The Hand that Guides 9

In, The Unanswered Question, the well known play by Palena Osiri, the main character Varyl Desann tells Tyrea Berqus, the woman he loves but will ultimately betray and kill, the following. He says ‘We dance around each other as though we were circling around a fire that slowly grows out of control and we are powerless to move away from it. We are drawn to its magnificent flame even though we know it will consume us.” I always loved this line but I loved her reply even more. She tells him “Then I shall dance, burn and be glorious.”

These words summed up exactly how I felt in the Captain’s presence.

He had arrived promptly, and I was more or less ready, which in itself was a small wonder. Usually, I did not fuss a lot about what I wore. Comfortable, functional and easy to move in were my criteria for clothing. Dressing up was not something I was very good at. I suppose that having a strict time limit imposed upon me helped. I had none of the usual agonizing hours in front of the closet wondering what to wear.

I picked a dress that had been among those bought from Cati as a possible to wear to the grand ball. It was a beautiful dress but at the time I had felt it a little too revealing. Now, it seemed like the right choice. It was a long elegant, seriously backless gown made from a soft silk that rippled around me when I walked the way light will move on water. I had chosen the colours because they reminded me of the night’s sky just after sunset. The dress started from the ground up a dark deep velvety blue and faded slowly into a beautiful shade of lavender that seemed to draw out the blue in my eyes. It was studded with tiny crystals that twinkled with each step I made. It had a snug bodice, with a fairly revealing neckline and was sleeveless. It was some sort of a miracle that kept the dress from falling off, that or Cati’s amazing ability to design. The heavier silk shawl that went with it was a dark midnight blue was also littered with the same brilliant, tiny crystals. It was like wearing the star filled night wrapped around my shoulders. I took time with my hair and put it up with the elegant Zenji sticks that Thrawn had given me. The soft little ringlets that framed my face made the look I was going for complete. The finishing touches were a little make up and a little perfume and I felt as ready as I ever would. It did not stop my heart from nearly leaping out of my chest when the door bell chimed.

I took a deep breath to try and calm my bad case of nerves and opened the door. To my surprise he was out of uniform and dressed in very elegant and formal black and white, evening wear. He looked, for lack of a better word, stunning.

I motioned for him to come in and went to get my small clutch purse and shawl. He stood and waited never taking his eyes off me. Finally, the attention made me wonder if I had forgotten something or that, perhaps, my choice of clothing wasn’t quite right.

“What?” I finally asked in exasperation.

He shook his head and smiled that wonderful secretive smile of his that said everything and nothing all at the same time.

“Is the dress not right for the evening?” I asked.

“The dress is perfect, but something is missing.” He said, playing.

“Care to enlighten me?” I asked.

He made a come here motion with his hand and pulled from his pocket a small, flat box which he handed to me.

“It is often the smallest of details that complete the whole picture.” He said softly. “Open it.”

The box was elegant and hinged. I opened it and sucked in my breath at what I saw. It was a tiny ma'arilite pendant on a simple silver chain.

“I know of your fondness for this stone so when I found this at an auction recently, I knew it should be yours.” He said taking the delicate necklace from the box and placing it around my neck. The setting and the stone were no larger than the nail on my little finger. The pendant was square but turned so that it dangled from a corner. The little milky stone had a deep blue-green light in its heart and the setting looked very old, an antique silver metal decorated with three tiny silver balls to punctuate each corner. It was so small it was almost invisible and he was right, it completed the outfit.

His fingertips brushed the back of my neck as he fastened the clasp and I shivered. I felt the warmth of his breath as he leaned close to whisper in my ear. He made my knees weak just being so close. I fought the urge I had to lean back into his body.

“A’vai’jashia.” He said.

I turned around to look at him. “What does that mean?”

“Beautiful.” He answered simply.

I regarded him for a moment unsure of whether he was describing the necklace or me and said simply. “The pendant is lovely, thank you.”

He arched an eyebrow. “Indeed, but I was describing you.”

I blushed. He lifted my chin with his finger tips and made to kiss me. I moved my head away.

“Don’t.” I said. “I’ll have to redo my lipstick.” But in truth I did not want his kisses because if he started that I wasn’t sure we’d leave this house at all. I stepped away from him.

For a moment he watched me, a bemused smile on his lips and then said. “Perhaps later, then.”

“If you are lucky.” I said and for a moment we just watched each other. He took my shawl and placed it over my shoulders. “We need to go now.” He said quietly. Outside an Imperial driver waited for us and before I knew it I was off to Theed for a second time in a week, but this time for a much happier reason.

We arrived shortly after six pm and the driver dropped us off in front of the small restaurant that Thrawn had chosen with instructions to be back at half past seven to pick us up. It was not the long, leisurely dinner that it could have been which was a shame because the restaurant was very nice. Tucked out of the way and off the main promenade, it was not as well known as some of the more exclusive places but therefore the food, Thrawn told me, was much better and the service twice as fast.

He had been right about the meal, it was lovely, and despite my nerves I managed to eat and enjoy it. Our conversation was light and consisted mainly of him telling about the auction he had bought my necklace at and of me describing my first visit to this city. When it was time, he paid the bill and we left for the Opera House in the waiting vehicle. Telling me it would be a spectacular evening had been a little bit of an understatement. The opening season night of the Theed Opera House was a red carpet evening.

He smiled and offered me his arm as we began our walk past the crowds of people who had all turned out to see the who is who of society walk up the grand stairs. There were camera crews and news teams, reporters and many photographers. Lights were shone in our eyes as we walked up the red carpet and past the onlookers. I remembered to smile but as with my last walk up a red carpet, did not look in any other direction than forward. Once inside the atmosphere was considerably less chaotic and loud but no less charged with energy.

The Grand Foyer was stunningly beautiful. I marvelled at the architecture and the ornate carvings and decorations, the paintings and portraits of landscapes and Royalty past and present. We walked slowly through the foyer to the main entrance hall where people mingled and chattered. Several people came up to Captain Thrawn and made polite small talk. I was neither spoken to nor introduced. I assumed that this was normal for the Palace Courtesans and we were allowing the charade that I was one of them to continue. It did not really bother me. The Empire was a man’s world to a great extent and pretty young women were expendable decorations, nothing more. If that was the impression most people had of me that was fine. If people think you are harmless they are less likely to see you as competition or worse an enemy. So I took my place at Thrawn’s side and smiled cheerfully. When I was spoken to I gave the appropriate answers. I was however, grateful when we were informed that we should find our seats by a very pompous sounding announcer. Thrawn offered me his arm once again and I placed my hand on it and was careful not to trip on the hem of my dress as we made our way up the grand stairs to find our seats.

The Emperor it seemed spared no expenses and we had amazing seats in a small box mid way up the gallery on the right side of the hall. We were shown to our places by an usher who moved swiftly and silently. The box held room for four couples and I wondered who we would be sharing it with. We were at the front or the box and I was glad, being not terribly tall, it had always been my experience that whenever anyone sat in front of me all I saw was the back of their heads no matter how the seating was arranged.

I sat on Thrawn’s left hand side next to the wall. From the moment we had arrived at the Opera House he had been all polite formality. I was well aware that the eyes that had followed us as we had entered the Opera House and had continued to watch us with interest and curiosity as we sat. Thrawn was the Emperor’s pet alien and I was the one decorating his arm for the evening. It was all court politics and stiff etiquette. It was easy enough to maintain the charade of being disinterested in the man at my side when so much else around me was fascinating.

I watched as the seats filled and the air gathered energy. I looked back to see who had joined us in the box we had but I knew none of the faces. I simply nodded and smiled when they arrived and took their seats. The Empire was vast and the Imperial officers too many to count. I did not get out enough to know who was who.

The place hummed with excitement when the Emperor took his seat in his own box. It was a fantastic display of opulence and wealth. Everyone was dressed up in their finest clothes and jewellery. The women sparkled and glittered like brightly decorated butterflies and the men all looked dashing and handsome no matter what species or race they were. Thrawn had not been kidding when he has said it would be spectacular. As with the Emperor’s grand Ball, everyone who was anyone was here. I looked about and saw that even the current Queen of Naboo was there, seated, with her entourage in the box next to the Emperor.The noise of the audience quickly gave way to silence as the Orchestra began its warm up and then the house lights dimmed and the show began.

In my life I could count on one hand the number of professional theatre productions I had been to. Mos Eisley was not exactly the cultural center of the world and while I had made it off world often enough, it wasn’t as though these trips were all based around going to the theatre or the opera or the ballet. My mother had made it a point of taking me to see the ballet when I was very young on a rare trip to Alderaan. The few times I had been exposed to these theatrical events had been magical to me. Now I sat in the darkened Opera House watching the Naboo Ballet Company perform Solace and Tempest.

The ballet had first been designed and choreographed by the now legendary dancer Akasti Schai, and was based around a very old Corellian legend concerning star crossed lovers, war, betrayal and ultimately, death. It was, on the whole, a very depressing tale because everyone you are made to care about in the story dies at the end, but the Naboo Ballet Company were among the finest dance company in the galaxy and despite the tragic air to the ballet the performances were captivating.

Intermission came and went. We made the obligatory rounds, smiled at the right people and made polite conversation. We were given a glass of ice cold Nubian champagne which neither of us drank and before the lights were flickered several times to signal it was time for us to return to our seats I made a graceful exit to visit the ladies room. By the time I made it back to my seat the lights were starting to dim and the second act began.

Two thirds of the way through the second act when the story turns truly depressing and the tragic end of the two young lovers becomes inevitable I looked at Thrawn. I wondered if he was enjoying the performance and what he thought of it all. His face, his eerie red eyes showed no emotion. He sensed my gaze and turned to look at me and smiled. I felt his arm on the arm rest adjoining my chair shift so that it lay in direct contact with mine. His touch was somehow reassuring.

I turned my attention back to the ballet. These dancers had perfect technique and where stunning to watch but all of that became secondary when I felt the subtle brush of Thrawn’s little finger on the underside of my hand. It was the barest of touches and I was unsure at first if it had been deliberate or imagined but when he did it again, I shivered. I fought the urge to look at him and did not take my eyes off the stage. I was caught between the desire his touch was creating and the sensations I felt because of the ballet.

The whole opera house was charged with emotion and I experienced it keenly. The dancers had connected with the audience and the story flowed about us like water. We felt, through their craft, the joys of falling in love, the terrors of war and now towards the end, the dreadful loss of everything held dear. In a way I was grateful for Thrawn’s flirtation, it distracted me enough from the flurry of feelings surrounding me that I did not completely lose it when the two young lovers died at the end. And while I shed a few tears I did not unabashedly bawl my eyes out which, under normal circumstances, I would have done.

Instead, I sat there in the dark trying to get my breathing under control and my heart to slow down. His touch was electrifying and the finale was mesmerizing. When the ballet finished and the curtain calls and standing ovations were over, the house lights came up. I discretely brushed away the remainders of my tears. We, along with everyone else, left our seats and made our way down to the main hall where now everyone was gathered, drinking the free wine and champagne, and chattering like crazy about the wonderful ballet. As I looked around I was glad to see I was not the only one who had shed a tear at the end.

The reception afterwards was, Thrawn informed me, standard. He handed me a glass of white wine and together we mingled. I was a little surprised that when the Emperor entered the reception hall no one dropped to their knees instead they bowed their heads or curtsied. I followed suite and dropped a polite curtsey when he passed by where we were standing. To my and many other people’s surprise the Emperor stopped and spoke to us.

“How did you enjoy the Ballet, captain?” he asked.

“It was magnificent.” Thrawn replied with a polite nod of his head. “Their reputation for being one of the best ballet companies in the galaxy is well deserved.”

The Emperor nodded and turned his gaze to me. For a second his weirding yellow eyes searched mine and then he smiled. “I do not need to ask how you enjoyed this evening, child, it is written in your face plainly for me to see.” He glanced back at Captain Thrawn. “We shall have to endevour to make certain that young Miss Gabriel is exposed to more live theatre. It seems to bring a flush to her cheeks and do her a world of good.” He said quietly. He gave me another glance and I blushed from the heat of it, averting my gaze from his. Thrawn merely inclined his head and nodded in agreement.

“As your Excellency wishes.” he said.

“Of course.” The Emperor said. I got the feeling there was another conversation going on underneath the words being spoken. I was grateful when he moved on to speak with someone else and left Thrawn and me out of his limelight.

I took a deep, shuddery breath, a large sip of my drink and worked on the calming exercises I had been taught. I was more than grateful when Thrawn suggested we leave. The driver who had brought us to Theed was waiting for us and the ride back to the retreat was silent. I played nervously with the exquisite little pendant that hung around my neck. Thrawn sat still and calm. The driver dropped us off at the house where I lived and, after a brief conversation with the Captain, he drove away. I let the Captain into the house and pretended not to notice what he held in his hand.

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