Finding herself once again trudging up the steps to the main bridge, Wynssa felt weary and self-conscious. Her ankle had started throbbing again, and she was no Thrawn to dismiss it airily as "some amount of discomfort." She was tired, she hated to think what she must look like after practically two days on her feet, and she felt distinctly uneasy at the idea of coming across Captain Corlag again. She stole a side-glance at Thrawn as he led the shackled Dug up the stairs. Depending on how things had evolved since Piett took over, he could be facing a court-martial; but no hint of any misgivings showed on his firm profile. His olive-green uniform looked as if it had just been pressed—how did he manage that? —and there was almost a spring in his step as he reached the command walkway. As if he'd sensed her gaze, he paused very briefly, flashing a quick smile of encouragement at her. "Onstage, Miss Starflare!" he murmured under his breath before striding toward the command post.
Not much choice but to tag along, have I? She straightened her shoulders, tossed back her hair and followed him.
Rory Mikam was the first to spot the trio crossing the command walkway. His youthful voice shouted across the bridge "Wynssa!" in complete disregard of regulations—it was obvious only the sketchiest hold on his sense of discipline prevented him from running straight to the arriving group. Piett turned away from the tactical holo, feeling more than seeing Sansevi's raised eyebrow, and made a conscious decision not to call the kid on it. Besides, the appearance, in addition to the famous holostar believed lost in space, of an unruffled Thrawn leading on an even more exotic alien, should divert the new captain's interest soon enough. Wynssa Starflare, Commander Piett noticed, had changed into smart designer ice-blue overalls and a light silver parka, but her smile seemed a little forced. Then she heard Mikam, and her face lit up as she caught the junior lieutenant's eye behind the relay weapons status station. So that's how the land lies, is it? I'd have thought—
Sansevi, watching the new arrivals' progress, seemed to have reached the same conclusion. "Has that woman no sense of hierarchy?"
"I expect they're about the same age," Piett said in an apologetic undertone, unable to entirely contain his amusement. "Must be a relief from a solid week of dinners with Captain Corlag."
"Great stars! I take your point!" Sansevi expostulated with feeling. "And that's your odd man out? What's he got with him?"
"Pirate prisoner. He'll tell us why he's brought it up here, I expect." Piett turned to the trio. "Lieutenant Thrawn, you will report to Captain Sansevi, formerly of the Judicator, who's been assigned to relieve Captain Corlag. Miss Starflare, allow me to tell you how relieved we are to find you in good health. Your cabin was entirely destroyed. May I introduce Captain Sansevi?"
Thrawn had frozen at full parade attention after a smart salute. Wynssa stared from Piett to the newcomer. "How do you do, Captain," she said politely.
"So you're the actress, are you? Thought it would be a good idea to cruise back to Coruscant courtesy of the Imperial Navy?"
Piett's eyebrows shot up. This might become—
"No, I thought it was a rotten idea, but I let myself to be overruled by Captain Corlag's insistence and by my agent's misguided notions of what would help my publicity. Please believe me when I tell you it is a mistake I do not plan to repeat."
Rigorously suppressing his own reaction, Piett caught a fleeting glimmer of pride in Thrawn's strange eyes. Aha! So I wasn't wrong there after all. Sansevi, meanwhile, was considering the holostar with renewed interest. "Got the scare of your life, did you? We heard your audio call."
The bright blue eyes flashed. "I did think I might get killed, but that was later. The audio broadcast was scripted. To fool the pirates. I never—"
"I must take responsibility for the broadcast, sir," Thrawn broke in. "I wrote it."
Sansevi's piercing black eyes glowered at the alien junior officer. "I don't remember asking you a question, lieutenant," he snapped. "You were saying, Miss Starflare?"
"Well—that was it," Wynssa stammered, suddenly looking abashed. Sansevi's eyes narrowed, darting from her to Thrawn, but the captain just asked: "And what's that here?"
"This is the pirate boarding craft pilot, a Dug who calls himself Sebulba, sir," Thrawn said as smoothly as if Sansevi hadn't rebuked him before. "I believe he can give us information on the threat we're facing."
Sansevi turned to consider Thrawn silently for a long minute. The younger man didn't flinch, but Piett caught Wynssa's eye in time, shaking his head fractionally to warn her from interfering. Finally the captain said: "You're a—Chiss, aren't you? How familiar are you people with his kind?"
Thrawn's eyes glittered, but he answered composedly. "No more familiar than with humans or Hutts, sir. They're from the Outer Rim, found on a dozen worlds, no known homeworld. Very quick reflexes, good pilots, usually independents or mercenaries."
If Sansevi was unhappy at hearing humans and Hutts being lumped together, he showed no noticeable sign of it. "So what makes you think we should trust this one, lieutenant?"
"I don't especially trust him, sir, but it would not be in his interest to deceive us. The rest of the bunch is slated for the spice mines of Kessel, but I'll personally space this one if I find out he's been lying to me once again."
Sansevi raised an eyebrow. "Am I to understand he's lied to you before?"
"Forgetting to mention information is lying, sir," Thrawn said flatly. "He won't live to do it again."
Cold bastard, Piett thought. He noticed the holoactress's frozen expression. Enjoy the reviews and the uniform, do you? But are you really ready for what they mean? He liked Wynssa Starflare well enough, but warships weren't drawing rooms. Corlag had been an idiot to invite her, not that this came as a surprise. Where has the fat windbag disappeared? I better check—
"I tttold you tttruthhh! I even gave you thhhe dddatadissssk!"
Surprised, Piett and Sansevi stared at the hissing Dug. "What datadisk?" the captain barked.
With two fingers of his left hand, Thrawn pulled a small disk from his breast pocket, handing it to Sansevi. "This came up while I interrogated the pirates, sir. I'd had some of them patched up in sickbay after our people, and it would seem our friend here stole this from Captain Corlag's cubicle while the captain, ah, slept—"
"I'm aware of Captain Corlag's state," Sansevi cut in. "What's on it?"
"I don't know yet, sir," Thrawn said. "You'll see from the interrogation tapes that there was no time to play it."
"Ottthhher lieutenant brought it," the Dug said. "I tthhhhhought it wasss vvaluable, but I ggave ittt back!"
"That would be lieutenant Theel, who came to visit the captain," Thrawn explained. "But the reason I brought Sebulba here is to identify the pirate leaders and their tactics." The alien lieutenant dragged the Dug to the tactical holo. "You told me your fleet was commanded by a Duros, but it's not, is it? You have several commanders. Who and what are they?"
"We called othhhhersss. Afffter sssecond Desssstroyer comesss. We ssssplit takingsss, sssso we waited befffore calling fffor help. Thhisss ssssecond group—here, thhhey's Krell'n."
"Krell'n?" Sansevi asked.
Not all Duros after all, were they? "Must mean Corellians," Piett said. "Lieutenant?"
Uncharacteristically, Thrawn didn't answer immediately. He and the Dug were both staring at the tactical holo. A pair of seconds later, the junior lieutenant seemed to snap back to his usual alertness. "Sir?"
"These Krell'n pirates, does he mean Corellians?"
"Ah—very likely, sir."
What's eating him now? Piett wasn't surprised by Thrawn noticing the TIEs' unusual performance on the holo, but surely the Dug knew nothing of the starfighter squadrons' relative state of preparedness? Turning to Sansevi, the First Officer took in Wynssa Starflare's still dismayed look. Something's going on here, but I haven't got time to go into it all.
"Well, lieutenant? Is that a yes or a no?" Sansevi snapped.
"Yes, sir, he does mean Corellians. They're regrouping now. They've been surprised by something, and it's hurting their coordination. I'd say it was the Revenge's escape, and now the TIE attacks. There's some—unconventional flying going on there. But—"
" 'But', lieutenant Thrawn?"
"The reprieve's not going to last much longer, sir. Corellians are individualists, they understand unconventionality, they can factor it in fairly quickly. And now that our two ships have rejoined, they know they're facing a higher risk. For a Corellian, that's extra motivation."
"You have experience with Corellians, lieutenant?"
Piett saw Thrawn pause for an instant, and held his breath. If he goes into his art theories again...
"Never tell us the odds."
Surprised by the interruption, all three officers turned to the holostar. "Never tell us the odds," Wynssa Starflare repeated. "It's a Corellian saying. I'm Corellian myself. We pride ourselves in liking challenges."
There was a light in her blue eyes, and Piett fancied that it dared Sansevi to retort he didn't recall asking her. Growing an imaginative streak, are we? he chided himself inwardly. At any rate, the captain didn't rise to the bait, imagined or otherwise. "How does he know which group are the Corellians?"
It was a fair question, and Piett, once more, admired Sansevi's capacity to cut to the heart of the matter. The initial ship groupings were long gone, and all pirate craft showed equally green on the tactical holo.
"Ek ma?" Thrawn prodded the prisoner.
"Na werna toha, krell'n ta huta teesa roheh. Sang illo chawa, neh?"
Eyes narrowed, Piett stared at the creature. Before he could frame his question, Sansevi snapped "What did he say?"
"He's a pilot himself, sir, he says he can tell from the flight patterns," Thrawn translated. "He was also surprised by one of the TIE pilots—it would seem he's seen his flying style before. Ta rokea ha chuba?"
The Dug held out a forelimb to grasp the light pointer, and trained it at the tactical holo, stabbing at the golden-haloed red dot.