At one hour before dawn, Mitth'raw'nuruodo woke his lifemate, reluctantly since she was sleeping so peacefully. It seemed a shame to disturb such peace only to replace it with such pain.
"What time is it?" she asked him a bit sleepily.
He frowned a bit, "We have an hour."
She nodded firmly, jaw set. "Do you have everything ready?" she asked quietly.
"My trunk and all of my allotted items are waiting by the door," he replied, his voice a bitter whisper.
For a long time they were quiet, Alana leaning her head on his shoulder, her lifemate placing an arm around her. Suddenly, she jolted upright. "Thrawn," she breathed, taking one of his hands and placing it gently on her slightly rounded abdomen. For a moment he felt nothing, but then--there it was! A small but strong kick. Their baby was kicking! They both laughed delightedly and he welcomed her elated embrace, trying to hold back a sudden swell of tears. This was most likely the closest he would ever be to his child... But he was comforted by the words of the temple student that suddenly returned to him: "Your lifemate will tell her the truth." His daughter would know him. She may never see him, but Alana would tell her about him and make sure that she knew the truth. And Alana would be fine, as well. Daas'ten'talon had sworn to protect them both as if they were his own.
For a long time they remained in one another's arms, each trying to think their own hopeful thoughts about the future and watching the stars disappear one by one, engulfed by the light that continued to creep slowly over the horizon. When the sky just above the horizon was just beginning to turn a lovely shade of rose, they heard the knock that they had been dreading.
Alana looked up at him, tears streaming uninhibited down her face, "No," she sobbed, shaking her head. "I can't do this. I thought I could, but...I just can't--"
"Shh," he quieted her, choking back tears of his own. "I love you. And I vow to you that each and every day that I live, I will spend fighting for you, fighting to get back to you."
He kissed away her tears and finally forced himself to stand. They both watched through a sort of disbelieving haze as the guards loaded all of his things onto the transport that would carry them to the ship.
Seating arrangements aboard the transport were not the most comfortable. Mitth'raw'nuruodo--who had been restrained as a "preventative measure"--and his lifemate were seated in the two middle seats with two guards in front and one crammed in behind. But the seating was not nearly as uncomfortable as the atmosphere. Mitth'raw'nuruodo tried not to think about what was to come, Alana tried not to think about how much it bothered her that she could not even hold his hand, and the guards tried not to think of all of the horrible things that could happen if their captive were to free himself from his restraints, he was a dangerous radical after all.
The entire trip was spent in an uneasy silence, the only sounds the humming of the transport's engine and the pounding of hearts. However, once the transport slowed to a stop, Mitth'raw'nuruodo found himself thinking that the uncomfortable trip had been all too short. He and Alana were ordered to stay seated for a moment while the additional guards, who had been waiting at the site, loaded his belongings. It was strange, he thought as he sat and waited, that throughout his three-day probationary period the guards had been rather lenient, keeping their distance and allowing him some personal time. Now however, he was being kept under lock and key, as if they expected him to do something rash in order to escape. He laughed inwardly; if he was going to do anything rash, he would have done it before today. In fact, the thought had crossed his mind that perhaps he should do something--blast the guards, commandeer their transport, and go hide somewhere in the mountains... But any such thoughts had quickly been dismissed as useless. It would be much better to take his punishment with dignity. At least then he may have a chance of someday returning.
Soon the guards returned and opened the door of the transport. Inside had been an eerie, uncomfortable silence. Outside was the exact oppisite--ouside there was an angry thunder of voices, shouting taunts and curses at the traitorous being they were about to condemn. The only silence outside the transport came from the ring of guards who stood around it, doing their best to hold back the angry mob that crowded the area, trying to get a glimpse at or get their hands on the criminal. The mob outside the kaa'pet'ale after his sentencing had been bad enough, but at least they hadn't seemed violent.
Alana looked to him, concern in her deep, red eyes. He gave her a reassuring nod and, taking a deep breath, stepped out of the transport. The already thunderous shouting grew even louder. At times one could actually hear individual words--murderer, traitor, words that should never have reached the ears of the children who stood shouting alongside their parents--though most of the time the shouting was entirely unintelligible.
Alana stepped out behind him, and the guards quickly formed a tight formation around both of them. A few guards went ahead of the small group, shoving back the crowd in order to make a pathway. Mitth'raw'nuruodo looked up at the ship that stood before him--a typical civilian freighter--and the group that stood just in front of the boarding ramp. Rann'eal'teristi, Nael'are'tanari, and Mattl'ark'eari--the speakers for the Council of the Ruling Families, those who had condemned him to this fate--stood surrounded by their own honor guard. Good, he would be close to them.
All too soon, he began the long, inexorable march through the mob. He walked with one guard in front, one on each side and Alana, with her own pair of flanking guards and the rear guard, directly behind. All the while he kept his chin up, concentrating on the ship that stood before him, trying to remember a prayer he'd had to memorize as a child, anything to keep his mind off of the angry crowd. He had fought so very hard for them... He stumbled as the first stone struck. He fought back a sudden wave of tears--everything he had done had been for his people...Another stone--was Alana all right? A glance back reassured him. She had not been hit. In response to this sudden, random violence--which was beginning to spread through the crowd--the guards broke their formation and drew their weapons. By this time however, two random stones had become a hailstorm. Thankfully, with the threat of weapons, the storm quickly subsided. But not before several guards had been hit and Alana badly shaken. And not before one final stone sent the traitor to his knees, coughing blood.
Within a matter of minutes the outburst had ended and the transgressor had been apprehended and restrained. Dizzy and weak, Mitth'raw'nuruodo was helped to his feet by a pair of guards and continued on his way.
At the foot of the boarding ramp he and Alana turned to face the crowd. Despite his wounds he held his head high as did Alana who tightly clasped his hand and allowed her silent tears to fall freely.
"Mitth'raw'nuruodo, in a few moments you will leave this world, your home, and your people never to return. Before your sentence is carried out, is there anything you wish to say to this Council or to these citizens?" Rann'eal'teristi asked.
"To the Council, I have much to say. Too much, I fear. And so I have expressed my feelings in written form to be read whenever and in whatever manner you wish," he replied, retrieving several folded sheets of paper from a pocket. These were checked carefully by a guard before being handed to Rann'eal'teristi. "To the citizens," he began and had to wait for their shouts to die down before he could continue. The guards drew closer to him, hands on their weapons as he began to speak, prepared for another outburst. "I must admit that your actions today have given me little hope for the future of our people. I am being sent into exile today because of my actions in war. My actions against our enemies were said to be too violent. You have called me a murderer, a radical, a traitor. And yet now, I have come under attack from my own people. Just moments ago I was stoned by this violent mob who is demanding punishment for my overly violent tactics. I find that rather ironic.
"Secondly, I wish to stand up for myself one last time. I have grown weary of arguing over the rightness or wrongness of my actions, and so I shall make this brief. Right or wrong, everything that I have done during my service with the Expansionary Defense, from the most lauded defenses to the most controversial attacks, has been done for each and every one of you. I have never wished to do anything more or less than fight for my people.
"Thirdly, I have recently learned the importance of forgiveness. I have been able to forgive myself for all of my shortcomings and I now wish to offer my forgiveness to the Council and to all of you for what you have done to me.
"And lastly, I want you all to know that no matter how distant a world I am sent to, I shall spend each and every remaining day of my life doing whatever I can to protect my people. You may all be assured that I will do my best to find my way back home someday. I just pray that I will have a home to return to."
The same crowd which had just minutes ago been a violent, angry, shouting mob had now become as still and silent as death itself. All of the members of the Council now wore rather somber expressions, even the usually smirking Nael'are'tanari. However, one could not distinguish between those whose silence and solemnity came from a sudden understanding of his actual intent and those whose reactions sprung from a worry that he would indeed escape his place of exile and return someday.
"Mitth'raw'nuruodo, all rights and privileges outlined in the records of similar past proceedings having been offered to you, your sentence shall hereby be carried out, also as outlined. In a few moments you shall board this vessel, once again restrained and guarded. You will remain under guard for the duration of the flight and upon arrival at the chosen place of exile, your belongings will be searched and any weapons found amongst these belongings or on your person shall be confiscated. In addition to the authorized belongings you have chosen, you will be given two power generators and one standard issue hunting dagger. Subsequent to the unloading of these belongings, the vessel shall depart and you shall no longer be a concern to any member of this race," Rann'eal'teristi stated the formal conditions. Nael'are'tanari's smirk seemed to return somewhat at this.
"So be it," Thrawn said, softly. He now turned to his lifemate who now sobbed uncontrollably. "I love you, Alana," he said, holding her close and gently wiping away her tears.
"I love you, too," she choked out between sobs.
"Be strong, Alana. And know that my heart will always be with you," he kissed her softly, "And know that wherever I am, I will always be fighting for you. I will return to you someday. That I promise you."
She tightly clasped his hand and refused to relinquish her grasp until the guards forced her to so that they could replace his restraints.
As he was ushered up the ramp, he clenched his jaw, refusing to allow the tears that filled his eyes to fall. Every step took him farther and farther from his home and family and closer to...well, he didn't quite know what awaited him. All he knew was that whatever he would have to face, he would face alone.
The crowd had now grown quite silent; even so he barely heard the whispered words: "Peace be with you." He glanced back to meet Rann'eal'teristi's remorseful gaze... Had he read the letter?
Once on board, he was checked for weapons by one of the six guards. They then removed his current restraints and placed him in the center seat where both his arms and legs were restrained. His arms were bound by restraints attached to the armrests of the seat and his legs by ordinary restraints. Once the normal flight restraint was fastened, he had almost no mobility at all. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to ignore the sudden wave of claustrophobia that assaulted him. Hopefully this would be a short flight...
Alana fell to her knees, sobbing. He was gone... Her lifemate and the father of her child was gone and she had no real guarantee that he would ever return. She was alone...
The boarding ramp closed and the transports engines flared to life. The roar was deafening, and everyone standing anywhere near the ship stepped back. Overwhelmed by grief, she hardly noticed the noise and could not even will herself to her feet in order to move away. He was gone... Suddenly, she felt the strong hands of a guard aiding her to her feet, urging her to step back.
She collapsed again as the transport rose, turned and accelerated toward the skies, facing the rising sun which now peeked above the horizon, coloring the skies in a glorious crimson-orange and reflecting off the underside of the departing ship like a starburst. He was gone...
Rann'eal'teristi finally tore his eyes from the departing craft and turned his gaze to the letter he still held. He unfolded the pages and began to read. His heart turned to ice and tears filled his eyes as he read the bitter words of the man whose life he had just destroyed. He had brought himself to suggest this punishment because he had felt that it was the right thing to do--the only thing he could do. As a warrior leader Mitth'raw'nuruodo had sworn to follow the Warriors' Code and all other Chiss codes and laws. He had broken those codes and this was the punishment he had deserved. Therein lay the problem--it was the punishment that he deserved. But he was not the only one being punished. Two other innocent people were also being punished for his mistakes... Two? Rann'eal'teristi stopped for a moment, trying to think of who the second person could be... There was his lifemate, but... He read on: Not only was his lifemate being punished by losing him, most likely forever, but his as yet unborn daughter would not have a father...daughter?! He had a child? Rann'eal'teristi glanced at the practically hysterical woman nearby. Of course... He should have noticed. But he had only seen her at a distance... Oh, gods... It was unfortunate enough that the Expansionary Defense was losing such a leader, but now to know that this woman was also losing her lifemate and this unborn child her father... He looked up at the ship which was now barely a dot in the morning sky, gleaming in the light of the rising sun.
"What have I done?" he whispered. No one heard him above the woman's sobbing and the murmur of the crowd...
Nael'are'tanari watched the ship depart, taking with it a rather dangerous nuisance whom he was glad to be rid of. Trying hard to maintain his somber expression, he searched the crowd and finally found his nephew. He approached him, allowing his grin to surface for the first time.
"Well, there's one nuisance we're finally rid of," he spoke quietly, glancing at those within earshot to make sure that they were too engaged in their own conversations to hear this one.
The young man eyed his uncle a bit doubtfully, "You really think they'll promote me now that he's gone?" he asked.
"Why wouldn't they?" the other countered. "You've proven yourself countless times. You, unlike some people, follow the rules. You've served aboard his command ship almost as long as he has and now, with both commanding officers out of the way--" he broke off at his nephews suddenly confused expression. "Oh, yes. If everything goes well, Stent won't be returning to command either. He was Thrawn's second-in-command and did nothing to stop him. He's practically an accomplice." Nael'are'tanari smiled wickedly.
His nephew returned the grin. "Now perhaps we should begin working on the rest of the fleet..."
Mattl'ark'eari stood silently, off to one side, watching the scene. Such a strange mix of emotions...anguish, satisfaction, joy. She felt within herself, once again, a simple sense of inevitability. This is what had to be done. She felt badly for his lifemate, but sometimes it was necessary to cause pain to some in order to prevent pain to many more. Such was the situation here. War was unavoidable, but it must be fought as honorably as possible. His tactics had caused unnecessary suffering, albeit the suffering of their enemies, but their enemies were still living beings. And so while the pain it caused his lifemate was unfortunate, it was necessary to prevent the suffering of many more beings.
Most of the crowd expressed a sort of grim satisfaction. They saw the pain it caused, but like her, knew that it was necessary. Justice had been served. There were a few people amongst the crowd who seemed more than merely satisfied, they seemed downright joyous. Her gaze fell on Nael'are'tanari, her fellow Council member, whose expression fell somewhere between the two extremes.
Then her gaze swept over to Rann'eal'teristi whose emotions seemed to be the polar opposite. He gazed at the barely visible transport, the letter from the convict still clutched in his hand. Seeing the look of anguished guilt on his face, she found herself wondering just what that letter said...
For the hundredth time in the space of only a few minutes, Mitth'raw'nuruodo found himself wishing that there was a window somewhere that looked out upon the world he was leaving behind. He wanted to watch it as long as he possibly could, watch it fade into the distance until it was nothing but a speck for he knew he would probably never see it again. But he could not. The only window on the craft was the one in the very front which looked out upon nothing but star-scattered blackness. He wished he could watch his past fade away; instead he was forced to watch his uncertain future slowly approach.
He remembered the first time he had left his homeworld as a warrior with the expansionary defense. He recalled looking out at that same star-scattered blackness which had, at that time, had offered not fear, but opportunity. The unknown of space had been exciting; it had been an adventure. Now he found that the vastness of space still held the same mystery it had then, but that mystery was no longer exciting. It was terribly frightening.
Thrawn could no longer stand to watch those stars fly by as the craft hurtled onward, could no longer bear to think that with each passing second, his home, his very life, became more and more distant. He wondered if his homeworld would even be visible anymore...
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, trying to clear his head of such thoughts. He could not dwell on the past or on the horrible injustice of his current predicament. He must think ahead to the uncertain future that awaited him. He had vowed to Alana that he would return to her someday, and he meant to keep that promise. But he would never be able to do so without a plan. And so he closed his eyes, doing his best to ignore his feelings of despair and the occasional wave of claustrophobia, and began what little planning he could do now. Most of his planning would be done after he arrived at the site and took inventory of all of the manufactured and natural resources at his disposal. Even then any planning he could do would be limited. But he could plan quite extensively for survival, which was the key to everything else. In order to return home, he would first have to survive long enough to find a way. He smiled slightly, most of his fears about the future having evaporated. As long as one could keep one's head and develop a sensible plan for all of the feasible situations, one had nothing to fear.
After two days on board the small craft, restrained in his seat or held at weapon-point during meals or at any other time that required that his restraints be removed, Mitth'raw'nuruodo was almost glad to finally arrive at his place of exile.
He studied the area, trying to commit to memory every clearing, mountain, and forest that was passed during their descent. Beginning now he must find out everything that he could about this world, commit to memory anything that may be helpful in finding a way off of this world. The craft finally landed in a small clearing in the midst of an equatorial forest--a very green forest.
After a few moments he was released from his seat, his walking restraints were replaced and he was led down the boarding ramp to see his new home. As the rest of the guards brought out his belongings, he gazed about the clearing, looking up at the strange, green trees and studying the crevice-pocked cliffs in the distance.
"Home, sweet home," he thought sourly as the ghastly screech of some sort of animal pierced the early-morning calm of the forest. After checking his belongings for weapons and finding none, two of the guards stepped forward. He was also checked for weapons and, finding none, the guards proceeded to release his restraints. One stood with his charric leveled directly at Thrawn's chest while the other released the locks. At least this was the last time he would have to endure this routine; there was something terribly unnerving about having a weapon pointed at one's chest. One never really got used to it, even when each and every meal was eaten in such a manner.
One of the guards in the rear then handed to the apparent leader of the group a rather large pouch.
"This pouch is not to be opened until this ship has launched," the guard ordered as he handed it over to Thrawn.
The guards then began boarding the ship, preparing to leave him behind to fend for himself. The leader stayed behind for a moment after all of his subordinates had boarded. Much to Thrawn's surprise he smiled slightly. "Good-bye, Commander," he said, saluting as he turned and boarded the ship himself. Thrawn returned the salute, pleasantly surprised at this show of respect.
But his heart sank once again as the ship rose slowly above the treetops, turned and picked up speed. He stood watching the transport--and his people--leave him behind. All too soon, the roar of the vessel's engines could no longer be heard, only the wind in these strange, alien trees, the sad songs of unknown avians...and that horrible screeching.
He turned his gaze to the pouch that he had been given. He untied the laces and withdrew a beautifully crafted hunting dagger. He laughed bitterly, the sound echoing oddly off the trees. It was rather ironic. Why, that was exactly how he felt at this moment, watching the ship that had brought him here abandon him, much as his people already had. That peculiar feeling that had seized his heart at the very moment that boarding ramp had closed--it was just like being stabbed in the back. Yes, it was quite ironic... Stabbed in the back by the very people he had fought so very hard for and trusted with his life. But until this moment he had not realized that they had betrayed him; they had disguised it so very well. They had even had him believing that he had deserved it...and perhaps he did. But at the time that he had committed those acts, he had not actually expected to be punished. He had trusted his people enough to believe that no matter what he did for them, they would stand by him. They had betrayed that trust and he had made a grave error in giving it to them.
And yet, he had to respect them. Yes, they had betrayed him, but...it was so artistically done.
Grand Admiral Thrawn--weak, bleeding, dying--smiled slightly as a rather ironic thought occurred to him. This was the second time that he had overestimated the loyalty of his people, the second time that he had been stabbed in the back. Though the first time had been far preferable, being only in the proverbial sense.
This time he had trusted his subordinates with his life. This time the error had been fatal. Years ago, because he had overestimated the loyalty of his people, he had watched the ship that had abandoned him to exile slowly fade away. Now, once again due to an overestimation of loyalty, he felt his life doing the same. And yet, he still respected his assassin. Yes, he had been betrayed and murdered... "But it was so artistically done."
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