It was torture having to ignore her in public like this. Well perhaps ‘torture’ was too strong a word, but it was disheartening nonetheless. Piett knew it was imperative that his relationship with Palissa remain a secret, for her sake more than his. Troopers and officers were worse than Core-World charity matrons at a tea social when it came to gossip and innuendo. He himself had not been much of a topic for rumor-fodder on the Executor. Mostly, he mused, because he was regarded as disciplined and dedicated to his work; in other words, boring and uptight, which suited Piett just fine. But if they were discovered, all that would change. And he wouldn’t nearly suffer what she would.
But while he had been mostly spared from the gossip mill, Palissa unfortunately had not, and the salacious remarks about her caused his teeth to grind. She, being the only female civilian onboard besides the Baroness, had caused a stir amongst the officers’ corp, and probably the infantry as well. He had heard more than enough ‘interest’ in her, which mostly consisted of what they’d like to do with the lovely young blonde– in their quarters, in the showers, in the gymnasium, in the cockpit of a TIE fighter, the pornographic list went on and on. There had been times when he bit the inside of his lip bloody to keep himself from lashing out at them. He detested that he was unable to defend her, having to just excuse himself from the conversation as to not stir up any trouble or, worse, suspicion.
But on the other hand, it was strangely thrilling. If the adrenaline that rushed through him whenever he saw her or her heat that warmed his whole body whenever he held her or just the tingle in his throat when he caught the glimmer in her large grey eyes was any indication, then perhaps ‘intoxicating’ was the better word. And even though the officers’ lascivious talk was infuriating, it also oddly flattered him. Because she had chosen him, not them. Because it was he who was graced with her smile and delightful company after his shifts had ended, not them. She stole private moments and soft kisses and shared her beautiful body with him. For all their bragging and all-out fantasizing, she was untouchable and they knew it. Except by him.
He had finally come up to one of the beverage stations on deck, and punched in the code for hot tea. As he watched the dispenser pour into the mug, he smiled a little.
Yes. Very thrilling.
Piett looked to his right to see a large strapping officer with clipped blond hair barrel down the corridor toward him, passing saluting stormtroopers and officers with a quick nod. He stood at quick attention. “General Veers.”
Veers came up on him. “At ease, Captain.” He tossed Piett a crooked grin as he lowered his voice. “So, we’re on tonight? Sixteen hundred hours, officers’ club?”
Piett furrowed his brow. “Tonight?”
“Captain,” Veers said, wrinkling his own brows. “It’s payday. The sabaac game?”
Oh, yes, the payday sabaac game. He had forgotten about that. Stars, he had even forgotten that it was payday, he hadn’t even looked at his account yet. “Oh yes, of course.” He lifted his mug from the dispenser. “I won’t be able to make it tonight, General.” He thought quickly. “Just had a pile of raw data dropped on my desk from the readings taken on Alldilor VII. I’m afraid I’ll be working right through dinner and into the night.”
Veers leaned against the wall. “Oh come now Firmus, you can spare a couple hours, can’t you?”
“Sorry Max. I’m afraid you won’t be adding any of my pay to your winnings tonight. Perhaps next month.” With that, he took a sip from his mug through a smirk.
The General eyed him for a long moment before he said, “You know that lying to a superior officer is a punishable offense, don’t you?”
Piett’s smirk dissolved. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, Sir.”
“Oh cut the shavit, Firmus, it’s just me.” Veers folded his arms and stared down at the smaller man. “What has gotten into you lately?”
The General practically rolled his eyes. “You’ve looked just this side of miserable ever since you started aiding Lord Vader. But for the last month, you’ve looked positively…giddy. I even heard you crack a joke to a subordinate– I thought I was hearing things. I said, ‘Has the nine hells just bloomed daisies or does Firmus Piett actually have a sense of humor’?”
“Max,” Piett sighed.
“And then the bridge shift coordinator told me that he heard you humming. A tune. As you worked. You were humming a tune.” He huffed through his nose. “I didn’t think you even liked music, Piett.”
So much for avoiding the rumor mill. “May I ask what your point is, General?” Piett said, a tad sharper than he intended.
Veers eyes slit with sly humor. “Who is she?” He raised a brow. “Or he? A trooper? Pilot?” His other brow joined the first. “The bridge shift coordinator?”
“Has there been any indication that I am slacking in my duties, sir?” Piett asked with steely poise.
“Not that I’m aware of–”
“Or that my work is not to par? For if that was the case, I believe Lord Vader would have noticed before anyone else and I wouldn’t be here talking with you.”
Veers’ eyes grew big as suns. “Stars and heaven, is it Vader?”
“We’re done here,” Piett snapped, turning away with his mug. “You may write me up later, sir. I’ll accept full responsibility for my insubordination.”
“Firmus,” Veers chuckled, his tone entreating as he put a hand on his shoulder, “I’m just trying to chat with you. We haven’t talked in weeks. You’ve been… well, distant. And happy. Distant and happy.” He shrugged. “I’m just curious.”
Piett sighed again. He glanced up at his superior officer and friend. “I’ve just been busy, Max. Lord Vader put me in charge of supervising the Baroness’s new ship and manning her crew in time for the mission to Dathomir. Now that it’s done and she’s off, I finally have some time to catch up on other work.”
“Ah yes, the Dragon,” Veers crooned. He was quiet for a moment, then cleared his throat. “She didn’t take the blond angel with her this time, did she?”
Piett lowered his eyes and stared into his mug. “No. Her factotum is staying behind. This mission is far too dangerous for a civilian to go along.”
“Especially a little morsel like that,” Veers muttered in a tone that was less than honorable. He sneered. “I know what I’d do to her if I got her alone, and I’m a civilized man. Could you imagine what would happen to that delectable little crumpet at the hands of those savages–”
“Permission to speak freely, sir?” Piett blurted softly. “Friend to friend? Man to man?”
“Of course, Firmus.”
The Captain drew himself to his fullest height, lowered his mug, and turned into the General. “Never talk about her that way again, Max.” Veers actually drew back when he saw the quiet venom roiling in Piett’s eyes. “I’m very serious.”
Veers stood there with his mouth dropped open. Until he grinned. “Do you know why I always take your money at sabaac, Firmus? Because it is entirely too easy to call your bluff.” He leaned down. “I KNEW it! You’re having Palissa!”
Piett’s face clenched in a grimace. “Damn it!” he hissed, looking around to see if anyone heard. But, thankfully, the corridor was empty for that brief moment. He glared back at Veers. “My office.” He turned and marched down the corridor with Veers on his heels. It was only a few doors down from the beverage station, and Piett deftly tapped the code into the door panel.
Once inside, Piett strode to his desk, set his mug down, removed his cap, and brushed the dampness off his scalp. Veers stayed by the door and folded his arms. “You lucky son of a bitch. Every officer onboard would cut off a digit to be with that girl! How long have you been kriffing her?”
Piett spun around. “That’s enough, Max!”
Veers dropped his arms. But grinned again. “It’s more than that, isn’t it?” Piett turned away again, his face getting hotter by the second. “Well well. Firmus Piett is in love.”
Piett had never had a brother, just sisters. If this was the teasing that older brothers’ would engage in, he was grateful that he had missed that experience. “Max,” he began, setting his hands on his hips, “you can’t tell this to anyone. I mean it. No one.”
“Firmus, if it was me, I’d be shouting this over the com system–”
“You don’t understand.” He turned back to his friend. “The only reason Vader is allowing this is because we both swore to the utmost discretion. If word of this goes around the ship,” he took a breath, “he’ll send her away.”
“Wait… did you say Vader? Vader knows about this??”
“Vader knows everything,” he muttered, “you know that.”
Veers scoffed. “So the Dark Lord can flaunt around with the Dragon but you and Palissa can’t be seen together.”
“You also know that his rules never apply to him.”
Veers’ expression clouded for a second, then he shook his head. “He wouldn’t send her away,” he said, coming to a chair and sitting down. “The Dragon would never allow it.”
“The Dragon only has so much influence,” Piett countered. “He’s still Vader. His fleet comes before anything else. Even her.”
“You sure about that?” Veers asked, his mouth tugged up in a smirk.
Piett walked toward the viewport, setting a hand on it and looking out. “I’m not about to test him, Max. Please. Say nothing.”
Veers looked at his friend for a long moment. “So. What do you plan to do with her?”
“I plan to marry her.”
Piett glanced back over his shoulder. “After we win the war, of course. If she’ll have me.” He paused. “If they will let me.”
“Firmus, do you even know the girl’s last name?”
“Ri’ell,” Piett answered, rolling the “r” just a bit over his tongue in a near-perfect Core World accent. “Palissa Ri’ell. But if she’s willing, I’d like her to take mine. Palissa Piett.” He looked out the viewport. “Nice alliteration, don’t you think?”
“You’ve gone daft, Firmus!” Veers exclaimed. “You’re thinking with your cock.”
“Perhaps. But it’s far less lonely than living in my head.” He sighed as he went back to his desk and lifted his mug. “We live every hour of every day under Vader’s watch. You know what he is capable of, Max. One mistake, and I end up on the floor with a snapped neck. Like Lieutenant Rhys.” His eyes dimmed. “Is it so terrible to harbor a few illusions to help me get through my days?” He took a sip.
“That’s what alcohol is for,” Veers muttered. “And there’s no shortage of that onboard.”
“There’s a reason I don’t drink.”
“And that reason’s name is Dianta. Or did you conveniently forget about your wife?”
The Captain narrowed his eyes at his friend. “No more than you’ve forgotten about yours, Max.”
Veers took a sharp breath as if to respond, but then let it out in a heavy sigh. “I had that coming, I suppose.” He sat forward in his chair, elbows on knees. “Firmus, you were little more than a boy when you knocked Dianta up. You’re a man now. A drink now and then wouldn’t lead to that.” He gave him a piercing stare. “But a young fertile girl in your bed could.”
“Maybe it could.” Piett smiled softly as he looked into his mug. “And maybe it wouldn’t be such a tragedy this time around.”
The General gaped at him. “Now I know you’re daft.”
“Not getting any younger, Max. If not soon, then when?”
Veers scoffed. “Next thing you’ll tell me is that you’re planning to resign your commission---” He stopped, however, when he saw Piett give him a long, silent, confirming look. Veers leaned back into his seat, his eyes wide with surprise. “Hutt’s tits, she really has gotten under your skin.”
“Under my skin, into my heart and, as you so eloquently put it, around my cock as it were,” Piett said with a smirk as he took another sip.
Veers chuckled, but then stopped. “You’ll have to divorce Dianta. Isn’t divorce still illegal on Axxila?”
“Axxila is part of the Empire. Imperial law overrides planetary law. As a member of the Imperial military, a divorce would be possible. I’ll offer Dianta a handsome settlement.” He sighed. “I’m sure she won’t contest it. Money has always been her first love anyway.”
“You’d be excommunicated from the Axxilian religion.”
“Have you ever seen me pray, Max?”
Veers sighed. “There you go, joking again. I’d be worried about you if I wasn’t happy for you.”
Piett turned to Veers. “You mean that?”
Veers rose from his seat and came to him. “I do. That’s not to say I’m not jealous as hell.” He put a hand on Piett’s shoulder. “Your secret is safe, Firmus. I won’t say a word.”
Piett took a deep breath and met his friend’s eyes. “Thank you, Max.”
A tiny beep emanated from a compartment on Piett’s belt. He pulled out a comlink. Veers noted it was not an Imperial issue com, but a commercial one sold to civilians. He lifted a brow. “That’s her?”
Piett made a face, something between a wince and a smile. “A moment.” He turned away and perused the text on the tiny screen–
Save your appetite. Dinner in the Den. Sixteen hundred?
Piett’s smile disintegrated when Veers looked over his shoulder. “The Den? You have clearance to the Dragon’s Den??”
The Captain slapped the comlink off and turned around. “Yes,” he huffed. He noted Veers’ smirk. “What?”
The General squinted at him. “Vader is allowing this affair with the Dragon’s girl, he put you in charge of supervising the Wyvern, and now you have access to the Baroness’s private apartments.” He sniffed. “I’m starting to think Vader has plans for you, Captain Piett.”
Piett scoffed. “Come now, Max. I’m a lowly data analyst from an Outer Rim world. What plans could the Dark Lord of the Sith have for me?”
* * *
The lift doors opened, and Piett stepped out. He crossed the corridor to the two stormtroopers guarding the corridor to the Baroness’s private sector. Piett nodded curtly as he passed between them. The clicks of his heels bounced throughout the empty corridor until he came upon the doors. He pressed the doorcom and stood at attention, chin raised, hands behind his back.
From their positions outside the arch, the troopers heard the doors open and a young voice cheerfully say, “Captain Piett.”
“Ah, Mistress Palissa,” answered the captain crisply. “I am here to go over the reports you have compiled from ISB during the Baroness’s absence.”
“Of course, Captain,” the troops heard the girl perky reply. “Please, do come in.”
“Thank you, Mistress.” Piett stepped through the doors, and they hushed closed behind him.
One trooper looked at the other. “And that is the most exciting thing that will happen on this watch.”
“Did you enjoy it?” muttered the other.
“Immensely,” she grunted through her vocoder.
“Only got twenty minutes before guard change, Mal. Maybe we’ll get to watch him leave.”
“Now that would be more excitement than I could handle, Trip.” Mal the trooper glanced over her shoulder down the hall, then back to her comrade. “Unless, they’re, you know…?”
“Unless they’re what?”
“You can’t be that thick. You know…” She pumped her armored fist back and forth in what could only be an obscene gesture.
Trip snorted a laugh. “You’re a pig, Mal.”
“Not denying it. Why do you think I signed up? Kill Rebels and chase dick.”
“Anyway,” Trip groaned, “this is Piett you’re talking about. That guy wouldn’t know fun if you wadded it into a ball and threw it at him.”
* * *
Piett stepped through the doors into the Baroness’s apartments and stopped at the landing. Without a word, he slid his datapad neatly back into his belt. He took off his cap and smoothed his hair back down. He then took two steps to the lovely blonde who let him in, pulled her into his arms and took her lips in a long, hungry kiss.
Palissa giggled under his lips. She ran her fingers through his clipped hair and over his fresh-shaven face before wrapping her arms around him and crushing him even closer. Piett’s head swam as he breathed her scent and caressed her tongue with his own. Force, just the feel of her, the taste of her: That alone made this war worth winning. He made himself pull away just so he could stare into those big silver-flecked eyes. “I’ve missed you,” he whispered through a smile.
“Firmus,” Palissa laughed softly, “you just saw me a few hours ago.”
“And I couldn’t talk to you. I couldn’t even look at you.” He slid a finger through her golden curls. “I missed you even more.” Her breath caught as she smiled and cast her eyes down. His own smile grew wider as he stepped back. “But I can look at you now.” He took her hands and spread them wide as he looked down at her. It was his turn to catch his breath.
Palissa usually dressed in a somewhat feminized version of the Imperial officer’s uniform known as “Imperial chic”; a fitted dress-jacket that came down past the knees in dark tones of scarlet, purple, or green rather than the drab military olive, with jackboots cut sleeker than Imperial issue. But what she wore now was...not that, definitely not that. A snug dark teal gown hugged her every curve. Beaded and embroidered in gold and black around strategic cutouts over her shoulders, abdomen and down her hips, the dress tantalized him with just glimpses of her golden skin underneath.
She laughed shyly under his open-mouthed gaze. “Do you like it?”
“My stars,” he exhaled.
Even after a month, Palissa still blushed at his appreciative reponses. “It was a gift from the Baroness. She got it for me on our last trip to her modiste on Coruscant. I saw it on the model in the salon and...I must have said it was beautiful, I really don’t remember. Next thing I know, she’s ordering the modiste to make one in my size.” She giggled again. “I don’t really have anywhere to wear it, but… I hoped you would like it.”
“It’s....astounding.” He looked back up into her eyes. “I sometimes wonder if you’re actually real.”
Palissa’s lashes fluttered as her blush grew even deeper. But then the coyness left her eyes as she took his hand in both of hers and settled it over her left breast. “Does that feel real?” she murmured.
Piett drew a shuddering breath when he felt her heart thump and her nipple stiffen under his palm. Unable to form more than one syllable, he merely rasped, “Quite.”
She brought his hand to her lips and set a kiss on his fingers. “How long before your next shift?”
He smiled. “Twelve hours.”
“Twelve?” She beamed back at him. “We’ve never had that long before.”
“No, we haven’t.” He drew her into him and set a kiss atop her head. “We needn’t rush. For once.” Only then, when he looked over her, did he actually notice the apartment. Palissa had lowered the lights to an idyllic dim, and a fire crackled in the fireplace. Through the soaring viewports, stars glittered in the black pool of space all through the lavish greatroom. On the other side of the great room was a raised dining area. On it was a long draped table with place settings at the head and the immediate side, candles, and a bottle of Garwillian champagne chilling in a crystal canister.
“Lissy,” he breathed, “what’s all this?”
Palissa pulled back and smiled. “Dinner.”
Piett took a long inhale of succulent meat and exotic spices; a far cry from the synthetic underscent of the heavily preserved and processed meals on the officers’ mess deck. “You didn’t need to go to all this trouble for me.”
“Yes I did. And it’s no trouble,” she said. “I do this for the Baroness every night.”
His gaped at down at her. “She eats like this every night?”
“Come on,” Palissa said, taking his hand and pulling him into the apartment. “Have some champagne with me.” She let go of his hand and dashed to the champagne.
Piett unfastened the placket of his uniform. He peeled it off, revealing the olive long-sleeved undershirt beneath. He was carefully laying it across the back of a chair when he heard the POP of the champagne bottle. He turned to see Palissa pour two glasses and come back, handing one out to him.
Piett hesitated for a moment. “You know I don’t really drink, Lissy.”
“Just one glass?” She tilted her head. “With me?”
How could he refuse that tender voice and those bright eyes? “Well,” he conceded, “just one.” He took the crystal flute and held it to his eyes. “Garwillian champagne. This must cost hundreds of credits a bottle.”
“A thousand a bottle,” Palissa said. “There are four cases in the wine vault.”
He sniffed. “Wine vault?”
Palissa’s eyes flickered at the subtle disdain in his tone. “Lord Vader is grooming the Baroness to be an Empress. Therefore, yes Firmus, she has fine things. I assure you, she is eternally grateful for his generosity and takes none of it for granted.”
That protectiveness of the Baroness reared itself again. Piett respected it, yet pondered it at the same time. He understood the bond of loyalty, but he was also very aware that fear factored in just as much as respect did when it came to his loyalty to Vader. But Palissa had no such fear of the Baroness, just unwavering devotion. He wondered what the Scarlet Dragon had done to deserve it from this darling girl.
His eyes traveled up and around the apartment’s opulence. “I’m just not used to such luxury. Even the states quarters aren’t equipped with a wine vault or a fireplace or,” he inspected his glass, “champagne flutes that cost more than my monthly salary. I thought such things only existed in holovid romances.”
Palissa’s pique vanished. She raised her brows as her lips curled up. “You watch those often, do you?”
“Oh, every chance I get. In between analyzing reams of data, hunting Rebels, and running this ship for the most terrifying man in the galaxy.” She giggled, and he chucked her chin. “Cheeky girl.”
Palissa raised her glass to him. “To twelve whole hours together.”
“Actually, it’s eleven hours and fifty-three minutes now--”
“No counting.” She clinked her glass to his, and they both took a sip through their smiles.
The wine was effervescent and light, a perfect balance of tart and sweet, and Piett rolled it over his tongue. “Mmmm. Marvelous.”
“Come with me to the galley. You can help me make the salad.”
“Salad?” He followed her across the great room and up the step of the dining platform. “You mean you have actual greens?
Palissa turned the corner to her right. Piett followed her into the long, gleaming galley kitchen of polished durasteel and black granite counters. The smell of the roasted meat in the oven enveloped him as he stepped in. Covered side dishes warmed on heated slabs. His eyes set on a decadent choco and cream dessert on the counter. His mouth watered-- he hadn’t seen food like this in ages. “You cooked all this yourself?”
Palissa set her glass down on the counter. “Mmm hmm.”
“No droid to help you?”
She smirked at him. “You Navy berks, with all your droids and tech.” She grasped a handle hanging from the ceiling, pulling it down. A UV-lit pallet emerged, bursting with green leaves and living vegetables of all colors.
“Hydroponics,” he exhaled. “Well. I’m impressed.”
She picked fresh greens and bulbs out of the decanters. “Don’t you have hydroponics in the officers’ mess?”
“No, not at all. Our meals are all prepackaged, balanced with only the essential proteins, carbohydrates, and k-cals required. Served with a delicious side of chloro-phyto nutrient capsules for dessert.”
Palissa grimaced. “Yuck.”
“It’s not all that terrible. Some of it is rather good. Considering our meals are all prepared by droids, they’re quite palatable. And much better than any of the grub we got on the anti-pirate ships around Axxila.” He indulged in another sip of champagne.
“No wonder you officers are all so thin,” Palissa quipped as she carried an armful of fresh vegetables over to the counter.
Piett chuckled. “We must maintain regulation body mass. If we ate like this every night, we’d all be the size of Hutts.”
“Can you imagine that? A crew of Hutts?” She snatched a large chef’s blade from a magnetic strip above her head. “Most of their days would be spent just getting from one place to another! Nothing would ever get done!”
“Exactly.” He raised the glass to his lips again. Already, he could feel the champagne’s infamous effects soothing out the ridges in his neck. “However does the Baroness stay so slim eating like this?”
Palissa hiccupped a laugh. “I’ve never seen anyone eat the way Lylla…” she winced a little before she continued, “the Baroness does. I think she could put any Hutt to shame with her appetite.”
Piett cocked his head. “You call her by her first name.”
“In private, yes.”
“Hmm.” He wasn’t sure why he was so surprised by this, as he and Veers were also on a first-name basis in private. Then again, Veers was not the betrothed of the Dark Lord of the Sith. He found himself wondering again about her relationship with the formidable Baroness until he shook it off. “How can I assist you, Lissy?”
“By staying over there and keeping me company while I cut this up.” He watched her set the head of green leaves and assorted colorful bulbs on the counter. Then, with astonishing speed and almost inhuman precision, Palissa shred through the vegetables with the knife. His mouth dropped as she sliced and cut, her hands almost a blur, and flipped the blade over her hand, catching it in the air, then sliced some more, then miraculously bounced the handle off the counter and caught it in her other hand without even looking at it.
“Do that again!” he exclaimed.
She glanced over her shoulder. “Do what again?”
“That, what you just did with the knife.” He indicated it with a nod.
“Firmus,” she giggled, suddenly self-conscious.
“Do it again,” he repeated, this time softly. “Please?”
An expression that could almost be described as smug cross her face. “Alright. You might want to step back.” Piett grinned, obviously intrigued, and obliged her. Palissa took the knife again and twirled it through her fingers, constantly keeping the blade in check. She bounced the handle off the counter again, caught it, then actually flipped it behind her back up over her shoulder, caught it again. Piett watched in utter amazement as she twirled it over, around, and through her hands. Her eyes never left the blade as she tossed it about, faster and faster, until she caught it one more time, spun to her side, and threw it. The blade sliced through the air, just centimeters from Piett’s nose, down the long galley until it sank into far wall with a resounding thunk, the handle still wobbling from the impact.
The Captain gawked at the knife, then back to Palissa. “By the Force, Lissy,” he exhaled.
Palissa merely simpered and shrugged. “I told you I was pretty good with a vibroblade.”
“Pretty good? You’re a regular assassin with that thing.” He saw her smile fade and her eyes darken at the remark. He furrowed his brow at her reaction. “Is that who taught you? An assassin?”
“A… friend,” she said quietly as she strode past him to retrieve the knife from the wall.
“Oh.” He watched her wrench the handle out of the wall and come back to finish making the salad. The hesitation in her answer did not escape his notice. “A male friend?”
Palissa stopped for a moment, and her back stiffened. “Yes.” She tapped the sonic hand-cleaner installed over the counter on and ran her hands under it.
“A lover?” he asked, an odd heat rising on his neck.
Again she stilled, pursing her lips, before she scooped the cut greens evenly onto two small plates. She picked the plates up and, when she turned to face him, he saw a quiet anger smolder in her eyes. “Yes Firmus. A male assassin lover friend. If that is any of your business, which it isn’t,” she said, her softness in volume doing nothing to disguise her irritation. “And salad is served.” She brushed past him back into the dining area.
Piett winced. He turned around and followed her. She set the plates down on the table with a bit more force than needed. “Lissy,” he murmured. She straightened, but didn’t turn around. He drew a breath. “You’re right, it’s none of my business. I… don’t know what came over me.”
“I haven’t been a virgin for a while, so I don’t need you judging me--.”
“I never expected you to be, Lissy,” he said, confused.
“I’ve only been with three people my whole life, including you, Firmus--”
“Lissy,” he soothed, stepping toward her, concerned by her heated, almost panicked outburst. “Forgive me. It’s been… a very long time since I’ve been involved with anyone. I got jealous.” He huffed an embarrassed breath as he looked into his glass again. “It’s silly, really.”
“Oh,” she said, very softly. She turned over her shoulder. “I thought you were insinuating…that I was… promiscuous.”
“Stars, no,” he breathed, coming to the table and setting his glass down. He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him. “And even if you were, it’s still no business of mine now, is it?” He sighed. “I am married. I have no right to judge you that way.”
Palissa exhaled, and set her hands on his waist. She drew her lips in. “I see the way they look at me. The men. The officers.” She looked up at him. “If any of them say they’ve been with me, they’re lying, Firmus--”
“I know they are,” he murmured, stroking her cheek, trying to calm her unease and his own rising anger. The men’s indecent attitudes toward her didn’t just anger her. “They frighten you, don’t they?” He felt her hands shaking on his sides, and covered them with his own. “Lissy, they wouldn’t dare touch you. And if anyone is foolish enough to even try, Vader is the LAST person they should fear.”
Palissa looked up at him, surprised by the ferocity in his voice, no matter how quiet it was. “Firmus, you can’t...you musn’t...please, don’t endanger your position because of me--”
“My duty above all others,” Piett murmured, gently cutting her off, “is to ensure the safety of every being aboard this vessel.” He stroked her cheek with the backs of his fingers. “It is my duty to protect you, Lissy.” His gut clenched at his own words. In avoiding or dismissing himself from his fellow officers’ lewd conversations about her, that was the last thing he was doing.
Palissa noticed his jaw work and his eyes darken. “Firmus, what is it?”
“Lissy, do you carry a vibroblade on you?”
“Only when I’m planetside with the Baroness,” she answered.
“Start carrying one on the ship, at all times. Even when you’re with the Baroness. And don’t conceal it. Carry it openly.”
She blinked a few times. “All right.”
“And don’t hesitate to practice in public. Especially in front of the officers.” The intensity in his face cracked a little when he smirked. “Show them what you can do with that thing. Especially where their bullocks are concerned.”
“Firmus!” Palissa exclaimed in an incredulous laugh. “These are your own men you’re talking about!”
“Damn right they are. And it’s about damn time they started conducting themselves like Imperial officers.” He gently pulled her into an embrace, set his chin on her head. And sighed. “That includes me as well.”
Palissa nestled her cheek into his chest. “What do you mean, Firmus?”
“Never mind.” The growl in his stomach led to a welcome change of subject. He planted a kiss atop her head and looked down at her. “May we start?”
“Of course!” She pulled away and took his hand, directing him to his seat. “Sit here.”
“The head of the table?” he chuckled, easing himself into the seat. “I feel like the Emperor.” But he put up his hand when she refilled his champagne flute. “Lissy…”
“Firmus, we have plenty of time,” she soothed. “Another glass won’t hurt, will it?”
He sighed. “You sound like General Veers.”
“I can’t possibly drink this whole bottle myself. And at a thousand credits, I know you wouldn’t want it to go to waste.”
“Well, since you put it that way.” He raised the full glass to his lips.
Palissa set the bottle back in its bucket and took her seat. But then, her smile pinched into a tiny frown. “What do you mean, I sound like General Veers?”
Piett’s hand froze for a moment before he set his glass down. “He teases me about my tee-totaling too, is all.” He picked up his utensils. “Is there a dressing for this salad?”
“Doesn’t need any. This is Argrovan chard. It’s naturally savory, with just a bite of spice. Try it.”
He stabbed a generous leaf of salad onto his fork and plunged it into his mouth. Stars, when was the last time he tasted the crispy lightness of real vegetables? And she was right, it needed no dressing, as it was quite flavorful. “Mmmmm, this is marvelous!”
“Oh.” She picked up a small basket. ”Ambrossa bread.”
“Ambrossa bread,” he repeated in a pleased whisper, picking out a slice. “Stars, can’t remember the last time I had that.” He gaped at her. “You made this too?”
“Mmm hmm,” she hummed.
“I could just have this for dinner and be satisfied.”
“Well, don’t fill up too much. There’s more.” She took her own bite, her eyes smiling at him.
He took a bite of the bread, and practically melted in his chair just as the bread did in his mouth. He chased it with a swill of the champagne, and relished their combined sweetness. The thought of having this delightful girl living with him in a real home, their home, making him ambrossa bread...But then, a sobering thought soured his enjoyment.
“Lissy,” he began softly after he swallowed, “what...sort of slave were you?” He pulled a breath when she stopped eating and looked down at her plate. “We’ve...never really talked about it. I don’t even know where you are from.” Palissa stayed quiet, and he knew then he’d made a mistake. Another mistake. “I’m sorry, that is none of my business as well--”
“No,” she breathed, reaching for his hand and squeezing it. “No, it’s alright Firmus. You should know.” She lifted her glass and took a sip before she continued. “I was born and raised on Vinsoth. My family was owned by a Chevin government village dictator, Negna Mundro. He was the richest merchant lord on the planet, rich enough to own pureblood human slaves.” She took a quick bite of salad.
“Chevin?” Piett breathed. While he had never met a Chevin, he knew the race. Whether mammalian or reptilian no one actually knew. But he did know that they were considered one of the most hideous races in the galaxy in every way-- physically and culturally. Their economy was slave-trade based. But because most of the government-village leaders supported the Empire, their loathsome trade was often conveniently ignored. “My word. I’m...I’m sorry, Lissy.”
“Oh, it really wasn’t so bad, Firmus. Mundro treated us well. Well, as well as slaves could be treated, I suppose.” She took another drink from her flute. “My father was the house manager and tutor to his children. Very prestigious indeed, to have Chevin children educated by a human. My mother was his stablemaster. Mundro owned quite a few champion race eliiopes. And I worked in the house since I was seven. That’s how I learned how to cook. And I took class with the Chevin children as well.”
“That explains how educated you are,” he said, a soft smile on his lips. The smile faded a bit. “And why you are so obedient.”
Her bright eyes dimmed. “Old habit. Obedience kept the beatings at bay.” Piett unconsciously growled at the thought of any being laying a hand on his precious girl. Sensing his anger, Palissa donned a smile again, trying to diffuse it. “We were actually allowed to all live together, my family, in our own cottage on the estate. Frankly, compared to other Chevin merchant lords, Mundro was downright kind.”
Piett looked down, absently pushing his salad around the plate with his fork. He knew firsthand from his pirate-busting days over Axxila how pretty female slaves, no matter their race, were often abused. He had confiscated, and hence saved, quite a few of them off the ships they’d boarded. He then thought about what she said before, about having been with only three people in her life. Himself, of course, and whoever this vibroblade-wielding assassin person was. Which left just one, and the very thought of who it could be made his skin crawl. “Did this Mundro… use you, Lissy?” He cleared his throat when she looked at him somewhat quizzically. “Sexually?”
Her eyes sprang open. “Oh no, Firmus, never! Chevins think humans are utterly repulsive. To them, having sex with a human was equal to mating with a swamp vole.”
“Well,” he exhaled, reassured and oddly insulted at the same time, “that’s a relief. I couldn’t bear the thought of you being used like that.”
“You mean like the Baroness was?” she added with quiet edge.
Her bluntness took him aback for a moment. “Yes, precisely,” he murmured. He glanced back up at her, and saw that hard shine in her eyes again. He was beginning to understand where this vigilance came from. But he pressed forward. “Is that how you came into the Baroness’s service?”
“Oh no,” she answered, “Lylla never owned me, Firmus. I was hired through a service on The Throneworld. After I was freed.”
“You were freed?”
“Yes. My parents had saved whatever credits they could accrue their whole lives. They bought my freedom.” She took a bite of bread.
“They… bought your freedom?” She nodded. “But not theirs?”
She shook her head. “My father...he wanted to buy my mother’s freedom as well, but she refused to leave him. So they gave me what they had left so I could go to the Imperial Center. Papa told me that with my education and skills, I could work in someone’s estate as a personal assistant or a house manager or something like that. He told me the Throneworld held the best opportunities for me.” She smiled wistfully. “Perhaps even go to university someday. If I saved wisely.” That’s when she noticed the somber look in his eye. “What?”
“Your family sounds very noble,” he said. “They loved you very much, Lissy.”
She beamed. “Perhaps you’ll meet them someday, Firmus.”
He brightened. “Then they’re alright? They’re still on Vinsoth?”
“Oh no, they’re on the Throneworld now.” Her smile grew wider. “As free citizens. Like me.”
“They’re free?” He blinked several times. “How?”
Palissa held his gaze for a long moment before she declared, “Lylla bought their contracts and persuaded Lord Vader to grant them citizenship.” She gestured to his salad plate. “Are you done?”
Piett blinked. “She what?” Palissa just simply smiled, stood up, took his plate and went back into the kitchen. Piett rose from his seat and followed her. “The Baroness freed your parents.”
“That’s what I said,” she said as she dropped the salad plates into the sonic washer. She moved to the oven.
He leaned against the jamb, and folded his arms. “Stars,” he breathed. It was clear now, this devotion to her charge. Obviously, there was a side to the Scarlet Dragon he had never seen before. Did an actual heart beat under her scales? “Why would she do that?”
Palissa pressed a button. The door opened, and a repulsor pan slid out. The pan glided to the countertop, where Palissa grabbed a new carving blade and a serving fork from the magnetic strip above her. But she paused, her face pensive. “It was her way of making amends, I guess..”
“Amends?” He knit his brow. “For what?”
She sighed. “For the first few months I served her.” She began slicing into the meat.
“What happened?” He was met with silence. “What did she do?” Palissa kept cutting and avoiding his gaze. Piett stepped into the galley, arms still crossed, eyes narrowed. “Lissy.”
“Well,” she said, cutting briskly at the meat, “before this turns into another tiff, I’ll tell you. She beat me. She was horrible to me, she called me names, and she threw things at me. Big things sometimes. But,” she snapped, finally raising her eyes to him, “before you burn your blasters over it, hear me out. You have NO idea what she went through, Firmus. My experience as a slave was NOTHING like hers. I had family, I had an education, I had a roof over my head and food on my table. Always. Do you know what she had? A pimp of a father who sold her to a local politician as a kriff toy when she was eleven years old.”
“Hutt’s bollocks,” Piett breathed in disgust.
She furiously began cutting the meat again. “She had another master who beat and raped her, almost on a daily basis. She was passed around like a platter of canapes to any Black Sun Vigo or Crimson Dawn Lieutenant that crossed that maggot’s threshold. THEN she was seized like a repossessed speeder by the Empire to work off that bastard’s tax debts after he mercifully dropped dead. Would you bring me two plates off that counter over there, please?”
Piett shook his head clear. “Er, of course.” He moved to the counter and picked up the plates, bringing them to her and setting them down next to her.
Palissa carefully laid the slices of meat on the plates, continuing her quiet tirade. “And before she knows it, she’s dropped smack in the middle of the Throneworld and into the hands of the ISB. I don’t need to tell you what high-browed shit-licking fierfeks they are!”
“No,” Piett murmured, stifling his amusement at her colorful language, “you most certainly don’t.”
Palissa set the utensils down, and took a breath to calm herself. “And then Lord Vader was lost for three months after Yavin. She thought he was dead, Firmus.” Her lip trembled as she wiped her hands with a towel. “She was alone, all alone. And terrified. Oh, she’d never admit it. But I saw it. Every day. The way her hands shook. I heard her cry herself to sleep. Every night.”
The Captain laid a hand on hers. “What changed?” he asked her softly.
She glanced up at him. “Lord Vader returned. She...became different.” Her voice grew soft. “I know what Lylla is, I don’t lie to myself. I know she is cruel, ruthless, and does terrible things. I know Lord Vader is a very dangerous man with powers beyond my comprehension. But they rescued my family. And they love each other. There’s...there’s got to be something in them both that’s not entirely...broken.” She drew a breath, let it out. “I forgave her a long time ago, Firmus. You...simply don’t know her the way I do.”
It made sense now. Piett sighed. The Baroness Sa’thraxxx, the Scarlet Dragon, the consort of the Lord Darth Vader and a menacing presence in her own right, could have very well been one of those pleasure slaves he had liberated from those pirate ships over Axxila years ago. For a brief moment, he wished he’d had the chance. But then again, the Baroness may never have ascended the way she had. And if she hadn’t, he would never have met Lissy.
Perhaps there was something to this whole ‘destiny’ business after all.
He interlaced her fingers in his. She looked up at him. All traces of anger were gone from his face, and his hazel eyes shined. “You,” he whispered, cupping her cheek with his other hand, “are truly a bright star in this dark universe, Lissy. I am honored to know you.” Palissa’s eyes fluttered and her cheeks flushed as she pressed into his hand. He leaned in and tenderly kissed her lips. “Go sit down. Allow me.”
She raised her brows. “Know your way around a kitchen, do you?”
He smirked as he glanced around. “Growing up on Axxila, you didn’t cook, you didn’t eat.” She hesitated. He put his hands on her shoulders and gently turned her around. “Go.”
She walked back to the table and sat at her place. She glanced back at the galley, watching Piett search for serving spoons. She fiddled with the utensils in front of her, straightening them over and over until she burst out in a nervous laugh, “This feels very weird!”
“Enjoy it,” he responded. Finding the spoons, he lifted the covers from the chafing dishes, and shamelessly inhaled their aroma. Scooping generous portions from each pan on their plates, Piett came out with each in hand, setting one in front of her. “Dinner is served, my lady,” he announced. His smile grew even bigger when he saw her blush.
Palissa giggled and looked down to her lap. “Stop that.”
“Naw when’ et makes yer cheeks pink up like tha’, Eh won’t.” Her eyes blinked wide at him. He froze, then exhaled an embarrassed sigh.
“Is...that your native accent?” Palissa whispered.
Piett cleared his throat and took his seat, flicking his napkin open and neatly smoothed it over his lap. “Yes.”
Her grin got even bigger. “It’s lovely, Firmus.”
“No, it’s really not,” he answered, once again in his stiffly impeccable Core World effectation.
“Yes, it is. It’s musical. Why did you change it?”
He sighed again, then picked up his utensils. “Promotion comes easier if you sound like you belong.”
“Belong?” she asked. “Oh. You mean if you sound like you’re from the Coruscant.”
“Precisely.” He noted her frown. “What?”
“Does...my Outer Rim accent embarrass you? Because I could always work on it--”
“Don’t you dare,” Piett said, playfully pointing his fork at her. “Don’t change a thing about yourself, Lissy. You’re perfect.” He smiled when she blushed again; Force, he just couldn’t get enough of that. “And speaking of perfect, I think it’s time to sample this perfect food.” He sliced into the meat and stabbed a bite onto his fork. It absolutely melted in his mouth, and he swore he was tasting it with every sense he had. He let out a long, low, “Mmmmmm.”
“Good?” Palissa asked with a hopeful smile.
“I think my toes are curling,” he chuckled. “ ‘Good’ doesn’t do this justice!” With that, he shamelessly dug into the rest, eliciting grateful moans of pleasure every few bites. When he reached for his champagne flute, he saw that Palissa was already refilling it. He gave her a look that bordered between stern and playful. “Lissy, are you trying to get me drunk?”
“Maybe…?” She laughed. “I’m just trying to relax you, Firmus.” She gave him a sly look from under her thick lashes. “Well, until I relax you another way after dessert.” Her grin grew wider when she saw him stop mid-bite and his eyes widen. Piett glanced down at his plate and let out a soft laugh. “Now you’re blushing, Captain Piett.”
“Imperial officers to do not blush, my lady.”
“Oh no? You’re getting awfully red for not blushing.”
Piett fought the grin trying to spread his lips. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
“Immensely,” she giggled. They smiled at one another before resuming their meal. Palissa took a luxurious sip from her champagne flute, then set it down. “Firmus, may I ask you a question?”
“Of course, Lissy.”
“Why don’t you drink?” She recoiled a little inside when she saw his expression darken. “I’m sorry Firmus, that was personal, wasn’t it?”
“Yes.” But his face softened. “But it’s alright. I… got into… trouble when I was young because of alcohol.” He shrugged a bit. “Not much else to do on Axxila but drink.” He took another bite.
She leaned her cheek in her hand. “What sort of trouble?” He hesitated. “It’s alright if you don’t want to tell me--”
“No, I do want to tell you.” Piett put his fork down, and reached for the champagne flute, allowing himself a few gulps of liquid courage. It tingled down his throat, and he immediately felt it warm his limbs. Stars, this did feel nice, to feel this light. Too nice. He set his glass down and took a breath. “I was seventeen. I was out with my mates, real brawlers those lads. We’d been drinking all night, we met up with some girls…” He paused, and met Palissa’s attentive eyes. “And I got one pregnant.”
Palissa sat back in her seat. “Oh. Dear.”
He nodded. “The girl I knocked up was the daughter of the local Magistrate.”
She exhaled harshly. “Oh dear.”
“Exactly. He was kind enough to make me an offer-- marry her and make a honorable woman of her, or face a slew of charges. Most of which he would fabricate of course, but it didn’t matter. I would be facing years inside a prison cell.” He grimaced as he cut another bite of meat. “All I really did was exchange one sentence for another.”
“Oh, Firmus.” She knit her brow. “Wait. Does that mean you have a child? You’ve never mentioned one.”
“That’s because I don’t. She miscarried at five months.” He went back to his meal as though he’d just been talking about the latest data that made it across his desk.
“Oh Firmus,” she whispered, “I’m so sorry, Firmus.”
“It was a long time ago, Lissy.” He took a bite.
“I know but… that must have been heartbreaking for you.”
He stopped eating for a moment. “It was. But I believe it was also a disguised blessing. I was just a boy, not father material whatsoever at that age.” He scoffed sadly. “And definitely not husband material. We grew to… despise each other, trapped in a marriage neither of us wanted.”
“And yet, you’re still married to her.”
He stiffened. “Yes.”
“Couldn’t you…” she cleared her throat, “get a divorce?”
Piett threw her a glance, one she couldn’t quite read, as he reached for his glass again. “Well, that was rather complicated. You see, Axxila is still a theocracy of sorts. Religion plays a large part in our laws and governance. Therefore, divorce was illegal. But once again, the Magistrate made me an offer. Since I was making his precious daughter so utterly miserable, he told me that if I joined the Imperial Navy and made my wife my sole beneficiary, he’d let me leave. And that’s how I ended up chasing thugs, slavers and pirates for ten years around the Axxilan system.”
Palissa picked at her food for a moment. “Divorce was illegal? You mean, it’s not anymore?”
She glanced up at him, only to shyly look away again. But there was no mistaking the shimmer of hopefulness in her voice.
Piett felt a flush spread through him. “Well, technically, it still is, but… being an Imperial officer and the fact that Axxila is an now an Imperial system…” he cleared his throat, “and that the Magistrate is dead, I don’t see why I would be denied one.” They sat for a moment, eating in silence, until Piett added quietly with a cant to his head, “Why do you ask?”
Her curls made a bouncy golden halo when she shook her head. “No reason. Just...curious.” When she glanced at him again, she didn’t look away this time. He returned her gaze with a knowing smile that flustered and warmed her at the same time. “So,” she began, barely above a whisper, “you don’t drink because you’re afraid you’ll get someone pregnant again?”
He chuckled softly. “No Lissy. I don’t drink because I don’t want to lose control and make stupid mistakes. I’ve seen what alcoholism does to career military personnel.” His eyes darkened. “I see it in Ozzel every damned day.”
“Ozzel?” she asked. “Admiral Ozzel?” He tightly nodded. “He drinks?”
“Like a damned grudda fish,” he snarled. He scoffed. “Eh sometimes think ‘alf the time I waste is just covering for his sloppy arse.”
She smiled a bit when he let his accent slip again, but remained firm. “Then why do you it, Firmus? Can’t you report him?”
“To who? He’s Admiral of Death Squadron. Who do I report him to? The Emperor?”
Piett looked up at her, and grimaced. “It… doesn’t work like that, Lissy. If I report him to Lord Vader, it could backfire spectacularly in an abundance of ways. Vader would regard me as a petty bootlicker with designs on promotion-- and he hates bootlickers. The other officers would regard me as untrustworthy, as someone who throws their superior officers under the proverbial shuttle. There’s a… code among us. Brothers in arms, we have each other’s back at all times.” He huffed angrily. “Even when they’re on their backs drunk as hell.”
Palissa pursed her lips. “So when does he get removed?”
“When he completely KUBARs.”
She furrowed her brow. “KUBARs?”
“Kriffs up beyond all repair.”
“Oh.” It was her turn to huff. “If he keeps that up, he’ll get his own men killed. I don’t understand-- why does Lord Vader keep him on then?”
Piett sighed. “The Emperor himself appointed him, Force knows why. Family connections possibly, I don’t know. Unfortunately, even Vader can’t really revoke his commission if it came straight from the Emperor.”
She sat silently for a moment, brows crinkled in thought, until she blurted, “If you’re doing so much of Ozzel’s work for him as it is, then you should be Admiral, not him.”
She startled though when he laughed. Quite loudly. “Stars, Lissy! I don’t want the bloody job.”
“Seems to me you’re doing it already, so why not?”
“I’m not doing his job, I’m...assisting.”
“You’re overworked and underappreciated, Firmus. If you’re taking on that many of his responsibilities, you should be rewarded for it. You should be Admiral of Death Squadron!”
He sat back in his seat, knitting his brow. “What is this sudden interest in the furthering of my career?”
Palissa was silent for a moment, her lips working nervously. “I just… you’re better than this, Firmus. Analyzing data, micromanaging this ship, making sure the trash gets taken out and babysitting a fat, flaccid excuse for an Admiral is a waste of your abilities.”
“I do quite a bit more than that, Lissy, I assure you.”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.” She picked up her fork again and poked at her dinner. “I just want to see you happy.”
He let out an exasperated sigh. “I am perfectly happy where I am.”
“You don’t seem to be,” she said quietly. Piett stared at her, and the hard glint in his eyes made her chafe. “Oh Firmus. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.” He remained quiet. She bit her lip and turned away...
Until he murmured, “I’ve been happier this last month than I’ve been in twenty years, Lissy. Because of you.” Surprised, she turned back to him. The harshness had left his face, and looked at her now with utter veneration. “You care about me and my well-being. You care about my future. No one has done that in...well, a very long time.”
Palissa smiled tenderly at him. “Of course I do, Firmus. I love you.”
She’d said it as though it should have been the most obvious thing in the world to him. But it felt like she had just reached into his chest and gripped his heart with both hands. And lungs too, if his struggle for a breath was any indication. “You do?”
Her smile brightened even more. “Yes.” She looked down and picked at her food. “I… I know we haven’t known each other very long. Maybe I’m just being a stupid girl--”
“Never say that,” Piett admonished softly.
She looked back at him. “You are so kind to me, Firmus. You have never treated me like...like an object or a--”
“Servant?” he offered.
She nodded. “You always compliment me, and not just with words. With the way you look at me, the way you...touch me.” She smiled again. “You make me feel pretty and safe. You make me feel…” She trailed off, shyly looking down again.
“Loved?” Palissa’s eyes widened as her breath caught in her throat. Piett reached across the table, took her hand. “I hope you do, because you are.”
Palissa’s lashes fluttered, and she thought her heart would pound out of her chest. “You love me?”
“I believe I do. I’ve never really loved anyone before. But I’m fairly certain this is what it feels like.” He placed a soft kiss on her fingers. “You’ve made this ugly old man very happy.”
“You’re not old, Firmus,” she murmured, still ruffled by his confession.
“I’m forty-three. You’re twenty-three. That makes me old, Lissy,” he chuckled.
In that moment, Piett watched her expression change from flustered to… well, downright impish. “You don’t strut through this ship like an old man.” She leaned over the table and, her hand still in his, turned his palm over. “And you certainly don’t fill out that uniform like an old man.” With that, she pressed her lips to his palm, so softly and chastely, just before her ran the tip of her tongue over his lifeline.
Piett shuddered. He shifted in his seat when he felt the first tinge of tension in his groin. Palissa looked up at him through her lashes, and a slow, lusty smile spread across her face. “As for ugly… Firmus, I tried to make you notice me for almost a year. Why would I do that if I didn’t want to take you to my bed and show you Wild Space?”
He choked out a stunned laugh. “You’ve been around the crew too long, you’re starting to talk like them. And trust me Lissy-- I noticed you the moment you stepped off that shuttle with the Baroness a year ago.” Her throaty giggle was the only mirror he needed to know that he was turning several shades of red. “Stop that.”
“Not when your cheeks pink up like that, I won’t,” Palissa purred his own words back at him.
“Hmmph.” He twisted his lips closed, forcing down a smile that threatened to be utterly coquettish.
Palissa smirked and set her elbow on the table to plant her chin in her palm. “Tell me something.”
He eyed her with playful suspicion. “What?”
“Well…” She stroked his palm with velvet touches, causing him no end of fluster, “You don’t drink--”
“Until tonight,” he said.
“Champagne with dinner doesn’t count,” she quipped back. “And you don’t smoke, not that I could ever smell anyway. A career military man with no vices whatsoever…” She trailed off, still drawing feathery little patterns on his hand.
Piett leaned in, his gaze piercing. “What are you asking me, Lissy?”
She returned his gaze with equal intensity. “You say you haven’t been ‘involved’ with anyone for a long time. Does that mean you’ve been…celibate since joining the Navy?” Her intensity softened a bit when she fluttered her lashes. “Until recently, of course.”
Oh, THAT was what she was asking, if he had a ‘past’. Piett brought a hand to his lips, cleared his throat, and replied, “I did say that, didn’t I? Well, it’s true, I haven’t been ‘involved’ with anyone.” He picked up his glass again, brought it to his lips, and gave her a cautious look over the rim. “Not that I haven’t been with anyone.”
“Oh,” Palissa chirped. She giggled again. “So, nothing serious. A ‘girl in every port’ sort of thing?”
He took a swig of his champagne again, and let the bubbles burst on his tongue and whet his mettle. If they were truly to be together, it was only fair that she know. “Girl. Boy. Sometimes both in one. Depends on the port.” He met her eyes again, lids heavy and never flinching, and worked his jaw as he swished another sip of champagne through his mouth.
Palissa blinked. “Oh.” Then understanding widened her eyes. “OH.” She said nothing more.
Something akin to alarm rang through him. “Does that…” Repulse you? Disgust you? “Bother you?” Her silence clearly indicated that he should have kept his bloody mouth shut-- Kest and Krinnic, he really had NO tolerance for alcohol anymore, did he? His fingers nervously flicked in her hand. He could almost see the thoughts tumbling through her head, conjuring images that, back in his younger anti-pirate days, were probably fairly close to the mark. She had been so upset when she thought he would resent her for not being “pure”; Force, what did that make him in her eyes now?
She reached for the glass of water next to her plate for the first time since their dinner began. “My stars,” she breathed, then gulped it down. She set it down, took a breath. Then she looked him directly in the eyes and broke into the most lascivious grin he’d ever seen her don. “Just when I thought you couldn’t be any more enticing, Firmus.”
Relief He let out a long, slow breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “Then you don’t think I’m depraved?”
Palissa set her cheek in her hand again, her eyes dozy and laser-focused all at once. “I don’t know. Are you?” she purred low in her throat.
* * *