Eli once again wondered just what he had done wrong in his life to deserve being Thrawn’s aide.
That is to say, in recent years he more or less enjoyed his work with the Grand Admiral, but occasionally Thrawn took a blind jump into dark space (via word or deed) that left Eli’s head spinning.
Today was one of those days.
“Come along, Commander. I hear if one arrives past 1800 hours, that seats can be in short supply” Thrawn urged in a clipped tone.
Eli didn’t answer immediately as he tried to keep up with the admiral’s brisk pace down the empty street.
Instead he glanced over Thrawn’s choice of ‘civies’: grey tech’s pants, black shirt (which looked suspiciously like the Admiral’s standard undershirt) and a black jacket that the Admiral had owned since they were at the Royal Imperial Academy.
Eli wore similar clothing (most of it also many years old), but had opted for browns since he’d been told at some point in his childhood by his mother that he looked rather nice in tawny brown. Then an odd thought struck him, “Maybe he and the Admiral needed to get out more?”
Ironic, since they were on their way to a Lothal watering hole (all to forward Thrawn and Yularen’s investigation into the Defence Industry whistlblower). The bar in question was easily walkable from the Dome and, although there were plenty of similar establishments in the city, what made this one worth Thrawn’s (and presumably Eli’s) attention was the fact that it was very popular with troops and the pro-imperial factory personnel.
Thrawn was convinced that they could find a lead on the informant known as “no-one” there.
The information already provided by “no-one” had come from many disciplines. Some military, some industrial. None of the sources appeared to be too highly placed, but all of the information had proven correct as far as Eli and Thrawn had dared to validate it without tipping off Governor Price's organization.
“A venue where the world weary can drown their cares and commiserate.” Thrawn had said one afternoon in his office. “Such a place seems likely for “no-one” to interact with disgruntled troops and factory workers without arousing suspicion.”
Eli was not convinced despite what Master Sergeant Ott had told him about where his men liked to congregate when off-duty.
“Sir, how do we even know that “no-one” is a single person? It could be a network. An individual would have a lot of difficulty gathering intel from so many sources.”
Thrawn had nodded. “I agree. It would be difficult for an individual but not impossible. That is why the prospect of Sergeant Ott’s cantina seems so likely. He recalled seeing Dr. Rensam there on several occasions and the ‘true’ material fault data could only have come from her lab. Also, the many instances of equipment failure with serial numbers and lot codes from Lothal’s factory specifically cannot be found in any of the official quality records. The person gathering the data would need to be either the soldiers themselves or their squad leaders coupled with production controllers who could gain access to the as-built records of the factory.” Thrawn turned to a holo taken of pictograms that were made by Lothal’s pre-Republic natives. Such images were currently in vogue with the home-rule faction of Lothal’s elite. Reproductions could be found on jewelry and in all manner of flats and sculptures. “Otherwise, this “no-one”would need to have the ability to move unseen at any level within the factories, the cadet school, and our own ranks.” he turned towards Eli, a chilling expression in his blood-red eyes. “And that is a troubling prospect, indeed.”
So here they were, a Grand Admiral and his aide-de-camp, headed down a dimly lit dirt street to a small time cantina under the guise of needing some R and R.
Their destination, Kyk’s Cantina, opened modestly onto the street. No large glowing signs or flashy holos, just a plain overhang for shade during the afternoons and the name painted directly onto the stucco.
They entered and Eli wondered how such a place could be so popular. It looked just like any other bar he’d ever been to and that included the ones out in the middle of no-where on Lysatra.
There were only about a dozen or so patrons about. Most looked like midlevel personnel from the factory (they all gave him and Thrawn worried looks over their beverages), while the back table had three off-duty stormtroopers who nodded respectfully but looked decidedly uncomfortable at their arrival.
Once seated (Thrawn had opted for two seats at the far end of the bar itself), Eli looked around again. They had a clear view of the entire place from their seats especially of the door. The admiral once had again thought of everything.
“Evening, gentlemen.” a sweet, female voice cut through Eli’s thoughts and he looked up with a start not having heard anyone approach.
A petite young woman stood grinning at them from behind the bar, idly wiping a glass. She was pretty in a no-nonsense sort of way: short hair, very little make-up and a form-fitting shirt with modest lines. Her outfit and manner advertised that while she contributed to the positive atmosphere, she was there to run a business not a dating service.
“Good evening.” replied Thrawn.
“Er, hi” Eli managed a bit put off by her welcoming expression. Most of the locals he’d seen were scared to death of soldiers. Maybe she had something to do with how popular this dive bar was?
The barmaid raised an eyebrow at him. “At ease, boys. We serve all sorts here.” She paused dramatically and Eli’s felt his ears warm. Was she insulting the fact that they were Imperials or that Thrawn was an alien? “Even the Brass.” The she finished smoothly with another grin. Eli felt himself relax slightly. She was only teasing them.
“So what’ll it be, gents? Mind you, I expect purchases from the top shelf at your rank.” She gave Thrawn a wink. A wink! Eli stared in disbelief. The Grand Admiral gave one of his usual half-smiles in return.
“Gladly. It occurs to me that it is often prudent to defer to the barkeep’s expertise in such matters.” The barmaid blinked at Thrawn’s typical verbose response but otherwise didn’t miss a beat.
“Right.” she glanced to Eli. “You’re Outer-Rim, right? Near Wild Space?”
Eli felt his face warm reflexively and shoulders tense. “That’s right. Why?”
The Barmaid leaned on one arm, giving him a thoughtful look. “Just that we have a malted-amber lager and some thrice filtered Whis, if you’re interested?”
“A BRB? No way!” She could make a Blockade Runner’s Breakfast! At Thrawn’s curious glance Eli elaborated. “I haven’t had one of those in years!” The barmaid just grinned before giving Thrawn a long, appraising look. “Hm, I think I have just the thing for you, too. Just two shakes.”
As she turned away to gather ingredients from different points along the bar, Thrawn turned towards Eli.
“Two shakes of what?”
Eli sighed, how many years had it been since he had ‘agreed’ to be Thrawn’s Basic tutor?
“It’s an agrarian turn of phrase. As in two shakes of a nerf’s or some other animal’s tail. It means ‘just a moment’ or ‘quickly’.”
Thrawn’s gaze turned distant for a moment. “I see. Quickly. Two shakes. A quaint use of metaphor.”
“One might argue that all language is metaphor, Admiral.”
Eli’s head jerked up in surprise. Somehow the barmaid had snuck up again!
“Your libations, gentle sirs.”
She set a tall tankard of spiked lager in front of Eli and a tumbler containing a pale green mixture of spirits that Eli wasn’t familiar with in front of Thrawn. “To your health.”
Eli took a tentative sip of his drink and immediately felt a warm wave of nostalgia overcome him. The barkeep had made an honest BRB. The backend was a bit different than what he had tried on his homeworld (likely due to the origin of the lager rather than a mistake on her part) but he sighed happily all the same.
The young lady flashed him a knowing smile then looked at Thrawn expectantly.
The “off-duty” Grand Admiral took a measured sip from the glass without breaking eye contact with her…then blinked...slowly.
“How’s yours, sir?” Eli asked, curious at his superior’s reaction.
“Excellent, Commander.” He nodded to their hostess with something like respect. “Your intuition, Madame, is impeccable.”
The barmaid executed a semi-courtly bow. “High praise, sirs, high praise. Now just let me know if you fellows need anything.” She then turned away to tend to the other customers.
A contemplative moment of merely sitting and enjoying sipping his drink passed for Eli. It was relaxing. It was blissful. All was right with the universe….
Eli’s inner self cringed. Until Thrawn had to go and open his mouth.
Eli pulled himself out of his happy trance.
“It would seem this is the perfect environment for our quarry.” Thrawn began in a low tone.
Eli reached for the hard-won resolve he had developed over his years in the Navy. His commanding officer was seriously determined to kill any amount of fun that could be had on this outing.
“Indeed,” Thrawn scanned the tavern (semi-casually). “There are no less than six mid-level techs from the Sienar and Blastech factories here.”
“Not to mention that table of stormtroopers.” Eli monotoned.
“Exactly. A contingent from Sergeant Ott’s group if I’m not mistaken.”
“Oh?” Eli just went with it. With all of the detachments deploying in and out of the local garrison there was no telling how the Admiral had figured that one out.
There was a faint chime from under the bar. The barmaid hurried over.
She grabbed at something under the counter and stood up with a comlink clutched in one hand and the other busy on a datapad.
“Yes? Right. Right. No, I already took care of that. Yes. No she hasn’t gotten here yet. I’ll let her know. Right. The usual. Right. Bye.” she tossed the comlink back under the bar then looked over to a prominently displayed wall chrono. “issh meh-hienh.” she muttered.
“Hi-oh, Kadi!” a lovely voice called from the entrance. It was Marta Hortus, long golden curls down her back and violet-blue eyes shining. She was smiling and even though she was wearing what looked to be an old mechanic’s suit, Eli thought she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.
“Hello, Marta.” Kadi called back a bit quieter but no less cheerful.
Great Lady, did everyone feel like they had to kriffing yell all the time? she thought, fighting a wince.
“Mr. Kyk just called. He asked me to handle it for this month if that’s ok?”
Marta came up to the bar. “Of course, you should know I trust you to handle things.” She gave a wry smirk which Kadi mirrored. “You have some new faces tonight?” Marta asked curiously nodding to the two high-ranking imperials just a few spots down.
“Seems so. Ma’am, this is Grand Admiral Thrawn and Commander Vanto. Gents, Lady Marta Hortu, Kyk’s landlady.” Kadi introduced, watching the two officers closely.
“Good evening, ladyship.” the admiral responded, his shiny eyes trained on Marta in a way that Kadi did not like at all.
He apparently thought that Marta’s ownership of the cantina was VERY interesting.
“Well met.” Marta’s eyes strayed to Commander Vanto, who was looking too moonstruck to speak. “Commander, I have not forgotten your request for the Agri-Co-op’s logistics records.”
Commander Vanto nearly spluttered. It appeared that in that moment, gazing at Marta, he had.
“There is no rush, milady.” Vanto waving a hand awkwardly, ears turning an interesting shade of pink.
“Indeed,” the Grand Admiral’s quiet voice cut in (much to his aide’s consternation). “We would prefer completeness over expediency.”
Marta, Kadi and the Commander all noticed the verbal slight. The Grand Admiral had forgotten Marta’s title when he addressed her. The Commander’s embarrassment increased ten-fold with the pink spreading down to his neck. Marta, for her part, had the good grace not to give much of a reaction. She’d spent years dealing with Pryce’s upstart goons after all.
“No worries, Admiral. The Agri-Co-op will fulfill your request in a timely manner. I will have my retainer deliver it to your office.” Marta said cooly in a tone she usually only used to end messy farm disputes.
The admiral did not seem effected and merely nodded.
Raised voices from outside the entrance abruptly ended the conversation.
Someone was having a fight in the street.
All of the off-duty soldiers in the cantina stood and started arranging themselves to deal with potential hostiles (the admiral and commander included). The factory personnel, by contrast, edged around tables so that they could take cover if it came to shooting.
Marta looked at Kadi worriedly, her lips pressed thin.
“Whoever it is must be dumber than a mynock.” Kadi bit with a scowl. “We’ve got more soldiers in here than the East Main guard house! Stay here, ma’am.”
Kudos are Nectar and Reviews Ambrosia!
Warning, some not too nice language and violence in this chapter
Eli watched the small barmaid march purposefully to the doorway and lift an ancient looking broom from a half-hidden nook. As he and Thrawn followed, Eli heard one of the stormtroopers swear under his breath.
“Stang! She picked up THE BROOM. Poor buggers.”
A surreal statement that Eli failed to process properly.
What difference did it make if that tiny girl had a broom?! She was walking out into the middle of a fight involving several angry men from the sound of it.
He and Thrawn stepped out onto the cantina’s portico and Eli saw that the situation was pretty much as he had guessed.
Five highly disgruntled young men were shouting it out with two very nervous looking troopers. Apparently, the group of locals had intercepted them during a patrol.
“I believe you were advised to remain inside, ladyship,” Thrawn commented in a low voice. Eli turned with a start and saw that Lady Marta had followed them onto the portico. She was pale and her eyes wide with concern.
“Indeed, and by a barmaid no less. What cheek.” she joked humorlessly. Her expression darkened. “Admiral...Commander, I beg you, keep the soldiers from firing on them. I know those boys. The whole family is hotheaded but essentially decent people. Please, the last thing we need here is a massacre.”
Thrawn was silent as he looked at Marta and then to the barmaid who had made her way to the edge of the dispute, broom hanging casually from her right hand.
Eli’s shook his head.
“But we can’t just let a GIRL walk into that!” Some of the young men were brandishing what looked to be large gauge spanners like war clubs. “What does she think she’s DOING?!”
“Her job,” Marta replied.
By that point, one of the louder young men had noticed the barmaid’s quiet approach.
“What’d’you wan’, short-stack?” he sneered.
“Nothing, Ham’shi. Just sweeping up and seeing what all the fuss is about.” she replied calmly. “You know, you lot are being kinda noisy. Some folks in this neighborhood have to get up for work in the morning.”
“Is that so?” Ham’shi glared over to the cantina’s entrance where Marta was half hidden between Eli and Thrawn. “And here I thought whores would spread their legs anytime of day, ain’t that right Lady!”
Eli felt his blood boil.
“If you have grievances, Ham’shi Cob,” Marta called back in a hard tone. “you should petition them before the Agri-Co-op council. But if that doesn’t satisfy you, by all means go straight to the Governor’s Board. Perhaps Governor Pryce would be willing to hear you directly?”
Young Ham’shi’s face twisted with rage. “You filthy, Imperial whore! Lording it over us regular farmers, sleeping around with the likes of them!” he gestured wildly to Thrawn and Eli. “You’re no better than that upstart brother of yours, but at least HE got what he deserved!”
The hot headed Ham’shi was suddenly lying on the ground, clutching at his face.
Blood poured between his hands from his now ruined nose. Eli blinked. He barely saw the barmaid move.
“Say what you will to the living,” her voice seethed. “but only a coward would try to shame the dead.”
“Troopers, stand down!” The admiral called suddenly to the two soldiers over the stunned silence.
Both men looked around and were shocked to see an officer as high ranking as the admiral. They were still a bit spooked from the altercation with the farmers and were hesitant to holster their blasters. Yet neither dared to disobey a direct order from Grand Admiral Thrawn (even if said grand admiral was in his civies). The troopers slowly began edging towards the relative safety of the portico.
“Y-you...you bitch!” the next most disgruntled young man in the farmers’ group yelled at the barmaid. Although, to Eli’s ears the farmhand didn’t sound quite as sure of himself as the raging Ham’shi had.
“Peace, Eli.” Thrawn’s firm grip stopped Eli’s hand from drawing his blaster. “We are to merely witness.”
Eli was dumbfounded. “But, sir! She’s outnumbered. That was just a lucky hit!”
“It was not. This battle’s outcome has already been decided. Observe.” Thrawn’s irrational calm set Eli’s teeth on edge, but dutifully, he turned his attention back to the stand-off.
The remaining four young men were torn between helping Ham’shi off the ground or rounding on the barmaid, who was still casually holding her broom.
“Saints, you lot are STUPID.” she spat at them. “Honestly, picking a fight in a city FULL of troopers, thousands more up there in those THREE big damn Star Destroyers, which can vape your entire farm with a SINGLE shot? And you come here, outside MY cantina, which sees more stormtroopers than the garrison’s privy on any given day and INSULT the one lady who could possibly save your sorry hides from the detention center?” “All because THIS,” she gestured with disgust to Ham’shi, “steaming pile of canid shit goaded you boys into it. Tam, pick him up.”
The one who had called the barmaid a bitch hesitated but stepped forward and pulled Ham’shi up by his tunic. The two were both nearly upright when...
In another move nearly too fast to see, the barmaid struck again. This time leaving Ham’shi to hang limply in Tam’s arms, his jaw set at an unnatural angle. The three remaining boys made sounds of disgust and horror.
“W-what’d you DO to him?!” Tam cried.
“Ham’shi speaks without thinking. A broken jaw will remind him to take care from now on.”
“Skies…you sick bitch!” One of the three muttered. Eli nearly agreed.
The barmaid shrugged.
“The citizen emergency clinic is three blocks down and four over. Try to learn from his mistake.”
The young men quickly gathered Ham’shi between them and hurried away into the gloom.
The barmaid stood for a moment, watching them, then turned and headed back to the cantina.
“Kadi, are you all right?!” Marta pushed past Eli and grabbed the barmaid by the shoulders, slightly shaking her and making the shorter woman wince.
“Fine, ma’am. But I’d be better if you didn’t do that.”
Marta backed away quickly. “Right, right. Sorry! Um...did you really have to break his jaw?” She seemed queasy.
The barmaid gave her landlady an appraising look.
“Pain is the surest teacher. The Cob boys needed something substantial to cool their heels.” She continued past Thrawn and Eli with only the merest of glances.
Once over the threshold, several rough voices offered their praise and congratulations. The stormtroopers, at least, seemed to approve of her harsh tactics.
Eli felt a gentle touch at his elbow.
“Thank you….both.” Marta smiled gratefully. “That could have gone a lot worse.” She turned and rushed inside to attend to her brave employee who, Eli noted, was wiping off the handle of the broom while her left hand was still covered in Ham’shi’s bright red blood.
“Troopers!,” Thrawn turned to the edge of the portico.
“Sir?” the two troopers came to attention, both looking quite relieved.
“Inform the officer of the watch that you witnessed a domestic disturbance in this vacinity, but before you could intervene, the situation resolved itself. You may return to your posts.”
“Y-yes, sir!” they saluted, with somewhat confused expressions, before rushing back to the nearest guard house.
Once they had gone, Thrawn turned back to observe the excitement still going on in the cantina proper.
“You disapprove, Eli?”
“Yes, actually.” Eli frowned. “You just ordered them to make a false report and you aren’t going to have the instigators of this ‘domestic’ disturbance arrested?”
“I did not order them to lie. It WAS a type of domestic disturbance and the matter did resolve itself.” The admiral indulged in a wry smirk. “I merely encouraged them not to exaggerate in their report.” His expression turned thoughtful. “It would seem tonight’s victory belongs to our two hostesses. They intervened at great personal risk for the most peaceful outcome. An honorable deed.”
Eli blinked, non-plussed. Thrawn called the two ladies HONORABLE...that was just about the highest prazise he had heard yet from the Chiss.
As for himself, he couldn’t get Marta’s last lovely, longing look at him out of his mind.
Apologies for the delay! Please enjoy....comments are love!
Days later, Eli sat in the office he had been assigned in the Imperial Dome going over Sienar Systems shipment logs for the past four quarters.
Review of such things had become his specialty over the years.
Now the task had taken on a more personal note. Thrawn was fretting over potential locations for his prototype TIE fighter program. When he’d shown Eli the initial sketches for the fighter, the commander had to admit that he was impressed. The level of consideration for the common soldier that had gone into the fighter was revolutionary.
He also wanted Thrawn’s project to succeed because, frankly, nearly all of Thrawn’s ideas paid dividends in the long run.
The admiral wanted a site where infrastructure and basic defenses were already in place. Lothal (with it’s handy connections to Governor Pryce and her political allies on Imperial Center) fit the bill….and yet Eli hesitated.
On the one hand, press releases and the corporate level reports all showed impressive output from Sienar’s Lothal facilities, but once he started digging into the actual cargo logs both in and out of the system…something wasn’t adding up.
Container equipment number discrepancies (additional digits or duplicates in part numbers and serial numbers) occurred on a rate he’d usually seen in systems with a high level of war profiteering.
There were identified smugglers and arms dealers operating in this sector which could be an issue when paired with the established rebel threat.
If the manifests of the huge cargo ships were technically accurate (and Eli would assume so because he’d seen just how annoyingly precise those inventory droids could be), then the container errors had to be generated from the shipping point itself.
He rubbed his eyes. The factory production records were proprietary to Sienar Systems per their long standing defense contract (which had taken him days to muddle through).
It would take some serious political finesse-ing to gain access to the records without breaking any Intellectual Property laws (the defense industry had very deep pockets and Thrawn definitely had enemies that would leap at the opportunity to bring the Admiral up on charges) or a direct edict from High Command. Either of THOSE methods would alert the wrong doers to the investigation and any relevant data would probably be purged.
Eli sighed, laying the datapad on the desk.
For once he would have liked an assignment that was straightforward.
An alert for his meeting with Thrawn and ISB Agent Kallus roused him.
Ah, well. Thrawn would undoubtedly unravel the entire thing weeks ahead of Eli, dazzling and amazing all...as usual.
Eli gathered his datapad and cards before leaving the office. He would need to hurry.
It was a good five minute walk from his office to Thrawn’s.
Another odd thing about this Lothal affair. The Seventh Fleet was supposedly stationed in the sector by special request of the governor. The fleet’s officers even held some special status among Imperial personnel in the sector because of it, and yet Eli’s office was separated a good distance from the Admiral’s. Obviously a bureaucratic tactic, but to what purpose?
Eli pondered this as he wove though the heavy foot traffic of an atrium. He was bumped a couple of times by some technicians and civil service aides, but managed to get to the correct corridor without too much fuss.
This part of the building was considerably quieter and the office suites larger.
Eli arrived and passed his code cylinder to the stormtrooper on duty. After a moment, he was allowed to enter.
Thrawn was waiting for him, studying a star chart.
Eli saw that it was the map of possible rebel base locations in the sector. They had paired it down considerably since they had first started but the possibilities still numbered in the thousands.
“Ah, Commander. I trust you have an update on Lothal’s cargo shipments?”
“Yes, sir.” Eli handed over the first of his data cards. “A preliminary look suggests the potential of fraud originating within the factories themselves. Factory records are unfortunately proprietary.”
Thrawn rubbed his chin and looked far too thoughtful (no doubt weighing the skills of the Chimaera’s slicers against the challenge). “Any attempt made by the Navy to mine the data would be ill-advised, sir. Financially and politically speaking Sienar's Intellectual Property is well protected.” Eli added.
“I see. We would need to wait for an infraction to occur and have the appropriate personnel in place to establish proper Navy jurisdiction and the continue the investigation from there.”
“As likely as a new-full moon.”
Thrawn and Eli turned as one to see Agent Kallus framed in the office’s vestibule.
“Agent Kallus, thank you for joining us. You are of course referring to the unlikely event of Lothal’s moons appearing as both full and new on the same day.” Thrawn folded his hands behind his back.
For once, Eli agreed with the flashy ISB agent. It seemed highly unlikely that they would be able to have the right Imperial Navy auditor in place at the appropriate time to witness an actionable breach of contract.
“Nevertheless, I believe you are best equipped to follow up on our current information, Agent.” Thrawn held out Eli’s datacard to Kallus.
The agent seemed to hesitate but did take the card with a slight bow. “Yes, Grand Admiral.” He then turned and left the office, presumably to prepare his upcoming investigation.
“Commander, what else have you been able to prepare?”
Eli handed over his small stack of data cards.
“Some additional findings regarding the ship point discrepancies.”
“Anything regarding the Agri-co-op’s commerce?” Thrawn asked as he shuffled through the stack of cards.
Eli grimaced.”Not really, sir. All of the agricultural shipments appear clean, despite the claims from the governor’s office.”
“I see...,” Thrawn stopped cold. “And what is this?”
Eli craned his head to get a good look at the card Thrawn was talking about.
It was smaller than the rest and a slightly different color.
“I don’t know, sir.” Eli was baffled. That wasn’t one of his cards ! How did it get into the stack?
Thrawn turned the small card over in his fingers, tracing an uncomfortably familiar mark. A numeral 1 crossed out with a slash.
“What?! How?!” Eli reached for the card. “This card was not in the stack I had on my desk this afternoon, sir!”
“Peace, Commander. I do not doubt that. Did you perhaps walk through a public space on your way here?”
“Yes, I came through the atrium. It seemed like the fastest way.”
Thrawn nodded. “And were you jostled or otherwise physically contacted?”
Eli thought back. He had been run into by several people in the atrium and he had no idea how to describe them other than “short” or “tall”.
The admiral noticed the discouraged look on his face. “Take heart, Commander. Each piece No-one provides is a link to the person himself. Enough pieces,“ Thrawn waved the datacard. “And even he will have nowhere to hide.”
Sweet, merciful, Nayru! What unholy son of a Hutt’s slime was causing that racket?!
An olive-tan arm grabbed at a thin summer quilt and slung the covering halfway across the room. The quilt landed in garbled heap with a satisfying “whumph!”.
Stiffly, a young woman rolled from the mattress and onto the balls of her feet. She balanced there a moment before straightening to her full height (which was solidly below average, but when one’s sleep is disturbed early in the morning, the self righteousness alone can give the effect of several additional centimeters.)
Kadence Gabel was AWAKE.
And someone was going to regret it.
The hallway echoed faintly to the soft slap-tapping of her bare feet. There would have been little-to-no sound at all had the carpets and tapestries not been permanently relocated (i.e. sold to keep the estate solvent).
She scowled. Then again, she doubted anyone could hear her feet over that Force-forsaken din.
The hall made a shallow turn and Kadence stopped at a half open, old fashioned door made of several planks of wood that had been joined together with metal bands. It looked like most of the house’s doors. She supposed that one could categorize the house’s style as ‘artisanal’, nearly everything short of the actual utilities was designed to be intentionally rustic.
Kadence knocked. Loudly. Twelve times.
And still the...
With a long suffering sigh, she shoved the door all of the way open and spied the perpetrator of her misery.
Sprawled across the overlarge bed, coverings and golden hair completely askew, was Marta.
Whatever poet had described a noble woman as ‘radiant as the dawn’ or ‘tempered as morning mists’ clearly had never actually met a socialite before noon.
Marta gave a large snorting snore and kicked three throw pillows onto the floor.
No, Lady Marta was definitely not a “morning person”.
A cackling-growl made Kadence glance to the foot of the bed. Grop had raised his head, curiously, at her entrance.
He flattened his ears a bit at the shrillness of the alarm.
Kadence crossed her arms and glared at him.
“See, it bothers you, too, mutt! You should’ve woken Marta or knocked the stupid thing off the nightstand.”
Grop glanced over to the old fashioned bedside alarm and then back to Kadence as if to say “What, that? It’s not my job!”
Kadence scoffed. Lazy canid.
She reached over and grabbed the alarm chrono. Deftly, she made some adjustments to the sound selection then upped the volume to maximum.
She then tenderly placed the chrono next to Marta’s head.
Begin countdown. Kadence covered her ears.
Five, four, three, two, one....
“NEEE-NAWWWWW! NEEE-NAWWWWW! NEEE-NAWWWWW!”
Marta shot out of bed, eyes wild and hair...wilder.
Grop leapt off the bed and loped from the room, likely to his food bowl while he waited for the noise to die down.
Marta focused on Kadence.
“Wh-wha? What’s going on?” She rubbed at her head.
“Good morning.” Kadence replied, completely deadpan.
“NEEE-NAWWWWW! NEEE-NAWWWWW! NEEE-....!”
Marta slapped around the pillows and cut short the round of cacophony.
“Kadi. Morning.” She blinked heavily. “Uh...what’s going on?”
Kadence assumed a casual stance, arms crossed lazily.
“Oh nothing. I didn’t think we had to be anywhere this morning.”
“I wonder why there was an alarm set for 0600, then? It went off for twenty minutes.”
“Oh...” Marta looked embarrassed. “Sorry. I forgot to reset it...I know it’s...unpleasant.”
Kadence shrugged noncommittally.
“But, we do have to be somewhere by this evening!”
Kadence raised an eyebrow not liking at all how excited (and lucid) Marta had suddenly become.
“We’re going to need to pack! Our best dancing dresses, some shoes...!”
“Whoa. Wait....dancing dresses?”
“Yes!,” Marta continued, unperturbed. “And the flashy jewelry and the makeup kit.”
Kadence paled despite her best efforts.
Why, for stars’ sake, did Marta feel like they needed the makeup kit? This didn’t bode well.
“And where, Madame, are we supposed to be going exactly?”
Marta paused halfway to her closet.
“To the Mon Cala Sector, naturally.”
Kadence blinked. “Mon Cala?”
“Yes, to the Moff’s palace for the Fete week’s celebrations, of course.” Marta remarked casually, as if describing something as banal the stripe patterns of Loth-cats.
Kadence was too shocked to speak. Marta, however, was used to her retainer’s normally taciturn manner and continued to raid the closet, unaware of Kadence’s true feelings.
Going to an Imperial Moff’s palace?! For Fete Week?! Why not just comm Arihnda Pryce directly?
That way they could save on the transport fare. Because last time she checked, Pryce threw people in the detention center for free.
Kadence cleared her throat.
“I see. Any particular reason why we are going there to celebrate the Fete?”
Marta reappeared from her wardrobe, arms full, the fabric of various garments trailing on the floor.
“Simple. We received an invitation from Lord Devon of Ruisto.”
There was a secretive, sly smile playing around her lips.
Ah, so that was it.
Marta had contacted one of the Agri-Co-op’s longest standing trade partners and suggested that she be present at the Moff’s Fete celebration. A bid to garner more economic and political allies.
Kadence grimaced to herself.
Unfortunately, it was probably not going to work. Pryce had Grand Moff Tarkin backing her and once she got wind of what Marta was attempting she’d find some new cruel, technically legal way to bring the hammer down on them all.
“Don’t worry,” Marta chirped. “You’re going to get to enjoy yourself, too!”
Kadence frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Lord Devon extended an invitation for Marta Hortu AND Gabellyn Hewer.”
“I know, right?” Marta cooed, once again completely missing Kadence’s outrage. “Ooooh, we are going to have so much fun!”
Kadence felt ill.
Gabellyn Hewer was a young lady of the lower gentry. She didn’t own any land per se and she wasn’t wealthy. Her status was completely dependent on two things. First, how well known her extended family was (the Hewers were descended from one of the original colonists of Lothal, who had taken it upon himself to be especially fruitful. Pockets of Hewers could be found in the Savannas, in the marshes and along the shores of all of the shallow seas. In short, being a Hewer guaranteed one both instant recognition and hazy anonymity). Second, the fact that Marta, de facto leader of the Agri-Co-op, had seen fit to take her on as a sort of part-time, live-in personal assistant/retainer.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Gabellyn was witty and had a sharp tongue that set others ill at ease. She was pretty and wore dresses and makeup and...flirted. She behaved in ways that felt completely unnatural.
She was also a fake.
A convenient lie that Marta had contrived so that Kadence could walk beside her in ‘polite society’. Marta assumed the alter ego was a way to give her friend more freedom.
Kadence, on the other hand, had knew she had merely traded one mask for another.
“Hurry, Gabellyn, hurry!” Marta called from the fresher, plucking bottles of scent and other bizarre toiletries that ladies of status apparent needed. “Our transport leaves this evening and we have so much to do!”
Kadence wanted to vomit.
This is more of an author’s note than a chapter (sorry in advance!)
So, I am holding off posting the next few chapters until the second Thrawn novel comes out. Word is we might get more info about when and where Eli leaves the Empire for the Ascendancy....and, as this particular story focuses on Eli/Marta (mainly), I want to try and stay true to canon.
In the meantime, I am furiously “pre-writing” for the remainder of this story.
Lots of love!
In the illustrious words of Granny Weatherwax “I ain’tn’t Dead”. I will try to be more diligent with chapter posts in future. Also, all errors are mine and I do not own anything that you recognize from anywhere else. Wish I did, though. That would be Sweeeet!
The shuttle to Ruisto was uneventful. Marta and Gabellyn were the only humans on board, the rest were a handful of MonCals and Quarren. Working class people that had managed to fight the gauntlet of red tape and Imperial customs to get a flight homeward. The two well dressed ladies who breezed through the spaceport as if by magic, on the other hand, had been shown to the ‘most comfortable’ seats on the shuttle.
The MonCals’ great salamander eyes had rolled to the two humans and then quickly looked away. It was difficult to tell where the Quarren were looking.
Regardless, the non-humans preferred to keep to themselves for the duration of the trip.
Ruisto, Gabellyn quickly learned, was even MORE uncomfortably humid than Lothal. Thank goodness she was able to convince Marta that the backwater style of a Saree wouldn’t be too politically disastrous.
Marta for her part had opted for fluttery day dresses in natural and pastel tones. They all complimented her perfectly and Gabellyn wondered just how many men with broken hearts Marta would leave behind at the Moff’s Fete.
Lord Devon himself was younger than expected, too. He was probably pushing his mid-to-late forties and still had most of his jet black hair.
He had even arrived personally to greet them at the landing platform.
“My Lady Hortu! It is good to see you,” he bowed slightly, smiling. “I am gratified you were able to attend this year’s Fete.” He glanced behind Marta. “And who is your lovely companion?”
Marta smiled warmly in return. “Ah, yes. Lord Devon, this is my protégé, Gabellyn Hewer.”
At the mention of ‘Hewer’, Lord Devon’s smile turned humorous.
“Hewer, you say? Pray tell, which clan do you hail from, Miss Gabellyn?”
Of course, even the close trading partners knew of the prodigious numbers of the Hewers, thought Gabellyn snidely.
She smiled politely but with a bit of strain added around the eyes.
“I have blood from the East Sea and bit from the North and South grasslands.”
Lord Devon nodded as if he understood, but his eyes had already focused elsewhere.
“You have had a long trip, ladies. I will show you to the Moff’s palace. A good night’s sleep I think and then tomorrow we begin the Fete!”
The Moff’s palace was truly impressive. It was large and ‘Imperial’ in it’s overall appearance, but Gabellyn saw hints of an older structure under all of the new, gray duracrete. It made her idly wonder at the building’s previous owner.
She and Marta shared a small suite of rooms located fairly far from the newer sections (where the more prominent guests were). Marta had raised an eyebrow and huffed a bit, but the arrangement was fine with Gabellyn. She didn’t like the hustle and bustle of large crowds so much.
First on the Fete’s agenda (a detailed schedule had been sent out to all of the invitees), was a mid-morning brunch. Marta cooed and ran about picking out the perfect dress and accessories, gearing up for the first political overtures with the Mon Cal sector elite.
As they were getting ready, Marta casually asked about Gabellyn’s perception of Lord Devon. She responded that his lordship, was a through and through politician and seemed to prioritize his own interests, but she might be able to get more details later. Marta was a bit disappointed by the news but not surprised.
Gabellyn helped Marta with hair and makeup then it was HER turn. Marta wanted to put Gabellyn in a day dress similar to her own, but in response Gabellyn merely executed an intricate draping of one of her eight meter long sarees.
The effect was quite charming, Marta admitted, and so she contented herself with helping dress her protégé’s hair.
The brunch was held in a huge, sunny arcade. A remnant of the older building that Gabellyn had noticed earlier.
Serve droids bustled between the clusters of aristocrats and career politicians. Also, worth noting were a decent smattering of military. The no nonsense olive drab stood out from the intricate robes like the negative space in a tapestry.
Gabellyn trailed after Marta and smiled and simpered like a well-bred member of the gentry. This went on for a couple of hours. They circulated like pollenating insects flitting from one flower to the next in search of nectar to further the Agri-Co-op’s cause. Gabellyn took note of each and every face, voice and mannerism.
It was EXHAUSTING.
Towards the end of the brunch, Marta was happily chatting away with another young aristocrat, a lady from Ruisto like Lord Devon. They were hitting it off spectacularly and promised to meet up at the more formal Soirée that evening.
Later that day, after a thorough debriefing of Gabellyn’s observations of the other guests, Gabellyn had to fight off Marta and her ridiculous DRESSES.
Instead, Marta’s protege opted for a plum saree with light sliver threading. Minimal yet tasteful. Marta decided to set off her blonde hair with an evening dress of royal blue.
The guests assembled in a large chamber that also opened to a courtyard. It must have been refurbished in the last few years as the acoustics for the light chamber music playing in the background were quite good.
Again serve droids waddled around groups of the wealthy that were even more well dressed than that morning.
Marta met with her new friend and Gabellyn trailed along after looking over many of the same faces from before and gleaning very little more than what she had already seen.
Perhaps a half hour into the party, a ripple went through several of the guests as many paused in their conversations to look at the chamber’s entrance.
What Gabellyn saw when she followed their gazes made her cheeks tingle and static crawl over and down her arms.
Just inside the doorway, stood the three people who could save Lothal from Governor Pryce’s manic rule: ISB Colonel Yularen, Commander Vanto, and Grand Admiral Thrawn.
Even as she drank in the sight of the regal Grand Admiral, she delicately touched Marta’s arm to get her attention.
Marta turned from her conversation with some visiting minister of a Mon Cal commerce guild and looked to the doorway.
Her eyes immediately brightened and a faint blush spread on her cheeks as she saw Commander Vanto.
Gabellyn smiled knowingly.
“You should go over and say hello, my lady. Once they have spoken with his Excellency the Moff, of course.”
Marta cast her a startled look.
“Aren’t you coming, too?”
Gabellyn frowned thoughtfully at one of the wall sconces.
“I would only muddle their impression of you. Besides, I’ve already met the Admiral and Commander. The Colonel shouldn’t be that bad if they are as friendly together as they seem.”
Marta thought about it for a moment. She looked at Gabellyn a bit too innocently.
“And none of your advice is based on the fact that you are tired and want to go hide in our rooms, is it?”
Gabellyn’s lips twitched into a small smile. “Well spotted, my lady. I might just stay on the terrace there where it is quiet until you are ready to retire.”
“Very well,” Marta laughed. “I have put you through a lot today. I will let you know when I am ready to leave.”
Gabellyn curtsied and tried not to appear as if she were fleeing from the crowded chamber.
The terrace was more to Gabellyn’s liking: it was dimmer, cooler, and (best of all) much quieter.
She chose a disused corner and leaned on the balustrade.
Down below, a formal garden stretched out into the twilight. It’s hardscape materials and layout coordinated with the non-Imperial parts of the palace, yet the plants were popular varieties that Gabellyn had seen in fashionable gardens on the Holonet.
A sudden touch of air and familiar scent belatedly brought Gabellyn back to her senses.
“Good evening, miss. I hope I’m not disturbing you?” His voice rumbled smoothly despite his tricky accent. That voice, coupled with her over taxed nerves from the day’s work, was just too much for her.
A terrible shudder wrenched her torso.
She tried to suppress the motion as much as possible, but the crawling static flooded through her sympathetic nervous system. Up and down her arms and legs and over her scalp and face.
“Are you cold, my lady?” His voice was laced with concern.
Gabellyn pulled the shawl portion of her saree higher over her shoulders.
“Perhaps,” she lied. “It seems cooler here than on our part of Lothal.”
She glanced up to smile her thanks at his show of concern but stopped short. He was staring at her...oddly.
Rather than bare the weight of those blood red eyes, she turned back to the garden.
“You are accompanying Lady Marta of Lothal, then?” He asked at length.
Gabellyn thought through his wording. Marta must have already made contact with Commander Vanto and their gooey looks and not so subtle flirting must have driven the Admiral off.
“Mm. I think your young Commander fits that description better than I do at the moment. Colonel Yularen must have the patience of a saint if he’s chaperoning those two.” She muttered.
The Admiral chuckled briefly. It was a rusty sound. He must not laugh often, but then she had noticed the lines around his mouth and eyes. They were not the smile lines exhibited by most humans. They were evidence of a careworn individual.
“I believe you have me at a disadvantage, miss. You know who I am, but I have not been given your name.”
It was Gabellyn’s turn to laugh.
“Ridiculous, Admiral. I’m sure you know exactly who ninety percent of the guests at the Fete are.” At his mildly surprised expression, she elaborated. “You have a reputation for being a nosey know-it-all. Still, I guess some social norms should be observed from time to time.”
Gabellyn stood to her full height, which placed the top of her head just shy of the Admiral’s chin, and executed her best curtsy.
“Gabellyn Hewer of Lothal.”
The Admiral bowed politely. “Grand Admiral Thrawn of the Seventh Fleet.”
“Well met, Grand Admiral,” Gabellyn turned towards the garden once more. “I do admit, I am curious as to why you, the Colonel and the Commander are here. None of you seems the type.”
Thrawn raised an eyebrow. “Type?”
Gabellyn gestured at the air.
“You know, you’re all...nose to the grindstone.”
The Admiral’s head tilted to the side. Confused.
“As in, you don’t have the time to loiter around a socialite’s punch bowl.” Gabellyn explained, wryly.
“Ah.” Thrawn nodded with sudden understanding. “I assume the ‘grindstone’ is an agricultural reference to intense focus on a given task?”
“Probably,” Gabellyn conceded with a small smile. “or to a blacksmith bent over a grinding wheel sharpening metal.”
“I see.” He clasped his hands behind his back and also looked out over the garden. “I am told that attending such social functions is considered politically advantageous.”
Gabellyn smiled wider. Thrawn’s voice was unmistakably dry, hinting at his lack of enthusiasm about attending the Fete.
“So while you and the erstwhile Commander martyr yourselves for politics, which one of your lucky officers gets to baby-sit Lothal?”
She just barely caught the glimmer of Thrawn’s eyes as they cut to her in the dim light.
“Why would a gentlewoman such as yourself wish to know such mundane things as troop assignments?”
Gabellyn narrowed her eyes at him.
“If you had lived through the last few YEARS of Konstantine and the rest crashing around the sector and the continual battery of the city, you’d be pretty damned concerned yourself.” She felt heat rush to her eyes and the crawling static settle over her cheekbones and was mildly surprised at herself. She was genuinely angry and...EXPRESSING it. Such a thing would have gotten her severely reprimanded a few years ago. Marta and her outspoken ways had to be the worst influence ever.
Once again, the Grand Admiral was staring at her.
‘Let him stare,’ Gabellyn thought despite the sudden urge to cover her face with her shawl, ‘Marta and I have every right to be upset...especially after what happened to poor Jo’chim.’
“Do not fear, Miss Hewer.” Thrawn conceded after a long moment. “Commodore Faro will have matters well in hand. As for Admiral Konstantine, he is currently occupied elsewhere.”
“Small mercies...” Gabellyn murmured with a sigh, a migraine already flashing at the sides of her vision as she pulled away from the balustrade. “A good night to you, then, Admiral. Perhaps if you have time before returning to our sector,” she flashed a mischievous, little grin. “you could tell me which circle of hell, exactly, inspired your ship’s decal?”
With that, Gabellyn left the Grand Admiral where he stood and merged back into the sea of guests. Her stomach turned at the sudden additional stimuli. Had the party always been this ‘loud?’
Marta stood in the same general vicinity as before speaking with the Grand Admiral’s two companions.
She was facing Colonel Yularen while the Commander stood at her elbow. It painted a more or less positive picture. Whatever they were discussing, Marta apparently had the Commander’s full support.
Just then, Marta glanced in her direction.
Her mistress broke off her conversation and shot Gabellyn a questioning look.
Gabellyn waved her off with a small shrug and a light touch to her temple, hoping to speed through the over bright chamber and back to their rooms before she needed to vomit.
Marta was well acquainted with the migraines that often plagued her friend and so let her continue on her way.
But, then again, Gabellyn had seemed fine a little while ago. Marta pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes at the archway to the terrace.
Yularen and Vanto noticed the brief exchange between the two women and shared a long-suffering look.
They knew full well who had followed Marta’s friend to the terrace and judging by the expression on the Lady Hortu’s face, they did not envy the Admiral’s next encounter with her.
Gabellyn frowned slightly to herself as she left the party for the quieter hallways beyond.
Perhaps tomorrow would require less effort on her part?
Screening close to one hundred people in a single day was borderline insane, but it should have taken care of most of the guests that Marta was interested in.
Many were going to be dead ends. They either lacked the proper motivation or the power to assist the Agri-Co-op.
Ah well, she had tried. Her current condition was nothing a good night’s rest wouldn’t cure.
Now it was up to Marta to chase down the best leads.
Gabellyn thought about how much more wonderfully subdued the admiral was than most of the beings she’d seen that day. It was the closest she had gotten to speaking with someone from home in almost four years.
His accent and diction were so unique, too.
The dominant sentence structures he’d used indicated a highly formalized mode of speech with particular deference to the relative rank of the speaker to the listener.
If that was how all of his people spoke, then there could be a strict, caste-like system where he came from.
Such a background could also explain how well he was able to integrate into the Imperial Navy in just a few short years, as Sergeant Ott had said.
Thrawn’s voice itself was also noteworthy: deep, calm, quiet.
The static ran over her cheeks then down the backs of her arms.
Gabellyn indulged in a small blush and she could almost picture the Elders’ outrage as such a flagrant display.
Yes, a good night’s rest was what she needed, especially if she was to make it through another encounter with the Admiral with her composure intact.
ankwas hotshuh = Blue nuisance
Eli wanted to blast something.
He chanced another glance at the darkening glower that had settled on Marta Hortu’s pretty face and winced...and she had JUST been excitedly telling him and Colonel Yularen about the Agri-Co-op’s advancements and impressive (considering the circumstances) shipping manifests for the past year. When Marta had spoken about something so important to herself, her eyes had sparkled and her cheeks had glowed with passion. It was bewitching.
Yularen had raised an eyebrow at Eli’s obvious infatuation but refrained from comment.
The Colonel had been young once, too, many years ago.
Now, though, Marta’s eyes were dark, her brow furrowed, and her aura....prickly, reminding Eli quite a bit of when his mother would get angry.
There was no one to blame but the pariah of the Imperial Navy and epicenter of Eli’s own (somewhat rocky) career.
Thrawn re-entered that evening’s soirée from the terrace and glanced around the crowd of party guests as if searching for someone.
Someone in a dark purple saree if Eli had to hazard a guess.
Marta noticed as well. Her ire escaped as a snarl.
Eli’s heart quailed. Up until a few minutes ago Marta had been calling him ‘Eli.’
“I understand that this THING is your commanding officer and you have no particular say in the matter, but I will not ABIDE that ankwas hotshuh to so negatively effect my retainer. This harassment stops tonight!”
With a final glare in the Grand Admiral’s direction, Marta turned and swept imperiously from the room.
Eli blinked after her while Colonel Yularen tossed back the rest of his drink.
“You have my deepest sympathies, Commander.” He cleared his throat. “Dealing with an unhappy woman is like having a starving Sandpanther by the tail.”
No kidding, Eli thought as the depression started to set in.
Eli tried not to grimace. Really he did.
“Commander? Are you unwell?” Thrawn’s question was more than likely an earnest one, but it stung Eli’s bruised ego.
“I’ll live, sir, but it looks like you might have made an enemy of the most politically well-connected heiress in the Lothal Sector.”
Thrawn frowned. The main reason they were even attending the Fete at all was to garner more political support in the region.
“Lady Hortu of the Agricultural-Co-op?”
Eli nodded. “The same. Apparently she took issue with the state her retainer was in when she passed through about five minutes ago.”
Thrawn was silent a moment.
“When I spoke with Miss Hewer, she seemed in good health if a little tired.”
Eli was not convinced.
“What exactly did you two talk about?”
“She expressed surprise that we three were attending the Fete in lieu of our normal duties and asked who had been given command of Lothal’s planetary defenses in the mean time. I replied that it was suspicious for a civilian to ask such questions.” Thrawn stated matter-of-factly. He raised and eyebrow at the humans’ incredulous expressions. “Was that not correct?”
Eli was dumbfounded. No wonder Miss Hewer seemed upset.
That was a whole new level of rude even for Thrawn.
He looked to Colonel Yularen for help, but the older man merely raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“Sir, that was more than likely innocent small-talk. What else could a civilian talk to a military officer charged with the defense of her homeworld about?”
Thrawn’s lips compressed briefly.
“Miss Hewer did express some relief that Admiral Konstantine is not currently in command.”
“I would have to agree with the young lady on that score,” Colonel Yularen cut in unexpectedly. “Between his bumbling and that Inquisitor’s unscrupulous methods, Lothal is lucky to have a stone left standing.”
The colonel lifted another glass from a passing serve droid’s platter and took a deep sip. Eli fretfully looked to the corridor Marta had left by. Thrawn remained silent.
In his own way, each man mulled over the politically disastrous events of the evening.
Yularen was likely regretting his advice to gain political advantage in this region by having Thrawn impress the local gentry.
This was the Outer Rim.
Few here cared how many friends Yularen had in the Admiralty or the Senate when it came to smoothing over the Grand Admiral’s natural ‘effect’ on people.
Eli for his part would not have thought Thrawn could be this obtuse. Poor future dealings with Lothal’s Agricultural Co-op aside, enraging Marta by intimidating her close friend and retainer would certainly guarantee that she would never speak to him again.
The Commander had never seen Thrawn show any real interest in ‘romances’ over the years. The admiral was devoted to his work and only studied art in his spare time, but surely he had been around humans long enough to grasp the concept?
Eli clenched his hands as he came to a decision: this was one facet of his life Thrawn’s Thrawn-ness was NOT going to mess up!
“With your permission, sir, I will retire for the evening.” He said stiffly.
Thrawn studied him a moment, but nodded. “Very well, Commander. You are dismissed.”
Eli saluted then deliberately exited by the same doors taken by Miss Hewer and Marta. Yularen’s sympathetic eyes followed him.
Marta had said that the more-or-less secluded accommodations had made the Fete feel more like a low-key retreat than a wild party. Given that the palace was a glorified extension of a pre-existing, ancient fortress, the commander had a good hunch that Marta’s rooms were in an older wing.
Eli turned down flagstone corridors towards the older part of the palace. If he hurried, he might be able to catch up with her.
Two corners, then three. The stonework was rougher here, obviously cut and laid by hand. Up ahead he caught sight of a swirl of blue cloth and golden hair.
“Lady Hortu!” He called. “Wait, please!”
Her ladyship stopped and turned to see who was calling her name.
Eli jogged closer and her slight frown brightened. She removed her hands from the folds of her skirt and instead folded them over her bodice.
“Commander Vanto, what brings you this way? I would have thought that officers of the Seventh Fleet would be given quarters on the western side.”
Eli tilted his head slightly.
“To be near the landing pads. In case, you are called away.” Marta elaborated.
“Oh, yes,” Eli was impressed. Marta was certainly not some feather headed socialite to put that together . “We are not too far from there. Although, it doesn’t have quite the same character as this part of the palace.” He waved at the stonework, wryly.
“It’s positively archaic,” she shook her head and her golden curls caught the light, mesmerizing Eli. “Still, as Gabellyn keeps reminding me, we are LESS likely to be bothered here.”
She gave Eli a pointed look.
He felt his ears grow hot.
“Er, yes, well...I...I would like to apologize, madam, on behalf of Grand Admiral Thrawn.”
Marta raised an eyebrow.
Eli straightened his shoulders even more.
“Yes, ma’am. Imperial officers should strive for the highest degree of conduct. The Grand Admiral’s comments to Miss Hewer were unbecoming.”
“Were they?,” Marta narrowed her eyes, considering. “I don’t know what passed between them, but Thrawn’s reputation as a total social disaster definitely proves out.”
Eli winced a bit, but couldn’t argue.
“Yes, ma’am. It does.”
A thoughtful (perhaps too thoughtful) frown passed over Marta’s face.
It nearly made Eli uncomfortable.
“I am planning to allow my retainer to take her rest tomorrow. She has always enjoyed early mornings in our garden on Lothal.” Marta supplied, then paused expectantly.
What was she trying to say?
There was a large garden area adjacent to the older, eastern wing of the palace. He had seen it from the shuttle that had brought him and Thrawn from the Chimaera.
He recalled the Grand Admiral opining about the design of the palace grounds and how they related to the natural landscape of Ruisto.
Marta smiled a bit coyly at his confusion.
“Perhaps the Grand Admiral’s disposition would also benefit from time in a more natural setting?”
Eli’s mouth fell open. Was she really suggesting that Thrawn and Miss Hewer have another encounter?
“You can’t be serious?!”
Marta laughed. “There’s that Outer Rim brashness. You’ve spent time in the Core worlds, Eli, but you’re still an honest man.”
Eli felt his heart soar. She was using his first name again!
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” he hedged. “I wouldn’t want to have Miss Hewer any more upset with us than she already is.”
“I don’t think that will be the case. My retainer, more often than not, is a level headed girl and it would be good to allow the Admiral to apologize for himself, don’t you think?”
Eli grimaced slightly. She had him there.
Besides, his own apology would not erase the offense Thrawn had caused. Marta could incite a feud between the Imperial Navy and any of the Agricultural-Co-op’s allies if the matter wasn’t set right. And that would make operations in the surrounding sectors difficult.
Maybe he was over thinking it...perhaps it WAS as simple as letting Thrawn reconcile with Miss Hewer before the end of the Fete?
“I will relay the suggestion to the Grand Admiral,” Eli admitted reluctantly. “but don’t expect a miracle.”
Stillness....Dim and dewy.
Bare rocks glowed like phosphorus and sleeping foliage stained the world like charcoal.
No bustling servants or guests to disturb the peace. It was a good half hour before true dawn would break at this longitude.
Gabellyn inhaled deeply.
There was the scent of wet leaves and dirt.
Most of the nocturnal avians and insects were returning to their roosts and the daytime species had just started to wake.
She could hear their soft calls filtering through the brush.
As she sat under an unkempt tree, she allowed her mind to wander and fill itself with the here and now of this pre-dawn garden.
The kicked-up silt in her mind from yesterday’s work had begun to settle. Her thoughts were becoming more clear and emotions more subdued the longer she rested alone.
Marta had promised her nearly a whole day to herself if she wanted.
Gabellyn was filled with anticipation.
She could stay right here in the garden and watch as it changed itself by the hour. New creeping and flying things rushing in and out and between the leaves. Those same leaves illuminated and shaded and the dappled ground beneath. It would be a symphony and oh so soothing!
A startled warble several meters to the Northwest brought Gabellyn’s mind back to a sharp focus.
Something had disturbed one of the avians.
She listened harder. More avians and chirping insects went silent as something moved past them. The effect roughly followed the main garden path and as it came closer, she could almost make out the tread of (military grade?) boots.
The steps were well spaced and tempo constant and unhurried.
A long legged, soldier out for an early morning stroll?
But that didn’t make sense.
For while the steps were unhurried, they did not pause, as someone who is casually taking in the sights of an ancient garden would do.
This person was entering the garden with a purpose.
If they were seeking out a member of the Agricultural Co-op for a confrontation, then they were going to be disappointed. They had come alone and this garden had plenty of places to hide.
The boots came to the last bend in the path.
Gabellyn opened her eyes and turned her head to look.
The figure that stepped from around the hedges took her by surprise. He was tall, lean and breathtaking.
“Good morning, Miss Hewer. I hope you can forgive my disturbing you?”
Thrawn stood hands clasped behind his back, sporting his trademark expression of overconfidence.
Gabellyn stared at him.
What in Seven Hells was HE doing out here?!
High ranking military officers had been given quarters in the newest parts of the west wing, near the landing platforms. This half-wild garden was on the opposite side of the palace complex!
“Hello, Grand Admiral. This is an odd venue for someone who wears so much white.”
White, indeed. Aside from his boots and hair, he practically glowed in the twilight!
To prove her point, she rubbed her fingers along the tree root she was sitting on and held them out for his inspection. They were covered in dark smudges.
So why was he even here? Gabellyn knew the ‘how.’ Marta was being meddlesome again and had Eli tell Thrawn that she would be out here. The only reason for Marta to do that had to be that she wanted Gabellyn to ‘interview’ the Grand Admiral and possibly find out how loyal he was to Pryce and wether he could be an ally for the Agricultural Co-op against the Governor’s more EXTREME mandates.
So much for her ‘day off’.
Thrawn stepped closer and flashed a patronizing half smile.
“I have no intention of sitting on the ground, Miss. Does this garden not also have benches or stools?”
“Sitting aboard a starship does not mean you are one with the stars,” she answered. His arrogant persona faltered and he bowed his head in acknowledgment.
“That is very wise, Miss Hewer.”
“And you are very foolish, Admiral.” As he raised an eyebrow, she continued. “Today is my day off. I don’t have to be kind, or gentle, or polite to anyone. I can do whatever I want, short of actually throttling you, and here you stand begging my pardon for disturbing me.” She pretended to sulk. “To top it off, I haven’t even had a cup of Caf yet. Yes, you are VERY foolish, indeed, sir.”
Thrawn was silent, but Gabellyn could see the amusement building around his eyes and mouth. So it was true, he DID like to accept a dare. She could feel her own mirth gently warming her cheeks.
“Then I shall strive to make amends for my gross misconduct.” He extended a hand with a courtly bow. “Miss Hewer, would you care to accompany me for an early morning cup of Caf?”
Gabellyn held a steaming mug to her lips, letting the dual sensations of heat and scent wash over her. The rich aroma that only came from good quality roasted Caf beans nearly made her groan.
She opened her eyes and smiled over the rim of her mug. Thrawn was staring again in that odd way of his, his own Caf only half raised.
He sat that way for several moments. Gabellyn was convinced he had forgotten he was holding a beverage.
“Admiral.” Thrawn blinked, coming back to himself. He tilted his head questioningly.
“Drink. Before it gets cold.” Gabellyn scolded, smiling.
He smirked at her boldness, but took a measured sip anyway.
“You should ask me your questions now.”
To his credit, Thrawn didn’t choke on his mouthful of Caf. He hesitated for a fraction of a second before swallowing and placing his mug back on the table.
“You believe I have questions for you, Miss Hewer?”
Gabellyn raised an eyebrow (a near perfect imitation of the Admiral’s second most common expression), unimpressed with his stalling.
“First of all, I KNOW that you wanted to question me last night, but you decided to wait. Seriously, a clandestine meeting on a starlit balcony?” She shook her head. “So cliche.”
He smiled thinly, head canted slightly with curiosity, and eyes hardening with sudden wariness. “Indeed? You yourself appeared to be...indisposed.”
“I was exhausted.” Gabellyn clarified. “You know, I didn’t even hear Lady Marta return to our rooms? She had to put away her own gown and everything.” She grinned, taking a sip of Caf.
“Second, there are smaller, better kept areas closer to the fleet officers’ quarters, if all you REALLY wanted was a quiet walk.” She waved vaguely at the air. “Third, I think that your Commander Vanto must have spoken quite a bit with my Lady Marta last night because without their intervention, you would not have been able to seek me out privately.”
Thrawn’s eyebrows rose and his eyes widened a bit. Not out of surprise, Gabellyn could tell that much, but from some sort of...pleasure. Happiness maybe? It made him seem years younger.
“Excellent. Lady Hortu is truly fortunate to have you in her service, Miss Hewer.”
“It is the duty of a retainer to anticipate the will of their Lord or Lady,” she shrugged. “To do any less would stain the name of our House.”
“Naturally,” the Admiral steepled his fingers and sat back, in full interrogation mode. “Now then, you correctly deduced that I have questions for you and, in doing so, you have answered two of them.”
“Only two?” Gabellyn laughed a bit, cheeks tingling.
“Yes, it is dangerous to theorize in the absence of data, after all. First, let me ask you, why is the head of the Agricultural Co-op attending a Fete in a neighboring sector rather than on a world closer to the Core? Surely Lady Hortu could merit an invitation to a more prestigious setting?”
Gabellyn rested her elbows on the table and propped her chin in her hands.
“You find the Moff of the Mon Cala Sector and his court lacking, Admiral?”
“Hardly, but if Lady Hortu was hoping to garner more political allies to counter the Mining Guild, then seeking them in a prominent sector would be more advisable.”
Gabellyn grinned. “Maybe, but let me answer with my own question: if one were seeking the most advanced manufacturing facility to support fighter innovations, wouldn’t it make more sense to make friends with the governor of Kuat?”
Thrawn stiffened and his eyes narrowed.
Gabellyn could almost see the thoughts swirling in his head. His initial reaction(based on how the muscles twitched under the arms of his tunic) was to lash out physically. Then he hesitated, he desperately wanted more information about how and how much she knew...so he restrained himself.
“Tell me what you know.”
“There’s not THAT much to tell, actually,” she sipped her Caf. “Ours is a fairly small planet, tight knit social circles, that sort of thing. When factory teams move sections suddenly and the facilities personnel have to work overtime to renovate a new closed area, coupled with a rare INFLUX of military shipments that strain the spaceport material handlers and all of it timed around the announcement of Lothal hosting the Seventh Fleet and its new, odd ball commander...? Let’s just say, things start to add up.”
Thrawn was silent a long while.
Gabellyn quietly sipped her Caf, then noticed with some disappointment that she could see the bottom of the mug.
And the Caf had been so delicious, too!
Marta could rarely afford high quality Caf beans these days and Gabellyn had been making do with the sour-tasting, instant Caf powder for the better part of a year.
She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, trying to imprint the magical aroma of today’s cupful in her mind.
The abrupt sound of something pouring startled her. She opened her eyes to find her mug brimming with steaming, dark liquid. The Admiral likewise refilled his own mug.
He turned to set the carafe back on the warming plate a wry smile playing around his lips.
“Now then, Miss Hewer, will you enlighten me as to why Commander Vanto practically DEMANDED that I offer you an apology?”
The next morning, Gabellyn emerged from a lovely, hot water shower. She was humming absently to herself and trying to towel off the super long ‘mop’ her hair had become.
Maybe after they returned to Lothal, she could go back to a more manageable style?
Gabellyn stumbled back, wide eyed, clutching the the towel over her chest.
“Great skies, Marta! Don’t scare me like that!”
Marta grinned appreciatively and shook her head. “Hah, I wish I really could get a good scare out of you. You don’t have to pretend so hard for my sake.”
“But I am Gabellyn Hewer,” her retainer smirked back. “And Gabellyn would probably scream at being ambushed right outside the fresher door.”
Marta’s good mood faltered slightly. She cleared her throat.
“Right. So,” she rubbed her hands together. “Tell me all about yesterday! How was your day off? Did you do anything fun?”
Gabellyn raised an eyebrow. “As if you didn’t know.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Marta hedged, looking a bit nervous.
Gabellyn walked around her with a roll of the eyes. A quick rummage through the wardrobe and she started getting dressed.
“I mean how you somehow convinced Commander Vanto to get Thrawn to apologize for ‘something’,” She turned and flexed her fingers in air quotes. “he may or may not have done.”
Marta had become even more nervous, but then stopped suddenly looking quite sly.
“Oh...it’s THRAWN now, is it?”
Gabellyn pursed her lips slightly at the slip. The last thing a busybody like Marta needed was to get any ideas.
“So, he apologized?! How did he do it? What did he say?!”
Marta flopped onto her bed and leaned forward, hands clapping with glee.
‘Oh, dear,’ Gabellyn thought. ‘She is WAY too excited about this...’
“First,” Gabellyn crossed her arms. “I want to know exactly what you said to the poor Commander.”
Marta’s face fell a bit and her ‘happy clapping’ turned into a slight fidget.
“Well....I MAY have implied that the Grand Admiral had offended you in some way, which in turn offended ME, which would lead to the Agricultural Co-op making the Seventh Fleet’s business on Lothal....difficult?”
Gabellyn stared at her.
Marta had just played the most powerful officer in the Imperial Navy’s aide-de-camp like a stringed instrument!
And her most pressing question after getting said most powerful officer to take time out of his schedule to chitchat with a lowly retainer was basically: ‘How did it go?’
“I really hope you don’t cause another ‘misunderstanding’ like that again.” She rubbed her eyes. “The Admiral will be sure to neutralize any liabilities.”
Marta frowned. “How do you mean?”
Gabellyn looked at the ceiling as she thought. “Well, he is good at seeing patterns. If you try the same trick, it probably won’t work. It might even backfire terribly. He is very protective of Commander Vanto.”
“Oh, I see,” Marta nodded sagely. “They’re almost like best friends or something, aren’t they? I mean, they even went to Kyk’s together. Most officers don’t carouse with their subordinates.” She nodded to herself. “Don’t worry, that was just a little nudge so you could have a shot at the Admiral.”
Gabellyn sighed. “I figured that.”
“Well...so what happened?”
“He invited me to have Caf with him.” Gabellyn shrugged and started to comb out her wet hair.
“He drinks Caf?” Marta gaped, all wide eyed curiosity. Gabellyn rolled her eyes again.
“Of course, he does. Most military personnel do.”
“But he’s a...I mean, he’s not a...uh, your USUAL sort of Navy officer, is he?”
“Not exactly, no.”
Marta thought a moment. “Wouldn’t he be a Pantor...Pandoa...Pat...?”
“Yes, that! They’re blue aren’t they?”
Gabellyn sighed, already regretting getting out of bed that morning. “He’s not a Pantoran.” She began to braid her hair.
Marta frowned. “Really? Are you sure?”
“His eyes are red, not gold and his hair is black, not pastel,” Gabellyn paused, considering. “Also, his brow ridges are too pronounced.”
“Oh.” Marta blinked. “Well, did he say anything interesting?”
“Well, if you must know,” Gabellyn set her hands on her hips, annoyed. “he confirmed that all of the fuss at the Sienar factory is over a new starfighter program.”
“What?!” Marta leapt off the bed. “So it’s true! A new type of fighter is being built on Lothal?!,” she shook her head. “That’s...wow,” her expression darkened. “Pryce could buy out the remainder of the Co-op with the sort of cash a big defense project like that would generate.”
“It’d be cheaper for her to bribe the Courts, I think,” Gabellyn replied cynically.
Marta nodded absently as she began to pace...and mutter.
Gabellyn was able to understand most of the muttering even though she didn’t want to.
Something along the lines of ‘Oh, dear...however will I defend the Co-op’s lands NOW? The only bulwark we had to defend ourselves from imminent domain suites from the Governor’s Office was Expansion Era law guarding settlers’ rights to property. If Pryce buys the loyalty of the Courts, then nothing will stop her! They will take everything!’
Gabellyn frowned at her mistress’s fretting. Such blind attachment to a transient state of the mundane world was childish!
All things passed. That was an absolute truth.
‘An unhealthy level of attachment spawns greed and jealousy,’ the Elders had said. ‘A twin-headed dragon and mother of all evil deeds.’
Gabellyn’s frown turned thoughtful.
Oddly enough, her observations these last few years had only reaffirmed many of the ‘narrow minded’ teachings of the Elders. Gabellyn still held out hope that she could disprove some of them.
Marta’s chattering finally managed to break through Gabellyn’s calm.
“Enough!,” she shouted. “Saints above, Mistress, stop panicking!”
The eminent lady of Lothal froze, utterly shocked at Gabellyn’s outburst.
“Madame, we need to keep our heads,” the retainer continued in a soothing tone.
Marta nodded, then sat on the edge of the bed. She smoothed her skirt over her knees several times (another one of her nervous habits).
“You’re right, of course.” She took a deep breath to steady herself. “Panicking will get us nowhere.”
Gabellyn nodded to herself out of pity. Poor Marta did tend to have these bouts of excitability when she was feeling overwhelmed.
The retainer paused from gathering the folds of her saree.
Marta bit her lip and clenched her hands together in her lap.
“Do you think we can stop it?”
‘Do you think we can stop HER?’ was the silent question.
Gabellyn considered what she knew.
The fighter project was Thrawn’s own creation and he would defend it’s success. External threats, such as his rivals in the military and the pro-human bias of the Empire’s ruling class were almost certainly accounted for. Otherwise, the prep work in the factory would have never been started.
As for the Governor, she wanted to ensure her own political position and even elevate it further.
She had probably lured the Admiral to Lothal with the promise of Lothal’s factories to create his vision. Then, with Thrawn stationed in her sector, his victories would be seen as hers.
A lovely setup for mutual gain.
There had to be a way to lessen Pryce’s influence over the Admiral so that he would be more likely to curb her more spiteful agendas.
Jo’chim had told Gabellyn stories about Arihnda’s spiteful nature. Apparently, it had been evident even when they were youngsters together.
He had been of the opinion that it sprang from years of jealousy.
The Pryce’s had always been miners. It was a steady industry on Lothal, but not always a lucrative one.
Not so long ago, the great farming clans (of which the Hortu’s were the most august) with their lucrative trade connections, held the majority of Lothal’s wealth.
Most of the pre-Imperial towers of Capital City were built by them and the merchants they dealt with.
The Pryce’s like most of the mining sect, by contrast, had little disposable cash to display their total wealth. Most of their credits were tied up in mining equipment and wages and licensure.
As such, Arihnda grew up in a world where she always fell short of the Elites’ ‘Golden Dream’ and it stung.
The events of the Azadi Scandal only served to crystallize the woman’s bitterness.
And now, that jealous young woman had turned into a heartless monster.
Wait, a minute.
Possessiveness. Greed. Jealousy.
Those sins had created this mess. Perhaps they could also solve it?
“Madame, I might have a suggestion.”
Marta’s head shot up. “You do? What is it?!”
“It is no secret that the Agricultural Co-op and by extension the Hortu clan is nearly bankrupt, right?”
Marta’s pretty face soured. “Yes, but I hardly see how THAT painful fact will save us.”
“The Co-op needs to raise funds quickly and the only commodity it has in abundance is several thousand square kilometers of open ground in the Southern Hemisphere.”
“True...but the Mining Guild has been after those tracts of land for years. Selling out is what they want us to do!”
“Exactly,” Gabellyn smiled even as Marta frowned in confusion. “The Sienar factory has many positive attributes, but wide open air fields to conduct flight tests isn’t one of them.”
Marta’s jaw dropped.
“In other words,” she whispered in awe. “sell the land that has been coveted by Pryce and the Mining Guild directly to the Imperial Navy. Skies, Gabellyn, that’s brilliant!”
“Indeed.” Thrawn stood, nonchalant, arms clasped behind his back, concentration mostly focused on holograms of Ruistoan and Lothalite art.
Eli rolled his eyes as the admiral completely missed his sarcasm. Apparently, Thrawn was still a bit obtuse when it came to certain tones of voice used by humans.
The Admiral’s idea sounded simple enough, but the parties involved in this instance were civilians.
Therefore, Eli had his doubts that everything would work out according to Thrawn’s plans.
Yet, as always, Thrawn’s supreme confidence never wavered. It was maddening.
‘Someday’, Eli thought. ‘Thrawn will run up against something that he hadn’t planned for and I just hope we can all live through it.’
“Another dusty day,” Gabellyn muttered to herself as her speeder bike cut through the dry, waist high grass, leaving a long trail of dust clouds in its wake.
True enough, Autumn was the start of the Dry Season for much of Lothal’s Greater Savanna.
Marta despaired the change, of course. It meant she was having to start a rigorous beauty routine to keep her fair complexion glowing for Society events.
Gabellyn on the other hand loved the crispness of the air and the distant smell of the snow flurries that would be working their way down from the poles over the next several weeks.
She drove the bike faster than was strictly necessary over the open grassland, cutting it to the left and right at random but never deviating from her overall course.
Soon a small cluster of beige lumps appeared on the horizon, the poor depot town of Jalath.
Gabellyn eased the bike through the narrow streets until she came to a medium sized building that’s only discerning feature was that it had considerably more piles of junked machinery around it than any of the others.
There were few people on the street at this time of day, but she still took a casual glance around in case someone was thinking that her arrival was a little TOO interesting. Satisfied, Gabellyn shutdown her bike and took the very heavy knapsack she had brought with her inside.
The inside of the shop was dim and she paused to one side of the doorway to let her eyes adjust. Piles of even more junk lined the walls and spilled across every flat surface.
Some pieces she recognized: droid servos, generator coils, rakes from an ancient combine. The rest was just a jumbled mess of metal and plastoid scrap.
“Hello? Who’s there, then?”
A big, booming voice called from behind what served as a counter.
Gabellyn stepped closer and smiled.
“Just me, Mr. Ric.”
A large, graying man with tattooed arms looked up from a pile of ‘something’ he’d been tinkering with on a workbench farther back.
“Miss Hewer?” He came to stand by the counter and wiped grease from his hands onto an already very dirty cloth. “Surprised to see ya back again so soon. What can I do for ya?”
Gabellyn lifted the knapsack onto the counter with a slight huff. It made a duly impressive THUNK.
Mr. Ric’s eyebrows shot up.
He opened it carefully and glanced inside.
“Good lands!,” he praised in awe. “I didn’t think you’d be able to get this much of the stuff these days. Where’d ya...?”
“Now, Mr. Ric,” Gabellyn stopped him with another smile. “You know I can’t possibly say.”
“Right, right.” He hastily closed the bag. “It’ll be the usual rate plus about two percent.”
Gabellyn frowned thoughtfully. “Two percent? I think you’ll find this batch much more like five.”
“Well, now...that’s...” Ric faltered to a stop, eyes drawn suddenly to the door.
Gabellyn turned as though only mildly curious at the interruption.
A tall silhouette stood in the doorway. It was in some sort of full body armor and male. Gabellyn could see no less than two heavy blaster pistols and some other bulges along the edges of the stranger’s armor that likely promised to be weaponry. A bounty hunter?
Mr. Ric cleared his throat.
“Good day to ya, sir. If ya give me just a moment to finish up with the little miss here, I’ll be with ya in two shakes.”
The stranger said nothing but nodded his helmet slightly. He came into the shop and made a show of browsing the piles of scrap.
Once he wasn’t backlit, Gabellyn could see that it was definitely a human male, quite lean, in full armor similar in design to a Mandolorian’s.
The armor itself was a gritty green and very worn and had several placements for keeping blaster pistols, vibroblades, and all sorts of unsavory articles.
Mr. Ric eyed the stranger for a moment then turned his attention back to the knapsack.
“Then, we should see you in about a week to settle. Heard anything about the east ranges?” Gabellyn asked casually.
Mr. Ric glanced nervously to the still browsing bounty hunter.
“Eh, just some stories about Loth-cats hunting up all of the rats over that way, maybe denning up in the rocks nearby.”
“Oh? Well, if there are too many cats then they will need thinning out, won’t they?” Gabellyn replied matter-of-factly.
Ric slid the knapsack behind the counter with a grim look. “You take care of yourself out there, missy.”
“Thanks, Mr. Ric.”
She turned to leave and as she came near the bounty hunter, he straightened slightly.
“Sorry if we kept you waiting. I’m all done,” She offered politely. The man seemed to stare, then nodded before making his own way up to the counter in precise, long-legged strides.
Gabellyn watched him go. There was something...familiar about the way this bounty hunter moved.
Finally, she stepped out into the afternoon sun.
Her bike was as she had left it and there were no other personal vehicles parked nearby.
The bounty hunter-stranger must have walked to Ric’s from his ship.
Curious, Gabellyn decided the take a longer route out of town and turned her bike towards the Depot Landing Field.
The East Ranges were located about sixteen kilometers north-east of Jalath.
Composed mainly of the odd, cone-shaped monoliths that were common to Lothal, they were more a complex network of canyons than a true mountain range.
Aerial mapping was ineffective and sensors proved to be worse than useless.
A quaint side effect of the monolith’s shape and mineral content.
An ideal environment for those wishing not to be found.
According to the scrap-trader, there had been an increase in the number of vagrants frequenting the area.
A few were probably harmless beggars that camped in the area only briefly before wandering on. The rest were more than likely bandits or worse wishing to remain hidden from Imperial troops.
That in of itself was problematic. A large section of the ranges was technically part of the vast private property of the Hortus and, like so many others, the leaders of the Agricultural Co-op had some rather...unyielding...beliefs when it came to property and the acceptable level of Imperial interference.
It had taken some time to circle the closest outcrops of the ranges and search for a favorable entrance. There had been a well worn trail that opened onto the grasslands in the direction of Jalath, but only the desperate or the foolish would enter that way.
It was perfect for ambushing even wary prey.
Eventually, a narrow, overgrown cove came into view. The grass in the vicinity had not been disturbed for some time and there seemed to be ample room just inside to stow the speeder bike.
The bike secured and blaster rifle held at alert, now came the dangerous task of navigating the canyons blind.
There were animal tracks in sandy patches every few turns weaving in and out of the canyon legs. No signs of bipedal traffic at any of the junctions.
Deeper in, perhaps two hundred meters, the first clue to sentient activity. A dilapidated campsite with an ash pit and a cleared area for a bed roll. Close study of the ground showed no recent activity.
The most likely routes the campers would have used were the two, larger passages to the North and Southeast.
A blaster’s safety being deactivated.
“Hands off your weapon.” Came the disembodied command from multiple directions. Impossible to tell the location of the gunman and no cover at hand. The best course of action would be to comply.
“On your knees.”
Perhaps if the voice continued to talk, it’s owner would reveal both location and affiliation?
“Congratulations on catching me off guard. You might be the first who’s ever done it.”
“If that’s true, then I certainly won’t be the last. What are you seeking here?” The voice echoed oddly again.
“I believe that’s between me and my employer, but maybe you and I could both stand to make a profit from this?”
Greed often succeeded where vanity failed.
“Profit, you say? Maybe so,” a long pause. “But first,” the strange echoes suddenly consolidated into a single, clear voice with definite origin. The one kneeling in the dirt turned to look across the campsite, then up.
The female from the scrap-trader’s shop was perched like a hawk-bat on the canyon wall, a dated blaster-rifle trained on the flat-footed bounty hunter. “We should do something about those Bantha-treaded boots of yours.”
“There now,” the young woman rocked back on her heels to survey her handiwork. “It won’t win any beauty contests, but it should do the trick.”
The bounty hunter looked over his now unrecognizable feet. His high-quality, all-terrain boots were now wrapped in ragged strips of old oil-cloth.
His steps would be muffled, but the boots’ grip was effectively compromised. He glanced to the woman’s feet, clad in soft-soled moccasins of local design.
Such foot ware had greatly improved her chance at a successful ambush and had allowed her to scale the canyon’s nearly-sheer walls with ease.
“Why help me, woman?”
The female casually tossed one of her twin braids over a shoulder as she seemed to consider the question.
“Two guns are usually better than one. You look as though you prepped your gear for just about everything.”
“Not stealth apparently,” the bounty hunter remarked dryly.
The trouble was he HAD selected this iteration of armor specifically for it’s stealth potential.
“Ah well, you’d do fine out in the grasslands. Especially in twilight or dark,” she waved at the dark green patches of the armor. “But hard soles will get you killed in a hardscape. Sorry to say, that helmet won’t do you any favors in here either.”
“The helmet stays.” The bounty under replied immediately. He could see her point, however. In these enclosed spaces, a fully enclosed helmet limited his vision and hearing, but for the moment, it was more important to keep it on.
“Fine then,” The girl bit her lip to stifle a smile at his protest.
“but we will rely on my ears. False echoes will be common in here.”
She stood and gestured towards the northern path. “Keep a five meter distance if you can.”
Sorry for the long wait! I hope this partially makes up for it!
The Girl turned back to the Bounty Hunter, eyebrows raised expectantly.
“We have not discussed our quarry or a plan of attack. What exactly are we looking for?”
“You know, when I asked YOU that question, you refused to answer.” She scolded, then looked up into the narrow band of sky that was visible from inside the canyon. “Well...,” She rolled her ankles and wrists with several small pops. “we are looking for vagrants.”
“That’s not very specific.”
“It’s not supposed to be,” she continued with a shrug. “Anyone who isn’t a member of the Agricultural-Co-op is trespassing here. They are technically vagrants and so can’t be allowed to stay. There have been instances where other citizens were robbed while traveling through this bit of grassland.”
“Don’t I qualify as a ‘vagrant’ under those conditions?”
The Girl grinned and threw him a wink. “Nah, you’re helping me. That means you are an escorted visitor.”
The Bounty Hunter raised a concealed eyebrow. This was certainly a strange and overly ‘familiar’ conversation. What possessed the Girl to be so...genial with him, a bounty hunter she had just met? What was she up to?
“Why do you not contact the Governor’s office if these people are such a problem? The Empire will surely send out troops to keep the peace.”
The Girl wrinkled her nose.
“No thanks. The last thing we need out here is soldiers, especially Pryce’s. The citizens are spooked enough as it is with the land grabs and all those ‘live fire exercises’ close in to the Capital.” She shook her head. “Nope. It’s better we take care of this ourselves. And as for our ‘quarry’, there will be signs.”
She turned back to the Northern path and began walking.
The Bounty Hunter moved quickly to catch up to the five meter spacing the Girl had suggested.
A further half-kilometer into the network of canyons, the Girl stopped and began looking closely at the canyon floor. The Bounty Hunter came forward to get a look at what were likely the first traces of the ‘vagrants’ and saw...nothing.
As he studied the multi-hued gravel and sand, he quickly realized there was nothing there. No patterned tread from a pair of boots. No animal tracks. The Girl, however, was pouring over this patch of ground with great interest and even poked at a few places in the patches of purple detritus.
“What is it?” He asked lowly.
The Girl waved at the darker, more purple hued areas of sand and gravel.
“This is not from erosion,” she gestured higher up the canyon wall and indeed there were no bands or outcroppings of purple rocks.
“Although, it is ‘natural’ in a sense. Loth-bats, will often eat small stones to aid in digestion. In the city, they will chew on duracrete. This purple comes from an enzyme in their lower gut. The darker the shade, the fresher the dropping.”
That was a bit disgusting.
As the Bounty Hunter looked at the ‘deposits’ with fresh eyes, he could see at least three distinct shades of purple.
“And how does this knowledge help in our search for your vagrants?”
The Girl tilted her head slightly as she glanced at him from over her shoulder.
“Another fun fact about Loth-bats, they relieve themselves while perched and they prefer perches that are at least fifteen meters off the ground.”
The Bounty Hunter looked back up the canyon wall. While the sides were nearly vertical, the top couldn’t have been more than seven meters from the canyon floor.
“This area is too low.”
The Girl nodded. “Exactly, which tells us a few things. Some food source the bats really like is close by, drawing them in. Second, perching so low multiple times, means there are probably none of the usual predators in this part of the canyons.”
The Bounty Hunter thought over her words. Her statement about the lack of predators seemed likely as he had not seen any viable animal tracks so far. Which was certainly suspicious, as most information on Lothal’s fauna indicated that the grasslands and canyons were rife with Loth-cats and Loth-rats.
So what would attract Loth-bats, but cause an absence of Loth-cats and Loth-rats?
“This preferred food source you mentioned...I take it that the members of our vagrant population are the ones providing it?”
Another quick grin from the Girl.
“You might be clumsy, but at least you can connect some dots.”
The Bounty Hunter raised BOTH eyebrows at that backhanded compliment.
“Yes,” the Girl continued. “A favorite draw for bats is refuse. Not really sure why...something about the smell is just irresistible.”
“So, there must be a permanent camp with a dumping area nearby.” The Bounty Hunter concluded.
“Yep, shall we gatecrash it?”
The encampment had been found easily via the previously deduced garbage heap and was located in a box-like segment of canyon with a single, larger passage as the main entrance and exit.
The half-dozen vagrants living there were a ragtag mix of humans.
Most appeared to be locals dressed in the usual Lothal working-class tunic, but two sported cropped jackets and the cinched boots preferred by spacers.
The Girl, it seemed, was not surprised at the set up, merely annoyed. She had first asked if any of the men below were the Bounty Hunter’s marks.
He admitted to not recognizing any of them.
She had then convinced the Bounty Hunter to an unconventional plan to drive off the trespassers rather than capturing or killing them. If they spread the story that the canyons were unsuitable for a hideout, then many would be dissuaded from trespassing in them.
First, they had backtracked to some very narrow passages and the Girl began to rock-chimney climb partway up the walls. She ran her hands over thick clumps of mosses and plucked several tufts of them before jumping down.
“This should help,” she had said with an evil smirk. “I will need to borrow one of your stun cartridges, though.”
Curious, the Bounty Hunter allowed her one of his spares and watched as she pried opened the cartridge to expose the power cell and capacitor bank.
“Now then, I assume your helmet has a basic filtration system?”
“Good. But just to be safe, crush this and apply the jelly around your mouth and nose.” She instructed as she handed him a small, blue green plant pod.
“What is it?” He asked suspiciously. It looked like it came from some sort of succulent.
“It’s Alto-mint. Basically a cure-all home remedy. The volatile compounds in the jelly will keep the vapor from effecting you as much.” She explained holding a plant pod of her own.
“What vapor? Are we using gas grenades?”
“No, nothing like that. In the old times, the ancient people would gather ‘stone beards’,” she held up the moss. “And throw them on low fires in a confined space and then have spiritual ceremonies. The moss contains compounds that have mild hallucinogenic properties.” She reached into her satchel and pulled out a handful of some sort of dried organic matter. “Now, when combined with THESE, the vapor produced will almost always lead to an intense, negative ‘high’.”
The Bounty Hunter was mildly impressed. “And how do you know that, may I ask?”
The Girl shrugged. “Years of hearing about dumb kids with too much time on their hands. Some will try just about anything if their friends dare them to. Now, we just wait for dusk.” She glanced at the sky. “We should have enough time to make the water-smoker from your stun cartridge.”
The Bounty Hunter raised another unseen eyebrow. “Water-smoker?”
The Girl threw him an incredulous look. “You’ve never heard of a water-smoker?! Goddess, what sort of a repressed back world were YOU raised on?”
They waited for dusk, and the Girl built a small ‘water-smoker’ to burn the moss. She added the dried matter (a type of fungi) and then applied the Alto-mint jelly to her face. As soon as she had broken open the pod, an intensely strong smell of mint filled the air.
The Girl had looked quite bizarre with blue-green slime around her nose and mouth. She felt his stare and smirked before pulling a dark kerchief up an over the lower half of her face.
He also applied the jelly (the mint smell was overwhelming!), but made certain that his face had remained hidden.
They set up the water-smoker at a junction in the canyons where strong evening down drafts would carry the smoke along with evening ground mist into the camp. Then they climbed off the canyon floor and waited.
The first sign that the smoke was effective, was that some of the vagrants had started to fidget and pace restlessly.
Next, the Girl began to make soft animal calls (he assumed it was an imitation of a Loth-cat) that increased in desperation, as if the animal was being preyed upon.
That seemed to effect the Lothal natives most.
Then the Girl added in the soft sounds of a feeding canid along with snarls and growls.
They could catch bits of the worried whispers from the men down below. They were speculating about the likely number of Loth-wolves hiding in the canyons and whether or not the wolves would eat a full-sized human, as the old stories said.
Finally, the Girl added in several howls and snuffling as if there were many wolves still hunting in the canyon. The Bounty Hunter readied a few of his serrated throwing knives as the mist on the ground grew thicker. It was becoming difficult to see down below due to the growing darkness and the fog and the vagrants seemed to grown desperate.
The Girl tapped him as a signal and he threw the first of his knives, slicing into a man’s arm. The Girl coordinated with wolf snarls and the sound of heavy paws. The man below screamed with pain and terror as he fell to the ground.
His comrades scrambled to grab weapons and shouted conflicting instructions to each other.
Another tap. Another knife. This time grazing a man’s leg. Again, the Girl provided the necessary sound effects.
The remaining men began to return fire, albeit blindly. Blasterbolts pocked the canyon walls and a few were high enough to reach them.
More sounds of attack and another knife and the men began to mount their speeder bikes in a panic. Some required the assistance of their comrades. The last two shot over their shoulders wildly as they left and a bolt hit at the Bounty Hunter’s feet making him slip.
The Girl grabbed for his arm, but was not fast enough. He fell the full ten meters to the ground below and hit hard.
The Girl made a quick descent and knelt by his side.
“Goddess, are you okay?!” She pressed on one of the Bounty Hunter’s shoulder pads.
“Yes, I believe so. My armor took the brunt of the impact.” He replied, voice a bit strained.
The Girl sat back on her heels with a rueful grin. “As it should, I would think.”
The Bounty Hunter huffed at the poor joke, but rolled over and got to his knees.
“Have they all gone?” He wheezed slightly. The Girl frowned.
“Yes, I can barely make out the bikes in the distance. We should go, too.” She stood and held out her hand for the Bounty Hunter. He hesitated a moment then took her hand and pulled himself up.
Nothing felt broken or sprained, but he was sure that his left side would have quite a bruise in the morning.
“I will hazard a guess that the canyons aren’t safe to travel at night?” He asked grimly.
“That’s true,” she confirmed. “It’d be better to wait until daylight to collect your bike. It’s quite a long way around if you went via on the grasslands, too,” The Girl’s expression was thoughtful, then she smiled. “Well, you were such a big help, you deserve the Co-op’s hospitality! Let’s take that extra bike they left behind and I’ll take you to the cottage.”
The Bounty Hunter raised an arm and began to protest.
“Nope. No arguments!” The Girl commanded, severely. She held up a hand and started counting off her reasons. “Ambient night temperatures this season will be uncomfortably cold at best, you do not know how to get back to the Jalath Landing Site from here, and you are probably quite sore from the fall and need to rest a bit. Now get on the bike, please.”
He stood there for a moment contemplating the surreal feeling of being ordered about. The Girl had already gone over to the abandoned speeder bike. She switched it on and began checking the gages.
Finally, after finding no fault with her reasoning, he slowly and stiffly made his way over and took his place behind her on the bike.
She grinned over her shoulder. “Great! Let’s go!”
He braced himself, expecting the bike to jump forward. However, the Girl accelerated slowly and took the turns out of the canyon gently.
He wasn’t sure if it was due to the hazards of driving at night or out of consideration to his injuries. Either way, he was grateful.
Soon they were out on the plains and the Bounty Hunter could see that they were headed due East. He glanced behind. The East Ranges covered most of the visible horizon to the West and North. The Girl had been correct, it would have taken quite a while to circumvent the southern portion of the East Ranges and retrieve his bike.
After an hour of travel, a small cluster of tall monoliths came into view. As they approached, the Bounty Hunter could make out windows and other man made features carved into the rock. All were located several meters off the ground.
The Girl steadily increased their altitude and gently parked the the bike on a ledge with a large door.
“Well, here we are,” she announced cheerily. She went to the door and entered a passcode. The door whooshed open and the Bounty Hunter could tell that the inside of the monolith dwelling was significantly warmer than the night air.
“So this is a ‘cottage’?,” he asked dryly as he entered. The interior of the monolith had been carved into passageways and rooms, but the bare stone had several modern trappings.
The Girl chuckled a bit as she led him to an interior chamber that functioned as the kitchen.
“Well, that’s what the Hortu family calls it. It used to be a dwelling of the ancient people thousands of years ago. Then the Hortu’s lived here for several generations before building a townhouse in Capital City. Now they keep it as sort of country cottage. Go ahead and have a seat. You seem tired.” She gestured to a worn looking kitchen table with mismatched chairs.
The Bounty Hunter chose the chair that offered the best visual range of the kitchen and the exit and sat gingerly. He couldn’t help the slight groan as his left side protested the movement. The Girl paused slightly as she rummaged around in the cupboards, but did not comment.
He watched as she took down two mugs and a well worn canister. She spooned dark powder (instant Caf) into the mugs and filled them with very hot water from the sink.
“Sorry, instant is all we have.” She flashed an apologetic smile. She gave both mugs a stir and set the nicer one in front of the Bounty Hunter.
He stared at it.
“You know,” she began casually, leaning against the kitchen counter. Her own mug cradled between her palms. “I’ve heard of consummate perfectionist types who believe that the only way to get a job done right is to do it themselves,” she took a measured sip, lips compressing slightly at the taste. The Bounty Hunter’s attention was drawn to the light blue traces of the Alto-mint jelly that were still on her mouth and nose. “but I believe this has got to be some sort of record...ADMIRAL.”