regional governor nor a member of the Imperial senate my job was not really affected all that much by the change. I expected that would cause headaches a little later on, once the initial mess was all sorted out. In the mean time things were quiet, and a lot of people were out of a job. I suspected that the bunch from Human Resources was probably going insane with all the paperwork they would have, served them right.
I showered and changed into clothes that were more suited to the palace, still my simple Tatooine fashion but I felt grimy after the journey and wanted to dress up a little. I put my hair up with the beautiful Zenjji sticks Thrawn had given and wondered, briefly, if he had ever received my thank- you letter. No matter, he was probably busy, off somewhere in the galaxy trying to dominate something like the rest of the Imperials I knew.
I had thought about maybe exploring some of the archives in the Palace, but then reconsidered, that was not after all, keeping a low profile so instead I took and book and I went to my favourite quiet place, the old part of palace with the great balcony and view. It was still very early in the day and the air had a chill to it I did not think I would ever get used to. I was glad that I had brought a wrap with me just in case.
I dragged one of the old chairs from the inner room on to the balcony and I curled up in it to read. One of the up sides of this job was that I did have some spare time to read. In difference to many of my friends at school, back home, I actually liked to read and devoured any book that was given to me. It had gotten around the pilots that used our docking pad regularly that I was a reader and they would often give me books that had been left behind or that they had already read. The book I had now was among my favourites and it was easy for me to lose myself in the story.
I had been sitting, reading for about two hours when the hair on the back of my neck suddenly stood on end and I realized that someone else was there. Not only did I know that someone was there, but I also knew who it was.
“Good Morning Captain Thrawn.” I said without getting up or turning a round.
He walked up to me, as if the act of speaking to him had given him the permission to do so, and stood beside the chair, and looked out over the city.
“I heard that Lord Vader had returned to the palace.” He said. “I had wondered if you were with him.”
“And you came here to see if you were right?” I asked, putting my book on my lap.
He turned his attention to me. “Still the sharp tongue, I see.” He said.
I stared at him for a moment. “It matches your sarcastic wit. “ I said.
“Touché.” He said with a smile. “How was your tour of duty then? Did you enjoy life on an ISD?”
I nodded. “I don’t know if enjoy is the right word, but it was interesting.”
“When will you be heading back?” he asked,
I shrugged. “I don’t know, I am not sure that I will be returning to the Devastator.”
Thrawn turned to look at me once more. “Leaving the service of Lord Vader so soon?”
“Not that I know of, he just told me that I would not be returning to the ship, he said nothing about me no longer working for him.” I said. “I don’t know any more than that. Lord Vader did not me any give details.”
Thrawn smiled. “Well, I have heard he can be evasive.”
“I am sure he has his reasons, Captain,” I said a little more sharply than I meant to. “In the mean time I have some time off to enjoy the peace and quiet, if you can call this planet that. Catch up on some reading.”
“You mean to tell me, Miss Gabriel, that you have a day off and you are going to spend it sitting alone on this isolated balcony reading a book?” he was genuinely surprised.
“Well, yes, actually.” I said. “I am to keep a low profile today. It seems the rumours of my little temper tantrum with the HR girls has made the rounds.” I shrugged, “This is a good place to keep a low profile.”
He shook his head. “Might I make you a proposal?”
“It appears that I have some free time today, and it would be my pleasure to perhaps show you some of the more interesting aspects of this city.”
“Such as?” I was a little wary.
He cocked his head to one side and smiled. “You are a hard sell, Miss Gabriel.” and then asked. “What would interest you?”
“Are there any decent art galleries or museums around here?” I asked.
I didn’t like the way his grin suddenly became feral. “You are interested in art?”
I nodded. “My mother was an art historian from Alderaan before she married my father and moved to Tatooine. She had many books on the subject of art. I am afraid I was a poor student, I much preferred engines and mechanical manuals and I didn’t pay as much attention to her as I should have.”
“You speak in the past tense.” He said.
I nodded and looked away for a moment. “When my mother was killed, I did not realize what a positive force she had been in my life, full of beauty and light. She was extremely well educated and from a noble background, it was only because of her insistence and sheer force of will that I learned a small amount of her grace. I am quite certain that had I been left to my father’s guidance I would be even more of an unruly grease-urchin than I am now. She made certain that I learnt some social grace and through her I suppose I inherited a love of art, but that is not something I tell too many people. Pilots and ship owners do not trust a mechanic who spouts poetry and loves to stare for hours at the works of Isone Medeglia.”
“Your mother sounds like she was quite an amazing woman, I am sorry for your loss.” He said, and he meant it. “But you do not give yourself enough credit, you may dress like an Outer rim grease-urchin and give attitude of an unruly pit-crew mechanic but you carry yourself like the noble born princess. You are a quite the lesson in contradictions.”
I wasn’t quite certain how to accept the compliment so I followed my mother’s rule and I said thank-you and left it at that.
Thrawn nodded and turned back once more to over look the city. He then made a get out of that chair and come here motion with his hand. I did and came to stand beside him. He pointed to a far off tower.
“Do you see that building?”
“Down in that part of the city are some of the best restaurants around, away from the usual palace crowd, good if you want to duck under the social radar so to speak, and over there, “ he said pointing to another part of the city, “Is the Imperial Art Gallery, it has one of the most comprehensive collections in the known galaxy.”
I looked up at him, wondering what restaurants and the Imperial art gallery had to do with each other. He looked back at me and for a moment our eyes met. My heart missed a beat and I felt as though my knees had suddenly vanished. I smiled and shrugged to hide the deep breath I needed to take.
“I thought that perhaps you would allow me to take you to lunch and then we could visit the gallery together, if that was acceptable?.”
I nodded. “I would like that.” I said, but some where in the back of my mind all my senses were telling me it was a bad idea. “Just on condition though.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“No Nubian spice tea, I loath it.” I said.
He chuckled. “I think that can be arranged, anything else you do not enjoy eating?”
I shrugged, “To be honest not much, but Tatooine isn’t exactly the gourmet center of the galaxy and my off world cuisine experience has been limited. Why don’t I leave it in your hands?” then added, “You will know if I hate it.”
He nodded and smiled.
“I guess I should find something more suitable to wear.” I said, wrong thing to say.
He gave me a slow once up and down look and smiled. “You are perfect just as you are, Miss Gabriel.” Then he offered me his arm, which I took gingerly and he escorted me out of the palace. I wondered if accepting his invitation had been such a good idea after all.