Chapter 1: Before the treaty
When Luke discovered Rukh, his ship was already nearing Coruscant. Something had moved in the Force close by – a will and a consciousness, a sentient living being. The last – or, depending on the success of his self-appointed mission, the first of the new – Jedi quickly searched the vessel and found the Noghri in the cargo room. Being a professional assassin, Rukh had hidden in the high-speed launch's tiny cell so cunningly that neither the ship's nav computer, nor droids, nor even a Jedi had been alarmed. Luke went to opening all the bigger chests, cases and drawers in a row and found Rukh in the third one, compactly folded in like a pack of ammo. Luke helped him to get out.
“Looking for death, Rukh?“
The assassin drew himself up in a slow and dignified manner, stretched and stared Luke in the eye with his yellow gaze.
“I do not think so“, he mewed. “Thrawn promised not to take revenge. He was not lying. I doubt that he'll change his decision and kill me.“
“He promised not to avenge himself on Honoghr,“ Luke said. “On the Noghri people as a whole. You're not Honoghr, however you might feel about it yourself. For Thrawn, you're just his former bodyguard who... betrayed him in the worst possible way."
Rukh would be very lucky to get a quick execution, Luke thought. He was frantically weighing up his options for getting the stowaway off the ship and saving his hide.
The Noghri had obviously decided to remain stubborn and ignore rational arguments. And persuading him against his will, by the Force, was a risk Luke would not take: Rukh did not at all appear to be a weak-minded creature that could be swayed in such a fashion.
“Have to make a detour now, hide you somewhere.“
“No, Master Luke.“ Rukh shook his head almost like a human. “I'll reach the Chimaera with you on this ship.“
“But why?“ Luke was perplexed. “What would you do there?“
“I'd have to guard you, Rukh. If I manage, that is. I did not betray Grand Admiral Thrawn, he does not hate me. But you...“
Rukh fletched his teeth and sat down on the floor - Noghri stubbornness, embodied in a single being. Luke turned to go and set a new course.
"I'll follow you, Master Luke, even if you order me off the ship. I'll find another transport.“
Luke didn't doubt that.
“Do you understand that you won't be able to guard me? Your presence would just make things harder.“
Something dawned on Luke then - a guess. A pretty unpleasant one.
"Is guarding me your only purpose? Have you no other intent?“
Killing Thrawn, for example. Maybe on Leia's orders, or on Rukh's own initiative, who knows.
“I have.“ The assassin did not try to wiggle out of it. “It's not an evil intent, sir. I'm not going to kill. I've got another mission.“
“Did Leia send you?“
"Aye, Lady Vader... she knows.“
"What is your mission then?“
“I am a spy,“ Rukh said. “Pretending to be a double agent. About a year ago I secretly returned to Thrawn and told him that I endlessly regretted my betrayal and wanted to prove my loyalty supplying him with information about your family and the New Republic. My Master... he believed me. Or not. In any case, ever since I pass on to him the information that Mistress Leia deems fit. Disinformation, that is, Master Luke. Therefore, I would not be in danger on the Chimaera. Thrawn has already met me and spoken to me this year. He did not kill me, as you can see.”
Well, that looked like one of Leia's schemes indeed. But Luke was still in doubt. There was something in the Force, a whisper. Rukh had kept something back.
“Is that all?“
"No, Master Luke. There is something else – a personal motive. But that is mine, and mine only. I do not wish to speak of it.“
“As you wish.“
Rukh wasn't lying, in any case. Luke marveled, not for the first time, at the assassin's loyalty and courage. The Noghri people weren't interested in the Republican cause, the fight against tyranny that was the Empire, but Leia, Vader's daughter, had still remained a goddess in Rukh's eyes. That had not changed, even though her imputations against Thrawn turned out to be false. The goddess had told a lie, though without intent, and Honoghr turned its back on her – all of the Noghri race but for a single gray-skinned killer who would not abandon his faith. Luke had his doubts about this kind of fealty, great, sad and admirable at the same time.
"I regret what happened to you," said Luke, squinting against the lifeless mechanical light glaring into his face.
Offset against the blaze in his chair, Grand Admiral Thrawn made full impression of a fleshless, black, dry paper cut. Even his eyes, lava-scarlet, were now barely glowing outside the bright circle in the large empty room. An ysalamir stirred in its cage at the chair's foot. Luke could not quite see it either, he merely perceived the movement and the shift of shadow.
“And I regret what happened to your foster parents,“ retorted the Grand Admiral in tune. “To the planet of Alderaan, to Firrerre, Omwat and several other worlds. Such things are very regrettable, but, since they merely happened,“ Thrawn put an ironic stress on the word, “and no one can be deemed responsible, we'll have no trouble negotiating like civilized beings.“
Luke had to swallow that. He knew he hadn't chosen the best way to put it, but what else could he have said? “I am sorry that you got raped and almost torn to pieces due to my sister's allegations“? That would have been the naked truth, but Luke had a feeling it wasn't very suitable for opening peace talks. Or maybe it was, said an image of Rukh in his mind. Maybe he really should have begun like that.
“This is why I am here,“ Luke made a short courteous nod. “Thank you for your willingness to listen.“
Thrawn did not reply. An uneasy silence followed, and Luke understood that the commander-in-chief of the Empire Reborn was waiting for his proposals.
“A Rebel surrender, I hope?“ finally said Thrawn, as Luke was just opening his mouth to go on. “Or shall the Rebellion persist till the last drop of blood to make both sides' losses as high as possible?“
There was an indifference to his voice. To Luke, it seemed that Thrawn was tired, worn out with hate and war. The injuries he'd suffered on Honoghr may have done that, or there were other things. The Imperial warlord was obviously not cast of durasteel as well.
“Almost,“ Luke said. “It really is a surrender, though a conditional one, compared to what the New Republic had three years ago. We offer you a permanent truce, Admiral. We would agree to acknowledge all sectors you've regained in the course of your campaign as legally Imperial if you conceded to us what's left of our space."
Luke reached into his bag and produced a holocron he'd brought along. A map of the Galaxy, their common home, spread in the air, almost invisible in the glare of lamps. They momentarily went blind, and the map rained forth its sparkling millions of stars inside geometric volumes of sector spaces – Imperial ones, set off red, Republican blue and the colorful mosaic of the neutral enclaves and foreign states. At that moment in history, 10 ABY, red backlighted about three quarters of the former, dead Galactic Republic. Greater than distance or time. The New Republic clung on to less than one tenth. But that small fraction was bristling with well thought-out defense along all of its borders, desperate and absolutely ready to do its damnedest to the last X-wing, last volunteer. Luke knew that Thrawn had no real need to accept his proposal and leave the blue-lighted space in Republican hands when he could simply reconquer it for the Empire by force. No need, no reason, that is, except for impending losses.
“The heart of the Republic, Admiral,” Luke pointed at the blue, the color of hope. “Not Coruscant, that eager cradle of the Empire which greeted Palpatine's grab for power with long standing applause. But this – Corellia, Bormea and the sector of Alderaan and others in their mold. That's where the Rebellion began. The inhabitants of these systems would not accept a return of autocratic rule. For them, some form of Republic is just as natural as the gases they breath. It's the way they'd done things for millennia, even before Coruscant was made capital. You can, of course, go on and destroy what's left of our fleet – which is not much at all, as you know. We would resist, however. We might still have a couple of military aces up our sleeve. We'd sell our lives dearly, do not doubt that."
Thrawn sat motionless, silent. To Luke, it suddenly seemed that he and the ysalamir in its cage were alone in the room. The silhouette in the large command chair appeared empty - the Grand Admiral was a hologram or a ghost.
“Of course you'd win in the end, I don't doubt that either. But after your final victory, Admiral - what shall come after? You'd have trouble pacifying all these old Republican worlds. Keeping them under control would be even harder. After recovering from their losses a bit they'd rise in a new rebellion. They would rebel again and again if they have to. In this old galaxy, the Republic has never yet given up, time after time it's been reborn like phoenix from the ashes."
“I hope your stunning proposal does not consist of repeating Rebellion propaganda cliches to my face, Skywalker.“ Thrawn's voice was flat. “You seem to be under false impression as to their artistic worth. Let's get to the core.“
“That's it.“ Luke pointed at the twinkling map. “The core of my proposal is as I said: you leave us with our present blue sectors and we formally abandon any claim to your conquests, as shown here in red. Both sides meet officially, hammer out a treaty. Our profit is staying alive, and yours - not having to painfully finish us off for years to come, losing a lot of ships and troops in the process and then also having to pacify by means of terror dozens – or rather hundreds - of systems which deeply abhor Imperial rule.”
“That's what you said of Coruscant as well,“ Thrawn noted. “Your propaganda alleged the capital deeply abhorred Imperial rule. Let's take a look at the planet down below, Skywalker, shall we?“
Thrawn moved his hand, making a large holographic display materialize behind his chair. Coruscant glittered from the Chimaera's orbit in gold and silver and rubies. The world would appear to be a peaceful, civilian twinkling hive – but for a shoal of star destroyers on the horizon.
“I've liberated the capital from your illegal rule,“ Thrawn said, “and it rejoiced in happiness. Have you seen the Imperial Center's galactic transmissions?“
The live image on display made way for a recording of varicolored fireworks dancing rainbow-like on the city world's skies. It was beautiful in a quaint, traditional way. Luke watched intently – he had not seen this one before.
“It's not a fake, I assure you,“ the Admiral said. “The people's joy is genuine, and I'm talking about all Imperial peoples. Humans and non-humans alike celebrated the reinstatement of the Imperial lawful order. Some systems are still at it, as I hear.“
“That's due to your personal image, Admiral. You are a genius and a victor, a generous new ruler. The people love you. They firmly believe you won't let Emperor Palpatine's racism and cruel oppression return. You are a symbol of a new Empire, a better and just one - an Empire with a dignified face. It will hold on as long as you're alive. Should something happen to you, however... How are you feeling, Admiral, these days?“
The hint of emptiness in the room seemed to grow in answer. The animal at the foot of the chair was blinding Luke to the Force, but his other senses had sharpened to the extreme, trying to compensate for the loss. What if Thrawn is already dead, came the thought, what if he died of the injuries the Noghri dealt him, and I am talking to a virtual recording? Who, then, has been commanding Imperial fleets in battle for a year? A cybernetic copy? Have we lost to a machine?
“What is that to you?“ Thrawn stirred, but the irreality of his silhouette persisted. It even grew with the weightless movement. “I'll do everything in my power to outlive you, Skywalker, rest assured of that.“
“Excuse my prying,“ Luke said. “What shall be your answer, then? Truce – or war till the bitter end?“
“I've got a number of conditions.“ Thrawn stirred again, threw a glance to the side. The room was still empty but for the two of them – that is, for Luke and the ysalamir. At that moment the Jedi finally became certain that he was talking to a hologram, albeit a very good one.
“I'm all ear, sir.“
Would everything be so easy?
“Do not call me sir, Skywalker, you're not under my command. First and foremost, the rebels must commit themselves to never raising arms against the Empire again. Among other things, not to join any alliances that are or may be potentially directed against us.“
“A fair point,“ Luke nodded in agreement.
“Should your side break this clause,“ Thrawn went on as if he hadn't heard, “or prepare to break it, I'll use weapons of mass destruction against your systems. Monstrous machines not unlike the Death Star, Skywalker, but more advanced, more compact and handy. You must have heard rumors of them, though you couldn't know for sure. These engines truly exist. They are mine to command. I won't issue a second warning. The galaxy doesn't need traitors knifing it in the back in a time of war."
“War? Against whom?“ Luke felt a momentary confusion. Who was Thrawn's alleged enemy if he wasn't going to continue his crusade against the New Republic? The remaining warlords' enclaves and neighboring smaller states seemed too insignificant an opponent to allow for such chilling threats.
“That's unimportant at the moment. What's important is that you make a memorable mental note: an alliance against the Empire, no matter with whom, means death. Secondly, to ensure the implementation of clause number one by the rebels, I shall establish constant military presence at your borders. You won't object to that.“
Luke was going to interrupt him by asking what kind of presence was being thought of. Could that be the very same mass destruction machines mentioned earlier, which incidentally could be hijacked and used by any terrorist group? But Thrawn cut off his objection with a harsh gesture of hand.
“Third and last point of basic concern. I need your personal neutrality, Skywalker. The new Jedi Order that you shall build must not be a lackey to the idea of the Republic. It must remain independent of secular powers of any kind, be based on neutral worlds and serve the common good, not particularistic contentious ideological interests. The material basis for all of this may be provided by both sides according to due agreements.“
Luke felt like rain had just descended on his head in the middle of summer on Tatooine. That was it, the basic condition of the Republic's survival, the heart of the matter. Thrawn ultimately could not make sure that the New Republic desists from forming alliances with alien civilizations behind his back. Mon Mothma's signature on the treaty would remain words on paper in that respect. But if Luke agreed to this third, last condition, the Jedi Order neutrality, then such a promise would be hard to break. Thrawn would make sure of that by providing the said material basis. Having taken half a dozen Imperial loyalists as disciples, Luke probably would not be able to withhold from them the knowledge of the Living Force he had. Should the war start anew anytime in the future, the Order would simply split, and the Empire would have its own Jedi. Jedi, not Sith – good-willed guardians, no destructive madmen.
He had to meet a decision, and so he did - without consulting anyone, neither Mothma and Ackbar nor even Leia and Han Solo.
“Then I shall pose my own condition, Admiral. I have to see you face to face. This is an excellent hologram, but I don't need the Force to recognize it for what it is. I see that you're not here.“
“Why would you want that?“ Thrawn asked, folding his hands and resting on them the tip on his chin. His silhouette darkened even more and made it hard to discern the details. “You would not be able to influence my mind anyway. Or do you want to try and strangle me? I won't allow that, I'm afraid. I'm certainly not going to meet a Jedi without ysalamiri close by.“
“Without ysalamiri, yes.“ Luke knew he was putting at risk everything he had already achieved with Thrawn, but his instincts of a battle-hardened warrior and a Jedi adamantly insisted that he push the matter. “Before making a promise to agree to such conditions I have to know that you are still yourself.“
“Who else could I be, Skywalker?“ Thrawn exhaled, as if his energy were running thin. “Who but myself?“
“Anyone, actually. An Imperial Moffs' trick, for instance, so that we allow them to bring your fleet armed with weapons of mass destruction to our space without a hindrance. Or, more precisely, their fleet, for if you are no more, Admiral, then also Thrawn's new Empire with all of its hopes is no more. I am speaking into a void, and the conspiring heads of the Empire who are deceptively using your image are my true opponents.“
“I seem to be the one speaking into a void here. If I am already dead, who's been defeating the rebels so soundly all this year? Who's been playing me as could be done by myself alone? You seemed to be more intelligent, Master Jedi.“
“Whomever it would take,“ Luke said. “Several gifted fleet officers, a computer model. Another Sith or a Dark Jedi like C'baoth.“
“Do you actually believe what you're saying?“
“Or those others,“ added Luke, unexpectedly for himself. “The ones we mustn't form an alliance with. You're one of them.“
He suddenly felt queasy, as if an abyss of eternity and of nothing had opened underfoot and he was looking at a limitless dead void.
“Now that's interesting,“ Thrawn's voice was quiet. “I'll actually meet with you, I think. Without ysalamiri. We'll see what you say then. I'll determine the how, where and when, of course.“
He feel silent for a moment, probably expecting Luke to say more, but Luke just stood there, wondering what had come over him a moment ago. Thrawn was apparently not fully recovered from the torture he'd suffered on Honoghr yet. He was still bodily weak and ill and chose a holographic negotiation because of that. Didn't want to show an enemy how bad it was. Isn't that obvious?
“You will be escorted back to your ship, Skywalker,“ Thrawn said. “Remain there until you get a departure clearance. You'll have to wait for it a couple of hours. Feel free to grab some sleep, restore your strength. You'll need it to persuade your sister to accept the coming treaty. I expect to receive Mon Mothma's official negotiations proposal by the end of this month. I won't send it myself. The rebels owe the galaxy a first step towards peace, since they were the ones who started the civil war.“
The clearance took almost seven hours to come through. Luke followed Thrawn's advice and took a nap, bearing in mind the old army wisdom: whenever a good soldier's not eating, he sleeps. He couldn't even have gone into a Force meditation – there were ysalamiri lurking somewhere in the hangar bay.
Rukh returned toward the end of the sixth hour. He'd probably been reporting to Thrawn all this time, or to the Imperial Intelligence Director Ysanne Isard. The infamous Queen in Red took a timely oath of loyalty to the Grand Admiral before he'd reconquered Coruscant, gave him complete and unconditional control over Thyferra and thus kept her position of power. As a result of this alliance, the New Republic was encountering severe bacta shortages. They were being felt in military as well as civilian hospitals. People who normally could have been saved were dying of injuries and of shock. That was one of the reasons Luke took it upon himself to initiate peace talks.
After coming on board, Rukh greeted Luke with a short silent bow and slipped into the cargo room like a gray shadow, probably planning to climb back into his box. Luke calmly waited for the departure clearance, took the ship out of the Chimaera's hangar bay, jumped into hyperspace straight from Coruscant orbit and went after him for a talk. The Noghri was back in his crate indeed, rammed in like the blade of a pocket knife. He appeared sleeping.
“How is Thrawn?“
Rukh's lids cracked open. For a couple of seconds he remained still and then said:
“Haven't you spoken to him, Master Luke?“
“I've spoken to a hologram. And I'm not sure there's now more to the man. Have you seen him face to face?“
“Yes,“ the Noghri said.
“What about his smell? Has it not changed? Tell me he's still got a body, Rukh. I don't like the idea that I've been chatting to a computer-generated image like a fool.“
Rukh didn't answer at once, and Luke seemed to feel something unpleasant in the expression of his terrifying alien face. A shadowy trace of a threat appeared in the Force and immediately dissolved, so that Luke couldn't even be sure it wasn't a glitch of perception.
“His smell has not changed,“ the Noghri said. “He's still got a body, the very same body that I put to torment one year ago, I and the other eleven of the execution squad. A body as damaged as my poor world, Master Luke. I wouldn't have confused it with anything. Is this answer enough?”
“Almost.“ The conversation was sad, but it had to be. “How is he, Rukh? Can he stand on his feet?“
”Oh yes, Master Luke. He can stand as well as walk. He's in control of the situation.“
Rukh's tone carried a note of sarcasm. No wonder, since he regularly fed Thrawn disinformation.
“Have you passed on to him what Leia told you?“
“Till the last word.“
“How did he react?“
“He thanked me for my service and gave me further instructions. And money.“ Rukh produced a credit card from his pocket.
He hadn't told Luke a single lie, the Jedi could feel as much in the Force. As to Rukh's obvious feelings of guilt... Luke Skywalker, who had once destroyed the Death Star with all its personnel, could not help him in that respect. All the evil they'd done in the war in the final account was for the Republic's sake, all was done in the name of the Good, of Light. That was probably the very reason they'd lost. The war would, however, soon be coming to an end.
“Aren't you hungry, Rukh?“
“No, Master Luke, I've had a meal.“
“Don't you want to lie in the cot?“ the Jedi offered gently. “Why be cramped into this locker? I've already had my sleep.“
“Thanks, sir, but it's all right this way. Just don't lock the ship from the outside when we arrive. Have a good night.“
He closed his disturbing intelligent predator's eyes and seemed to doze off.
The Jedi finally left for the pilot's cabin, and Rukh discovered he no longer felt wrath towards this man. Good. The Master had taught him to control his spirit in the presence of Vader's children, but it still took Rukh enormous effort to hide his true feelings. He was certain he'd let something slip at the start of the conversation, and Master Luke's distrust had not been woken simply because he basically expected outbursts of anger and of rage from Rukh – things dark and not anything good.
Rukh had actually taken a meal – on the Chimaera. The Master received him, as usual, in his own quarters in private. He allowed Rukh to kneel before him and listened closely to all the lies the Mal'ary'ush wanted Rukh to pass on – and then to all the truth Rukh reported of his own will. Driven into a pitiful corner of a handful of sectors, the Rebel leaders were fallen prey to silly panic and desperation, and the account of that took almost two hours. At the end Rukh told the Master of strange new rumors around the planet of Byss, things heard on the grapevine about Emperor Palpatine's resurrection and his imminent return. The Master thanked Rukh and ordered him to have a drink of water from the decanter. Then he lifted the lid from the tray on the desk.
“You must be hungry, Rukh. Please have a meal,“ he offered.
And added, seeing Rukh's hesitation:
“This is a dinner made for myself. I am not hungry. It's fine meat.“
Rukh knew of course it was the Master's own meal. That was the reason he hesitated. The Master had lost even more weight in the two months that had passed since their last meeting. He had now some twenty five pounds less than a year ago, before he'd paid with his own flesh for the lies of Darth Vader's daughter. He could not have boasted of excess weight even then. The Master had always been slim and strong, beautiful like a hunter in his prime. Now, however...
But Rukh could not refuse him. He took out a folding knife that he used as cutlery while on travels and carefully ate the proposed dinner. The meat was indeed delicious, but it seemed to turn to ash in his mouth. How ill must the Master be if he prefers hunger to food so fine!
While Rukh was eating, the Master himself took a drink of his favorite Forvish ale from a thick glass and pondered the report he'd received. Rukh put the empty plate back on the tray, and the Master gave him new instructions, as foresighted and detailed as the ones before which had taught Rukh to conceal his true loyalty from the Mal'ary'ush and her cursed brother. The bottom line was always telling them the truth, just not all of it. The silences, inaccuracies and bursts of emotion could then be written off to anger, pain, and guilt. The Master spent a whole day at the beginning of Rukh's mission teaching him to successfully lie to Jedi. That day-long lesson had borne its fruit.
The Master then handed him a credit card and said:
“Three million Imperial credits – in new currency, of course. Buy only the best for your mission and do not deny yourself anything.“
It was quite a sum. Rukh accepted the card and bowed, believing the meeting over, but the Master did not take away his hand. He held it before Rukh's face.
“You wanted to touch upon my wrist last time, Rukh. You may do it now.“
“My lord - ...“
Rukh could not believe his blessing. He gently touched the Master's fingers, took the white-gloved hand in his own and reached, as if for the sweetest of meats, for the blue strip of skin between the glove and the sleeve. The skin felt rough - the scars from rawhide thongs which the executioners on Honoghr had used to stretch the Master out between wooden stakes for torment hadn't healed over too well. Rukh touched them reverently with his lips and then with his tongue. Overwhelmed with awe, he felt once again the fragrance of beloved Master's blood beating in dark blue veins, inhaled his breathtaking scent. The Master's breath hitched for an instant, but he kept himself under control, did not flinch away. If he only allowed Rukh to divest him of clothes, to lick a tender line from wrist to elbow, into the armpit, and then - …
Rukh happily dived into these fruitless dreams, but the Master brought him back to reality.
“What do you sense, Rukh?“
The hunter met his eyes.
“My scent. Is it as it's always been?“
“It is like it was sixty days ago, my lord.“
“Do you sense anything... unusual?“
Rukh didn't quite understand the question. Of course the Master was unusual, the only specimen of a rare human subspecies in all of the galaxy that was known to Rukh. His scent recounted the whole story of his life in unimaginably far strange worlds. That story wasn't so very different from the lives of a lot of pale-skinned and dark-skinned human officers of Sheev Palpatine's Empire. But the Master must know this. What, then, is he - ...?
“Something alien. Truly alien, not anything you've ever sensed anywhere you've been. Something dangerous and hostile, Rukh. Something malign, carrying suffering in its wake, blindness and death. Something full of infernal hatred and... dead, in a certain way.“
Dead? Oh ye gods. Rukh suppressed the rising panic, took to the scarred wrist again, slid his nose under the tunic's cuff and breathed deeply in. He had a duty to carry out the order as well as he was able to.
And death he sensed, indeed. A slow, creeping death, still far away but already on the approach to this body's fortress, almost visible yet beyond the far steppe horizon. A death of pure contempt for one's own dishonored flesh and of hatred for it, so strong that it was blocking the Master's throat, forbidding him to support his body by eating often enough, so that the body was feeding on itself, devouring first the fat, then the muscles. As long as they were there to devour. When these reserves ran out, the internal organs would follow next, delaying the death from starvation for a short while.
And that was what Rukh told the Master straight from the shoulder.
“Ah, yes.“ The Master seemed indifferent as he took away his hand and adjusted the cuff. “Is that all? I mean something loathsome and opposed to life itself, Rukh. Could you be sensing such a thing? Has it maybe always been there, been a part of my scent as long as you know me so that you've just grown used to its smell?“
Rukh pondered hard and blinked in denial. The Master understood his facial expressions. He closed his eyes and then said:
“I have to be absolutely certain that you're not mistaken. Try again – here, at the navel.“
As if stunned by a gun, Rukh watched the Master rise from his chair, remove belt and tunic, unbutton his uniform trousers and the lower part of the shirt to give Rukh access to his belly, hollow and mottled by bluish-white spots of ugly synthetic flesh where his real one had been torn out by the execution squad.
“The navel is the centerpoint of life, they say. If they did get to me, you'll sense them here.“
In fear and awe, Rukh closed his eyes and poked his nose into this belly that he so unbearably desired. The scent was delicious. Nothing could spoil it for Rukh, neither exhaustion, nor pain, nor even synthiflesh. Rukh suddenly was afraid that he would lose control and seize the Master to take possession of him, thrust his cock into the hot tight insides, once again sink his teeth in the Master's shoulders…
The Master reeled and collapsed. He dropped like he'd been shot and would have hit his head on the bare floor, had Rukh not caught him in time.
He carried the Master out of the study and into his bedroom, noting that the weight loss was thirty pounds at least. The burden was considerably lighter than one year ago when Rukh had stunned him, tied him up and transported the unconscious body to the hangar bay, where he hijacked a hyperdrive-equipped TIE interceptor to take the Master to Honoghr for trial and execution. Rukh nearly ceased to curse that day, himself and his blind trust in the Mal'ary'ush. He humbly accepted the fact that he was mistaken when he'd believed the two-faced goddess. His betrayal of Thrawn turned out to be in vain: the harm that the Imperial droids were inflicting on the already poisoned world of Honoghr was being done under approval and on express orders of Vader, the first ruler of the Noghri people, their savior, supreme leader and god.
Darth Vader could not have erred nor could he betray his faithful. And so, Rukh decided in that terrible hour of night when they had finally taken the gag from the tortured Master's mouth and he told the executioners the whole truth about Vader, the droids and the kholm-grass, the damage itself was justified. Rukh did not understand why and how, but he did not doubt it.
He gently laid the Master on the bed, on his right side so that his heart could beat easier and to avoid a falling back of the tongue which in unconscious humans sometimes led to suffocation. Then Rukh took his boots off – the Master's feet, too, needed rest. The thong marks were barely visible on his ankles. The Master was painfully trying to free his hands while the execution was underway, he was straining at his bonds in despair, and the thongs had rubbed his wrists raw almost to the bone. His legs, however, the executioners had pushed up and apart as they abused him, they spread and held his knees wide as they liked. He hadn't been able to pull on the ties on his ankles all that much, so the thong furrows there were shallow and had healed well.
It would be best to take off the Master's uniform, too, so that the fabric wouldn't pinch in his body anywhere, but Rukh let go of this thought and did the contrary: he buttoned the Master's shirt and trousers so that he would not suspect upon waking that Rukh had somehow taken advantage of him while he lay unconscious.
Rukh checked his breath. It was evening out like a sleeper's, and the heart beat well and steady. Rukh could not make the Master eat if he did not want to, but it had fallen to him at least to make sure that the Master got some sleep. Rukh would stay with him for a couple of hours, guarding his peace.
Rukh took a pen and a paper notebook from the nightstand, pulled out an empty sheet and wrote, in large, awkward Aurebesh letters, the answer to the question posed to him: "NOTHING." He folded the sheet and put it in the pocket of the Master's trousers.
The bed was wide and comfortable, soft, but not too much so - far better than the ordinary troopers' bunk which the Master had been sleeping on before. Probably the work of Captain Pellaeon, who was now the Master's bedmate. The Captain had done something right for a change, that sickening dullard. Rukh recalled his own silent fury when he first came to the Master with valuable information about the Rebels in recompense for his treachery - and smelled their relationship at once, the scent of their couplings, their sweat, seed and saliva on each other. He still got angry when he thought about it too long, so he learned not to ponder it, almost taught himself to ignore Pellaeon's aromatic mark on the Master's body. All in all it was by no means the worst change in scent. As Rukh breathed in the Master's presence, he took in everything – the aromatic plea of the starving body that had not yet recovered from torture and was being so cruelly denied nourishment; the unnatural note of synthiflesh that consumed an exorbitantly large share of the scant food that Thrawn still ate and was beginning to devour his own weakened tissue; the scent of moderate but constant, tenacious pain of poorly healed wounds; the subtle stench of blue-black dye the Grand Admiral now used to color his hair, gone entirely white in the course of the day and night of his execution – all of this was much worse.
Rukh curled up on the blanket next to his Master, closed his eyes and slipped into a wakeful predator's doze.
Chapter 4: After the treaty
Warlord Zsinj was a rather short, stocky man. Still, he somehow inspired respect, even fearful reverence in most people. After the liberation of Coruscant, in which he took a most active part, Zsinj ordered a new uniform made for himself, a snow-white one with gold trimming, and an equally rich red-lined broad cloak. His mustache had grown even longer and was now looking down onto his lower jaw and chin. Standing in the middle of a group of Grand Moffs, Moffs and admirals of the Empire in the Chimaera's hangar, he appeared at once comical and threatening. Zsinj dominated the talking circle; other Imperial dignitaries waiting for Thrawn's arrival from negotiations were listening to him. Even Ysanne Isard, the warlord's declared foe, was following the conversation closely, albeit at some distance.
“The Grand Admiral's convoy has come out of hyperspace,“ reported Senior Lieutenant Tschel.
Admiral Pellaeon acknowledged him with a nod and gave the signal for the reception ceremony to begin.
When the Imperial leader's black launch touched the landing pad without so much as a noise, all the high dignitaries were already waiting in an ideal row, like soldiers. Thrawn stepped on board his flagship with yet another triumph. Cornered by his fleet, the rebels had had to accept all of his basic conditions. Their military council had in fact signed a surrender. The discussion during the ten days of negotiations was about minor issues which would allow the Empire to monitor the implementation of the conditions of the treaty, and the rebel leaders to save their collective face. The final text of the agreement satisfied both sides. The civil war with the Republicans thereby ended with a stroke of the pen. The Empire could finally afford to draw a part of its fleet away from rebel sector borders and to establish in its own territory the law and order that its people had been promised and so had the right to expect.
Thrawn stepped on board his flagship looking even more haggard than he did on departure almost two weeks ago. The launch's entrance hatch slid aside, Pellaeon raised his hand to greet his commander with all due honors - and froze in his movement. The Grand Admiral's eyes were sunken, showing dark spots beneath, at the wings of his nose. Thrawn's white uniform hid his body from prying eyes, but bones were now clearly looking through flesh of his face and hands. Only the brightness of his eyes wasn't gone, they glowed intense as ever. The Grand Admiral greeted all those gathered to receive him - first, briefly, Pellaeon, then the dignitaries, in a more official manner. His voice rung powerful and free. Pellaeon was somewhat reassured by that as he watched Thrawn walk toward the elevator, accompanied by the pack of officials. The protocol demands would take several more hours before the two of them could meet in private and Pellaeon would be able to ask and hear whatever needed to be talked over.
“Death's head,“ said a voice behind him.
Pellaeon turned around.
“My great-uncle's death was like this,“ Zsinj explained. He'd stayed behind Thrawn's entourage without Pellaeon noticing and then crept up on him with remarkable stealth.
“He got a rare tumor,“ the warlord continued. “Malignant in the extreme. Discovered too late, the doctors couldn't help anymore. They operated on him, sent him to ray therapy, but the metastases... I called him once, after several months without stable vid connection - the Clone Wars were in full swing – and saw the skull coming out from under his face. The cheeks were gone, the lips had thinned away, the eyes were sunken deep. His head seemed almost dead already at that point. Gods' reminder of what was coming for him in the near future.”
Zsinj raised his hand to indicate those terrible bones on his own face.
“The Grand Admiral, now, is not as bad yet, he doesn't strike the eye as a dying man. His skull isn't yet peering from under his skin. The voice sounds good, and the eyes, they help, too - people look into them and then look immediately away. But, Captain, that won't last.”
Pellaeon remained silent. Zsinj too. He was apparently waiting for a reaction.
“The Grand Admiral is all right,“ said Pellaeon at last. “He's in control of himself as he is in control of the Empire.“
“Gods! I hope, Captain, you have just lied.“ Zsinj absently pulled at his lush chestnut-brown mustache. “You know, on Coruscant I've got a look into the HoloNet... Found a spare moment at last, for the first time since Endor. I am a fan of videos of a certain kind, you may have heard...”
Zsinj was a connoisseur of quality rape and sex torture videos – staged ones as well as real snuff. That much Pellaeon knew.
“Well, no matter. On Coruscant I've encountered a recording of that kind, made by a regular comm and quite interesting. It's about a year old. The recording is rather long, over four hours in all, and of poor quality - something was obviously interfering with the camera. What's curious is its content. The star of this video is a blue-skinned humanoid looking a lot like a Pantoran ... or like the Grand Admiral. Practically a human, a handsome man in his prime. About a dozen Noghri, nonhumans like the one that used to be Thrawn's bodyguard, stretched him out between stakes driven into the ground and had their fun with him, in a very harsh way. They gang-raped him several times over, cut him up with knives, bit whole chunks out of his flesh and cauterized his wounds with hot iron. That's what savages are like – disgusting and cruel. Amazing how their victim did not simply die from all the torture. The owner of the video channel is the rebel general Han Solo. He supplied the recording with a comment...“
“What do you want from me?“ Pellaeon asked. He suddenly had an awful taste in his mouth, as if he'd eaten something rotten.
“Oh, just curious, Admiral... The Noghri betrayed us, if I'm not mistaken? Almost exactly a year ago their units suddenly backstabbed our troops after ganging up with the rebels for some reason. Luckily their alliance only lasted a short while, until the Noghri had a falling out with them, too – again, for reasons unknown.“
“Zsinj... what do you need?“ Pellaeon's lips felt numb. The cameras in thе hangar should now be off, they were only set to record Thrawn's arrival. But if somebody had forgotten to switch off even one of them - if someone was listening to this conversation...
“The same thing all the Empire needs, Admiral Pellaeon. Don't worry. Or do you think I want harm – seek to blackmail, for instance?” Zsinj sighed. "I'm not a suicide. Suicide isn't to my taste, I do not accept it, it's an exit for cowards. I had to shoot my own mother, a traitor and a gangster that she was. Do you think it was easy? Whatever happens, you need to clench your teeth and pull your weight, Captain - Admiral Pellaeon. Pull it as long as you can and as far as gods measure out. We owe it to our long-suffering homeland, each and every one of us.”
“Without doubt,“ said Pellaeon dryly. A creep boasting of the murder of his own mother was not to his liking, whether Imperial or not.
"The next stage, Admiral, is death's head." Zsinj wiggled his thick, unpleasantly nimble fingers, drawing a skull in the air. “Emaciation, leading to death. It's not yet too late to avoid it – and a hospitalization that would display before the entire galaxy the weakness and vulnerability of the bearer of our hopes. What's necessary is a good rest and a well-planned outpatient treatment – a high-calorie diet, first of all. A bit of curative gymnastics wouldn't hurt either. No one will be surprised if the warrior who's just saved the Empire takes his well-earned rest from military hardships for a month or two. I am fully prepared to preside over the Council of Moffs all that time, implementing the Grand Admiral's plans in full accordance with his desires. I'm not saying this in order to grab more power for myself. Well, that, too, of course. But a power grab is not my primary motive, you understand?”
Pellaeon could not find it in himself to respond. He simply lowered his eyelids, conceding the warlord's point. Whether a creep or not, in this the man was right.
Zsinj took another pensive look at him, tweaked his mustache again and turned to go to the elevators.
"That Solo is a disgusting bastard," he said over his shoulder. "My personal enemy, by the way."
"The problem lies more with his wife," Pellaeon said.
Zsinj paused for a moment, digesting this morsel topping the whole cake. Then he nodded and left, waving the folds of his costly cloak, followed by his personal guard - three black-armored Raptor troopers.
The meeting of the Imperial Council lasted well into the night. Thrawn served everybody a surprise by actually appointing Zsinj his vice-chief on the Council, albeit in purely economic matters. He also unambiguously hinted that the warlord and Ysanne Isard had to bury their enmity in the name of the common good. And when at last the masters of the galaxy - old as well as new ones - switched off all maps and displays and the droid servants brought in their rich festive dinner – well, everybody just sat and stared at Thrawn, on whose white plate lay a small brownish cylinder of something that looked like weapon oil.
The Grand Admiral was obviously going to have a meal of common troopers' absorbic.
“Rids you of certain bodily problems which tend to distract from work,“ he explained, catching the stunned stares of officials, Moffs and admirals whose individual menus rivaled the best Coruscant restaurants of the Empire's heyday. “Prevents from gaining excess weight - and tastes not half as bad as suggested by rumor. Efficient food, ladies and gentlemen.” And, seeing some at the table quietly beckon the droids to follow the recommendation at once, Thrawn added: “But not today, not for you. Enjoy the good dinner that you have ordered. You deserve it. We all deserve it.”
And put into his mouth half a spoonful of the dull protein-sugar mix with its strictly measured daily vitamin doses. Absorbic was usually consumed by stormtroopers, other Imperial infantry and the Fleet's special forces, mostly before protracted battles and military operations on planets where removing your pants to take a shit meant getting your ass bitten in by vicious, hungry things, from the local fauna to the enemy or the atmosphere itself. Absorbic was not intended for long-term consumption - the excretory intestine parts would atrophy from lack of use. It most certainly was not intended for the commander-in-chief's own table.
Pellaeon had of course spoken to the commander-in-chief on that matter, and more than once. They were lying in bed in the wake of some tender sex just about a month ago, after Skywalker and Rukh had already cleared the Chimaera to bear the rest of the traitorous rebel scum the good news of Imperial mercy. Pellaeon - no, Gilad, alone they were simply Gilad and Raw – said:
“Can I ask you a very personal question?“
Thrawn lowered his eyelids. Which meant yes.
“Is your... everything working well?“
“What exactly, Gilad?“
“Your bottom. Your... ring. No problems there?“
“You mean to ask if I don't soil my underwear like a baby? That would explain the absorbic. No stool after that, so incontinence is not a problem. No, Gilad, I don't, everything's all right. Something like that happened once or twice in the hospital a year ago, when Rukh had just brought me back from Honoghr. Then, as you know, the doctors implanted me with synthetics - there as well. The muscles have regenerated, everything works well. But you see and feel it yourself every night.
“I see,“ Pellaeon said. “I feel. It's just... sometimes there's...“
He trailed off, unable to voice it even in a whisper.
“A mental weakness, right? Incontinence as a result of traumatic flashbacks, of nightmares?“
Thrawn was speaking quietly. Suddenly, Pellaeon was afraid.
“The muscles would work - but for the brain that fails them. Do you think, then, my brain is damaged, Gil?“
“Not damaged, no,“ Pellaeon whispered hastily, trying to persuade himself. “Your brain is without compare. Why do you eat that tasteless crap?“
“So I don't have to clean out every evening.“
“What? Are you serious?“
“Completely.“ Thrawn turned to Gilad and raised himself up on his elbow. “The process is not very pleasant and would take time, or we'd have to do something else in bed. I don't want to come short of you. It's been long since I got taken so well.“
And Gilad's thoughts immediately turned to the question of who was that one long ago, who was Raw's first, who was second.
Now, sitting with the Imperial heads at the table, Pellaeon caught Zsinj's stare, heavy and knowing, and realized that Thrawn had manipulated him once again that night. Flattered him, albeit by a truth, and subtly changed the topic to that to their relationship, love and sex, caused a specter of hot jealousy to arise in imagination. He had distracted Pellaeon from the most pressing concern - from his own haggardness, withering muscles, from his protruding ribs and collarbones Pellaeon kissed and caressed every night. Made him forget what was right before his eyes, rested in Gilad's arms like a fragile elven king of legend who would dissolve into haze by morning.
Dissolve and be gone to naught.
Not if Pellaeon had any say in the matter.
After dinner, he took a moment and sent a droid to the warehouse for what he'd thought of.
Pellaeon'd stumbled upon the idea largely thanks to Rukh during their last meeting. That day Thrawn had missed his call without forewarning. Moved by anxiety, Gilad left the bridge and went straight to him, almost running. The Grand Admiral had spoken with the Jedi Skywalker a few hours before, and then granted an audience to the damn Noghri. If those monsters had done something to Raw...
Pellaeon opened the door to Thrawn's rooms with his own key card and ran into Rukh.
“You are a bad lover,“ said that Sithspawn. Its yellow eyes watched Pellaeon coldly, full of old malice.
It was all Pellaeon could squeeze out. For Rukh, he had no other words.
“Bad spouse. Bad officer.“ Rukh's voice had a grating to it. “The Master's decided to starve himself to death, but you don't care. He's tormenting himself with deadly fast, but you humans don't worry about that. He has already won your war for you, so you think you need him no longer. You feel the blue-skinned outsider can now die, that would be quite convenient. You are mistaken, Captain. You're going to need the Master still.”
Pellaeon lost his speech for a moment. He was just standing there and opening his mouth like a fish out of water. The traitor's words stuck in him, a sharp hook.
"How dare you..."
"How dare you?" Rukh retorted. "How dare you use his body nightly, when he is so ill and afflicted unto death? How dare you enjoy him without helping? And you consider yourself faithful, you believe you love him! The Grand Admiral's body is not a doll for your dirty lust, you pale-skinned fool.”
Pellaeon's self-control burst like a child's balloon. His mind was seized with rage. He clutched at his blaster convulsively, but Rukh was already gone, slipped away from him back into the dark hall.
"Light," Pellaeon took a step after him.
The hall was empty. Pellaeon turned around, looking for his target, and suddenly felt the deadly knife edge on his throat. He could only freeze in place.
“The Master likes sea pots with salt flower,“ said Rukh from behind his shoulder. “It's a maritime dish from the planet of Dac. He enjoys seafood and salted caviar, green fruit, red berries ground up with lean game meat. We treated him once on Honoghr, and he ate with pleasure. Take care of him, human. Seduce him with food. Do whatever you want, but make him break his deadly fast. Or I shall take care of you.”
The door slid quietly closed. Rukh was gone. Gilad Pellaeon was left standing in the middle of the hall, still feeling the blade edges with his heart and throat.
Chapter 6: Mouth to mouth
They got to the bedroom late after midnight.
Thrawn took a step towards the bed, raised up his hands and stood on tiptoe, stretching with delight and rocking from heels to toes and back. His new uniform, tailored a mere month ago to hide his thinness, was already hanging loose on his body.
Rukh is going to slaughter me, Pellaeon thought. The notion had a strange indifference to it.
“You probably didn't eat during negotiations.“
"I did not eat," Thrawn agreed easily. "Only a couple of briquettes I took with me. Getting poisoned in the name of freedom and democracy does not conform with my plans, so Sith take the Republican hospitality."
"It will suit democracy just as well if you starve to death," Gilad remarked. "It is an idol of the scum and does not care for the means."
"I've just had dinner. You've seen it yourself."
Thrawn took off his tunic, threw it onto a chair and proceeded into the bathroom. He returned quickly, reeking of alcohol, sat down on the edge of the bed and said:
Pellaeon took a step toward him, smelling the ale on Thrawn's breath. He'd obviously just had some more. So there's a bottle in the bathroom yet again which must again be filched.
"Undress me, Gilad. Shirt first."
Pellaeon did it, button after button, bittersweet. He bared Thrawn's shoulders, a patchwork of white synthiflesh and scars, still strong and painfully desirable under his fingers, intensely familiar to eyes and touch. Gilad bent down to kiss them. Thrawn's shoulder blades stood out in sharp triangles, the stark vertebrae suddenly struck him with their defenselessness. White blots were everywhere, substituting for muscles torn out piece by piece. There was more white than the blue Chiss skin, with the blots standing out a bit above it, above the body's surface. Like islands in a warm blue sea.
Thrawn returned the kiss, sucking on his neck, unbuttoned Pellaeon's tunic and took hold of his belt.
"You have too many clothes on."
Pellaeon hurriedly took off his tunic, belt and started opening the shirt collar, but Thrawn pulled him close again, unzipping his trousers with the other hand.
“You smell delicious. I want to suck you off.“
His hands were strong and adamant, his lips desirable and hot. Pellaeon threw back his head and surrendered himself to his dear commander's will. It was unbearably wonderful, and he rocked his hips back and forth, holding Raw's neck and hair, thrust into his mouth and throat, hearing his own voice as if from a distance - Thrawn had long since weaned him from stifling his moans. He brought Pellaeon to the brink, released his cock for an instant and then took its head in again and rubbed it hard with his lips and tongue. Gilad cried out with sharp delight, feeling the spill of his seed.
Thrawn looked up at him in languor, his tongue slowly smearing the white stuff on his lips. He took a napkin, spit out and wiped his mouth.
“Now you,“ he said. “Take off my pants and take me. Can you?“
“I think so, yes.“
They'd been making love almost daily all year, and Pellaeon often found he could do it twice, sometimes even three times in a row, although his age seemingly should not admit such luxury. He'd need an aphrodisiac for a fourth round, but such nights could be counted on the fingers of one hand - small private orgies required time they simply did not have. He knelt before Raw and opened his belt.
Thrawn gently pushed him aside, rose and went to the living room. He brought a round metal bowl. Gilad thought they would be drinking something interesting from it, but Thrawn just stuck it to the wall above the head of his bed. The bowl's rim was apparently magnetic - it held.
"I've isolated the camera," Thrawn explained.
Gilad thought he'd misheard.
"Rukh put it there," Thrawn sank onto the bed and lay on his back, letting Pellaeon undress him. “He arrived on the Chimaera with me and came here while the Council was in session. Installed the camera and stole my handkerchief, as it seems. The camera is microscopic, and one usually does not look at the bedhead, so he hoped I would not notice.”
“That's... utterly fucked up.“
“He's worried about me.”
Gilad pulled off one of Thrawn's boots and took hold of the other when he finally got it. He froze with a boot in his hand.
"So he's recorded us..."
“Rukh doesn't record, he just watches. He's still on board. What does it matter? He's already seen me in every way.“
But he did not see me – us, Gilad thought.
“Are you offended?“
Pellaeon gave it another thought.
He put the boot on the floor, next to the other, and Thrawn raised his hips, letting him take off his trousers. He was wearing small white panties which did a very bad job of concealing his cock. Pellaeon held him up by his waist, leaned over him and kissed his stomach. He did not really care at all. In fact, given Rukh's absurd jealousy, he even felt a bit like gloating.
“See. I knew it.“
He always knew everything beforehand. He just did not know his own bodyguard would betray him, didn't know about Darth Vader's relation to Leia Organa, didn't know the Noghri punishment for a liar and traitor would be his own fate - ...
"Stop tormenting yourself," Thrawn's command put an end to this train of thought. “Strip, Gilad, now, and lie with me.”
Pellaeon turned off the light and followed the order. He was going to closely attend to what he saw under those white panties.
He caressed Thrawn slowly, tantalizing him with his hands, lips and tongue. When he finally went for the tube of lube in the nightstand, Thrawn stopped him.
“Let's do without.“
Dry sex sometimes would make him bleed, but it was useless to object. Pelleaon licked two fingers and gently pushed them inside him, feeling the sweet elasticity and the thrill of familiar flesh.
"Mmm..." Thrawn spread his legs. "I want to feel you properly. I have missed you so much.“
“When did you last exercise?”
"I did a warm-up this morning."
Thrawn was lying in his arms, his back to Pellaeon's chest, relaxed and satisfied. He seemed to be asleep, but replied to the question at once. Apparently, he understood the need for a talk.
Pellaeon was gradually coming to recognize the lies Thrawn was habitually shrouding in truth and his other manipulations. While he was cracking one of the ruses Thrawn invented ten more, but the old dog was still learning new tricks.
Thrawn turned over to him and settled himself more comfortably again. Now they were face to face.
"You used to train for half an hour – before...”
Pellaeon still could not bear calling what had happened on Honoghr by its name.
"I used to have the time."
“And the will to do so.”
“And the will. My muscles hurt.“ Thrawn rubbed over the solid white synthiflesh in place of his right biceps that had been eaten straight off his bones. “The seams between my own meat and synthetics ache no matter what I do. I cannot take painkillers all the time, they would cloud my mind.”
"It's the hunger." Pellaeon ran his hand over Thrawn's scraggy ribs, white and blue and crisscrossed with pale scars. “Neglect feeding the synthiflesh - and it will devour you to survive. That stuff is pseudo-intelligent, that's why it can replace living tissue so well.”
He knew Thrawn knew all of that himself. He would be attempting to change the subject now.
But Thrawn stayed silent.
“You are losing muscle mass.”
"I do not truly need it, Gilad. A number of warlords whose body was far from perfect have successfully waged wars," Thrawn said. “Some of them were cripples chained to a wheelchair or a bed. Zo Esva, Nuso's grandfather, spent the last years of his life on a stretcher. It did not stop him from conquering their the entire sector, and that with incredibly primitive technology.”
“Did he refrain from eating, too?“
“Oh, no, he ate. He ate too much and turned into a swollen bag of fat helpless flesh. This cost him his life in the end - the soldiers who had carried his stretcher just dropped him with it, running away. The great conqueror died under the hoofs of the cavalry on Avasta like some poor wretched peon.”
"Do you too want to be carried around in this future great war of yours?"
Thrawn smiled, and Gilad's heart sank with it.
“You would carry me. I know.“
“I'd prefer to carry an ysalamir,” Pellaeon said. “It's lighter.“
It seemed to him that Thrawn was once again turning everything into a joke. Pellaeon felt exhausted. This verbal match had squeezed him out more than the busy day before. He added, almost without hope:
"If you don't start eating again, you will die. There'll be no one left to defend the galaxy from the invasion of Far Outsiders that you are preparing us for. You will be dead or in a coma long before they arrive.”
“It might be better that way.“
Thrawn's voice was quiet. Silence followed, hanging over the bed in the dark.
"Skywalker said something to me a month ago." Thrawn turned over on his back and was now looking and speaking towards the ceiling. “He hinted that I was an Outsider myself. That I am one of them. But he does not know about them, Gilad. I've probed the ground on this. The rebels are blithering idiots, they've got no idea of anything outside old Republican space. They believe any worlds where their Republic doesn't reign to be populated by savages swinging in trees, throwing fruit at each other. Even if Mothma ordered Cracken to conduct reconnaissance not only against the Empire, he would not be able to do so in good faith, since he does not believe that unknown spaces could bear a threat. Luke Skywalker knew exactly nothing of the future enemy until I hinted to him that this enemy exists. To which he replied that I could be that enemy, I myself. He did not attempt lying, Gilad, I saw it. I think he did not even truly understand what he had said.”
“You are the enemy?.. Well, of course – for the rebels. Skywalker wasn't lying, from his own point of view.“
Thrawn nodded an agreement.
"Either that, or the son of Vader, the chosen instrument of the Force, simply felt the truth I do not remember because that part of my memory was erased. I spent seven years in lonely exile, anyone could have stumbled upon me during that time. They could have done with me anything they wanted. Programmed me, for example, and let the Empire pick me up. A sleeping agent who'd wake when the Far Outsiders need it. Gilad, you've got to agree: placing at the head of the Imperial fleet a commander who in fact is your instrument – that's a brilliant stratagem. Worthy of the Outsiders' cunning.”
"...Rukh," Gilad said, feeling as if the bed was falling away from under him to an abyss of sticky fear. "If those creatures really got to you and changed something in you, Rukh should be able to smell it. The Noghri sense kinship by smelling one's genes through one's skin. They'd sense a trace of aliens hostile to life in general all the more.”
"So I was hoping, too." Thrawn remained completely calm. “I asked Rukh during our last meeting if he wasn't sensing something strange on me. Gave him a good sniff - I let him get close to me for that. He found nothing, Gilad. Which is not surprising at all: the scent of a Chiss is for him unusual in itself, different from a human scent. If Rukh indeed smelled something on me that should not be there, he simply does not know it's odd.”
Had Pellaeon heard all of this over a year ago, before Leia Organa's Honoghr affair, before Rukh's treason, he might have believed there was such a possibility after all. Even now something inside him was moaning in abject horror, starting to ask itself – what if this is true?
But the year hadn't passed without a trace. Pellaeon himself had changed.
"So let's make a final account of this," he said calmly. "A mortal enemy of the state and personally of yours, a terrorist with the blood of a million of good soldiers on his hands, the brother of a bastard creature who's damned you to torment by her slander, has come to you and said that you are someone's agent, though you do not remember it yourself. Meaning: you would be better off dead. And do you know why he did it?” He raised himself on his elbow and looked into Thrawn's glowing eyes. “So that you won't prevent him and his sister from grabbing power once again, from ignoring the Outsider invasion and damning all of the galaxy to a similar torment and death.”
Thrawn sighed, obviously intending to argue, but Pellaeon would not let him speak.
“This is what they want, they or that Force they claim is behind them. After all, if you die, the Empire will collapse again. After a while it will totter and fall apart along the seams of provinces, sectors and warring fleets. This is now the Rebellion's only chance.”
"I don't think Skywalker had a malicious intent," Thrawn said. "He obviously does not understand that his actions have been leading to evil all this time. An incredibly powerful Force user - and, at the same time, a man absolutely open to inculcation. No surprise that Kenobi - or the so-called Light Side - have elected him as an instrument of their will. Anyone in his place would have started to doubt, but not Luke Skywalker. He is like a sword in the hands of the Light, in the Rebellion's hands. Were he a bit stronger, we would have been doomed. Were he, however, stronger - and spacetime itself wouldn't be able to sustain him, the universe would simply collapse around him, I suppose."
“Sith take him, you're the one I'm interested in. You've just said Skywalker is open to inculcation. He's thoughtlessly broadcasting anything and everything suggested to him by the Light, by his deceased teachers' ghosts and by the great Republican idea. He sensed your wound and seasoned it with a pinch of poison. Maybe he didn't even know what he was prattling about. He's used to hearing otherworldly voices – he has himself said so in an interview – to seeing spirits, and these spirits tell him to fight the Empire. Haven't you asked yourself what kind of spirits and voices they are? Could that be the Outsiders, the enemy? Their collective voice. Or that of their deities - you've mentioned those, too.“
"No, Gilad," said Thrawn after a moment. “Congratulations. You have just got an idea which did not occur to me first.”
"It's good that you can see this." Gilad sat up, facing Thrawn. "Back to our final account, my dear. You've almost ceased to eat, like you're trying to kill your disgraced body. You're in pain, Raw, I know it. Your soul is wounded. You're asking me to hurt you in bed, I do it, and your poor soul's pain abates for an instant. The moment we break our embrace, it returns. Skywalker, or something that's manipulating him, has hit this wound of yours. It must be neutralized, Thrawn - sir - because we need you healthy and efficient, immune to psychological sabotage."
Pellaeon leaned toward Thrawn's face.
"I need you so much," he added in a small voice.
"Gilad..." Thrawn sounded tired, on the verge of sleep. “I know all of this. I just don't want to eat. And I don't want to force myself - to extend the required effort of will. I no longer like the body I exist in. I do not hate myself, I just don't care. I don't care.“
He took a deep breath, and Pellaeon was gripped by an irrational fear that it would be his last. But Thrawn wasn't dying, not yet. He turned on his side again and pressed his back to Pellaeon's chest, groped for his hand and put it on his own chest in turn.
He lay there, silent.
“I love your body,“ Pellaeon said.
He buried his face in Raw's hair and kissed the back of his head.
"I love your neck." And he kissed it.
"Your shoulder blades... your back..."
He spoke and kissed, kissed, kissed - the light blue skin, the scars, the synthiflesh. With crazy tenderness, not with passion. A couple of words - and a kiss. And again.
Thrawn had frozen, barely breathing.
“I adore your waist and hips.” Pellaeon bent down to caress with his lips the pale, scraggy ribs, the pelvic bone and the hollow between. "And your belly. I cannot live without it. I love your ass, both your buttocks."
He kissed them both and parted them, slipping his tongue into the cleft.
"And your hole, too."
Thrawn tensed and made a small, strangled sound like sobbing. Pellaeon kissed him there once more and gently turned him over onto his back.
"I love this place between your belly and your legs." He kissed both tender folds, spread Raw's legs and started on the inside of his thighs. The body was patched white all over, everywhere. There, too. Nearly everything there was white - the Noghri had torn flesh chunks out with their teeth and cauterized the wounds so that the victim would not bleed to death in early stages of the execution. Thrawn's thighs had almost no untouched skin left.
“I love your cock very much.“ He kissed its head. “And here.” The shaft. "And this, too." Pellaeon took the balls in his hand and squeezed a bit, gentle and possessive. "I love everything here."
He kissed Raw's groin, all of his most intimate parts, heard his breathing change, felt the cock harden under his lips. Thrawn touched his hair timidly, but Pellaeon was far from finished. He took and kissed the palm of his hand.
"I love your hands, both of them." He found and kissed the other one. "Your knees." He lifted them, kissed them and caressed. “Your shins and calves. Your ankles and feet. Your heels, your toes.”
He kissed a sole and every toe on a foot, feeling bones everywhere under thinned flesh. But Thrawn's ankles still had a grace to them. Pellaeon kissed them both again and moved back to Thrawn's belly and groin.
"You've forgotten my chest," Thrawn whispered. Something was in his voice. Tears, laughter? Or joy?
Pellaeon moved up.
“I love your chest a lot. I love all of it.“
He pressed his lips to the solar plexus, kissed it eagerly for some time and then moved up again to where the synthiflesh peaked in perfect imitation of the nipples torn out by the executioners along with chunks of chest muscle. Pellaeon kissed both small white nibs gently and lifted Raw's hands over his head.
“And I also love your armpits...”
There was a spicy sweat smell in the hollows. Gilad touched both collarbones with his lips and felt a kiss touch his own forehead in return. Thrawn took him into his arms and pressed his head to his neck.
They lay like this for a long while, maybe asleep and breathing in unison. Woke up at some point and found each other's lips. Pellaeon held Raw in his arms, cautious and firm, like some creature caught in a hurricane holding on to another one, beloved, fragile and dear. Thrawn stroked Pellaeon's face, touching his stubbly cheeks, eyelids and the mustache in a new, reverent and surprised way, as if he was getting to know a statue of an unknown magical race by hand.
“Give me your gift,“ he whispered.
The gift. Oh yes. Pellaeon rose, turned on the light and groped for his trousers.
"Do you already know what it is?"
“No. I know you've brought something in your pocket, and it is for me. I'm not omniscient, Gilad. Is it some food?”
"It's pemmican." Pellaeon tore off the top of the package. "From Corellia, a Selonian natives' invention. Dried and pounded meat with fat, wood nuts and berries. It's very nutritious and can be stored for a long time, but the best thing about it is the taste. Give it a try."
He sat next to Thrawn and poured some pemmican into his palm.
Thrawn took a brief glance at the red-brown fibrous mix and sniffed. He dipped his finger into the pemmican, licked it.
He was not in any hurry to eat. He stretched out his hand, took a pinch, carried it to his mouth... And put it back.
“I've still got a hard-on from you from before. Let's first - ... “
”The supper first,” Pellaeon retorted, "then love."
"I can't," Thrawn answered, very quiet.
But Pellaeon already knew what he had to do.
“Mouth to mouth, like artificial respiration. That's how they save people's lives.“
He put a pinch of the pemmican on his own tongue and bent to Raw's mouth. Thrawn clenched his teeth for an instant, breathed in convulsively and relaxed. He took the food in a kiss and swallowed it without chewing.
They did so again. And again.
“In ancient times, Selonians used to feed this way their sick and weak - the wounded, the elderly, children who didn't get enough milk from their mothers. They fed them mouth to mouth, restored the gift of life to them. This is the art of hunger.”
Pellaeon poured more pemmican into the palm of his hand. The package was emptying out.
"A beautiful art," Thrawn said and eagerly took the gift from his lips.
Chapter 7: Rukh
When their last moan quieted, their last kiss was done and all that remained was the even breathing of two tired people asleep in each other's arms, Rukh turned off the comm in his dark hideout. The last thing he'd been looking at was the crumpled pemmican wrapping. Rukh committed the name of this food to memory: dried meat, berries and nuts - a wonderful field ration. If it was good for the Master, then Rukh could eat it as well.
The Master hadn't seen through his innocent trick, had not noticed the second camera Rukh had stuck to the bottom of the magnetic cup on the outside. Its quality was inferior to the first one at the bedhead, but it was better disguised. Or maybe he did notice, yet did not destroy the thing. The Master did not feel shame before Rukh, he trusted him infinitely. Rukh bared his teeth in a joyful smile. Indeed, the Master trusts him, trusts him yet again. Incredible, but true. He knows Rukh makes the right decisions.
A year ago, believing the lies of the Mal'ary'ush, Rukh had hesitated how to deal with the Master. Should he be taken to Honoghr to face official judgement, or should Rukh kill him right here on board the Chimaera, in his command chair? The second option most likely would have meant Rukh's own death. He would not have been able to escape unscathed, but his name would've been wreathed in glory for ages to come, the name of the avenger who destroyed the enemy of the Noghri race in his own citadel. What joy that Rukh was not seduced by glory! The Master's suffering had been terrible, but in the end everything turned out for the better. If Rukh had chosen the knife, not judgement, the Master would now be dead. Dead! The mere thought made Rukh want to howl like a wounded beast.
But the knife stroke did not happen. Rukh carefully took out a handkerchief the Master had used to wipe sweat from his face two weeks ago. Rukh had allowed himself to appropriate it during today's visit. He pressed the handkerchief to his face and blissfully inhaled the Master's scent. Seeing him in the dumb captain's arms felt like torment. When the Master was taking that idiot's cock inside himself, Rukh kept his eyes closed so as not to crush the comm in fury. But at the end the gray-haired fool did everything right - he found a way to give the Master food and used his mouth to show gratitude for the honor of being the Master's bedmate. That's better. Rukh knew that a kind word and a blade at the throat could achieve much more than just a kind word, and it had worked with the captain.
Still, how much better it would be if the Master bestowed that honor on Rukh, not on a silly human! Rukh would attend to him like a priest to an idol, he would not have allowed the Master to neglect himself so heavily and to become so thin. His caress would be sweeter - Rukh knew what the Master liked and could determine what would drive him into bliss by the scent changes during bed play.
Rukh allowed himself to dream. Yes, one year ago the Master sent him away. However, he didn't just throw Rukh out but entrusted to him an important mission – spying on the despicable Mal'ary'ush and her pack. He even shared with Rukh his knowledge of the common enemy, creatures that are full of malice because in a certain sense they are dead. Rukh was no fool, he had immediately drawn proper conclusions from the Master's words at their last meeting. What he'd just heard confirmed them in full. They had common goals, the Master and him. Rukh was more useful than Captain Pellaeon. That one had never been able to really be of use. The Master had permitted Rukh near himself, exposed his stomach before him and let him touch upon his wrist. It was a cause for hope. Someday the Master would go further, he'd trust Rukh again completely and totally. He would take off his clothes and order Rukh to repay him for all the pain with pleasure just as sharp. Rukh would comply, the happiest of the Noghri.
Yes, it would happen someday.
Rukh carefully folded the handkerchief, put it away into an inner pocket on his breast, hid the comm too and dozed off. He was to meet with the Master tomorrow.