"We have the prisoner for you, sir."
The filtered voice of a trooper buzzed over the room comm. Thrawn closed down the holofile he had been viewing and pressed a button, the door hissing open, revealing his challenge.
Her eyes are on his. Her expression is hard, yet there is wariness, surprise, and a hint of fear. Her posture is rigid. Her mouth turns down into a slight frown. The troopers usher her in, halting behind the chair. He stares at her for a moment, deciding. He gestures to the troopers.
"There is no need for restraints here. Remove them and leave us."
Her eyes widen in surprise. The troopers hesitate before following orders. Thrawn holds out a hand signaling for her to sit. She glances behind her, watching the troopers leave. She turns back and sits. She trains her eyes on a Rodian sculpture in the left corner of the room. Her eyes are now steel.
"Araceilia Calthese. You are here under the pretense of being a rebel sympathizer. You have refused to cooperate. I am giving you the opportunity to defend yourself without immediate judgment."
She does not move. Her mouth set in a stubborn line, she keeps her eyes on the Rodian statue.
Thrawn leans back in his chair.
"You do realize that you are only making your outcome more dire by not speaking? By doing so, I have no choice but to assume your guilt."
Thrawn continued, judging her reaction. "Despite your ostensible involvement with the rebels, I must say, it is an honor to meet you..."
His words give the reaction he was after. She jerks up in her seat. Her eyes blaze with emotion.
"What is that supposed to mean?" She spits out. The emotions on her face pass quickly before being replaced with scorn. She laughs. It holds no humor. "Am I to be flattered, Grand Admiral?"
"Am I to be flattered, Grand Admiral?"
Well, so much for going the meek, helpless route. Araceilia mentally groaned at herself. Once again, she let her emotions get the best of her. Despite her outburst and blatant disrespect, the Grand Admiral's eyes curiously showed nothing but interest in her response.
"I have been monitoring your work for a while now," Thrawn said thoughtfully. "Granted, I did not know who you were. I have no doubt that the rebels would not have the recruits they do now without your work."
Araceilia's eyes narrowed. He was clearly playing the flattery game. He wanted her confession. Fine. She thought. What did she have to lose?
"I'm not a rebel." She simply stated.
He was silent for a moment, mulling over her words.
"Then what are you?" He asked.
"I'm an artist. And I'm good at what I do. A convenient turn of events… put me on their radar. I offered my skills, told them what it could do for them. I needed the credits. It has—was—purely transactional for me." Araceilia replied matter-of-factly.
"Then I understand you hold no political allegiance to the rebels? You stand with the Empire?" Thrawn asked.
Araceilia shrugged. "I don't care who is in charge. And I don't care who wins."
"I find that difficult to believe," Thrawn remarked.
"Most find comfort in standing for something. I find comfort in job security. Conflict breeds opinions. Opinions breed publicity and in turn, propaganda. They'll always be two sides to a political agenda. Especially in a galaxy that will never know peace."
"That is quite a cynical viewpoint you have, Miss Calthese."
"No. It's logical. Peace is a delusion." Araceilia snapped back.
She watched as Thrawn's gaze turned to something else. Admiration? It was gone before she could pin it down.
"Indeed it is…" Thrawn cryptically agreed. He leaned forward, lacing his fingers together on the desk. "Thank you for cooperating. I believe you. I have a proposition for you."
Thrawn watches her carefully. Her eyebrows knit together. Her eyes hold suspicion.
"You say that you hold no political allegiance. That you are…" Thrawn paused, "in for the credits, yes? The Empire's present interests align with your skill set. We could use a brilliant mind and artist like yourself."
She smirks; Her expression smug.
"Your recruiting numbers low? Wouldn't surprise me. The Empire isn't exactly thought of and depicted as the good guys." Her voice is full of pride.
Thrawn gave a small smile. "No thanks to your expertise working with the rebels against us." Thrawn got up, pacing behind his desk.
"Concerning our negative depiction, that is a narrative that must change. Change in which you can bring about."
"How much?" Araceilia asked. Her ebony hair shifts as she leans forward, completely engaged.
Thrawn paused for effect.
"Triple what the rebels paid you."
She does not hide the shock that takes over her facial features. She laughs, this time preposterously. "Triple?!," she whispers in wonder, her eyes looking quickly around the room. "Maker, how desperate are you?" A smile creeps over her lips.
Thrawn narrowed his eyes. "Desperation is not the reason. The rebels are growing each day and we need to counter their movement with our own. The galaxy is already aware of the Empire's might. Let us remind them of it. We need to let the galaxy know that the Empire will not tolerate the actions of these rebels. They are to be called out as they are: criminals. Anarchists."
She swallows, clearly nervous with his tone. He continues in a lighter one, trying to convince her. "This is where you would come in. Change the narrative."
They stared at one another. Her face holds conflict. Her jaw works as she considers. "Alright, Grand Admiral, you have yourself a deal."
Thrawn commed to the hallway calling the troopers back in.
Her eyes narrow in betrayal. Her mouth begins to open as if about to protest. Thrawn interrupts her before she can speak. "Troopers, take Miss Calthese to our guest quarters. She is no longer a prisoner. She is a passenger."
He watched her expression change to satisfaction and relief.
He alerted the bridge and Commander Vanto's voice rang out. "Yes, Grand Admiral?"
"Set course for Coruscant. You have control of the bridge for the duration of travel." Thrawn informed.
Thrawn caught the woman's gaze once more before she turned to leave.
Thank. The. Maker. Araceilia thought as she flopped down on her new quarter's bed, grinning up at the ceiling. She could never have guessed the outcome of that encounter. She expected to plead innocence and either a) they'd let her go, b) they'd detain her further, or c) send her to a labor camp "to be safe". She was aiming for her to be let go. Sure, she'd be out of work. But let her go with a job offer? No way on a meteor did she see that coming.
Triple the credits… She hadn't had that much income or security for the last twelve years before she left home. What would she even buy? She could finally afford a reliable commlink. Even the latest model with all the upgrades all the super-mega-rich kids had in her academy days. She could have an entire wardrobe full of clothes that didn't have holes and stains in them. The possibilities were almost too large to wonder about.
Her mind then took a turn to the more serious matter in front of her. She'd be an employee of the Empire. An asset to the military machine. Or would she be just another cog? She assumed she would be on Coruscant, at the heart of it all. Who would she work with? Maybe she'd get her own creative team to bark orders at? Nah, she preferred solitude. Better for creativity and flow. She hoped they would give her assignments and leave her well enough alone. But that seemed too good to be true. From what she heard, the Empire liked breathing down your neck to remind you that you're not in control. They are.
The sour pull in her stomach caused her eye to twitch. With the rebels, she had chosen to be their propagandist. The Empire forced her hand. What would have happened if she didn't agree to the job? "Oh, okay, we'll just put you back where we found you. Enjoy your life." Araceilia couldn't help but snort with laughter at that imaginative scenario and the utter absurdity her life had become.
High from the prospects but apprehensive about the future, she gave a great yawn, before rolling under the covers for a long overdue sleep.