Okay, here we go, as ever, I've picked out a brief excerpt from the next (and final!) story in this Empire's Son trilogy
Guess who's coming...
Two armed guards before and behind him, Luke was shown to a large, circular waiting room with a clear lantern to the center of its ceiling, through which Nirauan's night sky was a dim black blanket. The room itself was sparsely furnished and barely lit, the only illumination limited to soft pools angled towards the many pieces of art hung on the walls.
Left alone, he glanced about, thoughts taken instantly back to the galleried walls of the Red Room in his quarters in the Imperial Palace on Coruscant…and felt a pang of emptiness bloom in the center of his chest. Not a desire to return to those times—not at all—but regret for how he'd so completely destroyed his life every single day since.
His gaze had come to rest on a big canvas on the far side of the room, a baleful synthesis of dark blues and blacks which somehow reminded him of one that had hung in Palpatine's private study. As he moved across the room some unseen system triggered stronger lights to illuminate each canvas he neared, dimming again as he passed, until only the huge inky-black canvas remained lit, the gesso that had been used to prime the surface laid so thick as to form ridges beneath thickly-daubed paint, a hidden labyrinthine tangle highlighted by the angle of the light. He stopped, tipping his chin down, trying not to look at it…but his eyes were drawn back as he scowled, ill at ease…
He was aware that his response to art had always been visceral. In a life where every thought in every mind was laid bare to be read like a book, the silent subtleties that coaxed toward their own unraveling had always drawn him in, the tone of a single piece able to inspire or stifle his disposition for hours.
He stared, head tilting, pulled back to another time and place… Breha Organa, the woman who had raised him as her son, the only mother he'd ever known. The woman whom Palpatine had ordered killed in front of him when he was eleven. She had loved art, he remembered that. Had wanted her son to feel the same… 'Promise me you'll always do this, promise me you'll always draw.'
Alone, hearing her words, her tone, her warmth, with painful clarity, Luke stared at the dark canvas, dragged down into its dense shadows…
Frowning, he shook his head briefly, voice a whisper. "Not here."
The huge canvas seemed to grow in his vision, as if reaching out to him. "No, you're wrong, it doesn't. It's not the same."
He blinked quickly, shaking his head. "Just stop. Stop. I w—"
He broke off as the door behind him slid aside and a man walked in, the pace of his footsteps purposeful. Luke turned—
And let out a quiet breath in shock. Not at the man who stood before him—he'd seen other blue-skinned, luminescent red-eyed Chiss on his way to this chamber—but at the soft, blank void that unfurled invisibly into the room about him, making him feel that he'd been immersed in a dense, dampening fog.
Ysalamiri; lots of them, all brought close outside of this room in unison, their combined influence cutting him off from the Force entirely. That was the only thing he knew that could void the Force like this. They could be a level below him, outside the walls of the chamber…possibly on the open roof above. If it was meant to unsettle him, it was wasted; he'd spent years loading his system with ever more exotic spice to achieve the same result. Being without the Force didn't compromise him.
"General Antilles," Grand Admiral Thrawn spoke in cool, crisp tones, all-red eyes narrowed in study as he walked forward, alone.
"The ysalamiri won't stop me," Luke said without preamble.
Thrawn tilted his head, tone cordial. "From doing what, exactly?" Those blood-red eyes held on Luke, unsettling not in their color but because they had no discernible iris, so that Luke was uncertain where exactly his focus lay.
Still, he held his gaze as Thrawn closed, the pure white of his immaculate Imperial admiral's uniform almost glowing in the dimly-lit room, his demeanor innately self-possessed, utterly confident, the merest tinge of curiosity visible in the tilt of his head. Uncomfortable with being the object of interest and wishing to keep this short, Luke glanced meaningfully at that Imperial insignia on Thrawn's chest.
"I have a code to quote to you. Vertex nine-nine-six-two-gotal-epsilon."
Not a single wrinkle marred the smooth blue skin around those searching eyes. "Hand codes seem a little obsolete, when the man they served is dead."
"Then why are you still wearing the uniform of his military?" Luke countered. "Or did you pull it out and dust it off whilst my ship was setting down on your landing pad?"
"The Empire remains…albeit leaderless."
Luke felt a twitch at the edge of his lip. "Hearing a calling?"
"At this time, no," Thrawn countered, glancing to the canvas on the wall. "I see you're appreciating my art collection."
"I'm simply looking at it," Luke said, aware that he was being led. "It's difficult not to, when there's nothing else in the room."
Thrawn moved to stand close, surprisingly trusting to Luke's opinion, since the lightsaber at his belt hadn't been confiscated…yet. He was tall—but then many were taller than Luke, at just eighteen—and he stood very deliberately straight, the line of his chin and the set of his mouth coolly aloof, arrogant even. Though if he was as good as the high-level intel files that Luke had read two years ago, stored in Palpatine's private vault on Coruscant, it wasn't without reason.
By comparison Luke was very much aware that he probably looked like nothing, his skin pale, eyes sunken so dark that that they looked bruised, his unkempt hair too long, his clothes crumpled. He didn't care. He doubted that it would influence this man's assessment of him, and had no interest in playing games.
Thrawn, it seemed, didn't share the opinion, eyes roving the dark painting before them. "There's so much one can learn, from a piece of art. Don't you agree?"
Luke ground his jaw a fraction. But he was here to gain something, and the easiest way was to ask…first. So he glanced back to the canvas. "It depends on the piece of art."
"Indeed it does," Thrawn allowed, gaze travelling over the massed pieces…and coming to rest on Luke; he could feel it quite distinctly, even without the Force.
Luke's eyes narrowed a fraction, jaw tightening as the comprehension slowly came that the art in this room had been carefully chosen to provoke a response. In him specifically.
He folded his arms, annoyed that he was forced to look up to meet Thrawn's eye, beginning to realize that the Admiral's proximity had also more than likely been a calculated act. "Do you intend to honor the Hand code or not?"
Thrawn paused a moment, then granted probably the most honest exchange he'd given thus far. "The matter is…under consideration."
"Consider that you're wearing an Imperial uniform, and I've just quoted a privileged code issued by the Emperor himself."
"Which bought you the right to stand here," Thrawn said. "It bought you my attention.… Brought you to my attention."
Thrawn allowed himself several more seconds of close examination…then surprised Luke as he tilted his head a fraction, tone conciliatory. "Indulge me. It's surely what you came here intending to do…otherwise given your modus operandi, you would have bypassed this conversation entirely. It so also implies that you consider our goals to be at least partially aligned."
Those last words sounded suspiciously like Thrawn too had an objective, here. Luke remained still, freshly wary of the presence of the unseen ysalamiri not just in terms of his narrowed ability to react to unexpected events, but also his inability to read Thrawn, in order to predict them.
"I am not your enemy, General Antilles," Thrawn assured smoothly. "And you are not mine."
"Then why the ysalamiri?"
"The ysalamiri enable us to meet as allies, on level ground. You surely understand my need for that? I simply wish to guarantee that this remains an amicable meeting."
"That's very much up to you."
"If you have a request to put forward, then I will certainly consider it. However, I'd assume that an operative of your level would have done their homework before coming here, General Antilles. You would therefore know that we Chiss are analytical by nature. We do not make hasty or impulsive decisions."
"I would have considered the decision made when you first chose to put on that uniform."
Thrawn smiled thinly, and looked again to the huge, dark canvas before him. "The Emperor was a great collector of art in all its facets. He himself presented me with this piece when I agreed to command a task force beyond recognized Imperial borders, on his command. It was one of a series of paintings by the artist Tetsuna. Palpatine owned both this and its sister-piece, and I had always admired them. Tetsuna came from the Lake Country on Naboo, close to the Emperor Palpatine's ancestral home."
"I'm not interested in the paintings," Luke said, unwilling to look at the piece again, uncomfortably aware now of just why exactly it had drawn him in.
"But you should be, General Antilles. Art tells so much of the mindset of the people of its region…as well as the man who collected it, if you know how to unravel its intricacies. To truly appreciate art, one must bring all one's faculties to bear."
"This isn't art—not to you. You have no appreciation of it, no sense of what it's trying to communicate."
"On the contrary, enlightened eyes can often see more than was ever intended."
Luke shook his head, unimpressed. "I know what you think you can achieve, with your directed study of a species' art, your pragmatic formula."
As much as Thrawn had clearly read intel files on Luke, Luke had been force-fed the same on Thrawn whilst still on Coruscant, in his Master's service. Palpatine had long held that exceptional allies could so easily become dangerous adversaries. "You believe you can read art like a textbook. That you can drain it of knowledge without giving even a fraction of yourself to the experience. You don't want to hear what it's saying or experience a connection. You don't care that this is someone's soul. You see the frame, not the art. You—"
He broke off, chiding himself for being so easily led into voicing his distaste at the knowledge that he too was here to be read, like the rest of the artifacts in this room. He needed to get a hold of himself; he was out of practice.
Thrawn smiled gamely. "I disagree."
"You can't predict an entire society's mindset through their art."
The Admiral turned a fraction, still utterly sure of his view but enjoying the conversation. "And your basis for that assertion?"
Luke hesitated a moment, surprised at being called on this, of all things. But Thrawn only stared, waiting, that neutral expression and sense of quiet superiority reminding Luke far too much of others in his recent past.
Chin lifting a fraction, he held his ground. "Artists are more likely to exist on the fringes of their society. Art is usually produced by those who feel they are in some way on the outside of whatever culture they originate from. That's why they feel the need to produce art—they're searching for words when none exist in the common lexicon."
"So you believe all art is fundamentally an expression of frustration and isolation."
"How many pieces have you seen that are trying to communicate inner peace? Of those that do, how many are doing so as a direct contrast—internal or external—to chaos and despair."
"And a portrait?"
"Is seldom art for art's sake. It's a commission. A way to eat."
"And a portrait of the artist's lover?"
"Is a desperate need to preserve a moment they know can't and won't last."
Thrawn stared, that enigmatic half-smile perfectly held. Luke clamped his jaw, aware that to give any justification would only validate the man's suspicions that he had uncovered some vital truth. Perhaps he had.
Eventually Thrawn turned slowly back to the canvas, voice neutral. "We at least agree that whatever their focus, each piece is a mine of secrets to be fathomed and deciphered."
"Art isn't a mystery to be solved—that's not how it works. You're looking for something that's not there. It's communion, contact. It's a dialogue, not a dictionary."
Thrawn lifted his chin a fraction, those sharp eyes studying Luke closely. "You're something of an artist yourself, I understand."
"No," Luke said flatly. "Not at all."
"On the contrary, I have several of your sketches—or images of them, at least; they were hardly transportable. Older ones, from the Imperial Palace on Coruscant. A few from the Winter Palace. They were quite accomplished—and so very expressive."
Luke narrowed his eyes, again made aware that something bigger was going on here. "Why?"
"I told you, I have an interest in art."
"It wasn't art."
"The definition of art throughout most civilized societies has often been a fascinating point of contention. My own interests remain the same, regardless of the name society chooses to give such things. You just said yourself that art is, at its most basic, an expression. Of the artist, of his account of and relation to the society that he inhabits—of life, of hope, of despair. One peels back the layers and learns its language. That which the artist wished to impart, that which he wished to consider for himself…that which he wished to remain hidden."
Luke twitched beneath his skin…but held an indifferent front. "I think you may be reading too much into a bored teenager with a stolen stylus and a destructive streak."
"May I ask why exactly the stylus was stolen—why you felt the need to give emphasis to that one fact?"
Luke took a step back, enforcing distance. "You need to get out more."
"And now you're trying to alienate me, to cover your slip."
This time Luke simply stared, unwilling to give this man any more.
Thrawn let the silence hang too long…before breaking into that crisp, empty smile. "I do, however, agree with your assertion that finished pieces intended for sale tell far less of the inner psyche of the individual than rough sketches made at random. Finished art is an essay for mass consumption. Sketches are the musings of a mind."
When Luke still didn't take the bait, Thrawn shrugged, then turned away. "To speak with the originator of any piece which I hold is a rare opportunity, indeed. I would very much enjoy a discussion of your…work, at some point."
The temptation to ask what exactly Thrawn held burned…but Luke stilled his tongue. Blood red eyes turned to hold steady on him, but eventually Thrawn realized that the question wouldn't yet be forced, and so he turned aside to walk across the center of the room towards the door they'd both entered through—the only space that Luke had not looked at, the entrance to his back and its artwork unlit. Thrawn slowed, his proximity triggering the system to light the large canvas there.
"I particularly like this piece. I had it pulled from storage when you contacted us. A Capellan artist, named—"
"Oridago." There was the slightest tremor in his voice as Luke spoke, but Thrawn clearly heard it. He smiled, turning back from the artwork as Luke walked forward, drawn toward the canvas without even realizing it.
"Ah, you remember. I admit, I was unfamiliar with the language or style, when I acquired it—unaware that it was stylized calligraphy, and not abstract. Even when I realized, Capellan is so rare that I was forced to use a translator to decipher the meaning of the script…"
Luke was barely listening, his attention on the huge, fast-drawn scrawl of moss-green, three interlocked symbols rendered one almost entirely over the other, so kinetic that the canvas barely seemed to hold them. "Seek Solitude."
His world had already begun to crumble by the time Luke had hung that canvas on the wall of his quarters in the Imperial Palace. Beaten bloody and bruised by Palpatine for…some perceived failing; they all merged into one, he remembered sitting straight-backed on the bare floor before the massive canvas, broken ribs beginning to stiffen as Han had sat tentatively beside him. Remembered in acute detail his discussion with Han, neither of them taking their eyes from the painting.
"It's perfect. It's…expansive. Makes you feel you can breathe deeply. Like you can open your ribcage up and breathe."
"Yes…and now I've made a mark on it."
He had; two small, bloody handprints, where he'd lifted it to be hung. But Han had always known what to say, even then; known how to disperse the darkness.
"See, I thought they were meant to be there."
Luke remembered smiling; it had hurt. "Very existential."
He blinked away the memory, only now realizing that he'd crossed the space to halt before the canvas. Angry at his own reaction on seeing it hung before him now, he flicked his head, almost shaking it, ordering himself to the present.
He'd come halfway across the galaxy and seen the Sith Master who had shaped and mis-shaped him die twice, between then and now. Amazing, how some things never changed. "Who was providing you with images of the walls of my rooms?"
Thrawn's eyes hadn't once yet looked to the canvas, remaining always on Luke. "Such an evocative piece."
"It's a fake."
"And here I thought that perhaps you simply hung your walls with color and borrowed artistic kudos. But no," He nodded, all-red eyes fixed with smug satisfaction. "You understood."
Again Luke ground his jaw at being laid bare. "I simply know his signature."
"The signature is an accurate copy, General Antilles. And the piece is an excellent forgery of the original you held, in every way. You know his art. You know his hand. You know his mind."
"I also know that the original had handling marks to the edges of two sides. You could have had them professionally removed, I suppose, but I actually think you would have preferred them to remain."
Luke fell silent, staring at Thrawn, aware from that curious gaze that he'd finally scored a hit of his own. But of course the man was too practiced to give ground, instead turning to the canvas, that ghost of a superior smile remaining. "Tell me, as one aficionado of art to another, what do you see?"
Luke didn't look. It took too much, held too many memories that burned. "What I see is irrelevant. You can't judge art by what another sees. That's technique. Art is what it means to you."
"What it means to me—" A pause, as those knowing red eyes returned to him. "Is a way to see into you."
Steeling himself, Luke glanced to the canvas without letting a single muscle in his face move, before looking quickly to the ground. "I see a closed door."
Thrawn was still watching him. "Oridago was little known at the time. He'd never sold a piece beyond his own planet. It would have required extensive research and effort, to source this piece. Clearly it was once something that you valued very much."
"I lost everything I valued. Looking at a poor forgery won't bring it back."
"I don't believe that you ever sought out this piece for its monetary value—quite the opposite, I think. You speak of messages, of connecting with the meaning of the art…" Thrawn paused, head tilting. "Do you wish me to continue?"
"I came for Palpatine's holocrons," Luke said, unwilling to let this progress any further. "Do you have them or not?"
That superior smile held intact on an utterly unreadable face. "I apologize, General Antilles—I'm making you uncomfortable."
"No, you're simply wasting my time."
"It's more than four months since Palpatine's death onboard the Death Star at Rhen Var…and now a few minutes of cordial conversation are too great?"
"Do you have them or not?"
"Tell me how the Emperor died."
The words—the broadside that Luke had been expecting since he'd arrived here—still held the power to stop him in his tracks, freezing him to the spot. Unthinking, his gaze went back to that huge brooding canvas to the far side of the room, whose inky tones swallowed the dim light cast on it, a skin of baleful hues masking the chaos of raised ridges and rifts beneath. And the longer he stared, the more the dense color crawled on the canvas, overrunning his senses, drawing him in.
Thrawn watched, waiting, red eyes fixed in silent study…
There you go, that's it for now. Everyone's back next story-hope you'll watch out for it :)