"Jarek, pour me a Reone el-Vaca."
The bartender whistled. "Springing for the good stuff, huh,
"It's a night to celebrate," Kinnan Vanerion said, smiling. Lifting his
glass to the soft lights of the upscale bar, he watched the play of the
mixing golden and crimson liquors. Satisfied, he turned toward the far side
of the room where a small painting was mounted over the antique hardwood
fireplace. Raising his glass in salute, Kinnan tossed off the drink and
turned back to his friend. "One more."
Jarek raised an eyebrow. "Reone is five hundred credits a pop,
"Then let me buy you one, too."
"Thanks, but you know I don't drink while on duty," Jarek chuckled.
"But you have to tell me what's got you feeling so magnanimous. I can't
imagine it's anything that happened at the concierge desk."
"No, definitely not," Kinnan replied with a wide grin. "Let's just say
that tonight marks a new stage in my life, a stage that I am very much
looking forward to."
Jarek leaned on the bar. "Spill it."
"I'm sorry, my friend, but I cannot tell you until tomorrow
"Kinnan, come on," Jarek cajoled him. "We've known each other for
almost ten years now. Surely you know you can trust me to keep a secret for
Kinnan glanced around hesitantly. The only other patrons in the bar
were seated at a table next to the crackling fire at the far end of the
room. Their quiet conversation was blurred to a low buzz by the soft
classical music piping in through hidden speakers around the room. It was
shortly before midnight, during the lull between the after-work crowd and
the late-night gamblers, so the upscale bar was likely to remain quiet for a
while. Whether it was the liquor taking effect or purely his jubilant mood,
he couldn't resist sharing the secret he'd nursed for the past ten
"I suppose it couldn't hurt now," he murmured, seating himself. "But
you have to swear to never share what I'm about to tell you."
"Of course," Jarek promised.
"You know I have a passion for art," Kinnan began. "And you know that
my last job was as a museum curator."
"Yes?" Jarek prompted.
"What you don't know is that I was the head Curator of Abstract Art at
the Coruscant Galactic Imperial Museum of Antiquities." He paused to let
the title sink in, but seeing no sign of recognition in his friend's face,
he elaborated. "It's the largest and most prestigious museum on
Jarek whistled. "Why did you leave a place like that to come work the
concierge desk at a little resort way out here?"
Kinnan lowered his voice almost to a whisper. "Because of that." He
nodded his head toward the painting over the fireplace.
"Your painting? What about it?"
?It?s what?? Jarek prompted.
Kinnan swallowed hard and leaned forward. ?It?s?not technically
Understanding dawned on Jarek's face. "You stole it?"
"Not exactly," Kinnan said quickly. "I'm just protecting it."
Jarek's eyes narrowed as he looked the painting over again. Shortly
after Kinnan had begun working at the resort, he had asked Jarek -- the
owner of the bar -- to hang the painting over the fireplace. He didn't know
much about art, but he'd been looking for something to fill that space on
the wall, and most of the resort's patrons were upscale types who
appreciated fine art. Besides, the painting had a mysterious aura to it,
and it fascinated him, too, so he mounted the air-tight display case
containing the painting. Kinnan visited the bar every night after his
shift, and never failed to buy at least one drink, and they'd soon become
friends. The painting also seemed to draw his other patrons' eyes, causing
them to loiter in the bar to examine it and discuss it, which in turn led to
more drink purchases. Jarek saw it as a winning situation all around - he'd
gained a notable attraction, increased his business, and gained a friend,
all at the same time.
"Protecting it from who?"
Kinnan looked around again as he sipped his second Reone. "A young
Imperial officer who wanted it for his own personal collection. Let me tell
you the story..."
Kinnan activated his comm in response to the quiet ping. "Yes?"
"Sir, your appointment has arrived."
"Thank you, I'll be right there," he sighed. When he'd arrived that
morning, he had a message from Imperial Center that a very important guest
wanted a personal tour of the Abstract wing of the museum. Unfortunately,
the tour was to happen well after normal hours, so he'd had to stay late to
accommodate the request. Blasted bureaucrats. While it was still an
annoyance, he was at least grateful that he'd been given any advance notice
at all for a change.
Kinnan checked a mirror and straightened his tunic before stepping out
of his office. His guest turned from an examination of the Gowaene on the
wall across from his office and nodded politely. "Mr. Vanerion, I
appreciate your time."
Kinnan quickly swallowed his surprise at the man's appearance. Jet
black hair topped a completely human frame, but glowing red eyes and bluish
skin belied any human heritage. Almost belatedly, Kinnan realized that the
man wore an Imperial officer's uniform, and again had to hide his surprise.
In all his years at the museum, he'd rarely seen any military types with any
interest in art.
"It's no trouble at all...Commander?" he tentatively identified the
insignia on the man's chest.
"Very good," the man said in a voice smoother than silk. "Commander
"We have over four hundred paintings by artists from dozens of species,
so there is a very wide body of work represented here." Kinnan asked.
"What would you like to see, Commander?"
The man's red eyes flicked back to the Gowaene, then swept hungrily
across the other works spaced along the walls, narrowing into crimson slits.
Kinnan shivered involuntarily. "Very well, if you'll please follow
"He spent six hours looking at every single painting in the wing,"
Kinnan said. "Actually, he didn't just look; he thoroughly examined each
"Sounds like a real art nut," Jarek commented.
"That's not the half of it," Kinnan said. "He wanted to know about
every single artist. The history, the cultural background, the methods and
materials..." he shrugged. "I've never seen anyone soak up as much as he
did at one time. It was frankly quite unnerving."
"I can imagine. So what was his story?"
"It turns out he was a brand new Imperial officer on his first visit to
Coruscant," Kinnan explained. "He had a few spare hours between his
official duties, and chose to spend that time in my museum."
"This guy doesn't sound like a normal Imperial, even for an
"Not at all," Kinnan agreed. "We finally came to the end of the wing,
and my favorite painting..."
"This vivid abstract was done by a human named Carcon Hidiginza," Kinnan
explained eagerly. "As you can see, this abstract is a garn-oil based resin
on canviplast, completed two decades ago."
Commander Thrawn's eyes glowed as he stepped closer to examine the
Kinnan continued quietly. "Hidiginza created a fair body of work early
in his career, but nothing of particular note. He mysteriously disappeared
for several years, and when he surfaced again on Helska, he claimed to have
traveled to the fringe of the galaxy where he was captured and tortured by
mysterious and unknown self-mutilating aliens. This was his final painting,
supposedly depicting that experience. It is widely regarded as a
masterpiece, completed shortly before he died. It is generally believed
that he either went crazy or was under the influence of glitterstim or some
other hallucinogen, but no one can deny the quality of his final work."
Thrawn continued to stare at the painting. "Brilliant," he finally
"Indeed, it is," Kinnan agreed. "It is one of our most popular
exhibits, and my own personal favorite."
"I see you have fine taste," the young officer commented. Turning to
Kinnan, he added almost nonchalantly, "Dismount it and have it delivered to
my shuttle before I leave in three hours."
Kinnan gaped, shocked at the request. When he found his voice, he
rasped, "With all due respect, Commander, that cannot be done. This is one
of the prize pieces of the museum's collection, worth over eight million
credits. It is not for sale."
Thrawn's eyes hardened just slightly. "I see. Again, Mr. Venarion, I
appreciate your time. Good evening." Spinning abruptly on a heel, he moved
toward the exit.
"The next morning I received a message from the office of the Emperor
himself that the painting was to be packaged and delivered to Imperial
Center," Kinnan shook his head wistfully.
"Wow, this Thrawn was pretty connected, wasn't he?"
"Apparently." Kinnan nodded.
"What did you do?"
Kinnan and Jarek turned at the new voice. A man wearing a dark hooded
cloak took the barstool next to Kinnan. His cultured voice spoke of
intelligence and sophistication. "I apologize for interrupting, but I've
always wondered how such a beautiful work of art came to end up out
Kinnan glanced uneasily at Jarek, who smiled and shrugged. "It's okay,
he's another regular. Been stopping by every few months for years."
Grudgingly, after glancing at the clock again, Kinnan picked up his
story. "Like I said, my administrator had gone home, so I didn't receive
the message until the next day, after the Commander had already shipped out.
However, I was instructed to have the painting ready for him when he
returned in three months."
"At least you got a little more time," the hooded stranger
"Yes, and I spent that time writing letters to the Coruscant Arts
council, the Painter's Guild, and the Emperor's office, pleading for a
reconsideration, but once the Emperor speaks, it's the end of the
"Very true," Jarek nodded. "You should hear some of the things I've
heard about people who've tried to argue with him."
"He doesn't generally like to repeat himself," the cloaked stranger
"What happened next?" Jarek pressed.
"It's a done deal, isn't it?"
Kinnan sighed. "Yes, it is." He patted his administrator's shoulder.
"Thank you for all your efforts on my behalf to save it."
"You're welcome." She shuddered. "I have to say, though, that I'll be
glad to see it go. It gives me the creeps."
Kinnan sighed again. "It is disturbing, but that's part of its majesty.
It's almost as if Hidiginza encapsulated the entire purpose of his
existence in this one painting." He stared at it for a moment. "It would
be a shame to leave it on the dull gray wall of a starship officer's
quarters. Art like this deserves to be displayed for millions to see.?
?If you say so,? the administrator said distastefully as she left.
?What other purpose is there for it?" Kinnan muttered to himself. A tone
pinged at his control board. Opening the incoming comm channel, Kinnan's
spirits fell even further as he answered the call.
"This is Commander Thrawn," came the smooth voice. "I wanted to confirm
you would have the Hidiginza ready for me when I land tomorrow."
"Of course, Commander," Kinnan replied through clenched teeth.
"Commander, if I may be so bold, what purpose do you have for this work of
"Mr. Vanerion, you are not the only being in the galaxy who has a
fondness for fine art."
The barest hint of annoyance laced the statement, but Kinnan pressed
forward. "Certainly not, Commander, but I wonder if you are familiar with
the care of such a painting."
"I assure you, it will be well cared for. My own collection is
Kinnan was again surprised by the young Imperial officer.
Still...desperation clutched at him as he sought another way of dissuading
the young officer. "Commander, may I ask why you are interested in this
particular painting? Surely there are many others in our collection that
might interest you."
There was a short pause. "Mr. Vanerion, I do not owe you an
explanation. Suffice it to say that you have no idea how important this
Kinnan realized his efforts were futile. Frustration knotted his gut,
but he knew he really had no choice. The Emperor had apparently taken an
inexplicable liking to this non-human officer, and the matter was closed.
"I understand. It will be ready for you when you arrive."
Kinnan collapsed into his chair, rubbing his eyes in sudden weariness.
He knew many museum workers joked about how he cared for the paintings under
his control as if they were his own children; as silly as it sounded, he
certainly felt that one of his own was being ripped away from him. At that
moment, Kinnan Vanerion?s mind finally acknowledged what his heart had
already decided. He simply could not allow this painting to pass to the
strange young officer. It deserved better. No military man ? not even the
cultured young Commander Thrawn -- would take the proper care of such a
masterpiece as this, much less appreciate it as it so richly deserved. The
painting had to remain in his care, above all else.
He would have to steal it.
Putting the thought into concrete words shot adrenaline through his
veins and sent a trickle of sweat down his spine. With shaking hands,
Kinnan quickly opened his bottom drawer and poured himself a shot of
Corellian whiskey. He took a few deep breaths in an attempt to achieve some
semblance of calm.
A moment later, his mind having come to terms with what he knew he had to
do, the plans began falling into place. Although he truly loved art, he had
little love for this job, and even less for the bickering politics in which
he had to engage in order to please his powerful constituents. No, he would
not miss the museum one bit. Liquidating his assets and disappearing would
be a bit tricky, having only one day before the young Imperial officer was
back on Coruscant, but it could be done.
"I sold everything I owned aside from some personal effects and booked
passage on a transport to Obroa-Skai. When I got to the spaceport, I paid
cash for a ticket to Yaga Minor, then hopped around for a few weeks until I
ended up here."
"How did you get the painting out?" Jarek asked.
Kinnan shrugged. "I was the curator. I simply walked in late that
night, unlocked the case, and took it. By the time anyone realized
something was wrong, I was halfway across the galaxy.?
Jarek squinted in thought. ?And the Rebellion was making some major
waves right about then, too.?
?Fortunately for me, yes,? Kinnan grinned triumphantly. ?I was
"Incredible," Jarek whistled.
"Very bold," the stranger agreed.
"But worth the risk," Kinnan grinned, saluting the painting and taking
"So why the celebration tonight?" Jarek asked.
"Because," Kinnan said slowly, "as of midnight tonight, the statute of
limitations for my theft expires." He looked up at the clock. "In four
minutes, I will be free!"
Jarek whistled. "I have to hand it to you, that's a neat little heist
Kinnan bowed theatrically. "Thank you, my friend. I'll take one more,
As Jarek filled Kinnan's glass, the stranger cleared his throat.
"There's just one thing I'm curious about."
"And what would that be?" Kinnan's eyes never left the clock.
"You gave up a lucrative career with high status at the center of the
galaxy, and you can't have made much money working the concierge desk at a
small resort out here on the Outer Rim. Was this painting worth ten years
of isolation and forced poverty?"
"Absolutely," Kinnan replied without hesitation. "I've got a job and
good friends; now I'll have my freedom, too. Yes, it was well worth it."
He stood, raising his glass toward the painting. "Here it comes..."
The hand swept past midnight. Kinnan laughed triumphantly and tossed
off the rest of his drink. "I have to get a close-up look." He hurried
across the room and scrambled up onto a chair. Reaching up to grasp the
painting's airtight frame, his fingers slid right through.
Kinnan Vanerion froze.
Sudden panic squeezed his heart as he pressed both hands against -- no,
not against, but through -- the painting, touching the rough brick wall
beyond. His precious painting, his most prized possession and the reason
for his ten-year self-imposed exile, was nothing but a hologram.
"Wh-where is it?" he stammered. "What happened to it?" One look at
Jarek's face revealed that the bartender's surprise equaled that of his own.
He turned back to the hologram, slamming his palms through the image to
the bricks in frustration.
"Mr. Vanerion, please control yourself," the stranger said quietly.
Kinnan leaped off the chair and rushed over to the man, shaking a finger
in his face. "You know something about this! What happened to my
"It was never yours to begin with," the man commented mildly. He threw
back his hood to reveal glittering red eyes set in a handsome face of deep
Kinnan stumbled backward in a panic.
"It's...It's...you...Commander...no, no, no..."
"It's Admiral now, actually," Thrawn corrected him. "And I had to stop
by to commemorate your special evening. Congratulations on your
Confusion played across Kinnan's face. "Y-You're not going to arrest
"On what grounds?" Thrawn seemed genuinely amused. "The real Hidiginza
has been safely in my possession for over four years now. As soon as I
located it -- and you -- I had it recovered and replaced by the hologram.
You can keep that, by the way."
Kinnan's mouth opened and closed soundlessly.
"So you've known where he was for four years and didn't do anything
about it?" Jarek asked, incredulous.
Thrawn shrugged. "I had retrieved the painting, and that's what really
mattered. When I saw how our friend here had cared for it, I realized we
had a similar passion for art. I could hardly blame him for that."
"So that's it?" Kinnan said, finally regaining his voice as his
confusion gave way to anger. "You ruined my life, still ended up with my
painting, and now you're just going to leave me here with nothing to show
for the last ten years?"
"It is my painting," Thrawn corrected with just a slight edge in
his voice. "You would have taken great care of it, I know, but it was
created to serve a bigger purpose that only I could fulfill." He rose and
dropped some credits on the bar. "Allow me to buy the last round." Turning
to Kinnan, he held out a key. "And I wouldn't say you have nothing to show
for the last ten years." He quietly slipped out of the bar.
Sitting quietly in the bank?s private viewing room, Kinnan opened the
deposit box and gaped in shock - inside were two neat stacks of Imperial
credits. Kinnan picked one up and clicked his fingernail along the length
of the stack, estimating it to be easily over a million credits. Underneath
the money was an actual size replica of the Hidiginza, one so meticulously
recreated that only someone who had spent a lifetime studying the painting
would be able to tell it wasn't the actual work of art.
Under the replica was a small note. It read:
Mr. Kinnan Vanerion,
I hereby consider you paid in full for six years as
of the Hidiginza masterpiece. The 'Embrace of Pain' is
in good hands,
and will be put to good use in the near
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