The door has no nameplate, but Eli knows who’s inside—not because of the subtle relief patterning in the wall around the door, proclaiming name and rank clearly to a Chiss observer, but because he’s been briefed on how to reach this office and who he’d find when he got there.
Syndic Mitth’ras’safis, the Syndic of House Mitth.
Only Eighth Ruling, but Admiral Ar’alani had spoken of the Syndic with genuine respect, and her respect was hard to earn. Eli himself hadn’t done a very good job of it, which was why he had been sent here.
He sets his palm to the scanner beside the door, says his name, and the door slides open.
Syndic Mitth’ras’safis sits behind a large desk, backlit by a window looking out on a cavern in the glacier around which the Chiss have built their capital city. The Syndic is almost invisible against that icy blue light, and Eli squints for a moment before he makes out Mitth’ras’safis beckoning him forward. He crosses the room, military boots thumping on the tile, and stands before the desk.
“Commander Eli Vanto,” the Syndic says, his Cheunh smooth and elegant, barely pausing at the unfamiliar structure of Eli’s name. “How interesting to meet you at last.”
And isn’t that an awfully Chiss thing to say, Eli thinks. Not good , but interesting. “Syndic,” he says, as a neutral reply.
“Please, sit,” the Syndic says, and his eyes flick to the flask of stin and two glasses that sit on his desk. One glass is already full of the dark, spicy, tea; the other—Eli’s—is empty.
Thrawn had told him about this, during the long off-shifts they’d spent in his quarters aboard the Chimaera , practicing Eli’s Cheunh and discussing the intricacies of Chiss culture. The Syndic, as Eli’s social superior, will neither offer him a drink nor pour one himself. It’s one of the little traps that litter Chiss society, not lethal but enough to sting.
Eli sits across from the Syndic, lifts the flask from the pad that keeps it hot, and pours into his own glass. “Tlek,” he says, raising the glass to the Syndic, and the Syndic nods before raising his own.
“Tlek,” the Syndic says, a shade of approval coloring his voice, and they drink.
Eli sets his glass down; the Syndic keeps his, rolling it between his hands for a moment. “So, Commander Eli Vanto,” the Syndic finally says. “Did Admiral Ar’alani tell you why she sent you to me?”
“I believe she felt that speaking to you would help me better understand the responsibilities of my position,” Eli says.
The Syndic smiles faintly, but Eli can’t tell if he’s truly amused. On Thrawn’s face, the expression would be clear, would be as familiar to Eli as his own hands. On this stranger…he’s not sure, and it unsettles him.
“Diplomatically put,” the Syndic says, and tilts his head slightly so the glacial light falls more dramatically across his cheekbones. “I doubt those were her actual words.”
Eli allows himself a small huff of laughter. “They were not,” he says. Ar’alani had been furious. “I believe she called me a reckless idiot with the self-control of a maddened rorag and said she would throw me out of the Defense Fleet if you couldn’t convince me to grow up a little.” The memory makes him wince: Ar’alani hadn’t eviscerated him directly in front of his crew—public humiliation not being the Chiss way—but the news of his disgrace had travelled around the ship, and everyone serving on Eli’s ship had known exactly how displeased the Admiral was within the hour. Eli was still surprised that he hadn’t been dumped back in Imperial space, or exiled the way Thrawn had been.
“And do you agree with her assessment?” the Syndic asks, breaking Eli out of his thoughts.
“Syndic, I think my results speak for themselves,” Eli says. “We ran the raiders off with no Chiss casualties, destroyed three of their light cruisers, and damaged the fourth badly enough that it will need almost a complete rebuild.”
“Your ship, Icebloom, took damage.”
“Necessary to draw the raiders into my best attack vector, and superficial.”
“And you broke formation with Sharp Glance, leaving Depth of Night open to attack. A scientific research vessel, without weapons of its own and carrying civilians.”
Eli winces again, twisting his hands in his lap. This was the part that Ar’alani had been angriest about—he hadn’t exactly disobeyed orders when he’d spotted a weakness in the raiders’ attack and broken away to counter it, but he also hadn’t waited for permission. “I regret putting Depth of Night in danger, but I…” he trails off, not sure how to defend himself, even to himself. “It was the right decision. It’s what Thrawn would have done,” he says quietly, aware that the Syndic is unlikely to find that a satisfactory answer, for all that he seems potentially sympathetic.
“Thr- Mitth’raw’nuruodo’s methods were…unorthodox, to put it mildly. It seems you have learned them well,” the Syndic says. He takes a graceful sip of his stin.
That this pompous, posing, bureaucrat can sit there and drink stin and dismiss Thrawn’s genius as unorthodox is sickening. “His methods are effective,” Eli snaps, not caring that he’s being unforgivably rude. He’s been nothing but rude since he got to this place, mis-stepping and offending wherever he goes, no better than the Wild Space yokel getting above himself on Coruscant. In the Ascendency he has a ship, a command, and nothing else.
In the Empire he’d had…
What did you have, Eli? What did you leave behind?
“You may relax,” the Syndic says. “I did not intend to attack you; this is neither an interrogation nor a court martial. We are conversing only.” He reaches across the desk and, slowly, refills Eli’s glass with stin, the gesture of one equal to another.
Eli looks down at his hands and sees them clenched together, his gloves sweaty and crumpled. He tries to calm his breathing. “I think the captain of Depth of Night is hoping for a court martial, actually,” he says when he can speak normally again.
“He’s called for exile, in fact,” the Syndic says. He waves a hand. “Hast’am’inrokini has always been theatrical.”
Eli flushes, shame rushing through his body and pooling in his stomach. To be cast out of the Ascendency after barely six months, having failed as Thrawn’s envoy… “Is that likely to happen?” he asks. “Or, I don’t know, could I be sent back to the Empire?”
The Syndic pins him with a sardonic look. “We generally reserve exile for considerably more serious transgressions,” he says, which makes sense now that Eli has given it more than a moment’s thought. Thrawn had been exiled after years of pushing boundaries, and only as an extreme measure; Eli’s screw-ups probably aren’t worth the effort. “Nevertheless,” the Syndic continues, “The behavior that was tolerated, for a while, from one of us, will not long be endured from the lone human officer in the Fleet. It cannot continue. Will not be allowed to continue.”
The words are severe, but Eli reads hesitation in the set of the Syndic’s mouth, the careful pose of his hands on his glass: not quite how Thrawn would express himself, but close enough that this time Eli feels confident. “The Defense Fleet doesn’t know what to do with me, do they?” he says, his brain racing through the chain of logic just faster than he can speak it. “They won’t exile me, that’s too severe. But they can’t send me back, either. I know far too much about the Ascendency, they would never risk me telling the Empire everything I know.”
“Correct. And the Defense Fleet recognizes that your tactical abilities are exemplary. I did not speak casually when I said that you had learned well from Mitth’raw’nuruodo.”
Eli flushes again, pleased both by the Syndic’s praise and by his acknowledgement, however, small, of the relationship between Eli and Thrawn. “Thank you,” he says.
“The Defense Fleet High Command also wishes to keep you where they can see you. Ah, where they can contain the damage, as it was put to me.”
Oh, that’s embarrassing. Eli laughs nervously. “That sounds like Ar’alani.”
“I said not so,” the Syndic says, but he takes a drink to hide his mouth. Eli decides not to push it.
“So, what is the Fleet going to do with me?” Eli asks, taking a sip of his own stin. “And, if you’ll pardon me asking, why are you involved?”
The Syndic pauses, gazing out the window for a moment. In the strong light, Eli can almost pretend that it’s Thrawn sitting across from him: Thrawn and the Syndic share a stillness, a sense of rapid inward contemplation as a puzzle is turned, manipulated, and solved.
Almost. Not quite.
“I think there will have to be a formal reprimand and apology,” the Syndic finally says. “You understand I do not speak for the Fleet High Command. I merely tell you what I project they will do, given precedent.”
And I’m sure nearly all your ‘projections’ mysteriously come to pass, Eli thinks. The Syndic clearly has a closer relationship to the Defense Fleet than he’s letting Eli see. “Understood, Syndic,” he says. And don’t think I didn’t notice that you didn’t answer my question.
“To call for exile is absurd, and Fleet High Command will want to keep you in a command capacity. To do otherwise is wasteful. However, Hast’am’inrokini’s scientific research expedition is funded by House Inrokini, currently Third Ruling Family. A formal reprimand will ease their concerns.”
“And keep them positively inclined towards High Command?”
“Very good, Commander Eli Vanto. You have a better head for this particular battlefield than Mitth’raw’nuruodo did. Yes, you will placate Inrokini and retain your command. And then…”
Eli leans forward. “And then?”
The Syndic smiles, and Eli gets the feeling that he’s been slotted neatly into a larger plan that doesn’t have anything to do with him at all. “Ask me in, hmm, three years.”
Well, that’s not ominous at all. Ruling Family Syndics are a manipulative bunch, in Eli’s admittedly limited experience, but Syndic Mitth’ras’safis seems to scheme as naturally as he breathes.
“I’m surprised the Mitth’ family is only Eighth Ruling, with you as their Syndic,” Eli says.
“Are you? Well. Thesost pan’elik ma heruriak,” the Syndic replies, smiling faintly.
From ominous to completely opaque. Eli laughs, struck by the irony, and the Syndic tilts his head in surprise.
“Sorry, Syndic, I’m not laughing at you,” Eli says, lifting a hand to gesture conciliation. “I have no idea what you just meant. And my first job for Thrawn was as his translator, you know? He had a lot of trouble with Basic idioms, that kind of thing. I spent a lot of time trying to explain them to him. And now…here I am. It all goes around.”
His hands are twitching where they rest on his lap; he fights to still them, smoothing out the fabric of his uniform trousers. A chance comment by an almost-stranger shouldn’t affect him like this.
The Syndic leans forward slightly, and Eli forces himself to meet the Chiss’s blank red eyes. “You were close to Mitth’raw’nuruodo,” the Syndic says, “close enough to use his core name, close enough that it distresses you to speak of him. Some conflict within you is close to the surface. Speaking of such things can help, if you would like.”
Not an interrogation, not even a question, just an offer. It’s unexpectedly kind.
Eli hates it.
“I was Thrawn’s aide,” he says stiffly. “We worked side by side for a decade. Of course we were close.” He’s managing to keep his hands still, barely, but the effort is tying his shoulder muscles in knots.
The Syndic nods. “He was your teacher, yes, even your mentor.” He taps his fingers lightly against the side of his cup, and Eli realizes: he’s uncomfortable. “Although I have no doubt he learned from you as well. We value these relationships highly among the Chiss as they are, but neither are we surprised if such a relationship becomes…romantic. Or sexual. It is one path to take, but a difficult one.”
A difficult path.
The quiet of Thrawn’s quarters, deep in the belly of the Chimaera. Eli’s hand clenched in Thrawn’s, the only point of contact between them. Not enough, never enough, and as good as they’re going to get.
“Eli. We can’t.”
“I know. I…know.”
For a moment Eli’s frozen, too shocked to react, and then his hands start shaking and his gut clenches like he’s been punched.
“What the hell is your problem?” he growls, lurching to his feet. He strides to the window, barely registering the Syndic’s recoil of alarm, and strikes the glass with the side of his fist, setting it shuddering. The back of his neck must be flaming in the infrared, but he doesn’t care. “How is my path any of your business?”
The Syndic doesn’t answer him. Eli whirls around, ready for another argument, another dressing-down, and sees—
The Syndic gazing back at him, looking…confused? Eli replays the last 30 seconds and realizes: he’d switched to Basic, which the Syndic doesn’t speak. It lessens his anger, but not by a lot.
“Why do you want to know?” he asks. The question is ruder, more direct, in Cheunh. “You want me to settle down, stop making waves, fine. What does that have to do with Thrawn? Why do you care?”
The Syndic seems completely unimpressed by his outburst. “Look at me, Eli Vanto,” he says, his voice even. “Look at me, and think, and then tell me why I am concerned for Mitth’raw’nuruodo’s fate.”
Now that the Syndic is not backlit by the window, Eli can see his face clearly. His face, with its almost familiar contours, its minute expressions that Eli is quickly learning to read. He considers the Syndic’s unexpected patience with a troublemaking alien upstart, and remembers that just once, so quickly corrected that Eli had barely noticed, the Syndic had nearly called Thrawn by his core name.
“You will have friends there, Eli.”
“They won’t be you.”
“You’re his brother,” Eli says. He collapses against the window, feeling like an idiot.
“I confess, I wondered how long it would take you to realize, once it became clear that you did not know already,” Mitth’ras’safis says, leaning back in his chair with a slightly smug look.
“He never mentioned you.”
“Of course he didn’t,” Mitth’ras’safis agrees, and they share an exasperated sigh.
“It might have been helpful,” Eli says. “He probably just wanted to know how long it would take me to figure it out. Another test.”
“Such would be in character for my brother,” Mitth’ras’safis says.
“Six months. I’ll tell him,” Eli says, and then damn near swallows his tongue.
He won’t tell Thrawn anything, because Thrawn is so far away he might as well be dead.
Mitth’ras’safis studies him for a moment, then unfolds himself from his chair. “Come,” he says. “I have often found that a change of scenery can elicit a corresponding change in mental perspective.”
He walks across the room to a closet Eli hadn’t noticed, withdrawing a long robe in the dark burgundy red of the Mitth family and trimmed with soft gray fur. He puts the robe on with a few deft movements, then opens the door and gestures Eli though.
They walk together for several minutes through the maze of underground tunnels dug into the rock around the glacier. Eli, focused on keeping track of where they’re going, doesn’t try to talk, and Mitth’ras’safis doesn’t make him, for which Eli is grateful. He counts his steps instead, tries to calm his jumpy muscles, tries to push away the thoughts of Thrawn, hand cool in Eli’s own and red eyes resigned, that keep intruding into his brain.
They turn a corner, Mitth’ras’safis pushes open a door, and abruptly they’re outside in the biting chill of the Csillan spring, a brisk wind ruffling Eli’s hair and rippling the hem of Mitth’ras’safis’s robe. Despite the thick fabric of Eli’s uniform, he shivers.
“You are cold,” Mitth’ras’safis says, surprised. “Our weather is that different from where you were before?”
“Imperial ships have pretty great climate control,” Eli says, shaking out his hands and tugging his collar up a little higher. “The world I come from, Lysatra, is temperate. It only got as cold as this once while I lived there, and as far as I know people are still talking about it.” He shifts his weight, trying to get his feet used to the cold, and frost cracks beneath his boots.
“We, too, remember our coldest winters, our most barren springs,” Mitth’ras’safis says. He sets off across the ground, and Eli strides to catch up.
From out here, the city is nearly invisible. Except for a few necessary buildings--radar towers, atmospheric study stations, that kind of thing--Csaplar, the capital city of Csilla and the Chiss Ascendency, was built entirely underground, away from the shifting ice that covered much of the planet’s surface. Eli had only been outside on Csilla a few times, both in the first few weeks after his arrival, during the assessments that preceded his placement in the Defense Fleet. The rough plains of the glaciers had enthralled him then, how they carved through the bare rock of Csilla’s terrain, how the near-constant snow swirled around them and piled in drifts that were swept away by the winds moments later.
Looking at them now, he feels tired and alone.
Mitth’ras’safis picks his way across the ice in front of Eli, following what appears to be a narrow path along the glacier’s edge. His boots have sturdy soles, textured for better grip, Eli notices, very unlike the smooth shoes of most Chiss, who rarely venture out of doors. Almost like Mitth’ras’safis knew they would be coming this way, or like he went outside regularly.
They walk for about twenty minutes before Mitth’ras’safis stops in a wide open area, dotted with small shelters carved simply out of large boulders. It’s bitterly cold. Eli is cooling down rapidly now that he’s no longer walking, and he tucks his hands into his armpits.
Mitth’ras’safis moves them into one of the shelters, and the relief from the wind is almost shocking. Before them rises a sheer rock face, at least fifty feet high, snow blowing across its surface and catching on the crevices and outcrops. “What am I looking at?” Eli asks after a moment, feeling like he has to push the words out through a half-frozen throat.
“Mostly, people call it the Wall,” Mitth’ras’safis says. He gestures at the rock face. “Watch for a moment.”
Eli turns his attention to the rock face, sets aside the cold and discomfort. The cliff is made of grayish-blue stone, faint striations or gouges pointing to the passage of a glacier sometime in Csilla’s distant past. The light snow settles on the rock face, outlining each tiny outcropping in white, and Eli looks closer. There’s something there, something he can’t quite make out...and a sharp gust of wind strikes the rock and blows the snow away.
“There are...images,” Eli says as the snow begins to build up again. “That the snow makes. How?”
“Watch,” Mitth’ras’safis says again.
As the snow falls, the wind blows it onto the wall, where it clings to the small irregularities in the rock. As more snow builds up, it tumbles from the wall, sometimes catching the wind and sometimes landing lower on the wall’s face. The wind sweeps in irregular bursts across the rock, knocking snow down here, building up more snow there, creating shifting patterns of stone and snow, dark and light.
But these are not just due to the natural shape of the wall, Eli realizes. Some of the crevices and outcrops have been added by Chiss hands, to better shape the snow patterns. As he watches, the snow traces the lines of a Chiss cheekbone, the curves of Csilla’s three moons, a letter, a word in Cheunh script. The images are slow-forming, broken by the whims of the wind, barely there at all.
“The artist was named Pels’on’csapla. She lived four hundred years ago,” Mitth’ras’safis says. On the wall, the snow has begun to shape a hand reaching out. Mitth’ras’safis studies it for a long moment, face impassive. “She left instructions that her carvings not be changed or restored in any way, and House Csapla owns this land, so it will remain untouched. As the wind and water erode its surface, it will vanish.”
“I’ll bet Thrawn hated that,” Eli says wryly.
“My brother has always been uncomfortable with the idea of forces outside his control,” Mitth’ras’safis agrees.
That’s a hell of an understatement, Eli thinks. He can imagine Thrawn standing in this exact spot, torn between fascination and frustration, constantly grasping at patterns that might disappear or change at any moment. The thought makes him ache.
“And so,” Mitth’ras’safis continues gently, “I suspect he may not have been quite as sanguine when he proposed sending you to us as he may have appeared.”
Eli laughs outright at that. “He wasn’t sanguine at all, Syndic,” he says. Thrawn’s eyes, closed in pain, as he steps away. “We loved each other, do you realize? We loved each other, and there was nothing we could do.”
He’s half-hoping Mitth’ras’safis will be shocked at his bitterness. He wants to rub the entire Chiss Ascendency as raw as he feels inside.
Mitth’ras’safis pauses for a long time, long enough that Eli thinks he might leave. The thought of being out here alone, with just the cliff and the wind and snow, is oddly appealing.
“I understand,” Mitth’ras’safis says. “What I do not understand, however, is why you have behaved as you have, connected to Thrawn as you are.”
Eli spins to face Mitth’ras’safis in surprise. “What the hell does that mean?” he bursts out.
Beneath the rush of anger, though, he starts to work through the logic. Who else knew that Eli was not only sent by Thrawn to aid the Ascendency, but had been Thrawn’s student in the art of war? Ar’alani and Mitth’ras’safis, obviously, but the news would have leaked out--a human suddenly appearing in a high-ranking position in the Defense Fleet would turn heads. And Thrawn was remembered without fondness by many members of the Aristocra. No doubt an alien, known to be Thrawn’s protege, suddenly taking a position in the Defense Fleet and immediately executing the same reckless maneuvers that had gotten Thrawn kicked out of the Ascendency in the first place would not contradict those memories.
“Gods,” he says, trying to squash the swell of hope even as it balloons within him, “you’re trying to bring him back.”
“My concern is to maintain the strength and position of the Ascendency by any of the means at my disposal, nothing else,” Mitth’ras’safis says, face completely blank. “I had hoped that your training at my brother’s hands would help me further that goal, rather than providing the Aristocra with a salient reminder of why Thrawn was exiled to begin with.”
Eli winces, but he’s got Mitth’ras’safis’s number now. “So you need me to be Thrawn, but reined in, is that it? His training, his skills, Chiss values, so the Aristocra remember what they gave away. You know, this would have been a lot easier if you had talked to me when I first arrived here.”
“I did not think you would need to be told,” Mitth’ras’safis says. “I assumed, incorrectly, that the years you spent with Thrawn would have allowed you to comprehend the situation upon your arrival.”
That’s embarrassing, because yeah, Eli should have been able to pick up on something so obvious. He scuffs his boot in the snow, draws a circle.
“However, I did not account for the relationship that had grown between you,” Mitth’ras’safis continues. “Perhaps I should have anticipated it, but it does not matter now. The situation is as it is.”
“There was no relationship,” Eli says, the words bubbling out of him like blood from an arterial wound. Mitth’ras’safis turns to him, surprised, and Eli forces himself to go on. “Not like you mean. We loved each other, we both knew it. But he had already asked me to go to the Ascendency, and I had already agreed. Given that, acting on our feelings seemed...foolish.” He scrubs his gloved hand over his face. His nose and cheeks have gone a little numb. “I don’t know if I’d make the same decision now.”
“As I said, the situation is as it is,” Mitth’ras’safis says, his voice a little gentler. “We must now consider our options, our strengths, for the fight that is to come. Thrawn trained you well, I know, and that is a great advantage. Ar’alani knows it too.”
Eli draws a deep breath and sets his hand on the wall of the shelter. It’s freezing, even through his glove. That seems to remind his body of how cold it is, and he starts to shiver.
“All right,” he says. “Apologize to ‘Inrokini, toe the line.” Be Thrawn, without his reckless genius. “I guess I can do that. But I want you to keep me apprised of your plans.” He holds up a hand when Mitth’ras’safis starts to speak. “I know, you have no plans. But either you tell me what you’re not planning, or I do a lot of work figuring out what the plans you don’t have are. As you say, Thrawn trained me well, so I will find out. And if you trusted him once, you need to trust me now, because I can help you.”
Mitth’ras’safis seems reluctant to respond, but Eli’s knows he’s got him. “This is reasonable,” Mitth’ras’safis finally says. “We will not be able to speak often, but there will be opportunities.”
And that’s probably as good as Eli will get, right now. But this is a connection, an opening into the Ascendency’s convoluted hierarchy, a chink in the wall he can exploit.
“You have become a brilliant officer. And I...You will thrive there.”
Eli releases his hand.
“That’s acceptable to me,” Eli says, and laughs to himself at Mitth’ras’safis’s small twitch of surprise, as though Eli has any power in this situation. But then Mitth’ras’safis relaxes, even smiles a little.
“I’m glad to hear it, Eli Vanto,” Mitth’ras’safis says.
“You can use my first name, you know,” Eli says. “No one’s going to suddenly remember I’m not Chiss if they hear you calling me Eli.”
Mitth’ras’safis makes a small pout of distaste. Full name it is, then. “Indeed, your humanity is very difficult to miss,” he says.
“Then we weaponize it,” Eli says. “Make absolutely sure no one forgets who I am and who sent me here.”
“You will need successes,” Mitth’ras’safis warns. “Battles won according to Chiss principles, not your own.”
Eli looks out at the cliff face and watches the wind blow away the built-up snow, leaving bare rock, patterns yet to be revealed.
“Don’t worry, Syndic Mitth’ras’safis,” he says. “I can bring you success.”