Thrawn narrowed his eyes slightly as he examined the latest selection of artwork he had chosen to view: the sum total of that which the Chimaera's officers displayed in their personal cabins.
It was a pity, what the Emperor's heavy-handed approach to personnel management had done to the Imperial Navy. There were so few independent thinkers left, and far too many of the remainder had lost the aptitude for self-motivation and efficiency. The deaths of the Emperor and Vader and the destruction of both the second Death Star and the Executor had all occurred in the space of a few moments – but while devastating, that battle had been a singular, unpredictable event. The five years of dwindling failure the remaining Empire had indulged in since that date had been far more avoidable.
But not entirely a surprise; not to Thrawn. He had seen the Emperor's taste in interior decoration, after all, and it had left an indelible mark on the majority of what he saw before him. The ostentatious, oppressive designs Palpatine had favored had left their stamp on every man to feel the touch of his direct command. It vexed Thrawn, that he'd been forced to steadily retrain every subordinate he'd acquired since the Emperor's death to one degree or another, and that many might never recover enough autonomy to reach the standards the galaxy would require of its defenders.
Even Pellaeon, whose ship Thrawn had selected for his flag due to his reputation for competence, still flinched in anticipation of Thrawn's displeasure on a regular basis. Even when he professed doubt in Thrawn's strategies and offered soundly reasoned, if sometimes insufficiently informed criticism – signs of intelligence and dedication that no doubt had factored into his lack of further promotion in the Emperor's Navy – something within him still seemed to expect violent correction. Not quite hesitance, nor yet restraint, but an ingrained conservatism, potential pent up behind a repressively correct surface.
Of course … that admixture of strength and deference had its benefits, as well. Particularly, at present, in the matter of C'baoth: Thrawn himself carried a nutrient frame with attendant ysalamiri everywhere he went aboard the Chimera to limit the possibility that the unbalanced Jedi Master might attempt to access his mind … but in failing to assign the same protection to Pellaeon, who had been primed in past by the Emperor's accustomed techniques for similar manipulative tactics, he provided C'baoth with a tempting yet easily monitored channel for manipulation.
There was perhaps some small risk to the captain in that choice of tactic; but Thrawn had judged it better to allow C'baoth to arrange the matter of cell sample B-2332-54 through a highly visible pawn, one he dare not damage before his position of power was secured, than risk unpredictable numbers of lesser sailors being manipulated and likely damaged beyond his immediate eye. Let C'baoth have his secret clone made; whoever that genetic material had come from, it would make no difference to the endgame. Even another Palpatine, fresh from the vats, would lack the original's dominating mind – and another, more essential ingredient to any hope of reconquest. Thrawn's contingency plans were more than sufficient to cover any such possibility.
His contingency plans should Pellaeon discover the manipulation, and Thrawn's knowledge of it, and react poorly … were rather less pleasant to contemplate. But that was another of the benefits of commanding the intriguing example of humanity that was Gilad Pellaeon: Thrawn knew, as surely as he'd ever gauged a new species before a battle, that the captain would not react in a manner that required unpleasant correction. He would understand that such concealment had been necessary, regardless of his personal feelings on the matter.
Let C'baoth delude himself that complete seizure of a being's mind was the ultimate power; let other former Imperials sabotage themselves with grandiose schemes and short-sighted, iron-fisted governance. Thrawn knew the truth: he who commanded the soul of a people truly ruled them – and winning an individual's spirit was a far more productive and lasting conquest than mere puppetry or physical subjugation.
A soft chime warned him that someone stood outside the door to his private command room, and Thrawn smiled coolly to himself. Of course, there was a certain degree of personal satisfaction to be had as well.
He'd set the room to a bland lighting scheme, bright enough for his visitor to easily see the walls and domed ceiling and navigate between the holographic pedestals, but subdued enough to make every rare stroke of unorthodox color or shape stand out more vividly. Pellaeon stepped into the doubled circle of artwork wearing the usual half-intrigued, half-astonished expression – then halted, flushing slightly, as he recognized the particular image directly in front of him.
In his private quarters, where no other would presumably see, Pellaeon displayed one framed work from his birthworld. It was relatively innocuous by comparison to some; certainly tame for a people commonly known for their intrepid, maverick and sentimental natures. But its sensual nature explained much about the captain's reputation with women; the lingering, surreptitious glances frequently directed toward Thrawn's faintly blue skin, and the breath that quickened slightly at each flash of Thrawn's red eyes.
Such a rare find in an Empire that largely hated and feared nonhumans: a reasonably intelligent man capable of finding one admirable, even desirable. Pellaeon may have been raised in the endless, soulless city of Coruscant, but there were sparks of his Correllian origins in him yet.
Thrawn looked forward to coaxing them to ignite, to seeing what role Pellaeon would assume in Thrawn's new Empire. But there was a Rebellion to crush, first, and an insane Jedi to manage. He took pity on the man's embarrassment and waved a hand to banish the artwork, summoning the tactical starmap instead.
"Your analysis of the latest developments, Captain?" he said crisply.
Pellaeon swallowed, and there – a hint of tongue over his lower lip; Thrawn's experiment had succeeded. Then he lifted his chin, and began his report.