We had talked until dawn. He had been true to his word and over a large bowl shaped glass with a small amount of brandy in it he told me about his meeting with Navaari. I soaked up each word eagerly because despite the fact that my time with the Hjal Dantassi hunter had been very short he had, oddly enough, had a large impact on my life. But there wasn’t much to tell in the end, the meeting really had been short and Navaari had mostly grilled Thrawn about me.
“He was curious.” Thrawn had said. “You were not what he expected.” And before I could ask what that was supposed to mean he continued. “Kirja’navaar’inkjerii is somewhat old fashioned. He was surprised that I would choose a non Chiss female to…,” he searched for the right word. “…to join my clan. He was surprised at how young you are. He asked me why you and I told him. He asked me why I had not prepared you better and I gave him my reasons. He listened and then he proceeded to tell me off as though I were a young child not a respected hunter in my own right and I took it gracefully because he is my elder and I honour him greatly and...” he added. “He is also right.”
I just looked at him as he spoke. “You won’t elaborate on the details for me, will you?” I asked.
“No.” he said firmly. “Kirja’navaar’inkjerii impressed upon me that we must visit Hjal, that you must be presented to the clan and given the right to unmask. I told him when the time was right.”
“And he said?”
“He said nothing, he merely smiled. He placed both of his hands upon my shoulders and he touched his forehead to mine as is custom between hunters and then we parted ways. It was, as I told you before, a very brief, chance meeting.”
“Navaari told me that the Dantassi do not believe in chance.”
Thrawn cocked his head slightly and raised an eyebrow. “Nor do they but sometimes it happens anyway.”
I finished my brandy and set the glass back on the table. “What does it mean the right to be unmasked?”
“You are asking for details again, yes?”
“It is the ceremony which allows a member from one clan to go unmasked within the confines of another clan.” He said. “You would be brought before the entire clan, your face still hidden, to stand in front of the Tribal Elder. The ceremony entails a sponsor, which would be Kirja’navaar’inkjerii and the Ta’kasta’cariad, which will be me. The Ta’kasta’cariad presents you to the clan and the sponsor accepts responsibility for you on behalf of the clan. There are words spoken which you repeat and then I lift the mask from your face and show your true self to all, they in turn do the same for you. It is a momentous occasion. There is much celebrating afterwards.”
“That’s it?” he was leaving some things out, I could feel that.
“More or less.”
“What are you not telling me?”
“Are you using your witch ways to read my mind?” he asked with a slight smile.
“No, but I feel it when someone is not entirely truthful.” I said openly.
He nodded his understanding. “Well, the ritual changes depending on circumstances, so I am vague about it because I have no real idea exactly how it will go, when we actually go through with it.”
“You mean, you’d consider doing this?”
“It is not wise to displease a Dantassi elder, which Kirja’navaar’inkjerii is.”
“Oh.” I nodded. “And just for the record I don’t use my witch ways on you, at least not since Myrkr and you deserved that.”
His smile was slow but his eyes burned. I fought the urge to scuttle away from him on the couch instead I raised my chin just a notch and matched his gaze. He reached out to me and I held my ground. He took my chin, gently, between his thumb and forefinger. “That was a powerful little magic trick you pulled back then.” He whispered leaning in close to me.
“I was cross.” I said.
“You need to watch your temper, then.” He said softly. He released my chin but caressed my face with the back of his forefinger.
“So I am frequently told.” I said tartly. He grinned. I loved this tension that welled up between us. I never took my eyes from his and we stared at each other for a very long time. He brushed his finger across my lips but then abruptly sat back.
“Would you like more brandy?” he asked as the tension receded.
“No.” I shook my head, more to clear it than to negate his question. “I think I have had enough, maybe a cup of tea?”
He got up taking the empty glasses with him and went to the kitchen. I followed. I watched him as he moved about the kitchen and set water to boil, readied a tea pot which looked very old, cast from a dark, heavy metal. Like everything he owned it was exquisite and beautiful. Its metal body decorated with ornate patterns.
“You wrote in your last letter that you had been undergoing training in the Center.” He said as he readied the tea leaves.
I frowned. “The Center?”
“From your description, your master is having you go through training exercises at what is commonly referred to as the Center. It is a teaching facility used, in part, to help train the Emperor’s private guard and his agents.” He said pouring the water into the pot. The scent of the tea rose in the air and it was soothing. “In that cupboard, second shelf, you’ll find cups and saucers.” He said nodding his head in the general direction. I followed him back into the sitting room and set the cups on the table.
“White chaeya leaf tea from Malastare.” He said as he poured two cups. “It has calming properties.” I wondered who exactly it was that needed calming but let it slide.
“What do you know about this Center?” I asked taking the cup he offered. The tea had a sweet, fragrant scent. It tasted a little like Corellian Jasmine and wild apples.
“It is a secret training center for the best of the best, those who will serve the Emperor closely. It is used to train his spies, agents and, as I said, the Royal Guard. It is some place deep in the underground part of the Palace and not many outside this circle of people know of its existence.” He said.
He smiled. “I have undergone some of the programs and training regimes that are done there.”
“Is that standard proceedure for a member of the Imperial Navy?” I asked.
“No, but then I am not your standard Imperial Naval officer either.” He said. “The man who found me and played a large part in my academy instruction felt it would be useful for me to be tested through the Center’s programme.”
“That was Voss Park, wasn’t it?” I asked.
He arched an eyebrow. “Yes, a good man, an intriguing man to say the least.”
“So, what did you think of the training that you went through there?” I asked.
He sighed. “It was interesting. Some of the exercises were challenging and some of them were stupid and ill conceived. I made suggestions as to how they could be improved. I did not spend a great deal of time there. I am a little surprised that you are undergoing Center training but I assume, as in all things, the Emperor has his reasons for requesting this.”
“Well, if he does, I don’t know about it.” I said not hiding my annoyance.
“Then my suggestion would be to learn all you can from what you are asked to do, enjoy it.”
I made a face. “Enjoy it?” I let out the breath I had been holding. “I am Lord Vader’s personal Assistant not a bloody spy or secret agent! Running around like a wamprat in a sand maze is not fun.”
“It’s not funny.” I told him.
“No, probably it is not, but sometimes you are.” He said gently.
I gave him what I hoped was an indignant look. “Glad I amuse you.”
He sat back and regarded me evenly for a moment. “Are you scared by the exercises you are doing in the Center?”
“Yes, but not so much by the trainings themselves but what they represent.” I answered.
“I can understand that, but perhaps you might want to let that fear go and concentrate on the lessons learned.” He said.
“You sound like the Jedi Master in the Mandalorian Journal I have.” I said. “Good advice, in theory, but hard to put into practice.”
He nodded. “Over coming fear is always difficult, it is a very powerful thing. Perhaps that is the purpose of your time in the Center, to over come your fear.”
“Fear of what?”
He gave me a speculative look. “That is something only you can answer. What scares you the most?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” I shrugged.
“Of course you do.” He chided.
I frowned and thought about his question. “Failure.” I said after a long silence.
He nodded. “What else?”
“Being helpless.” I told him. “I am not overly fond of the idea of being trapped and I do not like losing control either.”
“Does anything you have gone through at the Center address any of these things?”
I nodded. “Yes, but how…?”
“The Emperor knows many things. He has ways of seeing past the face and into the soul. Perhaps it is his wish that you face your fears. I am guessing, of course, but it would be the logical assumption considering he has expressed a wish that you be more than simply Lord Vader’s go-to girl. Your place in the Imperial Court is unusual, you are privy to information on many of the high ranking officers, members of the Imperial navy among other things. You have a fairly high profile in the public arena. Lord Vader does not lightly allow anyone near to him and you have managed to be one of the few, much to the concern of some. While you might not have thought about it, this does place you in an interesting and somewhat precarious position. Just something to consider.”
I sipped my tea thoughtfully. “Cheery dinner-date conversation this.” I told him after a moment. “Is there something going on that you know about and I don’t?”
“My dear, I know many things you do not but with regards to this particular topic, the answer would be no. I speculate and make educated guesses based on facts.” He stated coolly then added. “And you are right, it isn’t particularly cheery date conversation, but it is on your mind. Have you spoken your concerns with Lord Vader at all?”
“He said we will meet when he returns to Coruscant in a couple of days from now.”
He nodded. “Good. Perhaps that will help.”
“I doubt it.” I said dryly, pouring a second cup of tea. “After all, it is Lord Vader we are talking about here.”
To my surprise Thrawn burst out laughing. I watched him for a moment in astonishment and then giggled with him, his laughter was infectious. It broke the strange tension that had dampened the evening and the conversation shifted to art and music. We talked for a very long time and it surprised me when I suddenly realised it was no longer late evening but early morning. I watched as Thrawn spoke about an artist we both liked. He was animated and passionate. His hands, large and long fingered, moved as he spoke accentuating his words. As I watched him I realised that over the months that we had known each other I had begun to feel much more for him than just the sparks of desire he ignited in me. It occurred to me that this was not a very good thing and my mind said back off and get out but my heart said something utterly different. Something of these thoughts must have shown on my face because he stopped mid sentence and looked at me.
“What is it?” he asked. “Is anything wrong? Is there something you’d like?”
What I wanted to say was ‘I’d like to go home, it’s late, and I need to sleep.’ But what came out of my mouth was “I’d like you to kiss me.”
He sat very still for a moment then smiled slowly. “I had wondered if you might make such a request.” He said softly.
“You were waiting for me to ask?”
He leaned in very close to me and whispered in my ear. “It is not always about what I would like, Miss Gabriel. Sometimes I wish to know what it is you want.” His voice was velvety and his breath was warm against the skin of my neck. It made me shiver. I looked to his face to try and decipher this mystery of a man I sat next to. He simply smiled and then he did as I had asked. He kissed me. No mysteries in that, I did my best to kiss him back and gave up thinking about anything else.
Desire is a strange thing. It curls about inside your body like a dragon and breathes its fire until it feels as though you will burn from the inside out. It is a drug though, and once tasted, one generally wants more and it is a power that once tapped is hard to turn off. I could feel it all rise up and crash around me. I was true to my word and I did not use my weirding ways on Thrawn but I felt his desire keenly and I fed on it, I fed on my own as well and it spiraled out of control showering us both. I could no more stop this than I could stop breathing. If this had been a tangible thing we would have been surrounded by a dancing, fiery light, least that is what it felt like. He broke from me, mid kiss, surprise in his eyes. He pushed back, holding me at arm’s length. He worked to control his breathing.
“What is this? Is it your doing?” he asked,
I nodded. “I’m sorry…I can’t control this…you, I mean I …” I stopped and also tried to remember to breathe. “Oh boy…”
“This power you have...” He could not finish his sentence. He looked quite intoxicated but it had nothing to do with wine or brandy.
I swallowed trying to get my heartbeat back to some sort of normal. I took a deep, steadying breath and shook my head. “This is something new, I have never felt this, well quite anything like this before, I don’t know how to …” I shrugged. I had no idea how to even describe what this was, how it happened. We stared at each other for several long wary moments and slowly the energy receded.
He got up and walked to the window. He was very quiet. After a moment I followed to stand at his side. We watched the night sky slowly give way to the dawn. I wondered if I had done something wrong, this was new territory to me. I wanted to ask but feared his answer so I stayed silent and brooded.
When he finally looked at me it was with a smile. He caressed my face gently. “Do you have plans for this evening?” he asked.
I raised both eyebrows in surprise. That was the last question I had expected. “What did you have in mind?”
“Tonight is the final evening of Winter Fete, there will be a large celebration in the Imperial palace, the same place the Grand Ball is held. I believe I owe you a dance or two and this would be the perfect venue to repay this debt.”
“This is an Imperial Court event?” I asked. I had not been aware of it, but that was not a big surprise, I had been ignoring some of the internal memos lately.
He nodded. “Yes, although it is not a required attendance event. I am quite sure Lord Vader was not sent a reminder. The Emperor will most likely not attend this year either but many others will. The orchestra will be the best and the dance floor, as you know, is large.”
“So, there will be lots of people?” I asked.
He nodded. “Yes.” He said. “You’d prefer something less formal, less crowded?” he asked but before I could answer he continued. "I don’t think it would be so wise for me to spend another night all alone with you. I only have so much self restraint and while, my dear, I can and will given half a chance, spend hours kissing you there will come a moment, a time when that is not enough.” His voice was a husky purr.
“Is that so wrong?” I asked.
He sighed. “If I were to pick you up right now and carry you to my bedroom would you be afraid?” he asked.
“A little.”I nodded.
He shook his head. “You are such a distraction.” He muttered.
“Is that good or bad?”
He drew a deep breath. “Bad for my self control. Good for my ego.” He said with a slight smile. “What you and I feel, it isn’t bad or wrong but the timing is.”
“Oh? Why?” I asked, folding my arms across my chest.
“Because, my dear, when I bed you I want that we have the whole night before us not already behind us.” He whispered in my ear. “And there will be no fear just anticipation.”
My mouth formed a silent "Oh!" and I suppose the sudden blush I felt rise in my cheeks told him all he needed to know.
He chuckled and went back to looking out of the window. “You never answered my question.” He said after a while.
“Do you wish to attend the festivities with me tonight?”
“Oh right, well it could be fun.” I nodded.
“I’ll take that as a yes?”
“On one condition.” I said.
He arched an eyebrow.
“That we slip away and watch the fireworks from the balcony in peace and quiet.”
“I think that is a condition I can acquiesce to.” He said. “And now I think it is time I took you home. I have some things to do and you have work, do you not?”
I stifled a yawn shaking my head. “No, I have been granted some time off for Fete week.”
“Then I suggest you get some rest for this evening.” He said.
“Aye, aye Captain.” I said, but what I was thinking was what in the name of Sarlacc was I going to wear to this thing. My life, it seemed, had sadly become a strange mix of the sublime and ridiculous. The ridiculous being my sudden need to be fashionable and worry about dresses, shoes and such and whether they would please this man or not.
I smiled when Thrawn placed my wrap across my shoulders and without much further ado he took me home.