Era of Rebellion - Navigation

Christopher Levy and J. Kate Stasiak.
Zero years after the Battle of Yavin (35:7:10) in the Essesia system: Kwai, Tenacity and Warspite.
Flight Lieutenant Haven Anson, Grand Moff Claudius Rodney, and Rear Admiral Rhiannon T'Jarell.

Grand Moff Claudius Rodney quietly walked across the hangar bay of the Imperial I-class Star Destroyer Warspite, towards his personal shuttle, which had already been prepared and was awaiting his arrival. He was pleased to see there were not many around, and therefore not witnessing him sneak off his command ship with a small package. As he ascended the ramp to enter the Lambda-class shuttle Kwai, he activated the controls to raise the ramp himself, as he was decidedly without staff for this flight. "And how did you log this flight, Lieutenant?" he asked, as he sat down in the passenger compartment and strapped himself in. He was nervous ... it was a silly thing for a man of his stature and power to be nervous ... and yet he was.

"Joy ride, sir!" Flight Lieutenant Haven Anson shouted back as she began the last of the preparations for the Kwai to depart. A moment later the nimble craft lifted off the flight deck and emerged from the hangar bay into realspace. The wings of the shuttle slowly descended into cruise configuration as her hands rapidly moved over the controls for what was to be a short, routine flight across the system to the Tenacity. She was uncertain as to the nature of these discreet rendezvous, but she was honored to be trusted with such an assignment and hoped it would meet with a future promotion and more responsibility. Upon arriving at the Tenacity, she would once again raise the wings, and slowly ascend into the smaller ship's hangar. "I will wait here, Governor," she said politely, as she unfastened herself from her harness and prepared to make herself comfortable for what was to be an unknown amount of time.

"Thank you for your service ... and your discretion, Lieutenant," Grand Moff Rodney told her sweetly, before unfastening his restraint and moving to exit the shuttle. As he descended the ramp he realized he looked quite foolish carrying his small package, and did his best to make it look insignificant. Asking for the whereabouts of Captain T'Jarell he was informed that she was off duty, but rather than ask for her to be alerted, he chose to proceed to her quarters himself ... a bold move to be sure. As he ascended the lift to the crew quarters he found himself starting to gently perspire, and it felt as if his collar was now a size too small. He felt his heart began to race as he navigated the corridors that would ultimately lead him to her quarters, not feeling these emotions in quite some time. When he reached her quarters he hesitated, wondering if perhaps he should turn away ... he was not even sure what he was doing there. Finally, he pressed down on the panel next to the door to alert her to a presence outside her quarters.

As always, her first sensation was regret.

Rhia frowned and stirred restlessly on her cot, grasping at the murky waters of sleep, which were swiftly ebbing away. In sleep the grief could be held at bay. Not completely, and not for any great length of time. Just enough that she preferred the hazy, glitterstim-saturated respite to the harsh, clear glare of light illuminating her personal quarters.

She felt herself losing the battle of slumber to her relentless enemy. Grief streaked across her muddled mind. A familiar throbbing pulsed through her chest. Then, of course, there was her emotional state. Capable of only a shadow of the willpower and cognitive strength it had once wielded, the headache gripping the heart of the Hapan's intellect was as debilitating as any physical pain she had ever known. Rhia struggled to float into the refuge of sleep once more. In sleep, she could feel almost whole again.

Wake up, Rhiannon, called an irritatingly persistent voice within. Wake up. You are about to have a visitor...

She did not bother to crack open an eye. Get the hell out of my mind, she growled. Her tongue felt thick within the woolen dryness of her mouth. And leave me be.

The voice vanished into the lucid fabric of silence and for a brief moment, Rhiannon thought she had gotten her wish. Alas, the sudden and unexpected chime of her doorbell tore her away from further contemplation of slumber. "Emperor's black teeth..." Scowling against the vexatious noise, Rhia grasped an empty glass lying on the night table beside her and heaved it at the door leading in and out of her personal quarters.

Claudius was startled when he heard the sound of the glass impact the door ... perhaps he had come at the wrong time ... perhaps she was not alone. He stood there for several tense moments, silently staring down at his feet as he considered his next move very carefully. He had put such an effort into seeing her that he could not turn back down, and with some degree of reluctance he raised his hand to the panel and pressed the button to alert her of a presence outside the door again. He then took a step back, just in case anything larger was about to make impact with the door.

The Hapan groaned in dismay, seeing that whoever stood outside was not going away anytime soon. She turned her head away from the light temporarily blinding her with its luminous intensity and drew her arm wearily over her eyes. She considered shouting out that she was indisposed, but somehow knew it would be of little use. Since her tenure on board the Tenacity began, the Hapan had very few visitors to her personal quarters; she could count them on the fingers of her one hand ... thusly, whoever was out there, determined to see her now, was likely someone with a message of dire importance that simply could not wait any longer. Only why did they fail to use the holocomm first, and warn her of its vitality?

Damnit. She slowly pushed herself to a sitting position. The overwhelming remorse she felt was bad, but Rhia supposed it was no worse than it had been yesterday, or last week, or last year. It was becoming difficult to remember ever being without it.

Rising to her full height, the Hapan forced one foot ahead of the other, repeating the mindless pattern until she found herself an arm's length away from the door. Reaching for the security console, she released the door and let it slide away with a dull thud, revealing the culprit outside. Through squinting eyes, Rhia saw her unwelcome visitor. A tall man, sufficiently well built, with neatly trimmed, short dark hair. A perfectly pressed Imperial uniform adorned his frame, while the left chest pocket sported the rank insignia afforded a regional governor. Claudius Rodney. Rhia blinked, not understanding why he was here, of all places ... and now. Not that she was in a position to question a Grand Moff, she reflected ironically. Thankfully, she too, was similarly clad ... her Commodore's uniform not as pristine as his, given the folds and wrinkles it acquired while she claimed a restful interlude. Rubbing her eyes as if to make sure she wasn't imagining things, Rhia straightened upon confirmation and emitted a customary salute due a superior officer, then calmly regarded the man who was looking back at her in silence. She could not help but wonder whether his expression was that of shock or barely disguised revulsion.

"What can I do for you, Sir?" she demanded brusquely.

When he realized he had awoken her he immediately filled with shame, and broke off eye contact as at that moment it was easier for him to look at the floor. "I do apologize, Rhia," he said, the embarrassment echoing with each word he spoke. "I heard you were back and I wanted to bring you a gift," he explained, holding out the small package had brought with him as if that somehow justified his actions. "After our last encounter I felt rather uncomfortable, and I wanted to make it up to you ... but now it seems all I have accomplished is interrupting your sleep," he concluded, with a fair degree of dejection. He considered turning on his heels and running away, but he stood his ground like a dutiful soldier.

"A gift," she echoed listlessly, stepping away from the door and allowing him ample entry. "Do excuse me, Your Excellency. I'm afraid you caught me unawares ... I was napping," the Hapan moved to explain, as if the man could not have figured that one out for himself, judging by her somewhat disheveled state of dress. "Please, do come in."

When he mentioned their 'last encounter', Rhia felt all the more compelled to get him out of that hallway, where any passer by could have misconstrued what was being said and subsequently cause her reputation to become compromised. Once he was safely inside her personal quarters, Rhiannon would secure the door by engaging the locking mechanism, making sure no server droid could suddenly poke through the entrance.

"Have a seat?" Offering him a choice of an armchair that flanked her bedside table ... or the couch that faced both, Rhiannon took up a position next to her bed, inwardly cursing herself for not bothering to make it before allowing visitors inside.

"You have nothing to apologize for," she replied hastily, finally addressing the chief reason for her guest's impromptu visit. "It takes two to dance, does it not? I am as guilty as you are, if that's the term you wish to use ... but I would rather prefer to think on it as a decision that was made by two consenting adults. Unless," she canted her head to regard him cautiously, "it was merely a moment of weakness which you never intend to happen again? Not that it matters in the long run," Rhiannon reflected quietly. "There are far too many barriers in our lives right now, some of which will possibly never go away. Neither of us can afford to be compromised. I am sure you agree, yes? Also, can I get you a refreshment - you appear a little ... out of sorts, if I may say so, sir."

When Claudius stepped over the threshold into her quarters, he was immediately struck by how foreign it seemed. It was very much in the Hapan style that unfortunately caused him to think of his wife. "Thank you," he said to her politely, his brown eyes looking over her unkempt uniform with a slight smirk. He stepped deeper into her quarters, moving towards the small couch that faced the bed. Delicately, he sat down and let out a small sigh of contentment upon as he settled into the plush, upholstered material ... as was common for men his age. In his lap the small package containing the gift he had purchased for her remained, his eyes never leaving her form. So very beautiful, he thought silently to himself, as if he were back in secondary school. Try as he might ... he could not purge her image from his thoughts. "Why, yes, actually. I'd love something to drink," he told her, before nervously rubbing his hands together. His eyes made a glimpse towards the bed, inappropriate thoughts briefly flooding into his mind, to his great embarrassment. When he broke eye contact with the bed, he lowered his head slightly so that she would not see the color that had formed on his cheeks.

Taking a moment to rummage through her refreshments tray, Rhiannon finally emerged out of her kitchen nook with a bottle of Togorian ale in hand, and two glasses. She did not think Claudius would stay any longer than propriety dictated ... so a glass of ale would be more than enough to satisfy his cravings ... and her usual protocol toward (unforeseen) guests.

Walking over to the couch, Rhia handed him one of the drinking vessels before twisting off the cap and pouring the sky-blue liquid into the waiting glass. "A house favorite," she remarked with a small grin. "Many similarities exist between our two cultures," the Hapan officer attempted to explain, in reference to Togorian and Hapan societies. "It's all about honor and loyalty and trust. Did you know, for instance, that Togorian males choose a female mate, for life?"

"It must be nice to have the ability to choose who you ... mate ... with," Claudius said, as he readily accepted the glass from her. He examined the liquid carefully for a moment, not recalling ever having sampled the drink before. A moment later he brought the rim of the glass to his lips and took a small sip, and immediately realized that it was somewhat stronger than the Alderaanian drinks he was accustomed to. "Very good," he said with a somewhat strained voice, before taking a deeper sip. He was convinced that if he simply drank enough of it he would become used to it. "Are you ready to receive your present?" he asked, as he placed his glass down in front of him. His attention then went to the small box that had been resting on his lap, and offered it up to her without hesitation. He looked somewhat nervous, wondering if she would accept it ... and if she did whether she would like it.

An almost shy, though inquisitive gaze followed Claudius' speech down to the offering he left resting upon his lap. At first, Rhia was uncertain how to respond ... whether to accept the gift, even ... lest it bring about more complications than the gesture was originally worth. But Claudius' eyes seemed genuine, they did not appear to hide any ulterior motive, Rhiannon decided silently.

Taking up a seat next to him, she nodded gravely and reached out with her hand while setting the bottle and her empty glass, on the floor. "I just want to say ... for the record ... that I have not done anything to warrant any gifts, sir. But it would surely be insulting to you, should I refuse to accept it. You have done nothing but show me kindness and guidance ... not to mention, all the trust you have invested in me, recently. I am honored that you think I am deserving of any additional reward and will gladly accept whatever it is, you wish me to have."

When she sat next to him, his heart threatened to leap from his chest. She was close to him ... almost touching. It was a struggle for him to remain in control of his emotions and base impulses when it came to her, but he was an officer and a gentleman and he knew, deep down, that was better than the behavior he had been exhibiting. "Please," was all he could manage to utter, as he handed over the small gift box to her. Once it had been transferred, he reached back down to the glass in front of him for a much needed drink. Perhaps some 'liquid courage' might carry the day, he thought to himself, as he waited with baited breath for her to open it.

Taking up the proffered box, Rhiannon proceeded to lift up the lid, innate curiosity beginning to dawn in her dark brown eyes. A small, round trinket came into her view, revealing an intricate, delicate band woven in titanium or platinum perhaps ... or something equally exquisite and yet innately durable. It was a ring, or rather ... a band, depicting some kind of a vine ... and within its confines, Rhiannon saw twelve Shoroni sapphires, offsetting the leaves that formed the design.

Holding in her breath, the Hapan glanced from the valuable decoration to the one who offered it, an elegant brow lifting curiously. "This is far too precious for me to wear in my line of work," she whispered and sighed, simultaneously not pausing for a moment to consider the obvious implications of accepting such a gift. "Why do you wish me to have it?" It would have been so much simpler to give her a hair brush, or a blanket, or a new cap to suit her uniform.

"I wanted you to have it because I thought it looked as beautiful as you..." Claudius confessed honestly, with some degree of anxiety at the revelation. "Since you arrived I have experienced sensations and emotions that I have not felt in nearly fifteen years," he continued, before taking a much needed sip of his Togorian ale. "Despite all my years, I am still very much inexperienced at this sort of thing. There have only been two women in my life. The first ... well the first, surprisingly, can be the easiest. The second ... an arranged marriage that required little-to-no effort on either of our parts," he revealed, and prepared to take another sip of his drink only to realize he had consumed it all. He was struggling very much with emotions, his fidelity to his wife, and his duty to his people to provide a male heir.

In spite of her best efforts, Rhiannon felt all the blood in her system rushing to her face, undoubtedly causing a sudden influx of crimson, to color her cheeks. At once, she leaned down to pick up the bottle of ale and pour its remaining contents into her own glass from which she then drank ... deeply. "Your people and mine share a similar approach to marriage. A lot of our unions are arranged," Rhia said, attempting to calm her guest's frayed nerves and confirm that which he was hinting at, during his earlier explanation. "The higher one ranks on the social scale, the higher the chance he or she will find oneself bound to a significant other that is a total stranger. It is the way of our people ... but it is not without its advantages. A union between two powerful houses can cement alliances that can keep both families safe for many generations to come - but sometimes, the drawback of such a union creates a marriage that is one of convenience and hardly based on love. This is part of the reason why I do not regret serving in the Imperial Navy, as you might already know ... I get to avoid being put in a merger which isolates me from that which I love best."

"...and what is it you love best?" Claudius asked, as he looked down at the bottle and considered pouring himself another glass, but hesitated. "When I first met my wife she arrived unannounced. It had all been arranged by our parents. My father has always been desperate for a grandson. She was willing to go through with it ... I hesitated ... but eventually agreed to it for the sake of everyone concerned. I tried ... she tried ... *we* tried, but this damn war took what little chance we had and smashed it..." he admitted, perhaps more blunt and honest than he should have been.

"The freedom to be what I want to be," Rhiannon replied simply. "Right now, it means to be an Imperial Commodore. A year from now, it may mean to be a wife or mother. Ten years from now, it may mean turning to a life of smuggling and dubious pleasures. Do you understand? I cannot have that, while I live at home. All I can be there, is Countess T'Jarell ... and I would give it all up in a heartbeat, to simply be and do, what I am best at doing at a given place and time. And I am sorry that you have struggled in vain, attempting to make others happy ... but have you ever asked yourself what would make you, happy? What does Claudius Rodney want, deep inside?"

"A mother?" Claudius repeated slowly, as his mind began to wander to certain possibilities that he ought not to be thinking about. "What would make *me* happy?" he again repeated, as he considered the potential answer to that question. "I want this war to end. I want peace restored to the galaxy so that I can return to the life I had before this Rebellion. Not just for myself, but for my daughters also ... life aboard a Star Destroyer is not meant for them. I do not even know if it is meant for me..." he seemed to be revealing all of his innermost thoughts, revelations that could place him in considerable peril should they be uncovered. He was not entirely sure why he had chosen this newly arrived Hapan to emote to, but there he was doing just that.

"Yes, a mother. I would like to have a family someday. No specific time frame; one cannot really be chosen given the type of life I've decided to lead," came a softly accentuated response. "Ever since I lost contact with my twin sister, I've been feeling very lonely ... something I do not readily divulge to anyone. Being in the Imperial Navy is hard enough ... but being a woman - is near well impossible to deal with, most days. I consider myself very lucky; having a sympathetic fleet admiral as a superior at first ... and now, you. Peace is a lovely thought, but a little too idealistic, I think. Conflict breeds strife, and strife ... well, it brings out the best and the worst out in us. Peace, on the other hand, leads to stagnation and mediocrity. It breeds boredom and eventual dissatisfaction, leading to more conflict. Those two are in direct opposition of one another. There is only one thing that can breach the gulf that lays in between.


"When I was your age there was peace and it was wonderful," Claudius shared, though inadvertently stressing the age gap that existed between them. "The Emperor brought peace and order to the galaxy before. I have met him, and I believe that he can do it again," he said confidently, expressing his zealous political views on the subject of Palpatine and the New Order. "L-love?" he repeated, as he softly moved his left hand to her right hand, placing it upon it. He had almost given up on love ... he had been in love once, long ago ... but with her death he thought that part of himself was long gone.

"The Emperor may be the key to resolving the strife in our time ... and then again ... he may not be," Rhiannon reflected quietly. "I have always believed that I served an ideal ... not merely the interests of one man." Realizing that she was hovering on the borderline of treason, the Hapan paused and leveled her dark gaze with Rodney's. "The rule of force can only go so far, Claudius," the young woman sighed, leaving her hand in place as his palm folded upon it. "It will eventually fail, as all totalitarian rule tends to. It is only a matter of time. Having said that, I intend to do my duty, so don't think for one moment that I am conflicted as to what is expected of me." Did her hand just tremble under his touch? "And yes, love. I think love can bring peace to all who seek it. Such a simple solution, surely it must be ridiculous, no? Perhaps. But by its very definition, love conquers all ... and so it must conquer ... hate." That last comment indirectly referring to the conflict between the Rebel Alliance and the New Order Claudius so staunchly defended.

"Peace sounds nice right about now..." Claudius said, as his hand squeezed upon hers unconsciously in a tender grasp. "Have you ... have you ever been in love?" he asked, but his attention shifted to the bottle, with which he quickly refilled his glass. Taking it to his mouth, he took a much longer drink of the ale this time ... he needed it. They were getting into deeply personal territory and exposing vulnerabilities ... he was not sure where this was leading. She was beautiful, smart, resourceful, determined ... all positive qualities that would make an excellent partner in life. But was there an emotional connection between the two? It certainly seemed like one was developing, but given his inexperience how would he even know? His mind was awash with thoughts and emotions, made more difficult by the ale he was consuming.

"In love? No. But there were times where I felt an intense attraction," Rhiannon grinned, taking a small sip of her ale. "My parents would not allow me to fall in love. It wasn't ... practical," she explained with a soft chuckle. "You see, I have a title to carry on. I must marry within the realm of my family's expectations. Their approval is paramount. This is why leaving Hapes to ascend to a high rank within the scope of a naval career was a mixed blessing to me. This way, I can simply focus on my duty and not worry about meeting some old prick's motives in producing an heir. I want to love and be loved," she paused to place emphasis on that last statement, "not merely fulfill expectations that are not even my own," Rhia sighed.

When Claudius heard her say 'some old prick's motives in producing an heir' he began to choke on his ale, and embarrassingly spit it out in front of him in a mist. Coughing rapidly, he placed the glass down in front of him, and began trying to catch his air and regain his composure. With some effort he finally cleared the ale from his windpipe, and turned his attention to the beautiful young Hapan seated next to him. "I have never heard my situation put forth in such terms, but I suppose when you think about it that is exactly what it is," he said to her, before looking down at the floor, his spirit somewhat broken as he interpreted her statements as one of opposition to his problem.

"Your ... situation?" Rhiannon coughed slightly, feeling something ticklish come up in her throat. "Surely you don't take my comments personally? You are hardly old, Sir. You are in fact, in your prime. Why have you come here, exactly?" A direct question expecting a direct answer was thrust in the Grand Moff's direction. "We have had nothing but very confusing encounters since the first day I saw you. All of this is getting increasingly worrisome," the young woman observed, moving to take his glass and disappearing for a moment before fetching some ice-cold water and handing the refreshment back to him. "You want something that your wife cannot give you, this much I understand. But I can, isn't that the truth, Claudius? And that is the reason why you are here, now."

"I thank you for your assessment as to my condition, Rhia, but it was my father that I was thinking about. And I can assure you he *is* an old prick, and he is the one that wants me to produce an heir. I love my daughters very much. They mean the galaxy to me ... but on the world I come from they would not be accepted as rulers..." Claudius said, disgusted with himself and his culture. He thought his daughter Jelena was incredibly capable and would be well-suited to succeed him to the Duchy. He looked at her, sharing her worries ... he wanted to stand ... he wanted to run ... but instead remained frozen. "Yes. You are entirely correct in your assessment of the situation, Rhia. I can hide nothing from you it would seem..." he admitted to her, with some embarrassment, but at least he had finally been honest ... even if it had taken some coaxing on her part.

Taking a moment aside from the conversation to slip the sapphire band onto her right hand's index finger, Rhiannon offered Claudius a gentle smile. "Does it really matter what your father thinks or wants? I guess so, why else would you be here. You do not love me. You may be infatuated with me ... but there is no love here ... or you would have spoken of it by now," the Hapan lowered her gaze to the floor, recalling something a good friend said to her in the recent past.

"Is that what this is all about, then, a male child? And I happen to be the most 'worthy' female in the vicinity, able to bear that precious burden? Really, Claudius ... you did not have to offer me a promotion to Commodore, just to gain my sympathy. Yes, I can give you a son. Perhaps more than one, even. But what's in it, for me?"

"Doesn't a child always want to please a parent? I've tried to be a good son..." Claudius admitted, with bitterness oozing atop his words as he spoke. "Please do not insult me by saying you mean nothing to me. We both know that's not true ... damn it," he said, as he thrust the glass downward in obvious frustration. "Must you conquer me like some poor Rebel bastard in the nebula?" he asked, lowering his head, and using both of his hands to keep it upright, with his elbows perched upon his knees. "Yes. Damn you ... I have real feelings for you that go well beyond simply the production of an heir..." he said, but remained motionless, waiting to hear the impact his words would have upon her.

"What about pleasing yourself? And frankly, I barely know you. Yet you claim to care about me far beyond that of the basic concern a superior would have for his subordinate? Yes, we have shared a moment of passion but it's hardly enough to warrant the type of confession you have just unleashed upon me? So what is it? Lust? Love? You are still sitting on the fence about a great many things, Claudius. I am *not* your wife, damn it. I am my own person and I have a life to lead. Stop twisting the truth around. I can deal with whatever you have to say."

"Damn it, all right," Claudius said, as he rose from the couch suddenly. He turned so that he could face her, and then dropped to his knees in front of her. Locking his eyes on her he began to tremble, but there was no need to hold back anymore. "I want you. Is that such a horrible thing to admit? You are beautiful. You represent everything that is pure and untouched in this world lit in flames by this war," he said to her, before leaning forward and coming dangerously close to her. "I want you so badly that I find it difficult to sleep because everytime I close my eyes I see you and am immediately aroused back to consciousness," he concluded, sounding more hungry than anything. "This is not an easy thing for me to admit," he confessed, his brown eyes locking onto her, preparing to hang on every word she spoke in reply.

"So that's all it is then," Rhia asked quietly, "just ... lust?"

The fog in her brain had cleared enough for the Hapan to realize she should try to remain still and keep her breathing even and shallow. There. That seemed to help. But the anguish in her heart ... Rhiannon groaned and stepped back, just outside of the realm of Claudius' reach. Disappointment surged through her supple frame as she replayed the words he had uttered only moments ago, and a small sound escaped her throat, part curse and part sob.

"Get up, Claudius. It's time to go."

Claudius' head fell as she spoke, wondering how he could have done so poorly with the woman. Was he really this far out of touch? he thought to himself, trying to play back the courtship of his first wife those distant years ago in the now-gone Castle Lands. "Is that how I sound to you? No. It is not just lust," he said, rising from his kneeling position, before turning towards the door. "I do apologize for the ineffective way I have gone about this. It is not something I have had to consider since before you were born. It would seem I am decidedly out of practice," he said dejectedly, accepting the defeat, before walking towards the door as instructed.

"Then what is it?!"

Shaking her head, Rhiannon watched Claudius rise from his seat and follow her direct 'order'. There was something innately wrong happening here, and no matter what choice she made, Rhia would end up the loser in some fashion or another.

"Can't you just name a spade a spade!? Look at this hand!" She raised up her right palm, flashing the sapphire-encrusted band on her right index finger. "Does it mean nothing, to you?

Claudius stopped when he heard her speak, and turned on his heels to take another look at her. "Of course it means something to me, Rhia!" he exclaimed in desperation, as he wrung his hands in front of him. At this point he had very few ideas as what to do or what to say. "Do you want me to tell you that I love you? Is that what you want to hear?" he asked of her, shaking his head as he spoke the words. "I have not known you long enough to say those words and have them carry any weight behind them. I am not impulsive. But I would like to get to know you, and determine whether or not I do. Can't that be enough for you?" he pleaded, feeling completely exasperated ... maybe it was the ale ... or maybe it was the strain of trying to manage of a failed marriage, a campaign against the Rebellion, and precocious teenage daughters.

"Well, given the fact that you married a complete stranger and then had children with her, though now you are considering having more offspring from other sources ... yes, I suppose that would have to be enough. But what exactly will happen, should I produce your offspring? You cannot even acknowledge them, even if it was a son ... or sons!" Growing more exasperated by the moment, Rhiannon realized this conversation was sounding more and more like a cheap Nar Shaddaa auction than a matter of life and death. "I can give you sons, Claudius ... that was never in question. I am merely attempting to ascertain what, in the name of Emperor's black teeth, do I gain from prostituting myself to you in this way ... in return??" At that point, the Hapan knew she was repeating herself and could not really gain any more ground than she already had. "There are rumors, you know," Rhia finally said, her voice falling dangerously low below the level of a whisper. "Of another, who has fallen victim to a Grand Moff's grand design scheme. Maybe you have heard of her? Her name is .... Daala? Am I to be an echo of her, then? Give me something to hold onto here, Claudius! I cannot possibly keep up this 'courtship' of yours, where you seek me out to brandish your trinkets with one hand ... and with the other, you simply take your pleasure and then return to your wife. I have never been, nor do I intend to be, anyone's whore." And with that, Rhiannon picked up the empty bottle of ale that sat next to the couch, thrusting it toward the exit as it sailed mere inches above Rodney's left shoulder.

Claudius was preparing to answer when suddenly he saw the bottle of ale being flung at him. He thrust his head away from the potential impact and brought both of his hands up to shield its eyes, just as it smashed into the bulkhead and sent glass showering over him. "I do not want you to be a whore, Rhiannon!" he exclaimed loudly, as he surveyed the extent of the damage from the glass shower. "What do you want of me?" he asked, taking a step forward, his booted foot crushing glass particles as he walked. "I have mishandled this situation as poorly as I have the Ringali Shell," he said, thrusting his hands down in frustration against his thighs. "Would you have me put her on a shuttle back to Gallinore in scandal and shame?" he asked, having a hard time visualizing having to do such a thing. "I do not go back to her. Since her encounter with the ISB she has been as cold to me as one of the chunks of ice at the edge of this system," he revealed ... somewhat painfully, the details of how his marriage had become something of a sham since his wife learned the truth of the Empire's misdeeds. "I want more than your body ... much more ... can't you understand that?" he pleaded, as he came to a stop barely a meter in front of her.

"There are things that happen which are beyond our control," said Rhiannon softly. "If some wish to call that fate, then so be it. But there are also things that happen because we allow them to. Things that are within our control."

Of course. Much of a man's actions determined his future. Rhiannon's sparkling eyes narrowed as she wondered whether Claudius' actions chained him to his past.

He claimed he wanted her for more than the pleasure that lay within her body and yet, Rhiannon had a hard time believing him. She stood there, watching him take a step forward, as if he were reaching out to her. For a brief moment, she visualized his hand moving to cup her cheek, as if he were attempting to confirm that she was solid beneath his touch. Solid, yet slender and delicate. And cool, she thought while her eyes closed and her frame trembled slightly.

When he reached her he hesitated for a moment, before bringing his right hand up to gently stroke at the side of her face. He moved his head forward, towards hers, tilting it slightly to the right as his eyes fell closed. He allowed his lips to connected with hers as they had in their previous encounters. Oh how he had longed to once again touch those lips, and now he had. His arms moved around her, running across the wrinkled back of her olive-grey uniform, before pulling her into a tightened embrace. When the kiss broke he looked her squarely in the eye and just smiled, overwhelmed by her beauty. "I would like to let go of the past and my burdens, Rhia. And have a new beginning with you ... free of the pain that so torments me," he confessed, as he held her tightly in his grasp, with the hopes that she would somehow understand.

"A new beginning," Rhia murmured, her voice rough with need. She felt his fingers sink deep into the woolen folds of her uniform and hold her tight and close ... so close in fact, that she was able to inhale the scent of his lemon-fresh soap and musky aftershave. Rhiannon's eyes were shimmering with uncertainty, but she did not retreat.

When Claudius pressed his mouth against hers, she held her breath ... so startled was she by the feel of his lips, warm and hard against hers. She knew she could push him away. He had no right to touch her so, no right to pull her against the solid heat of his body, no right to hold her fast against him as his mouth invaded hers with a terrible, frightening desperation. But somehow, she could not bring herself to resist, to raise her arms and shove against his chest and step away. A strange sensation began to grow within her, slowly at first, a tiny ember glowing deep in the pit of her stomach. She tried to force it from her mind and failed, feeling a growing hunger in the wake of this new, unexplained sensation taking over every inch of her inexperienced, yearning body.

The chamber fell silent except for the hoarse rasp of their breathing and the occasional tick of the old-fashioned clock mounted on a nearby wall They lay twined together, still one, unwilling to speak for fear it would snap the silken bonds that held them together. Rhiannon clung to Claudius with hopeless despair, feeling his heart beating firmly against her breast as she fought the moisture welling in her eyes. She had never imagined it would be like this. Nothing in her life had prepared her for anything so glorious, or so painful. She no longer wanted to be Rhiannon T'Jarell, a noble countess of Hapes. She wished she had been of ordinary birth, with the right to select whomever she liked as her husband. But she was a woman with a solemn duty to her family and clan, and her feelings were of no consequence. She inhaled a ragged breath, feeling lost and empty, when but an instant ago she had been flooded with joy.

Claudius had no business remaining in her chambers. His absence aboard the command ship would be noted, and he had obligations to both his family and his command that superseded anything this personal and selfish ... and yet he did not move. For the first time in a long time he experienced a sensation he had not quite sometime ... safety. No words were spoken, no promises made, not even a 'good night'. The only sound that escaped his weary body was the unpleasant sound of him snoring, as he had drifted off to sleep in his post-orgasmic bliss. He would have no dreams that night, for he had just lived his dream, and nothing his imagination could come up with could compare with what had just occurred.

In the hangar, Flight Lieutenant Anson continued to sit in the cockpit of the shuttle Kwai, unaware of what had occurred. Her blue eyes locked on the chronometer and she sighed in frustration of being stuck in the cramped cockpit with no place to go ... and no one knowing where she was or what she was doing. "What is taking so long?" she asked herself in equal parts frustration and curiosity. Emitting a soft sigh she merely scrolled through her datapad, trying to find something to watch on Imperial Holovision to pass the time.

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