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Ams Jendob
Moff


Joined: 14 Jun 2009
Posts: 1579
Location: The Gala

 Post Posted: Wed, June 22nd 2011 09:42pm    Post subject: Imperial Palace
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The newly-christened Imperial Palace was truly breathtaking in its scope and luxury. Then again, since it had belonged to Villim Disra, that wasn't so surprising. One of the few truly “old guard” Imperials not to defect with Zend, it sometimes seemed as if the ancient moff had remained for the explicit purpose of stymieing the reforms of the post-Zend government. Then again, the old bastard had only existed for another five years after the defection before, shockingly, simple age claimed him. That limited the damage he could have inflicted, but what he'd been able to do slowed down the formation of the Union by several years and still gave dangerously reactionary elements in the Council a hero to rally behind.

At least, before Zend returned from whatever hole in the universe she vanished into twenty years ago, I groaned inwardly. Already, ISB and Intelligence were on high alert. One Moff had been arrested, but two others had already openly declared the intention to defect with their forces. They'd all been among the less tolerant moffs, the ones that had agitated for an aggressive hand with the Republic and Union. The only question was how many of the their political allies in the Council turn traitor and make military alliances. And even with Security at heightened readiness, it was just too small to catch every commodore, admiral, general, governor, and moff with treasonous thoughts. And all in less than a damned week.

Of course, there were ways to solve the issue. Quick and easy, too... purges of suspected moffs, political officers, increasing the size and power of the Security Bureau... adding a black zeydcloth robe to my wardrobe would just be the icing on the cake. Combating treason with terror was an effective short-term solution—history did bear that out, no matter what the revisionists in the New Republic decided to program into their children—but it always bred long-term problems, not the least of which was terror required more terror to sustain the regime. And after spending my life trying to divorce the Empire from the oppression tactics of Zend, Palpatine, Isard, Vader, and the warlords, I would be damned if I'd charge headlong back down those paths.

So, how do you fix the immediate problem of defections of everything from corvettes to sectors before there isn't an Empire left to save and reform?

And as I wound my way deeper into the palace, my fists clenched as I realized that I had no answer. On top of that, getting the Empire in order with my own house in utter disorder was another issue that I didn't particularly need as a distraction. An irritated sigh finally escaped my lips, drawing a concerned look from Shayera.

“Are you all right?”

I groaned inwardly. My inability to contain my frustration had dragged her into it. And, while I loved my wife dearly and passionately, a characteristic that was simultaneously endearing and annoying was her nearly pathological need to involve herself in anything that might have been bothering me, from a stubbed toe to the bloody universe coming apart at the seams. She could be a much-needed pillar of support or another damned variable in the equation. “It's nothing, love.”

“Ams,” an edge had quickly established itself in that concerned soprano.

“Please, later,” I replied, just a touch too tersely. I turned to her, catching her gaze. “I'm sorry. But, not now. Let's get settled in, first.”

There was a frostiness in her green eyes that told me this discussion was far from over. Of course, another part of my brain unabashedly noted how lovely she was when annoyed. Rather, despite her annoyance. She had on her new black uniform, with royal markings on the shoulder boards. The twin gold bars and four starbursts gleamed with the overhead lighting, which also served to give her long, red hair an almost fiery glow. When we'd first been reunited aboard the Terminator, all those years ago, I'd been struck by just how beautiful my good friend from the Academy seemed to have become. From the day I met her to her late forties, she was often taken for a strikingly lovely woman in her early twenties, with everything about her face in just the correct proportions and arrangements. Even now, save a few faint lines around her mouth and eyes, she could have easily passed for a woman two decades younger. Her eyes were bright and expressive—currently expressing less than happy feelings toward me—and her figure... I harshly suppressed a sly smirk as I considered her taut, exquisitely well-made form had changed very, very little since I'd first been granted the privilege of observing it unencumbered nearly thirty years ago.

But I had no time for such sophomoric thoughts. And Shayera was infinitely more to me than a pretty face or long legs or someone to lean on when I didn't have the strength to hold myself up. And she didn't deserve to be brushed off so harshly, even if her occasional intrusions on my grimmer trains of thought could strike me like steel scraping across slate. Of course, she could also be proud... and having thrown down the gauntlet before her, it was possible she wouldn't give me a chance to retract it so soon. Just one more thing to fix.

Our children flashed through my consciousness as I half-listened to the droning of one of the palace stewards. The encounter with Kris had certainly been unexpected, and I honestly wasn't sure where it might lead. Kendra's visit to retrieve her belongings before shipping out had gone far more smoothly, and we parted on warm terms. She even hinted that things might improve with her brother; I'd kept my doubts to myself while expressing a sincere hope she was right. I'd always been nervous about her: Kris was a capable pilot, flying one of the Empire's best fightercraft. But Kendra was a Stormtrooper. When her brother had to take a life, he did so remotely and though they'd both been fighting nothing worse than pirate gangs, there was a major difference between shooting down a fighter or strafing a converted freighter and looking an enemy in the eyes while pulling the trigger. I still felt a cool hand clamp on my gut when I recalled the first time my little girl took a life. It had been four years ago, during a rather rough patch in family relations. She'd been deeply shaken—which had also unfairly robbed her of a place in one of the legions—and sometimes I wondered if her trauma might have facilitated the rebuilding of her familial bridges. It was nothing to fault her over, and yet a small selfish voice wondered if that cast a pall over our improved family ties.

“...And, here we are, at the royal bed chambers,” the steward noted, capping off the tour of our new home. “The room has been arranged according to the instructions of the head of the domestic staff, Mister Swan.”

“Thank you, Nkara,” I nodded to the Lethan Twi'lek. “That will be all for now.”

The steward's rose-colored cheeks darkened toward an odd purple-green as she blushed. “It was my honor, Your Highness. If there's anything you need—”

“We'll be sure to ask,” I forced a smile. “And pass our compliments on to Ni—ah, Mister Swan.” I quickly corrected myself. I'd been true to my word with Niles; technically, he was still, technically, the butler, but now in the original sense of the word: the chief steward of the entire household. Of course, he'd fought long and hard against it, insisting no one else could tend to Shayera and me properly. But I was certain he could train his new minions properly. Of course, this was the first day on the job, which became all too apparent as the young Twi'lek gave an exaggerated bow that made my spine prickle with discomfort, and then vanished down the corridor. I pressed the key to open the bedroom door and stepped inside—

—Then paused in momentary shock. I'd seen the blueprints and drawings, but it still hadn't prepared me for just how lavish and ostentatious the room would be. I almost shuddered to think why Disra felt he needed the space for his bedroom.

“Ahem.”

I turned back... and began acutely aware of Shayera's pointed gaze. Her expression was neutral, but the look in her eyes reminded me of a leveled turbolaser battery. “Shayera...”

A moment of awkward silence passed. “I'm s—”

“Look, it's... it's no big deal,”she sighed. “I was just trying to help and—”

“I know, love, and I appreciate it. I was just thinking about some... unpleasant matters,” I replied. “I just need to get things sorted out, all right?”

Imperatoris Novus Domus First Previous Next Latest

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Emperor Ams Jendob, Ruler of the Imperial Remnant


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----"Moff", CMAC Dreamcrusher, Official Administrative Waldorf and Statler----


Last edited by Ams Jendob on Wed, December 21st 2011 10:52pm; edited 5 times in total
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Shayera Jendob
Moff


Joined: 14 Jun 2009
Posts: 513
Location: All along the Watchtower

 Post Posted: Mon, July 11th 2011 09:04pm    Post subject:
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“Well, anything I can do to help?” I asked earnestly, already knowing Ams would graciously refuse. After twenty-seven years, I'd managed to work out that he only tended to lash out—well, that's unfair. He just got a little snippy—the way he did when he'd been deeply immersed in thought that was either unpleasant or just required his utmost concentration, and that thought was interrupted. Stars knew I could get that way, too. Still, how could I help him if he didn't mention anything?

“No, that's all right,” he responded with gently abrading predictability. There had been a time when it would've bothered me, now it was almost a kind of bizarre comfort. “It's mostly to do with the defections.”

I cringed. Yeah, not a hell of a lot I can do about those. He continued. “Mostly, trying to work out how to prevent more.”

“What about increasing security on the more...” Conservative? No... it's the “Hard-liner Moffs?”

Ams cocked an eyebrow and gave me a mirthless chuckle. “Ah, yes. 'Emperor cracks down on long-time political opponents.' Not that I didn't consider it,” he admitted. “But I really don't think that's the direction to take.

“I figure I should be around for at least a few years before I turn into Zend's duplicate, anyway,” he smirked, again with all of the humor of a speeder accident.

I shrugged my shoulders. “Honestly, I don't know what to do.”

“Therein lies the problem, Shy,” he sighed, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “And even the Stormtrooper Corps is questionable at this point. Oh, the 501st I'm not worried about. All of the legions have sworn their loyalty, fealty, service, and everything else they can to swear to the throne. But the divisions, especially the ones with a majority of Army officers...”

I sat down next to him and lightly squeezed his shoulder. “Hey, it's only the first week of the reign of Ams the First,” I smiled, trying to lighten the mood. “You can't solve all the universe's problems right away.”

“No, but I should at least do what I can to make sure there's still a Remnant next week,” he replied gruffly. His tone exactly matched that from before, meaning I'd broken another unpleasant chain of thought. Probably to do with the questionable loyalty of the Army proper and the Army-controlled Stormtrooper Corps. The Corps was split into two technically-equal sections: legions and divisions. Each was the same size, and they followed the same numbering system. But the legions were elite units, and as a point of pride and tradition, only commanded by Stormtrooper mustangs. Divisions had a mix of Army officers who'd been transferred in and mustanged blackshirts, the exact proportions varying from division to division. And the Army was always a more contentious branch than the Navy. The fact that the new Emperor was both a spook and spacer probably did very little damage, but it also did very little to engender loyalty.

Then again, his Navy background certainly hadn't prevented rumblings among the fleet, either. The problem was Daara Zend had accomplished many things before her mutiny. She was a tactical genius and strategic savant who probably would've earned her assumed rank if not for the Empire's prejudice against women. Of course, she was given the rank by Palpatine's clone, with quite a few rumors that it was more for her acumen in his bed chamber than her battlefield skill. Sleeping with Palpatine might have been what got her the grade, but only the most idiotic partisan or misogynist would think she didn't at least deserve a high flag rank. And because she may or may not have done something else to get the rank instead of being recognized on the grounds of merit didn't mean a damned thing when she was smashing the Rebels around in space. And quite a few people remembered that just as clearly as they remembered her sudden departure and theft of over half of the Imperial military's numbers and a much greater proportion of sheer tonnage. And, in the intervening years, some people had forgotten how bad the war had been going, even with Zend in charge. The ones that didn't leave right away had forgotten the shortages of equipment, men... some months, there weren't enough power packs for blasters or fuel for fighters. They only remembered her defense of Bastion, and her conquest of much of the Galaxy that led to those same problems as we overextended ourselves and fought a stalemate for seven years.

And that was the damned problem. The nostalgic blinders made war-weary men and women of twenty years ago now long for the days of conquest and saber-rattling. Ams, however, had been a firm supporter of Pellaeon's “Victory Without War” initiative. He was no pacifist, but he didn't see a need to go to war with the New Republic, then or now. But some, despite Muunilinst falling to Zend, saw her conquest of Bilbringi as an opening to hit the Republic; never the massive fleet massing two hyperjumps from Bastion, let's open up a second front against a numerically and possibly technologically superior military force. Then again, most of them had never seen a turbolaser bolt fired in person.

I had. I had the combat wings, and the little “I was there” ribbons which meant about as much to me as a thimble of spit in a blast furnace. I'd seen a proton torpedo salvo rip the bridge of a Mon Cal cruiser—a big one—wide open, and flew past the still-writhing forms being blown into the vacuum. I'd shot a flight's worth of fighters out of the stars, myself, plus a few assisted kills. And I saw a TIE Interceptor recovered after a victory, with just a hit on its viewport... and watched as what was left of my bunkmate was hosed out of the cockpit before the wreck was sent to the machine shops to be fixed up and sent back on the line. And I knew I saw the sanitized version of the war from my cockpit. The Navy—even us fighter jocks in our high-speed tin cans—had it a hell of a lot neater than the ground-pounders.

War wasn't glorious, it wasn't the ultimate crucible of manhood or womanhood. It might be necessary at times, but it wasn't to be undertaken lightly. Which was exactly what the more troublesome elements of the Moff Council and the younger generals and commodores didn't understand. And they were going to kill us all if they had their way. Which made Ams' angst very understandable... and sharable.

“You'll—we'll get through this,” I said. I had no idea how. I could tell he didn't either. But the Galaxy had shown a tendency to err on the side of right and good—with the notable exception of the conflict with the Rebellion, but the Empire was hardly good then, either—and if history was any guide, we'd beat Zend eventually.

Ams grunted when I told him of my train of thought. “Did you notice how there tends to be one hell of a bodycount, first? The chaos and suffering before the heroes plant the flag on the fallen villain?”

“I didn't say it'd be easy,” I replied softly, not taking umbrage at his grousing. He turned toward me, doubt clouding the blue eyes that seemed to bore into me. “But we'll get that miserable cu—”

“—Your Highnesses?”

Ams' face, starting to creep toward malicious amusement at the cut-off curse, quickly became a mask of neutrality. “Niles?”

Yes, sir. Might I come in or do you require a mome--

“Come, come,” Ams said hastily, not wanting to have our new majordomo conjecturing about bedroom antics in front of the whole damn palace staff. The slightly-portly man entered, sporting a grin so wide that it seemed on the verge of explosively tearing the flesh from his round face.

“Am I interrupting?” he asked cheerfully.

I shook my head. “No, just taking in the new surroundings.”

“Magnificent, isn't it?”

“You seem to be enjoying yourself,” Ams observed.

Niles rubbed his hands together vigorously. He seemed like a kid in a candy store, and I couldn't help a little giggle at his boyish delight. He finally said, “Immensely, sir.”

“Did you want to see us about something?” my husband asked.

“Oh, yes,” Niles nodded. “I understand we're having guests for dinner this evening. I've been asked by,” the majordomo paused a moment, hostility creeping into his voice and his grin fading. It was forcibly repressed when he began speaking again. “By Mister Browne, to find out what an appropriate menu would be.”

“Trouble in paradise, Niles?” I probed.

The faded grin turned into an outright frown of practiced Coruscanti disdain. “I am not certain he is suitable for your needs, Ma'am.”

“Oh?” It was Ams' turn to question. “What makes you say that?”

Niles shook his head. “The man is simply not right in the head. He demanded that half of the equipment in the kitchen be removed for more pedestrian things, simply because they might be able to do multiple jobs. Does he not realize that certain dishes require dedicated cookware?”

Another chuckle escaped me at his blustering. “Do you disagree, Ma'am?”

“I think you might be overreacting. A little,” I smiled. “Besides, I've talked to him before. He seems all right.”

“Harrumph!” To my shock, Niles actually said the word. “'All right' is not good enough. You've been under my care for almost two decades, and I'll not have that man providing the Emperor and Empress with substandard service! Besides,” his tone became a bit more apologetic, “It would reflect poorly on me. And do you know embarrassing it is to have to put on a résumé that I was fired by the first Emperor in thirty years?”

Ams laughed, his eyes twinkling with humor. For a brief moment, he could forget the dire straits he found himself in. “Now, now. I won't hold you responsible for any of Browne's mistakes. Perhaps you can start looking for a successor—”

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “Shouldn't we, I dunno, try something he made before we fire him?”

Niles sniffed. “The Empress does have a point, Your Majesty.”

“Traitor. See if I stick my neck out for you again,” Ams grumbled humorously. “And please, Niles, pick a style of address. I really don't want to get bombarded fifty different variations on a theme of My Something Or Other.”

“How about we just stick with names?” I suggested.

The majordomo frowned again. “Ma'am, as I've said many times before, it would just be so... improper to address you by given name. And, of course, now that you're galactic sovereigns, Mister and Missus also lack a certain amount of gravitas. Besides, what sort of example would I set for the help?”

“He's never going to give it up, Shy,” Ams smiled, playfully squeezing my hand. “Those of us from the Galactic capital just have too much good breeding to countenance such a breach of protocol and manners.”

I rolled my eyes and rose to my feet. “Can you work with Browne, Niles? I met him back at headquarters, and he seemed like a good man. I'm sure you can even out any rough edges.”

“Well,” the portly man said thoughtfully. “For you, Ma'am, I suppose I can give him a proper chance.”

“I guess you do have some humanity underneath all of that etiquette and protocol,” I grinned.

“When did you meet with our chef?”

I turned around to see Ams looking up at me. “The first night of Muunilinst. Ran into him in the Pellaeon Gardens when his dog slipped its leash.”

“Dog?” Both men asked.

“It helped him find truffles,” I said simply, quietly enjoying the bemusement that caused.

“Right, then,” came the puzzled baritone from the bed. “So, a menu? Do you need it now?”

Niles shrugged. “The sooner, the better. Sir.”

“Do you have a complete list of who will be coming?” Ams asked.

“Of course,” the other man said with just a tinge of affront. “As well as any special requirements they may have.”

“Any suggestions?”

“Quite a few, but Mister Browne believes he knows your wishes better,” the majordomo murmured.

“I could take it up with him,” I offered. “We seem to speak the same language and don't have to get hung up on all of your high-class silliness.”

“Well, I never,” gasped Niles, clutching his heart.

Ams clucked his tongue with mock disapproval as I walked around the bed. “Typical Corellian boorishness. Fine, then! Go lay waste to our first formal dinner with your ale and pretzels.”

“I will!” I shot back, the muscles around my mouth fighting to keep a humored grin at bay. “You'll all rue the day you crossed us.”

“Uh-oh. Maybe I'd better go with you, then,” Ams replied, his control finally breaking and a small smile spread across his face. If it keeps his mind off the hell we're in for, so much the better. And maybe it'll help him think clearer. “In all seriousness, I probably should try to meet some of the staff today.”

“So, you will be dealing with Mister Browne?” Niles queried, his voice tentatively hopeful.

“Yes. We'll deal with the big, bad chef,” I assured him, coming back around the bed. “Go back to doing whatever it was that made you so happy.”

“Now how can I argue with that?” the former butler complained. “But please, don't hesitate to call on me if needed.”

Ams nodded his agreement, then pushed himself off the bed after Niles left. “Now, let's go see our new cook.”

“Chef,” I corrected.

“I'll be the judge of that,” he sniffed aristocratically.

Imperatoris Novus Domus First Previous Next Latest

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Empress Shayera Jendob



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Last edited by Shayera Jendob on Mon, July 11th 2011 09:56pm; edited 3 times in total
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Ams Jendob
Moff


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Location: The Gala

 Post Posted: Wed, August 03rd 2011 11:59pm    Post subject:
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The main kitchen for the Palace was abuzz with activity. Boiling pots, sizzling pans, and enough flashing knives to make our new security escort huddle in close and twitch his eyes back and forth from one display of cutlery skills to the next made it almost impossible to find our head chef.

Almost.

Shy spotted him first. Her pilot's eye had always been good with picking something out of a crowd in a hurry. But, sometimes it could miss more subtle variations, or patterns in the overall scheme. That was more my field of expertise. It could make for a useful combination. “Mister Browne?”

The man she was addressing wore a white smock, with some kind of dull taupe shirt showing around it. His thinning, sandy brown hair was uncovered by a traditional hat... likely a good thing given the decidedly ridiculous mental image formed in my mind by combining the man with one of the peculiar accessories. But it did raise some questions about overall hygiene.

But when he looked up at us, what struck me more was the man actually wore spectacles. When he was hunched over his workstation, I assumed they were some kind of work-related goggles. In the decades of peace, consumer markets found a civilian market hungry for this gadget and that novelty. There were some pieces of eyewear, ostensibly for kitchen safety. Besides protecting against splashes, splatters, and squirting acidic juices, the might feature magnification (allegedly to assist with fine cutting), thermal readouts, and the obligatory clocks, timers, music players, book readers, and every other damned silly thing to throw in front of a consumer. However, Browne's eyewear clearly featured no such augmentation. Corrective procedures were, anymore, even faster and more accurate than the time-honored procedures for determining a lens prescription. I'd even had one done myself a few years prior, when the datascreens at Intel started to get a bit blurry to my eyes.

“Ah, your Highness—your Highnesses,” he corrected, and give a quick bow at the neck. “I, um, wasn't expecting you. What brings you to my humble kitchen?” he asked, putting on a slightly theatric air.

From his accent, he was clearly Corellian. Not, I mused, glancing briefly at Shayera, that there's anything inherently wrong with that. Nonetheless, there were certain reputations that the various human cultures picked up. And Corellia might be known for liquor, smuggling, and a certain brashness, but when one considered fine dining, neither Corellia nor any of the remaining four “brothers” instantly came to mind. Now stop it, I thought as Shy replied to the chef. Just because Niles has some problems with him doesn't make him incompetent.

Then again, Niles had served Shayera and I for almost two decades. He'd become part of the family and, critically, he knew what we had for standards. Of course, those standards—regardless of what my wife or I wanted—were about to be raised again, and despite the gentle teasing about planets of origin before, he wasn't likely to disapprove of Browne only on the basis of homeworld.

“Ah, yes, the state dinner tonight. I was hoping you might have some suggestions—or even better, a wishlist—for me,” the man was saying as I focused back on the present.

Shayera looked up at me. “Any ideas yet?”

I scowled inwardly. I hadn't expected her to put me on the spot like that. A quick stall for time would buy some needed breathing room. I gestured around to the bustling activity, trying to be careful not to get in anyone's way. “Things look rather busy as it is. I'm sure we can work in what's already being prepared.”

“Well, uh,” Browne started haltingly. “Your Highness, this is mostly for the mess halls. It is lunchtime right now.”

“Are we in the way?” Shayera asked suddenly.

The shorter man blushed deeply, his jaw working. “I, uh... well, I wouldn't say 'in the way' so much as...”

“If you have an office or just a quiet room where we can discuss it,” I offered, trailing off.

The cook nodded quickly. “Yes, yes. That'd be best—hey!” He snapped to one of the assistants off to the side, currently mixing some kind of dough. “I said just bring it together and then walk away, not beat it to death! Now when you bake that dough, it could be used for armor plate!”

I shot a worried glance at Shayera as Browne continued his tirade, ranting about starches and “gluten” and whatnot. Finally, he let out an exasperated sigh, and then beckoned us into a small room off to the side of the main kitchen. The escort took up a guard position just outside the doorway. It was dominated by a large duraplast table that was covered in white powder. I idly traced a finger through the stuff, quickly identifying it as plain, ordinary flour. “I'm sorry about all of that,” the chef apologized as he shut the old-fashioned hinged door. “But I was very, very clear about what happens when batter is over-mixed and—” He stopped mid sentence, and I realized I was giving him a rather impassive stare. “Uh, anyway, yes. Yes. Tonight's menu.”

He spread his hand wide on the table, leaning on them. Then his face brightened. “Oh... oh bother. Where are my manners?” He extended a now flour-covered hand toward me. “Your Highness, I don't believe we've met.”

I grasped his hand firmly but with studied neutrality. He continued. “Alton Browne, Your Highness. I used to work at Headquarters, but I don't think we ever crossed paths before. And, Empress, it's good to see you again.”

Shayera had explained the rather odd circumstances of their first meeting, but, despite the man's peculiarities, she'd certainly been impressed by his culinary acumen. “And good to meet you, Mister Browne,” I replied. “But you're a busy man, so I'll get to the point. Are you aware what tonight's occasion is?”

“Yes, your Highness,” he answered solemnly. “A state dinner with Moff Sarreti, the chiefs of staff, and several Council committee heads and a couple other dignitaries. I've been through the medical files for everyone on the list, so I can avoid any allergens. I know Moff Winton has a frightful allergy to most shellfish, so we're cutting any seafood out of her side and...”

Well, he's done his homework. Browne continued to cycle through some dietary needs of our guests, such as Sarreti's high-protein needs due to his recent release from the bacta tank. Somehow, they'd saved his leg, but it had been a near thing and he'd lost a fair bit of natural muscle. Nothing permanent, however, but to heal properly and quickly, he'd need to give his body all of the fuel needed to patch the holes left both by the bomb and the surgeons. “—and at any rate, that doesn't tell me what the both of you would like to eat.”

“Well, what are the options?” I asked.

A smile tugged at the chef's lips. “Anything Your Highness desires.”

Shayera chuckled. “Okay, political correctness aside... what's the menu look like?”

The smile became a frown. “Ma'am,” he began, and a flash of anger at the familiarity went up my spine. But Shayera seemed completely unaffected. “I'm not trying to be politically correct. Our pantries are stocked with items I've never seen before; if you can think of it, I will almost guarantee you we can make it for tonight.”

I turned to her. “Any cravings lately?”

She rubbed the side of her jaw. “Well, if there's problem starting with dessert...”

Browne grinned. “Oh, no problem at all.”

Well, he's certainly friendly. Not exactly prim and proper... which is probably why Niles has his issues. “In that case, do you have any chocolate?” Shy asked, hope gently tingeing her words.

“A quarter ton, fresh from Trammis III.”

Shayera's eyes suddenly became the size of saucers. “You're... you wouldn't...” She paused, shook her head, and tried again. Still, her voice was laced with epicurean excitement. “Well, I guess that solves dessert...”

Browne's grin seemed to double in size. “Well, since we took care of the important part,” his tone held no sarcasm whatsoever. “Now we'll have to come up with some entrees to match...”



“There, that wasn't so bad,” Shy smirked as we stepped back into the lift. She added wryly, punching the button for the desired level,“Even for a Corellian.”

I was forced to agree. “I think we can manage to keep him around.”

“The man has two-hundred fifty kilos of chocolate. You're damned right we're keeping him,” she laughed. “Still, this is gonna take some getting used to.”

“All of it is,” I pointed out. Granted, with Niles, we'd put together a weekly menu, and, over time, let him dabble in his own creativity, with mostly good results. Eventually, he'd been given almost complete control over the menu. Of course, he'd also only had to worry about a small group of people most of the time, and that dropped by half when Kendra enlisted and Kris enrolled at the Academy. “I just hope we don't have to hold your friend's hand for too long.”

“It'd be fitting payback for how long I had to hold Niles' hand,” Shayera retorted. “Actually, sometimes I wonder if I still am.”

The doors to the lift opened and we exited on our bedroom's floor. While conversing with Browne, Shayera and I had both picked up a noticeable dusting of flour. It simply wouldn't do to run around with the two of us streaked with white dust. So, we'd decided to get cleaned up and, to kill some time before dinner, perhaps tour some more of the Palace. Besides, we still had some unpacking to do in our room, despite the best efforts of Niles and his staff.

The walk to the bedroom was brief, though not brief enough to avoid passing some of our new household employees. The prompt and respectful greetings—if rather different from a tradition military salutation—weren't outwardly tempered by the unkempt appearance of their new monarchs. But there was a twinkle in the eyes of those who didn't engage in exaggerated neck-bows or averting their gaze. Fortunately, it was only a small handful, though if the Palace staff had a grapevine half as fast a typical warship, there might be some snickering behind many closed doors. If it doesn't cause problems, maybe a little amusement at your expense might not be so bad, I thought as we reached the door.

It'd scarcely shut behind us when Shy pulled her belt off and peeled off her jacket. “Damn, I really got—oh hell. The back is completely... dammit...”

I looked up at her from the chair near the bed that I'd occupied, and laughed out loud as she examined the uniform tunic. If the few streaks and spots on the front and sleeves were unsightly, the back was an utter disaster. “You must've leaned up against something.”

“Oh, laugh it up. You're no better,” she glowered, tossing the soiled garment into a basket. She made her way over to the closet, where some of our normal clothes, as well as a large number of as-yet unpacked boxes, were stored. The rest of our clothing was probably in a few of the boxes.

I removed my own jacket as Shy seemed to vacillate between changing and just digging into the packing crates. To my dismay, there was considerably more flour stuck to the black material than I'd believed. However, it wasn't quite as bad as I'd been led to believe. Now, that's not very nice, Shy.

She came back with a small box in her hand, and my curiosity stilled the barbed comment on my tongue. “What's that?”

“No idea. They're all barcodes,” she replied in a matter-of-fact tone that quickly turned acid as she worked at opening the box. “Everything those movers packed, even the ones we labeled, just has a barcode now.”

The irritation in her voice vanished once the contents were laid bare. “Oh my gods...”

I peered around her hands to see some sheets of paper—actual processed wood pulp sheets—and immediately recognized them. She reached in, carefully, and extracted one of the faintly-yellowed pages. “'You've got a way with me/Somehow you got me to believe/In everything that I could be/I've got to say, you've really got a way...'”

She clutched the paper to her for a moment, a wistful smile on her lips. “I've been looking for these things for years.”

“Can I?” I asked quietly, reaching out. She handed the paper over, and I read through the poem. Or was it a song? I couldn't remember exactly. I did, however, recognize my wife's handwriting. The words were in ink, and the careful calligraphy—a lost art in the age of datapads and auto-transcribers—was unmistakable to my eyes. “I remember the day you gave this to me.”

It had been a couple weeks before we were engaged. Shayera and I had been involved for several months, and there was definitely something there beyond any previous relationship I'd had. For her, writing these letters—originally intended for her eyes alone—and presenting them to me was an indicator of a deeper level of commitment than she was used to, as well.

“That was, what, almost thirty years ago?” she asked.

“Well, our twenty-eighth anniversary is next week—”

“Wait, what?”

I looked over at her. “Holy crap, you're right,” she gasped. “With everything going on...”

“I promise not to hold it against you,” I teased. “And we were engaged for a few months, and this wasn't long before that.”

She'd quickly recovered her from shock. “Yeah, that sounds like 'almost thirty years' to me.”

“Almost twenty-eight and a half would be better,” I smirked at her wry tone. “I thought pilots were big on having accurate numbers.”

She grunted. “I'm not a pilot anymore. I'm an empress. So, if I want to round up, I damned well can,” she grumbled, hitting my arm with a small pillow.

Shy looked back at the box. “I just... I can't believe I finally found them.” She pulled the entire sheaf of papers out, maybe twenty or twenty-five thick, and spread them across the bed. Her eyes scanned across them, then widened. She grabbed one of the frail pages, eyes panning back and forth as she went through it, line by line. Her complexion started to redden.

“Something wrong?”

“Uh, no. Not now. Maybe when I thought it was a good idea to give you this one, but not now,” she joked sheepishly. She reluctantly showed me the paper, and I felt an expression of shock at the words register.

“Well...” The contents were graphically erotic, but woven into the steamy poem were verses that conveyed love and intimacy beyond the physical. Of course, it conveyed another, more obvious message as well. “Hmph. Were we ever that flexible?”

“Oh, stop it!” Shy laughed. “You're cruel. Besides,” her soprano tones husked down into the alto range. “I've learned a few things since then that make up for it.”

I reached over and squeezed her shoulder. “Yes, you have,” I grinned conspiratorially. “Still, maybe you should hide that. We wouldn't want to give Niles or Nkara a heart attack.”

“Worse, if one of the twins find it,” Shayera's smile had taken a mildly sadistic edge.

I shook my head. “Oh, that'd be wonderful. I'm fairly certain Kris is already certain I've ruined his life and that I engineered this whole princely arrangement for him to further grind him into the dust. I'm sure he'd love to add extra psychological scarring to that mix.”

“Eh, I dunno. I think him and Kendra walked in on us enough times that be desensitized to it.”

“It wasn't that many,” I noted sourly.

She grinned wickedly. “You might have been distracted at the time.”

“That's not funny,” I groused. “Still... what was it? Three, maybe four?”

“Each.”

“No!” I recoiled in half-mock horror.

“Well, they were together a couple of times. At least enough that Kendra thought... after the bombing, remember?”

Mixed emotions about that day—and especially that evening—rose within me. “Honestly, I try not to remember much from that day.”

Her playful tone vanished. Indeed, it was because of what happened that day, that her and I were now sitting in the master bedroom of a palace, scouring over old love songs and complaining about getting covered in flour. Because Daara Zend murdered an intelligent and noble man in a most ignoble and brutal fashion. The feeling of being an intruder, a usurper, began to creep into my mind. This home was to have gone to Jagged Fel and his wife, as well as his parents who had held out in a small pocket Empire set up by Grand Admiral Thrawn. Rumor had it he also offered to bring Jaina Solo-Fel's parents over, but the idea was quickly quashed.

All of the levity, all of the teasing comments and jokes turned to ash, quickly scattered by the storms brewing in the Galaxy. “Frak,” Shy cursed softly. “I...”

“Please,” I started with a bit more steel than I'd wanted. “Please, don't apologize. We can't go back in time and change what happened.”

If we could, I don't think Jag Fel would be the first place I'd stop, I thought darkly, recalling the holos of a wrecked scout-ship on the deck of a Star Destroyer. But I didn't say it; the scar tissue over that wound was still very thin despite almost two decades passing since a freak thruster malfunction sent the ship out of control. She could have ejected safely... and doing so would've sent the small craft smashing into the hangar decks. The impact alone would've likely killed several hundred; the projected casualties from the secondary explosions of fuel and ordnance were around twenty thousand. She might not have known the hard numbers, as when she fought against the laws of physics to keep the craft steady. But she'd had to know that by staying with it and attempting to control and ablate the crash, her odds of survival were almost nonexistent.

That my wife was kneeling on the bed, in arms' reach, was a miracle. Some in the Republic liked to call such events “the will of the Force.” But the Force had never seemed to care particularly much about us Imperials, so it was a miracle. But there'd been a cost, a cost that any parent would seriously wonder about being too high. Our third child, conceived only a few months earlier (Shayera had been into the middle third of her pregnancy) did not survive, nor did the womb that housed the tiny little life that never had a chance to experience the outside world. Shayera's injuries beyond that were life-threatening, as well, and for a time I seriously feared losing my one true love. She recovered, physically, in time and a lot of bacta. But it was a cold comfort that we only had to bury a child, instead of a child and its mother. She could never again have a child, and that made our surviving children somehow even more irreplaceably precious to us. Indeed, when Kris and Kendra joined the service, we were proud—Well, we were very proud of Kris and... grudgingly so with Kendra—but also terrified. Eventually, we'd resigned ourselves to a certain background level of fear and worry... but Daara Zend's return had certain pumped more hydrogen into that fire.

“You're brooding again,” Shy said softly.

“Yes. Yes, I am,” I admitted. “About too many things. Come on, we've got a few hours before dinner. Let's get cleaned up and ready.”

“Is it going to take that long?” she asked, her voice soft to avoid the question being misinterpreted as a challenge.

I took a deep breath, a small amount of ire being sparked anyway. I quickly quenched the unreasonable annoyance, and answered her. “Well, it's going to be something of a working dinner, so I'd like to get together a list of everything I need to go over with our guests... in addition to whatever they'll be bringing to the table. Literally.”

“All right,” she nodded. “Anything I can help with?”

A small smile flickered across my lips, despite the soul-crushingly depressing locales my mind had been wandering through in the last minute and a half since she mentioned Kendra believing she'd caught us in flagrante delicto. “Probably. One thing... I don't want you to think, even for a moment, that your opinion and input aren't valid.”

“When do I ever think that?” she snorted.

“You don't, with me,” I noted. “But some people might think those little pins on your epaulets are just decorative. Like you said, you're the Empress. I intend to make that point very clear to the Moff Council when I meet with them next.” I paused, offering her a wintry smile. “I might even let you chair a session or two.”

“If by 'chair,' you're referring to the use of it as a blunt instrument...”

“Seriously. I have never treated you as subservient or inferior in standing at home. We may have carried different pay grades in the office, but we've always been equals. Partners. And intend to continue that... especially since we are the same paygrade.”

“Do I have a choice?” she asked in an almost put-upon tone.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean... what if I don't really want to be the throne's other face? I don't plan on taking any crap, whether it's a green recruit or a grand moff, but by the same token... I'm a pilot, Ams. I'm not an economist, I'm not an admiral, I'm not a general. I appreciate what you're saying, but by the same token, you're used to the politics and strategic thinking. My job was to get my guns on another starfighter and pull the trigger until one of us blew up.”

I reached out and gently touched her cheek. “If something should happen to me—”

“Don't talk like that.”

“If it does,” I continued, meeting those glittering green gems levelly. “You will be the sole ruler of the Remnant. Not Siralt. Not Grand Admiral Spradley. Not even Kris or Kendra. You. You need to be in the mix, Shy. On the one hand, I know exactly what you mean and I wish I didn't have to put you in that position. Hell, I wish I wasn't in it most of the time. But here we are. And on the other hand, I trust you and value your advice and outlook. And more importantly, you know your limitations, but you might see something the 'experts' might miss.”

“I can't say I'm entirely happy with it,” she sighed after minute of thinking. “But... all right. And not just because you buttered me up with the stuff about trusting me and valuing my perspective,” she allowed a small, but genuine, smile to cross her expression.

“It's only buttering up if it's not true,” I smiled back.

“No, that's flattery,” she corrected. “Buttering up can be true. Or literal, going by that poem.”

“Oh for the love of...” I shook my head. “Go get in the shower.”

She laughed and stood up. “All right. Oh, wait... what should I put on?”

I kicked myself for not mentioning it earlier. “White-tie, Shayera.”

She groaned. “Great... dress uniforms again.”

“Oh, it's not so bad,” I said soothingly. “If you get flour all over you this time, no one will notice.”

Shy had already removed her trousers and was in the process of nonchalantly tossing them into the basket with her floured tunic. “Bite me.”

With seeming idleness, I picked up the one poem that had sparked such intense discussion. “Ah, there it is.”

“There what is?” Her back had been to me as she removed her undershirt. I cleared my throat to get her attention, then read the relevant stanza. Her face reddened again. “You're awful.”

I grinned, enjoying the re-leavened mood. “All right, I'll play nice. Go on.”

“You better,” she shot back, then disappeared behind the refresher door. I took a moment to collect all of the papers, carefully tap them into a neat pile, and then laid them on the nightstand. We could look through them later. Then I made my way over to the small terminal. It was tied to the palace mainframe, and I quickly pulled up the itinerary for tonight.

Moff Winton was the new head of the economic committee, and one of the very few female moffs, even in our “enlightened” Empire. With Muunilinst's fall, I'd obviously need to have some very serious discussions with her. Sarreti, of course, was Moff of the Braxtant Sector. Besides, his clumsiness—even if it had been intentional—literally saved my life; inviting him to our first state dinner was the least we could do. Grand Admiral Arden Spradley was new Chief of Naval Operations, and his Army counterpart Grand General Myto Reese would join the newly-minted Director of the Imperial Security Bureau (oh, how that had raised some havoc when it was reinstated five years ago. Fortunately, this time, we left off the COMPNOR trappings) Moff Ravik Niwt would be there to talk shop as well on our military and domestic situations. I wrote down some notes on where I wanted the discussion steered tonight. In addition, the Galactic Union consul had been invited, as was the New Republic ambassador. The Republic's diplomat had declined, citing the current crises in both of our governments precluded her attendance for the moment. The Galactic Union representative was a firm “maybe.” So, I kept in mind a few questions to ask him, as well. Namely, what the hell was Corulag going to do about Daara Zend.

The shower stopped running in the refresher. I went over and knocked. “I'm good if you want to get in,” Shy called, answering the unvoiced question.

I picked my bathrobe out of the closet and donned it after discarding the remainder of my uniform. Shayera was wearing her own robe and brushing her hair as I walked in. “It's really nice in there,” she remarked. “But it's missing... something from our shower at home—our old house.”

“Thanks for the warning,” I chuckled, slipping out of the robe and into the shower. My eyes immediately fell upon the gaudy golden faucet and knobs that jutted from the jade-green polished synthstone walls. That's definitely going to go. The shelves and retractable trays were already full of all of Shy's various toiletries. Now, really, how many bottles of shampoo does a woman need?

I turned on the water, and was greeted with the traditional overhead stream as well some some side-mounted sprayers. Shy had been right; it wasn't the same as the one in our old home. Then again, we'd had that specially modified for our needs. And no sooner do we get it set up as a wonderful excuse for us to shower together that the appeal of having an intimate encounter in the shower faded away, I mused. In hindsight, I really couldn't understand why—all right, why was obvious enough, especially being married to a woman who looked like Shayera—but rather how we determined that the excuse of being nude and sprayed with hot water made up for all of the disadvantages of lovemaking in the shower. Of course, there had been the occasional lapse in judgment and forgetting of our disinterest in using the shower for such activities since our officially-declared concessions to common sense. But more often than not, they just served as reminders. Oh well. Live and learn.

I washed up quickly, and exited. I was struck by the lack of humidity in the room, apparently courtesy of the Palace's ventilation systems, and by a sweet, fragrant smell with decidedly fruit-like overtones. “What is that?”

Shy held up a bottle under my nose, while I pulled my robe back on. “This?”

One small sniff confirmed the match. “That's it.”

“New body wash I tried out in the shower. Smells nice.”

I nodded. “It certainly does,” I commented, stepping closer. “Especially on you.”

She smiled warmly, then gasped as I kissed her on the neck. “Delicious.”

“Hey, hey, none of that,” she exclaimed. “Can't be that good!”

I grinned. “Are you sure?”

The scent was not overpowering, but definitely pleasant. Sweet without being cloying, and it was literally making me salivate. Or maybe that's just Shy in her robe... no, probably the fruit extracts and the like. If it were Shy, there'd be other reactions.

“Are you sure?” she countered with the age-old tactic of repeating a question with emphasis on the subject.

“Absolutely. You smell like I could just eat you up,” I laughed, swallowing back some of the saliva that had been building up.

“Really,” she said with a sudden frostiness. “I don't believe you.” She sat on the bathroom counter, with was a couple meters wide and dominated by a sink with fixtures just as gaudy as those in the shower.

“Prove it,” Shy said after a moment. Her robe pooled on the floor under her feet. I stopped worrying about how tacky the fixtures were.

I looked her in the eye, defying both her blatant exhibition of her firm and toned form, as well as every primal instinct in my brain. Still, on that note, both the instincts and Shy had already won the war... I just wanted to make it seem like the battle would be hard fought. “And how should I go about doing that?”

The right side of her mouth quirked upward. “Let me explain...”



“Ooh! Oh... mmm, yeah,” Shayera threw me a broad, if slightly weary and relieved smile over her shoulder. “Good boy.”

I leaned in and gently kissed her left shoulder blade. She swung her head around, her mane of red hair darkened again by moisture: sweat instead of just water. Her head turn let me nuzzle her neck and plant a couple kisses there while I drank in the sweet scent of her perfume. I couldn't help noticing the pillow she was resting her head on had several damp arcs of bite-marks.

“You know, when we came back up here to clean up,” she sighed, flattening out of the bed, “I definitely didn't have this in mind.”

“Neither did I, love,” I chuckled as she wriggled around to face me. My hands were now pressed in her to her back, making a little tricky to adjust my arms to make the embrace a little more comfortable for both of us. “And it's all your fault.”

My fault?” she protested indignantly.

“Of course. You had to find all of those old letters... then you had to smell so wonderful when I got out of the shower. And, of course, the way you fanned the flames of my admiration for your beauty in a cruel and calculated ploy to sate your own twisted desires...” I trailed off and kissed her firmly on the lips. “I don't think I'd rather it any other way.”

She grinned up me for a moment, then her expression became pensive. I lightly brushed a lock of hair from her eyes. “What is it?”

“Oh, just thinking... I'm letting you do this a lot, lately.”

I raised an eyebrow at her. “Make love to you?”

Her smile returned, with a devilish twinkle. She clarified. I nodded. “Ah.”

“Let's see... my birthday, New Year's Eve, the night we found out about this wonderful and stress-free new job,” she listed off. “At this rate, we won't have any kinks left for special occasions.”

I chuckled and kissed her again. “Oh, I'm sure we can come up with something new.”

She looked at me askance. “I don't trust that evil gleam in your eye. And I already told you, I don't swing that way.”

I shook my head in exasperation. “Always in the gutter, that's where your mind is. Always in—” On one shake, my eye caught sight of the chronometer. “Hell.”

“That's quite a leap...” Shy quipped.

“No, I mean we have one hour before the dinner starts. And we're not quite presentable at the moment.”

Her eyes widened and she bolted upright. I barely managed to clear her path. “Dammit!” She swung out of the bed and ran for the refresher. “Damn, damn, damn it! Now I need to get ready all over again.”

I followed her to the refresher. “We both do.”

She sighed. “We're too short on time to go separately. But we're too short on time for any messing around, too.”

I rolled my eyes. “I'll be good, love.”

Her expression broke for a moment to reveal a mischievous smile. “I'm not worried about your behavior.”

“Come on,” I said testily, half-dragging my naked wife into the shower. “You can make all of your terrible jokes later.”

“Hmph! The 'you're in charge thing' ended in bed, you know,” she complained as she dutifully crowded into the enclosure. “Now, where did the soap go...? Dammit, why do you always move everything from where I put it?”

Within a half hour, we strode purposefully out of master bedroom. Shayera was resplendent in her almost gleaming white dress uniform. Mine, unfortunately, was saddled with that tacky medallion of Siralt's from the coronation. At least there's no bloody cape to go with it.

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Emperor Ams Jendob, Ruler of the Imperial Remnant


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----"Moff", CMAC Dreamcrusher, Official Administrative Waldorf and Statler----


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Shayera Jendob
Moff


Joined: 14 Jun 2009
Posts: 513
Location: All along the Watchtower

 Post Posted: Fri, September 02nd 2011 11:38pm    Post subject:
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Bootheels clicked across the various floor surfaces of our journey to one of the countless formal dining halls in the massive Palace. An aide had met Ams and me at the lift, and was hurriedly briefing us on who was to be present, who had arrived, who was still going through security, and who we were waiting on, as well as various aspects of etiquette and protocol.

Don't they have droids for that? I mused as the aide, uniform decked out with the bullion aiguillette of a Royal Aide, breathlessly worked his way down the list on his clipboard-sized datapad. It also didn't escape my notice that his attention was mainly focused on Ams, and my occasional suggestion would register a quick flash of irritation on the much more junior man's face. Pretty damn risky for a naval commander...

My discussion with Ams started to circle around in my head again. He seemed convinced he could get the moffs—and by extension, the military and government at large—behind the idea of his current Empress Consort—Gods, that sounds like some damn escort service—becoming an Empress coregnant. Ever since Zend had returned, anti-female sentiment in the ranks had started to rear up again. Oh, it never went away, but since Daala, it had been forced underground and kept tightly controlled. But all too often, women had been the face of the enemy... whether it was Mon Mothma, Organa Solo, and now Daara Zend. I could just see how adding me to the mix would threaten the Boys' Club mentality even further... and might result in mutinies and even a few more defections.

Hmph. Maybe I'm not so politically inept as I told him... I just really, really frakking hate politics.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, a couple rogue brain cells decided to take note of the rather extreme drop in mood from when Ams and I had been enjoying each others' company in our bedroom to the current melancholy consideration of Imperial politics and a Galaxy that seemed to be circling the drain. It never rains, it pours.

“That should just about cover it, your Highness,” the aide said finally, pausing his gait to click to attention, and then wandered off down a perpendicular, high-vaulted corridor once Ams had waved him off.

“I don't much appreciate the commander's attitude,” he said quietly as a pair of 501st troopers snapped to attention just outside the dining hall doorway. The massive structure was made of carved wood, the bulk being purplish xellwood, with a decorative inlay of deep crimson greelwood. The troopers' white armor stood out starkly against the age-darkened—and quite expensive—wood.

“He seemed... proper enough,” I remarked.

Ams grunted. “Actually, he was rather improper... acting that way toward a superior officer.” He paused, a thin, angry smile touched on his lips. “You didn't think I missed those dirty looks he shot your way, did you?”

The Stormtroopers grabbed the archaic door handles, slowly opening the doors that would've handily admitted an AT-ST. Of course, behind the blackened, apparently wrought-iron hinges, I could see the gleaming alloy of assist motors and the glow of status indicators. So... tacky and fake. Yeah, that fits Disra pretty well.

Then again, it probably was a damn sight easier on the Stormtroopers at least. Even with frictionless bearings in the hinges, the sheer inertia of the massive doors would've made moving them a titanic effort that probably wouldn't do them any good over the long haul. Why didn't that just make the entire door automated... wire it to a button?

I shook myself mentally. “Now, Ams... no rampages against the staff to defend my honor.”

He laughed as we stepped across the threshold and into the dining hall. Given the scope of the rest of the Palace, I was actually a little underwhelmed. There was no massive wooden table the length of a Corellian corvette, lit by candelabrum and wall-mounted torches. Granted, the elegantly laid-out and dressed table wasn't exactly a park picnic table, either. A “scant” eight meters in length, there were fourteen chairs placed around the perimeter. A few personnel in mess dress were standing around room, usually in pairs or threes for conversation. The few I recognized were among our guests for the evening; I figured the ones I didn't recognize were just the guests I didn't know by face or reputation.

“The Emperor and Empress!”

I somehow managed to suppress a visible cringe as we were announced.

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Doctor Nosfer
Moff


Joined: 13 Jun 2011
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 Post Posted: Sun, September 04th 2011 10:09pm    Post subject:
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"The Emperor and Empress!"

Over two dozen eyes fell upon the court herald. An aged Gungan in formal civilian attire, surrounded by white-clad Imperial officers, doubted that was the official title, but one could call a tuskcat a blorpkark: it was still a tuskcat.

He noticed a stiffening of the postures of his newly-minted monarchs, which they covered with admirable alacrity. Almost as quickly, every man and woman in uniform faced the pair and snapped their heels together, their spines ramrod-straight, eyes fixed dead ahead. How the military loves their protocol.

An aide strode up, a woman in a naval officer's dress uniform. She had a datapad under one arm, and began escorting the Emperor and Empress to the various knots of personnel. The hand-shakes and respectful bows that followed each gesture the aide made indicated she was introducing the royal couple to each of the guests. Eventually, the aide came up to his own small group of three.

This time, the Emperor gripped the hand of Grand Admiral Spradley. “Jorj, good to see you again.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

The Empress reached out as well... and the Grand Admiral hesitated just a moment too long before accepting. The red-haired woman was smiling, but frost glittered in her green eyes. “I'm glad you could make it, Grand Admiral.”

She held his gaze, a classic human strategy of asserting dominance... and pointing out the mistakes of subordinates. To the Gungan's surprise, the Admiral gazed back, as if daring the Empress to make an issue of it. She released his hand, glowering at him just under the genial surface of her expression. Fascinating.

“Moff Winton, Economic and Growth Committee” the aide mentioned, gesturing to a dark-skinned woman.

“Your Majesty, it's an honor to be here,” she answered in a deep contralto with an aristocratic accent. Unlike the Grand Admiral, she didn't snub either monarch. Indeed, she was almost too eager to exchange pleasantries with them both.

“Doctor... um, Doctor Guo Nosfer...?”

“I am here,” the Gungan replied gruffly.

The aide's eyes widened in surprise. “You are Doctor Nosfer?”

The younger woman had failed to keep the incredulity entirely out of her tone. A spark of indignation rippled through the scientist. “Yes, yes I am. And your ears don't deceive you either; I am actually speaking Basic, too.”

The woman's eyes narrowed but Jendob—the female—put her hand up. “That's enough, Commander. You're dismissed.”

“As you wish, Your Majesty,” the aide replied sullenly.

Before she'd walked away, the male Jendob shook his head. “Doctor Nosfer, my sincerest apologies. I hope her...” The emperor trailed off, trying to find the proper word.

Nosfer had one to offer. “Bigotry?”

A wan smirk twitched at the corner of his mouth; the empress covered her expression under the guise of one of the numerous reasons humans had for touching their face. “I trust it won't spoil the evening,” he said at last.

“Your Majesty, with all due respect,” Nosfer paused as a look of alarm flashed across the Empress' face. “I'm used to it. I've been serving the Empire, off and on, for half of a century. Humans are humans: some can accept others, some can't.

“Nevertheless, I do appreciate your sentiments on the matter,” the engineer added, giving a respectful nod.

The empress nodded in agreement. “We have no intentions of tolerating any discrimination... on any grounds.”

How idealistic. Unfortunately, madam, you are hardly the first to make such a statement... and you likely won't be the last. But, what's that expression? 'It's the thought that counts?'

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 Post Posted: Tue, December 20th 2011 04:24pm    Post subject:
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The stewards were busily clearing away the dessert dishes and any straggling remains of the sumptuous meal that once covered the table. Any lingering doubts about Browne's abilities had been handily swept away; I just hoped Niles saw it that way too. It would avoid any unpleasant friction between the two.

“Well, now that everyone is well-fed and happy, I suppose we can get down to business,” I smiled. Some muted chuckles—more than a couple forced—came back from around the table. Levity might not have been the best way to broach the subject of impending doom. “To start, ladies and gentlemen, here's what we know and where we are: Daara Zend has conquered Muunilinst and Bilbringi. She is two systems and eight hyper jumps from where we sit. The ripples from Muunilinst's fall have just started, and I expect the waves to get much worse before they improve. The Fleet is demoralized from their defeat,” I paused to look at Grand Admiral Spradley as he began to object. He dutifully closed his mouth and let me continue. “The Army is also shocked from the battle. It seems Zend's research people gave her a few new toys in the last few years. Dissent and discontent is rife. And the Galactic Union,” I nodded to Ambassador Cross, “Is still trying to put together a response. Does that sound about right?”

Spradley and Reese glanced down at the table a moment. Niwt worked his jaw, Winton rubbed her chin. Cross apparently saw something utterly fascinating in his cuticles. And Nosfer looked back, calmly, as Saretti glanced up and down the table. A few tense moments passed, with no sign of anyone speaking. “I'll take that as a yes, then.

“The situation is grim, but not hopeless. It's our job to make sure the Remnant is still here to capitalize on that hope, and then turn it into a victory. You're in these positions because you're the experts. We need to get back on our feet and back into the fight. So, ideas?”

The table exploded into a cacophony of noise, and almost immediately, fell back into silence. A few murmurs of feigned generosity, offering the floor to the next person, followed by an oh-so-polite refusal. I cleared my throat at a level just above the muted conversation. “Jorj, what's the fleet situation, and how can we improve it?”

Grand General Reese's expression soured for a moment. He no doubt saw some nepotism in the former Navy commander asking for the Navy's situation first. Then again, one couldn't move the Army without the Navy. To use the obscenely flawed analogy of comparing space to an ocean, then the planets, asteroids, and moons the Army could land upon were little more than remote islands in the sea of stars that had to be crossed by ships. Well, islands that could be vertically stacked on top of each other, separated by years of communication lag using lightspeed systems—or days with subspace—and only navigable by very select sea routes, instead of approachable from virtually any angle. Hence why I found the bloody analogy so damned irritating in its wrongness. But it sufficed for the prole layperson... though it had seemed to percolate into all areas of life, from ship design to ordinary speech. Bearing in mind that those laypersons have had thirty thousand years to chant the mantra of “space is an ocean,” I suppose it's not entirely surprising... At any rate, the Army could not land until the Navy had secured the lanes and the systems. That was a very simple fact of warfare.

Grand Admiral Arden Jorj Spradley was thankfully unaware of my brief mental tangent. “We have an accounting of all of the forces Zend departed with, of course. What we cannot determine—at the moment, Your Majesty—is what she may have in terms of new construction in familiar classes, and more critically, new construction on new classes. One of the vessels observed at both Muunilinst and Bilbringi is a small, corvette-sized support vessel that appears to be designed around throwing out a screen of blaster fire with much more density and overall power than our Lancers can manage. Some of the data seems to suggest a projectile system of some sort, though the data isn't good enough to determine whether it's a return to a flak-based system as in the Clone Wars, or if they're missile-based.”

“How effective is it against our fighters?” Shayera asked from my right.

The grand admiral scowled. “Effective enough. A bomber flight would likely be unable to attack it directly. And it does carry light capital armament, unlike the Lancer, which means it can hold its own against our corvettes and light frigates.”

For Spradley's sake, most of his ire seemed to be directed at the devilishly cleverly-designed vessels than at being asked a question by the empress. That was just enough to stay my hand... for the moment. “So, they have a superior screening vessel... perhaps comparable to a light cruiser?”

“No, Your Majesty,” the other man said quickly. “Our Galleons could—and did—inflict serious damage on these vessels with ease. Indeed, it wouldn't likely be a match for a Vehement. But it's much cheaper and faster to build a forty-thousand tonne screening corvette than to construct a half-million tonne battle frigate. And we're not certain we can make it a favorable rate of exchange when factoring in the heavy fire from the very ships they escort.”

My mouth twitched into an instinctive frown at “favorable rate of exchange.” Another delightful euphemism used by the Empire to refer to throwing hundreds of thousands of men on hundreds of ships away, as long as the hulls and bodies can be replaced faster than the enemy could replace theirs. Killik rushing, essentially. “Doctor, is this something your department can handle?”

Nosfer's posture stiffed slightly, as if he'd been surprised by being called upon. “Yes, Your Majesty. If we can coordinate with the Design Bureau—”

“The Navy can handle the situation on its own,” Spradley interrupted contemptuously. My opinion of the man was starting to decline sharply. After a pregnant pause, he added a half-hearted, “Doctor.”

“Then you have a proposal?” I asked, leaning toward the grand admiral.

“Not... not yet, Your Majesty. But we should have one soon.”

“I'm sure you will, because you will coordinate with the Doctor and his engineers,” I noted casually. Spradley looked fit to burst, but I continued. “As will you, Reese. Zend has the advantage in firepower. That much, we can be sure of.”

“We still have three command ships to her one,” Spradley objected. “If we can pin her in a system, we can bring them all in and destroy her flagship. She may have the heavier Star Destroyers, but nothing can stand up to an Executor... let alone three of them.”

“Perhaps the New Republic could lend a few Viscount-class Star Defenders, should the occasion arise,” Cross noted cheerfully.

The grand admiral glowered at him. “We don't need their assistance to deal with Zend and her traitors. They would simply get in our way with their outdated little fighters buzzing around.”

“Now, Admiral,” Cross replied condescendingly, “Daara Zend is a problem for the entire Galaxy. And the Remnant certainly seems to have its troubles with dealing with her.”

Enough,” said flatly. “This bickering is pointless. And merely neutralizing a single super dreadnought does not solve the issue of her battlecruisers, battleships, and dreadnoughts. We've been trending toward light units due to their greater economy in construction and crew, speed, and maneuverability. But, the simple fact remains that Zend controls nearly a hundred heavy capital ships, and many more Imperial, Tector, and Victory-class Star Destroyers.”

“If we hadn't stopped building heavy warships, then we might be in a better strategic situation,” the surly grand admiral noted acidly. “We could approach her battles on equal terms, and drive her back. Instead, we have to play cat and mouse... and she's the bloody cat. Sir.”

I contemplated making something of the slip in protocol. He'd certainly earned it... but with loyalty issues being what they were... “How long would it take to get new construction going? If we used the older designs?”

“Five months, minimum, to get the yards retooled. Another five months to a year before the first wave is finished, at best.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose and rubbed idly at my eyes. “Improve it, Jorj. Whatever you have to do, we need those heavy units soon.”

“Again, surely the Republic or other Union members could loan some of their heavy assets instead of upsetting the current treaty limitations?” Cross interjected.

Surprisingly, Reese spoke up before Spradley could verbally assault the ambassador. “Those treaties became worthless the moment a bomb exploded at Headquarters. We need to rearm as quickly as possible, and if that upsets the third-rate nations, then so be it. They always have their hand out for assistance to deal with a pirate gang or marauders, but never offer anything in return.”

“Those treaties were signed in good faith, and if the Remnant cannot keep that—”

“The Empire signed those treaties in good faith, and yet the Rebellion quickly added in clauses that allowed their command ship quotas to expand,” Spradley hissed. “Effectively, they were voided then and there. We're merely exercising a legal right to walk away from a deal that has already been reneged upon. Unless the Empire also no longer has the right to defend itself, Mister Cross?”

“A large expansion of heavy warships would strain the economy, Your Majesty,” Winton interjected. “Perhaps—”

“Do you know what else would strain the economy, Moff Winton? A salvo of assault concussion missiles into each of our orbital yards, factories, mining operations... or perhaps just conquering Muunilinst,” Reese paused for dramatic effect. “Oh, of course. That happened. And it might have been prevented if we'd had the heavy ships to inflict serious damage on Zend's forces.”

My fist came down on the table. “Enough! There was no way to foresee Zend's return... unless someone has Palpatine in their pocket? No? Then stop pointing fingers at each other and lets get our ships and armies pointed at Zend. For now, her acquisitions are still tenuous. We have our defensive obligations that will sap our overall offensive strength, but she will never be weaker than she is now. Which assets can we free up for a quick strike? Or, would it be better to build up our forces—and allow Zend to do the same—and attempt to wage a more conventional war?”

“If the issue is heavy assets,” Nosfer husked. “What about Sovereign?”

“No! Absolutely not!” Cross exclaimed angrily. “That vessel is Galactic Union—”

Sovereign is an Imperial vessel, Ambassador, on loan to the Galactic Union,” Spradley shot back. “And given the Union's lack of response, I think we would be better off reclaiming her for our own uses.”

“Jendob, I must strenuously object to this! I attended this meeting expecting a rational conversation, not gutting the Union to appease Remnant warmongers!” Cross continued, his face deep red.

“The Union has done nothing but attempt to gut the Empire. Tell me, Moff Winton, what have we given to the Union in financial assistance versus our returns?” Grand Admiral Spradley hissed toward the Ambassador, though his tone with the moff was lacking malice... if not volume.

The woman shifted in her chair and tugged her collar. “The balance has primarily benefited the Union and smaller states.”

“The Union still has the support of the Empire,” I said sternly. “But my first and foremost concern is the Empire, Ambassador. Should those objectives oppose each other, I must do my duty first. If that is not acceptable to the Union, then please pass along my apologies for offending their sensibilities.”

Some of the redness left Cross' face, though a hint of fear replaced the outrage. “I understand, M... Your Majesty, but I do not believe for a moment that the Council will look kindly on commandeering the Sovereign. If a formal request were made...”

Spradley's mouth opened, outrage etched into his weathered face. I quickly held up a hand toward him... and to my shock, he finally came to heel. Cross continued, “I'm certain the matter would expedited in light of the situation. But simple landing soldiers might well be construed as an act of war.”

“What about her ground forces? And starfighters?” That came from Shayera. Disgruntled looks—though somewhat less angry than those the ambassador had been receiving—came her way.

Spradley folded his arms and made a point of looking to me alone. “Your Majesty, to answer the question, ONI indicates she mostly uses older twin ion engine craft, Interceptor and first-run Defender class. Her bombers seem to be Scimitars and Mark I Nova missile boats.”

Reese stayed silent. I gazed at him pointedly.“General? Do you have answer for the Empress' question?”

“My apologies, Emperor Jendob—”

“I didn't ask the question, nor was I the one being snubbed,” I scowled.

The general's expression became one of irritated disbelief, as if being held to an unsavory forfeit. “My apologies, Empress. I was merely recalling our reports.”

Of course you were, you bastard. “Good. Now answer our question.”

Reese glanced off to the side for a moment, in recall. “Zend makes heavy use of war droids. Obviously, her only source of recruitment during her exile would have been from the fleet population; she'd need to have a replaceable source of manpower to supplement organic recruits. Much like the naval reports, the data is rather fragmentary and questionable in places; information could only be smuggled out in small batches.

“She appears to make use of both droid infantry and armor. The infantry is quite formidable; certainly not as weak and pathetic as droids of the Clone Wars. But they're not quite Mohc's Dark Troopers, either. But they are tough; a civilian reports seeing a sniper fire on a unit covering a Stormtrooper squad. It took two solid strikes to the center of mass on an elevated power setting to destroy the unit.

“The walkers are extremely dangerous. They seem to employ a beam laser that feeds from a very high-capacity power cell. Estimates range from the several hundred kilotons minimum to several megatons. And this in a package roughly the size of an old spider droid.

“Beyond that, however, her forces are more conventional. All of the standard armor, from All Terrain Armored Transports to TX-130 repulsor tanks.”

“How would our Tuskens fare against those droids?” I asked.

“Honestly, I'd say about sixty/forty odds, mostly dependent on who saw whom first. The Tuskens have the firepower to drop the walkers, but the walkers have enough to drop the gunships, as well. There's also the matter of experience, Your Majesty. Daara Zend has been conquering her own domain for two decades; our men have been fighting pirates. Her soldiers' training and experience fits what they need much better than ours.”

Shayera paled noticeably at that. I couldn't help thinking of Kendra, either. Zend had a clear advantage on the ground and in space combat. Our sole advantage was our fighters and bombers, and against her larger vessels...

I turned to Winton. “How can we stabilize the economy enough to back a full wartime footing?”

If the female moff was caught off guard, she didn't show it but for a brief hesitation in voicing her answer. “It's no small task, Your Majesty. To begin...”



“And I must stress again that my figures were contingent on our industrial plant remaining mostly intact,” Winton added after Director Niwt finished his report on Security's efforts to root out defectors. He'd followed her report on the economy—grim news in and of itself—with worse news. But given the rants and raves that had sprung up just around the table tonight, it was hardly surprising that the Remnant was strained to the breaking point and there was a major risk of it coming apart. Fortunately, there'd been fewer outbursts since the near-meltdown with Cross, Spradley, and Reese.

“Well, I think that should just about conclude our business. I wish I could say I was pleased with the news... but we will pull through.”

There were some weak murmurs of affirmation. The outlook was bleak, but the Empire had survived the worst the Alliance and Republic could throw at it... at great cost. It survived Palpatine's insane depredations, Zend's defection... but at great cost. There was no argument that the cost here would be high, as well. The happy, storybook ending everyone had hoped had come with the end of the war and the later formation of the Union was unraveling. “Just one thing before we adjourn.”

I looked over at Shy. “Please stand.”

She looked at me askance, then slowly rose. “Gentlemen, this is the Empress. As I'm sure you're aware.”

The forced chuckles of earlier were gone now. Good. The chain of command is no joke. “And as the Empress, I want to make it clear that you will treat her with the respect and recognition you've all been too eager to dole out for me. She is just as much your superior, just as much your commanding officer. Your loyalty... is just as much to her.”

She shot me an alarmed looked. But I went on. “So, if I see the blatant disregard and disrespect toward that I've seen tonight, rest assured that you will be held personally culpable, just as surely as you would if mouthed off to by a cadet. And I was quite appalled by what Doctor Nosfer and Ambassador Cross had to endure this night, as well. This is the Empire, not a gang on the run. Is that clear? Good. Hopefully our next meeting can be more civil.

“Dismissed.”

The tension in the room was insufferable as the white-clad horde slowly filted out. “Ephin, a moment?”

Sarreti half-limped over. Even with the amount of bacta he'd been in for the last couple weeks, he was clearly in pain from his wounds. I looked to Shayera. “You can go ahead if you want... we're just going to talk a little shop.”

“After that speech?” she groused. “My shop too, remember?”

“Just as well. It simply wouldn't do to conduct business without a lovely woman on my arm,” I whispered.

A wan smile tugged her lips as Sarreti arrived. “Yes, your Majesty? Err, Majesties?”

“Never mind the formalities for the moment, Ephin. One of the things I wanted to discuss tonight, especially with you and Winton, were some domestic projects for Bastion. Unfortunately...”

“The larger situation took precedence,” the young moff noted. “Then again, I don't have to worry about the whole Galaxy. Just this planet. Sir.”

“Quite true. Let me handle the entire Galaxy,” I quipped. “But I was wondering if there's anything we can do about places like Prominence Square. Improve conditions, wages, something...”

“I've been looking at that area for a long time, sir. The credits just aren't there to do enough.”

“But if they were, do you think it might help solidarity in the area?”

“I should think so,” Sarreti nodded. “And expanding the manufacturing base should cut into unemployment.”

“Perhaps Moff Winton should join us for a conversation on the subject?”

Sarreti rubbed his chin. “I can be available at your leisure, of course.”

I sighed. I really wish people would stop acting like I'll electrocute them for the smallest lapse in protocol. After all, Cross is still alive...

“Very well. Coordinate with her,” I began before I felt a yawn rising in my jaw muscles. I clenched my teeth to stifle it, and uttered a small sigh. “The more people are convinced that the Empire is willing to assist them, the more loyal they'll stay. And the more intact our 'industrial base' so needed by Spradley and Reese can be. Yes?”

“Makes sense to me,” Shayera smirked. I briefly pondered what manner of apoplexy such a simple thing would've driven Rosset or the recently-mentioned chiefs of staff to... and found my mood lightened considerably.

Sarreti admirably suppressed a gape at her tone. “To me as well, sir.”



I grunted as Shayera's uniform jacket struck me squarely in the back of the head. “Sandbag me like that again and I'll show you what I think of protocol and proper address and whatever else you were jabbering about when you put me on display,” she grumbled, making her way to the bedroom closet for her nightclothes.

“I told you I wasn't going to put up with it,” I responded simply, sitting down on the bed next to the rumpled mass of the impromptu projectile. “You can take the romantic 'Nobody talks to my wife like that' or the chain of command approach, but you deserve better than what you've been getting all night.”

“And which one is it for you,” she asked warily.

I grunted. “About an even mixture of both. And Nosfer as well... that was just disgraceful.”

“I nearly slapped that stupid aide that introduced him,” she growled. “This just hasn't been a good night at all.”

“Nigh-apocalyptic invasions tend to ruffle feathers. Why did you ask which reason was mine?”

She shrugged, pulling on her shirt. “I just don't want you alienating the top brass over some silly romantic notions. I've dealt with prejudiced officers before; and I know when to take it and when to kick someone in the teeth.”

I grinned at her. “Right thing for the wrong reason, basically? Now, Shy... if I were doing it to defend a slight on your honor, I wouldn't be lecturing them.

“I'd shoot the bastards,” I said dryly.

“Oh, so the lecture was your way of showing restraint,” she chuckled. “So, I'm not worth purging the military?”

“Well, of course you are. But that can wait,” I replied. “First we deal with Zend, then we can find everyone who made fun of you in school and up through the High Command, then line them up against the wall. Will that satisfy your bruised honor?”

Shayera leaned over and kissed my cheek. “Yep, that should do it. Now come on, get out that ridiculous costume. We've got a lot to do tomorrow.”

“Just so long as it's we, all right?”

“Hmph.” She looked at me with her deep green eyes. “Yeah, all right. After all, I made it through tonight. And a Moff Council meeting. What could possibly be worse?”

"I don't know, love; but, if this is just our first day," I trailed off.

My wife groaned and rubbed at her eyes wearily. "You make thinking happy thoughts really hard at times, y'know that?"

Imperatoris Novus Domus First Previous Next Latest

_________________
Emperor Ams Jendob, Ruler of the Imperial Remnant


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----"Moff", CMAC Dreamcrusher, Official Administrative Waldorf and Statler----


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Shayera Jendob
Moff


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 Post Posted: Sat, December 31st 2011 01:58am    Post subject:
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I drained the last mouthful of cocoa, savoring its sweetness and rich body. And the flavor... “Thank you, Alton. That was delicious.”

The chef beamed, then glanced to the side, as if unburdening a guilty secret. “To be fair, ma'am,” the sandy-haired man gestured to the slightly-portly gentlemen in business attire. “Mister Swan gave me the basic recipe... and the idea for a couple tweaks.”

I turned to the majordomo. “Really, Niles?”

“Well, Mister Browne had the idea to... spruce it up for you,” the former butler admitted equally sheepishly.

I grinned, both at his bashful attitude and that he and Alton had settled their teething troubles. “Well, my compliments to the chef and his advisor, or the butler and his enabler. Whatever the case may be.”

Browne laughed, Niles immediately put on an air of wounded pride. “Really, ma'am! Perhaps I shall remember this for tomorrow's breakfast.”

A dry baritone spoke from the other end of the dining table. “Careful, Niles. She's been a fully-empowered Empress for three days now. Depriving her of even one sugar cube in her morning coffee will end badly for you.”

I shot Ams a wry look, then glanced up at Browne. “I've had to put up with these two Core snobs for the last seventeen years. It's about time we got some payback.”

“Sedition! Treason!” Ams shook his fist. “And on our anniversary, no less.”

Now Browne looked genuinely confused, edging toward frightened. Niles began to make his way around the table

“That's what happens when you give me dictatorial power,” I shrugged as the majordomo whispered in the chef's ear. Browne's expression twisted toward greater confusion, then relief and amusement. I caught the shift. “And just what are you two conspiring about?”

Swan responded over Browne's tongue-tied stammering. “Merely reassuring my associate that your bizarre behavior is nothing to be concerned about... or even unusual.”

I looked back at Ams. “All right, I guess it's time we stopped scaring the help.”

He cleared his throat, and flashed me a small smile. “I suppose. That said, Mister Browne... delectable. Thank you.”

“Will you require anything else, Your Majesties?”

Two mildly annoyed glares fell upon a beaming Niles. He enjoyed the formality a little too much. “No, that will be all for tonight,” Ams said. “We've got an early day tomorrow; another meeting with Sarreti and Winton.”

“A nightcap, perhaps?”

Ams shook his head and looked at me. I repeated his gesture. The wine with dinner was enough, and there was just too much to do to even contemplate picking up a mild buzz. Even tonight... it just doesn't feel like a night for popping a cork and pouring the champagne.

Niles shooed Alton away. After the chef was gone, he turned around. “Sir... Ma'am,” his voice caught a moment. Then his normally staid and stoic—or petulant—expression softened and split into a warm, if tired, smile. “Happy anniversary.”

“Thank you, Niles. Have a good night,” Ams replied with equal warmth... and maybe a touch more exhaustion.

I pulled myself up from the table. “Come here, you.”

The majordomo seemed confused for a moment, then shocked when I threw my arms around him in a manner that no doubt violated a dozen rules and protocols drilled into his head wherever he learned to be a butler. “Thank you, Niles,” I said, giving him an extra squeeze. “Thank you for the last seventeen years. And for putting up with the two of us through quite a few rough patches.”

“Um, er... you're welcome, milady?”

I pulled away and patted his shoulder. “Now, you go have a good night. And try not to crack the whip too much.”

He quickly tottered off. Ams burst out laughing as soon as the door shut. “What's so damn funny?”

“I wasn't sure if he was going to have a heart attack or burst. What ever possessed you?”

“I'm just a nice person,” I countered. “And part of it... I wanted to see his face when I did it.”

“You're evil.”

I drew my hand across the Stormtrooper-black uniform I wore. “All I need is pair of thirty-centimeter stiletto-heeled, knee-high leatherplast boots and I'd be the big, bad Empress from probably a hundred different Wonder comics.”

Ams rubbed his chin. “No, you also need a whip. Maybe a lightwhip.”

“Oh, right. How could I forget?”

“Almost makes me wish I had bought you one for your birthday,” he teased.

“...How in the hell do you still remember that? That was twenty years ago!” I paused, realizing a few implications due to omission. “And I don't like whips. Playing rough is one thing; flogging is another.”

With a chuckle, Ams stood. “Well, shall we retire, Your Majesty?”

“That's 'Your Imperial Majesty,' to you, pal. And yes, we shall.”

He gave an apologetic, groveling bow. “My deepest apologies, m'lady.”

I shook my head and pressed the door control. “How have I put up with this for twenty-eight years?”

“Niles' cooking?”

“Maybe.”



The bed felt less strange than it did seven days before. Just a week and a half and I'm already assimilated into living in someone else's house. It still wasn't quite natural, but it was almost there. No, it's not the bed. That's the same one you've been sleeping in for ten years. It's the room, the level, the building. Whether it's Disra or Fel... or both...

“What's wrong, love?”

I looked over at Ams from the doorway to the master refresher. He was already in bed, with the blanket folded back on my side. The datapad in his hand chirped and beeped under the steady hail of virtual keystrokes from his thumb. “It's nothing. Just... long day. Long bunch of days.”

He put the datapad down. “Anything I can do?”

“Turn back time, shoot Daara Zend in the head at one of those staff meetings?” I asked hopefully.

Ams patted the vacant spot in the bed. “Anything practical? Shoulder rub?”

I walked over and slid into bed. “Tempting, but no.”

“Why not?”

“Just too tired. What about you?” I asked. “You didn't even get to hug Niles to blow off steam.”

“Heaven forbid I ever reach that point,” he grinned. That flash of humor sent me back almost three decades. Back farther than the day Ams and I vowed to spend the rest of our lives together. Back to that breathless moment in the XO's cabin aboard a Star Destroyer. I was just a lieutenant—a flight leader in my own right, but still a junior officer—and Ams was the second-in-command for over thirty-seven thousand crew and pilots. We'd been having dinner a couple times a week, just catching up. I could feel something growing between us, but I was sure he was unaware. Until that night. There was nothing physical beyond a kiss that night. But there was a closeness and intimacy I'd never experienced with another man before.

“Yeah, well,” I started. “You never know.”

He leaned in and lightly pressed his lips to mine, just like on that now-distant evening, several thousand lightyears away. I slid an arm around him, and both of his encapsulated me in a firm yet tender grip. His blue eyes sparkled in the simulated city lights from the holowindow. My pace quickened, until I could feel my heart beat in tune with his.

“I love you,” I sighed, closing my eyes and nuzzling his shoulder. But as I tried to open them again, I felt durasteel weights attempt to weight down my eyelids. I groaned with frustration. “But I can't tonight.”

He touched my cheek. “Can't what, love?”

“You know what.”

He snorted. “Shayera, is that all you think about?”

“Me?” I asked in shock.

“Can't I just hug my wife and hold her on our anniversary?” he smirked slyly. “Or must her mind always go to the gutter?”

“That's a cruel setup to play on the wife who just said she loved you,” I groused. “But are you serious about your pure and chaste motivations?”

“Well... maybe not entirely pure and chaste. But I'm afraid I'm too tired from the damned moffs running me around to do the same for you.”

I sighed again. “Well, then get some rest. Maybe... maybe we'll do something in the morning? Even if it's just cuddle for a little bit.”

He smiled wearily. “I like the sound of that. Good night, Shy.”

“Good night, Ams.” I flicked the lightswitch for the lamp beside our bed.

“And happy anniversary, love.”

“Happy anniversary, Ams.”
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Empress Shayera Jendob



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 Post Posted: Tue, January 03rd 2012 07:13pm    Post subject:
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The hatch hissed open. I looked up from my desk and smiled at the form in the doorway. “Good evening, Lieutenant.”

“Permission to enter, Captain?” A gravelly voice called, warmth tinging the formal words.

I nodded. “By all means. Dinner's been here for a few minutes now.”

Lieutenant Shayera Hol, clad in the black uniform of a Navy trooper, strode into the room. Her chestnut brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail under black cap, her dark brown eyes giving away the broad grin her mouth refused to betray until the doors slid shut behind her.

I'd known Shayera since the Naval Academy on Corulag. Her presence was quite notable—and noticeable—among the crowds of cadets for two reasons: her gender—though there were several dozen other female cadets among the thousands of men training to be Imperial officers—and her almost, but not quite, human origins. She came from a world in Wild Space, rarely visited during the age of the Republic and embroiled in bitter civil war. The Clone Wars had effectively sundered the tenuous hyperlane connecting her homeworld to the Galaxy, save for a few hard-bitten smugglers who brought modern weapons to the primitive backwater world. She'd managed to stow away aboard a freighter, one of the last to ever see Thanagar. She was caught and stunned, the captain intending to use the young teenager and then sell her into slavery. But, when he loosened the restraints to remove her clothing, he hadn't reckoned with the strength of her kind.

When the freighter dropped out of hyperspace near an Imperial deep space station, the inspection crew found a scared, hungry sixteen-year old winged humanoid girl... and the freighter captain beaten to death. She knew Basic, and explained her situation—and was quite fortunate that the smuggler had an Imperial death mark that voided any charges of murder. The reward was withheld, but through the graces of one of the less humanocentric members of the inspection team (she'd never learned which), she was allowed to take the entrance examination for the Imperial Academy. After she was rejected four times on the grounds of her sex and race with average academic marks, she finally passed the unfair bar set for her. The Academy and the Empire, however, offered her only heartache and discrimination.

I was privately ashamed to admit I'd been part of it, at first. I'd taunted her about her origins (though I didn't know at the time the price she paid for her escape). I'd push her buttons and laugh in her face. It caused me near-physical pain to think I had mistreated my future best friend so cruelly, so callously. She wasn't the last either, I mused darkly even as I smiled to her.

Something had changed over Coruscant, fifteen months ago. Was it her last word being my name? Was it the determination in her to plunge that knife home, if it meant dying aboard the flaming wreck of the traitors' flagship? Or was it that I had truly felt something for the woman... as I felt her spine and trachea crush when I snapped her neck. Was it that she survived, for a short time anyway, her mind cut off from the rest of her body, able to hear the ship breaking up, and smell and taste the blood that filled her mouth; was it the pain and fury in her eyes? Was it that, despite my suspicions from an early point, I still had real feelings for that Rebel agent... and killed her just before she would've plunged that vibroblade home? Or was it that I loved her while she was solely intent on killing me as an enemy?

I'd had to quit the company after that. I still had my naval commission, and I was bound by all manner of secrecy and loyalty oaths about the missions I'd taken from Intelligence with no sign of breaking those oaths. So, in recognition for my unrecognizable service, they promoted me to captain and put me on a heavy cruiser. But every night since, I saw those burning blue eyes. Not the ones I remembered from a lover... but full of the roiling hatred of a dying zealot watching her quarry escape. She hadn't been my first kill thanks to the Echani arts, or even the first woman I'd killed after seducing. She wasn't the first to fool me, nor the first to pay for it. But the other kills, part of the job. The seductions, part of the job—and often a perk. Killing the supposed allies who tried—or succeeded at—deception, part of the job, perhaps pursued with a touch of personal vengeance. But I had never really fallen for one. I'd pursued the woman I now knew was Deena Shan—Rebel agent and master infiltrator—simply because of her position as the chief sensor operator on the flagship's bridge. She saved my life when Tigellinus' guards had me. With her help, there wasn't a man alive on that bridge that had betrayed the Emperor. We'd made our escape, amazingly less than two minutes before an assault concussion missile blew the flag bridge and half of the nineteen-kilometer long behemoth's control systems to scrap. As the ship lazily spun out of control, Lord Vader's ships poured fire her. By the time we reached the escape pods, the ship was a blazing wreck.

That was when she pulled the blaster on me. That was when she told me had to be sure I never left, just like Harrsk, just like Tigellinus. And for the first time, there was a sting to the betrayal. She'd started to pull the trigger. Only an explosion a few decks above sent the particle bolt screaming past my left ear and gave me an opening to disarm her. That was all I wanted. Just long enough to get away. I actually wanted to save her. Is that why you quit? Was it guilt over killing her... or over wanting to let her go?

We grappled in the lurching corridor as the metal around us screamed like the souls of the damned. She was flexible, but I had reach. A few times, I fended her off and tried to retreat, but she charged back. She pulled the knife. I grabbed her, twisted her around, wrapped my arms around her neck the way I'd done so many times on the mat in training... and so many times in the field. She froze an instant. I could feel the fear, the terror... but this time, there was no sweetness to my would-be assassin's dread. Then I felt her tense, even as she whispered my name softly, sweetly, the way she would in my arms. The muscles in her arm coiled, about to spring and drive the blade home. I still recalled the sickening pit in my stomach as, with no conscious thought whatsoever, I made the inculcated motions... and sealed Deena Shan's fate. Only a pained yelp-turned-gurgle, almost drowned out by the snapping of bone and crunch of crushing cartilage followed her cruel, calculated attempt to play on my emotions. And I still wasn't sure if she hadn't succeeded. Perhaps not in the way she'd been hoping for, but...

“Sorry if I'm late.”

I blinked away the harsh memories of the Battle of Coruscant, the failed coup of the traitorous Grand Admirals, Grand Moffs, and so many functionaries united behind their banner of overthrowing Palpatine for his failure at Endor. “No, the steward was actually early. Please, make yourself comfortable.”

Shayera doffed her black cap and dragged a chair up to my desk. She spread her wings so they draped over the back of the chair, as she always did at our weekly ritual. Since she'd been assigned, I'd invited her to my quarters once a week for dinner. Nothing romantic, just two old Academy friends catching up, with the occasional bit of business. Besides, with Deena's face haunting me at every blink, I wasn't sure if I could have pursued Shayera romantically, even if she'd been entirely human.

I stood and opened the hatch to the living quarters part of my cabin. Overall, the space allotted to the commanding officer aboard a Vindicator was only a little larger than any senior officer's quarters on a Star Destroyer. The office was fairly cramped, barely over seven square meters before the desk, my chair, the two chairs opposite for small conferences, and a shelf. The actual living quarters were about fifty square meters, and combined a dining area, bedroom, computer terminal, and holocom into one convenient (for shipbuilders) space. At the moment, it also held a cart with some covered platters. One of the perks of being a cruiser captain was my meals could come to me.

“So, what's on the menu tonight,” the lieutenant asked cheerfully.

I pulled the cover off of one tray, then nodded. “Looks like a couple of nerf steaks.”

An eyebrow went up over one chocolate-brown eye. “A steak dinner?” Her voice leaned into soprano with surprise. “Ams, you're spoiling me!”

I chuckled. It took a couple weeks for her break entirely with formality once the doors were closed, and it was good to her able to fully relax. “What do you mean, spoiling you? They just sent a double order by mistake.”

“Oh, well then,” she snorted, her wings twitching once, “I guess I'll just have to accept the chef's mistake.”

“Spoken like a true soldier for the Empire. Wine?”

“Sure.”

I poured a couple glasses of a fine red claret, and placed the two trays—each holding a searing-hot plate to continually transfer heat into the meat—on the desk.

“It's still sizzling,” Shayera noted warily. “I hope it's not overdone.”

“Would you like to send it back to galley?” I smirked, cutting into my steak and seeing the lovely crimson interior of a medium rare piece of nerf. “Looks fine to me.”

She performed a similar check. “Eh, it could be rarer.”

“Well, aren't you the contrarian.”

She laughed, half-bitterly. “If I wasn't, do you think I'd still be trooping around in the Empire?”

My expression fell flat. I hadn't meant to imply anything like that, but it couldn't be denied that Shayera had given far more to the Empire than it ever returned. But maybe she didn't see it that way. After all, it had given her a home—if abusive—and rescued her from a smuggler's hold. It educated her, gave her a mission... but I sometimes wondered if the cost had been too high. Admittedly, my own career had been unorthodox and I was often promoted for the sake of security clearance. Still, Shayera could have easily made lieutenant commander, or even a full commander with her effort and determination. And yet, she wore the single cylinder and two-by-two mark of a lieutenant. Aliens and women were starting to become more common, and rise higher in the ranks if only due to the massive losses to the Rebels, the warlords, and the campaign that culminated in the massacre in the skies of Coruscant (a woman even made Grand Admiral recently). But she was in both categories, and so she remained at a lieutenant's grade. The promotions board probably considered it a great honor to her that she'd made it to command a company of naval troopers on a heavy cruiser. Clearly, none of them had known her at the Imperial Academy. They hadn't seen her casually toss her fellow students—even instructors intent in pummeling the uppity alien girl—around the training salle. Hell, she'd tossed me around too, making me eat all of those words I'd thrown her way. The hatred and bigotry had intensified at first, but after having the shockingly tough, strong, and skilled cadet beat the living daylights out of me a few times formed a kernel of grudging respect and admiration. I finally screwed up the courage to ask where she learned to fight like that.

Her answer was humbling. All notions that I'd led a hard life due to being orphaned at a young age and educated in a boarding school surrounded by rich snobs who never let me forget that I didn't come from the deep pockets that funded the Empire evaporated when she explained the constant war on her homeworld, or how her parents were murdered in a random terrorist bombing steps from their primitive home; how she raised her younger sister and infant brother for several years on the streets and occasionally in orphanages. She'd learned to fight so she could feed her siblings, to fend off predators both animal and sentient of every stripe, to make sure the three of them saw another day of scrounging, avoiding open battles in the street, and seeking a room and a dry place to sleep in the wet season or shelter from the scorching sun.

The heart-wrenching story changed the way I looked at her. She was no longer an interloper and refugee from some lost world, a charity case for the Empire to eventually shuffle off to dig ditches and lay mag-tracks on backwater planets. She was a young woman possessed of an iron will and an almost ruthless determination. I could no longer make the cruel remarks about the little “hawk girl.” I started to defend her from verbal assault, and I would talk to her afterward to make sure she was all right. A friendship was born.

From that friendship came more learning about the strange girl's background. Her happiest memory was teaching her younger brother to spread his wings and fly in a field outside their ravaged town... and even that was rooted in cold pragmatism. With the three siblings finally able to take to the skies together, they could reach a larger city with a spaceport with less risk than taking the roads. She told me about the birthday celebrations, teaching her siblings to read and write with a stick and wet dirt, teaching them Basic. She even managed to get her younger siblings into school while they stayed in an orphanage for a year or so. And she was only eighteen years old as we discussed it while reviewing for exams, nightly academic and physical exercises (I'd help with the academic, she'd help with the physical where possible), and helping her through the days where the pressure and abuse threatened even her steely resolve. She also had help from her roommate, a woman from Tatooine. Unlike most Outer Rim, Salvor Hardin had been devoted to the Imperial cause almost as much as she'd been devoted to getting off that baleful sandpile. In my junior year, I briefly became one of her devotions as well. More like one of her distractions. Sal did get around. But she helped Shayera as well. She was one of the few true friends the Thanagarian had in the service, despite one hiccup in their friendship during their senior year, after I'd graduated. But Sal had been killed in action at Gerrard V by the Rebels' Rogue Squadron. That discussion had dominated much of our third dinner. There'd been some tears, but I could tell they were still mightily restrained; we'd become closer—as friends—since... to the point that reminding Shayera of her unfavorable situation in the Empire filled me with regret.

“I'm sorry, Shayera. I shouldn't have...”

She waited a moment after I trailed off. “Shouldn't have what?” A wintry smile came across her face. “You haven't been the one screwing with my career. And you're not the one too karking stubborn to throw in the towel. Or maybe they just haven't pissed me off enough yet to do that.”

I raised my glass. “Well, here's to that day never coming.”

“Want to keep me around?”

I shrugged. “I can't think of anyone I'd rather having running security on my ship. Honestly.”

She laughed again, then touched her glass to mine. “I guess I can drink to that compliment.”

I put my glass back down; the dry claret on an untouched palate was never appealing to me. I cut away a piece of steak as Shayera emptied about half of her glass. “They only gave us one bottle, you know.”

“That's all right. It's a little dry to go quickly with, anyway,” she smirked. If anyone else had downed that quantity of wine with such a blasé attitude, I would've suspected them a serious alcoholic. Shayera, however, had an unfair advantage: she could process ethanol better than the average human. She wasn't immune to drink, and hard liquor would eventually put the screws to her sobriety, but short of intravenous injection, it was quite difficult for her to become intoxicated on beer, wine, and low-alcohol spirits.

I popped the steak morsel in my mouth, feeling the moisture and rich, savory flavors spill across my tongue as I chewed and swallowed the exquisitely-prepared steak. A sip of wine then quickly cut through the fatty flavors left behind with its tannins, while the alcohol sent a pleasant, warm sensation chasing down my throat. I watched Shayera consume a piece of her own nerf cut. Her face lit up as she chewed the bite-sized bit of externally-charred, internally-warmed muscle. “How do we have this on a ship out in the middle of nowhere?”

I laughed. “Supply works in mysterious ways. So, how is the security department doing?”

She shrugged. “No flareups this week, at least.” Shayera paused, lost in thought.

“Credit for your thoughts?”

She looked back to me. “Can I ask a stupid question?”

I cocked an eyebrow at her. “Like what?”

“Are you... are you going somewhere with this?”

I blinked. “With the status report?”

“No, with,” she put her glass down and gestured around the small office compartment. “This. Us. This weekly thing.”

I put my fork down. “Essentially, you're asking if I'm trying to ply you with wine and dinner?”

“Essentially.”

I held her gaze a moment, and felt a laugh bubble out. A confused look appeared on her face. “You had me there for a moment, Shayera.” Her confusion began to darken to annoyance, and bolt of worry struck through the clouds of mirth. “You're serious. You... Shayera...”

I paused a moment. “Are you worried that's what I'm trying to do?”

“Is it?” she asked, sidestepping the question.

I looked into her eyes, searching for the answer that she wanted... and if it didn't coincide with the one I was going to give, how to break it as gently as possible. “No.

“Shayera, you're my friend. In fact, you're probably the only real friend I've got aboard. And I like this informality, like we had in the old days.”

Her expression softened; clear signs of genuine relief. But there was a brief flicker of hard neutrality just before the relief showed clearly. I continued quickly. “Did you... want something more?”

She shook her head quickly—not too quickly, and yet... was it?—the movement jostling the rest of her body; I watched a couple small, gray feathers fall from her wings to the deck. “No, no. I just wanted to be sure—I'm sorry... I guess I let my paranoia get the better of me about your intentions,” she laughed nervously as she uttered the last part.

I reached over and took her hand. As soon as contact was made, I felt her start to recoil instinctively, and I pulled away from the reassuring gesture. Then the realization that it wasn't reassuring at all struck me, and I kicked myself mentally. I gave her a gentle smile. “My intentions are just to keep up a friendship that I cherish, and to spend time with good friend. That's all. And if we also get some shipboard business done in the process, well... I guess efficiency's the price the Empire will have to pay.”

Shayera giggled—chuckled, really, given her gravelly tones—and gave me a resigned look. “All right. It's just... well, you know my history.”

I nodded solemnly, amazed at how she could make light at some of her close calls with brutalization. As far as I knew, she'd never had a romantic relationship with a man (as was her preference) since fleeing her homeworld. Part of it related to overwork and single-minded determination to show her naysayers their place, part of it from lingering scars of her near misses on her homeworld and then in the hold of the freighter, part of it was speciesism (which I realized I was still somewhat guilty of), and part of it was her lack of patience with any man who sought to make her another notch in his bedpost, be it from simple physical attraction or the more insidious bragging/gossip rights. Her staunch refusal to tolerate insincere affection and to turn away those who desired only a superficial and temporary coupling—despite the deep loneliness that she confessed to me—made me think back on my own list of... Don't change terms just make yourself feel better now. conquests. One-night stands to win favor, fake relationships to earn trust, and then quietly disappearing come the opportunity to slip away. I supposed, despite the seemingly opposite positions we occupied, we were paradoxically in the same boat: neither of us had had any true lovers. While hers came from abstaining, my “little black book” would undoubtedly be full, yet I felt nothing for any of them (save the one who gave her life to try taking mine). Even now, I still thought of Shayera as a “good friend.” I might touch her hand or her shoulder, or one joking kiss she'd given me in front of Sal, but I wasn't sure I could bring myself to put my arms around her in a friendly embrace. Not with those large wings, covered in simple gray plumage. Not with such alien protrusions that grew from the back of an otherwise handsome woman.

“Yeah, I know.”

“Besides... I mean... it's not like you would really be interested in me, right?”

“What do you mean?”

Shayera gave another wry grin. “Well, you have a reputation, you know. I know what you did was all hush-hush, and if you told me about what you ate for breakfast on one mission, you'd have to kill me and blah, blah, blah. But rumor is you were a top-ranked spook... and you left yourself a trail of broken-hearted beauties from Belkadan to Zonju. So, why would you want a winged grunt like me when you can get any tail you wanted?”

I opened my mouth to respond... and yet it was as if she had picked up on my thoughts. And there was no hurt, no anger, no disappointment... perhaps even relief that her one steady friendship carried just enough prejudice to avoid getting destroyed by romantic entanglements. “It's not like that.”

“Ams, I'm not mad. It's actually easier this way.” She paused. “I mean, hey, as far as I know, I'm the last of my kind left in the Galaxy. So, I can understand people getting a little weirded out. I mean, you've come a lot farther in overcoming that awkwardness than most people—and I appreciate it—but... maybe a little keeps us from ruining a good thing.”

“It's not you, Shayera.” I'd never spoken of Coruscant to anyone. I was under orders. “I... the last time I got involved with a woman, it ended badly.” As in it ended with breaking her neck as she fought with her last breath to kill me for the Rebellion.

“One of your missions?”

I nodded. She echoed the movement, in understanding. “Okay, I won't ask.”

“I killed her.”

Shayera had been looking at her plate, digging into a pile of potato mounder rice with her fork. Her gaze shot back up at the frank—and painful admission. “What?”

“She was a Rebel agent. We had similar goals. We accomplished the overlap, and while trying to escape, she tried to kill me. She lost.”

Had this been a scene from a tawdy soap opera, I imagined her fork would've clattered to the plate. As it was, she gently set it down. “A Rebel?”

“I had my suspicions early on. But, I ignored them... for the mission, and eventually, for me. And then I snapped her neck while she was ready to carve me with a vibroblade. She called my name just before, to distract me or make me hesitate. I don't know. But I killed her. I broke her neck, I laid her down with her still alive and conscious and staring up at me as she slowly suffocated... and I escaped. There probably isn't enough left of her to put into a thimble. But I see her every night. With those accusing, hate-filled eyes.”

I realized my breath had become ragged, my throat tightening. Shayera was nonplussed. “But, she was trying to kill you, Ams. You reacted. You can't torture yourself over that.”

“She may have hated me, Shayera. She definitely did after she knew she was dying and I was getting away. But... I still loved her. And I've seduced targets before—”

“I really shouldn't hear this,” the lieutenant interjected.

“She's the only one that made me doubt.”

Now Shayera reached out her hands, and placed them on mine. I noticed how warm she was. “Ams, it was a mission. You had yours, she had hers. You succeeded, and she failed. Would you rather it turn out the other way?”

I shook my head and unconsciously cupped my other hand over hers. “No. But... I just don't know. Maybe it's not so much an issue of my being attracted to you as opposed to could you deal with all of this.”

The Thanagarian looked at me, fixing her gaze with mine. “Maybe. Maybe not.” She looked down at her hands, pinned between mine. She quietly cleared her throat, and I quickly pulled my hands away. “I mean, I've unloaded an awful lot onto you. The least I can do—as a friend—is take a couple bags here and there.”

“I appreciate that,” I husked. “Now eat your steak before it gets cold.”

“Is that a toast?”

“Why not?” I raised my glass, and she quickly repeated the gesture. The claret sloshed almost to the top of my glass with the blow, and we moved on to happier—or at least more routine—subjects as we ate.



“Well, that was great,” Shayera grinned. “Captains really have it made.”

“Yes, being responsible for the lives of three thousand men... and woman,” I added quickly, “Certainly a fair trade for the occasional nerf steak.”

“Seems good to me.”

“So... do you want to talk a little more about Coruscant? At least, the parts you can cover?”

My expression soured quickly. “I can't actually cover any of it. Especially the part about a Rebel operative being instrumental in the Empire's success. Or that an Imperial operative was falling for said Rebel.”

“All right, so you had feelings for her. But... a girl comes at you with a blade, Ams, that's gotta go out the window. Right?”

“You would think. Maybe it did. Maybe I'm just beating myself up for letting it get that far. Or for letting her get the drop on me instead of the other way around. Maybe it's because I owed her my life... and then I killed her.”

The winged woman snorted. “She must've been really good in the sack if you're tripping over yourself like this.”

A flash of anger directed itself toward my friend. Her face went ashen. “I'm sorry, that... that was cruel of me.”

Her immediate penance and regret brought me back to my own cruelty, all those years ago. “It was, but I earned it I suppose... after all of the things I said at the Academy.”

“Huh? Oh, that? Ams, I'm way past that.”

“Maybe I'm not. I don't think I ever did apologize for it...”

Shayera nodded. “You did... with every time you gave me a shoulder to lean on, stayed up late listening to my problems, and helped me with a problem. Maybe you never did with words, but words are cheap. Actions count.”

“Would you like to go into the next room?”

“Erm?” She looked alarmed. “Uhh, your bedroom?”

“No, my living room of course,” I smirked. “It just seems the small couch in there might be more comfortable than these awful chairs.”

“All right.”

We stared at each other for a moment. “Aren't you going to get up?” she asked finally.

“Aren't you?”

“After you do. You're senior.”

“Ladies first.”

“It's an Imperial warship, Ams. Not your fancy finishing school,” she laughed. “But if you insist...”

“I do.”

“Fine, fine.” She stood up first. I rose and walked over to the door control, slapping the button once it was in reach. The door hissed aside, and I motioned to Shayera.

She chuckled again and walked through the hatch. I followed close behind. “It's so big.”

She'd stopped abruptly, and I nearly got a mouthful of feather. “It's gotta be three times the size of my whole compartment.”

“Rank hath its privileges,” I noted drily, taking a step back from behind her, if only so I wasn't literally breathing down her neck.

She looked around. “Yeah, I guess so.” She spotted the couch, and made her way over. “Still,” she noted, sitting down, “Not bad for a little ship like this.”

I nodded in agreement as I sat beside her. The Vindicators only massed six hundred thousand tonnes, or less than one-fiftieth the mass of an Imperial-class Star Destroyer, but carried more crew per tonne than the massive battleships. That meant less space for crew accommodations; the fact of the matter was my quarters would've barely suited a senior lieutenant running a shipboard department on an ISD. But the Fearless was my ship, and I wouldn't trade her bridge for playing second fiddle on the deck of the largest super dreadnought. Besides... I've been there. Blew one up.

“So, where were we?”

“You seemed pretty much done with Coruscant, and then there was the Academy stuff that I told you not to worry about.”

I chuckled. “Well, all of this time talking about my problems... we're supposed to be catching up, not have you playing therapist.”

Shayera shrugged her shoulders slightly; I noticed then that she was sitting on her wings, with them almost fluidly bending under her. I asked, “Isn't that uncomfortable?”

“'Playing therapist'?”

“No, sitting like that.”

Confusion spread across her features at the banal non sequitur. “Sitting...? I usually sit like this. So, no... not really.”

“All right, I just... never noticed it before. I didn't realize they could bend like that.”

She gave an amused snort. “Well, they can. I didn't know you were so worried about my wings. But this stupid thing,” she grabbed at her ponytail. “Is starting to give me a headache.”

Shayera pulled away the hair tie, then roughly scrubbed her fingers across her scalp, letting her auburn mane fall freely about her shoulders. In that moment, I was struck not only at how much it seemed to alter the severity of her appearance, but also... Could it be? Is she really that... beautiful?

“You all right?”

I shook myself. “Yes, I'm fine. I've just never seen you with your hair down... not since the Academy, anyway.”

“Well, it's not regulation. Gotta have it up on duty or some dirtbag will think he's got a nice hand-hold before going for your thro—um...”

I waved off her obvious apology. “You can say 'throat' around me, Shayera. I'm not quite that traumatized by what I did.”

She nodded. “I just didn't want to accidentally hit a sensitive spot. You know?”

I lightly touched her hand in agreement. “Still, it looks very good on you.”

“Really?”

I nodded. “Perhaps you should let your hair down more, so to speak.”

Shayera looked at me oddly. “Do I have to worry about your intentions again?”

I laughed, feeling myself pull a little closer to her. “No. Not at all.”



“Ams? Ams! Ams!

“Yes, Shayera... yes, Shayera... oh, yes...”

“Yes nothing. Get up, dammit.”

I opened my eyes again, the hazy vista I'd been taking in lingering a moment longer. But it was replaced by one more familiar, more... right. “What is it?”

“It's morning, and you've been groaning and grunting my name for the last fifteen minutes.” A mischievous smirk matched the glint in Shy's green eyes. Why was I expecting them to be brown? “So, get up, get in the shower... then we'll get some breakfast.”

I started to get up and walk toward the refresher. “And then you can tell me what you were dreaming about that had you so excited.”

I looked back at my wife. Human, red hair matched to emerald green eyes. Pleasantly tall. Just as she'd been since we met thirty-five years ago. And keeping that playful and curious gaze locked on me as she removed her nightshirt. “See something you like?”

I chuckled. “Yes, but... Niles and Alton will be quite upset if we're late to breakfast. Or worse, they'll try deliver.”

“Then get moving,” she ordered.

“As you wish, Your Majesty.”

I shut the door and disrobed quickly. Echoes of the strangely real dream I'd been having whispered through my mind. It wasn't until the end when it seemed to be coming apart... that I was that man. That Shy was that woman...and Palpatine... and Vader? After Endor?

I stepped into the newly-installed shower stall. Traces of Disra's horrible green fake stone still remained. Some renovation here and there had been underway in the four weeks since we'd formally taken up residence in the palace, but nothing truly extensive; the Empire was at war. Building a corvette took priority over scraping off wallpaper and remodeling all of the refreshers. If a couple credits from discretionary spending (or Shayera's and my own accounts) and manpower could be found here and there, the Moff Council had no issue. I had no issue. But perhaps the one thing we agreed upon was that not a decicred should go into recreational spending that could fit a Stormtrooper with an armor patch, buy a medkit, a gram of tibanna, or a power pak. Granted, most of them would likely have skimmed some off (or were doing so, if they sat on the right committees or had friends who did) while making those demands... but I supposed that was the difference.

A sudden rap on the shower door snapped me out of my train of thought. A female voice called simply, “Hi.”

“Yes?”

The door slid aside with a rumble. “So, like I was saying,” Shy grinned as she let herself in and shut the door behind her. “About that dream you were having.”

“Ah-ha...”



“Your mind is a scary place,” Shayera grunted as she wrapped a towel over her hair. “I don't know what scares me more: the complete political setup in your little fantasy or what happened to me. Actually, no, it is that your mind really did assemble some freakish timeline where Palpatine's alive three years after Endor, Vader's still kicking, and you're the disillusioned hero of the Empire. The other part seems much more explainable.”

I splashed some depil on my face to chase away eight hours of beard. “It just seemed... so real, though. I've never had a dream like that before.”

“So, do you really want me to be some genetically-altered embodiment of old angel myths,” she asked pointedly. It took a glance into her reflection in the mirror to see the smart-alec expression.

“And trade those lovely green eyes of yours for plain brown? Certainly not. Not to mention, you're taller; just the right height, actually.” I gave her a quick peck on the cheek. “Besides, you're already my angel.”

Shy toweled her hair off and reached for the brush. I grabbed my toothbrush. She looked up me, never breaking stride with the brush. “Flattery will get you nowhere. Now hurry up and get out of here so I can get ready; we're already late for breakfast.”

“We wouldn't be if you hadn't barged into the shower,” I attempted to retort, but with the vibrobrush going, it came out as the worst ventriloquism act I'd ever heard.

“'Mmmn nnn mmmhmmm hmmm'?” she teased. “I'm guessing that's a comment about joining you.” I nodded to her. “Ah. Maybe, maybe not. Maybe if you'd share the soap...”

“Mmm hd!” I protested.

“You did not. And we didn't even get to play,” she noted regretfully. “Assuming my alter ego left anything for me.”

I nearly choked on that remark—and a sizeable glob of aerated foam. I expectorated the frothy mass, and wagged a scolding finger at my gutter-mouthed wife. “You watch your language.”

“Oh, frak off,” she snorted. “What are you, a protocol droid?”



“Your Majesty!”

Shayera and I stopped in the corridor and turned as a breathless aide ran up. “There's been an attack at Ansion.”

Damn. “When?” I asked.

“Ansion? Ansion...” Shayera muttered to herself, searching internally.

“Less than two days ago; we're just getting reports now. It appears our unit was lost, but a New Republic patrol drove off Zend's forces before they could begin a ground assault.”

An entire squadron lost. That meant up to fifty thousand killed, injured, or taken prisoner. I took the datapad from the colonel and started to scroll through the precis. I came to the casualty section when Shayera muttered, “Wait... Ansion.”

I scrolled through the names of the ships. And only three names in, I felt my fingers go numb. The datapad slid from my non-functioning grip, and clattered loudly on the floor. An ice giant took form in my stomach, and dragged his icy claws down my spine. My throat almost slammed shut.

“Ansion,” Shayera repeated, her tone strangled with the dawning horror that had already sundered my reeling mind from a rapidly more distant body.

“Your Majesty?” The aide's concerned query sounded as if he were at the edge of earshot, underwater.

Something clicked inside me, even as my conscious mind fought a raging torrent. Images flashed before me, of an infant, of a young boy. A young man growing into maturity. A newly commissioned officer, resplendent in his brand new uniform warmly embracing his mother and shaking my hand. And I would never see him again. An autopilot engaged, smoothed out most of the hoarseness in my throat. “Thank you, Colonel; that will be all.”

“Ams...?” I could hear the tears even as I couldn't bear to look my wife in the eye.

“Come with me, I whispered,” finding the implacable surface already grossly eroded by the time the autopilot forced those words through vocal cords. I spotted the nearest door; I didn't care what was behind it. I nearly shoved Shayera inside (not noticing that she'd picked up the datapad to confirm her suspicions), and locked it behind us.

The autopilot flamed out. The wall of reserve and calm it supported collapsed. The chair I'd gripped for support suddenly was over my head, then dashed into a thousand plastic shards on the polished black conference table as a scream of rage and sorrow rent my vocal cords.

My son was dead.
_________________
Emperor Ams Jendob, Ruler of the Imperial Remnant


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----"Moff", CMAC Dreamcrusher, Official Administrative Waldorf and Statler----


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Shayera Jendob
Moff


Joined: 14 Jun 2009
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Location: All along the Watchtower

 Post Posted: Wed, January 11th 2012 12:58am    Post subject:
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The sun shone bright on the clear morning. The winter chill was starting to give way to the dry planet's brief spring and elongated summer. The air was brisk, filled with a clean scent. It should have been a blizzard, in the dead of night, the air dead and stale. Or an apocalyptic thunderstorm and downpour, choking with ozone and the stench of gathering floodwaters. No day should have been this bright and sunny, pleasantly brisk. Not after that aide ran up with the datapad. Not after... not after... Not after learning Kris was dead.

The cruelly honest words slashed across my mind and my heart. They roared in my ears, as though someone had their mouth pressed to the side of my head and screamed at the top of their lungs. The jeer shouted itself over and over again, excruciatingly loud. Each refrain was a fresh, bloody cut. I staggered as my vision blurred, though I knew few tears would come; not enough were left.

I found refuge on a stone bench, nestled in the palace grounds. Without my aimless wandering about on the cool morning no longer available to distract the rest of my mind, the horrific scenes replayed over and over. Whether it was the aide's earnest delivery of the report, thinking it another small crisis for the Empire... or the million imagined ways Kris met his fate. Did he suffer? In his final moments, what went through his mind? Did he think of his family? His friends? Were there regrets? Was there anger? Did he blame us? Or forgive?

A tear crept down my left cheek; I angrily wiped it away and shoved my hand back into the pockets of the soft, warm fleece jacket. Even the comfort of warmth, from the coat or the rays of sunlight, seemed wrong. The wind should've been sending icy razors of cold slashing through the thin jacket, cutting into my face and hands. But it was a perfect, late-winter/early-spring morning. Just picture-frakking-perfect, out of a cheesy holoprint.

I squeezed my eyes shut, losing myself in the dark ruminations. I recalled Ams, dragging me in my almost catatonic state into the conference room. I'd watched him in disbelief, the picture of reserve and coolness. And yet, I'd felt the horror, the rage, and the sorrow even as he perfectly tucked it away outwardly. But the moment that hatch shut, I realized just how tenuous the reserve had been. He tore the chair out from under the table (not that it had been bolted down) with a frightening speed, smashing it into the wall behind him with a growl. Then the chair rose in a sweeping arc from behind him, over his head as the growl began a snarling yell. The plastic back cracked explosively, skittering across the table as he smashed the chair down on the edge of the table. The fractured furniture rose again, only to be dashed across the table again, and again... over and over until Ams held it by the aluplast base. He'd thrown it aside, kicked another seat sideways, grabbed another and spun it into the wall. If the table hadn't been bolted down, I was sure it would've become mobile. As it was, my grief was briefly tempered by self-preservation, and I'd backed away from the whirling dervish that bore an uncanny resemblance to the Remnant's leader.

Another chair had flown across the room, bouncing limply off the far wall before Ams just pounded his hands on the table, the roaring fading to enraged yelping to shuddering sobs. He collapsed to his knees. I'd never seen him rage like that, nor act out so violently. I had also never heard my husband sob; I'd seen him cry, heard him get choked up... but never break down and sob like a... a... like a man who lost his son.

In the midst of the wreckage, the danger in the air deflated as quickly as it had come, I remembered having my back up against the wall. Time lost all meaning, there was only coming out of the shock only to plunge into the infinite sea of grief. We thought we'd known what it was like to lose a child. The cruel, cynical part of my mind leered, What a difference getting to know him makes, huh?

The report was barely over a day old now, on the fine, clear Bastion morning. The wreckage hadn't even settled out of Ansion's orbit yet; some debris still burned brightly despite the cold of the vacuum. Still, a small hopeful voice told me that there may have been survivors. The second-run Dragoons were essentially double-scale Carrack cruisers with hangar pods and a light Star Destroyer's armament. They had the redundant life-support and compartmentalized construction that made the Carracks so survivable. But that relied on him being aboard, in a relatively intact section when the Maelstrom died. He would've been in his Starhunter's cockpit, in the thick of it.

I exhaled slowly, sadly. No. No, I'm not going to give up on him. Not until they show me a body or a DNA trace.

But it was a whisker-thin ray of hope, and it had a limited life span. S&R and salvage crews were already working Ansion. It would take some time, but when their report came in, that sliver of hope broke away into finality... or worse, into uncertainty. If no trace could be found, then it raised the questions of capture, going missing, or simply not enough of being left for identification. And it was much, much worse to simply not know.

I pulled my hands from my pockets, cupping my fingers over my mouth as I supported my head on my thumbs. The dark thoughts began to circle faster. I tried grabbing at the positive memories, a sick feeling rising up as I realized how far back I had to go for that. But the few points of light—though carrying their own sting—helped hold the swirling tempest of darkness at bay. For now.
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Empress Shayera Jendob



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Ams Jendob
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 Post Posted: Sat, April 07th 2012 12:21am    Post subject:
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Another day, another datapad. Another series of dreadful reports, tales of treason, conspiracy, raids, counterassaults, pirate attacks taking advantage of Zend's chaos... each report from the far-flung worlds of the Remnant sparked dark ruminations on the grim situation. And yet, the bombardment was a reprieve in its own way, keeping my mind occupied from the still-blacker thoughts on what happened at Ansion.

The S&R teams had scoured the space around Ansion. A lot of bodies and remains, a few survivors from the ships or fighter contingents; even a New Republic escape pod from one of the ships they lost and some prisoners in former Imperial escape pods. The Republic survivors were repatriated, while Zend's few surviving minions had been delivered into the tender mercies of my former department. I'd always opposed torture on the grounds that it never generated useful information... but I'd have given my eye-teeth to personally handle their “interrogation.”

But it wouldn't bring Kris back. Neither did the S&R teams; indeed, they couldn't even find his craft. And the sole survivor from his squadron, one Ensign Zhun, didn't know what become of him. The total absence of his ship did offer a thin ray of hope, along with an oppressive, crushing dread: it indicated capture instead of immediate annihilation. But capture at the hands of Daara Zend may well have been a far worse fate. Wild rumors circulated about what happened to her prisoners, some decades-old, some fresh. I knew, from personal experience with the woman, she was ruthless enough to butcher her prisoners, but intelligent enough to wring every last ounce of information and cooperation out of them first.

The unknown factor was what would she do with Kris, if she knew who he was... if she hadn't already disposed of him either negligently or deliberately. The best possibility—that she would return him unmolested—was also the one with the slimmest chance. Might she pull an Isard, and brainwash him as an enemy agent, even an assassin? Execute him amid public spectacle? Or just let him rot away in a dungeon on Muunilinst or in the Unknown Regions?

The last thought sent a chill down my spine. Not due to its severity—death or reprogramming, especially if led to his death anyway—was worse. But the idea that she could whisk him away, back along space lanes unknown to the Remnant to worlds only known to her charts... and therein also lay our great strategic difficulty. Her industrial base and research centers—indeed, the self-sufficient fiefdom she'd carved from the Unknown Regions—were out of our reach. They were distant for her, as well, explaining why she needed the bridgeheads and assets at Muunilinst and Bilbringi, but they were still there and unreachable to us. She didn't need to waste resources defending an entire hidden empire, whereas we had to protect our very well-known worlds and routes.

The only bonus—and it was an unreliable one at that—was Zend had to fight a two-front war. It had been surprising to learn that the admiral who had driven her forces back from Ansion had been a staunchly anti-Imperial officer;indeed, a defector who killed several officers in the process of joining the Rebellion. It may have been under orders, but there had been serious doubts among the High Command as to how closely Republic commanders might adhere to those orders. Indeed, if not for Ulgo's assassination, it was unlikely the mutual assistance directive might have ever been issued. That Alderaanian wench never made any secret of her desires to reduce Bastion to a planetary ocean of slag, and then proceed planet by planet until every trace of the Empire was cast into the flames, willingly or otherwise.

Daast seemed to be a reasonable sort, if very young for the post. I imagined if a commodore had suddenly been promoted over every admiral in the Imperial Navy to Chief of Staff, it would engender a good deal of resentment. Of course, the reports from the Republic never mentioned any schisms caused by the Chief of State's rather arbitrary decision... then again, I could empathize with the woman's plight.

And on that note, I mused with gallows amusement and reached for the brandy Niles had poured some time before. The warm sensation slowly radiated outward but it came off as astringent and raw on the palate. Far from providing a small note of civilized comfort or relaxation, it was an irritant on top of a Galaxy full of disaster as well as crushing uncertainty about something far more important to me than a bunch of squabbling Moffs and governors.

But I was powerless to do anything to help Kris... even if he was alive. And it seemed I was powerless to do anything to hold the Remnant together. Life had been so much simpler, all those years ago, on the deck of a Star Destroyer. The enemy was clear, the targets were clear, the responsibilities were clear... indeed, the only complications came from a TIE Interceptor pilot in Gamma Squadron. But what a complication...

The door to the study opened. I glanced up, expecting Niles or an aide. Instead, a black-clad woman in an officer's uniform strode in past the pair of Stormtroopers that were partially visible to either side of the door. Despite the dark cloud hanging over the Galaxy, this particular corner brightened a few points. Nice timing. “Hello, Shy.”

She sat down, wearily, on an overstuffed couch. “Hey,” she noted flatly, then gestured to the datapad. “How goes it?”

I sighed. “Not good, honestly. Not as bad as it was... but we're still short.”

A quiet moment passed, and then Shayera asked softly, “Did you see the Ansion report?”

A surge of tension shot through my body. “Yes.”

I forced my gaze to track from the small desk I'd been working from to meet her eyes. She hid nothing, not in this private sanctuary. And the look of despair fed by crushed hopes and deepened uncertainty twisted the knife that now occupied my son's place in my heart.

“They couldn't find anything,” Shayera stated. The words were flat, mechanical; a simple statement of fact. A fact that had crushed her, grinding down even a loving mother's hopes for her son's survival. And she too felt the ache of uncertainty... all of the devastation of loss, but lacking that tourniquet of closure. Many mothers were burying sons and daughters after Ansion, even if mostly in spirit. In time, their hearts would stop bleeding because they knew what became of their child. It was a cruel, harsh salve, but a salve nonetheless.

Instead, that faint ray of hope for Kris would grow ever dimmer with each passing day, each passing week. As long as it glowed, defiant in the face of reason and logic, it offered its warmth and comfort. But at a cost: its caress was razor-edged, and it would draw fresh blood each time it was called upon. It would constantly remind us that perhaps, one day, our son would walk through the door; perhaps he would be all right, and we could all be together again. And so long as that hope held out, the dread of that hope never being fulfilled followed closely. In the end, only one could win out; either our son lived, and would continue to do so... or he would die, if he hadn't been killed already. In either case, the blade no longer cut, and the wound could start to heal. But healing required closure, one way or the other.

“That might be a good thing, Shy,” I answered quietly, not sure if I was lying more to her or to myself. “Maybe he was going for help... or landed on the planet and no one noticed...”

“Or maybe he was captured, and Zend didn't decide to shoot him on the spot?” Shayera touched on the one possibility I was desperately dancing around.

I nodded. “Or maybe that, yes.”

“Or maybe whatever was left just dispersed too far by the time they got there,” she added, her tone dark to match the grisly words. She looked off blankly, eyes unfocused.

“Now, Shayera, we can't know th—”

She snapped her head up, glowering. “We can't know a kriffing thing because they couldn't find anything. Maybe he's a defector and bolted to Zeltros to bag a bunch of pink-skinned girls! Maybe he's planet-side with a bad transmitter! But we don't kriffing know, and...” Her voice halted, the tightening of her throat clear in the sound of her voice. “And... he could be dead. Or captured. Or any of a million things. And that we don't know is... is the worst karking part of it.”

I rose as her last few words dissolved into tears. Tentatively, I touched her shoulder; when she didn't resist, I sat beside her and put an arm around her, pulling her close. I rasped, “I know, love.”

She twisted around, burying her face in my chest. I cradled her head in both arms and lightly touched her hair, feeling the pressure in my own eyes as my wife wept in our shared despair. I wanted to say something. Anything. Anything to just to relieve her pain. But words didn't come. What words were there?

I heard her talking softly. The words seemed incoherent, almost gibberish until I realized they were in Old Corellian. An ancient prayer, from the earliest days of interstellar flight. I'd never given much weight to prayer and other superstitious rituals before, and I wasn't going to entrust the fate of my only son to such silliness. But, then again, I was willing to take all of the help I could get. So I continued to hold Shayera, lightly stroking her soft, red hair and occasionally kissing her forehead. I waited until she finished her incantations, I waited until her tears ceased. I felt her slide her arms behind my back, wrapping me in her own embrace. And then she whispered, “Don't hold it in, Ams.”

She looked up, locking our eyes. I lightly touched her cheek, then shook my head. “I'm all right for now, love.

“And we'll find him. If I have to personally scour the surface of every planet in this Galaxy, we will find him.”
_________________
Emperor Ams Jendob, Ruler of the Imperial Remnant


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----"Moff", CMAC Dreamcrusher, Official Administrative Waldorf and Statler----
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Shayera Jendob
Moff


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Location: All along the Watchtower

 Post Posted: Tue, June 26th 2012 12:17am    Post subject:
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The pillow gave way under the weight of my head. Ams' hand reached up, lightly brushing aside my hair before giving me a gentle kiss on the cheek. Out of habit, out of reflex, I returned the gesture.

He whispered, “Good night, Shy.”'

“Good night, Ams,” I replied automatically.

He rolled over, resting one hand under his pillow. I stared at his back a moment, my mind still grappling with something that bothered me from earlier in the day. “Ams...?”

“Hmm?”

“You're not okay.”

A sigh, then the rustling that accompanied Ams' rolling back to face me. “What?”

“Earlier... you said you were all right. After we talked about the SAR report. But you're not,” I said.

More rustling, then the bedside light flicked on. There was a weary look to his features. “And?”

I bristled at the irritation in his tone. “And... you need to let it out.”

A grim smirk crossed his face. “Redecorate another conference room?”

I frowned, not finding any amusement in the subject of our dead son and how to cope with it. “Ams, you need to let go of the anger at some point.”

Ams looked back at me for a moment, then rolled onto his back. I could already hear the various replies, either about presenting an image, dealing with it at his own pace, shouldering the burden for the both of us...

“No, I don't.” The words were almost casual, not confrontational.

And I was completely blindsided. “What?”

No, I don't have to let go of my anger, I don't have to let it out, and I bloody well don't have to make peace with anything,” he growled, transitioning from the weary, nonchalant tone of his original statement to seething with anger.

“In fact, Shayera,” he added, the rage giving way to a hideous mirth, “I intend to hold on to it.”

There was a terrible gleam in his eye, something dark and cruel fueled by rage. I felt the words slip out, even though I dreaded the answer. “Why?”

He turned to me, slowly. The corners of his mouth quirked upward in a cruelly thin, sadistic smile. “I'm going to hold on to it... I'm going to look at his picture every day, remember the man my son was—good and bad—and then I'm going to remember who it was that made certain there would be no more good and no chance to rectify the bad.

“Every day, I am going to fan the flames and stoke the fire. And the anger, the pain, the rage at how my son--our one and only son—was murdered... I am going to refine it, forge it, and temper it in that fire. I will hone it to a razor's edge. And come the blessed day, that razor is going to open Daara Zend from chops to navel, and then take off her head to mount on a pike.”

The demonic glee with which he spoke the last sentence sent a chill down my spine. My mind reeled at the brutal things he'd said, that had come from the mouth of the gentle, loving man I'd married. I started to object, but his tirade wasn't finished. “Then, love... then, when our son can rest easy... then I'll let go.”

“Ams, I... this isn't you... this...”

He fixed me with an icy stare. “Shayera, I will gladly listen if you want to talk. If you want a shoulder to cry on. If you just someone to hold you,” the stranger in my bed started to reach his hand toward me; I shoved it away. He showed no reaction to the rejection. “I'm here for you.”

Then his face changed. The ice in his gaze melted to restrained tears. The tight precision in his tone unraveled. “But don't take this away from me,” he said. I realized he was pleading. “Don't take away my ability to avenge our boy.”

The revulsion evaporated. Part of me wondered what was next on this emotional roller coaster. I didn't know what to say, what to do. I wondered how long that hellish plot had festered in his mind... in his heart. And then I wondered where my own bloodlust was, my desire to avenge myself and my son on that murdering whore of a mad clone. A brief flicker of adrenaline stiffened my muscles, jangled my nerves. Ah, and there it is.

I began to realize that I was not so pure of heart and mind... I'd just not gotten around to exposing the raw core of righteous fury underneath the pain. The image of a vivisected Zend flashed across my mind; what had been repugnant in Ams' mouth no longer inspired the same level of revulsion. It was still present, to a degree, but there was a steadily growing feeling of savage glee at bringing such a thing to pass. Perhaps Ams merely sunk into that core faster than I had.

As I swung my legs over the edge of the bed, Ams reached out again. This time, I did not brush him off. “Where are you going?”

“I need to walk around a little... think. Maybe...” I looked back at him, and felt an evil grin pull at my mouth. “Maybe you don't have such a bad idea after all.”
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Empress Shayera Jendob



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