You’d never quite gotten used to the grand admiral’s presence, how he could command the entire room with a few cold words and clipped silences. Or maybe it was the glowing red eyes that did it. You’d never worked jobs on the Emperor’s or Darth Vader’s ships before, but you were fairly certain that not even they could totally dominate someone with a look alone. As long as the admiral was smiling, you knew things were working out for you, but little else.
Still, you gave your reports when requested—ordered—and you took the assignments that were given to you with very little questioning. Thrawn didn’t mind questions for clarity’s sake; what he did mind was you questioning his requests of you, especially if you didn’t have a worthy argument to make in your favor. The past few months, you’ve been careful to distinguish the difference.
Today, however, you feel an objection—an argument—rising up. The grand admiral has called you to his command room, and you don’t know why.
Even as you clear past Rukh, you’re reanalyzing your last assignment, double- and triple-checking that you achieved every outcome expected of you with the utmost accuracy. You find your memory sound, but it doesn’t comfort you.
“You requested me here, Admi—” Before you can finish, the doors open to emit you, and you step through, stiff and wooden.
But at the sight of the new display of art surrounding you on all sides, your shoulders relax. To date, you’ve only seen sculptures, statues, carvings, and other three-dimensional pieces of all kinds, materials, and structures in this room, not that you’ve ever taken the time to linger and study them. Seeing the paintings—the still lifes, portraits, abstracts, mosaics, impressions, and landscapes—both large and small, from the hyper-realistic to the surreal, at nearly every point you look is dizzying. You find yourself turning, trying to take it all in. You almost forget why you’ve come.
“Beautiful but overwhelming, isn’t it?”
You spin around, fighting not to look guilty and attempting a chance at professionalism, but perhaps the damage has been done. Even through the myriads of colors and shadows, you find his red eyes instantly, but they’re not honed in on you. Rather, Thrawn’s attention is fixed to his left on a sprawling canvas featuring mostly blacks, reds, and browns. You keep your focus on him, waiting, anxious to determine what his mood is.
But the silence stretches, and you realize he wants you to speak.
“Yes, it is.” Your throat and mouth are dry, but you manage to keep your tone even, unassuming. Casual. “But I can see why you like being here so much, Admiral.”
The red eyes flash to you now, and all you can think is mistake.
“Can you? I wonder.”
The red eyes seem to elevate, and in the darkness, it’s the only reason you know that he’s risen to stand. The soft click of his boots disrupts the quiet hums in the room, and though you tense, you hold your position. But as Thrawn comes into a beam of dim light, as you note the unblemished whiteness of his uniform, the sharp cut of his jaw, and the strong line of his neck, you realize that he has not come to stand before you but in front of the painting he was admiring earlier. He raises a blue-skinned hand and beckons you forward with a finger.
“Come. I’d like to hear your opinion on something.”
Distantly, as if someone else is controlling your body, you move forward. But your hands clench and unclench at your sides as you walk, and you know for certain that every movement is yours. But when Thrawn turns his head at your approach, you wonder how true that really is.
“Have you studied art before?” he asks, mildly interested.
“Not professionally, sir, no.” You shake your head, adding, “Nor very much academically.”
“No? A pity.” His eyes narrow slightly, and a promising smile curves his lips. “Consider this your first lesson, then. Now, tell me.” He nods toward the canvas. “What do you make of it?”
You stare at him for a moment, confused, but turn to examine the painting, taking in all that you had missed before. From the corner of your eye, Thrawn shifts, and you think he is examining it, too, but you’re mistaken. The thing he’s studying closely is you.
Your first impression of it is that it’s crude. Not of subject but of style. The lines are harsh and jagged, the colors bleeding into each other, and you can’t tell if that was on purpose. But you don’t know what to say, have no idea where to start.
As if noticing your struggle, Thrawn’s cool voice breaks through the gloom. “The subject of the art can often tell you about the race or species of the one who created it. Start there.”
Heart pounding, face flaming red, you regroup, sending a silent thank you upward that the subject isn’t a fruit bowl or something you’d see in a thousand other systems. Though the shapes are roughly depicted, you can make out a figure—no, two figures—one with white skin and the other with orange. Black lines adorn the face of the one with white skin. The lines appear much more diversely on the orange figure, and you can just make out the crown of horns on the subject’s head.
“Zabrak, maybe, or…” Your eyes dart to the white figure, a picture slowly coming together. “Or Dathomirian. The artist, then, should be one or the other.” But how to tell for certain? It’s then you become aware of it. The painting already told you at first glance. “Zabrak. The artist is a Zabrak, which is unusual. They’re not known for being artistic beings, hence the inconsistency in the line work. How the lines break here, how they’re not full there, the chaos in the rest, making the shapes blur into each other carelessly. It speaks to their aggression and their harsh way of life.”
You stop suddenly, uncertain. You have no real idea if your interpretation holds any weight or credibility, despite how good it sounded in your head when you said it. But Thrawn hasn’t interrupted or corrected you yet. Determined to see it through, you press on.
You point to the black lines. “This was done with charcoal.”
“Yes.” You try not to fool yourself into thinking that Thrawn sounds mildly impressed. “But that’s not the interesting part. Look closer.”
You do, focusing on the browns and reds that make up the background. It’s then that you notice that the two share an eerily similar degree of composition, and it’s not one of paint. The browns especially hold a sort of rusty quality, almost as if it were—
“Blood.” You jerk your hand back, despite knowing that the canvas isn’t real, that you’re facing a holographic image of it. “The artist used blood. Their own or—”
“We’re not certain, but knowing a Zabrak, either is more than possible. They possess remarkable vitality, physically, ever determined to reach their goal, whatever that may be and no matter how much pain is inflicted on them before they get it.”
You swallow, your mouth dry again, not because of Thrawn’s words but because of how close they sound to you. You drill your eyes into the painting, but your earlier stroke of brilliance has abandoned you.
“I…” You start, fighting to get it back. But you know when to concede defeat. Nodding to the Dathomirian figure, you say, “I’m not sure exactly who this is.” You add as an afterthought under your breath, “Or what it’s been painted with.”
Thrawn emits a brief, steady hum, like you’ve amused him. The sound jars you more than you care to admit. “You’re right to be suspicious. This is no mere Dathomirian, but one of the so-called Nightsisters, come to select a male Zabrak to take with her back to Dathomir. Given the harshness of the piece, it’s widely believed that this was one of their first contacts with each other. The artist himself certainly isn’t pleased to see them. I’d say he’s downright murderous.”
Something about Thrawn’s statement doesn’t strike you as being quite right, which terrifies you. Thrawn, after all, is nearly always right. But it also sounds like he wants to have a discussion, so maybe you are safe to voice your objections, just this once.
Tentatively, you say, “He?”
You turn your head to face him, and your eyes widen at finding him so close, looking down at you, his red eyes boring into yours. When had you moved? Or had he been the one?
“Yes, he,” Thrawn says coolly before giving you a lazy smile. “Unless you’ve somehow seen something I have not after all these years.”
The threat is undeniable. But so is the challenge.
“I think,” you begin, your voice growing in strength, “the artist is female.”
“Really? Do tell.”
You gesture to the painting, being certain to focus on certain areas to make your point more effective. “The Nightsisters took the Zabraks as slaves, didn’t they? To constitute their warrior class and to have the strongest as their mates. It makes sense, if the artist was male, that they’d be furious at their fate. But if the artist was female, not Dathomirian but a Zabrak, then that throws these two figures into a much more interesting light.”
You raise a finger to the Dathomirian, tracing a hovering line over her facial markings. “I missed it before. I thought because the figures were hard to make out that they weren’t important, and in a way, they’re still not. It’s the markings on both of them that matter. Nightsisters were said to have used some form of magic. Some say it was the dark side of the Force, whatever that is, and that the overuse of it permanently marked them. Each marking is distinct from person to person. It’s similar with the Zabraks. No two have the same markings, not even twins, and look. The lines on both aren’t broken at all, but seem to bore down onto the canvas, each of them full and deliberate.”
Having Thrawn’s full attention on you is heady, and now that you’re aware of it, it’s filling your head, sending chills down your spine, down your arms.
“This is a painting of rage and heartbreak, not of first discovery. Even more importantly, this is a painting of revenge. She’s literally marked her target. This is the Nightsister who took her lover or someone equally close to her. She’s going to find them both, one way or another, and get even. Which proves something that is vastly overlooked when studying Zabraks. Their females are just as aggressive, just as deadly, as the males. Perhaps even more so when provoked, perhaps even to the point of blind ambition and obsession. Certainly enough to use their own blood as paint when they don’t have anything else.”
By the time you stop, you’re short of breath but you maintain an outward composure. It’s the only defense you have left, other than staring straight forward. Anything other than to look at Thrawn and see the verdict of your words upon his face.
Finally, Thrawn speaks.
“Interesting. Very interesting.”
You fight a shudder. You’ve heard Thrawn call things interesting before—battle plans, strategies, theories—but never like this. Never with such a huskily dark tone of voice, edged with hunger.
Cool fingers suddenly brush under and around your chin, and Thrawn turns your unresisting head toward his, his face scant inches away.
“It’s not often that I subcontract work as I have with you. But,” Thrawn trails off, his red eyes tracing your face, your lips, before settling on your eyes. “If you keep offering scintillating discussions like this one, I may just have to keep you.”
Minutes later, you make it down a hallway before your steps gradually slow to a halt. It dawns on you, finally.
The grand admiral never really told you why he wanted you there in the first place.