Thank you all for reading and reviewing! The amazing Nyota's Heart managed to beta-read this on the spot, so the next chapter is here even though I forgot to send it to her on time! And you all know the drill by now, I'll reply to your reviews over the weekend because work, yada, yada. Tags: AzureAngel2 Findswoman Gemma K'Tai qel Letta-Tanku Mando-Man Mira_Jade Raissa Baiard Please let me know if you would like to be added or removed from the tag list. ----------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 9: The fellows The inauguration of the Plebeian Exhibition was three weeks away and Ayesha was working frantically on the set on which she would display her pieces when Thrawn knocked on the doorframe. The workshop’s storage area was as chaotic as ever, with crates stacked between the sculpts, overflowing with carefully wrapped pieces and polished display boards. The table was covered by a thin sheet of wood and Ayesha was busying herself over it with a curved knife, removing shavings from its surface to leave in places a layer as transparent as flimsiplast. Her short braids and her face were coated in sawdust when she turned around to usher him in. It made him chuckle. “What’s so funny?” she asked. He brushed dust off her cheek. “Merely a pleasant memory, Ayoo’sha. Who knew, when I found you covered in grime in the Palace, that I had run into such a treasure.” She blushed a little and smiled. “Is your working day over?” “Not quite, but I wanted to let you know that we finalised the details of the next mission to the Unknown Regions. The Admonitor will be leaving on the first of the month.” She pouted her lips in disappointment. “That’s the opening of the Exhibition.” There was an amused twinkle in his eyes. “I am aware of that. Voss came up with a convoluted reason why we should not depart before midnight. We will therefore attend the opening and leave afterwards.” He paused. “Did you book passage to Corulag?” She pointed at her datapad. “I’m leaving on the fourteenth. That gives me exactly two months there, until the dedication of the monument. Captain Parck worked his magic, you know, so I’ll be staying in the Governor’s Mansion with his cousin the Deputy Governor and his family.” She caught a glimpse of a frown on Thrawn’s face. “Is there something you don't like about that?” “Quite the opposite. I am certain Voss’s cousin will take good care of you.” His lips twitched. “I am told that the Mansion has an excellent cook, perhaps that will help you gain some weight.” She gave an indignant sigh and went to speak, but he interrupted her with a deep, sensual kiss. “No, I will not quit demanding those few extra grams,” he murmured in her ear. “Not until I am content when I hold you.” “And apparently at the risk of coating your uniform in sawdust.” She pulled back from him. “Your request has been noted, Sir. Is there anything else I can do to please Your Admiralness?” Thrawn smiled. “There are many other things, but since my working day is not over yet, they will have to keep for later. Can you please remind me when the Fellows’ Dinner is due to take place?” She grimaced. “Zhellday next week. You’re coming with me, right? I really don't want to go alone, the idea of sitting at the same table as the Emperor gives me the willies.” “Are you certain that there is no way you can excuse yourself from the evening?” he asked. She sighed. “I’d like to, but short of breaking a leg it’s difficult. We already used the flu excuse for the ambassadors’ reception, I can’t pretend that I have other obligations when the event has been planned for months and I can’t go off-world because of the Exhibition. So I guess I’ll have to sit through it and hope for the best.” Thrawn frowned. “Why are you so worried about that? You can’t come?” “Of course I will come, Ayoo’sha,” he answered, shrugging off his concern. “I will be there with you. Now let me go and do some more work, and then I shall cook us dinner.” He took a few steps towards the door. “Is there something you know that I don’t?” she called after him. His face was set in a self-deprecating smile when he turned around. “Not at all, Ayoo’sha. This is only the mother avian in me taking control.” * * * Thrawn was his impeccable, crisp military self when they entered the Emperor’s private reception lounge on Zhellday evening, but Ayesha could feel that he was unusually tense. “What in the Galaxy is wrong with you?” she whispered. “You’re so jumpy, you’re...” Thrawn gave her a stern look to interrupt her as an usher approached to welcome them. “We’re going to talk after this,” she said before the man was within earshot. “There’s something you’re not telling me.” His Majesty was, as usual, fashionably late. They weaved their way around the room to salute people – Ayesha noted with relief that Grand Admiral Zaarin was deep in conversation with one of the former music fellows and didn’t pay attention to her arrival. There were a few other white uniforms among the guests, one of whom – “Grand Admiral Ishin-Il-Raz, a prominent leader of COMPNOR,” Thrawn murmured – gave them a contemptuous look. She was about to talk to one of the Emperor’s favoured courtesans, a young woman with red-blonde hair who had struck her as a particularly talented dancer in the dance recital two years earlier, when Thrawn steered her none too gently towards Darth Vader. The Dark Lord was not in a talkative mood, but he did not dismiss them once they had exchanged greetings. There settled in an uneasy silence and Ayesha fidgeted with the hem of her sleeve until the doors to the dining hall finally opened and liveried waiters ushered them in. The Emperor was sitting at the head of the long dinner table, his face buried in the cowl of his cloak. The setting, the dim lighting, the design of the room itself was clearly designed to awe his guests, Ayesha thought with bitter irony, but she had to stifle a surge of panic when he instructed her to sit to his left. She didn’t miss the sparkle of glee in his yellow eyes as she curtseyed deeply and took her seat with Thrawn at her side, raising her chin defiantly as the other guests took their places. The red-haired dancer – Lianna, she introduced herself with a curt nod – was sitting across the table from her to the Emperor’s right, next to Grand Admiral Miltin Takel, a small, scrawny man with the bloodshot eyes of a spice addict. There were a few more familiar faces scattered along the table. Grand Admiral Declann was sitting two chairs away from Takel and Sate Pestage was at the far end, facing the Emperor, with another courtesan at his side. Darth Vader came to stand behind the Emperor, towering over his master, and the dinner began. The conversation revolved around casual generalities until the main course was served, and Ayesha was beginning to relax in her chair when Ishin-Il-Raz stood up for a toast. “Your Majesty will allow me to thank our guests for their work as beneficiaries of the Emperor Palpatine Fellowships. It is a honour and a pleasure to think that we have here such talented artists who are still promoting the values of the Imperial Order. To Human High Culture!” The assembled guests raised their glasses. Ayesha followed suit reluctantly and Thrawn remained perfectly impassive. The Emperor chuckled. “Young Miss Eskari here is far too shy to take up the issue in such polite company,” he said. “I am certain however that she would beg to differ with your views on art, if her choices for the Northern Lights room are any indication.” Miltin Takel, who had been staring at Ayesha since the beginning of the meal, gave her a curious look. “Miss Eskari is the single exception COMPNOR tolerated in this palace over the years and it was clearly a mistake,” a thickset man sitting near Pestage piped up angrily. “Several of our most faithful Navy officers have expressed their displeasure regarding the presence of Gungan-inspired art in the Northern Lights room. I personally deem it unacceptable that...” The Emperor barely twitched a finger and the speaker clutched his throat, unable to utter another word. “You would do well to remember that Gungan art is native to our Emperor’s homeworld, Vandron,” Darth Vader’s booming voice said. “The choices in this palace are your master’s choices. Do not forget that.” The silence that followed was interrupted only by Crueya Vandron’s gasps for breath until the Emperor waved his hand casually. The thickset human found himself abruptly released from Vader’s invisible grasp and collapsed on the table. The Emperor chuckled again and changed the subject, while Ayesha let out a small sigh of relief and gave the Dark Lord a grateful look before bringing her attention back to the conversation. The music fellow who had been chatting earlier with Zaarin was discussing his latest composition, a five-act opera that was due to premiere in Coruscant a few months later, but Ayesha found herself unable to focus. She was developing a bad headache and her vision was beginning to blur, and after a while all she could see was Miltin Takel’s bloodshot eyes that were glowing at her across the table. Random images started shooting across her mind as sharp claws pried them one by one from her memory – a kind-looking man in rags reciting poetry, an angry Zygerrian with bony spurs protruding from his chin, a purple-haired woman in a dark alley, a blank-faced Twi’lek in an armchair, a Kiffar warrior on the landing pad, a blue finger caressing her neck, a blue hand trailing down from her shoulder... “No,” she whispered. “No. You can’t see that. It’s private.” All eyes in the vicinity shot to her. “My dear young lady, you are as white as the plains of Hoth,” the Emperor said. “Are you feeling all right?” Ayesha let out a small moan as the pain intensified and the memory flashes became a flood. The claws were now digging deeper into her brain, as if looking for the images they had lost. A Besalisk. A Sullustan. A small child. A newborn Wookiee. A treehouse. A besieged fortress. A duel. Thrawn’s japor snippet. Another japor snippet, this one around a woman’s slender neck. A gloved hand, a bulging belly... There was a swoosh of something indefinable across the room and Grand Admiral Takel was slammed against the back of his chair. “Enough!” Darth Vader thundered. “You will learn respect for what is not yours, Takel. Or you will have to deal with me.” Ayesha came back to her senses to find a scene most unbecoming of a reception in the Emperor’s private quarters. Vader’s fury was such that the air around him seemed to be crackling with electricity and the dinner guests were staring at their plates in an attempt to pretend that nothing was happening. Only Niall Declann and the dancer Lianna were looking at the Dark Lord, and the Emperor was eyeing him inquisitively, as if expecting an explanation for his behaviour. Thrawn finally broke the heavy silence. “With your permission, Miss Eskari and I will excuse ourselves, Your Majesty. She still seems to be suffering from the aftermath of her... malaise.” The Emperor waved his hand again, and after hurried salutations they were gone. * * * Ayesha was still shaking by the time they reached their apartment, but colour had returned to her cheeks. “What happened?” Thrawn asked as soon as the door slid shut. “What happened? You want to know what happened?” she yelled. “That horrible Takel man was in my head, is what happened!” Thrawn went to interrupt her but she went on shouting. “How can you work with those people? Don’t they have any sense of privacy? Do they care about anything else than stabbing you in the back? How is your Empire even holding together? If Lord Vader hadn’t been there...” She was now pacing the lounge furiously and went on, “I hate him! He’s filthy, he’s lewd, he’s sleazy, he’s a voyeur, he...” Thrawn sat on the Alderaanian conversation circle and let her vent to her heart’s content. He patted the sofa at his side when she finally ran out of words and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Tell me now,” he said softly. “Tell me exactly what happened.” He questioned her relentlessly until she had told him every little detail she could remember. There was a long pause. “It seems that there is more to this dancer than meets the eye,” Thrawn finally muttered. Ayesha looked at him curiously, but he merely shrugged, as if filing away the information for later. “Are you certain that it was not the Emperor seeking to pry memories from you?” he asked. “I told you already,” she said impatiently. “It was Takel. All he wanted to know is what you and I do in bed. As if it were any of his business!” Thrawn pulled her closer and pressed his lips to her forehead to prevent another outburst. “Ayoo’sha, you must never find yourself in the presence of any high-ranking Imperial officer, ever again,” he said firmly. “You simply know too much.” She gave him a startled look. “How am I supposed to do that?” she blurted. “I have my work, I...” “You are not listening to me,” he interrupted. “You know too much and you cannot keep these things away from those with the ability to read your mind. Takel may be a glitterstim addict and a pervert, but he got a glimpse of some of your secrets in his search for your memories of our time together. He saw your family, he saw your friends who are in hiding, he saw images of Lord Vader’s past. Do you want to betray their whereabouts? Do you want to betray the trust Lord Vader placed in you? Do you want him to find out about my project in the Unknown Regions? Please consider the consequences for a moment. You cannot allow this to happen.” There was another pause. Ayesha’s shoulders finally slumped in defeat. “You think I should go back to Kashyyyk, don’t you? What will happen of us?” Thrawn smiled. “I was actually going to suggest that you come to Nirauan with me. I could do much more in the Unknown Regions from the Fortress of the Hand and you would be perfectly safe there. There is more than enough space for a workshop, you could learn about the art of species from the Unknown Regions, and we would travel to Coruscant regularly so that you can see your friends and participate in exhibitions.” Ayesha sank into a meditative silence. “Would that be acceptable?” she asked finally. “For me to be on your top-secret base?” “I will make it acceptable,” Thrawn said. “But it is not a decision we need to take now. You are due to leave to Corulag next month. Will you accept to move your departure date and leave immediately after the opening of the Plebeian Exhibition?” She nodded. “Then let us go to bed and hope that the Emperor does not come up with any further schemes to torment you until then.” Ayesha was putting her formal dress back on its hanger when she suddenly spun around to look at Thrawn. “You’re really upset, aren’t you?” she said. “You called him ‘the Emperor’.” Thrawn arched an eyebrow. “You said ‘the Emperor’,” she repeated. “You normally always call him ‘His Majesty’.” Thrawn gave her another one of his self-deprecating smiles. “It seems I did, Ayoo’sha. Perhaps the mother avian in me has truly taken control this time.” --------------------------------- Author's notes: Ishin-Il-Raz, Crueya Vandron and Miltin Takel are all Legends characters and their support for Human supremacist policies is established in the EU, as is the fact that Takel is a pervert and that his use of glitterstim gives him some limited telepathic ability. Legends material also establishes that Niall Declann is Force-sensitive. I have also given Vandron a daughter, Marika (who is hardly more likable than her father) in my short story A tree-dweller in Imperial City.