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rule number one

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Krennic scanned the sedate clumps and throngs of partygoers around him, the noise of a hundred different low, polite conversations converging to create a ruckus that threatened to give him a headache. There was no one here he hadn’t spoken to a dozen times over and, given enough time and interest, he could’ve recalled each and every one of their names. He remembered a stretch of years when he found these events invigorating; now it took every ounce of self-control to avoid checking his chronometer.

He had, he thought, much better things to do.

“—n’t you agree, Director?”

Krennic turned his head, sharp, and stared down his nose at his companion, a slavering, greedy little man without a single compelling thought in his head. How he’d found himself so close to the governorship of such an integral Imperial beachhead was anyone’s guess and yet here he was, able to turn the ears of as many Imperial military strategists as he liked because of it. But he was nearly governor, so close he could probably taste it, and he made sure everyone knew it and Alipthes 3 remained an important strategic point in the Empire’s continuing crusade to tame the Outer Rim. “No,” he answered, though in truth he hadn’t been listening and didn’t know what the man had even said. “I don’t agree at all.”

The few other individuals arrayed around him avoided drawing one another’s eye. A young woman covered her mouth and turned her head, coughing delicately into her palm. An older man scuffed his shoes. Krennic would have offered them equally unkind words if the heavy wooden doors across the way hadn’t opened, admitting something far more interesting than the trio of empty-headed hangers on surrounding him.

His gaze lifted, taking in the sight of a new arrival. The new arrival anyway as he was the only one who stepped inside the large, overly decorated ballroom. There was so much glitter in this place, Krennic felt sure someone would go blind from it all and he tried not to hope that he would be the one stricken. A handful of others glanced the newcomer’s way, interest for him only lingering long enough to check the rank squares on his chest. When there weren’t enough of them, nor the right color, that attention dissolved and faded to nothing. The people who’d shown interest pretended they hadn’t done so in the first place.

More proof that nobody knew a damned thing.

Anyone who was willing to skirt Imperial regulations by wearing a beard, trimmed and neat and only just within acceptable code standards, was someone worth talking to.

Adopting a tight smile, he nodded at each of his current nuisances. Frankly, he didn’t believe they deserved even this much coddling—Krennic had so many important things to do and more piling up by the minute—but he knew better than to completely slight everyone he came across. “If you’ll all excuse me.”

The woman murmured her assent and the men followed suit and Krennic could not give less of a damn as he stepped away. A waiter passed in front of him—no droid servants here, no. Proof they were just as civilized and prosperous out here as the rest of the Empire was—just in time for him to snap his fingers.

“One moment,” he said, dropping his empty flute onto the tray the waiter carried and plucking up two fresh glasses. “Thank you.” The last remark was offhand and went ignored by the waiter and Krennic both. No doubt the waiter cared little for Krennic. And Krennic, after all, had other things on his mind.

Like finding out who this man was. Krennic certainly didn’t know him and Krennic knew everyone. Even lowly lieutenants. Especially when they were as handsome as this one was. More happily, it was something new to do. It was even possible that Krennic would impress the man. Having another officer in one’s pocket was never a bad thing. And the more recently they came out of one of the academies, the better. So much easier that way.

This one didn’t look quite that young, but the beard was still obviously his way of compensating for the smoothness of his skin, the cheeks that rigorous Imperial training hadn’t yet entirely stripped of their roundness.

As he squeezed between a pair of competing groups of attendees, neither side paying him the slightest mind, the contents of the glasses sloshed perilously toward the lip. Vaguely annoyed by the lack of courtesy, he shot a glare at the back of several people’s heads before willing himself to at least pretend to be cordial.

Breathing deeply, he smiled as genuinely as he knew how and stepped toward the man, finally close enough to offer a greeting. Krennic probably should have waited for the host to introduce him around, but the host wasn’t here, so. Extending one glass toward the man, he said, “You’ll be needing this, I expect.”

The man, momentarily startled, his eyes wide and mouth parted slightly, nodded. “Ah, thank you,” he said, taking the glass from Krennic’s outstretched hand. He still wore his gloves, the leather of them black and shiny and brand new, making what Krennic thought may have been elegant hands appear somewhat ungainly. The man’s eyes found Krennic’s own rank squares, at which point Krennic took pity on him. Nobody quite understood Krennic’s role in the Imperial hierarchy and he didn’t intend to embarrass the man—that, he saved for the people who deserved it.

And anyway, it wasn’t often he found someone who didn’t recognize him. Novelties were worth something to him. “Orson Krennic,” he offered. “Director of Advanced Weapons Research.”

On a sigh, the man nodded. “Lieutenant An—thera, sir. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Pursing his lips together, he sipped at the drink, doing a similar scan of the room that Krennic often engaged in himself. If his arched brow was any indication, he wasn’t particularly impressed with the night’s prospects either.

“Lieutenant An’thera,” he replied, hoping he got the enunciation right and not entirely sure why he cared so much. All he knew was the accent sounded Separatist, which only added a new layer of interest for Krennic. The Empire had had a lot of trouble bringing former Separatists into the fold. Not so very different from the trouble the Separatists gave to the Republic that came before it. Any who did join tended to be… unique.

A smile twitched at the corner of An’thera’s mouth and Krennic couldn’t tell if it was mocking or not.

Maybe that was why he cared. One always needed to know where one stood with others. And this man, for all that Krennic saw so much, was inscrutable. He might smile; his eyes might crinkle just a bit. But Krennic didn’t believe for a second that he knew anything about what An’thera was feeling.

“What brings you to the governor’s mansion, might I ask?” Krennic said, more prim than he liked, but making an attempt at polite small talk. If it shaded toward solicitous, no one could blame him. He enjoyed newness, chased it. He liked to think he hid it well, but there was no discounting the possibility that someone had or would notice.

And use it against him.

“I did—I believe her name is Deleene? Commander Deleene?” Tipping his chin up, he searched the crowd again. “Anyway. I’ve only recently transferred to the base and I did her a favor. She gave me an invitation. That’s all.”

Krennic bit back a smirk and wiped the next few thoughts from his mind as best he could. They weren’t terribly polite and Deleene was more competent than most people this far from the Core. There was probably a perfectly legitimate reason for her to do what she did. “I can take you to her if you’d like.”

“No, uh.” He shrugged. “I think she did it out of pity. I don’t wish to bother her.” Looking around for a third time, he licked his lower lip. “I’m not even sure why I came if I’m being entirely honest.”

That’s no way to curry favor with anyone, Krennic thought. But he was reluctantly impressed with his new acquaintance for his restraint or disinterest and his decision to embrace honesty in this of all places. It wasn’t often you came across that in the lower ranks. Nor even the higher ranks, truth be told. Even Krennic wasn’t above offering a lie and a bow and scrape—from time to time.

One day, he’ll reach a point where he no longer has to do none of those things.

And that day was not far off, he felt. Not far off at all.

But he didn’t need to offer this man all the keys to success in the Empire. It was always better to learn them for one’s self.

Still, between the two of them, they could get everyone talking.

It might even boost An’thera’s profile out here, get him going on a more productive track.

The orchestra pit struck up the opening chords of a dance Krennic knew well. Sighing, he lifted his palm and gestured An’thera forward. “Do you dance, Lieutenant?” Swallowing the last of his drink, he indicated that An’thera should do the same and took his glass from him once he was done. Handing them off to the nearest waiter—they were never far away—he paused for an answer.

“Not in the slightest.” But An’thera lifted his hands anyway and made a rather large production of removing his gloves. The fingers and knuckles were rougher than Krennic expected, scarred in ways most Imperial officers’ hands never got.

He was a fighter. In fact, his hands weren’t so different from Krennic’s own once upon a time and Krennic took a moment to scrutinize them, enjoying the handful of scars that had healed imperfectly across his skin.

He’d always had a taste for the simple and bold.

There was nothing more simple and bold than a fist that had seen its share of fights.

Stowing the gloves in his belt, the fingers dangling disconcertingly at his side, he took Krennic’s hand. “But if you’d like to become the laughingstock of this affair, who am I to deny you?”

It would be worth it. “It wouldn’t be the first time,” he answered, thinking of Tarkin, the project now slipping through his fingers, the blame placed on his shoulders constantly. It was a rare moment of honesty for him and fit him poorly. Not unlike the first uniform he’d ordered when he’d joined the Republic Army’s corps of engineers. The droid who’d tailored it did a poor job of it and it showed.

Hopefully he wasn’t so obvious here and now.

“Such a charmer,” An’thera said, not quite hitting the coquettish note Krennic recognized from other Imperials when they were looking to flatter a person. It was just a hint biting, sarcastic, but deniably so. Still, a decent enough effort.

It made Krennic want to laugh, pleased for once by the person he was speaking with. Wherever he’d come from, they certainly didn’t make them like that in the Core.

“Come on,” Krennic said, pulling him back toward the center of the ballroom floor. Other couples lined up around them; not a single one failed to notice Krennic was there. Their attention itched against the back of his neck, intrusive and demanding. His shoulders ached with the need to stretch and his instinct to preen under the scrutiny was such that it made focusing wholly on An’thera difficult. “All you have to do is follow my lead.”

An’thera was squinting, staring back at each of the people staring at him, acting very much like he was trying to memorize their faces—and failing, overwhelmed by the sheer number. “What was that?” he asked when Krennic’s words penetrated.

“Follow my lead,” he repeated, jerking and tilting his head to indicate the crowd. “Don’t worry about them.”

An’thera’s jaw tightened beneath that well-kempt beard of his, his cheek jumping slightly, but he nodded, determined. His body went rigid as Krennic pulled him closer and Krennic wanted to tell him to relax, that he looked far too contemptuous for an Imperial ball. Ridiculous, really. Who was Krennic to tell anyone else to relax or be less contemptuous?

“There,” Krennic said, dialing back the snideness as best he could. It wasn’t that he was annoyed, but An’thera really, really needed to learn how to play the game if he ever wanted to get anywhere. “That’s not so bad, is it?”

An’thera’s lip curled upward and there was a flash of heat in his eyes. Krennic recognized that heat—want and disdain and determination all at once—yes, he recognized it. That, at least, did An’thera some credit. That would take him places if he let it.

And it gave Krennic a bit of a thrill at having that attention directed his way; even he could admit that much. He wouldn’t do anything about it beyond this, of course, but he knew enough about himself to know this weakness for what it was.

Admiring people did nothing. Taking them to bed sometimes worked, but there was little point in trying that with An’thera. The benefit was all on An’thera’s side.

Well, maybe not all the benefit. Far too much of it all the same though.

An’thera made a misstep, one he recovered from with enough grace that Krennic saw no reason to recognize it as having occurred at all. He pushed An’thera back, however, toward the edge of the dance floor. If he was going to pay more attention to what was going on around them than what they were doing between them, Krennic might as well remove some of the temptation from view.

As the song wound down, the bridge of An’thera’s nose developed a pinkish flush, a delicate foil to the barely concealed intensity of his gaze. Krennic still had no real idea why An’thera was reacting the way he was. “Surely I’m not that poor a dancer,” Krennic said, vaguely mocking both toward himself and An’thera. Lifting his hand, he allowed his thumb to brush across An’thera’s cheekbone. He pulled away almost as quickly when An’thera glared at him for the touch.

Now, now. Wasn’t that interesting?

It made Krennic want to break his own rules. And perhaps he would. The night was young after all.

“Would you care for another drink?” Krennic asked.

Offering another look around—as though he was searching for something, an exit, perhaps, or a more suitable partner—An’thera tilted his head thoughtfully. “Sure,” he answered, a sharp grin upturning his mouth. “I think I’d like that very much.”

Don’t oversell it, Krennic thought. Narrowing his eyes and adopting a jovial expression and tone, he clapped An’thera on the shoulder. “You look like a whiskey man.” The average attendee may not have had options here, but Krennic was important enough that he could bully his way into whatever corner of the mansion he wanted. Including the rare liquor stores. “I know just the thing.”

“Is that so?” An’thera lifted his chin, defiant, challenging. “I’ll take you at your word.”

As Krennic turned away, slipping again between throngs of people, he got the very distinct feeling he was being catalogued, sorted, and filed away to be considered more fully at a later time. It wasn’t an unflattering feeling, but it made the space between his shoulder blades crawl with the possibility of danger, like it was entirely possible he’d have a knife in his back before the night was out if he wasn’t careful.

If he didn’t know any better, he’d think An’thera was with ISB.

“Oh, sweetheart,” he called over his shoulder. “Don’t ever take anyone at their word.”

That is absolutely the last thing you should be doing.