Predators and Prey 8

The first thing I did when I got back to my flat was make an appointment to see Cati, the Rodian seamstress whose dresses I adored, later that afternoon. The second thing I did was have a long, hot bath. My mind buzzed because I was over-tired and unable to unwind. I could not think straight. This was not what I had wanted or expected. Every time I closed my eyes I could hear his voice, feel his touch, taste his lips and it was absolutely all I could think of. It was driving me mad. I did not like this sensation of spiralling out of control. That one person, this one man, had such a bewildering influence over me. I was scared to death of it all but like the drug it was, I was beginning to crave it as well. It tugged at me. It pushed at my self control which I had totally lost. I had tapped into the desire, the power that we had created and I had sent it flying like a wild wind all around the two of us. It had been so strong he had not only just felt it but it had hit him like a sand storm. That was the thing that worried at me the most. How did I learn to control that? Lord Vader had spoken of passion, saying it was a power and it should be used not shoved aside and stifled. The Emperor had said much the same thing, I was a creature of passion and I should tap into this power but when I did all manner of chaos seemed to break loose. I wondered if this intensity was normal but I had nothing except my experience with Jyrki to base it on and, well, that was not the greatest example in the galaxy.

I lay in the bath and worked on letting it all go, concentrated on my breathing, but the relaxation techniques didn’t work and the only thing that happened after a while was the water got cold. Frustration eventually gave way to exhaustion as I argued with myself over and over about everything and anything. When I did fall asleep it was a mercy.

I woke mid afternoon from a restless dream. The strange man in the desert from a previous nightmare haunted me in my sleep. The things he said, the images he showed me made no sense. Like most dreams they were jumbled and confusing yet real enough that I remembered them up on waking. I woke troubled and fuzzy headed. It took several cups of thick, sweet coffee before I felt like myself and ready to face Cati and her almost overwhelming enthusiasm.

Cati’s shop was in the fashion district off the main strip. She was a pretty woman from the planet Rodia and she recognized me instantly as I walked through the doors. Her mohawk hair had been dyed a bright red and it matched her outfit. A genuinely cheerful grin split her snout. I was surprised that she remembered my name and even more surprised that she remembered exactly what dresses I had from her. The conversation was light and airy until she commented on how tired I looked while taking new measurements.

“Late night.” I said making a face and not quite managing to hide a smile.

She grinned as only a Rodian can. “Oh, I hope he was worth it.” She said.

I looked at her for a moment and then threw caution to the wind asked. “How did you know there was a he involved?”

She gave me an ‘I know all sorts of things’ look. “Miss Gabriel, I have been doing this dress making thing a long time. I have learned to read people pretty well over the years and that look on your face, that spark in your eyes says there was a man involved.”

“Ah, well it’s not what you think.” I frowned.

She stopped what she was doing and put her hands on her hips. “And just what do I think?” she asked.

“Erm…” I opened my mouth then shut it again. Rodians could be fierce when they wanted to be and Cati was no exception.

“Well then! No actually, I wasn’t thinking that at all.” She told me tartly going back to taking measurements. I sighed, remembering that Rodians could also be very forward when they wished to be. “Actually what I was thinking is, it is nice to see someone enjoying the company they keep rather than it being a job. You are not a courtesan so I didn’t assume you were sleeping with him, who ever it is.” She said with a grin. “Besides you don’t have that slept with him look in your eyes.”

“Erm…” I started and then stopped. We were the only two in her shop, it was quiet and calm and she was chattier than I remember her being. “No, I am not a courtesan and yes he was worth it.” I could not help my smile. “I have no idea what I am getting myself into though.” I added.

“Hrmph, I can see that.” She said. “Now, what do you need from me today?”

“I need a dress.” I said.

“You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t, details would be helpful.” She said.

“For tonight.” I added.

“Ah, I knew there was a challenge in this. Am I to also guess that you wish it to please this gentleman?”

I began to ask how she knew that but she just laughed. “Yes.” I replied.

“What sort of venue is it?”

“The Fete festival at the Palace. So it’s formal, even though they say it isn’t and there will be dancing, lots and lots of dancing.”

She grinned widely. “Oh, I have just the perfect thing then and it should fit you with some minor adjustments.” And before I could say anything she vanished and returned a few moments later with an armful of pale pink fabric.

“Try this on.” She said handing me the big pile of pink.

I did as I was told. I didn’t think I had any right to argue with her seeing as how this was really short notice. The dress was surprisingly stunning and the colour was perfect. It was a strapless dress without a whole lot of back to it either. It was made from a beautiful silk that shimmered with pale purple highlights. The Bodice was snug and gave me cleavage yet was still amazingly comfortable. I wasn’t sure how she had managed that trick. The front of the gown where the bodice ended had tiny, almost invisible pleats allowing for a flat clean look over the hips but the fabric flared towards the floor giving the skirt itself a lot of material. For fabric that looked heavy it was surprisingly light and soft. The entire dress had been hand beaded with tiny, pale iridescent beads. It was stunning.

I walked out of the change room and Cati whistled. “Yup.” She said. “Needs to be hemmed though, you’ll trip and fall on your face with that length.”

“It’s strapless, how on earth will it stay up?” I asked tugging a little at the bodice.

“Goodness, you are not going to fight a war in it or wrestle gundarks, are you?” Cati shook her head. “You should learn to trust more. I am very good at what I do and believe me that bodice isn’t going any where, don’t worry nothing will pop out!” I must have had a look of disbelief on my face because she told me to move around, stretch, twirl…do what ever it was that dancer did. So I obeyed and after five minutes of wild movements I was reasonable sure the dress would stay put.

“Right, now that that worry is over with, hop up on the platform so I can hem this dress or you won’t have it in time for tonight. When do you need to be there?”

I stood on the platform so that she could do her work. “He’ll be picking me up at eight tonight.”

“Lots of time then, do you have shoes to match?” she asked.

“Uhm, that would be a no, unless black pumps or boots count.”

She sighed and promptly vanished into the back room for a few moments. I could hear her talking but I didn’t know the language. When she came back she continued to set the hem. About ten minutes into the process someone came into the store and yelled for her.
She came back with a box in her hands.

“Try these.” She said taking a pair of shoes out of the tissue paper they were wrapped in.

“How do you do that?” I asked as I tried on the shoes. “They match the dress perfectly and they fit as though they were made for me.”

She nodded. “I have an arrangement with the shoe maker down the street he matches dye lots with me and I use his shoes exclusively. He remembered your shoe size from your last visit.”

“Cool.” Was all I could think to say. She chuckled as she finished pinning the hem.

“Okay, Miss Gabriel, you can get out of the dress now.”

I slipped off the shoes and got down off the platform. Wriggled my way out of the dress in the small change room and put my street clothes back on.

“I’ll have it all sent over when it’s done. Just give me the address.” She said.

“Thank you for everything. I owe you one.” I said as I wrote the expense account number on the bill.

She smiled. “My pleasure. Most of the time I get bored courtesans coming in and saying things like ‘He likes black or he wants me to wear something backless. As a rule they are fussy and difficult to work with and so are most of the wealthier clients I have. Don’t get me wrong I love them all they pay the bills but…” She shrugged. “, every now and then it is nice to fit someone who actually looks forward to the evening. How were you planning on wearing your hair?”

“Oh probably similar to how I am now, just tucked up with Zenji sticks.”

She shook her head. “Let it down, sweep a little off your face, tie that up with a nice clip or something. You have lovely, long hair and your gentleman will like that if you don’t often wear it down. You do have some decent hair clips don’t you?”

I nodded. “Thank you.” I said genuinely grateful and totally on impulse I hugged her.

She grinned. “I will have your dress finished and delivered by six pm, so enjoy the evening.” She said.

True to her word, the dress and the shoes arrived at my door by six pm. I unwrapped the dress from the tissue paper and held it up. In the privacy of my own home it looked a lot more revealing than it had in the shop. I laid it over the chair and took a look at the shoes, they seemed a little higher than they had before and I bit my lip. What had I been thinking? It was just as I was about to go through my closet to see if there was anything else I could wear that I noticed the extra envelope with my name on it. Inside was a hand scribbled note from Cati and a delicate hair clip that matched the dress.

Don’t you dare get cold feet. The dress and shoes are perfect. The hair piece is a little gift just to make sure you actually get that right and don’t use some sort of paper clip or something. Next time you come to the shop I want to know how it went. - Cati

The note made me smile and wonder how it was she really did know so much. It took me two hours to fuss with my hair, get my make up just right decide what perfume to use and get into the dress. I was an absolute wreck by the time the doorbell rang.

We had been through this before. There was a sort of routine to it now, me opening the door, letting him in then waiting to see his face, his reaction to me. I stepped back as he entered the flat. He was wearing his dress uniform and he carried it well.

His eyes looked me up and down. “Pretty dress.” He said with a wolfish smirk.

“Cati made it.” I said for lack of anything else to say.

“Ah yes, your favourite tailor. I’ll have to send her flowers as a thank you or something. She has a very good eye, you look quite ...” He paused, “stunning.”

I was genuinely nervous. I wasn’t sure why exactly. Usually we bantered cheerfully back and forth and it was easy. Suddenly, now I felt incredibly awkward. I could and would stand up to Lord Vader even argue with him, but right in this moment I wished the ground would devour me, or something anything to not have to face Thrawn. I smiled shyly, fiddled with my hair and looked away, glancing at my shawl and purse. I didn’t see him move and I gasped when his hands slipped about my waist pulling me tightly to him.

“A’myshk’a, look at me.” He commanded. I did as he bid. I don’t know what he read in my face and I could not decipher his own expression but the kiss he gave me was easy to understand. Time stopped, my heart raced and when the kiss ended I felt a lot less nervous. I wasn’t sure how or why that worked but I wasn’t going to argue and I was thankful that I had chosen a clear lip gloss over lipstick.

“Better?” he asked.

I nodded.

“I have something for you.” He said placing a small box in my hand before I could say anything.

I opened it and smiled. It was a pendant. “You give me so much…” I said quietly. I took it out of the box and studied it.

“It has a name, this piece.” he said, “and it is quite old.”

I let the light play with the stone, which was a simple, round piece of polished Ma’arilite. I could just make out the flash of blue, the colour of twilight night as I moved it back and forth.”

Thrawn watched me and then when he saw from the look of surprise on my face that I had found the thing that made this piece special he took it from my fingers and fastened the delicate silver chain around my neck.

“It is very subtle.” He said as he moved my hair aside, his fingers brushing the sensitive skin of the nape of my neck. “Most people would not value such a pale example of Ma’arilite, but the woman who sold it showed me its treasure and I knew you had to have it. She said that it was called Rishi-estalliana, which means evening star. It is not as flashy as some pieces of Ma’arilite that I have seen but then again, sometimes the most beautiful things are hidden until someone uncovers their secrets.” He said gently.

I picked it up and looked at it, it took a little bit of work to find that singular flash of brilliance and colour which twinkled just like a star in the blue

“Thank you.” I said. “You keep giving me beautiful things and I don’t know what to say.”

He arched an eyebrow. “You don’t need to say anything, just enjoy them. Now, shall we go?” he asked offering me his arm.

The air buzzed with excitement and good cheer. People were out in full force all over the city celebrating Winter Fete. We made our way into the great hall and I marvelled at how many beings attended this particular event. The hall was alive with laughter and chatter. Palace courtiers and courtesans, Imperial officers of all ranks, many Imperial Palace workers, civilian and military, human and alien alike all seemed to be enjoying and taking part in the party.

With my hand lightly placed on Thrawn’s arm, we walked down the main stairs into the crowd. There were many faces I recognized and many members of the Imperial Navy and military nodded or saluted Thrawn as he passed by.

“What would you like to drink?” he asked me as we neared the buffet table and bar.

“Something that won’t go straight to my head.” I told him, looking around. Thrawn nodded and moved away from my side to go and fetch something to drink. I drew a deep breath and watched the crowd around me. Already people were dancing. The music was good and cheerful. I was caught up observing the swirling dancers when someone touched my arm.

“Hey, I didn’t expect you to be here!” Shiv said happily giving me a hug and a kiss on each of my cheeks.

“Last minute decision.” I said. “I tried to comm you two days ago but they said you were unavailable.”

“Had to go to Corellia for a project. Was it important?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Nope, just wanted to chat.”

“Good evening Siavaan.” Thrawn said from behind me. I took the pale blue coloured drink he offered me.

“Tanji berry juice, no alcohol, no fuzzy head.” Thrawn said to me as I gave the drink a questioning look. Shiv raised his eyebrows.

I looked at both men. “I can’t dance if I am drunk.” I said tartly, sipping the strange berry juice.

“We have a table reserved over there,” Shiv pointed out, “If you want to join us, it will get very crowded soon and it’s good to have a place to put your stuff, drinks, purses what ever…”

We walked over to the table to claim two seats and Shiv introduced Thrawn to Antygra, Bobbyn, Maxxi and Ynyth. They all hid their surprise at seeing the Captain joining their table really well but I knew there would be many, many questions as soon as Thrawn was not at my side. I laid my shawl over the back of the chair and my little purse on the table beside my drink as we got through the greetings and pleasantries.

“Captain, I believe you promised me a dance.” I said before anyone could say anything else. Thrawn simply smiled, offered me his arm and led me to the dance floor where we joined in on the waltz currently being played.

“Your friends are nice but nosey.” He said and we circled around the dance floor.

“How can you tell that, they never asked a single question?”

He laughed. “Was written all over their faces, and you cannot tell me that they will not ask a single question about me and you as soon as you sit down and I am not with you,”

I gave him my best innocent look. “Guess you should probably stay very close to me then, shouldn’t you.”

“You play a dangerous game, Miss Gabriel.” He said with that smile I had come to associate with his teasing.

“I am learning from the best.” I retorted.

“Touché.” He laughed.

We danced easily together and I loved the sensation of whirling around the dance floor in his arms. As we moved about he pointed out many of the military and naval officers to me. He began to teach me about how to identify the ranks from the insignia worn and the differences in the uniforms, the most notable being that Grand Admirals wore white. I didn’t tell him that I had already known that. I didn’t want to spoil his fun because he enjoyed teaching me. There were several men wearing the white uniform to be seen and he knew who they all were.

“In the corner, the Grand Admiral with the brown hair, next to the blond courtesan is Rufaan Tigellinus. He was appointed two years ago to the circle of twelve. Not the best military genius among us but he plays the court politics very well. He likes to be seen with the elite circles of the Imperial Court, the ruling families and Coruscant's wealthy.” He said in my ear as we danced. “He is oily and does not like non humans but he tries to hide this fact.”

I glanced at the man he was describing. He was not particularly handsome and had an air of haughty boredom about him. The young courtesan who hung off his arm also looked disinterested in anything going on around her.

“You know Grand Admiral Demetrius Zaarin already.” Thrawn said, nodding over to where the Grand Admiral stood, talking with a small circle of lower ranking naval officers. “He is a brilliant scientist, very gifted, very intelligent and remarkably at ease with court society etiquette. He is the leader of the Starfighter Research has helped design some of the Imperial ships. He is working on upgrading some of the older model TIE fighter. He can be very charming when he wants to as you have already discovered.”

I nodded. The music changed and so did the dance. Under Thrawn’s leadership I didn’t stumble over my own feet.

“By the bar is Nial Declann. It might interest you to learn that he is force sensitive and he has been well trained in the arts you would know as Sith, that however, is not widely known.” He told me with a slight smile, “He is known for his use of something the Emperor calls battle meditation, the ability to manipulate and help aid the troops during manoeuvres and actual offensives. He is moody and unpredictable, though. Very loyal to the Empire and not particularly interested in the inner intricacies of court politics, he and Tigellinus argue a lot.”

“You seem to know an awful lot about them all.” I commented as he guided me through a complicated set of steps.

“I make it my business to know as much as I can about my enemies and those who regard me as a threat.” He said coldly. “Make no mistake, Miss Gabriel, the Imperial court and all its manifestations is a vicious creature. It is as much about survival of the fittest as it is about survival of the smartest. Do you see the Grand Admiral over there, the one next to Moff Kaine, well that is Ishin-Il-Raz, probably one of the only Grand Admirals who was promoted purely for his ability to play the political games. He has absolutely no military or strategic knowledge what so ever. He helped to co-found COMPNOR. He has attempted to try his hand at the military game and failed miserably. His failures brought about certain atrocious acts and massacres which have helped to alienate certain members of the Empire against Imperial rule. He admires the Emperor above all other beings and tries to emulate him in many ways but fails to see the bigger picture.”

“Sounds charming.” I said flatly, glancing at the small man with black curly hair and cruel looking eyes. “Why are you telling me all of this?”

He smiled at me. “It is always good to know a little about the people who live in your world.” He said. “These men are powerful and have influence. Even Lord Vader will, on occasion, listen to them when he feels they have something to contribute.” He said leading me off the dance floor towards our table but before we could reach it we were intercepted by two young naval officers who wanted to talk to the Captain.

“Run along, my dear,” he said in that cool tone he reserved for when we were in public. “I’ll join you shortly.”

“Yes, Captain.” I said meekly, I could play this game too. I made my way back to where Shiv and Antygra sat. Bobbyn and Ynyth were dancing. I sat, took a sip of my drink and made a face.

“So you and the Captain, huh?” Antygra asked. “He took you to the Opera on Theed too didn’t he?”

I rolled my eyes. “You were there, you spied on me.”

“Oh please, it’s not spying if I didn’t know you were going to be there. But you know, you are his favourite, I have not ever seen him attend these sorts of functions before unless it was absolutely mandatory and never with anyone of the female persuasion.” Antygra said, waving his hand at me to shut my protest up.

I shrugged and Shiv poked my arm. “Our Merly is just full of secrets.” He said.

“So, what is he like?” Antygra asked. Everyone asked this. I gave him my usual reply and Shiv poked me in the arm again.

“Ow!” I poked him back.

“That’s your standard answer, Merly. Now truth!” Shiv said.

I sighed. “Well, he is a very good cook.” I said and then giggled at Shiv’s expression.

“How do you know that?”

I looked at Antygra. “Not telling.” I answered. “He is also a very good dancer and he has exquisite taste in wine and art.”

Shiv shook his head in mock despair, “Oh dear.”

I laughed.

“Anyone want something else to drink?” asked Antygra, getting up, with a shake of his head.

“Sparkling water, please, anything but this awful berry stuff.” I said.

Once he had left, Shiv cornered me. “Okay, out with it.” He poked my arm. “What is going on with you and that man? And don’t tell me ‘nothing’ because I simply won’t believe that. You blush when you’re asked about him and you were positively glowing as he swept you off to the dance floor.”

“Shiv, you know it is forbidden to fraternise with members of the Imperial navy.”

He gave me a look. “Okay, okay we’ll go out for coffee tomorrow afternoon, someplace private and you WILL tell me everything.”

I just raised my eyebrows at him and accepted the drink Antygra gave me. I was certain that Shiv would have pressed further but Thrawn picked that moment to rejoin us.

“So did I arrive in time to save you from the inquisition?” Thrawn asked me, pointedly looking at Shiv and Antygra. They both tried to look innocent and failed. Thrawn smiled. “I see that is a yes.”

“We are just looking out for our girl here.” Shiv said defensively.

Thrawn arched an eyebrow. “Indeed. Well then, Siavaan, what would you like to know?”

I looked from one face to the other waiting to hear what the outcome of this would be but before I could find out someone tapped me lightly on the shoulder. I turned around to see Grand Admiral Zaarin standing there, asking me to dance with him. It would have been rude to refuse. I got up and placed my hand gingerly in the Admiral’s. I looked back as I was escorted to the dance floor, they were all laughing. I was pretty certain that what ever Shiv, the Captain and Antygra talked about, they would not tell me afterwards.

The rest of the evening was a dizzying blur of dance and chatter. I suppose because it was Winter Fete and the last night of the celebration, as it got later in the evening so the party got wilder, louder and more out of control. It surprised me a little when several fist fights broke out among junior officers and palace civilian workers. More than once I found myself being taken for a palace courtesan and having to fend off unwanted attention from some very drunk men. Usually these matters were resolved amicably enough and only twice did Thrawn step in and enforce my refusal firmly enough to get the point across. By eleven o’clock I had had enough.

“Can we go now?” I whispered as we danced to a slow piece of music. It was difficult not to forget where we were and lay my head against his chest as he held me close.

“If that is your wish.” He said with a lazy smile.

“Well it is either that or I kill the next silly idiot who tries to kiss me, or grab at me and that would make a scene.” I said sweetly.

Thrawn chuckled. “When we finish this dance, say goodbye to your friends and I will have the speeder waiting.” He said.

It was raining. I hurried into the waiting speeder so I would not get my dress wet. It had seemed a bit silly to me that we should go to this fete thing in a vehicle when I only lived a short distance away but now I was glad, my feet ached from all the dancing in new shoes and the rain would have ruined my dress.

As soon as we stepped inside my part of the palace, I kicked off my shoes. Barefoot felt like bliss. Thrawn smiled watching me.

“You go on ahead, I’ll join you in a moment I need to change shoes and visit the refresher.” I said as we reached my flat. “Should I bring something to drink or do you have that sorted out?” I asked opening my door.

“I have that well in hand, my dear.” He said.

“Then I will be with you in a few minutes.” I said.

He arched an eyebrow and gave me one of those looks that somehow managed to make my knees weak. “If you have not joined me in five minutes I shall have to come looking for you and that could get…interesting.”

I stood up on tip toes and kissed him lightly. “Interesting could be fun.” I said.

“Miss Gabriel, the fire works will begin very soon.” His hands cupped my face gently.

Without meaning to I replied. “I hope so.”

He gave me a slow feral smile and his eyes glowed. “Careful…” he said.

I swallowed and backed off a space. “I’ll be quick as a pod racer!”

He turned away, laughing as he walked down the hallway towards the older part of the palace where our balcony was. I smiled as I walked into my flat. It didn’t seem out of place to me to think of that quiet place and its stunning balcony as ‘ours’. I wondered what this night would bring. Anticipation, not fear.

Quickly, I slipped into the refresher and did what I had to do, brushed my teeth and refreshed my perfume. Then I went into my bedroom to find a more comfortable pair of shoes.

I wasn’t expecting to see anyone there so when I came face to face with two large men I had never met before standing in my bedroom I was momentarily shocked. It took the nearest one lunging for me to spring me into action. I kicked him as hard as I could and ran from the bed room. I was not expecting to encounter someone else in my flat so the man who had been waiting in the quiet of the living room took me completely by surprise when he backhanded me across the face and sent me flying across the floor. I didn’t even get to see him. Before I could get up the other two were upon me. I yelled and kicked and fought using everything I had ever been taught but one small woman against three very strong men was a bit unfair. They had the advantage and I was hindered by vast amounts of beautiful and expensive silk. It was a short fight. In the end I felt someone grab my hair and yank back my head, his hands grazing the chain from my pendant and breaking it. I reached up to catch the necklace before it fell to the ground just as a hypo-spray was jabbed into the side of my neck.

“Just like you said, Captain, she fights like a wee devil.” said the voice at my side.

“Just dope her!” The order came from the man who had been hiding in the living room.

I felt the pressure of the spray against my skin and then I felt the drug. It was very strong and it made my skin crawl from the inside out. I wriggled and struggled as much as I could but who ever held me had me locked fast in his arms and I was losing consciousness. I felt myself being lifted up and slung over someone’s shoulder, I felt him duck to go under something and I then felt the darkness come for me. I struggled against it but lost. The last thought I remember having was that I had dropped the necklace Thrawn had given me and it would be lost. After that was only blackness and nothing more.

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