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The Hand of Thrawn: Penelope

 
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The Hand of Thrawn: Penelope
 PostPosted: Tue Nov 13, 2007 6:53 pm Reply with quote  
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  Aush
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Star Wars
The Hand of Thrawn: Penelope

by Violetlight

Part 1: Arrival of an Empress


"The Empress is coming here?"

"I just got a comm from Syal. Xelarra asked her to watch Shran for a couple of days, and I can only think of one reason why she would leave the capital now." Soontir Fel replied, trying not to let the twitch in his lips develop into a smile. Rarely did he see one of his usually stoic Chiss comrades lose the tight grip they usually had on their emotions. Stent, however, looked positively flustered. Fel knew with all the stress the Chiss had been through lately, this should not at all be funny. He tried not to smile.

Stent was not fooled. "This isn't funny, General. We've only just got the fighter wreckage cleared out of the hanger bay, the lower levels of the base are still flooded, and the data terminals are offline as well. I can only hope the paper archives are undamaged..."

"In short, you don't want Xelarra to see the base like this." Fel summarized.

Stent hung his head. "Empress Lexx'elarra'nuruodo charged me with taking care of the Hand base. I've failed her, failed Syndic Mitth'raw'nuruodo."

Fel frowned at a blackened piece of durasteel that used to be part of one of his fighters. "I'm not happy about what happened either, but I know Xelarra. She's not coming to play blame games, she's coming to help in any way she can. She did design the Hand's databases, after all."

"I hope you're right, General." Stent sighed. Around the damaged hanger bay work crews, staff members, and even a few off-duty stormtroopers were busy clearing away the last of the wreckage from the ship that had crashed into the bay, plus smaller pieces of broken-up clawcraft and fire-extinguishing foam. Stent's red eyes, dulled from stress, lingered for a moment on a stormtrooper's wet boot print. He would have to remember to check to see how the water removal crews were progressing in the lower levels afterwards. Right now, clearing out the hanger bay was his priority. He would appear even more incompetent than he already felt he was if the Empress arrived and her shuttle had no place to land.

***

A few hours later the hanger bay was finally clear of debris. Just in time too, since shortly after the last bit of foam was mopped up, a y-shaped, lambda-class Imperial shuttle was sighted coming in from orbit. Since Nirauran's capital city, Chakra, was located on almost the exact opposite side of the planet from the Hand of Thrawn base, the fastest way to get from one to the other was by flying up into space, then orbiting the planet until you reached the spot above your destination.

How many pompous moffs and senior officers had Fel seen arrive in lambdas? He had stopped counting. He was glad this would not be one of them.

The lambda flew into the hanger and hovered momentarily, as if unsure of where to land. Apparently satisfied, it touched down on the cleanest landing pad. Fel and Stent both snapped to attention as the shuttle's ramp lowered. First out were two stormtroopers. Fel's left eyebrow raised in surprise. These stormtroopers were not wearing standard white armour, but rather white decorated with blue stripes, and the t-visored Mandalorian-style helmets Fel rarely saw outside of Clone Wars historical holovids. This was the ceremonial armour of the 501st battalion, a renowned stormtrooper unit that had been under Darth Vader's command since the end of the Clone Wars, and had somehow come under Grand Admiral Thrawn's control after the dark lord's death. Admiral Voss Parak, the military's supreme commander in the Grand Admiral's absence, must be more concerned about what happened here than even Fel had anticipated to put the Empress under the 501st's guard. The two troopers returned the salute, and satisfied that the hanger bay hid no threat, gestured back inside the shuttle.

The first thing that always came to Fel's mind whenever he saw Empress Lexx'elarra'nuruodo was sadness. The rather short (only a meter and a half tall) middle-aged Chiss woman now descending the shuttle ramp surrounded by her four 501st guards was wearing a dazzling white shimmersilk dress, the same shade of white as her husband's Grand Admiral uniform. The Chiss took this symbolism very seriously. On the Chiss's icelocked homeworld of Csillia, only high-ranking military officers wore all white. This absence of colour meant that they served all Chiss, not just any one of the colour-coded Nine Ruling Families. By also wearing white, Xelarra honoured hers and Thrawn's promise to also protect all Chiss, no matter what the Chiss Ascendancy thought of the Empire of the Hand. Xelarra's dress, however, was trimmed at the end of the billowy sleeves, v-necked collar, and the hem of the full-length skirt with ribbons of the dark violet of her own family, the Third Ruling House, entwined with the burgundy of the Eighth, the House Thrawn had been Syndic to. The white dress contrasted with her sky-blue skin, almost making it look like she was wearing a cloud. Her blue-black hair was done up in a regal braid stretching down her back to her waist, and around her forehead was a slender silver circlet, set in the middle with a single diamond cut in a spiral shape, like a miniature galaxy.

Despite the royal finery, Fel knew Xelarra distained unnecessary pomp as much as any other Chiss he knew. The fancy clothes were mostly for the benefit of humans like him, former Imperials who had followed Thrawn into the Unknown Regions. The very unEmpress-like black military boots peeking out from beneath Xelarra's skirt suggested she wanted to change out of the dress and get to work as soon as possible.

Xelarra reached the bottom of the ramp, the two forward stormtroopers wordlessly moving to the side as she approached the two officers.

"General Fel, Commander Kres’ten’tarthi,” she greeted them, returning their formal bows with a curt nod. Her ruby-red eyes glanced at the obviously recently repaired hanger bay. "Mara did all this?"

"My Lady, I..." Stent started.

"There's no need to apologize, Commander." Xelarra assured him, guessing the cause of his hesitation. "What happened here was not your fault, nor was it yours, General," she turned briefly to Fel, "nor anyone else's who was loyally serving our Empire." Xelarra starting walking towards the hanger bay doors, Fel, Stent, and the stormtroopers following. A few curious workers looked up as they passed, then quickly returned to their tasks.

But, my Lady, the base..." Stent clearly still blamed himself for the base's condition.

"The base can be repaired, Commander. With Mara Jade, we should consider ourselves lucky that is an option." A small smile crossed Xelarra's dark blue lips. "In a way, I'm proud of her," she said softly. She then returned to her previous commanding tone. "Mara is a Force-user and a former Emperor's Hand. She was an opponent that none of you were ready for."

Xelarra turned to face them. "I apologize to both of you." When Stent started to protest again, she added "I should have been here to talk to her myself." As she said that, her gaze seemed distant again, distracted.

Fel brought her back to the present. "My Lady, Mara Jade didn't do this alone," he reported. "Luke Skywalker followed her to Nirauran."

"Skywalker? Mara hasn't killed him yet?" Xelarra asked. "It's not like her to procrastinate," she mused again, almost to herself.

"Admiral Parak has returned to Spiral, then?" she asked, deftly changing the subject.

"Yes, my Lady. He said he had a better chance of intercepting communications from Imperial Remnant space from further out in the system." Fel reported.

Spiral was the fifth planet in the Nirauran system, a blue and purple gas giant with a large collection of moons and a very impressive double ring system. Rumours persisted that Grand Admiral Thrawn had originally chosen the Nirauran system for his personal base because of Spiral's beauty, that he considered it a "cosmic work of art". The Empire of the Hand's main shipyards now added to the myriad of objects circling the giant planet, and Admiral Parak had put the fleet's newest ship, the half-built Super Star Destroyer Renaissance, to good use, using its state-of-the-art communications systems to scan Imperial space.

For a moment no one spoke. They all knew why Admiral Parak and others had been scanning what remained of the old Galactic Empire's space constantly, hoping that the rumours were true.

That Grand Admiral Thrawn had returned.

For ten years now, sadness had surrounded Xelarra, an ever-present veil that only her children could lift. Even then, it was only temporary.

Fel could only imagine how he would feel if he lost his wife, Syal, or any of their six children. It was something he did not like to think about. How Xelarra had been able to govern Nirauran and later help form and become Empress of the Empire of the Hand, continuing her husband's dream all the while being torn apart inside by his loss, was beyond Fel's understanding. He did know that he would not wish what Xelarra was going through on his worst enemy.

He hoped that the rumours were true, despite how impossible they sounded. He hoped the Grand Admiral, the only senior officer he had ever trusted, his old friend, had somehow cheated death.

Just like he said he would.
_________________
"Changes are nice--but so is continuity!"

"Then you saved my life. How disgusting. How unfortunate."
"No, don't gush on so. It was nothing, really."


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 PostPosted: Tue Nov 13, 2007 6:56 pm Reply with quote  
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Part 2: Empire’s Loss

Book 6, Chapter VIII “The Scouring of the Shire”

It was after nightfall when, wet and tired, the travelers came at last to the Brandywine, and they found the way barred. At either end of the Bridge there was a great spiked gate; and on the further side of the river they could see that some new houses had been built: two-storeyed with narrow, straight-sided windows, bare and dimly lit, all very gloomy and un-Shirelike. …

Xelarra had loved reading ever since she was a child and not only loved literature for its own sake, but by studying the stories of various cultures found she could learn just as much about them as her husband had famously learned from their visual art. Hand Base’s fiction library held stories and poems from every culture in the old Galactic Empire and every one the Chiss had encountered in what the rest of the Galaxy referred to as the Unknown Regions (an arrogant term that Xelarra had always hated). Once upon a time, this had been her favourite place on Nirauan, this library. However, she had avoided Hand Base for the last ten years, and not even the usually comforting stories of her favourite ancient human author could keep the pain from welling up again. This was also the place where her life had changed forever…

***

Ten years earlier…

“Securing Bilbringi will give me the foothold into the Core that I need. The Rebels are already on the run; it won’t be long now until they abandon Coruscant all together. I can then hunt them down like the frightened animals that they are. But enough about business for now. How are you feeling, my beautiful wife?”

Xelarra smiled at the little shimmering hologram and stood up, so her husband could get a good look at her oversized stomach. “I feel anything but beautiful right now, more like as big as a Star Destroyer.”

“You look beautiful to me.” Thrawn replied.

“You flatt…” Xelarra began to tease, then gasped as she felt a sudden pain inside her.

“Did the baby kick again?” Thrawn asked, guessing the cause of her discomfort.

She smiled, rubbing her belly. “I guess he’s rather impatient to get out of there.”

“Impatient? He must take after his mother.” Thrawn teased.

“Funny. I don’t know if I can take another month of this. If he’s not born soon he’ll kick his way out.” Xelarra playfully sighed, mocking exhaustion.

“I’m looking forward to seeing both of you.” Thrawn smiled. “And our daughter. Where is Andorra anyway?”

“She’s on a trade mission to Draconis. They want to make our economic arrangement into a more formal alliance,” Xelarra answered. “Andorra insists on handling this particular diplomatic mess herself; you know how stubborn she can be. She must take after her father.”

“Funny.” Thrawn smiled wryly at having his joke flung back at him. “Seriously though,” he continued, “this is unexpected but welcome news. The Draconians are some of the only people in this insane galaxy worth talking to.”

“If all goes well with Andorra’s mission, this could be the start of something,” Xelarra added.

“I have every confidence in our daughter’s abilities.” Thrawn agreed. “If anyone can make a lasting alliance with the Draconians, Andorra can. Still, don’t let her take any unnecessary risks. I assume she took Syren with her.”

“Yes,” Xelarra sighed, “but I wish she hadn’t.”

“Xelarra, we’ve been through this.”

“Yes, we have. So you know I think these…bodyguards are completely unnecessary.”

“Xelarra…”

“I don’t trust them, Thrawn!” Xelarra hissed, trying not to let the dark shape lurking in the shadows near the door to the communications room hear her. She shuddered, feeling her Noghri bodyguard’s space-black gaze on her.

“You’re being irrational. The Noghri are completely loyal to the Empire. We have nothing to fear from them.” Thrawn tried to reassure her.

“If you say so…”

“I didn’t comm. to argue with you,” Thrawn sighed. “Just trust me.”

“It’s not you I don’t trust,” Xelarra retorted. “…but I don’t want to argue either. So, will you be able to come home for the birth? If not, I can always take a shuttle to the Chimaera…”

Thrawn shook his head. “I don’t want you anywhere near the battlefield.”

“But…”

“Don’t worry. I wouldn’t miss our son’s birth for anything.” Thrawn assured her. “After Bilbringi, things should be stable enough for me to come home for a while.”

Before Xelarra could respond, they were interrupted by the chirp of Thrawn’s shipboard commlink. “Grand Admiral, we’ll be making the jump to hyperspace in five minutes, Sir.” Xelarra vaguely heard the Chimaera’s comm. officer report.

“Acknowledged.” Thrawn answered, turning off the commlink. They both knew what this meant. External communication systems could not be used while ships were in hyperspace. Their conversation had to come to an end.

“I’ll return to you soon, my Love. I promise.” Thrawn reassured her.

There was so much Xelarra wanted to say to her husband. Instead, she nodded, knowing she could not keep him from his duties any longer. “I love you,” she told him.

The look in Thrawn’s eyes told Xelarra everything she needed to know, but Thrawn said it anyway. “I love you, too,” he promised her as the comm. line closed, his hologram flickering off.


Xelarra understood intellectually why Thrawn had to fight the usurping terrorists that had taken over the Core, but that didn’t make her feel much better. She shook her head, trying to rid herself of those thoughts. She was Chiss. Duty came before personal problems, always.

She felt Fenix watching her. No doubt the Noghri was wondering what she was doing still standing at the empty console. She straightened, remembering something Thrawn had once told her. It was advice that one of his most trusted subordinates, the mysterious Walker pilot and instructor called The Commander, had given his students at the Cardia Academy regarding the Rebels:

Never show them fear. Show confidence, intelligence and skill. Show them what you can do, proof that you won’t be easy prey. You are Imperial officers. Show them that they are the ones who should be afraid.

“When my husband returns,” Xelarra started, her flame-red gaze locking onto the Noghri’s black eyes, “I will finally be able to get rid of you.”

“Yes, Consort of the Lord Grand Admiral,” the Noghri mewed, its sycophantic voice annoying Xelarra even more.

The baby kicked again, seemingly in agreement. Xelarra inwardly shuddered as Fenix’s eyes flickered downwards, seeming to track her unborn son’s movements as sure as her own. She walked briskly out of the comm. room, trying to put as much distance between herself and the Noghri as she could, even though she knew that would be only temporary. Fenix took his duty to his Grand Admiral far too seriously to let her escape his watch for long.

***

Xelarra fought back a yawn. Never before had she seen Hand Base so busy at this time of night. It was early morning, with still at least three hours left until Nira’s red-orange rays would peek over the horizon. However, she did not hear one word of complaint from the crew; Stent had trained them too well for that. Various technicians, both human and Chiss, buzzed around busily, tending to the giant hologram dominating the Command Room. Usually this hologram showed a three-dimensional map of the Galaxy, featuring the many sectors Thrawn had mapped in his explorations of the Unknown Regions. That night, however, it showed the Bilbringi System, its shipyards, and the relative positions of both Thrawn’s and the Rebel fleets. The hologram was static, the miniature Star Destroyers, Mon Calamari Cruisers and other ships seemingly frozen in time, until the Chimaera sent another update. Thrawn had wanted to document the battle in Hand Base’s databases, but in order to not risk Nirauan’s location becoming known to the Rebels, the updates were sent in random intervals ranging from thirty seconds to seven minutes. Hopefully, any Rebel Intelligence agents (a term Xelarra considered an oxymoron) would dismiss the transmissions as background radiation. But with little for her to do between transmissions, besides worry, the waiting was starting to get to her.

“Caf?” Colonel Fel offered, the big fighter pilot walking over to Xelarra’s chair from the corner of the room, where someone had set up a small caf table in anticipation of a long work night. “You look like you need it; you’re starting to fall asleep in the command chair.”

“Thank you, Colonel.” Xelarra gratefully took the steaming mug. “I wish the fleet wasn’t still on Coruscant time.”

“I’m sure Thrawn will get around to changing it to Nirauan time sooner or later. And it’s Soontir, please. Or do you want me to start calling you ‘My Lady Governor’ like some over-eager cadet?” Fel smiled. “You don’t have to be so formal; everyone here’s too wrapped up in their work to care anyway.”

“As we should be,” Xelarra sighed, still frustrated by feelings of boredom and helplessness. “I just wish there was something more I could do to help Thrawn.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, Xel. Without all the hours you spent pouring over every obscure reference you could find in this blasted library, Thrawn never would have been able to locate the Katana fleet. Don’t think for a second he doesn’t appreciate your help,” Fel tried to reassure her.

“I know. I just feel so useless right now.”

“I know how you feel,” Fel admitted, his gaze wandering to the hologram just as another update came in, the little ships suddenly shifting positions. His eyes followed a group of insect-sized specks Xelarra could barely see – a squadron of TIE Interceptors.

“You want to be out there with them, don’t you?” Xelarra observed.

“Sorry Xel. I’m supposed to be cheering you up.”

“Don’t be sorry, Soontir. You’re a fighter pilot – of course you want to be with your squadron.”

“And I would be, but Thrawn asked me to stay behind.” Fel frowned. “It’s strange; he didn’t order me to stay, he asked, like I would be doing him a favour.”

Xelarra said nothing. She knew why Thrawn would ask something like that. He wanted Fel to stay to watch over her, but why? It wasn’t like he hadn’t left her protected. The Command Room was lined by 501st guards, and there was that Noghri. Xelarra spotted Fenix pacing around the room. Strange, he looked agitated for some reason.

Fel noticed where she was looking. “What’s that little orc doing now?” he wondered.

“Don’t remind me he’s here,” Xelarra complained. “So how are the kids doing?” she asked, trying to keep her mind off her unwanted guard.

“The kids?” Fel brightened. “I’ll show you!” He pulled a small holoprojector out of his pocket, and flipped it on, showing a holo of a toddler looking with great concentration at a collection of alphabet blocks.

“Look at my little Jagged, isn’t he the greatest?” Fel smiled with fatherly pride. “Two years old, and he’s already learning his ABC’s! That’s more than what most Rebel pilots know. Now, if Syal and I can just convince him there’s no dianogas in the ‘fresher we’ll be all set.”

“Dianogas in the ‘fresher?”

“Yeah, Davin and Chak told Jag that a dianoga could stick its tentacles up the refresher and grab him, and now Jag’s terrified of it, which is not helping me and Syal to potty train him,” Fel sighed. “The things kids come up with.”

“Hearing that makes me glad Andorra’s too old to be telling her brother such … creative stories.”

“I don’t know about that. Siblings will terrorize each other no matter what their ages. Hell, Wedge would probably still be pestering Syal if he were here,” Fel replied. “By the way,” he added. “It’s great that you and Thrawn decided to have another one. Jag needs a playmate.”

“We’re not having him for your benefit.” Xelarra smiled at Fel’s joke. “But I’m looking forward to seeing the kids play together. So, what are the other two doing besides frightening their little brother?

“Well, Davin crashed his remote-control TIE …”

Xelarra didn’t hear the rest of Fel’s story as another hologram update came in. Throughout the battle, her husband’s fleet had been elegantly arranged in a bowl shape, with Interdictor cruisers lining the formation, their artificial gravity wells preventing the escape of the Rebel fleet. Now, however, the bowl was breaking up, the Nemesis and Stormhawk swinging around to cover smaller ships as they retreated from the system. The Rebel fleet was off to the side, warily watching the Imperials like a herd of confused nerfs. They weren’t the only ones confused, as everyone in the Command Room seemed to talk at once, wanting to know what was happening. Thrawn had this battle won! Why would he retreat now?

Xelarra didn’t hear any of it. She rose from her chair, her eyes fixed on the hologram. The voices behind her faded into insignificance as she stared at the little ships, unbelieving. She suddenly felt cold, colder than a Csillian blizzard. Frozen in shock. She thought she heard somebody calling her name somewhere behind her, but she did not care. She could not. Nothing else mattered but those ships, one by one jumping to hyperspace. Doing something Thrawn never would have wanted them to do. Something Thrawn never would have permitted, if …

“Thrawn,” she whispered.

Through her shock, Xelarra vaguely saw a blurry, grey shape behind the hologram, coming towards her. She tried to focus, but it was like trying to see through water, everything was so unclear. It was the Noghri, using the hologram and the confusion for cover, his assassin’s blade held high, aiming for her throat. She wanted to move, to scream, anything, but she could not. Her muscles just would not respond. She hazily saw Fenix changed his mind in mid-stride, flipping his knife over as he leapt towards her through the hologram, ready to slice upwards through her stomach, ready to kill her baby. Suddenly, something pushed her to the side, and she fell painfully to the duracrete floor. Jarred from the impact, she looked up.

Fel had pushed her aside with one arm, as his other fist slammed upwards into the Noghri’s chest. Xelarra saw a crimson splash of blood, heard Fel’s half angry, half pained cry, and the whine of blaster shots as the airborne alien was shot again and again by the stormtroopers. Its smoking corpse crashed down, dead before it hit the floor. All this, she later learned, happened in only a few seconds. It had seemed much longer.

Xelarra tried to get up, to help her friend, but felt an incredible, squeezing pain in her stomach. She recognized that pain; she had felt it once before.

“No, little one,” she whispered. “Wait just a little longer. Your father’s not home yet.” She did not want to admit what she had guessed, not even to herself.

As medics helped her into a hoverchair, Xelarra saw others helping Fel, his hand held over the right side of his face, blood and tears streaming between his fingers. He looked at her with his one good eye, a look of sadness Xelarra had never seen on him before.

Her own eyes were blurred with tears.

***

One week later…

“Mom, are you awake?”

Xelarra opened her eyes, staring up at the plain white ceiling of her hospital room. Beside her bed, her newborn son slept soundly in his incubator, wrapped up warmly in a pale green baby blanket. Luckily, Xelarra had not suffered any injuries more serious than a few bruises from her fall, and the baby, despite being born about three weeks premature, was healthy. Still, the medics at Hand Base had insisted that she and the baby stay, “for observation”. This meant Xelarra had a lot of time to herself, to think. Time she did not want.

“Mom?” Andorra asked again.

“Sorry, Bright Star. I’m awake.” Xelarra answered, sitting up. When she had heard of the attack on her mother, Andorra had returned home immediately. Xelarra had been relieved to see her daughter unharmed. Apparently, Andorra’s own Noghri bodyguard, Syren had been caught making an unauthorized communication by the 501st guards, who were forced to kill her when she resisted arrest, thus Andorra likely avoided a similar attack. Xelarra had that to be grateful for.

Andorra’s ruby eyes narrowed in concern, to Xelarra, making her look just like her father when he was thinking about something. Xelarra absently lowered her eyes, not wanting the reminder just then.

Andorra sighed, and walked over to the bed. Sitting down beside her mother, she gave her a quick hug. “Mom, it’s going to be all right,” she tried to reassure her.

“How’s Baron Fel doing?” Xelarra asked, changing the subject.

“His condition has improved. He was sitting up in bed, complaining about being there in the first place, so he must be feeling better,” Andorra answered.

“That’s Corillians for you,” Xelarra smiled wryly. “No matter how badly they’re injured, they always have enough energy to complain.”

“However…” Andorra continued.

“However what?”

“That Noghri sliced right through the Baron’s eye. That’s why the doctors had to put him back in the bacta tank soon after I spoke with him. They’re trying to regrow his optic nerve enough to accept an implant.”

“It’s all my fault …” Xelarra began.

“Don’t say that, Mom. You know none of this is your fault.” Andorra retorted, a little more sternly than she meant to. “You have a visitor,” she continued.

“I don’t want to see anyone else right now. Tell whoever it is to come back later,” Xelarra sighed.

“I think you should talk to this one. It’s Captain Pellaeon.”

“Pellaeon?” Xelarra remembered the graying human captain from a brief visit to the Chimaera while looking for the Katana fleet. If he was here, then …

Xelarra took a deep breath. Now, she would finally learn the truth of what happened, at least.

“Here, Mom,” Andorra gestured towards a clean white dress neatly folded at the foot of Xelarra’s bed. “Put that on, I’m sure you don’t want to meet the Captain dressed in a hospital smock. Do you want me to take the baby?”

“No,” Xelarra answered, looking over at her younger child. “He’s sleeping right now. He’s fine where he is.”

“I’ll go get the Captain.” Andorra once again left her mother alone.

***

About ten minutes later, Xelarra heard a gentle knock at her door.

“My Lady, may I come in?”

“Of course, Captain.” She stood up, as the door slowly opened. Captain Pellaeon looked tired, stressed out, his olive green captain’s cap held in one hand, a datapad in the other. With one glance into his grey eyes, Xelarra knew he was not the bearer of good news.

“Lady Xelarra … I wish we could have met again under better circumstances.” Pellaeon began.

“Captain, I have been isolated in this hospital room for a week. Nobody, not even Andorra, has been able to tell me what has happened.” She bravely looked directly into Pellaeon’s eyes. “Please, Captain, just be honest with me. Where is my husband?”

“My Lady … Grand Admiral Thrawn is … I mean, he has …”

“Gilad,” Pellaeon looked up in surprise as Xelarra addressed him by his first name. “Please.”

He nodded. “I’m so sorry, Lady Xelarra. Grand Admiral Thrawn … is dead.”

Xelarra barely heard as Pellaeon went on to explain how Thrawn’s Noghri bodyguard, Rukh, had stabbed him in the back on the bridge of the Chimaera, right in the middle of battle. How the medics had tried everything to revive Thrawn, to no avail. How the Chimaera’s bridge crew, in a flurry of righteous anger, had literally ripped Rukh apart, and how Pellaeon, not trusting himself to salvage the battle, had instead ordered the fleet’s retreat.

How could she concentrate on those miniscule details when she would no longer hear Thrawn’s voice, look into his eyes, feel his kiss? Never again would they spend long hours discussing every subject imaginable, from Galactic politics to classic Csillian art. Never again would just one look into his garnet eyes remind her why she had left Csilla, left her family and her life there behind, to follow him into the unknown. Her husband, the father of her children, her best friend, her true love, was lost to her forever.

“…Lady Xelarra?” Pellaeon’s question shook her out of her reverie. “Are you all right?”

“I appreciate your concern, Captain. What did you wish to show me?” Xelarra indicated the datapad Pellaeon was still holding.

“Oh, this? These are your husband's command and personal logs from the Chimaera. I thought you would want to have them.” Pellaeon answered. “I haven’t looked at them; even if I had wanted to, I don’t know the password.”

“Thank you for your respect for my husband’s privacy.” Xelarra took the pad, quickly entering a code, unlocking it. She glanced briefly at the command logs. “Captain, what are your current mission plans?”

Pellaeon was surprised by the question. “I haven’t really thought about it yet,” he admitted. “I’ll return to the rendezvous point where the rest of the fleet is waiting, then meet with the other captains. After that, I don’t know. I just thought it was important to tell you in person what had happened first.”

“Captain, what were your orders for immediately following the Battle of Bilbringi?” Xelarra asked.

“The Grand Admiral ordered me to take charge of the fleet while he returned to the Unknown Regions for a time.” Pellaeon answered, looking over at the incubator.

“So he told you about our son?” Xelarra surmised.

“Yes, My Lady. Congrat…” he started, “sorry.”

Xelarra ignored his slip. “Did he also tell you that before he returned home, he was going to promote you?”

Pellaeon looked surprised. “No, he didn’t.”

“Then, Captain Gilad Pellaeon of the Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera,” Xelarra began formally. “As Governor of the Imperial Planet Nirauan, I promote you to the rank of Vice Admiral, on my husband, Grand Admiral Thrawn’s, behalf.”

“Thank you, My Lady, but I don’t think I deserve…”

“Do you accept?”

“Yes, My Lady Governor.” Pellaeon resigned.

“Second, Vice Admiral,” Xelarra continued. “I have a request.”

“Anything, My Lady.”

“Vice Admiral,” Xelarra looked directly into Pellaeon’s eyes. “Please, do not let the Empire suffer the same fate as my husband. It’s in your hands now; don’t let the Empire die.”

“I promise you, Lady Xelarra, I will do everything in my power to keep the Empire alive.” Xelarra could tell he was sincere.

“Don’t promise me, Vice Admiral. Promise him.” Xelarra looked down at her sleeping son. “It’s up to us now to make sure children like my son have a Galaxy to grow up in. Those of us in the Unknown Regions will do what we need to here, but it’s up to you and your fleet to bring order and security back to the rest of the Galaxy.” She paused, and to Pellaeon, for the first time, she looked scared. “The Empire may be the best hope this Galaxy has.”

“What is it?” Pellaeon asked, not knowing what to think.

“There are threats here in the Unknown Regions that would make your blood freeze,” Xelarra answered. “That’s why my husband returned, that’s why the Empire must survive.”

“As long as I live, it will.” Pellaeon promised solemnly. He was then surprised to hear a soft sound. Looking over at the incubator, Pellaeon saw two wide, sparkling red eyes look back at him. “Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake your little one up.”

Xelarra smiled at her son. “You didn’t, Vice Admiral. He’s been awake for the last five minutes. He can be surprisingly quiet, when he wants to be.”

“I see …” Pellaeon began, though clearly he did not. Xelarra had not expected a career soldier like Pellaeon to be comfortable around children. Clearly, she had guessed correctly, as Pellaeon and her son stared at each other, Pellaeon in confusion, not knowing quite how to react, the baby in fascination.

“Congraduations, Vice Admiral. You’re the first human my little one has ever seen.” Xelarra informed him.

“Really? I’m honoured.”

“Would you like to hold him?”

“I’m not really sure if that … um …”

“It’s easy, Gilad.” Xelarra reassured him, lifting her baby out of the incubator, and putting him gently in Pellaeon’s arms.

“Thank you …” Pellaeon began, looking down at the baby, who lifted his tiny hands up towards Pellaeon’s face. “He looks so much like his father, little … what’s his name?”

“His name is Mitth’shra’nuruodo.”

“Mit shra …pardon?”

“His core name is Shran. It’s an old word in my native tongue which means “gift”,” Xelarra answered. “My husband’s last gift to me.”

“I can’t think of anything better.” Pellaeon replied, then little Shran giggled, and grabbed hold of his mustache. “Ow! Um. … that’s not for pulling!”

“Sorry about that,” Xelarra said, detangling her son’s fingers from Pellaeon’s mustache and taking hold of him. Shran whined for a brief moment at having his “toy” taken away, but then cooed happily as his mother rocked him gently.

“It’s okay,” Pellaeon assured her, “I should be heading back soon, but if you ever need anything …”

“I’ll be sure to contact you. In the meantime, please don’t tell anyone else the location of Nirauan. It’s my responsibility now to continue the work Thrawn began, but I can’t do that if the Rebels find out we’re here. Nirauan will need to be independent of the Empire from now on.”

“I can’t say I understand completely, but Grand Admiral Thrawn always had good reasons for what he did, and I don’t expect his wife would be any different. I trust you. I’ll erase Nirauan’s location from the Chimaera’s logs when I get back.” Pellaeon promised. “Will you be all right?”

Xelarra looked lovingly at her son, who was starting to fall asleep in her arms. “I will be. I have to be, for Shran. He needs his mother,” she answered.

“All right. Until we meet again, My Lady,” Pellaeon said in farewell.

“Until then, Vice Admiral.

As Pellaeon left to go build whatever future for the remains of the Empire he could, Xelarra could finally let down her guard. As a rule, Chiss have better control over their emotions than humans do, but that does not mean that those emotions do not exist. She held Shran close, her baby son who would never even have a chance to meet his father.

Xelarra cried for both of them.

***

The Present


“I hope so,” said Frodo and sighed. “The very last stroke. But to think that it should fall here, at the very door of Bag End! Among all my hopes and fears at least I never expected that.”
“I shan’t call it the end, till we’ve cleared up the mess,” said Sam gloomily. “And that will take a lot of time and work.”

Xelarra put her book down, somewhat surprised, somewhat not, to find she had reached the end of the chapter, without the rest of it really registering. Old memories and new disappointments conspired against her reading. Just one hour ago, the fruits of the Renaissance’s search were made apparent – news holocasts that were blasting across almost all the Imperial airwaves. Apparently, Admiral Pellaeon had gotten to the bottom of the “Thrawn” rumours once and for all.

All Xelarra’s hopes against hope, the illogical, whimsical part of her that believed her husband was alive after all, was crushed as she watched the holo, and the creature it depicted.

“That is not Thrawn! It’s not even Chiss!”

Admiral Parak had reported a few minutes later that Pellaeon had sent a coded message confirming that the news holos were true, but to Xelarra, that was unnecessary. The insulting images were proof enough. She had gone to the library, ordering her stormtroopers to not let anyone in, as she tried to read one of her favourite novels to take her mind off things. She could lock herself away from the world, could leave it all together by wrapping herself in fiction, but she could not escape the turmoil in her own mind.

“The Empress is not to be disturbed. Come back later.”

“But General Fel …”

“No exceptions!”

Xelarra heard one of her stormtroopers arguing with someone from his post a few bookshelves away. Curious, she put down her novel, and peeked over from behind a shelf. One of the base’s stormtroopers was standing in front her 501st guard. He must have had orders to give her a message, since there was no internal commlinks built into the library itself, but her guards were obeying their own orders to the letter. Two troopers, given conflicting orders, and reaching compromises was not something stormtroopers were known for.

“Stand down, Lieutenant.” Xelarra ordered, coming out from behind the bookshelf, and using her best “Empress” voice. She looked towards the base stormtrooper. “What are your orders?”

“Ma’am!” The stormtrooper snapped to attention. “General Fel ordered me to inform you that you have a comm. call.”

“Couldn’t it wait?” Xelarra sighed. She had thought it had been something important.

“No, Your Majesty. The call is of a personal nature.”

“Is it one of my children?”

“I believe so, Ma’am.”

“Then I’ll be right there.” Xelarra walked out of the library, her stormtroopers, including the one from the base, following.

Her book, an ancient human novel called The Return of the King, was left behind, forgotten like her hopes for the impossible. .
_________________
"Changes are nice--but so is continuity!"

"Then you saved my life. How disgusting. How unfortunate."
"No, don't gush on so. It was nothing, really."


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