Surprise Rating: PG
Thrawn McEwok

Soft as a lover's breath, I step into her room, and see her standing in front of the mirror, putting on her earrings.

I pause, and for a moment, my eyes explore her, admiring everything about her. There is something carnal and predatory in that look, I fear, but there is also admiration, and respect — an appreciation for her on her own terms.

She wears a green dress, paler than I would have chosen for her, but perfect. The gown leaves her back completely bare, and the tones of skin and silk are set off by long white gloves and a collar of massive Calamari pearls around her neck. She wears her hair up, raised high a complex tower of red-gold braids — with a few curls sprung artfully loose at the back of her neck.

It strikes me, as I look at her, that she has made each decision to please me — but each decision is her own. I would not have chosen those jewels for her, or ever had her wear her hair in one of those high, fashionable styles. She made those choices, and she made them better than I ever could.

In something as simple as dressing for the evening, she declares herself to be her own woman in every way that matters, and capable of doing things that I cannot.

What binds her to me is, quite simply, love.

I smile at that thought, and I see her smile back, catching my eye in the mirror. For a moment, I feel a flutter of anxiety from her, and then she is herself again, calmly adjusting the pearls in her ears, and turning slowly round to face me — standing before me with sway to her body, an elbows-in, palms-out gesture, inviting my opinion.

With a nod, I look her over again, then meet her green-eyed gaze — grinning in appreciation.

She is already grinning back. She knows already that she has won my approval, and in doing so, satisfied her own aim of expressing her love for me.

"You are radiant," I tell her, as she walks towards me. She moves with exquisite grace, as poised and assured in those heels and that dress as she would be if she was naked.

I offer her my arm, and she locks her grasp around my own. For a moment, our eyes meet.

"Come," I say, with a wry grin. "Your transportation awaits."

Most of the creatures of the Imperial court crave only selfish things, from the lowliest whore and pretty-boy through the grasping Councillors and Senators to Darth Vader himself. Whatever lies they tell themselves, they are all drawn to the flame of power, hoping to warm themselves in its light.

Mara Jade ... is different.

She is not like them; nor is she like me.

I am angry — and I have used my anger, to wrest the Galaxy away from the stupidity and petty-mindedness of Jedi and Sith and bureaucrats. Vader and all the other fools in the Senate and the Council and the bloated bureaucracy cannot see that their future is only — in the ultimate irony — an honourable retirement.

There will always be whores and pretty-boys, I suppose. But the Galaxy cannot be perfect, merely better.

I think of Vader, and I sigh inside. Such a fool. So like me.

But she is not like that. She — not Vader, and certainly not me — is what those who wield the Force should be.

She — not Vader — is the first of the true New Order.

And, remarkably, she loves me.

She matches my pace perfectly as we walk through the corridors of the Palace. I glance at her, and see a little tension in her face, the same expression that she wears when she is picking a lock; the same expression she wore doing homework, when she was younger. Concentration and concern. I am getting old, and she — she alone — knows how frail and human I really am.

I look away. I will not infect her concern for me with my own bitterness.

"Where are we going?" she shivers, as we turn the final corner, and the night wind gusts in through the open doors. Ahead of us, on an open-air landing pad, a long black flyer awaits, surrounded by a detail of red-robed guards. In the night, backed by stars and city lights, it looks beautiful.

"Qel-Droma," I whisper her. "The Imperial Opera and the Coruscant Full Symphony. With Rugan Libviz as Ulic, and Kola'kana'o as Vima."

She gasps, and grins in sudden delight, and stares at me in something close to disbelief. She has as much appreciation of beauty and skill as I do myself, of their soothing qualities, and the ways they speak to the soul.

I know that she had found an excuse to attend one of the chorus rehearsals, towards the end of the production's run.

But she had never expected this. I smile quietly, pleased with myself, and then I nod, confirming her unasked question.

"Tonight, my young Hand, is an evening off — for both of us."

"Thank you, my Master," she breathes, and there is youth and awe and light in her voice.

I laugh at that — that is another of her gifts, to make me laugh.

"You deserve it, my Hand," I tell her. And for once, it is even the truth.

She warms beside me, her love for me repaid.

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