There are many things in this galaxy that I love doing, attending long boring Imperial social functions is not on this list. This one was especially dull as there was no dancing and no real entertainment to speak of, it was, in its truest form, a reception, lots of blah blah blah.
I listened to the speeches and clapped and smiled and even made small talk with a few people, most of which was mindless. One person in particular was most annoying, a lower clerk for the Emperor named Isti’mar T’garrel. He simply would not shut up and I could not get away from him. I thought it was a wonder he didn’t blow up he was so full of himself. I stood and smiled till my face hurt, nodded and agreed until I felt a hand on my arm.
“I am afraid I must steal Miss Gabriel away from your fascinating company.” Thrawn said.
“Oh yes yes, of course Captain I completely understand… until next time then Miss Gabriel you can tell me what you think of my ideas for office revampment.” Isti’mar said and as Thrawn led me out of the main hall to the balcony Isti’mar went off in search of another victim.
“You looked like you needed rescuing, that man can talk the fur off a Wookie.” Thrawn said with a smile.
“I guess I owe you one.” I said.
“Ah, a delightful position for me to be in. Walk with me, Miss Gabriel.” He said.
He was silent for the first little way nodding politely to the people we passed and soon enough we were away from the main part of the huge balcony- terrace thing and wandered along the narrower walk way. It was quiet here, the view over the lake was stunning especially at night. It was cooler now and a slight breeze had picked up, making the leaves in the trees rustle. It was so very different from Tatooine, where the nights were cold and the air was dry. There were no sounds of leaves in trees but only the hiss of shifting sands or the howling of the winds when the storms came. I missed my home but I could get used to this kinder place.
We stopped at the far end of the walkway, and both leaned against the balustrade and stared out over the lake.
“How do you enjoy living here?” he asked.
“It is one of the most peaceful, gentle places I have ever been to.” I said. “I never thought I would ever get to live by a lake. That's a new experience.”
“Yes, it is a wonderful lake for swimming in. Especially early in the morning or at twilight.” He said.
I looked at him as though he were joking. “Swimming?”
He looked at me and for a moment there was a question in his eyes but he was a smart man and he figured it out pretty fast.
“Of course.” He said with a chuckle. “Not much need to learn how to swim on a desert planet is there.”
“My mother often talked about it. She swam as a child on Alderaan, she loved it but I never learned, even when I went off world I never thought about it.” I said. “But I take it you enjoy it.”
“It was part of our physical training at the academy. Some people preferred weight training and team sports while I must admit I enjoyed the water the most. It is a solitary sport that gives you over all fitness while allowing you time to think. I often used the pool at night when it was empty. When I am here I swim in the lake. You should take the time to learn.” He said.
“Well, if I ever find someone to teach me I will think about it.” I said. I was not about to tell him the thought of immersing myself in the lake scared the heck out of me. It was one thing to lounge in a bathtub full of water, the lake was a whole other herd of banthas.
“You live in the house at the very end, yes?” he asked pointing to the little house with the light on.
I nodded. Wondering just he knew that.
“Tomorrow morning at six am I will come by and teach you.” He said very matter of fact. “You’ll enjoy it.” He said. “There is nothing to fear.”
“If you insist.” I said, not feeling all that enthusiastic about this.
“I do, Miss Gabriel, call it repaying the debt you owe me for rescuing you just now.”
“Remind me not to ever be in your debt again.” I said a bit more snarkily than I meant to but he just laughed.
We were silent once more. I did not know what to say to him and was happy just be in his company. It was he who spoke first.
“May I ask you a question?” he said.
I looked into his face. “Yes.”
“Do you know any bounty hunters or smugglers?” he asked and then smiled, because my reaction told him that I had not been expecting this question at all.
“Yes, I do actually, to both.” I answered after a few moments.
“Well enough to steer clear of the subject.” I said. “There are some people who owe me favours.” I added by way of explanation.
“How well do you know Boba Fett?”
I made a face. “Fett.” I shrugged. “Well enough to know one does not talk about him. I used to see him at Jabba’s Palace sometimes, he would chat up some of the dancers, nothing serious, just chit chat. A real loner he is. Smart too, one of Jabba’s favourite bounty hunters. He uses our docking bay on and off when the occasion calls. Said he liked the way my father did business. He does not owe anyone any favours.” I said. I had spent some time with Fett, mostly at the docking bay in the capacity as mechanic. He didn’t speak much and I knew enough not to ask questions. I liked his efficiency though. He knew what he wanted, what needed to be done, he gave you a list and that was that. No dickering around with price or anything. He was true to his word. I suppose in some ways I admired that about him. I wasn’t too enamoured with his profession though.
“What do you know about Jodo Kast?” Thrawn asked breaking my thoughts.
“Never heard of him.” I said.
He nodded. “What about smugglers.”
“What about them?”
“I need some names of people you would trust, smugglers who get the job done.” He said.
“You know, I am quite sure the Empire has lists for this sort of thing. Why are you asking me?”
“Because you will give me an honest opinion and you seem to have good instincts and you have first hand experience with these people without the problem of being affiliated with the empire.”
“then, yes, to answer your question, I know a few smugglers, a couple I would trust and who I know to be …reputable, if one can use that word for such a profession.” I said. “But I am not giving you names here in this place.”
He inclined his head. “That I can respect and you can tell me when you come with me in two days time.”
“Run that by me again?”
“Lord Vader will inform you tomorrow that I have need of your services for a short while. Details I will leave up to him to tell you or you will find out when you come aboard the ship.” He said.
I looked at him and put my hands on my hips. “You know…” I started but before I could get any further he put his forefinger on my lips.
“Hush.” he said. “Something came up suddenly, you have a skill I need and I know I can rely on your discretion. Lord Vader speaks quite highly of you. I trust you would not wish to make a scene here because you are not kept in the loop.” He smiled and the finger on my lips moved to brush away hair from my eyes. “Trust me, you will know all you need to know when the time is right. In the meantime why don’t we enjoy the evening?”
“Just what did you have in mind?”
He smiled. “Well, I thought we might finish the conversation we started on Coruscant.” He said, his hand caressing my face.
I stepped back from him. “No, bad idea.” I said shaking my head. I turned to walk away from him. He made my knees weak and my head spin and I was not up to dealing with that here in the presence of the Emperor, with Lord Vader close at hand. He caught my hand and pulled me to him.
“Why is that?” he asked.
“It is forbidden for members of the Imperial navy to fraternize with Imperial office staff.” I said repeating Shiv’s words verbatim.
“Do you always obey all the rules, Miss Gabriel?”
“Not always.” I answered, it was the truth.
“Then shall we go for a walk?” the look on his face was feral. He tugged me by the hand and I followed him. There was a small half hidden set of stairs that led down from the balcony to the gardens below, over looking the lake. The pathways walked along side the water, amongst the trees and carefully tended gardens of sweet smelling flowers and manicured grass. I could really understand why the Emperor wanted to come here. It was as quiet and soft as Coruscant was noisy and hard. Even at night it was lovely. We walked beside each other in silence, I, with my hands behind my back and he, with his arms at his sides, true military style. When we came to a small cove like area he stopped.
On Tatooine most people’s idea of romantic was taking a couple of speeders up into the dunes with a bottle of something illegal and sitting on the cool sands under the moons, hoping you didn’t get attacked by either critters, dragons or sand people. Others went to the local cantina and bought cheap Corellian beer, the theory being that if you gave your date enough beer she'd be easy. Trust me it is not romantic when your date throws up on you and no it wasn’t me. My experiences with romance and men were not vast and not the best so it was little wonder I was as nervous as a wamp rat in a Krayt dragon's nest.
The cove was quiet and secluded. The manicured garden had given way to more unruly wild plants and the trees were not pruned. The sleepy willowy trees with their long drooping branches that swept the ground rustled and sighed gently in the wind. The grass gave way to a small beach of round stones and the moonlight glittered off the water.
“You are nervous of me.” Thrawn said breaking the long silence. He picked up smooth, flat stones from the beach and flicked them in a way that made them skip across the water. “Why?”
“You chase me, why? I countered.
Three more stones skipped across the waters competing with the ripples from the wind.
“If I knew the answer to that I would most likely not be interested.” He said. “You remind me of the sculpture in my flat. Every time I see it I see something different. You arouse my curiosity in many ways”
“And when you no longer see anything that interests you? Then what?” I asked.
He stopped skipping stones and turned to look at me. The night was cool and with the wind off the water I was starting to feel the chill. He took off his dress jacket and slipped it over my shoulders. His warmth, his scent lingered in the cloth.
“Who was he that hurt you enough to make you so afraid of this?” Thrawn asked and then shook his head. “I am not that man.”
“I know that.” I said. “But you so often say, trust is a delicate matter.”
“I am not making any promises or commitments either.” He said. “You know very well what my life is about as I, yours. No point in denying that.”
I nodded. I did know and I did understand, probably more than most people ever would. Perhaps that was part of the attraction.
“So why are you afraid of this?” he asked again.
“It has been my experience that things like this usually have a very messy and unhappy end.” I told him.
“There is that possibility.” He said as he moved closer to me, I did not step back from him. “But if you never try how you will ever know? If you let your fear rule you, you will spend the rest of your life wondering what if and I know that is not who you are.” He caressed the side of my face with his fingertips. I closed my eyes and followed the motion with my head. “Desire is a powerful tool and we play with it like fire, but it is also a wonderful gift.” He murmured. “I desire you as I know you do me and if that leads to something we can share even for a short time, would you have it any other way?”
I looked up into his face, searching for some hint or sign that he was mocking me or somehow making fun of me but I saw nothing of that in his eyes. Instead he was giving me the option to back away gracefully. The trouble was I have never backed away from anything in my entire life, even when I probably should have.
I wanted to say something clever as an answer but there were no words to say, witty, stupid or otherwise. He was right. I desired him in every way possible and to deny that was to go against everything I was. It didn’t mean I was not scared to death though.
He smiled and took my silence for the agreement it was, cupped my face in both of his hands. “Shall we continue our previous conversation?” he whispered in my ear.
He drew my face upward and he began to kiss me. Gentle, breath-taking kisses. Tentative, inquisitive and oh so intense. Nothing more and nothing less. He wrapped one hand around the back of my neck and the other around my waist and pulled me to him, I held on to his shoulder with one hand and the other was pressed against his chest so that I could feel the beat of his heart, fast and strong. I do not know how long we stood there in the quiet of the night wrapped in each others arms talking with our lips but saying not one word. It felt like hours and perhaps it was. When we finally broke apart I was dizzy and felt more alive than I had ever felt in my entire life. I rested my forehead against his chest and he stroked the back of my neck. He steadied his breathing.
He crooked a finger under my chin and drew my face up so we looked at each other. I could not read his face at all.
“That was probably one of the most interesting conversations I have ever had without even saying a word.” I said.
He laughed and the tension broke. “You do have a flare for understatement, Miss Gabriel.”
“Docking bay humour.” I said. “It’s late I should get back home.” I didn’t want to go but it was the right time to.
“I will see you to your door.” He said in a way I knew there would be no arguing against. He did not wrap an arm around my shoulders or try to hold my hand and I did not expect him to. We walked side by side as we had earlier. I did not think that either of us was the holding hand type.
When we reached the house I returned his jacket. We had not spoken one word the entire way. Now I stood on the doorstep looking at him as he looked at me. He smiled.
“Until tomorrow morning, then. “ he said.
“Oh.” I had forgotten about that. “Maybe not such a good idea, I don't even know what to wear and maybe it will rain and…” he put a finger on my lips and silenced my babble of excuses.
“Tomorrow at six am. Do not concern yourself with anything else. Just be awake and ready to learn something new.” He said.
I nodded. He smiled.
“Good night, Miss Gabriel.” He said and he turned and walked back the way we came before I could answer.
I went inside the house. I did not think I would be able to sleep at all but I was wrong about that, I did not even dream. The next thing I knew it was way too early in the morning and the doorbell was ringing.