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The Princess and the Bounty Hunter

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Quinnly Streif, Advocate of House Gerade and finalist in the Great Hunt, glared down at the Alderaanian page. "And you tell Lady Aitalla that I don't have time for social calls." The Chiss bounty hunter tried to step around the small boy, hoping that her brusqueness and her imposing figure would carry the servant out of her way and off her gangplank. But the page -- motivated, no doubt, by that same damnable self-assurance that every Alderaanian possessed in spades -- held his ground.

"My mistress wishes only to thank you for your support in person, a gratitude that will manifest itself both financially and logistically. She recognizes that you are a busy professional, and assures me that your time will be fully compensated.'

"And," he continued dryly, "she has also assured me that until such a time as you do choose to visit her, your ship will be unable to leave port."

Quinnly tried to make her glare even more baleful. "Is that some some sort of threat?"

Somehow, the page's implacable face looked even more smug. "This is no threat, Honored Advocate -- only, as I said, an assurance. From time to time, inclement weather warnings are known to close specific bays of the spaceport. At other times, customs officials need to ensure that suspicious personages are not attempting to smuggle thranta eggs off of Alderaan. Once, a reported reactor leak kept a freighter --"

"Fine, fine!" the bounty hunter cried, throwing her hands up in disgust. "But you're paying speeder fare back to the estate."

The very edge of the page's mouth curled ever-so-slightly upward. "Don't be so gauche, Honored Advocate. We'll be taking one of House Gerade's personal speeders."

--- --- ---

Of course, she had to wait. Like most things on Alderaan, it wasn't clear why -- no one came in or out of Lady Aitalla's sealed chambers -- but wait Quinnly did.

The warm browns and soft cushions of the noblewoman's antechamber did nothing to sooth the bounty hunter. She paced. She flung herself into one of the plush seats. She calculated her prorated fees on her wrist computer, then displayed the monetary cost on her eyepiece's HUD. It slowly ticked upward. 4520 credits. 4521. She flung herself into the other chair.

Somewhere out there, there was still two, maybe three bounty hunters. Hell, there might only be one -- probably Tarro, that bastard -- already headed off to the final kill. Or worse yet: one of them was on his way here, intent on getting the drop on his competition. Maybe Aitalla was in on it. Maybe this was all a ruse, and her opponent was already storming the space port, killing her crew.

Quinnly paced some more.

Finally, after an eternity of excruciating boredom, a chambermaid opened the door and indicated, with a brevity of body language, that the Chiss should enter. Quinnly brusquely stepped through, only to be confronted with another, even smaller room. She rolled her eyes. Of course Alderaanians would have ante-antechamber.

The ante-antechamber's inner door opened, and the bounty hunter finally stepped into Lady Aitalla's chamber. Chambers, probably. Quinnly smirked to herself, thinking about how this was probably the first of three waiting rooms, followed by two dining halls, and then...

But it wasn't like that at all. It was a relatively small room, probably smaller than the waiting room. There was a holoprojector off to one side, but Quinnly ignored it. Her eye was drawn to the view outside the room's far wall -- or rather, the absence of a wall. Only a short balustrade separated the room proper from a magnificent view of the Juran Mountains, their snow caps orange in the setting sun. Despite the Chiss' great annoyance with Alderaan and its stuffy nobility, she couldn't help but be impressed, almost breathless, with the view.

Lady Aitalla was leaning over the balustrade, her back to the door. "It's a beautiful sight," she said, still facing the mountains. "But from a practical point of view," she added dryly, "I think you'll appreciate the holoprojector more."

The bounty hunter soaked up the mountains for a moment longer, then advanced toward the holoprojector. It displayed a map of the galaxy, similar to the one on Quinnly's ship. On the map, two dots flashed. The first, marked "Quinnly Streif," flickered in the Core worlds. The second dot was out in Hutt space, apparently on a vector for Nar Shaddaa. It was labelled "Tarro Blood."

Quinnly glanced up. "Is this in real time?"

Lady Aitalla had turned from the view and now stood at the holoprojector, opposite Quinnly. "In a manner of speaking. Tarro Blood's location is extrapolated from his last known heading. And yours…"

With one deft touch, the noblewoman zoomed in on the galactic core.

"This says I'm in orbit above Corellia."

Aitalla looked at Quinnly through the blue-white hologram, a wry smile on her face. "That it does, Advocate."

The bounty hunter shrugged in apathy. "So you have a map that has a guess about Tarro Blood's location, and it reports mine incorrectly. What good is that?"

"This isn't just any map, bounty hunter. It's the official telemetry of the Great Hunt, accessible only by Great Hunt Champions, and Mandalore himself."

Quinnly tried to hide her surprise, but she couldn't help but be impressed, even a little shocked. The official telemetry of the Great Hunt -- it was a coveted piece of information. Participants of the Great Hunt always tried, and often failed, to gain access, paying exorbitant sums for the briefest of glimpses. Quinnly starred back, awaiting an explanation.

"House Gerade is not what is once was," Lady Aitalla replied matter-of-factly, "but we still have influence and we're still owed favors. Time-limited access to this map is only the most recent transaction between my house and Artus Lok-née-Mandalore."

Quinnly looked down at the map, then back at Lady Aitalla. A lot of things about Alderaan had surprised the bounty hunter, but this took the prize. "You've given me the location of my archenemy, and you've so thoroughly misreported my position that even Mandalore is deceived. Hell, you might have even misreported my location in collusion with Mandalore. Why?"

Aitalla walked around the edge of the holoprojector, stopping at Quinnly's side. The two women stood at an angle, half facing each other and half facing the galactic hologram. "I've given you a brief moment of reprieve, but you…" The noblewoman motioned at the mountain beyond, her hand glowing with stars as it cut through the map. "You've given this. It's a beautiful sight, and it's one that I owe to you, Advocate."

In her battle armor, Quinnly stood half a head taller than Aitalla, but the noblewoman was unfazed. She continued earnestly, looking up at the Chiss. "You could have supported Raffid, and claimed the title Baroness. You could have even named Heitor; I'm certain he'd have rewarded you with credits." Aitalla turned to face the bounty hunter full on. Somehow, her hands found Quinnly's, holding them at waist level. "Instead, you forewent those rewards and named me heir."

Quinnly chuckled, starring down at the new leader of House Gerade. "Those two chumps? Between the slimy buffoon and the dirty old man, I don't think you ever had any serious competition."

Now the noblewoman laughed, glancing away, then back up at the bounty hunter. "I want to let you know that, whatever happens next, you and your ship are free to go."

"Wha-" Quinnly trailed off as Aitalla stood on the balls of her feet and kissed the bounty hunter on the lips. It was neither too long nor too short, a sensual kiss between two strangers.

After a moment, Aitalla broke the kiss. "I wanted to thank you… personally… for your service, Advocate. I hope I was not too forward."

A purple blush spread across Quinnly's cheeks. "It was an unexpected gift, my Lady, but not unwelcome." The bounty hunter smiled back, a coy edge to her voice. "Will that be all, my Lady?"

Lady Aitalla smirked, and a touch of humor reached her eyes. "If that was the only thanks House Gerade could afford, it would be a very poor day indeed." The noble reached up and, grabbing the collar of Quinnly's armor, pulled the taller alien into another kiss. And Quinnly, expecting what was coming, was even more receptive.