A/N: It's been a while, I know. I'm sorry for that. The good news is that I finished my law degree in my absence! ::happy dance:: I will finish this story, if anyone is still around to appreciate it. Please be gentle on this next chapter. I'm trying to get back into the swing of things, and I hope this chapter is up to standards. If not, please forgive!
Disclaimer: I own nothing but my OCs. Please do not sue. This is only for fun.
It had been her favorite place to hide as a child, the Alderaan latticework sectioning off that one perfect corner of the main audience hall in the Imperial Palace.
The acoustics in the room funneled all sounds with perfect clarity into that one corner, conversations that started at the massive double doors at its entry point drifting with crystal clarity to her ears. She'd hidden there many a time, most especially when the Emperor was holding court with high ranking military leaders. There was a part of her that was certain he knew she was there, listening and watching, though she barely understood a fraction of what was said at the time. All that was important were the images she could see, the faces of victims – both future and past – that floated around the heads of such powerful men.
It never occurred to her until much later to wonder why there were no women present at such meetings. Her child's mind had assumed that true ladies wouldn't want to wear those uncomfortable looking uniforms when they could wear any number of pretty dresses. All the women at the court always wore the most beautiful gowns, the materials crafted with the utmost care from worlds beyond measure. It was the Emperor's pleasure to see his "rare and unique gems" displayed in the finest of fabrics, and rumor held that only those in His Majesty's favor were allowed to touch those unique gems. Irena's own gowns were created of such materials, and she liked the colors much more than the basic black or olive drab of the uniforms.
Later, she would learn the reason why no women numbered among the "guests" at these important meetings. The arguments between herself and her Master would become the stuff of legends, rivaled only by the momentous falling out between the Emperor and perhaps the most gifted tactician the Empire had ever known.
After everyone departed, however, her Emperor would call her to his side. He'd offer her a sweet treat, ask her to sit at his feet and tell him all the images she saw around his officers. It was easy to talk to him in those early years, his presence like a warm embrace when she pleased him with her words. It made it easier to do what he said and forget the world she had come from, forget the people that had raised her, and forget all the other 'trivial things a lady of the court must not consider.'
All that mattered was that he loved her. All that mattered were the pretty shinny things he gave her to assuage her tears.
Even now, ten years after the fact, Irena peered through the lattice work panel, watching the procession as her Emperor, her beloved Master, strolled with his quiet and slow step towards his throne. All present bowed low as he passed, the lovely woman named Mara Jade on his arm. She was dressed just as regally as Irena was, though Mara's gown was low cut and provocative, a white wisp of fabric that clung in all the right places, showing off her dancer's body to gorgeous glory. A single shouldersculp decorated her shoulder, blue and gold filigree so delicate as if to seem more an illusion than real.
A custom work of art made especially for her.
Irena felt a twinge of resentment—no, pure unadulterated jealousy—as the flame-haired woman escorted their Emperor. Every eye followed Mara, every man looking on with undisguised lust as she passed. The fullness of her own skirt was suddenly heavy on her legs, and Irena ground her teeth. She was dressed as a true lady of the court, her gown a deep dark blue that brought out hints of the same color in her grey eyes. Her brown hair was burnished with hints of copper and gold, and she'd been told by those she trusted that it looked like molten bronze under the muted lights the Emperor favored.
She was every bit as lovely as the red-headed, green eyed Mara Jade. Maybe even more so if she believed her attendants. So why was she dressed in the heavy formal gown, hidden from all eyes, while Mara got to bask in the delight of every glance in the room? The answer was as galling as it was obvious. It was because Mara had finally edged her out in the Emperor's eyes. After all the long years of competition, the other woman had done it.
They'd grown up together in the palace, she and Mara Jade, raised by the Emperor's own word as siblings. Princesses of the court, they were, equal in all things. Something of a sisterly love had blossomed between them at one point, either she or Mara slipping from their private rooms to sleep in the same bed, sharing whispered giggles and stories. They'd hidden together behind this same latticework many a time, and as they grew to young women, they'd made plans over which Fleet Captain or Moff they would take as a lover. Wonder at which visiting Prince from what planet the Emperor would eventually select for their marriage mate.
There was never any illusion that they would marry for love. They were princesses of the court, the ones other women wished they were in their greatest dreams. Love was something that lesser, unworthy women settled for when they could not have a marriage based on power. And they would plot their tiny little wars together, carving up the galaxy that their "father" would ultimately leave to them.
Until the day that they grew up, ambition replacing childish plans, competition becoming more alluring that sisterly love. Until the moment when Mara's ability to hear their Master's call from anywhere in the galaxy outshined Irena's own gift at seeing images through the Force.
Mara became the favorite. And Irena was left behind the latticework alone, forgotten.
"You should not sulk so, your highness," a soft voice called from behind her.
Irena half turned, not realizing that her rosebud lips were drawn down into a frown. Her eyes took in the familiar image of Andryl, her personal assistant. He stood as tall as ever, his regally handsome face unlined despite his age. Only the silver wings at his temples marred the night black of his hair, betraying the true amount of years he'd walked through the galaxy.
And yet when she glanced at him, she saw the man he had been over a decade ago when she met the Shadow King for the first time. He had been an imperial secretary, a beggar of favor from the Emperor for his own selfish goals. A murderer of dreams. Such things were behind him now, and a small part of her felt a twin surge of guilt and relief at such a thought. She had bound him to her at that first meeting, using the Force to strip away his ability to ever do harm to another living being for the rest of his life.
It had made him safe as a protector and guide for her, and had pleased her Emperor to no end.
The guilt at such a binding remained, tainting their relationship in tiny ways. The Emperor had used her to perform such erosions of will on others after that, turning the most obstinate of senators into staunch supporters of his policies, twisting those that had extremely displeased him into nattering idiots who could barely hold together two thoughts. Those were the faces that haunted her fog of victims, that taunted her every time she looked into a mirror. Her price for power. Her price for making the choice she'd made ten years ago, kneeling there at the Admiral's feet.
And yet there she sat, exiled behind the latticework. She might as well have been exiled to the Unknown Regions for all the good sitting there did for her.
"So what if I am?" she replied arrogantly, filling the emptiness in her being with the cold shadowy wind of the Dark Side, chasing away the memories of another time and place. "She walks at his side while I am banished to shadows."
"Banished? I hardly think that is the case, Lady Irena."
"What else would you call it? Here I sit, watching the crowds like some sort of security droid when I could be out there among the best."
"You each serve a unique function in the court," Andryl gave a grandfatherly sigh, tucking a loose strand of hair back into the delicate cap of curls atop her head. "You can see things no one else in the known galaxy can see. She can hear things no one else in that same known galaxy can hear. Equal in your usefulness, equal in your beauty. And equally used as the Emperor thinks best. Yes, here you sit, isolated. And yet able to hear every word and see every movement near our honored Emperor. Your mind is clear and sharp, uncluttered by the press of opinions from other would-be courtesans, unlike Mara's at the moment. Would not your untainted view of events be of more import to His Majesty than a pretty girl on his arm?"
He paused a moment, eyeing her critically. "Or is there another reason you are out of sorts this evening? Perhaps it has to do with the arrival of a certain Admiral?"
Irena felt her face flush and she sent a warning glare at Andryl, a glare he easily deflected with a gentle chuckle.
"I do not know of whom you speak," she said, her words frosted and clipped.
"Oh, I think you do," Andryl said softly, adjusting the crown of moonstones and star sapphires that rested atop those curls. "I think you know exactly of whom I speak. And I would advise you, my dearest, to stay as far away from him as possible. You know the Emperor would not approve."
She shrugged a shoulder, trying her best to maintain that aloof attitude that she normally wore so well. Except when a certain officer was mentioned, that is. "If he is here tonight, then I cannot do as you suggest. I'm supposed to report on anyone that comes near our Emperor, remember? And if he is present, I must report upon him."
"That is not what I meant, and you know it."
The gentle rebuke in his voice caused her to glace back over at him. There was wariness in his eyes, and a father-like concern that touched her heart a moment. But only for a moment. "He saved my life," she said at last. "Without his council that night on board the Storm's End, I would not have made it this far. I would not have been able to compete with Mara Jade."
"Then do not repay his kindness with trouble, my dearest. Do you know what the Emperor would do to him if he knew of your interest? What he would do to you as well? Please," Andryl took her hands in his, squeezing gently. "I think of you as my own daughter, Irena. It was you that saved me from a fate far worse than death. You bound me to your service and taught me there are other ways to power than violence. For my sake, do not court trouble."
She wanted to agree, to say yes to his pleading. There was a part of her that loved the old man, loved him as much as her fragmented heart could love someone. But in her mind's eye she saw herself kneeling on the bridge of the Storm's End, felt those blue-skinned fingers gently but firmly coaxing her to her feet, drawing her away from the departing shadow of Darth Vader's cloak. His voice came back to her as clearly as if he had spoken those words but hours ago.
"All choices have consequences," she whispered aloud.
"Then take the choice that offers you the least harm," Andryl replied, thinking her spoken words were an agreement of sorts. "Stay far away from Admiral Thrawn. He is an alien, and useful or not to our Emperor, one day his cleverness will finally cease to be amusing and he will be discarded and destroyed. I would not see you follow him into that destruction."
She shook her head slightly, letting her gaze drift back to the swirling crowd, counting the images that passed before her eyes. The Force flowed through her as she did so, a tiny hair-thin tendril that stabbed like ice into her soul, that danced like music in her veins. One of the first things the Emperor had taught her was a memory enhancement technique, allowing her to memorize all that drifted before her eyes even before her brain registered the image. No, the recording of the image halos around each person was not the hard part of her job. It was the interpreting of them at a later time.
It was also the fight to not call upon her own memories, to bring the past back with startling clarity. Her mother, her father, the things she only thought of in the silence of a dark bedchamber when the Emperor thought her asleep, the things he would be very displeased with if he knew she dared to remember at all. She was his creature now, one of his precious hands like Mara Jade. There for his use and his alone. Competing loyalties and memories and emotions… like those of the loving arms of a mother or the laugh of a father… were not to be permitted—ever. Even simple memories of time spent on a star destroyer, or those of the man that had just entered the grand hall…
She was out of her seat in a rush, wrenching her hands from Andryl's so swiftly that the man nearly tumbled to the floor. She could not care at that moment, not with her heart pounding. The Force became a slippery thing, an ever shifting rope that constantly rewove itself the more she tried to grasp at it. Her emotions were in chaos, the mixed elation and dread at seeing him again after more than a decad that threatened her control. Desperately she fought to hold her connection, running through the mantra she'd been taught: Peace is a lie. There is only passion. Chaos was the enemy. Order must be maintained and enforced. That was the only truth in existence.
Slowly, her heartbeat settled, and the Force rocketed through her so hard that she staggered. Out there, in the audience hall, two sets of eyes wrenched towards the latticework decoration. Irena felt the barrage of sensations against her mind. Concern from the Emperor. A minor bit of concern from Mara, but more a sense of smug superiority. Mara's tentative flash of concern wasn't for her, Irena mused bitterly. No, that momentary concern had been for the Emperor, fearing that Irena had come under attack and that that attack would soon flow over towards the dais wherein they sat. It vanished when Irena regained control, but that smug superiority remained.
Once again, Mara had proven herself calm and in absolute control, while Irena floundered. Quickly, the concern from the Emperor evaporated and the sting of dissatisfaction was left in its wake.
The Emperor was disappointed in her. And he was pleased with Mara. Again!
Rage flooded through her at that, embarrassment working its way through the icy hell that was the Dark Side. There was a part of her that wanted to lash out in that moment, to rake bloody furrows down Mara's peachy complexion, forever marring her beauty. But it was a fleeting thought, one that would not see action. Andryl was right on one account. While the Emperor encouraged a certain amount of completion between his servants, eliminating one another before he was finished with either of them would be disastrous. No, the Emperor needed Mara and herself exactly where they were stationed this night.
But that was only for this night, Irena knew. And fortunes in the court could change on a heartbeat. Andryl was right about that, too. Only it wasn't Admiral Thrawn's fortunes that held her focus. Drawing deeper on the Force, she wrapped herself in a sickly sweet mantle power as the Emperor greeted Thrawn. Thrawn bowed low over Mara's hand, kissing her knuckles as she stood resplendent by their Emperor.
The cold wind that blew through her soul could not quench the hiss of feral hatred that escaped her lips.
And then the Admiral was walking away, heading into the crowds to mingle with all the other favorites of the Court. She turned stiffly and returned to her seat, rage turning her insides into a razor sharp storm of hatred. One day Mara Jade would fail the Emperor. Irena had seen it in the images flickering around the woman. She would fail and fall hard. And then Irena would stand at his side, and she would be the jewel of the Emperor's court.
All she had to do was have patience. The thought brought comfort in a way that the images of her true parents had never provided. And so she set herself back to her task of watching and recording… and waiting.
And from the dais, from the endless dark of his hooded cowl, the Emperor glanced in her direction and gave a darkly satisfied chuckle.