The annual ball for the Stormtrooper Relief Fund was never one of her favorite events. Governor Arihnda Pryce liked getting dressed up, and liked mingling among erudite guests, that wasn’t the problem.
The problem was this tradition of the last dance auction.
She had no idea who started it, but it was something that had been a part of the event as long as she’d been attending them. It felt silly, not scandalous, although some women liked to shriek in faux-outrage, comparing the practice to slavery or prostitution. The rich and elite adored it, of course, the wealthy calling out hundreds of credits to dance with their wives or mistresses and show off their fortunes. The young and single too, enjoyed the competitive nature of the auction, and more than one couple had been formed or broken up as a result of a dearth or abundance of credits.
Several years ago, Juahir had convinced her to stay until the end. Of course, Juahir’s dance was heavily bid by friends and coworkers, going for a respectable 86 credits to an overeager ensign. As expected, Arihnda’s name hadn’t been called until the very very end, when only five pathetic wallflowers remained unpartnered. An unattractive perpetual lieutenant had taken pity on her, bid and won her for five credits, and stepped on her feet throughout the entire waltz. And the saddest part was, Arihnda hadn’t been surprised by any of it.
She knew it was for a good cause, but this stupid dance tradition served three purposes, none of which interested her: A mating ritual, a popularity contest, or an extravagant display of wealth, all in the guise of charity. Since that miserable experience, Arihnda unfailingly made it a point to leave before the festivities began.
Tonight, as usual, she wasn’t going to stay until the end. There were plenty of women there, and there was no Juahir to convince her that some lovesick major would be tossing credits around for the honor to dance with a stern Imperial Governor. It would be equally embarrassing if there was some low-ranking enlisted who had a crush on her. She couldn’t win. Better to leave.
Pryce looked down at her dress with a wistful glance. It was pretty. A deep red color, that sort of shimmered in a subtle, classic way. She had bought it for her very first gala, and had been satisfied in an indescribably sad way to see it still fit her perfectly. That first ball, she’d been a Corporal’s date. It hadn’t ended well. And speaking of ending, it was about that time. She needed to start making her way to the door…
“Good evening, Governor Pryce.” The voice was low and tentative, at her elbow.
Turning slightly, she hid her surprise to see Eli Vanto. He was not someone she would have expected to go out of his way to say hello at a social event. Arihnda thought he disapproved of her, actually, in some vague and macro fashion, not that she cared.
“Good evening, Commander Vanto,” she nodded slowly, taking in the man’s dress uniform and formal appearance. His brown hair, which had always looked too long for regulations, to her mind, was carefully combed, and his forehead was furrowed, as if he had steeled himself for some difficult task.
“Are you enjoying the ball?” he asked, tone stilted but friendly enough. Pryce wondered idly where the Grand Admiral was, if Vanto was here. They were usually joined at the hip. Better not to ask though. Yet apparently she was more transparent than she had thought, and fought to keep a blank expression as Vanto seemed to answer her unspoken question.
“Grand Admiral Thrawn arrived late tonight, but he’s here now,” he said, something strange about his delivery.
“Shouldn’t you be with him, then, Commander?” Arihnda raised an eyebrow questioningly, hoping her face didn’t betray her annoyance at his prior insight into her thoughts.
Vanto shook his head briefly. “Everyone is off duty, so…” He didn’t seem to know how to finish the sentence.
She let the awkwardness sink in just long enough to make her exit welcome, she hoped.
“Well, do enjoy yourself, Commander,” she turned away, but Vanto started to walk at her side, making her stop and face him again. “Is there something I can do for you?”
Vanto was definitely not comfortable, clearing his throat and glancing towards the dais, where any moment they would start the infernal auction.
“Aren’t you going to stay for the last dance, Governor?”
Arihnda bit back a frown at his words, tilting her head, thinking silence would make him back off more than a reply. She was wrong.
“I mean…it’s when the most money is raised, after all, and that’s the whole point…” he continued.
Sighing, Arihnda didn’t know quite what to do. She certainly wasn’t going to confide in Vanto regarding her insecurities. Deflection might be the better option.
“What fortunate lady shall receive your bid, then, Commander?” she asked, trying to inject some lightness into her voice.
That worked brilliantly, as he flushed a darker hue. “I doubt I can afford a dance tonight, Governor,” he managed, clearly trying not to look at whomever was the object of his affections, somewhere over her shoulder.
Arihnda smiled thinly. It was unfortunate for Vanto if his romantic ambition didn’t match the thickness of his wallet, but that was not her concern.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Commander. Now,” she let the smile disappear, purpose entering her voice, “…if you’ll excuse me…”
Just then the emcee stepped to the microphone and called for everyone’s attention. Arihnda felt a stab of panic. She had to leave now. Before it became too obvious what she was avoiding. Again she began walking to the door, again Vanto dogged her steps.
“Ma’am…” he sounded slightly desperate.
Spinning on her red satin heels, Arihnda was really annoyed now. Her voice was icy.
Vanto’s brown eyes were wide, an inexplicable panic there she couldn’t understand.
“What is it?” she repeated, the words marginally gentler.
He took two steps closer, his boots almost toe to toe with her shoes.
“Please stay.” His eyes searched hers, begging for understanding. “It’s important…”
Oh stars. She understood all of a sudden, and couldn’t decide if she was angry, flattered, or embarrassed. To cover for the realization, she nodded once, curtly, and turned away from the door, moving to where the emcee was still speaking, explaining the rules. Vanto followed, the sigh he didn’t allow to escape nonetheless suffusing each of his movements with relief.
The auction began, and the partners were bid. Arihnda tried to see Thrawn in the throng, but ultimately decided searching for him would be far too obvious, and abandoned the idea almost as soon as it occurred to her. Of course, there weren’t many suitable partners a Grand Admiral could bid on—those of his crew all beneath his rank, as well as direct subordinates. If he wished to contribute to the charity, she was probably his only option, she rationalized.
Young couples were quickly paired off, then some of the more elite began their sanctioned bargaining. Some were apparently surprises to the gathered crowd, such as when an officer called out the name of a younger cadet, only to get into a war of credits with her wealthier patron. During the commotion, someone apparently informed the elder of the officer’s standing with the Emperor, and not only did the man stop bidding, he insisted on paying the exorbitant fee for the couple to dance. Politically savvy, and personally craven, Arihnda thought without contempt.
“Governor Arihnda Pryce, for one hundred credits,” sounded a deep, sure voice.
It was not, however, the voice she’d expected. From Vanto’s look, she thought he was as surprised as she was.
Colonel Yularen had been very gracious, as was his wont, earlier in the evening, but Arihnda had not expected this. He had mentioned he was attending stag due to a variety of circumstances, however, so perhaps it had been a hint to his intentions.
“Two hundred credits,” called out the rich and exotic voice she’d been expecting.
The look on Yularen’s face was impossible to interpret. Arihnda was shocked. Two hundred credits. The attending wealthy had not spent more than five hundred on a dance thus far, and to go so high so quickly…
However, his insertion into the proceedings allowed Arihnda the opportunity to seek out the Grand Admiral in the crowd, and she found him just as Yularen upped his bid.
“Two hundred fifty!” She thought she could hear a smile in the older man’s voice.
Now everyone looked at her, and she had to drag her eyes away from Thrawn so as to not appear to be playing favorites. He was dressed impeccably, of course, but perhaps more dashing than usual, something oddly rakish about his uniform appearance that she couldn’t pinpoint.
“Three hundred,” a new, familiar, clearly amused voice, even more unexpected, called out from the crowd. The emcee was obviously at a loss.
“Three hundred credits I am bid, from Senator Organa,” he hollered into the microphone, as if no one had heard.
“Four hundred,” Yularen upped his bid.
Shocked and trying to keep the blood from rushing to her cheeks, Arihnda turned to look to Vanto for some sort of cue or support, but he had vanished from her side.
“Five hundred,” yelled out the Senator, obviously enjoying himself.
“One thousand credits for the Governor's dance,” said Thrawn, firmly and authoritatively, and the crowd stilled, the hush evidently one of shock as much as awe at the enormous sum.
All eyes turned to Colonel Yularen, who gave a small smile and a nod in Arihnda’s direction, something secretive in his look. Then everyone looked at Bail Organa, who bowed once, elegant as always, towards her, then, with rather more of a flourish, to the Grand Admiral across the room, acknowledging defeat.
“Going once, going twice, sold for a thousand credits, Governor Pryce’s last dance to Grand Admiral Thrawn,” yelled the emcee, and the room erupted in applause.
Arihnda was stunned, still fighting the surge of embarrassment as much as the pleasure of being battled for like a prize. It should have been upsetting, she supposed, an affront to women everywhere, but she had not just enjoyed the spectacle that had taken place, she had thrilled at it.
The bidding continued, with the wealthy guests now feeling the pressure to one-up the Grand Admiral’s generosity. Arihnda crossed the room in a daze, the crowd parting for her as she made her way to Thrawn’s side. She distantly registered another dance going for two thousand, then another, for a lesser-known but wealthy Moff’s wife, for five. What could she possibly say to him? She was completely at a loss, all too aware of the number of eyes upon them: some expectant, some snide, some curious.
Thrawn greeted her with a courtly bow.
“I trust you are enjoying yourself this evening, Governor Pryce?”
She wanted to grin like a lunatic at the handsome man who’d rescued not only her night, but her pride, yet kept her features even, allowing a slight curl of her lips, carefully controlled.
“I am, Grand Admiral.” Her smile widened slightly. “Thank you for your generous contribution to the cause,” she added, conscious of those listening to the exchange.
“It is entirely my pleasure,” he matched her pleased expression, offering his arm. “The waltz, I believe, is the traditional finale?”
Arihnda confirmed that, taking his arm, trying not to notice the looks from the guests surrounding them. After all, he’d won her fair and square, and this was expected. No point in trying to do anything subtly at this point.
The auction had ended, and the couples made their way to the dance floor. Thrawn selected a spot near the center, and Arihnda felt a small tingle of nervousness as she tried to remember how to do this. It had been so long.
He must have sensed the hesitation.
“Relax, Governor,” he said, voice almost soothing. It should have bothered her, that counsel, she thought, but instead it was reassuring and she offered a small nod as she stepped into his embrace as the small string ensemble struck up the classic “Emperor Waltz.”
She tried to focus on the placement of her left thumb and forefinger against his deltoid, holding the brace with grace but not stiffness, avoiding all thoughts of how nicely he was clasping her right hand, of the feel of his palm against her bare back, just beneath the shoulder blade. She definitely wouldn’t think about the fact that he’d just paid an exorbitant sum for her dance, regardless of the fact that it was doubtless just a pretense to contribute to the Stormtrooper Relief Fund. And she absolutely refused to wonder how come Thrawn was such a fantastic dancer, as she did indeed relax, flying across the floor in his arms, effortlessly surrendering to his lead, enjoying the sensation of elegance and beauty that was imparted by a well-executed waltz. It was wonderful, and she wished the music would go on for hours, but it was over far too soon, and as the final notes faded, she thought she felt Thrawn also reluctant to release his hold on her. Something else she would deny considering; it was all too confusing.
The guests applauded politely, and Thrawn offered his arm once more to escort her from the dance floor. Arihnda accepted it, wanting to ask if his bidding war was pre-planned, wanting to ask why her, when there were other female politicians in attendance, wanting to ask what now, as the attendees began streaming from the ballroom.
She asked none of these things, and allowed Thrawn to steer her through a less crowded side exit, where they stood in silence a moment, arms still looped together.
“Thank you,” she finally said, keeping her eyes carefully away from his, looking up at the sky which was too brightly lit by Coruscant’s skyline to show any stars. He was so tall, and she could feel him looking down at her, his side pressed lightly against hers.
“For what?” Thrawn countered mildly.
Then she did look up and meet his gaze, hot and red and glowing in the night, fixed on her. Open. Welcoming.
“For the dance, of course.”
He smiled and made no immediate reply, stepping in front of her and pressing them both into the shadows of the building as another group of guests pushed past onto well-lit paths, looking for their transports or drivers.
When they were alone once more, Thrawn disengaged their joined arms and instead took her right hand, lifting it in his left as he had when they waltzed. His other moved to her back, then slid down her spine to where the dress’s fabric began, above the curve of her waist. He pulled her close to his chest, and she had to arc her neck to meet his gaze.
“Shall we continue to dance elsewhere, Governor?” he asked softly, a low murmur she felt travel from her ears to her stomach, like oxygen through her bloodstream.
She wanted to whisper something equally clever, to respond to his overture with the confidence and sensuality it deserved, but words didn’t come, and she could only nod before he led her into the night.