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Saga - Legends The Nar Kreetan Job

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction- Before, Saga, and Beyond' started by Mia Mesharad, Dec 24, 2019.

  1. Mia Mesharad

    Mia Mesharad Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 2, 2012
    It's a routine job for Mandalorian bodyguard Ezgi Deshra: keep a wealthy client safe while they fritter away their money at an overpriced auction on Nar Kreeta. Seems simple enough. Maybe even boring. But when the truth of the auction comes to light, a routine job quickly spirals out of control and into the seedy heart of Hutt Space, where a lot more than a simple day's pay end up on the line.
    ________________________________________________________________________
    So, there was enough of a positive reception to Welcome to Mandalore in the time since it was posted here and elsewhere online, along with several wonderful people who expressed an interest in hearing a bit more from my little ol' OC, Ezgi Deshra, that I finally bit the bullet and did the thing. Look to all the far-too-kind souls who liked and commented on that story if you need someone to blame. :p

    Here, today, we have a brand new story—my second ever posted!—picking up a few weeks after Welcome to Mandalore's end. There's no real need to read that one if you're new, but it is there, and I'd love to hear any new thoughts should the mood strike you. For everyone else, the second-person perspective required by the tourism conceit's been abandoned now for a more traditional third-person perspective and narrative structure, that should hopefully put it more closely in the company of your average Star Wars novel. You also get two full chapters right out the gate, which you can look at as either my Christmas gift to you all, or the lump of coal in your stocking. Take your pick. :p

    Oh, and once again: context should inform most minor non-English terms, but for several words and phrases featured throughout the piecebrown-linked for conveniencea quick and easy translation is just a simple click away. Standard blue links go to informative Wiki articles, or helpful reference images—all of which are completely safe for work.
    ________________________________________________________________________

    Chapter 1

    A quiet, peaceful darkness permeated the small Keldabe apartment belonging to Ezgi Deshra. All was still in the early hours of the morning, before the sun could rise and stir the first sounds of the busy city. Even the pair of birds that had taken their rest on the bedroom window's sill had the good manners not to disturb the sleeping residents within.

    But it seemed the universe wasn't in a kind mood on this particular morning, and the last seconds of tranquility were irreparably shattered by the unmistakable sound of a comlink alert, one announcing the arrival of a new message. An unwelcome intrusion, the droning chirp, chirp, chirp of the new notification stole Ezgi away from a pleasant dream to seek out the source of the obnoxious sound. She dragged herself to the edge of the bed, groaning, blindly reaching out through the fading fog of sleep to pat and prod the darkness for where she vaguely remembered setting her comlink down some hours before. Ezgi fumbled around the nightstand, growing increasingly frustrated with the endless chirp, chirp, chirp until her clumsy efforts finally sent the device clattering to the floor where it defiantly continued to chirp away, now seemingly just to spite her.

    She pulled her pillow close and buried her face in it, blowing out a frustrated huff. She could tell already that it was going to be one of those mornings.

    Forcing herself out from under the comfort of her sheets, Ezgi sat up, squinting and blinking away the last vestiges of sleep, rubbing her eyes as she peered through the dark until the comlink finally revealed itself among the shadows. She snatched it up quickly and shut off the incessant alert as fast as her fingers would allow. The message light nevertheless continued to blink, even as she glared at it with bleary eyes, fruitlessly willing it to stop. Ezgi yawned and absently passed the device from hand to hand. The prospect of a few more hours of sleep couldn't have been more alluring, but she knew herself well enough to accept that it just wasn't in the cards. Not anymore. She was already up, and with the sun soon to join her, there would be no getting back to sleep now.

    Ezgi tapped the activator on her nightstand lamp, and dialed the brightness down to a tolerable glow. At her back, the bed shifted slightly, and the sheet pulled away. She turned and surrendered to a smile at the sight of a beautifully bare back, whose perfect green skin was decorated with fine white tattoos. A pair of lekku—crossed and gently twitching in rhythm with their owner's soft little snores—lay draped over sculpted shoulders, while the twisted up sheet held an equally picturesque lower half hidden cruelly from view. Ezgi sighed and stood, scanning the room for where her shirt had ended up the night before. There was no point disturbing Doriya. She'd dress and view the message alone out in the other room.

    She found her shirt hanging off the handle of her closet door, and snickered to herself at the memory of how it had gotten there as she pulled it on. Barefoot, she padded softly out to the kitchen and started a pot of caf, turning the comlink over in her hand a few times more before finally activating it. The blue-lit image of a Silver Shield Solutions secretary blossomed into existence in miniature above her hand.

    "Greetings, Mistress Deshra," the Imroosian she knew as Veeto began, "I hope, as always, this message finds you well."

    While Veeto spoke, Ezgi poked around the conservator for something to eat, all the while keeping an ear out for key words in the security agency's latest job offer: time, place, payment—the age-old essentials of the contractor's trade. As for the conservator, the shelves turned out be mostly bare, home to a few bottles of ale, a loaf of common mealbread, and a container of leftover tiingilar from dinner at her mother's the other night. Giving up on the slim pickings on offer, Ezgi settled for a cup of hot caf, taking both her mug and the comlink into the living room and easing into her favorite, comfortable chair. As she sipped from her mug, she set the message to play for a second time, listening more carefully to the specifics now that her interest in the job had been piqued.

    According to the contract offer, a prospective client wanted to meet on Taris, though strangely, not at Silver Shield's offices. Instead, they wanted a nice, casual, out in the open meeting at an Upper City cafe called the Taphouse. It wasn't exactly a red flag, but it certainly struck Ezgi as strange. It wasn't like Silver Shield's Tarisian headquarters were hidden away in the scav-infested Undercity or anything like that. In fact, a quick look at a holomap of Taris' Upper City indicated the Taphouse and the agency headquarters were practically a stone's throw from one another. The offer also noted an "event security need," and taken with the Upper City meet up, good old Veeto advised that she be prepared for a night of standing stoically in the background of the kind of upscale society party that were so common among Taris' wealthy elite.

    "What's got you up at the crack of dawn?" asked a sleepy voice from the bedroom doorway.

    Ezgi looked up from her comlink ready to answer, but fell silent when she was met with the sight of a stunning Twi'lek clad in only a white bed sheet, looking like nothing short of a myth come to life. A low, throaty groan escaped her lips in place of words, eliciting a smile and a chuckle from the Twi'lek. "I, uh...I got a call about a new job," Ezgi finally managed to reply, clearing her throat. "Client wants to meet on Taris."

    Doriya yawned and gathered up the sheet, tossing it onto Ezgi's couch on her way into the kitchen. No thought was given to her nakedness in the comfortably warm apartment. "Do you know any of the specifics yet?"

    "Just that I'd be protecting them during an 'event' of some kind. Likely some high-society gala or something."

    "That could be fun. Scrounge some free eats, maybe a glass or two of some top-shelf champagne..."

    "...get stared at for a few hours by aruetiise who've only ever seen a Mando on the HoloNet..."

    Doriya snickered. "Or that. Are you going to take it?"

    "I don't see why not," Ezgi replied. She pushed herself up from the chair, stretching, and wandered into the kitchen after Doriya, caffa mug in hand. "A couple days' work, at most. And you know I'm saving up."

    The Twi'lek rolled her eyes. "What'd your aunt call that fighter of theirs? A Kom'rk, right? Do you really need one of those things?"

    "I do," Ezgi said, pouting playfully. "I really, really do. Dor'ika, have you seen them? Have you seen the stats MandalMotors put out?" She traced the sharp, geometric lines of the vessel's sleek, angular wings in the air with the tips of her fingers. "It's a thing of beauty."

    "Uh-huh." Doriya filled herself a cup of caf, and topped up Ezgi's before returning the pot. She had never been one for ships and speeders. Admittedly, Ezgi normally wasn't either. Hitching rides and hopping public shuttles had gotten her this far in the world of private security without forcing her to borrow from her friends or family, but there was something to be said for having a ship of your own in her line of work. And Ezgi figured if she was going to shell out the credits, it might as well be for one with good lines and some hefty firepower to boot. She was just about to say as much, too, when Doriya switched gears suddenly and asked the question she'd been dreading: "Do you have anything to eat?"

    Ezgi winced. "There's, uh..." Doriya's brows rose, and her lips quivered in anticipation of a smile she was trying and failing to bite back. Sighing, Ezgi pulled the conservator door open and, with head hung dramatically low, invited her old friend to see for herself.

    Draping an arm around Ezgi's shoulder, Doriya leaned in to inspect the lean offerings. She tutted playfully at what she found. "When was the last time you went shopping?"

    "I've been busy, okay?" Ezgi shrugged off the Twi'lek's lazy embrace, and gestured to the plastoid container on the second shelf. "There's some tiingilar you can heat up if you want."

    Doriya frowned, and pushed the conservator door closed with the tip of her foot. "That's not exactly breakfast food. Not the way your buir makes it."

    "Fair point," Ezgi laughed. Her mother believed in cooking the traditional Mandalorian way, meaning food that tended to have more in the way of potent spices than most sensible beings were prepared to deal with first thing in the morning. It would be great for lunch, though. "The mealbread in there's good, at least. You're welcome to make some...I don't know, toast or something." Ezgi jutted her chin toward the therma-slice on the counter as she started for the bedroom. "I've got to take a shower. Try not to starve before I get back."

    "How could I starve? I've got toast!" Doriya called teasingly after Ezgi.

    The shower turned out to be a much needed refuge. Doriya Briikan was the closest friend Ezgi had, and she loved her dearly, but it was entirely too early in the morning to match wits with the woman. Besides, she was trying to plan ahead for the new Taris job, and standing around the kitchen with a gorgeous Twi'lek that didn't believe in getting dressed before coming to breakfast was...well, distracting, to say the least. And tempting. And everything else she just didn't need right about then. The steady downpour of hot water and the white noise of the spray on the tile allowed her time to focus on other things.

    The sun was peaking over the eastern ridge by the time Ezgi emerged from the 'fresher, painting the sky a gorgeous shade of lilac, and streaming soft daylight through the slatted window blinds. She puttered around her bedroom as she dried her hair, humming and doing some preliminary packing for Taris. Between her heavy gauntlets—each equipped with enough firepower to be classified a mobile weapons platform in a few uptight star systems—Ezgi folded a spare change of clothes and a couple pepuri bars into her travel pack. She was in the middle of weighing the pros and cons of stashing her GALAAR-15 carbine in the hold-all when the sound of her apartment door caught her attention, and the smell of fried eggs wafted into the room.

    "Doriya?"

    A grinning face framed by vibrant green lekku peeked in through the bedroom door. "Oh good, you're out. While you were in the shower, I snuck over to the market on Chortav Saviin for food." Doriya dangled a flexiplast bag in front of her, and Ezgi's stomach growled back. "Got your favorite, Ez'ika," she said in a sing-song voice.

    "With the white gravy?"

    "Mm-hmm," Doriya purred.

    Ezgi beamed. "You're the best."


    Upper City, Taris
    The following day

    The Upper City Taphouse was the kind of place where a person typically didn't get a table with anything less than seven figures to their name. A sprawling, split-level establishment perched at the top of the mile-high Jenova Towers complex, if Taris was the Coruscant of the Outer Rim, then the Taphouse was its answer to the prestigious Skysitter. It took Ezgi nearly twenty minutes just to get inside, a rigorous process that involved checking her blasters and gauntlets with a very uneasy-looking coat check girl, and submitting to half a dozen body scans. But it was the fancily dressed maitre d' that truly dragged things to a crawl. Barring her path with a slew of increasingly patronizing questions—What brings you here today? What are your plans for the duration of your stay? Will madam be a paying customer?—the irritating barrage only came to an end when Ezgi politely asked if Tarisian schoolchildren were still taught who Cassus Fett was.

    Taris shared a long and complicated history with Mandalorians over the millennia, but there was nothing complicated about Cassus Fett's brutal role in that history. The speed with which the supercilious maitre d' paled at the mere mention of Fett's name indicated that he was plenty familiar with the history of his homeworld, and invoking the ancient warrior's name was all the threat Ezgi needed to speed things along.

    Once inside, Ezgi quickly discovered that she stood out from the rest of the Taphouse's afternoon crowd like a nathak in a nerf herd. Tailored suits and colorful, designer sun gowns were in vogue here, not armor. Her plates were bright and polished, though, and the vivid gold- and wine-colored accents on the spotless white base at least put her on the same palette as several of the other women present. Ezgi did her best not to add to her own conspicuousness, slipping off her helmet and letting her hair down as she made her way to the bar. Leaning back against the dark marble counter, she scanned the menagerie of patrons for some sign of her would-be client or the table they'd agreed to meet at.

    "Excuse me? Ma'am?" Turning, Ezgi found an oily-haired bartender staring at her from across the counter top. She couldn't help but notice he was wearing an overabundance of questionable cologne. "Are you...lost? The Retching Rakghoul is in the Lower City. I think you'll find that establishment more agreeable to someone of your..." His nose wrinkled. "...aesthetic."

    Ezgi smiled, and set her helmet down firmly on the bar. She could already see the bartender recoiling at the thought of it scratching the perfect finish. "If I ordered one of those fancy flaming cocktails, could you make it for me right at the counter?" Ezgi asked. "You guys have menkooro here, right? You get some real kandosii flames off menkooro."

    The bartender's expression transformed into that of a man who wasn't quite sure if he was being threatened, but certain that he didn't like the idea of putting fire in the hands of a Mando girl he'd just insulted. Ezgi didn't take her eyes off of him, nor did she stop smiling as his mouth seemed to work overtime just to conjure up an answer.

    Before he could manage a cogent response, a rich, deep chuckle sounded at Ezgi's back, and a heavy hand clapped against her backplate. "What'sa matter, chief? Never seen a Mandalorian woman before?" A large man sidled up to the bar alongside Ezgi, setting his empty glass down next to her helmet. "Somebody paying you to stand there looking stupid, or are you practicing to be a mannequin?" The barkeep wordlessly snatched up the empty glass and retreated to the other end of the counter, finding respite with a group of executive types out on their lunch break. Ezgi's newfound company chuckled again before turning his attention to her and adopting what looked to be his most charming of smiles. "Well, hello there."

    "Hi." It wasn't unusual for her to be approached by the occasional cantina-goer, even in her armor, and she took a step back to assess the stranger. He was a little over twice her age if she had to guess, with a salt-and-pepper head of hair that was fast approaching gray, and a neatly-trimmed mustache to match. Handsome enough—for an older man. His clothes were nice, too, and they fit his strong frame well. But they didn't match the unofficial dress code of the Taphouse's usual clientele. So not a regular, then. "I don't suppose we have some business to discuss?" she ventured.

    "Ha, getting right to it, then." The man held out his hand. "Name's Viktor Gestas, but please, my friends call me Vik."

    Ezgi smiled and took it, shaking. "Ezgi Deshra. I'm sorry about the hold up." She arched a thumb over her shoulder. "I keep running into the nicest people here."

    "Ah." Gestas nodded, patting her shoulder. "Not to worry, sweetheart." He looked past her, and gestured for the bartender to make a return. "Can I get you something? Cocktail? I know it's a little early, but the Taphouse makes a mean Bloody Rancor."

    Shaking her head, Ezgi scooped up her helmet and smiled. "Just a Tarisian ale would be fine, thanks." The older man ordered two ales from the oily barkeep, and she followed closely behind him as he navigated through the throng of tables to an outdoor deck overlooking the skylanes that crisscrossed the Upper City. Near the transparisteel railing, Gestas pulled out a chair for her at a small table dressed in a black tablecloth, looking every bit the gentleman of the Core. "Thank you," Ezgi said as she sat, surveying the area for any potential threats out of ingrained habit.

    "You're very welcome." From his inner coat pocket, Gestas drew a slender brown cigarra and a silver lighter. "You don't mind, do you?" he asked, even as brought the cigarra to his lips and sparked the lighter.

    She did, but she also wasn't about to tell a paying client that he couldn't smoke on her account. "Please, go right ahead."

    "Ah, good." Gestas took a long pull, and blew an impressive cloud out over the edge of the deck. "Best thing about having a table outdoors. Nobody makes a fuss over a little smoke," he said, smiling. "Can I offer you one?"

    Ezgi quickly shook her head. "No, thank you, I'm afraid I don't smoke. About the job...?"

    "Right, right." The man took another long drag on the cigarra before continuing. "I need someone watching my back at an auction I'm planning to attend."

    "An auction? Here on Taris?"

    "In Hutt Space, actually. That's why I requested the agency assign someone who could speak Huttese."

    An uneasy feeling crept over Ezgi. She'd heard of massive auctions on Hutt trade worlds like Bootana Shagplan, where beings from across the galaxy were paraded from sunrise to sunset in front a rotating lineup of eager, would-be masters. Slavery was a miserable fact of life across most of Hutt Space. Whole families were broken up and sold off to the highest bidder. There weren't enough credits in all the galaxy for her to get involved in that.

    Leaning forward in her seat, she asked, "What kind of auction?"

    Gestas caught on quickly. "It's not people, if that's what you're worried about. That's nasty business, sweetheart, and I don't want to have anything—anything—to do with that. Believe me. No, no, these are just some old antiques I'm looking to pick up." A young waitress arrived at the table, carrying a tray with their drinks. As she set out the two glasses of ale, Gestas slipped several credit chips into her waistcoat pocket, and flashed her a lascivious smile. His eyes didn't leave her once as the waitress sauntered back to the bar. "Now, where was I?" he asked, taking a drink as his attention returned to the table.

    "Looking for things to pick up, I think," Ezgi deadpanned.

    Gestas coughed on his ale, and sputtered before swallowing harshly. Ezgi merely raised her eyebrows at him, and he succumbed to a laugh that she joined in on. "Oh I think I'm going to like you. Now..." Gestas set his glass on the table and leaned in closer, careful to keep his still lit cigarra from blowing smoke in her face. "The auction is on Nar Kreeta. It's a little out of the way world in the middle of Hutt Space, mostly old money mansions and new money mines. A little while back, a minor Hutt honcho by the name of Ondola kicked the can, and with no heir or any will on record, the local kajidics went after his estate like a bunch of damn mynocks."

    "Hutts will be Hutts," Ezgi said, taking a long swig of ale.

    "Right. But the high and mighty Hutt Council ruled that rather than start a petty war over who gets what, Ondola's estate would be auctioned off piece by piece to whoever could pay."

    "Hold on. If Ondola's dead and he has no family, then where's the money—no, stupid question. The money goes to the Council, right?"

    "Right again. Funny how that works out," Gestas chuckled. Ezgi shook her head and polished off her drink. "Now here's where we come in. Ondola was a pretty low rung on the Hutt clan ladder, but he comes from an old bloodline. A very old bloodline. And he had a lot of really nice stuff stashed away at his Nar Kreetan estate when he died. I, a collector of nice stuff, want some of it. Simple enough, right?"

    "So far."

    "Good. Now, I'm not exactly expecting trouble, but even on the fringes, Hutt Space is still Hutt Space. There are going to be some real rough types coming to this thing looking to take home the goods, not all of them Hutts, but every one of them the sort who doesn't like to be told no. I want somebody who knows what they're doing looking out for my best interests, if the worst should come. Like, say, if some Whiphid gangster gets a bug up his duct about being outbid, you can step in and shut that down before things get out of hand. How's that sound?"

    "It sounds very doable," said Ezgi.

    Gestas reclined in his seat, and took a heavy pull on his cigarra, spewing grey-blue smoke off the terrace. "Well that's great. Just what I wanted to hear!" He held his hand out again, and Ezgi shook. "So how about I order us another round and we work out the financials?"



    Chapter 2

    Nar Kreeta system

    Nar Kreeta could not have been more different from Taris or Mandalore if it tried. There were no towering skyscrapers here, nor lush plains or shady forests. Nar Kreeta was rocky and uncomfortably arid, covered in wild mountain ranges and gravity-defying hoodoo formations. Deep, sweeping canyons carved jagged lines across the land, punctuated by barren sinkholes. The only relief from the otherwise endless swaths of monochromatic browns were a handful of alkaline, aquamarine seas, whose hot, salty waters cradled a number of shallow island archipelagos. In one of these archipelagos sat a sprawling, sandy cay: dubbed Yua by the local Hutt clans, the island bore more vegetation than most of its kind in the south of Nar Kreeta, and it was for that reason that the Utaru kajidic made it their home.

    Over the many centuries that followed, the Utaru stored a variety of treasures within the palatial fortress they constructed on Yua Cay, hoarding their prizes long after their status among the other clans had waned. By the time Ondola Utaru Ventri had taken his place as the kajidic lorda, Yua and the Utaru's ancestral home there had become a ghost of its former glory, coveted for its lingering riches at the same time it was overlooked for its lack of influence. Now that Ondola was dead, it had become a hive of new activity, buzzing with the greedy clamoring of everyone looking for their cut of the old Hutt's wealth.

    Ezgi studied it all on the way to Nar Kreeta, from the history of Ondola and the Utaru clan, to the geography of Yua Cay, itself. One of her mother's earliest lessons had also been the simplest and most consistently helpful: always know what you're getting into. It was the reason she'd studied up on Viktor Gestas, too.

    It turned out her newest client was a native of Talus, in the Corellia system, and had inherited his considerable fortune after his parents' deaths several years ago. No run-ins with the law of any kind, no debts to any Hutts, and his payment transfer for her services went through without a hitch. Vik, as he insisted on being called, had even supplied his own transportation—a silver and blue YT-1000 light freighter called the Aximian Star—and the pilot he'd hired had checked out just as well his boss. Ezgi factored in both details in case they needed to make a fast exit.

    As the Aximian Star dropped out of hyperspace over Nar Kreeta, Ezgi moved up from the passenger cabin and into the cockpit. Gestas had claimed the co-pilot's chair, though all of the real work was left to the portly Dug named Senoota that was seated alongside him. Resting an elbow on both chairs, Ezgi leaned in the gap between, watching as they dipped into the atmosphere. The ship swooped gracefully over the broken coastline, leveling out and cruising a couple hundred meters above the foamy waves toward their destination.

    "Yua Cay not far now," the Dug pilot said, his voice all gravel and ash. "Where ya want I set down?"

    As if in response to his question, the ship's comm crackled. "Ax-ee-meean Star, jee-jee bosco hasa pankpa. Kee chai chai cun kuta?" The voice sounded Rodian, or maybe a Jablogian.

    Ezgi leaned forward, and pressed the comlink. "Achuta, Yua. Dobrah koona tah kyotopa Utaru bunko. Ting cooing koo soo ah, an mi bosco bedwanna. Eniki?"

    A minute passed with no response, and Senoota slowed their approach. "Don't think they gonna fire, do ya?"

    "I sure the hell hope not," said Gestas, turning halfway around in his chair to face Ezgi. "What exactly did you say to the guy?"

    "You were sitting right there," Ezgi replied.

    "And I don't speak a lick of Huttese," Gestas said plainly.

    Ezgi almost laughed, but he didn't. "Wait, are you...you're serious?"

    "Why else did you think I hired people who knew the language? I'm paying you two for all that."

    Stunned, she opened her mouth only to quickly shut it again, reconsidering her reproach. It wasn't his fault. Technically, it was hers. She'd thought to ask Senoota—you didn't want a pilot who couldn't understand commands from traffic control—but Ezgi had just assumed Gestas knew Huttese from the way he spoke at the Taphouse. She figured he just wanted a bodyguard who knew the language so that everyone was on the same page when they got there, not because he needed a translator.

    Too much assumption, Ezgi chided herself. She'd take care not to make that mistake again.

    The comm finally crackled again, and the voice from earlier returned to provide landing coordinates. The flat, sandy beaches that made up the edges of Yua Cay had been built over with temporary landing pads and docking braces that now hosted all manner of vessels, from a grand caravel pleasure yacht that stretched out over the water, to several quick and nimble ships bearing the logos of the Black Sun, Bedlam, and Red Hand syndicates. Most were armed, even if the majority made an effort to disguise that fact.

    Senoota set the Aximian Star down in the shadow of a luxury corvette, but didn't power down the drives. "I keep the engines warm for us. Comm when ya done, or if ya need a quick pick up." The Dug peered out through the viewport, turning up his snout at the sight of a seedy-looking group of Vodrans. "Rough crowd out there."

    Ezgi patted the twin blasters resting in their holsters on her hips. "Rough crowd in here, too."

    Chuckling, Gestas nudged her so he could get up. "We'll bring you back something pretty, Senoota. Maybe something for the wife. You're married right?"

    "Divorced," the Dug grunted.

    Gestas slapped him on the shoulder on his way out of the cockpit. "Even better, boyo. Even better."

    The walk through the landing platform crowd kept Ezgi on edge, and she stuck close to Gestas. Senoota wasn't wrong about the look of the people here. At a glance, you'd find more criminals milling about here than on Oovo IV. Half of them belonged on Oovo IV. Ezgi's helmet scanner was working overtime, searching for concealed weapons and trying to match faces to bounty records; she wasn't planning to collect on any, but it was a good way to get an idea of who she should be the most concerned with and why.

    From the cobbled together airfield, their path continued inland through a tangled forest of gnarled trees, along a makeshift road of rough duracrete. The trail looked as though it had been burned through the brush not too long ago, with the duracrete poured hastily over a long strip of fire-blackened grass left behind by the groundskeeper's attempts to hold the hostile undergrowth at bay. The scent of oily wood smoke still clung to the air. Even now, twisted branches covered in hooked, black thorns stretched out from the treeline, looking to sink their poisoned tips into any guest foolish enough to stray too close to the edge of the path. Ezgi walked as near to the middle of the road as the flow of foot traffic would allow, and cautioned Gestas to do the same.

    At the entrance to the palace complex, accompanied by a score of armed and armored guards, was a vivid human with an elaborately styled beard, multi-colored hair, and glittering robes. "Bo shuda! Welcome! Come right in! Niuta be cotma!"

    "Don't mind if I do," Gestas said, offering the host an overly dramatic bow before making his way through the gates. He smiled at Ezgi over his shoulder. "Do you think anybody's going to care if I smoke in here?"

    In the comfort of her helmet, Ezgi rolled her eyes where no one could see. "I doubt it. I'm just glad they didn't try asking for my weapons."

    "You kidding? I wouldn't be surprised if everyone in here was packing. Blasters, vibro-blades—hell, probably both, it's that kind of crowd. Better keep your eyes peeled."

    "It's cute that you think you need to tell me that," Ezgi replied with a little laugh, patting him on the back and getting a chuckle in return. Between the 360-degree view being projected on her helmet's HUD, and what Ezgi could see through her visor, her eyes hadn't had a rest since they landed.

    On the other side of the fortress gates, a drab lawn surrounded by manicured cacta bush hedges made up most of the visible grounds, and several guard droids painted in Hutt clan livery ushered guests toward the main entrance, tucked under a series of symmetrically staggered outer landings. Ezgi and Gestas stepped inside through a pair of doors broad enough to welcome a happabore, trading the hot outdoors for a grand, temperature-controlled entrance hall. Both the walls and floor were cut from the same earthen brown stone as everything else on Nar Kreeta, but the floor was laminated to a smooth finish, while the ceiling had been inlaid with sparkling blue and gold mosaic tiles.

    "Funny, you usually see a lot of nice carpets in places like this," said Gestas. "You know, the thick kind that sort of warms the place up."

    Ezgi shook her head. "Hutts don't care for carpet. They're slitherers. They like smooth surfaces to get around on. Thick carpet just mucks up their mucus layer."

    Eyebrows raised, Gestas grunted and nodded, having evidently learned something new.

    Further in, they passed through a beautifully carved entryway featuring a trio of columned arches; Ezgi tried not to think about how many slaves it had taken to make something like that as they descended a wide, gently sloping ramp into the main hall. The palace's great hall was the very definition of opulence: dalonian crystal chandeliers hung high over a floor of immaculately polished marble, decorated with tables of fine dark wood and an array of plush seating meant to accommodate guests of every size. Deep purple and red tapestries hung between more carved-stone columns, and were draped from the railings of several second-story balconies. Everything was arranged to face a massive dais that had been erected on the far side, where already a lectern and several cloth-covered cases were set up for the impending auction.

    The Utaru clan might have been on the lower end of Hutt society, but there was still enough wealth in the millennia-old palace to topple a small empire. Or start one.

    Among the guests already assembled and waiting, Ezgi quickly picked out a cluster of representatives from the Crymorah, and spotted a dashing Black Sun Vigo seated atop a cushioned throne, attended by an entourage of underlings. A rugged-looking Ithorian with an impressive walking stick caught her eye, as did a pair of Pykes draped in heavy cloaks standing off near the largest banquet table. Prison and factional tattoos identified a handful of independent gangsters and local warlords, and Ezgi wasn't too surprised to find several more recognizable faces from the corporate world among the gathered. Most of the prospective buyers, however, were either Hutts or members of the similarly slug-like Yahk-Tosh race, and each was surrounded by their own personal cadre of guards and slaves.

    More than a few other Mandalorians dotted the crowd, as well. Like Ezgi, they were likely hired security rather than potential bidders. She couldn't help but focus on one in particular, a humanoid in black armor with a helmet cast in the same style favored by the Death Watch so many years ago.

    Gestas leaned in, putting a hand on her shoulder plate. "Not that I can tell if you're staring with that helmet on, but it feels like you're staring. Anything the matter?"

    "Nothing." Ezgi reached up and tripped the release on her helmet's neck seal, before pulling it off. Clients tended to feel more at ease when they could see her face, and while she felt far from safe in a place like this, a large part of her job was putting the client at ease. "Just monitoring the crowd."

    "Quite the guest list, huh?" He already had a cigarra in hand. The way he smoked, it was a minor miracle he'd been able to refrain on the journey here. "And look at that, you're not the only Mando here," Gestas said, gesturing across the great hall with the lit end of his cigarra to a different Mandalorian, one wearing deep blue armor and a boot-length kama. "Anyone you know?"

    "Him? Oh sure," said Ezgi. "That's Naasade Vutyc."

    "Really?"

    "No," she laughed. "We're not all on a first name basis."

    "Heh, right, right...of course." Gestas puffed on his cigarra and checked his chrono for the time. "Auction's supposed to start at sundown. Should be any minute now." He seemed uncomfortable, shifting his weight from one foot back and forth to the other, his gaze constantly roaming. "You know what?" he said at last, "I think I'm going to sneak off to the 'fresher before this whole things gets started."

    Escorting clients to the refresher was one of the less glamorous parts of the job. "It's, uh, right over there, I think," Ezgi said, pointing to a wide archway with old Huttese glyphs etched into the keystone. She started for the door, but Gestas quickly caught her arm and shook his head.

    "Oh no, sweetheart. I think I've got this part covered all on my own."

    "I'm only going to—"

    "Hey, hey, you work for me, right?" he shot back. "Unless you're planning to help me shake the damn the thing, let a man have some time alone." It was the first time Gestas' tone had been anything but cordial, and the suddenness of the shift caught Ezgi off guard. He must've noticed, too, because his expression quickly transformed from combative to sheepishly penitent. "I'm sorry, I just...I like my privacy. You can understand that, right?"

    "Sure," Ezgi answered flatly, unsure what to make of the outburst.

    "Yeah?" He nudged her arm with the butt of his fist, like an old friend trying to work their way back into her good graces after forgetting a birthday or something.

    "Yeah. It's...fine." Taking a breath, Ezgi swallowed her annoyance and put on a practiced, professional smile. "The client's always right, right? So you go on, and I'll just wait for you right here."

    It wasn't the first time she'd had a client that was uncomfortable with the idea of being accompanied to the refresher, though Gestas was certainly the first to object so strongly. Checking confined spaces for threats before a client entered and staying nearby in case of an emergency were just security basics. Why object to that? It wasn't like she was planning to stick around and hold his hand while he was in there, just do a sweep and then wait in the hall. Maybe he didn't realize that...but he hadn't let her explain, either.

    As she watched the old man walk away, Ezgi knew that her mother—Edeema Deshra, professional cynic—would've told her not to worry about it. She'd been paid upfront and if he didn't want to listen to good sense, anything that happened was his own kriffing fault. She worried anyway.

    "You're far too tense, girl," came a velvety voice at her back, pulling Ezgi from her thoughts.

    Resisting the instinctual urge to dart around and face the unknown speaker, Ezgi instead feigned only mild interest while she watched over her shoulder as a strikingly tall woman with skin as white as porcelain came forward. She was completely bald, and dressed in a tactical suit of black armorweave, though the sleeveless blast vest she wore left her muscular arms exposed. The woman had a belt of knives strapped at her waist—some for throwing, some for close quarters fighting—and a long-barreled blaster rifle slung across her back. It took a moment, but Ezgi finally recognized her from the bounty list she'd seen back home at the Oyu'baat cantina: Nika Jei, a Rattataki mercenary who'd earned a hefty price on her head after killing several men in the Corporate Sector.

    "Too many Hutts in the room make me nervous," Ezgi answered dryly. She nevertheless made an effort to relax her shoulders.

    A smile crept over Jei's dark purple lips. Her eyes were the same shade of brown as sunlit caf. "Yet here you are on a Hutt world, in a Hutt palace, at a Hutt auction."

    At the opposite side of the great hall, the colorful man from the gates out front had ascended the stage, and taken his place behind the auctioneer's lectern. "Bo shuda an chobaso, mikiyuna! Hello and welcome, everyone! In a few moments, we'll begin bidding on our first item..."

    "Yeah, well...security work doesn't always take your feelings into account," Ezgi said to Jei. She shot a quick glance toward the refresher door, but there was no sign of Gestas yet.

    "You're preaching to the converted, little warrior. It was certainly never my dream come true to work for Gardulla."

    That caught Ezgi's attention. "Gardulla? The Hutt?"

    "Is there another?" Jei snorted. She aimed a gloved finger through the crowd, to a green and dusty brown Hutt in the midst of ravaging one of the smaller banquet tables.

    "I thought Gardulla was dead."

    "You've heard the krayt dragon story, then?"

    "Are you kidding? There isn't a tapcaf in Keldabe where someone isn't still talking about it."

    Jei let out a throaty chuckle. "I should think so, seeing as it was your man Jango Fett that fed her to the thing. And not just any krayt dragon, either, it was her krayt dragon." The Rattataki seemed to take particular delight in that little detail. "But there is nothing in the known galaxy—not a krayt, not even a bloody sarlacc—that can stomach a Hutt for long. Spat her back out and died, from what I heard. Poor thing. Strange to think that if only it had chewed its food, I wouldn't be here now, sweating my arse off on this dustball of a world some ten years later." Folding her arms, Jei's gaze washed over Ezgi with little regard for subtlety in her appraisal, sizing her up from bootsole to braids. "I suppose we just get lucky sometimes," the other woman purred. Ezgi felt her face grow warm under the other woman's scrutiny. "Perhaps when you're finished with the old man and I'm done with the slug, you and I can grab a drink together on Nar Shaddaa."

    "Sounds good." The answer was automatic, out of Ezgi's mouth so fast it took her a moment to realize the words had been her own voice. Mixing business and pleasure was always shaky ground. Being friendly was one thing, arranging a date in the middle of a job was quite another. Of course, it didn't help that Jei may very literally have been the most beautiful thing on the entire planet, even if that was a low bar to clear on barren Nar Kreeta. Setting that aside for the time being, Ezgi checked the refresher door again for Gestas, but there was still no sign of her client and now she was starting to get concerned. She flashed Jei a quick smile before donning her helmet again and comming Gestas' earbud link.

    "What?" came his terse reply.

    Ezgi fastened her helmet's neck seal, and switched to internal audio only. "Where are you? The auction's starting."

    "A little busy at the moment, darling," Gestas said. He gave a little grunt, and Ezgi tried to suppress a cringe. Not the sort of thing you wanted to hear coming from someone in the refresher.

    Up on the dais, the auctioneer had uncovered an ornate statue of sculpted aurodium, depicting an alien figure with six arms and jeweled eyes that thrilled the crowd. "Bedwanna che da che copah cheeska bargon, nobata na yoka!"

    "What's on the block?" asked Gestas.

    "Some kind of ugly looking statue," Ezgi said. "Six arms and...I'm going to guess fire rubies for eyes. Looks kind of like a deformed Ebranite."

    "What's...the—" Another grunt interrupted Gestas, followed by a groan.

    By this point, Ezgi had to ask. "What's going on? Why do you sound winded?"

    "It's nothing," Gestas said quickly, his breath heavy and ragged. "Just—I-I—I'm just..." There was a sudden squeal from somewhere on the other end of the call, and woman's breathless voice followed by more erratic grunting. "Can't talk right now." With no warning, he rudely ended the transmission.

    "Haar'chak!" Ezgi shouted to herself in the sealed confines of her helmet. "Gar shabla ruug'la besom, ni ven'gaanyni gar troan!" That settled it. Ezgi knew Gestas had a lecherous streak from their first meeting on Taris, but now she knew the man was a damn fool, too. Who else but a fool would ditch their costly security to sneak off alone, in the middle of a black market auction filled wall to wall with the type of people who'd shoot you for looking at them funny, just for a chance to knock boots in the refresher? She had half a mind to march in there and haul his shebs out the hard way. "Reckless idiot."

    "Everything all right, little warrior?" Jei asked. She looked equal parts curious and amused, watching with an arched eyebrow and the shadow of a smirk on her lips.

    Ezgi realized she must have looked strange to an outside observer like Jei, talking and shouting inside her helmet, silent to the world but with all the unconscious little movements that accompanied speech. Her mother could curse the scales off a stathas while standing as still as a rock, but Ezgi had never quite mastered that particular skill. "Fine," she said, switching back to external voice projection. "Everything's fine."

    The ugly statue ultimately went to the Black Sun Vigo Ezgi had scoped out earlier, and a thuggish-looking Mosciive claimed the auction's second item, some sort of antique Nikto hunting mask dating back to the Great Hyperspace War. Just as the auctioneer began to set out the next lot up for bid, a hush fell suddenly over the great hall. All eyes gravitated to the entryway as a veritable monster of a Hutt slid in across the floor. Well over three meters in height, the Hutt had dark, mottled skin and a fine cloak of lavender shimmersilk hanging across his wide shoulders and down over an even wider back. Four armored Klatooinians stood around him in formation, as a small congregation of slaves trailed behind. Six Rutian Twi'leks in total were all bound in heavy collars, while their blue skin was covered in full from the neck down by dresses of sheer red silk that clung to their every curve. Each walked with their heads hung low, a sad study in demure, silent obedience.

    Ezgi had heard once that Hutts kept beautiful slaves not because they found the women desirable, but because others did. They were nothing but trophies, their lives wasted away as nothing more than symbols of status. It made her skin crawl, and served as yet another reminder of why she hated working in the depths of Hutt Space.

    "Exquisite, aren't they?" remarked the being to Ezgi's left. He looked Squamatan, judging by his lined, turquoise-colored skin and the cranial ridge that ran across the crown of his head. Oddly, he was dressed in an Umbaran shadowcloak three sizes too big. Perhaps he thought the garment's voluminous folds and countless, feather-like stands helped offset his slim physique.

    "Excuse me?"

    "The Twi'leks. Such supple beauties," he said, eyes alight with naked envy. "I wish I could purchase one or two of that quality for my own."

    "Walk away," Ezgi said sharply.

    The Squamatan eyed her as if she'd just grown a second head. "I beg your—"

    "Walk away now, while your legs still work."

    His blue skin darkened, and his expression turned toward indignant. "I am an agent of the esteemed Bohhuah Mutdah, I'll have you know, and I will not be spoken to like...that...by..." The stranger trailed off as Ezgi glared through the jet black of her helmet's T-visor, and lifted a single one of her blaster pistols from its leather holster. Whatever power he thought his employer's name might grant him, he quickly realized it meant less than the stone they stood on to her, and chose instead to disappear into the crowd just as fast as his oversized cloak would allow.

    Ezgi holstered her blaster, and huffed out a breath. "Shabla scumbag."

    "Nicely done," purred Jei. "I would've made him take off that shiny cape before I let him slink away. But that's just me." The Rattataki shot Ezgi a sly little smile that proved infectious.

    The sudden sound of an explosion wiped that smile from her face pretty quickly, however. The blast rumbled through the palace's stone corridors, joined shortly by the sound of a firefight echoing from somewhere in the northern wing. "What was—?" Ezgi looked to Jei, but she was already gone from her side, likely dashing back to her employer in anticipation of the chaos sure to erupt in the great hall, despite the auctioneer's doomed efforts to reassure the crowd. Using a series of rapid blink commands to trigger her helmet's HUD, Ezgi overrode Gestas' shut out and forced open a channel to his earbud link. "You need to get back here now. Someone's shooting up the north wing."

    "I've got good news and bad news," Gestas shouted back. The sound of blasterfire was all too clear in the background. "The good news is I'm on my way back to you right now!"

    Ezgi's jaw clenched. "Please don't tell me—"

    "That they're shooting at me? Yeah, that would be the bad news!"

    ————————————————————

    Ten minutes ago

    Viktor Gestas was a man who had his life all figured out. Born on Talus, the son of wealthy but deceased parents, he had inherited a modest fortune after their deaths and enjoyed spending it on extravagant art and rare antiques for his personal collection. He had a nice ship, a natural charm people seemed to gravitate to, and a simple plan to pick up a few expensive things from Nar Kreeta for his estate back home.

    There was just one problem: that wasn't quite the truth. It wasn't even mostly the truth. Well, he did have a plan. And with the Nar Kreetan auction about to start, it was time to put that plan into motion.

    "You know what? I think I'm going to sneak off to the 'fresher before this whole things gets started." Gestas started for the hall, but stopped when he realized his Mandalorian bodyguard thought his polite heads up had been an invitation to join him. Any other day on any other world he'd have leaped at the chance to abscond with such a beautiful young woman, and it wouldn't remotely have been the first time he'd resorted to making love in a bathroom. But...not now. Not here. "Oh no, sweetheart. I think I've got this part covered."

    The girl looked at him like he was a child who'd said something adorably silly. "I'm only going to—"

    "Hey, hey, you work for me, right? Unless you're planning to help me shake the damn the thing, let a man have some time alone." Gestas regretted his tone immediately. He was in the middle of a delicate balancing act, his first time walking the treacherous line between feminine sensitivity and a Mandalorian temper, and it wouldn't do to push too hard on either. "I'm sorry, I just...I like my privacy. You can understand that, right?"

    "Sure." Short and flat, her answer wasn't very encouraging.

    Gestas offered an apologetic smile, and gave her arm a friendly nudge. "Yeah?" He wanted—no, needed—a smile in return. Until this was over, he needed her committed.

    "Yeah. It's fine." The girl seemed to literally exhale her frustrations, and Gestas was rewarded with the smile he was after. It didn't hurt that it was a smile lovely enough to charm the rocks off a Vaathkree's backside, either. "The client's always right, right? So you go on, and I'll just wait for you right here."

    Perfect.

    He walked calmly and casually into the refresher, putting his cigarra out on an handcrafted ashplate worth more than most Lower City residents on Taris made in a year. Hutts truly were ridiculous. The lavish bathroom was nearly empty as Gestas entered, with the exception of one other man who was gone the moment he finished washing his hands. Gestas made a show of a little preening in front of the mirror until he was alone, at which point he moved quickly to the window, opening the frosted glass shutters and craning his neck out in order to survey the distance up to the second floor. "Easy," he muttered to himself. Taking a small ascension pistol he had hidden inside his jacket, Gestas leaned out of the window, and fired. The grappling spike embedded itself deep into the stone of an upper ledge, and he tugged once to be sure the line would hold his weight before hauling himself out and starting the climb.

    Any minute now, all attention would be on the auction stage below. Gestas had no interest in any of the gaudy baubles the Utaru clan had amassed at the palace over the years, not when there were greater prizes to be had by those with an ear to the ground and a little initiative. If everything went to plan, the contents of Ondola the Hutt's vaults would be a pittance compared to the riches Gestas stood to claim. If everything went to plan...

    Reaching his target, Gestas retrieved a scanner glove from his jacket pocket and tested the window that would be his way back inside for security measures. The readings showed no sensors, but the window had been locked several times over. Gestas dialed up the glove's sensitivity, and scanned the room beyond the pane of stained glass. Empty. A different man would've brought a multi-tool, or a Nedijian lockbreaker for the job. Gestas preferred the simplicity of the old ways: he leaned away and smashed the glass in with the point of his elbow. Dealing with the locks was a simple task at that point, and he quickly clambered inside, finding himself in an out of the way parlor that hadn't been used in centuries.

    After waiting by the door for a moment to see if anyone would come to investigate the broken glass, Gestas ventured out into the hall, making his way down the corridor. He'd paid good money for the layout of the palace, committing every door, window, and hallway to memory over the course of several days so that he could move about as surely as he did now.

    The Utaru had been a clan of self-aggrandizing Hutts long before a single stone of this palace was laid. Rather than consolidate their wealth in the underground vaults, they did what any narcissist would do as their star faded: they filled the palace halls with treasure, ensuring something shiny was never far from sight in a vain attempt to hold on to the delusion that their glory days weren't well behind them. The auctioneers would begin with the more obvious trinkets, blinded by the simple glitter of gold just as the last scions of the Utaru had been, ignorant of what lay hidden away just under their noses.

    At a junction in the corridors, Gestas arrived at an old library, its shelves laden with dusty, archaic books, the kind whose pages were printed in ink on brittle old paper. Exquisite crystalwork was spread throughout, from gleaming chandeliers to sculpted table pieces and shelf accents that strove to capture the lost beauty of Varl. All of his research indicated this was where Gestas would find his prize. Now it was just a matter of where. He moved quickly to the shelves, running his fingers over the collection of books as he searched for a false volume or a hidden switch of some kind. What titles could still be made out on the old spines were all in Huttese, and though he'd lied to the hired muscle about not being able to speak it, reading the foreign glyphs was genuinely beyond him.

    Shelf to shelf, Gestas scoured every centimeter, only to come away with nothing but dusty hands. "Stang," he hissed. It had to be here. Every scrap of information he'd gathered, all of his careful planning, everything—wait. He was going about this all wrong. When he'd come across the library in his studies, Gestas had naturally assumed there would be a hidden passage, perhaps a safe, or even another vault, tucked away behind one of the shelves. The idea wasn't without precedent, but it was also flawed from the start he now realized. It was human thinking, and Serraba the Hutt had been about as far removed from human as a living soul could be. "He wanted to hide his treasure away from unworthy heirs, but it was also his legacy. He'd want to—"

    "Who are you?" a voice barked from the door. "What are you doing in here?"

    Gestas stepped back from the shelf he'd been inspecting, and slowly raised his hands. The stranger's voice belonged to a severe-looking woman with heavy brows and a scowl that could curdle milk, outfitted with some kind of leather armor and an already sparking shock baton. Damn. His source had assured him there weren't supposed to be patrols in this part of the palace during the auction. "Who, me?"

    "Yes, you," said the woman. She gestured down the hall with her free hand and a barrel-chested Gamorrean bearing a heavy vibro-ax quickly joined her in the doorway. "You're not supposed to be in here. This place is for Hutts only."

    "Well, if this place is only for Hutts, then technically you're not supposed to be here either," Gestas replied in a friendly tone. He smiled, and the woman's eyes narrowed. "Look, I don't want to get you two in any trouble, you seem like terrific people, really, so let's just forget this ever—" The woman shouted and charged, her Gamorrean back-up close at hand. "So much for doing things the easy way."

    She cocked back her shock baton, but Gestas ripped one of the larger tomes from the nearest shelf and pitched it at her head. The book flew open as it tumbled through the air, pages flailing, and the guard recoiled, ducking on reflex. Gestas was already on the move, dashing forward, using the book's temporary distraction to get close enough to drive his boot into the woman's knee. There was a wet pop, and she yelped on her way down. "Kako kreespa!" the woman screamed, grasping her knee. She threw her baton at Gestas, though it missed by several centimeters, and waved the Gamorrean on frantically. "Keepuna! Killya, coo skocha stoopa!"

    The bead comlink in Gestas' ear chirped, and out of sheer habit he tapped to answer it, only realizing and regretting what he'd done after he'd already done it. "What?" The word came out harsher than he intended, too, but given the circumstances, playing the carefree voluptuary had taken a backseat.

    "Where are you?" Oh good, the Mandalorian. Perfect timing. "The auction's starting."

    Gestas took a couple steps back at the same time the Gamorrean charged, vibro-ax swinging with a speed and grace that belied the guard's brutish appearance. "A little busy at the moment, darling," he spat out, dodging and darting backward. In his retreat, Gestas stumbled back into a dusty table; he hurried around it, hoisting it up by the edge and, with a grunt, flipped it over onto his squat attacker. Given even a moment's peace, he couldn't help himself: "So what's on the block?"

    "Some kind of ugly looking statue. Six arms and..."

    He missed the rest. The Gamorrean threw the table aside and, without even bothering to take up his vibro-ax again, came barreling straight for him. "What—" The barve didn't even give him time to curse, fast as he was. Gestas sidestepped his attacker's bullish charge, ramming the heel of his boot into the back of the Gamorrean's knee, staggering the guard but doing little otherwise. Apparently it was too much to hope that the same trick would work twice. "The—" A weighty book crashed into Gestas' back, knocking his words from him.

    "What's going on?" asked the voice in his ear. Not the time, girl. "Why do you sound winded?"

    "It's nothing," Gestas shot back, rounding on the human guard. She'd managed to hobble over to one of the shelves, and was in the process of arming herself with another volume as thick as her arm. Stubborn little dreg... "Just—I-I—" Two brawny, green arms ensnared Gestas from behind, wasting no time in baring down on him. "—I'm just..." The woman hurled the second book straight at his face, and it took every ounce of Gestas' fading flexibility to arch his upper body out of the way. The brick of moldering old pages hammered into the Gamorrean's face, evoking a pained squeal, and his arms fell away in an instinctual move to cup his bleeding snout. The other guard huffed out a curse, and Gestas pivoted, catching the Gamorrean by the shoulders and driving a knee into his groin in the same motion. "Can't talk right now," he said at last, giving up on trying to keep a conversation going with the girl through all this.

    If she wasn't suspicious before, she sure as hell will be now.

    The Gamorrean toppled over, wheezing, before a boot to the face rendered him unconscious at last. His partner was still scrambling to arm herself with another book, but getting hit with another ancient Huttese encyclopedia was something Gestas was keen to avoid. He closed the gap between them at a brisk stride, sweeping her one good leg out from under her before delivering the same boot that put down the Gamorrean to the side of her face.

    Breathing slowly and deeply, Gestas tried to recenter himself. The guards were down, sure, but there could be more at any moment and he still needed to find what he'd been searching for in the first place. He couldn't afford to waste any more time. Eyeing every centimeter of the half-tossed library, Gestas tried to see it all from a Hutt's prospective. The books, the shelves...no, he'd find nothing there. There could be something below, a hatch or—no, he'd studied the layout of this place, the only thing below the library were the baths, and Gestas refused to believe a Hutt like Serraba would be content to leave his treasure hidden away in the masonry between the floors.

    "Damn!" he growled, fist pounding the table at his side. A small cloud of dust shook free, and a decorative crystal tablepiece clinked and rattled. "Where the hell...would..." Gestas took a second look at the sculpture that had clinked: a dust encrusted image of a Hutt warlord adorned in ancient armor, holding a globe or a sun in his hands above his head amidst the writhing bodies of his dying enemies. He hadn't given it much thought before, it didn't really stand out from any of the other crystalwork sculptures glorifying one Hutt achievement or another. He didn't see any moving parts, and coated as it was in dust, he'd just assumed it was a single piece of pure crystal. Yet it clinked. Gestas nudged the table again, and was rewarded with the same sound as before.

    Wasting no more time, he pounced on it, fingers running over every curve and line until converging on the orb in the armored Hutt's hand. It was all wrong. He'd been looking at it all wrong. It made sense, of course; Serraba would've thought so, too. The crystalline Hutt wasn't holding a prized planet out of his enemies' reach, as Gestas first thought, he was dramatically basking in their deaths. The "globe" had only been added later, forming a serendipitous image that Serraba had no doubt found hilarious.

    "Hidden in plain sight," Gestas mused. "Crafty old barve." Footsteps and voices echoed in the hallway outside, and Gestas snatched the orb from the tiny Hutt's grasp, breaking off one of its crystalline fingers in his haste. Pocketing it, he smoothed the crinkles from his pants, straightened his jacket, made sure his hair was just as perfectly in place as it had been when he arrived...and then he screamed. "Guards! Guards, help! Something's happened!"

    Predictably, the footsteps picked up, and a moment later, several Nikto in full body armor were standing in the doorway ready for a fight. "Hi chuba da—" The lead Nikto looked past Gestas, his gaze registering the two unconscious bodies on the floor. "Chu appeni wata?"

    Gestas did his best to look panic-stricken and unsure, but there was no telling what a Nikto would make of that kind of emotional display on a human. "Sir, I-I-don't..." he stammered, slinking closer and closer to the door.

    One of the other Nikto reached out his hand to stop him. "Chuba! Ah'chu apenkee?"

    By now Gestas was shaking, and struggling to muster up a tear or two for good measure. "Sir, I'm...I'm sorry, I don't know what you're saying," he said. He raised his hands, and the pitch of his voice rose with them. "I-I-I was just looking for the refresher."

    The lead Nikto turned and sneered at him, baring a surprisingly uniform row of teeth. "Likely story, ootmian."

    Gestas sighed, his hands falling. "Just once it would be nice if that could work. Just once. Is that really so much to ask?" The Nikto's wrinkled brow furrowed, choosing confusion as the last thing he would ever feel in this life. Gestas flicked his wrist, and a small hold-out blaster was delivered into his hand from its hiding place up his sleeve. The Nikto was dead before he'd had a moment to process the sudden sleight of hand, and Gestas just as ruthlessly dispatched his comrades all before the first body struck the floor. "Sorry, fellas," he said while calmly dabbing each eye with the cuff of his sleeve. "Nothing personal."

    Someone surely would've heard the blaster shots, and there would be a lot more than a few Nikto to contend with when they came to investigate. Force-willing, he would be back to the parlor window and rappelling his way to the ground floor before anyone was the wiser, but Gestas didn't put much stock in the Force's benevolence. Not toward him, at least. He kept a tight grip on his blaster as he struck out into the hallway, rather than stow it away in his sleeve again. There wasn't a lot of time for subtlety now.

    Nearing the corner across from the unused parlor's door, Gestas slowed to a halt at the sound of low voices moving up the hallway. He peered around the wall's edge, just far enough to make out a security team comprised of several armed Weequay and Vodrans headed his way. Damn. Backing away, he turned and started for the northern wing and the servant's stairwell, recalculating a way out that would see him able to rendezvous with the Mandalorian girl and her considerable arsenal for the escape. He was nearly there when a wide-eyed Klatooinian came charging through a doorway and almost knocked him over, his look of visceral surprise no doubt mirroring Gestas' own.

    The wrinkled-faced Klatooinian started for his blaster. "What're you doing up—"

    Gestas slapped his weapon hand aside as soon as it came up, sending the guard's arm pinwheeling back, before firing three rounds into the alien's unprotected torso. He was already on the move again by the time the body fell, all while the sounds of the team down the hall were drawing imminently closer. Weaving through the corridors, Gestas finally arrived at the stairwell, only to find another team of guards hustling up the steps. He swore, trapped between the two groups of Hutt-owned thugs with nowhere to go.

    "Hagwa doopee!" a voice shouted at his back. "Kee hasa do blastoh na moova dee bonkee ree slagwa!"

    In one language or another, Gestas had heard all of it before. Sometimes he'd comply, go easy. And other times...not so much. Today? Today would be the latter.

    He spun and fired, a hastily-drawn shot aimed from the hip as he rushed for the cover of a protruding column. Out of all the ways the plasma bolt could fly, it missed the lead guard—a particularly gnarly looking Vodran, who's face was more scar tissue than healthy flesh—and struck the grenade-laden bandoleer of the Weequay just behind him. In the span of an instant, each and every one of them vanished in a cloud of fire and viscera that scorched the painted corridor. A moment later, the ceiling collapsed and the tops of the hallway walls crumbled inward on the ruined hallway.

    Gestas slowly ventured out from the cover of the column where he'd taken refuge, peering over the mass of broken stone that now blocked off the passage. It was a lot to take in. Just a few brief seconds ago, there had been people there trying to kill him; now they were dead, and any reinforcements that may have been on their heels were cut off. All from the luckiest karking shot he'd ever made. "I guess that's what I get for bad-mouthing the Force," Gestas grimaced, then offered a bitter gesture to the rubble. "Point taken, Force."

    A shot whizzed suddenly by Gestas' head. He ducked and spun, returning fire before he could aim. The stairwell team had closed in during the collapse, only keeping their distance now insofar as to maintain cover. Gestas hurried around to the other side of the column that had saved him once already, compressing himself against the wall as best as he could manage while firing back. There was no retreating, no way back now that the hallway had collapsed, and Gestas wasn't liking his odds.

    You've got a garbage sense of humor, Force.

    "You need to get back here now," a voice barked abruptly in his ear. The Mandalorian girl had forced open a comlink channel. "Someone's shooting up the north wing."

    "I've got good news and bad news," Gestas shouted back, firing off a few rounds down the corridor. "The good news is I'm on my way back to you right now!" He hoped that part was true, at least.

    "Please don't tell me..."

    "That they're shooting at me? Yeah, that would be the bad news!"

    Gestas chanced a better look around the edge of cover. The guards were moving up, advancing out of the stairwell and following his lead in taking up positions behind the hallway's decorative columns. He winged one with a lucky shot, and almost dropped another, but their own volleys had him almost entirely pinned down thanks to their numbers. All he could really do now was fire back blindly and hope it was enough to keep them at bay. Down the hall, the blasterfire seemed to be growing more hectic. In all the chaos, Gestas could pick out at least one new addition to the fray by the distinctive pwhah!-pwhah! sound of someone's weapon discharging.

    Great, more reinforcements. Just what I needed.

    But then someone shouted, a pained screech that Gestas had only ever heard come from the lips of a dying man. More shouts just like it followed shortly. The stream of plasma that had been picking away at the stone protecting him broke off, and the sound of blasters soon went silent altogether, replaced only by a handful of agonized moans. Against his better judgment, Gestas craned his neck around the corner and his mouth fell open.

    To a man, the guards had all been taken down. Some were dead and still, while others clutched at debilitating wounds as they made a futile effort to crawl away from the ominous, armored figure that seemed to tower over them in the now eerily quiet corridor. It took Gestas a moment to reconcile the imposing silhouette with the realization that it was the girl—his own bought and paid for little Mandalorian protector—standing there among the dead. Dead that she'd slain with only a few blackened spots on her armor for her trouble.

    "You still alive down there?" she called out, the softness of her voice an ill fit for the cold metal helmet it came from.

    Gestas let out a sigh of relief and stepped out into the open, smiling a smile he couldn't be sure was real or fake anymore after that rescue. "Fancy running into you here, sweetheart."

    ________________________________________________________________________

    Twists! Turns! Intrigue!
    Oh my...
    :p
    Hope you enjoyed these first couple chapters, and you can look forward to two more tomorrow and every day after until we close this baby out around year's end. Thoughts, comments, and the like are all very welcome! Thanks for reading, and happy holidays!
     
    Cantankerous Ordo and Contessa like this.
  2. Cowgirl Jedi 1701

    Cowgirl Jedi 1701 Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Registered:
    Dec 21, 2016
    I like.
     
    Mia Mesharad likes this.
  3. Mia Mesharad

    Mia Mesharad Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 2, 2012
    Chapter 3


    "What are you doing up here?"

    Ezgi paced down the corridor, kicking a blaster out of one of the not-quite-dead guards' reach without altering her stride. This was not remotely how she saw this day going.

    The old man seemed remarkably at ease with all of this. She watched as his gaze passed over the bodies of the guards with the same calm disappointment one might have upon finding a few rotten vegetables at the market. He was holding a blaster, too, a small hold-out model. The kind that crooks and gamblers favored.

    Gestas met her eye and shrugged. "Guess I got a little lost on my way back from the 'fresher."

    "Lost on the—are you kidding me?" Ezgi's jaw clenched so hard her teeth hurt, even as Gestas tried his best to look innocent. There was no way. She knew it, and shab, he probably knew she knew it. Maybe that was what angered her the most, the fact that he had the sheer audacity to so casually lie right to her face. The only question was why, but she didn't have time to press the issue further right now. "You know what? Save it. We need to get out of here." She took a moment to survey their options. Between the hallway that looked as if it had run afoul of a thermal detonator, and the lack of any other corridors splitting off, there weren't too many choices for potential escape routes this way. She didn't want to chance blasting one of the surrounding walls, either, meaning the only way left was to go back down. "Come on."

    As soon as she was sure Gestas was following her, Ezgi headed back into the stairwell, blasters at the ready. She only made it as far as the fifth step before a spray of plasma came surging up from below. Ezgi fired back and kept up her hurried descent, felling a pair of Weequays and a heavyset human before she reached the bottom, taking another shot to her stomach plate in return. Beskar armor was a lifesaver, but every bolt it stopped still felt like getting punched by a Wookiee. Ezgi was up to her fourth blow in less than five minutes, and she wasn't looking forward to seeing the bruises whenever it finally came time to undress again.

    At the stairwell exit, Ezgi ordered Gestas to keep back while she came out shooting. Another group of guards had taken up a position behind an overturned banquet table, but they hadn't been expecting fire straight out of the gate. The first fell as a shot caught him off guard and struck him in the neck. A second took two bolts in the chest as he dove for cover, dying when he hit the ground. The others held tight to their improvised barricade, firing a blind but reasoned volley that forced Ezgi to fall back to the stairwell.

    She'd only just settled into cover when Gestas caught her shoulder from behind. "Maybe we ought to swing around—" He was cut off by the sound of an emergency blast shield slamming shut somewhere past the auction hall door. "Guess we're not getting out that way."

    "No we aren't." She couldn't see the blast shield from where she was huddled, but based on the rest of the palace's design and history, Ezgi was willing to bet that at least a meter of solid durasteel now stood between them and the way out. "We need to go back up."

    "Up?" Gestas asked incredulously.

    "Unless you've got some detonite tucked away somewhere in that evening jacket of yours, then yes, we have to go back up." Ezgi leaned out of the doorway and fired off a few rounds at the guards to let them know she was still there. Couldn't have them trying to close in just yet. "If the way we came in's blocked, we'll head for the landing pad on the roof. Comm Senoota."

    "Listen, that was a dead end back there, in case you didn't notice. We're not going to make it anywhere near the roof from—"

    "Now!" commanded Ezgi, and to his credit, Gestas didn't argue the matter further. When she checked over her shoulder, he was already on the move, bounding up the stairs with his finger pressed to his ear. It was about time he listened. If he'd just done so in the first place, they wouldn't be in this mess, but it was certainly better late than never. "Now I just need to make sure we aren't followed," she muttered to herself. Ezgi took a few steps back from the door frame and sparked her gauntlet's flamethrower, spewing fire across the floor and along the arched frame until the entranceway was blocked by a wall of crackling flames. It wouldn't last long, but every extra second she could scrape together was a boon. Climbing the stairs, she caught up with Gestas at the next floor just in time to catch the tail end of his call to Senoota. "He's on his way?"

    "As we speak," Gestas answered quickly, a touch of breathlessness in his voice. "Now do you want to let me in on whatever it is you've got up your sleeve?"

    Ezgi was too preoccupied to answer, setting her helmet's penetrating scanner to search the walls and what laid beyond them. The palace stone was thick and dense, whatever it was, and strained the scanner's ability to map a layout beyond the nearest walls. "It looks like there's—"

    "A servants' corridor, just on the other side of this wall," Gestas interrupted. He traced a path through the air with a finger, stopping at some point beyond the collapse. "It should lead to a staircase that'll take us up to the next floor. We just need to get through."

    "And you know this how?"

    Gestas sucked the edge of his bottom lip in between his teeth, and Ezgi braced for another lie. "I studied the palace layout before we came."

    She could believe that much, at least. "Why? What were you—"

    "We don't have time for this," Gestas snapped. "Do you have a way through the wall or not?"

    It was only the lack of time that kept Ezgi from unloading on him. She didn't like being kept in the dark, and she really didn't like being treated like anyone's akk dog to be ordered around. "Stand back," she warned, leveling her gauntlet at the wall and retreating a few paces of her own. It was a gamble, firing off a rocket in such a confined space, but they were out of options.

    Turning away her head as she braced, Ezgi loosed one of the rockets from her wrist launcher into the wall. The force of the explosion washed over her like a heavy wave, and peppered her helmet and armor with chunks of rock. One large chunk collided hard with her abdomen, striking the gap between her plates and driving the wind from her lungs. Despite her eyes watering, Ezgi managed to calibrate her helmet visor to filter through the heavy dust cloud, breathing a sigh of relief when she spotted a hole large enough to make their getaway.

    Gestas made a run for the hole without so much as a word or a backward glance. When he did speak, it was only after she'd followed him through, and only to unhelpfully ask why she didn't just use her wrist rockets in the first place.

    Unbelievable.

    "Oh, I don't know," Ezgi grumbled as she ran after Gestas. "Maybe because blowing chunks out of the building I'm currently standing in doesn't strike me as something that should be done casually. And maybe it might be worth checking to see if a less idiotic approach might work before risking a second collapse." It was getting harder and harder for her to remember why she had ever liked the man at all. Before she could say anymore, a stream of angry shouts in a language she didn't recognize echoed up the hall after them. Without slowing, Ezgi looked back: a squad of hooded Jilruans were chasing after them, all baring a long, thin vibro-blade in each hand. She twisted and flung her arm back mid-stride, unleashing a stream of fire from her gauntlet that made them quickly reconsider their pursuit.

    In another moment, the corridor terminated at a narrow spiral staircase, just as Gestas said it would. The steps were oddly stretched with a shallow rise, leaving Ezgi to climb them at an uncomfortable, double-step pace, and the stone walls were cramped enough to scrape her shoulder plates and gauntlets as she ran. No Hutt had ever been here. This ludicrously designed stairwell was reserved only for their slaves. At the top, they emerged through a concealed doorway, hidden away inside a japor ivory wood cabinet that resembled some sort of pompous Huttese armoire. Whichever ancient Utaru lorda had built the palace evidently preferred to have their slave-servants come and go as if by magic, always on hand to attend their needs but never in sight longer than absolutely necessary.

    Only a few steps from the hidden door, Gestas skidded to an abrupt halt ahead of Ezgi, stopping so suddenly she almost barreled right into the back of him. "What are you—" She didn't need to finish. The moment she stepped back, Ezgi's rebuke crumbled away at the sight of the Hutt in the shimmersilk cloak from earlier. He was stopped at the other end of the hall, still surrounded by his Klatooinian guards and Twi'lek slaves. Whoever he was, he must've had the same idea of escaping the lockdown via the roof. "Oh shab."

    The massive Hutt seemed surprised to have run into anyone else up here, but his guards wasted no time in going for their weapons. Ezgi grabbed Gestas' arm with one hand and her blaster with the other, firing straight from the hip as she violently pulled her slow-to-react client back toward the door. Gestas stumbled, thrown off balance by the sudden jolt, tripping over his own feet and falling backward onto the cold stone floor. Ezgi didn't stop to help him; if anything, he'd be safer there, so long as he kept his head down.

    The wide open and sparsely decorated corridor provided few options for cover. All she could do now was keep moving while she fired back, and hope her shots took out the Klatooinians first.

    ————————————————————​

    A gnawing throb pulsed somewhere in the back of Gestas' brain as he struggled to sit up. It took him a moment to figure out how he'd even gotten on the ground in the first place, it had all happened so fast. When the pieces did fall into place, he wasn't happy about it. Cradling his head, Gestas must've exhausted half the profanity he'd learned in his six decades of life as he rose up from the cold stone, only to fall silent at the sight before him.

    Though Gestas was sure there had been four Klatooinians when he'd fallen, there were definitely only three now. It was possible the fourth was somehow the shapeless, crumpled pile of brown and black that was slumped at the foot of the gigantic Hutt. How exactly one had become the other in the time he was on the floor was beyond him. Everything was utter chaos, shots flying in seemingly every direction. He scrambled backward, heels scuffing the polished floor as he clumsily tried to get his feet underneath him.

    Ahead of him, the Mandalorian was anything but clumsy. Stang, she was damn near elegant in the way she moved. Ducking and weaving as she fired, Gestas swore he saw the girl pull a pirouette that would put a ballerina to shame in order to avoid a hail of incoming fire that seared the stone wall behind her.

    Gestas had heard all the stories about Mandalorians, from the lore of wars long past to the tall cantina tales and the usual spaceport gossip. But the truth was he'd never actually seen a real one in person before. He'd met his fair share of frauds, though: mediocre low-lives who figured they could capitalize on a more lucrative reputation, slapping on a few choice plates of armor and strutting about with warrior pretenses. Between the underwhelming fakes and all the Coreward talk of Mandalore being home to some kind of society of towheaded peaceniks these days, the word "Mandalorian" had lost whatever mystique it may have once held in his eyes.

    So when a so-called Mandalorian walked into that Upper City tapcaf, Gestas wasn't expecting much. He figured she'd suit his need for hired muscle well enough, even if it was just the sight of her armor that ended up doing most of the work. Still, he certainly wasn't anticipating any of the overblown nerfshavit that spacers always seemed to conjure up after too many drinks.

    Kriffing hell, had he been wrong.

    ————————————————————​

    Running, ducking, and gunning wasn't how Ezgi preferred to fight, but she adjusted fast. The Klatooinian who laid dead at the end of the hall could posthumously attest to that. The problem was that after her initial success in taking down that first guard, the other three were just as quick to adapt. With every shot she fired, they juked and dodged, never once missing a chance to return the favor. One even dipped into a practiced roll to avoid Ezgi's fire, and coming up, leveled his blaster at her midsection. She pivoted sharply, tucking her head to her chest as the blasterfire hammered her backplate. Every blow made her wince, but with no other means of cover, the solid sheet of beskar at her back—close to a centimeter thick, stretching from shoulder to waist—was as good an improvised shield as she could muster.

    Spinning hastily back around, Ezgi fired at the place where she reasoned the guard to be from his shots, long before she could actually see him well enough to aim. An instant later, a white-hot pain seared her arm just below her shoulder plate, and she could feel air on exposed skin. Just a graze, you're fine, she told herself, hoping it was true. Teeth gritted, she squeezed the trigger, rounding on the guard to bring her second pistol to bear; he fell in an instant. Scarcely a second passed before something struck Ezgi's helmet, hard enough to knock her over, and it took her a second to realize she'd been shot.

    You're fine, the helmet stopped it. Keep moving.

    She rolled over, sighting up on the third guard as her helmet's rangefinder auto-locked. The first bolt blew one of the Klatooinian's legs out from under him, interrupting the shot he'd been lining up, and forcing him to take a knee. The second blast struck home, burning through the guard's grizzled face.

    As Ezgi clambered back to her feet, the last of the Hutt's guards retreated back toward his master and the Twi'lek slaves. He was the only one who carried an old fashioned techblade in place of a blaster, likely a close-quarters specialist meant to be his master's final line of defense. Armed and at range, Ezgi held the clear advantage. The man was no Jedi, there was nothing he could do against her blasters with a sword. Even still, she hesitated. Whether intentionally or not, he'd put himself between her and the Twi'leks, where if any shot missed—even a passing graze—it would be the slaves who stood to suffer. Ezgi tried to get a better angle, yet for every step she took the guard adjusted in kind, a sick grin spreading across his bulbous face.

    He knows exactly what he's doing, that son of a—

    "Forget him, let's go!" Gestas yelled from somewhere behind her. "We're going to have a whole new set of problems coming up these stairs any second if we don't get a move on."

    Though it felt far longer, they'd lost barely a minute to the shootout. That was still more than enough time for a team of armed guards to be hot on their heels. Ezgi was genuinely surprised the Jilruans from earlier hadn't already followed them up the servants' passage, even after her trick with the flamethrower. Whether she liked it or not, Gestas had a point. So long as the last guard kept close to his master at the far end of the hall, there was no reason to engage him. They could slip right past and make their escape up to the roof without any further violence. The doorway was so close, she just had to start walking.

    Above her, she could hear the sound of a ship setting down on the rooftop landing pad. Below, pandemonium.

    Gestas came around her on the left, smacking her uninjured arm and shouting for her to move as he made for the staircase. Ezgi kept her pistol leveled at the Klatooinian's chest, but her gaze went past the guard's goading smile, to the quivering Twi'leks all huddled together behind him. They barely made a sound, too afraid to so much as whimper. Only one of them dared to watch the fray unfold: an older woman somewhere in her fourth decade, Ezgi had to guess, with fierce eyes and a withering glare she spared neither combatant.

    Ezgi sighed, lowering her blaster. Gestas was right. Running was the smart thing to do. The safe thing to do. She just didn't care.

    The pistol came back up. Not with speed, but purpose. The guard's eyes locked on the slim, silver barrel, watching it's movement like a shriek-hawk, only to gape when he realized Ezgi wasn't bringing her blaster to bear on him at all. She was aiming for the Hutt. She squeezed the trigger; the Hutt bellowed and the guard jumped, only to come crashing to the floor with a smoking hole burned through his chest plate.

    For a fleeting moment, the Klatooinian's eyes met Ezgi's as if there were no distance or visor between them. His lips pulled into a smile. How funny it must've been in those final seconds, to realize each had bet it all on little more than a hunch, a gamble that pitted her sympathy against his loyalty.

    Bad luck, shabuir, you bet on the wrong fathier.

    Holstering one of her twin pistols, Ezgi strode down the hall, ignoring Gestas' renewed pleas for her to go. A meter from the Twi'leks she came to a stop and offered her empty, upturned hand to the women. "If you want to leave, you can come with me," she said, trying her best to sound as calm and reassuring as she could. The Hutt didn't take that well, erupting into a thunderous stream of warnings, curses, and promises of retribution as he shook his meaty little fist impotently toward her. Ezgi paid him no attention, never taking her eyes from the Twi'leks' scared faces. "You'll be free and I'll keep you safe, I promise you, but we have to go now." None of them moved, and it dawned on Ezgi that there was a very distinct possibility that none of them even spoke Basic. She started to repeat herself in Huttese, when the steely-eyed Twi'lek she'd fixated on before—the one who, from Ezgi's first word, had been staring her down with nothing but cold skepticism—stepped forward suddenly and grabbed her hand.

    "Thank you," the older woman said. "Thank you." She surrendered Ezgi's hand almost reluctantly, before turning back to her people to say something in Ryl. Whatever it was, they needed no other encouragement to run.

    "Chess ko, murishani kung," the Hutt rumbled. He stabbed one of his stubby fingers through the air at Ezgi. "Bona nai kachu. Jee oto wah ning che copah murishani tytung ye wanya yoskah!"

    She walked away without a word, content to let the silence be her only answer.

    At the door to the staircase, Ezgi bolted up the steps to the landing pad that topped the palace, emerging back into the hot, dry air that smothered Nar Kreeta even after sundown. The Aximian Star was waiting, lit up on the pad with its entry ramp down and the drives thrumming at a high idle. From the cockpit, Ezgi could see Senoota emphatically waving at her to get aboard, but there was just one problem standing in the way: Gestas, poised on the edge of the ramp, trying to shoo the Twi'leks away like they were a bunch of vhe'viine attempting to invade the pantry.

    "What are you doing?" Ezgi demanded as she approached. "Get out of the way, we need to go!"

    Gestas vigorously shook his head. "I know you think you're doing some kind of good deed here, but they can not come with us. You don't understand what taking these women is going to bring down, so trust me when I say—"

    "No, trust me," said Ezgi, stopping at the foot of the ramp. She still hadn't holstered her other blaster, and she hoped her increasingly infuriating client would take note of that. "If they don't walk up that ramp, neither do you. It is that simple."

    "Did you even check to see if they have some sort of tracker implanted in them? Huh? Or explosives in their collars?"

    Osik. She hadn't. "I—" In her rush to help the Twi'leks, she hadn't even considered all of the cruel fail-safes that slavers employed. Stupid, stupid! How could you be so stupid?!

    "Mistress?" the eldest Twi'lek interrupted suddenly. "Our master refused to implant trackers as a matter of principle. We were never to be out of his sight. And I believe he rejected fitting us with explosive collars for fear that they—and our close proximity to him—might be used against him by his enemies. You needn't fear them, mistress."

    Ezgi opened her mouth to speak, but all that came out was an absolutely cleansing sigh of relief. "I...know," she bluffed, turning back to Gestas. "Give me some credit, I did a scan before freeing them. Now..." She tapped her trigger finger pointedly against the side of her blaster. "Let's get going."

    The older man seemed unsure of his next move, stumbling over whether he should deploy a quick comeback or his trademark placatory charms. Ezgi could see the wheels of his mind turning, scouring every corner of his brain for some clever retort, but nothing worthwhile came to the surface. Finally, he sighed, shrugged, and said simply: "This feels like the part where I'm supposed to ask if you're threatening me, but I get the sense we're past that."

    She stepped up, taking an equal footing on the boarding ramp. "I'd say we are."

    Then, like throwing a switch, Gestas cloaked himself in the role of the playboy again, and flashed the Twi'leks that charming smile he so enjoyed. "Welcome aboard, ladies," he said, stepping back and beckoning them to enter with a sweeping, right-this-way gesture.

    Ezgi scaled the ramp first, and ushered the Twi'leks inside to the passenger cabin, removing her helmet as she went. "Try to get settled in as best you can," she directed the nervous group. They all came together around the cabin's holotable. Most of them seemed surprised by the sight of her face, sneaking furtive glances wherever they thought she was looking elsewhere. Maybe they were expecting someone older or more weathered, or whatever image they had of what a Mandalorian was.

    Gestas moved through the cabin to the cockpit with haste, keeping his distance. He never once so much as acknowledged their unexpected guests on his way through. If he planned on ignoring her, she was looking forward to disappointing him very soon. They had a lot to talk about.

    In another moment, the ship was on the move. Ezgi took her pack—still carrying, among other things, her GALAAR-15 blaster—and moved it out of the Twi'lek's way, before raiding the mini-conservator that had been custom built into the cabin bulkhead. She came away with an armful of plastoid water bottles that she handed out to the women, encouraging them to drink and catch their breath while she helped them out of their slave collars. The youngest of them tore off the cap and greedily gulped from her bottle. She couldn't have been more than twenty years old, but Ezgi suspected she was shy of even that. The eldest, the one who had stared her down in the palace not minutes before, reached out and gently tapped the upturned bottle to get the younger girl's attention. While her understanding of Ryl was practically non-existent, Ezgi could nevertheless pick up the almost maternal scolding that passed between them.

    The young Twi'lek set her water on the table, bowing her head as she turned to face Ezgi. "Thank you for your kindness," she said softly, her voice colored not with an a Rylothian accent like her elder's, but an unexpected Huttese accent instead. Ezgi moved to lay a hand on the girl's shoulder, just a small gesture of empathy that she hoped would better put her at ease. But the girl recoiled from her touch, only to flinch and go stiff when she realized what she'd done, her blue eyes glued to the deck at her feet.

    Ezgi forced herself not to look too hard at the grim implications of her body language, and instead blurted out a short, cheerful "You're welcome!" in the friendliest tone of voice she knew, if only to diffuse the newest layer of tension. It was the same tone she used when fussing over pups and babies, and she had to smile through a pang of awkward guilt at that realization while the other Twi'leks offered their own thanks. When they were through, she stooped down and went to work on removing the collar from the matriarch of the group. "Just so you know, you—none of you—need to worry about thanking me," she said, careful not to sound like she was admonishing anyone. "For this, or anything else. It's really not necessary."

    "It is right to show gratitude to those who are kind," the Twi'lek replied frankly. "In our culture, to do otherwise would be rude."

    "Oh. Well...her lekku kind of already gave it away," Ezgi joked. Using her arms, she mimicked the subtle curvature of the head-tails that related to gratefulness in the unique, Twi'leki form of body language.

    Another of the Twi'leks perked up at her comment. She was a few years younger than the one Ezgi was helping now, with a frosty gaze and a scar above her left eye that looked as though a brow piercing had been violently torn away some time ago. "You can read lekku?" she asked. Apprehension was as plain in her voice as her Coruscanti accent, and it wasn't hard for Ezgi to understand why. For most Twi'leks, their lekku offered a silent and secret way to communicate with each other when they were among outsiders, and it must've been a blessing during their time in captivity.

    "My best friend is a Twi'lek," explained Ezgi. "She taught me how to recognize some basic gestures." There was an audible fizzle followed by a clack, and the slave collar came away in Ezgi's hands. It's former wearer released a breathy sigh that sounded more than a decade in the making, one that transformed into a faintly giddy laugh. Her lekku reflexively curved into the gesture for gratitude, and Ezgi just smiled, patted her back, and said, "You're welcome."

    One by one, she pried the collars from the necks of the six, asking their names and encouraging the unusually quiet women to feel free to chat among themselves as she went. The one Ezgi had taken to regarding as the group matriarch was named Jela. She was indeed the oldest of the group, twice Ezgi's age and a few centimeters taller than her to boot. The anxious one with the scar was Seku, while seated to either side of her were Nayella, a thin woman whose blue head-tails were covered in an array of beautiful amethyst-colored stripes, and her sister Seela, whose steel grey eyes kept a constant watch on every move Ezgi made. There was also Feen, the most recent addition to the group; though average in height, she had a much fuller figure than any of the others, complete with wide hips and a pair of lekku that were thicker around than Ezgi's arm.

    When it came time for her to free the youngest from her collar, the mood in the cabin had noticeably brightened. That is, until she asked the young one her name. At Ezgi's question, the girl's face flushed a deep blue, and her head lowered until her lekku spilled into her lap.

    Feen was at the younger Twi'lek's side in a second, enclosing the girl in a tight embrace. "Sala, sweets patogga," she cooed, stroking her lek. "Cha eniki."

    Across the table, Seela frowned and crossed her arms. "She was born into slavery," she explained. "Never saw Ryloth. Never knew her clan."

    Never had a name, Ezgi could fill in for herself.

    "Our...former master used to call her—"

    "Something foul," Jela cut in. Her words came with an unspoken warning attached. Whatever the girl had been called before, it wasn't to be repeated again. Not by any of them, not ever.

    Seku's mouth danced back and forth across the line between frown and scowl, her bottom lip jutting out as she nodded. "Whatever he called her, to us she has always been Numa."

    Numa. Sister. It was one of the few Ryl words Doriya had taught her over the years that she'd managed to retain. The thought brought a sudden tightness to Ezgi's throat. Thrust into one of the worst situations a group of people could be in, they chose to become family. In that moment she found herself fiercely proud of all of them. Though now, as she watched them rally to one another yet again, she couldn't help but feel as if she were intruding upon something not meant for her. These were their first precious minutes of freedom in years, a time that had to be deeply personal, and one better shared together without a random outsider hovering over their shoulders.

    Ultimately, Ezgi turned her task over to Feen and allowed her to attend to Numa's collar, excusing herself from the cabin and leaving the Twi'leks to each other's familiar company.



    Chapter 4

    The instant Ezgi stepped through the cockpit doors, a suspiciously heated conversation ground to an immediate halt. At the sound of her entrance, Senoota stiffened in his chair, hands scrambling for the ship's steering in a desperate rush to look engrossed with the flight controls. The fact that they were already in hyperspace only somewhat undercut his performance, but Ezgi didn't bother to call his awkward bluff. The Dug wasn't her target.

    Gestas didn't even try to look busy. If anything, he looked positively bored, feet kicked up on the console, gazing off somewhere in the swirling blue and white shades of hyperlight, palm absently drumming on his knee. The old man gave no indication that he'd even heard Ezgi come in, at least until she cut through the uneasy silence with a loud clearing of her throat. At the interruption, Gestas lazily spun his seat around and smiled unconvincingly at the sight of her. "There you are!"

    "Here I am," Ezgi replied, smiling back and echoing his faux friendly tone before abruptly discarding both in the same breath. "A word?"

    His eyes darted across her gun belt, though he tried to seem nonchalant as he pushed himself up from the co-pilot's chair. "Can't think of any reason why not."

    And I'm sure you tried. Ezgi waited for Gestas to pass before addressing Senoota. "Any trouble taking off?"

    "Nah-uh. Whole lotta chaos, everybody too worried about getting they own selves outta there," said the Dug, arching around to look at her. "We're on route to the spot now, all to plan."

    Whatever was going on with Gestas, Ezgi's gut said Senoota wasn't part of it. "Good job. And thanks for coming so fast."

    The Dug flashed a toothy grin. "Boss didn't hire no amateur."

    As soon as Ezgi stepped out into the hall, Gestas shut the cockpit the door, leaving them to the relative privacy of a small stretch of isolated corridor. He settled in against a bulkhead, hands folded in front of him, looking like a man without a care in the galaxy. Infuriatingly so, in fact. "So what can I do for you?"

    Ezgi was long past humoring the playboy persona and the false pleasantries that accompanied it. "You can start by telling me just what the shab happened back there."

    "Well, that's a little complicated..." Gestas said, shifting uncomfortably.

    Hooking her thumbs in her belt, it was all Ezgi could do to keep from grabbing him by his lapels. "The truth, Gestas."

    "Vik."

    "What?"

    "You can just call me Vik. We're—"

    "The truth, Gestas. Now. What did you do, and why were they trying to kill you?"

    The old man folded his arms, scratching his chin. "Now, let's be clear: I told you the truth. I did. I am a collector, and I—we—went into that auction to pick up a very special, very expensive piece of Hutt history from the estate collection. That's all absolutely true, to the letter," he said, each word picked with careful deliberation. "The only catch in all of this is the fact that the artifact I wanted wasn't exactly going to be up on the auction block tonight."

    Ezgi could read between the muddied lines all too easily at this point. Eyes closed and brow furrowed, she choked back a torrent of curses, taking a long, deep breath before finally speaking. "So you're a thief, who used the auction as a way in and me as your unwitting backup."

    He opened his mouth but held back, lips curling into a frown beneath his mustache. "I guess that's a less complicated way of putting it. But to be fair—"

    "You lied to me," Ezgi grimaced. "You went off on—we had a plan!"

    "Technically, you had a plan. And it was a good plan! It just turns out that I had a different one."

    "Your plan where you turned me into a thief. I'm not a thief!"

    "No, you're a bodyguard, and now that you mention it, you did a phenomenal job of that. Guarded my body admirably," Gestas quipped, patting his middle. "Now come on, let's not make more out of this than there needs to be. This was just—wait, where are you going?" Ezgi didn't answer, and didn't slow down as she walked away. She had been remarkably patient through all of this, but between the lying and the glibness after the fact, she'd reached her limit. "Hey, come on. Come on! Ezgi!"

    "We are not on a first name basis," she snapped back at him.

    "Well what do you want me to call you then?"

    "Nothing." She turned, walking backward as she spoke. "That's the best part. You don't need to call me anything, because the job's done. I'm taking my money and we are going our separate ways."

    "Yeah..." Gestas started, rubbing the back of his neck. "About that..."

    "What about that?"

    "So, the thing is...you haven't exactly been paid. Yet!"

    Stopping in her tracks, Ezgi snatched her datapad from her belt and immediately ran another check on the balance of her account. "No, the funds cleared. I checked before I ever set foot your ship. I've got—" The screen flashed with an alert, the new statement coming up well short on credits. "You frauded the payment? Are you shabla kidding me?!" The sound of her angry bootfalls were damn near thunderous in the confined corridor, and she had Gestas back within arm's reach in seconds, ready to throttle him.

    "Hey, whoa, whoa! Dial it back, girl. You're going to get paid!" He spread his arms, hands up in penance, trying to look as non-threatening as he could in the face of an imminent thrashing. "I might be a thief but I am absolutely a man of my word, and I absolutely plan on seeing you get what you're owed," Gestas said, then quickly added, "And then some! Really. It's just that this business I'm working on, it's not exactly a pay-up-front kind of thing."

    "Oh, not exactly," she mocked, her voice thick with venom.

    "Right."

    "So what is this business of yours, exactly?"

    He smiled like a fisherman who'd just hooked his first catch of the day. "Kor Utaru."

    Ezgi huffed. "And that is...?"

    "So glad you asked," Gestas replied, so smoothly that Ezgi was on the verge of punching him. "Kor Utaru is one of the ancient Hutt treasure worlds, hidden away in the heart of Bootana Hutta. Good old Serraba Utaru Veduo, being the greedy old slug that he was, destroyed all record of it so that he could keep its whereabouts—and the hoard of treasure he had stashed there—all to himself. All record...save for a single hidden map he secreted away somewhere in the Utaru clan's Nar Kreetan palace."

    Just like that, all of the pieces fell into place. "Which you found, stole, and are now planning to use to rob the place blind."

    "Serraba's been dead for more than a thousand years. You can't steal from the dead."

    "Of course you can, it's called grave robbing!"

    "Okay, okay." Gestas slipped a cigarra from his coat pocket, but rather than light it, he began spinning it absently through his fingers. "Just...just imagine for a second all the possibilities. You want credits, sweetheart? There's an entire treasure world out there just waiting to give up its riches. It's practically a steal."

    "Ugh! It's like you don't listen to a word anyone else says. It's not practically a steal, it's literally one," Ezgi said, shaking her head. "And you can drop the hard sell. You're talking about sneaking into the most heavily guarded region in all of Hutt Space, hoping your information is good enough to get us through a blockade's worth of warships, and landing on a strange world to steal a millennia-old Hutt stash. That's not exactly what I'd call a walk in the park."

    "Well, sure," said Gestas, raising the cigarra to his lips. "But that's why I hired a first rate pilot. And you, of course."

    "What part of this are you not getting? I'm! Not! A! Thief!" Ezgi shouted, jabbing her finger into his chest with each word. Her voice reverberated off the walls in a rough, brassy echo that buzzed in the ears.

    Gestas just backed away slowly with every poke, shrugging as he patted around his jacket for his lighter. "You keep saying that, but from where I'm standing, girl, it looks an awful lot like you just made off with three hundred kilos of precious merchandise," he said, pointing a finger toward the passenger cabin.

    Ezgi's mouth fell open, and it took her a moment longer than she would've liked to find her way back to words. "That's not—that's different and you know it!"

    "All I'm saying is, you're worried about ripping off a bunch of dead Hutts?" Lighter in hand, Gestas brought the flame to the end of his cigarra and took a light puff. "What do you think a still very much alive kajidii like Janumba is going to do when he figures out who stole his prized slaves?"

    Janumba? Osik. That complicated things.

    The name had come up more than a few times at the Oyu'baat, uttered in hushed tones by some of the local mercenaries who frequented Hutt Space for work. The only kind thing she could remember being said of the Hutt was that he paid well, and even that was bogged down under a myriad of unpleasant anecdotes about exactly what he paid so well for.

    Still, Ezgi refused to let Gestas see her rattled, and she refused to let him turn the tide of the conversation against her. "Don't try to make this about me," she warned. "This all could've been avoided if you would've just been straight with me from the beginning."

    "Well yeah, I suppose," Gestas said, exhaling a stream of foul smoke toward the Star's ventilation filters. "But...if I'd told you the truth back then, we both know you never would've accepted this job. And just think, if you never came along, you wouldn't have been on hand to rescue those Twi'leks of yours and they'd be...phew, I don't even want to think about what would've become of them after a few more years enslaved to that slug. Seems to me everything worked out for the better." Rolling the cigarra between his thumb and finger, his eyes fixed on the smoldering tip as it shed tiny flakes of ash. When he spoke again, his voice took on a harsh edge. "If only you would've killed him and made sure everything stayed worked out."

    "He..." She'd thought about it more than once now. Janumba's final threat to her, especially now that she knew who he was, lurked at the forefront of her memory. One, maybe two squeezes of the trigger and it would've meant nothing at all. "He was unarmed," Ezgi said after a moment. "I'm not in the habit of murder."

    Gestas scoffed. "You're Mandalorian."

    "So what, you think that means I like killing people?" she snarled.

    "You didn't seem to have any problem with those thugs back at the palace."

    "They didn't give me a whole lot of choice." Ezgi crossed her arms. "And it's something I wouldn't have had to do at all if you hadn't decided to go off and play gentleman thief!" Gestas started to fire back, but she cut him off. "They attacked first. Self-defense. End of story."

    "If you ask me, killing Janumba would've just been pre-emptive self-defense. You know he's going to hunt you," said Gestas

    "Let him try."

    He aimed his cigarra toward the passenger cabin. "And them? You can play the hardened merc all you want, but your blue buddies? Unlikely. All I'm saying is killing him then and there could have saved everyone involved a whole lot of misery."

    * * *​

    The instant the refresher door sealed shut behind her, Ezgi let her body fall back upon it. For the first time in a span of hours that felt more and more like months with every passing second, she could finally take a moment to stop and breathe. You can be sure that she relished it. When she finally pushed herself away from the door, it was several minutes later, and with a surprising amount of effort. With the adrenaline from the palace frenzy receding, rubbery fatigue had seeped into the muscles of her arms and legs, going hand in hand with the already embedded soreness that came with taking so many blasterbolts. Part of her wanted nothing more than to curl up in the corner and go to sleep, and Ezgi considered that prospect for far longer than she'd ever admit to anyone before putting it out of her mind.

    Making her way to the sink, she leaned on the lip of the basin and surrendered to a moment of self-examination in the mirror on the wall. Her armor was badly burned in a dozen different places, the paint scoured away by plasma in the wake of every round she'd suffered, leaving blackened, ashy scars on the underlying beskar. Ezgi touched her gloved fingertips to the scorch mark emblazoned across her stomach plate, and forced herself to be thankful. Sure, she'd need to repaint her armor when she got home, but she could just as easily be lying dead in a hallway. A little perspective didn't hurt.

    With practiced care, she slid off her gauntlets and gloves, and set all four pieces of gear neatly on the floor at her feet. Next, the blast vest, which she unfastened through the constant, nagging pain radiating across her abdomen, an unwelcome reminder that beskar plates could stop a blasterbolt with ease, but not the kinetic force it carried with it on impact. After pulling the armored cuirass over her head—a task whose strain managed to draw a cry from her lips—Ezgi laid it out atop the closed toilet seat, and took a moment to steady herself against the sink.

    What I wouldn't give for an ice bath right about now.

    Free of her armor, she undid the main seal on her flight suit, and gingerly pulled open the gray overgarment until she could see the skin below. It came as no surprise that painted across her skin was a riot of colorful bruises, spreading out from below her dark undershirt, up over her collar bone and down across her stomach. Every round she took had left its mark. Ezgi wouldn't have been surprised if her ribs were bruised internally, too. And, of course, there was her arm, where that Klatooinian's shot had narrowly grazed her, carving a fiery line through her suit and flesh alike.

    Ezgi reached for the first-aid medkit resting in the cradle below the sink. Laying it out over the basin, she dug around inside until finding a packet of antiseptic wipes that she tore open. "Shab, this is going to hurt," she growled through gritted teeth, pressing the wipe to her wound. It practically sizzled. After only a second or two, she tossed away the wipe and grabbed a bacta patch from the kit, tearing the packaging open with her teeth and slapping it over the burning graze. Almost immediately, the bacta cooled the burning sting, and she exhaled the strangled breath she'd been holding since the wipe first touched her skin. Luck willing, she might even get away without much of a scar.

    Further fishing around in the medkit uncovered a small canister of bacta gel cream, the kind used to treat things like burns, rashes, or minor contusions. It wasn't likely that anyone would call her increasingly unnatural skin tone a minor contusion, but any relief was better than none. She just had to figure out how to cajole her ache-ridden muscles into getting her tight-fitting undershirt off so that she could actually apply the salve. Which, as it turned out, was no easy task. Devolving into a painful game of trial and repeated error, she ultimately had to give up before the strain made her vomit.

    The quiet fwshh of the 'fresher door had Ezgi's blaster fast in hand, though she was just as quick in lowering it again when she saw that it was Jela who stood in the doorway. Osik. She hadn't wanted the Twi'leks to see her like this. The sight of their promised protector bent over the sink, black and blue, and struggling to keep her lunch where it was...it wouldn't do much to inspire confidence. Ezgi hastily straightened up and cleared her throat. "Is something wrong, Jela?"

    "It's...nothing's wrong, mistress," Jela said quietly. "I thought I...well, I thought I heard you cry out. I was worried." How far had she been from the door to hear that? Ezgi was certain she hadn't been that loud. She must've been keeping close, and for some time. Even now, the other woman made no attempt to mask the fact that she was staring, her brow furrowed as her dark blue eyes wandering over every bruise. "I'm so sorry."

    Ezgi shook her head, and let out a dismissive little huff that morphed into a feigned smile. "Don't worry about it. It's my fault for not locking the door."

    "No, I..." Jela hesitated. "I meant your injuries, mistress."

    "Oh, this is—" She did the little huff again, though this time it just sort of slipped out. "—this is nothing. Really. I get knocked around worse than this just playing get'shuk with the vode back home."

    Jela smiled faintly, then seemed to spot the bacta salve still sitting on the edge of the sink. She took a few cautious steps closer, closing the 'fresher door behind her. "I can help you with that," she said, nodding to the canister.

    "Oh, no, that's okay," Ezgi quickly replied, shaking her head again. "You don't have to."

    "But I'd like to...if you'd let me." The Twi'lek woman went silent, and she bowed her head low. Ezgi was instantly furious. She'd seen that reaction before in animals accustomed to abuse, and it was all the more heartbreaking to see it from a person. It was the same one Numa had when she thought she'd slighted Ezgi. They were waiting to be hurt. Whether she'd be slapped, punched, or maybe even whipped, surely some manner of pain would be coming her way for speaking out of turn. Yet, despite that fear, Jela continued: "As I said before, mistress, it's right to show gratitude to those who are kind. You've shown us great kindness."

    Ezgi wavered. In all honesty, the offer couldn't have been more appreciated, but she hated the idea that Jela might feel obligated to her out of some misplaced sense of being in her debt. Worse, what if it came from that place of fear, as though her life or freedom depended on whether or not she pleased her rescuer? She didn't want to insult Twi'lek custom, though, and she worried that ignoring Jela's own agency in all of this would only be a step backward for the former slave. "You really don't have to," she said again. "But if you're sure you don't mind, I won't turn down the help."

    Jela's head rose, a relieved smile taking form. She approached Ezgi slowly, sizing up the task before her. "Can you raise your arms?"

    "Only about as high as my shoulders," said Ezgi, reaching out as if to give Jela a hug in demonstration. "Any higher and I feel like I might tear a muscle. Or all of them."

    "This will do." Coming closer, Jela stepped between Ezgi's outstretched arms, catching them when she tried to withdraw and guiding them back to how they were. "Please, keep still. You'll need to hold your arms out for me if we're going to make this work."

    "Okay," Ezgi gulped. She flinched when Jela's fingertips brushed against her abdomen on their way under the hem of her shirt, but held fast as the other woman began to slowly peel back the fabric. Jela was startlingly gentle; the way she managed to draw the material away from Ezgi's sensitive skin almost imperceptibly, up over battered ribs and past her breasts with scarcely a tickle, made her shiver. Even getting the black top over her head went far easier than she initially dreaded, and a sigh of relief fell from her lips when Jela finally tugged her shirt carefully down her arms and left it in her hands. "Thank you."

    "It's my pleasure," said Jela. Ezgi stepped away to set her shirt on the seat of the toilet with her blast vest for safekeeping, while the Twi'lek claimed the canister of bacta gel from the sink. "Come, I will help you with the salve."

    Catching sight of herself in the mirror as she turned around, Ezgi took a second to inspect her reflection's naked back, frowning over her shoulder at the splotchy bruises left behind on her skin. "I look like a kriffing chalarax."

    Jela's hand came to rest on her arm, finding one of the few unmarked stretches of skin Ezgi still had left. "It's not as bad as all that." She opened the canister, setting the lid back on the sink. "You'll feel better in a moment, mistress. Are you ready?"

    "It's just Ezgi, please. I'm nobody's mistress." Sighing, Ezgi resigned herself to a clenched little smile. "Considering you're about to slather me in bacta, I'd like to think that probably puts us somewhere closer to friends."

    Jela smiled in return. "I should think so, Ezgi."

    "All right then. So, from one friend to another...go easy on me?"

    "Of course," she promised, and she was true to her word. Her touch was uniformly soft and measured, from the first blessed smear to every one after. Gentle fingertips glided delicately across Ezgi's skin, more like the bristles of a fine paintbrush than clumsy flesh and blood, siphoning away the radiant pain and leaving only a warm tingle behind in its wake as the bacta set to work.

    "You are shockingly good at this."

    A low chuckle fluttered in the Twi'lek's throat. "I've had a great deal of practice," Jela said, turning Ezgi around to attend to her front, applying a fresh dab of bacta to the bruised collarbone before her. There was an old sadness in the way she said it, one that stoked the coals of Ezgi's anger anew, and made her regret not killing Janumba all the more. Jela looked up from her task; she must've seen some trace of fury bleed through the stoic mask Ezgi had tried to affect, for she stopped painting her with bacta, passed the canister from one hand to the other, and brought her clean palm to Ezgi's cheek. "What is it?"

    The gesture reminded Ezgi of her mother. "I'm just sorry," she said. "For everything that...happened. Everything you all had to endure." She wanted to say more—do more—for this kind, beautiful soul that somehow held fast to a warmth and tenderness most beings far more fortunate couldn't be bothered with. Instead, she merely reached up and laid a sympathetic hand over Jela's.

    "I know, ma sareen," the Twi'lek said softly. She leaned closer, and pressed a kiss to Ezgi's forehead. "I know." As she came away, Jela patted Ezgi's cheek and tapped a finger to her nose in a playful boop that succeeded against all odds in coaxing a smile from her. "Though I think, perhaps, you misunderstood. Before I was a prisoner of Janumba, I was a healer in Kala'uun." Jela took a fresh dab from the bacta canister, and knelt down in front of Ezgi to continue her work. "The number of Mandalorians who passed through my offices were admittedly few, but I treated enough unlucky rycrit herders over the years to know my way around contusions like this."

    It didn't exactly put Ezgi at ease, but she had to admit that it was a much better backstory than what her cynical imagination had concocted on its own. "Can I ask how you ended up with Janumba?"

    Jela's gentle ministrations ground to a halt, and her hand fell away. "I was betrayed," she said in a voice more fragile than any Ezgi had heard from her before.

    Already, she regretted her question. "You don't have to say—I shouldn't have—"

    "No," Jela said, a palpable anger bringing forth a renewed strength. "It is something I have lived with for the better part of a decade, and something I will have to continue dealing with for the rest of my life." She took a long pause, one marked with an abundance of false starts accompanied by rough, steadying breaths. "A man named Koyi had sought my affection," she said at last. "Though I refused him repeatedly, he would not take no for an answer. He was a...powerful figure in Kala'uun, and could not accept that I found him unattractive at first, and in time, repulsive. I awoke one night to find him standing over me in my bed, no idea how he'd entered my home. He...he stunned me, and when next I awoke, I had been sold to a slaver. The little schutta wasted no time in passing me on to Janumba." Her voice took a sudden turn toward brittle again. "I haven't seen my home in many years."

    "You will soon," said Ezgi. She laid a tentative hand on Jela's lekku, and recognizing the appreciative twitch it elicited, went ahead with her best attempt at a comforting caress. "I'll get you home. You have my word on that. I'll get all of you home."

    The Twi'lek made a sad little sound that laid somewhere between a snort and a sob. "Oh eyan ayy, I can't go back. Koyi will still be there, and I—"

    "He won't be," Ezgi said, resolute. "Not when I'm done." She caught Jela's hand and helped her back to her feet, and when they were eye to eye again, she held the other woman firmly by her shoulders. "You're going home, and believe me when I say that Koyi won't be a problem for you or anyone else ever again. That's a promise."


    Red Light District, the moon of Nar Shaddaa

    "I need seven ales—Corellian, not Huttese—and an inkabachuga platter for table six." Ezgi set a large-denomination credit chip down on the bar, and watched it quickly disappear into the hand of the Dowutin barkeep. "And I expect timely refills on those ales, eniki?"

    "Tagwa," the barkeep replied in a low, grumbly voice, bowing his big head as low to his chest as his chin spikes would allow. Then he shuffled off to pass along her order to the kitchen.

    Ezgi settled against the long counter—the long, sticky counter, from which she quickly removed herself, on second thought—and took a moment to survey the dingy old bar where they'd taken refuge. The place struck her as though it had been built with every back-alley cantina cliche in mind. Dirty, dimly lit, and a thick cloud of cigarillo smoke nestled in the rafters. Someone had furnished the bar with a style of decor that could only be described as hardy, it's metal tables and chairs bearing the scars of the many altercations they'd survived. Ugly baka rock played over the bar's tinny sound system, in constant competition with usual drunken racket that one expected from a dive like this.

    In all of Nar Shaddaa's Red Light Sector, the Batabampa Tusawa was no one's favorite place to drink. Folks came to the Tusawa when they'd been kicked out of every other, better bar on the strip, or when they had business to take care of that they didn't want the local Hutts involved in. Somehow, Ezgi now found herself among the latter.

    Crowded around a table wedged over in the corner, past a pair of inebriated Khormai playing a sloppy game of billiards, were six Twi'leks doing their best to be as invisible as possible. All wore the matte, zeyd cloth cloaks that Ezgi had purchased from a street vendor outside the port. The drab fabric was clutched tightly around them and drawn up over their head-tails in makeshift hoods. They looked scared, each peering around from under their cloaks as if they were waiting for Janumba's thugs to come swarming in at any moment, their newfound freedom teetering somewhere in their minds between too good to be true and too good to last. Ezgi couldn't blame them. It must've seemed like madness to linger in Hutt Space any longer than absolutely necessary, and maybe it was. But they'd taken precautions: their trail had been muddled across seven different systems before coming to Nar Shaddaa, and they'd set down in the sensor shadow of a agri-transport from Garqi.

    One table over from the Twi'leks sat Viktor Gestas, the current bane of her existence. Just the way he could sit there, feet up, calmly puffing away at his cigarra while perusing his datapad as if nothing at all were wrong—it made her want to go over and tear his stupid mustache clean off his face. She needed to figure out what she was going to do about him, the kriffing thieving liar that he was. And she needed to figure out what Janumba was going to do about her. As much as she hated to admit it, Gestas hadn't been wrong about that. She'd stolen a Hutt's harem out from under him at blasterpoint, and she'd practically spat in his face while doing it. It was the kind of sleight that led to million-credit, dead-or-alive bounties being offered. In the whole of Hutt history, wars had been waged for less. Far less. If she wasn't careful, that was sure to come back to bite her.

    Which was why Ezgi and the others had come to Nar Shaddaa in the first place. The so-called Smuggler's Moon provided a place to observe the fallout from the day's events, far enough removed from Nar Kreeta to be safe, yet close enough to keep a finger on the sector's pulse. Ever since they landed, she had been monitoring the news feeds from her helmet HUD, everything from the Nal Hutta Kal'tamok to the HoloNet message threads of the Wankeekosah, keeping an eye out for any mention of Twi'leks, Mandalorians, or scheming old thieves. Word of the palace fracas was traveling fast, but so far, Ezgi and the others remained off the radar.

    Taking a seat at the table with the Twi'leks, Ezgi set her helmet systems to send any new alerts to her gauntlet wrist comm, then took it off and tucked it under her chair. One of the Tusawa's servers came over a moment later with a wide repulsor tray, and the one-eyed Teltior offloaded a small bowl of chuba stew to each of the women, along with a basket of sliced norrick bread for the table. In the center of the spread, the server gingerly lowered a large pot into place, filled with a steaming pile of mubasa hok drenched in a heavily spiced sauce. The steam beaded and ran along the black skin of the Teltior's toned arms, and he wiped them with a napkin before setting out a small stack of flimsiplast plates and cutlery.

    "Drinks are coming," he croaked as he left.

    Seela took one of the plates and scooped out a stringy clump of hok, while Numa tucked into her stew without delay; the girl ate eagerly, chewing just enough so as not to choke and not a moment more. Ezgi wondered when was the last time any of them had this much food, and resolved to order as many helpings as the women wanted, right down to her last credit.

    "I do not like this place," Nayella said in a hushed tone, eyeing her bowl of stew cautiously and poking at it with a spoon. "When can we go?"

    "Soon," replied Ezgi. "I promise we'll go soon, and the next time you sit down to eat, it'll be something authentically Twi'leki on the menu. I'm guessing you've all probably had enough Hutt 'cuisine' to last a lifetime."

    "Several lifetimes," Feen chimed in.

    Seku snatched a slice of bread from the serving basket and tore off a large bite. "What are we even doing here?" she asked, her mouth half full.

    Before Ezgi could answer, Jela spoke up first, chiding Seku for talking with food in her mouth. That was Ezgi's best guess, at least, given that she spoke in Ryl and Seku made a show of swallowing dramatically in response. "And Ezgi has already explained what we're doing here," Jela added in Basic.

    "If I'd have heard her, I wouldn't have asked," Seku shot back across the table. "I know why we're on Nar Shaddaa, I got that much. But why are we here? As in at this table, at this bar of all places? Wouldn't somewhere with less people be safer?"

    "She explained that too, dopa 'dunkee," Seela cut in, not bothering to look up from her plate of mubasa. Jela had a few choice words to say to that, too, while Seku tore into her bread again to stifle a retort, opting to chew in silence rather than court another earful from the group's matron.

    "We're here so you can all get a half decent meal, for one," Ezgi explained again. "And so I can meet with someone to make sure our trail's clean before I take you home." She shot Seku a little smile. "Should I write it down for you this time?"

    Seku's cheeks darkened, but she rolled her eyes and let out an amused little snort. What was more surprising, though, was the smile that dashed across Numa's lips. It only lasted for the briefest of moments before she started stuffing her face again with stew from Nayella's donated bowl, but it was an encouraging sign nonetheless.

    The drinks arrived shortly, and for a good while after, the table yielded to the closest one could get to a contented silence in a place like the Tusawa. Conversation vanished under a wave of clinking utensils, guzzled ale, and noisy chewing. Cups were constantly in need of refilling, and so was the bread basket, with the Twi'leks trying out a variety of ways to eat norrick, from dipping it in mubasa sauce, to using the bread to soak up left over chuba broth.

    If only for a moment, Ezgi allowed herself to forget the circumstances lurking on the evening's periphery, and instead chose to enjoy the shared meal as nothing more than a night out with new friends. A sentiment that Gestas' hand on her arm snatched away.

    He leaned down, coming so uncomfortably close to her ear that she could feel his breath on her skin. "Join me at the bar for a moment?"

    "I'll pass," she muttered over her shoulder.

    Gestas coughed out an irritatingly fake laugh. "Humor me," he persisted, squeezing her arm just above where Janumba's guard had grazed her.

    Ezgi nearly jumped out of her seat, coming to bear on him with her fist pressed firmly against his stomach in warning. She wanted to do more, much more, but refused to steal away this moment from the Twi'leks, or risk calling down undue attention on any of them. "Let's go," she said in a low growl, pressing her gloved knuckles against his middle until he stepped back and started walking toward the bar. "What do you want?"

    "In a word?" Gestas said, slinking up to the counter. "To leave."

    Ezgi rolled her eyes. "That's two words. And no." She checked the table; Jela was watching her without watching her, but the others seemed unperturbed by her departure. "Like I told the Twi'leks, we still have business here."

    "Whoever it is you're waiting for, they're not coming," said Gestas. "And if we stay here any longer, the owner's going to charge us rent."

    Any other day, that might've gotten a smile out of Ezgi. Instead, she merely took a mental note to steal that line for herself sometime in the future when he wasn't around. "Any minute now, my contact's going to walk through that door," she said, pointing across the room. "We talk, I get the all clear, then we go. That's the plan. And I swear by the manda, if you tell me you've got a different one, I will stun you and drop your unconscious shebs in a corner until I'm finished. Tayli'bac?"

    Gestas took a sudden interest in the cleanliness of his fingernails, anything to avoid her gaze. "Well, I don't know what half of those words mean," he muttered in a sardonic tone, "but I think we understand one another."

    "Perfect," said Ezgi, and she slapped him on the back. As if on cue, the Tusawa's doors parted, and an enormous Lasat in Mandalorian armor strode in. Ezgi ribbed Gestas with an elbow. "See? I don't know what you're complaining about. He's right on time."

    "That's your contact?"

    In all the galaxy, few beings cast as imposing a figure as Harik Ulorade. A towering two and some meters of muscle covered in fine violet fur, the Lasat was clad in full beskar'gam—traditional Mandalorian armor like Ezgi's own, part bodysuit and part iron plate—missing only a helmet, sleeves, and a pair of boots. Lasats in general rarely bothered with boots, blessed as they were with dexterous and thick-skinned prehensile feet, but as for the rest, well...Ezgi had a strong suspicion Harik simply thought himself far too good looking to keep hidden away from grateful eyes. Draped over his shoulders, he wore a magnificent cloak with a fluffy fur collar, whose crimson fabric stood in stark contrast to Harik's own purple hair, but only complimented the earthen brown tones of his armor. It was an ostentatious new addition to the otherwise low-key Lasat's wardrobe, and one she hadn't seen before, but Harik wore it as though he'd been born to it, and the material flapped majestically behind him as he crossed the bar.

    "Su'cuy, Ez'ika!" Harik thundered as he approached. He was a close friend of Ezgi's who, as luck would have it, was already in Hutt Space when the whole Nar Kreeta debacle went down. He'd practically come running when she reached out. A wide grin stretched across his feline features, and he scooped Ezgi up in a tender hug just as soon as he got within arm's reach. "Ori'jate haa'tayli gar, ner vod'ika!"

    "Gar balyc, ori'vod." Smiling, Ezgi pried herself out of the Lasat's iron embrace. Rather than whine about her sore body, she simply threw her hands up and added ruefully, "Olarom at ner shu'shuk."

    Harik chuckled loud and deep, firmly patting her shoulder as he did. He paid no attention to Gestas, who was still waiting behind Ezgi for an introduction. "Tion'vaii Twi'lekiise?" he asked in the warm baritone Ezgi had come to adore. She pointed out the table in the corner where the Twi'leks were seated, and Harik looked them over and gave a low grunt, shaking his head. "Gar nari jate, ad'ika."

    "Yeah, hey, whoa," Gestas interrupted, physically pushing his way into the conversation as he stepped between Ezgi and Harik. "Excuse me? Who are you, exactly?" He didn't give the Lasat time to answer before turning to Ezgi: "Does this guy speak any Basic?"

    Ezgi said nothing, trying not to smile at the offended frown that took shape on Harik's face, just over Gestas' shoulder. She had to try even harder when a giant hand took hold of her former client and effortlessly spun him bodily around.

    "He does," Harik said, scowling. "When he wants to. I speak seventeen languages, in fact, from Basic to Bogolanese. But tell me, sir, do you speak any Mando'a?"

    Gestas squirmed out of the much larger man's firm grip, and straightened his ruffled suit. "No, I don't."

    "And neither does anyone else in here," Harik said, poking Gestas firmly in the chest just to drive the point home. Without missing a beat, he smiled again, wide and toothy, and pulled Gestas into a crushing, one-armed embrace. "Now come on, old friend. Buy me a drink!"


    * * *​


    Ezgi scooted up onto a poorly upholstered stool at the end of the bar, a fresh tankard of ale in hand. «Well, how bad are things out there?» she asked. Wrapped in the privacy Mando'a offered to those on the right side of the language barrier, she and Harik could speak openly in the crowded bar, with little fear of being overheard by any Hutt spies or the typical cantina busybodies.

    The Lasat took a hefty swig from the squat-necked bottle of Andoan wine Gestas had so generously paid for. «Like you pissed in a nest of gundarks, kid. The boss Hutts are foaming at the mouth, even more than usual, to find the 'stoopa, dopa maskey, dopa meekie, sleemos' that stole from them.» Ezgi blinked, and Harik shrugged. «Their words, not mine. And when last I checked, there was talk of Janumba putting up a small fortune for a bounty on each of the Twi'leks, too.»

    That was...well, it was about as bad as could be expected. Foolishly, she'd hoped that maybe Janumba would try to sweep it all under the rug rather than let it be known a couple of thieves—and shab, she really was a thief now—had taken out his entire security team and stole his slaves, all while he stood by and watched. Many crime lords would rather such a blunder just go away, perpetrators be damned, and work to quietly ensure it didn't happen a second time, rather than risk letting the competition think they'd grown weak. But not Hutts. For Hutts, such sleights were an affront not just to their own honor or their clan's, but an outrage to the entire kajidic culture. An attack on their very way of life. Retribution was demanded.

    I really should've killed him when I had the chance.

    «So what's the bad news?» Ezgi joked over the lip of her tankard before sipping once more.

    Harik let out a rough laugh. «By some stroke of luck, that was the bad news.»

    «Meaning there's actually some good news?»

    «There is indeed,» the Lasat rumbled. «My friends in the Guild say that although there's a rush to hire their services, nobody from the auction can properly identify the culprits. All of the holocam footage from last night's been mysteriously erased, and thanks to the characteristically impeccable testimony of the few eye witnesses that'll talk, the strongest suspect they've got is a mustachioed Bosbit Matarcher.»

    «Wait, the guy from that freak hyperspace thing?»

    «One and the same,» Harik laughed. «They can't even agree on whether or not his accomplice was a Mandalorian bounty hunter, a Milvaynian merc, or an agent of the Sun Guard. Or if it was some combination of the three all working as a team.»

    Seconds passed as Ezgi processed this news in silence. They had nothing. Nothing. No, that had to be too good to be true. «What about Janumba? We were standing this far from each other,» she said. «I can buy the rest of that crowd not being able to see past their own little bubble of self-importance, but he has to have some idea about who rescued those women, even if it's just the look of my armor.»

    «It's hard to say. Janumba's been the quietest of them all. If anything, his focus seems to be on the Twi'leks, not you or your client. But that can change. And one can lead to the other, if you're not careful.» Harik suddenly leaned in, stepping off his stool with a drunkard's stagger, and his wide arms closed around Ezgi in a sloppy hug. "Karabassht, girl, I kriffin' love you," he slurred. With most of her body hidden from view under his cloak, Harik stuffed a fistful of credits into Ezgi's belt, then vigorously patted her back as he pulled away. «A loan!» he said, once again in Mando'a, heading off any challenge. «So you won't have to risk a withdrawal from somewhere that'll leave a trail. You can pay me back next time we're both at the Oyu'baat.»

    Ezgi took his hand and gave it a squeeze. "Vor'e, Harik."

    «Ahh, don't mention it.» Harik tried to pat her cheek, but given the size of his hand, it was more like he affectionately palmed her entire head. It was a nice enough thought, nonetheless. «Just get those Twi'leks home soon. And stay clear of Hutt Space for a while.» He tapped her scorched torso plate with the back of his finger, tutting loudly. «It doesn't seem to agree with you.»
     
    Cantankerous Ordo and Contessa like this.
  4. Mia Mesharad

    Mia Mesharad Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 2, 2012
    Chapter 5

    Swirling, blue-white hyperlight coalesced into silver streaks and on into the pin-prick glow of distant stars as the ship dropped out of lightspeed. Gestas reclined in the co-pilot's seat, watching the dusty brown silhouette of Ryloth grow to fill the forward viewport. He was light years removed from the world where he craved to stand, but as it were, the planet of the Twi'leks was where he needed to be now if any of this was going to have a chance of working out the way he wanted.

    At his side, Senoota flicked on the vessel's internal comm. "We're here," he reported. "Where you want I set down?"

    "The spaceport at Nabat," came the reply to his question, in the deceptively pleasant voice of Ezgi Deshra. The girl had proven to be one hell of a wrinkle in Gestas' plans, but after the display she put on at the Utaru palace, he wagered she was worth more than the trouble she wrought. He just had to play his cards right.

    The Aximian Star dove into the atmosphere of Ryloth, sweeping over a band of green forests and on toward the more arid desert. Gestas groaned quietly. He'd only just left one desert behind, and already he was back in another one. From what accounts he'd heard, though, Ryloth was a much wilder world than Nar Kreeta. Fewer blaster-toting gangsters to contend with here, and more carnivorous beasts. Watching from the viewport, the surface mostly just looked dirty, dry, and made up of an underwhelming assortment of washed-out browns and dull grays.

    The women must be the only pretty thing this planet has to offer.

    It wasn't long before they reached Nabat, an unassuming little example of small town Ryloth. Hidden away in a natural range of mountainous rock, and surrounded on all sides by a sparse jungle of sickly-looking trees, the Twi'lek city seemed barely big enough to merit the name. Gestas felt genuine pity for whichever of his six stowaways called the place like this home; he couldn't imagine ever being happy to see it again were it his. Coronet, Hanna, Kuatthose were cities a person could get excited about coming home to. Not Nabat.

    Nevertheless, as Senoota set the ship down on one of the port's landing pads, he headed for the passenger cabin to meet up with the others. Standing around anxiously awaiting the boarding ramp opening, still huddled in their zeyd cloth cloaks, Gestas thought the Twi'leks looked more like a band of ascetics rather than escaped slaves. Or perhaps refugees, which all things considered, actually seemed rather appropriate.

    "Here we are, ladies," he announced. "Safe and sound, just as promised."

    The tall one with the perpetual pout and eyes that looked angry at the galaxy just for spinning, fixed him with a look that could make a rancor sweat. "Oh, you've been such a help, sir. Where would we be without you, sir?" she said dryly, her clipped Coruscanti accent dripping with sarcasm.

    Shaking your rear end for the pleasure of some Hutt toady, most likely, Gestas mused to himself, hiding his thoughts behind an oblivious smile.

    He couldn't exactly blame them for being frosty after how he'd treated their unexpected rescue. Were their positions reversed, he suspected that biting sarcasm would be the least he'd have to offer. Still, there were far worse folk with whom they could've ended up hitching a ride. He could've turned them over for the reward, sold them again to some other trafficker, or simply spaced them and been done with the whole business. A little gratitude wouldn't have killed anyone. "I'm just glad I could help you all get home," he said, flipping the switch to lower the boarding ramp.

    The 'fresher door slid open, and out stepped the little Mandalorian, clipping her helmet to her belt at the small of her back. From the way her mouth drew tight every time she extended, Gestas was sure she was nursing an injury from the fight on Nar Kreeta. "You don't need to come," she said when she noticed him at the ramp. "I can take it from here."

    Gestas shrugged. "I've heard a lot of great things about Ryloth, but never had the pleasure of seeing it for myself. I figured I'd take a little time to look around while we're here." Ezgi looked him over with suspicion, but she didn't try to dissuade him. It was tough getting a read on what was going on in that pretty little head of hers. "Shall we head out?"

    Nabat would fool no one into thinking it was paradise from the air, but on foot, the city was even less charming. Sun-baked and dusty, it didn't take long for some kind of powered clay to cake on Gestas' shoes and the cuffs of his pants, kicked up from the unpaved dirt paths that passed for streets here. A few small-time retailers, a cantina packed with unruly spacers, and a sleepy little tapcafe offered the briefest respite from the monotony of walking past one slummy residential building after another, though none of the girls bothered to take much interest in the goings-on of the area. Even here, among a populace that looked to be ninety percent Twi'lek, the bundled up six stood out like savrips. The natives were all dressed for the summer's heat, with some of the men forgoing shirts altogether, and many of the women going without any pants below the long tunics they'd pressed into service as makeshift dresses, loose-fitting and belted at the waist.

    Not to mention the looks the Mandalorian got walking alongside them.

    "Here," one of the Twi'leks said as they came upon a clothing store. Gestas hadn't bothered to learn any of their names. Of the six, this one had the most meat on her bones by far, with wide hips and breasts even the zeyd cloak couldn't well hide. "This place should do." They all filed in, Ezgi with them, and set upon the racks.

    Gestas milled about outside, window shopping at a few other businesses up and down the lane, doing his best to seem disinterested without losing the group. Knowing more than his share of women, he expected them to be in there for hours, trying on one thing or another, but he'd scarcely had time to purchase a cup of caf from a street vendor before they emerged. Trading the sheer silk gowns and zeyd cloaks for an assortment of more comfortable everyday attire better suited to Ryloth, the girls he'd flown in with were almost unrecognizable now.

    Truth be told, he'd miss the silk.

    By this point in the afternoon, he expected their little bout of impromptu tourism to be coming to a close. The streets seemed safe enough, soft-hearted Ezgi had forked over the credits to feed and clothe her blue-skinned wards, and everyone had plentiful opportunities to say their tearful goodbyes. But the girls' day out on the town persisted, and the two Twi'leks Gestas now understood to be blood sisters shepherded them all down a flight of steps into a dimly lit tunnel complex. After some traversal, the tunnels opened into a second city—an enormous underground city resting just below the first.

    Will wonders never cease...

    It only took one simple look around to realize that subterranean Nabat was the real Nabat. Here, the sluggish, rural pace of the surface was replaced by bustling, multi-colored crowds of Twi'leks, Aqualish, and a variety of other immigrant species, all making their way along packed thoroughfares. Upbeat, lively music echoed off the naturally smooth stone in the cavernous underground, and the cool breeze carried with it the smell of smokey, well-seasoned meat from origins unknown. It wasn't Coruscant, not by any means, but Gestas was just glad to be back in a proper city again.

    Ahead of him, the girls seemed to have reached a similar conclusion. "Which way's your home?" asked the busty one with the big lekku. He overheard Ezgi call her Feen on the way out of the clothing store, and was rather pleased to finally be able put a name to...all of her. Feen, like the native fruit. Sweet and juicy. It couldn't have suited her more.

    "It's this way," one of the sisters replied. "Near the edge."

    Along the way, they passed a dozen shops cut into the cool stone of the cavern's walls, and stalls set up within well-worn niches that had been dug off from the main corridors. Many of the stall owners here were humans rather than Twi'leks, selling offworld goods to the locals. Their entire procession suddenly ground to a halt in front of a booth selling packaged snack foods, as Ezgi snatched a handful of individually wrapped candy things from the display rack and passed them out to the girls.

    "My dad used to get these pepuri bars for me all the time when I was a kid," she said, brimming with a cheerful eagerness. Gestas had seen her smile before, but there was something about the one she wore now that was so genuine and so sweet, but also a little bit sad, that it caught him off guard. "He worked for a shipping company, and he'd go on these runs all over Mandalorian space. Every time he came home, he'd have a whole box of pep bars with him. It was our thing, I guess. We'd eat the first couple together, then he'd let me have the rest all to myself. I'd ration them out until the next time he had to go, and..." Ezgi trailed off, blushing a little as she seemed to realize she'd started jabbering on now, with even the stall owner looking about as engrossed in her story as he was interested in her credits. She quickly handed the money over, grabbing one more as she came away; to Gestas' surprise, she tossed it to him. "I didn't realize until I got older that you could get them at practically every corner store outside of Sundari. 'A must-have for spacers on the go,' and all that."

    One by one, the Twi'leks thanked her before tearing into the wrappings. Ezgi didn't seem to want to hear Gestas' thanks. Frankly, he didn't know why she'd even bought him one. Maybe the memory of her father—whom he got the distinct impression wasn't around anymore—had softened her to the point of forgiving him, if only for that passing moment. Kriff, it was hard figuring that girl. He watched her fuss after the youngest girl as they started walking again, trying to convince the smallest Twi'lek to give the snack bar a try. It was hard to square the warrior who'd gunned down so many so easily with the girl getting all misty-eyed over a hunk of mass-produced chocolate.

    He ripped open the wrapper, sniffed, and took a little bite off the corner. Chocolate, honey-rice cake, and mallowpaste cream. Huh. Well, there were certainly worse things to get misty-eyed over.

    ————————————————————​

    "Really, it's good! Just try it!"

    Numa wasn't having any of it. Ezgi broke her pep bar in half to show off the delicious insides, but even the prospect of soft, sticky, honey-rice cake wasn't enough to get the skittish Twi'lek to indulge her any further than holding on to the unfamiliar treat. "Maybe later," she said in a near whisper, wavering from meeting Ezgi's gaze. "If that's all right..."

    Ezgi stopped and frowned. "Of course it's all right. You don't have to do anything before you're ready," she said. "You don't have to anything at all if you don't want to. Okay?" The young Twi'lek nodded, and mumbled an acknowledgment before hurrying to catch up with Feen. "Good talk."

    "You're good with her," Jela said, drifting over to walk at Ezgi's side.

    She shrugged. "As much as she'll let me."

    "You mustn't take it personally. Trust is not something that comes easily to her."

    "I get that. And after everything she's been through, I don't blame her," Ezgi sighed.

    Jela patted her backplate, before moving up over the beskar and resting her palm gently on the unarmored back of Ezgi's neck. "It was kind of you to buy her the treat."

    "Shab, I'd buy her an Endorian pony if I had the credits. It's just nice seeing her smile once in a—"

    The group came to an unexpected stop in front of her, so fast as to bring Ezgi centimeters from plowing right into the back of Seku. Jela very nearly did the same to Nayella. Cursing under her breath as she steadied herself, Ezgi peered around the women in front of her in search of the unfamiliar male voice that seemed to be the cause. Just ahead, a Twi'lek man with pale pink skin and stringy-looking lekku was busy badgering Seela; Ezgi didn't understand the words he spewed her way, but she recognized the tone well enough.

    Adopting a conciliatory smile, Seela did her best to placate the stranger while the rest of the group awkwardly shuffled around him, keeping their distance. But while Seela backed away, swimming in unease, the man turned his attention to Feen. He grabbed her arm to keep her from following her friends' retreat, and while he said more in Ryl, it was the path his wandering eyes took up and down her body that spoke the loudest.

    Feen cast a quick glance toward Ezgi, a silent cry for help in her eyes. Ezgi pounced, seizing his hand. Her fingers clamped onto the soft flesh of his wrist hard enough to leave it red when she threw it aside. "Leave them alone. Now," she ordered. "They're not interested."

    The pushy Twi'lek was either recklessly stupid or maybe he just couldn't spot a Mandalorian without their helmet on. Either way, he violently shoved Ezgi back with no hint of awareness, puffing out his chest. "Piss off, schutta," he spat in heavily accented Basic, lekku coiling aggressively behind him. "Nobody likes a human that sticks its nose where it don't belong."

    Ezgi bit the inside of her lip to keep from wincing at the force of his push. The bacta had worked wonders for her injuries, but she was still more than a little tender. She shook her head, and masked her pain in an angry sneer of a smile that a more clever man might've recognized as a hint to shut up and cut his losses. "You're not very bright, are you? I said leave."

    Ryl curses followed, and the man reached into his jacket for a knife, a janky little shiv that looked as if he'd fashioned it at home. He zig-zagged it back and forth in the air like the head of a serpent, trying unsuccessfully to look threatening. "No, you listen to me, you stupid little schutta. Get the frang out of here, or I'll cut up all your faces so bad you're gonna to wish you ain't cut up so—"

    Sore and irritated now, Ezgi had no interest in a potentially prolonged knife fight, and even less in hearing him talk anymore. Plus, every second he brandished the blade, Feen and the others were in danger of a random, spiteful slash in the event he decided to lash out. So with that in mind, she pulled her blaster from its holster and, fresh out of warnings and patience, fired a bolt of blue plasma that burned through the Twi'lek's ankle. He shrieked and dropped his shabby knife on the street as he collapsed, clutching at his boot and squealing like a lame nerf.

    "Heeeeelp!" the man yelled out to a passing crowd that quickly proved indifferent to his self-inflicted plight. He cried out in Basic and again in Ryl, but the results were the same each time. It seemed the streets of Nabat could be every bit as rough and unforgiving of chakaare as those of Keldabe. "Someone get help!" One of the many unperturbed passersby—a young Twi'lek woman with beautiful, buff-colored skin—actually jogged over to laugh and hurl several choice words in Ryl at him before hurrying off again. Clearly she was familiar with his sleazy routine. "Does nobody care that this human's murdered me?! Someone help!"

    Ezgi kicked his other boot. "Oh, shut up. You sound pathetic," she scolded him, getting a fresh whimper in return. "Don't be a little moof-milker, you'll be fine. It's not like I grazed an artery or anything." She holstered her pistol and motioned for the group to continue on. "Be thankful it wasn't your gett'se."

    Up ahead, Numa tugged at Seku's sleeve and whispered something. Ezgi couldn't make out Seku's answer, but it led both Twi'leks to break into giggles.

    As they got going again, Gestas meandered his way back through the group to where Ezgi had taken up the rear. "Nicely done," he said quietly. "I guess Mandalorians don't bother much with stun settings when they make blasters, huh?"

    "These are Sullustan, actually," replied Ezgi, patting her holsters. "SoruSuub ELG-3As with custom triggers and aftermarket barrel arrays. And yes, actually, they do have stun settings."

    "Good to know. I'll have to remember that." He was silent for a moment, making that same I Learned Something Today face as before, but Ezgi could tell that he was working his way around to saying more. "Okay, you've got to help me bridge the gap of logic here," he finally blurted out. "You won't kill a Hutt slaver, but you're fine with maiming some random pittin-chaser on the street?"

    Ezgi's jaw clenched. "An armed pittin-chaser," she answered angrily. "Or maybe you missed the knife? That Hutt slaver wasn't waving a dagger around in my face, threatening to slice people up." Janumba's angry little fist flashed through her mind again. She knew that Hutts didn't need a blade to be dangerous. Did he really need to keep picking at it? "And 'maimed', you're going with 'maimed'? Really? It was just his foot!"

    "More of an ankle shot, really..."

    "How about next time you step up and handle the problem yourself, instead of second-guessing everything I do after the fact?"

    Gestas backed away, hands held up in surrender. "Message received, girl," he muttered.

    Following Seela and her sister's lead, Ezgi and the others moved away from the busier streets and merchants, into a quieter residential district at the edge of the cavernous underground. Much like on the surface, woven banners were draped between the buildings here and across the narrow streets. There were small awnings stretched over the facade of every dwelling, too, despite lacking any real need for shade down here. Tradition, probably. Music could be heard coming from inside several of the homes, and Ezgi caught glimpses of rowdy families through open windows.

    The Laseyr household sat at the end of a boxed street, a mostly square structure with a recessed door and large, covered windows. A wavy strand of flowered garland hung over the entranceway, a relic of better times, whose flowers had long since wilted and turned brown. "This is it," said Nayella as they approached. "This is home." She'd been so excited to show the others around her city with Seela, but now that they stood at their front door, there was an unmistakable hint of insecurity in her voice. "I know it's not much, but—"

    "It's nice," Gestas, of all people, interjected. "Very...charming. Quaint, even." He scratched at his chin, eyes wandering from the dried out garland to the slightly tattered edges of the awning. "If you ask me, it's got a lot of character."

    Ezgi could spot his jargoned cliches for what they were a klick away, and wondered if the man had any prior experience in peddling questionable real estate. He had the right disposition for the work. But for her part, Nayella seemed reassured by his words, and that was enough to keep Ezgi from calling him out on his osik in front of the group. "It's lovely, you two," she offered.

    Inside, they were welcomed by a cozy living space, full of comfortable, cushy seating. Soft yellow lighting made the entire area feel warm and intimate. The only thing that seemed out of place was a thin layer of dust that had settled over everything in the time the Laseyr sisters had been away, especially visible atop a dark wood table that Seela vigorously tried to scrub clean with the underside of her sleeve. The house was no less inviting and homey for it. One by one, Ezgi and the others were practically forced into cushioned seats to rest by their two anxious hosts, who disappeared into the larder for anything to offer their guests.

    "You really don't have to," Ezgi called after them.

    "Yes, that's really—Seela, Nayella, ma numi, please," said Jela. "You needn't bother."

    Their words fell on deaf aural cones. When the two women returned, Seela had her arms wrapped around several bottles of drinking water, and Nayella carried a woodblock platter laden with munch-fungus bread and a small tub of gornt lard. "We don't have much that's still edible right now, not after all this time, but please take as much as you'd like," Seela said, passing out bottles to Seku and Gestas.

    "We have a few jars of preserved pickles, too," Nayella added. "If anyone would like some."

    Numa's head-tails perked up. "I like pickles."

    Through the evening hours, the eight of them enjoyed the modest meal together, trading small talk and stories over lard-covered bread and knobbly green pickles soaked with potent vinegar. No one spoke of Janumba or any other Hutt. They rarely mentioned their time in captivity at all, in fact. Instead, it was the future that was the gathering's main talking point: hopes and plans for what might come next all poured out between mouthfuls.

    Yet as they spoke and Ezgi listened, she found that each of the Twi'leks had no small number of hurdles laid out in front of them. Seku, for instance, came from a low-income neighborhood of Rylothian immigrants in the underworld of Coruscant, one plagued by vicious gangs and abusive police. Seela and Nayella, on the other hand, were all that remained of their small clan after a particularly brutal raid by slavers, and coming home to the lower end of Nabat's spectrum of rural poverty after all these years would do neither of them any favors. As for Numa, she had nothing in all the galaxy to call her own, save for the clothes on her back and the affection of her surrogate sisters. And Feen's story was all too similar to Jela's, just with a different set of names and locations.

    Hearing all of this, Ezgi soon found herself making plans of her own. She couldn't help it, she liked them, even if she'd only known them for barely a day. Shab, she'd liked Jela since the moment she locked eyes with her. If any of them were to have a real chance at a decent future, there was a lot that needed to be done. The men who'd stolen Jela and Feen away from their homes, the Coruscanti gang that kidnapped Seku, the slavers and brokers who pawned them all off to Janumba—down to a man, they would all have to go. Leaving any one of those pieces on the board risked putting them in danger again. It meant that there would be a trail to recapturing them, and a threat to other women in the future.

    A job that big didn't get done alone. She'd need backup, but Ezgi knew more than a few people who'd be up for the task. Most of them would probably even do it for free. All told, it was doable, and she resolved to do it. But first things first.

    Draining the bottle of water Seela had insisted she take, Ezgi rose up from her cushy seat and stretched as far as her tender muscles would allow. "I think I'm going to get a little air," she said, smiling and starting for the door.

    "Is everything alright?" Nayella asked.

    "Oh yeah, fine. I just need to stretch my legs for a minute. Mandos are restless by nature." Ezgi nudged Gestas' foot with the toe of her boot. "Join me?"

    He pried himself up from the padded, purple chair he'd claimed upon entering the Laseyr home. "Uh, yeah. You know, I was just thinking I needed a smoke."

    Outside, Ezgi barely waited until the Twi'leks' door was shut behind them. "All right, I'll do it."

    "Excuse me?" Gestas' brows rose, and his lips pursed under his mustache. "Do...what, exactly?"

    She glared at him, crossing her arms. "You know what, Vik."

    "Ehh, I don't know. I mean, I think I do, but I can't really be sure, so I'm going to have to actually hear you say the words." He was trying very hard not to smile, and doing a poor job of it. "Actually, no, never mind. It can't be what I'm thinking, because you made it very clear you're not a thief, and what I really need—"

    "Is a bodyguard," she said firmly. "Someone to make sure you get where you need to go, and to keep you safe while you're doing what you need to do. And someone who'll be well paid for doing it."

    For a moment, Gestas said nothing. He seemed to be weighing the pros and cons of pushing ahead with his decidedly unfunny teasing. "That sounds like exactly what I need," he said at last.

    "Good. Now, about the...what did you call them again? Oh right, the 'financials.' Let's get those out of the way." Ezgi closed in. "My original fee? It's doubled. Plus the agency's commission, and a hundred grand bonus for all the osik you pulled. And you won't be leaving my sight until I get physically paid this time. Credit chips, ingots, coins—hard currency only."

    "Now hold on..."

    "Oh, is that too much to ask? Am I being unreasonable, Vik?" Ezgi asked, glaring.

    Wisely, he shook his head. "No, I can do that. You've got a deal."

    But she wasn't finished. "Not yet. The Twi'leks? They get a cut, too."

    Gestas visibly balked. "Wait, what? Okay whoa, whoa, no, hold on. Just—the Twi'leks? They weren't part of—you didn't even know these people until a few—" He was barely keeping his voice down. "Why? Because they fed you? Because that blue little cougar in there rubbed bacta all over your—"

    "How you do you even—?!" At this point, Ezgi had to stop herself from shouting. "Do you have cams in the shabla fresher?"

    "I have cams everywhere on my ship," said Gestas. "It's my ship! You can't expect me to let a bunch of random strangers I just met wander around my ship with zero supervision."

    "Unbelievable. Un-shabla-believable! Are you ever honest about about anything upfront?"

    "Sure I am! I'm honestly baffled as to why you think you owe these people anything!"

    "You saw the conditions in there," she shot back, jabbing her finger toward the house's run down facade. "None of the others are doing much better, and that was before they all spent years of their lives as some rancid sack of strill osik's playthings. If this treasure trove of yours is really as massive as you seem to think it is—"

    "It is."

    "—then you can stand to share a little."

    Gestas smoothed his thumb and forefinger out over his brows, then did the same to his mustache. "All right," he said at last, dragging his hand down the remainder of his face as he exhaled a sigh through his nostrils. "All right, fine then. How much are we talking?"

    "A million," Ezgi replied, not missing a beat.

    "A mill—fine. Fine. A million credits." His voice was tight, delivered through clenched teeth. "Done. Happy now?"

    He'd agreed too quickly. There was more in that stash than she'd first guessed. "A million...per lekku. For each of them," Ezgi added, smiling.

    "Per—each?!"

    "Each."

    "Are you kidding? I can't tell if you're kidding. Is this Mandalorian humor?"

    "Two million credits to each of them, or you can try your luck on Kor Utaru by yourself." The boot was certainly on the other foot now, and Ezgi had to admit that some part of her was reveling in it. "Do we have a deal or not?"

    Another nose-born sigh, and Gestas shook his head and folded his arms. He was the very picture of a disgruntled customer. "You're not really giving me an option to say no here, are you?"

    "None at all."

    "Fine."

    ————————————————————​

    Little Ezgi Deshra practically ran back into that ramshackle hovel masquerading as a home, armed with a plan she couldn't wait to put before the Twi'leks. It was almost adorable in its soft-hearted naivete.

    Not Gestas, though. He took a seat on a little stone bench not far from the door, and with deliberate slowness, removed his lighter and a fresh cigarra from his jacket. While he lit his cigarra and took the first splendid puff, he lounged and he listened to the Mandalorian's fantastic new pitch to the girls inside.

    Just stay together and off the radar—ooh, maybe here at the Laseyr home! Are you sure it's not too much trouble? No, of course not! Don't be ridiculous, and not to worry: I'll give you every credit no one saw me take from the big hairy goon on Nar Shaddaa so you can all get by just fine. Tough it out here for, oh...a couple days, maybe a week tops, and then you can all go home flush with creds, start new lives, live your dreams, conquer the stars, Mando hoo-rah-rah.

    Blah, blah, kriffing blah.

    He had to hand it to the girl, she made for a damn good salesman. Stang, he was ready to take the deal. The Twi'leks made their own agreement known almost immediately, save for the prickly Coruscanti girl. That one was the hardest sell, wanting more details than he would've liked her to have, but Ezgi smoothed over the cracks without too much trouble. Clever girl.

    They never would've listened if the idea had come from him. None of them, not even Ezgi. He could still distinctly recall the exact words the Mandalorian had used to turn down his proposition with perfect clarity. Her frustrated—no, her disgusted expression was clear as a holo in his mind. It seemed rather funny now, and he coughed out a cloud of smoke while laughing to himself about it. He'd offered her a treasure planet and she rejected him outright, so full of self-righteousness, but once it seemed like she was stealing a piece of it out from under him for the betterment of a couple poor blue saps, she couldn't sign up fast enough. So much for not being a thief.

    All he had to do to bring it all back on course was play to her weaknesses. Switch up the routine from suave man of means to put-upon crook who can't get away with nothing, offer a few ostensibly pleasant but subtly patronizing comments to the tail-heads in order to focus sympathies, coax them into talking about their lives, and poof: results. People were so easy sometimes it almost took the fun out of it.

    Gestas took a long drag while going for his comlink in his jacket pocket, indulging in the first authentic smile he'd smiled in a while. "You around, boyo?" he asked into the receiver.

    The Dug on the other end sounded as though he'd been napping when he answered. "Copy, boss. Ya two need another getaway?"

    "Oh no, everything's fine on this end. I just wanted to be the first to give you the good news. Start plotting a course for Bootana Hutta, Noot, 'cause we are back on schedule."



    Chapter 6

    "Better brace."

    Senoota's warning came with remarkably little lead time. Ezgi barely got a grip on the pilot and co-pilot's chairs before the starstreaks of hyperspace beyond the viewport slammed back into the black void, and her stomach slammed up somewhere near her throat. "Ugh. Can you please dial up the inertial dampeners?" she groaned

    The Dug turned to check on her, looking rueful. "Can do, pateesa. Can do. Sorry 'bout that. Bad habit of mine."

    "It's...fine," Ezgi sighed, patting his arm. "So where are we now?"

    The journey into the core of Hutt Space had been off to an uncharacteristically good start for this outing, all things considered. With Senoota at the helm, they'd plotted their course according to the millennia-old map Gestas stole at the auction, keeping off the more well-patrolled Pabol Hutta hyperlane, and steering clear of the militarized checkpoints that usually hampered foreigners in the Gos Hutta and Mulatan systems. But even the secret pathways of the ancient Hutts could only take them so far, and if they wanted to get deeper inside the Bootana, that meant returning to the charted hyperspace routes. Routes like the charmingly named Dead Road, with what looked to be an enormous asteroid field littered with derelict ships and other age-old refuse now acting as their new starting line.

    "Locals call it the Junkyard," said Senoota.

    "Oh really? I can't imagine why." That got a gruff laugh from the old Dug, and Ezgi let herself smile along with him. "I'm guessing we're going to need a minute to calculate our next jump."

    "Mm. Gotta figure how we account for all of...that."

    Ezgi surrendered her hold on the pilot's seat, and fell back to reclining against the cockpit's rear wall, only to flinch when the door whooshed open suddenly and Gestas barged in. Gone was the fancy suit, replaced by a dark shirt of rough-spun merlie wool and a pair of hardy military trousers. A heavy blaster pistol hung in an underarm holster slung at his left side, and he even had a serious looking vibroblade tucked into a boot-strapped scabbard. The most interesting part, though, was how well it all suited him, how at ease with the new guise he was. It made her reassess the old man yet again, who he'd been in his youth, and how dangerous he might still be.

    "Are we there already?" Gestas asked the pilot. His head jerked around as he caught sight of Ezgi in his peripheral vision, with surprise quickly morphing into a begrudgingly pleasant nod.

    Ezgi nodded in return. "Not quite. We've reached the Junkyard, so says Senoota."

    He scanned the sprawling mass of space trash beyond the viewport and frowned. "Appropriately named. This going to be a problem for you?"

    "Please!" Senoota scoffed, not bothering to look up from the navicomputer. "This is no trouble. Just gotta give a minute for the calculations."

    "I guess it can't be helped." Rubbing his forehead, Gestas shifted into his seat with an audibly anxious exhale. "At least we're well out of the way of anybody keen to look for us."

    It seemed that way, at least. Ezgi was even less certain of that point than her former client-turned-partner sounded, but there was nothing she could do now but trust in the old Dug's piloting skills. She was out of her element out here, sneaking around in places forbidden to most beings not of the gastropod persuasion—or those enslaved to them. Even if they did get attacked, what could she do from the inside of a ship?

    Waiting like this just made everything worse. It gave her too much time to think.

    Her gut had been screaming at her that this whole plan was a mistake ever since they left Ryloth. After everything that happened, logic said that she should've run as far from Hutt Space as possible, not go diving straight back into the heart of it when so many eyes were looking for her. Harik had told her as much, and if she'd taken the time to ask literally anyone else, they would've surely said the same.

    Anxious, Ezgi hooked her thumbs in her belt and held fast to the pouches just to give her shaky hands something steadying to do. "You know this area, Senoota?" she asked, looking for a distraction.

    "Sure, sure," replied the Dug as he worked. "Some years back, I done some work for a guy on the Pearl, moving stuff. Spice, weapons, that sorta thing. No slaves, though. Always steered way clear of Bootana Shagplan and that whole...eugh." Senoota stuck out his tongue at the thought, made a spitting sound over his shoulder, and said something in his native tongue Ezgi didn't catch. "Not too happy being back here again, but fierfek, I go where the money go."

    You and me both, she thought to herself. You and me both.

    Senoota managed to get them underway again soon after, threading a sublight course into the densely packed collection of millennia old rock and refuse, in search of a clear jump point they could take advantage of. Asteroids, some seven times the size of the Star, spun lazily in place as they passed, while a half-blind turn sent a cluster of shards the size of bolo-balls hammering into the shields, scraping away blue sparks as they ineffectually ricocheted off and vanished back into the rest of the garbage.

    "Believe it or not, this the easy part," Senoota said with a nervous laugh, "Whatever power made the universe must've gotten bored in the doing, ya know? 'Cause by the time it got to the Bootana, thought and care got thrown out an airlock, and all kinds of crazy went in the big ol' cosmic cooking pot."

    Ezgi had heard stories, but it was hard to glean fact from the wild fantasy of tall spacer tales. Somehow she doubted they'd stumble onto any gargantuan space beasts with glowing tentacles and a hunger for the ships of wayward travelers. But it never hurt to ask. "Like what?"

    "The heart of the Hutt Space is fulla all kinds of danger. Rogue planetoids, spatial disturbances that don't make no logical sense...fierfek, it's a mess. Get you the best navicomputer on the market like this one here, and you'd still be in for constant recalibrating, the likes o' which I doing right now." Then, as if all that weren't enough, Senoota turned around in his seat and actually winked. "And that's just if these Hutts and the pirates don't all get us first."

    "You're a real ray of sunshine, Noot," Gestas muttered.

    "That's what the ex-wife always used to say. 'Senoota, my ray of sunshine!' Say that to me every day, she did."

    "I'll bet."

    Rolling her eyes, Ezgi moved over to the edge of the cockpit for a better look outside. The view was mostly filled with chunks of dull, craterous rock interspersed with the occasional fragment of shapeless ship wreckage, but as the Star yawed hard to the right, something else caught her eye in the distance. "I think that's a Batil fighter out there," she said aloud.

    "A what?" asked Gestas, shushing Senoota and craning his neck to follow her line of sight. "Where? Has it spotted us?"

    "Has it what? No, it's—it's one of the old derelicts," Ezgi said, pointing. The archaic starfighter's hull had been torn open by some kind of missile strike, with no sign of what became of its original pilot. She'd only ever seen a ship like it once before at the Galactic Museum on Coruscant, polished and locked away behind a pane of transparisteel in the Xim exhibit. "Shabla haran, that thing's got to be...what, twenty thousand years old?"

    Gestas shot her an odd smirk. "This sort of thing gets you excited, huh?"

    "Shut up," Ezgi sighed, wiping the enthusiasm from her face. "I like history, all right? Let's not make a big deal out of it."

    In another minute or two, they reached a clearing in the debris. Senoota angled the ship in accordance with the navcom and punched in their new vector, sending them vaulting into hyperspace once more. But almost as quickly as they'd gone to lightspeed, he had to pull them back out again and adjust their heading once more. The Dug put their hyperdrive through the wringer to avoid the myriad obstacles Hutt Space threw at them. In and out of hyperspace they went, making at least a dozen controlled jumps before they finally emerged from hyperspace along the outermost edge of a small star system. "Shouldn't take more than a minute," Senoota muttered as he checked over the coordinates for the next leg.

    "Where did we end up?" asked Ezgi.

    "Elgit system."

    Gestas sat straight up in his seat. "The Elgit system? Stang it, Noot, are you crazy?"

    "What? Why?" Ezgi demanded, retaking position between the two pilots' chairs. "What's the deal with this system?"

    Senoota made a nasally dismissive noise and waved off their concern. "Bah! Nothing here but the Pearl."

    "The Pearl? Wait, you mentioned that before. What's the Pearl?" she asked.

    "Oh, it's a...whachu call 'em...a shadowport. Over that way. Big, mostly empty space'a'station the Hutts don't really care none for no more. Good place to lay low and do business away from prying eyes." Senoota straightened up, and smiled a wide smile. "Nothing for ya to worry about."

    Gestas leaned over, and clapped his hand down hard on the Dug's sinewy shoulder. "The Elgit system's also where Troonol the Hutt's fleet does frequent patrols, so let's move it along, boyo."

    "Bah! Worrying too much." Senoota pried the hand from his shoulder, before reaching up to flip a pair of switches overhead. "Gonna get the latest scan data of the Bootana from my jobada on the Pearl, run it against what we got in the navcom, then we gonna get out of here. Not the place to do a rush job."

    A tense moment passed before Gestas sank back into his seat, patting the padded armrests uneasily. "Right, right," he muttered. "Wouldn't want to end things early over a missed decimal point."

    Ezgi eased back, and listened in silence from the back of the cockpit, observing without further comment. She didn't like that Gestas knew more and more about the goings-on of Hutt Space than he tried to let on. She'd long since accepted that the man was a liar, but it was hard to discern how deep the lies went and what, if any truth, laid underneath it all.

    They jumped again soon after, the very moment the navigational calculations were complete, according to Senoota. Ezgi had stopped keeping track of the lightyears they roamed this way and that, but it was all finally rewarded when the ship dropped out of hyperspace for the last time above a green-blue little world surrounded by a trio of barren moons, all caught in the light of a distant orange star.

    "This is it," Senoota said, even more gravelly than usual. Maybe he was more nervous about all this than he tried to let on, too. Ezgi tried to suppress a smile at the thought. He was in good company for that. "Welcome to Kor Utaru."

    Gestas honed in on the console in front of him, scrolling through the standard scanner readings of the planet below. "Wait a minute. This can't be right..."

    "What?" Ezgi asked. She took a few steps closer to get a look at the screen over his shoulder. "What's wrong?"

    "The whole damn planet's covered in water. Pole to kriffing pole!" he shouted, slamming his hand down on the console. "That's the one karking thing I didn't plan for!" Gestas hissed out a breath as he slumped in his seat, hands cradling his head. "Kriffin' hell—I don't know, maybe we can go back to the Pearl and try to get some diving gear from one of the dealers there, or..."

    "Wait," Ezgi said. She leaned in, pushing Gestas back in his seat so she could see the sensor readings more clearly. The scans definitely showed that Kor Utaru was covered in water, but the color and light refraction coming up from the planet didn't sit right with her. "Senoota, run another scan of the planet. See if you can gets some estimate of how deep the water is."

    "Sure, sure," the Dug grumbled, looking just about as offput as his partner. "What do ya figure—whoa-ho now!"

    Ezgi leaned in again for the results. "Wayii," she said, smiling. "Would you look at that." Topography readings showed that the whole planet was almost uniformly flat, with no mountains or canyons to speak of. And while Kor Utaru was indeed covered in a massive ocean, that ocean was more often than not shallow enough for the average human to walk through unaided, and barely over ten meters at its absolute deepest. "Let's get down there."

    Strangely, Gestas didn't have much of a reaction to the new readings. No excitement, not a "good job," not even a superficial quip. In fact, he just sat back in his chair in silence throughout most of the descent, scratching his chin, bottom lip sucked between his teeth. When he at last got up to prepare for landing, the old man paused at the door and turned to Ezgi with an unusually sober look in his eye. "How did you know? What made you think to run a topographical scan?"

    She shrugged, turning her helmet over in her hands. "Just a hunch, really. I've been to Dac, Manaan, and a couple of other waterworlds over the years. What I saw from up there didn't really look like those to me." Ezgi held up her hand to stem the obvious objections before they could come. "I know, I know. It could've been a difference in atmospheric composition, or any of a hundred other things, but it just reminded me of seeing Rodia from orbit. The swamps and marshlands. Something just...clicked."

    "Hmm." That was all he said. Just a little hmm. Mouth curled into a thoughtful frown and his gaze lost to somewhere far away, Gestas gave a somber nod and excused himself from the cockpit.

    Senoota leaned around his chair at the sound of the door sliding shut. "Don't take it personal, pateesa. It's him the boss's mad at, not what ya said. Been after this a long, long time. Gets glum when it seems like the finish line's getting pulled away, ya know?"


    * * *​


    Ezgi only made it half way down the boarding ramp before her boots splashed into the sea. By the time her feet were back on solid ground, she was up to her shebs in lukewarm, brackish water dotted with floating clumps of algae. It could have been worse: here, well within walking distance of the Utaru bunker, the ocean was especially shallow, and the ship's landing struts had been able to find a solid foothold atop a wide sheet of sandstone just a meter below the surface. And as an unexpected bonus, it also didn't smell half as bad as she'd feared. With so much algae in the water, she'd anticipated something not unlike rotting foliage, but what she found instead was closer to the scent of fermenting ale.

    That wasn't to say that things couldn't have been better, either. The air here was hot and oppressively humid, and sloshing through thigh-deep, tepid water while her flight suit grew increasingly squidgy below the belt wasn't exactly her idea of a good time.

    Ahead, Gestas was on similarly wet footing, knee deep in the endless ocean and holding a pair of macrobinoculars to his eyes as he surveyed the area. "This place is...is..."

    "Dead?" offered Ezgi, eyeballing the seemingly infinite, flat horizon for herself. There weren't even waves atop the water. The orbital scans showed no hint of civilization, not now or at any time in the past. No complex lifeforms detected either, just algae and some kind of underwater grass. If she hadn't seen the holomap with her own eyes, she would've thought they'd come to the wrong world.

    "That's not exactly the word I'd have chosen, but...I'm not sure you're wrong," Gestas replied, a tinge of disappointment in his voice. "Jewel worlds like this are meant to be covered in huge palaces, classical Hutt architecture everywhere you look, and pleasure gardens as far as the eye can see."

    "Well there's none of that here." Ezgi slid her helmet on and breathed in the cool, filtered air the ventilation system provided. She tugged at the armorweave strap hanging over her shoulder, shortening the slack in the carrying sling for her GALAAR-15. It was imperative that the blaster carbine stayed above the waterline. After the fiasco on Nar Kreeta, Ezgi had decided it was probably prudent to bring along a bit more firepower than her pistols could muster on their own, and it wouldn't do to let the GALAAR get mucked up on the way.

    She trudged eastward toward where the map said they'd find the vault, stirring up loose sand and dirt with every step and muddying the water. Despite what the scans said, she feared accidentally kicking up something that might kick back. Or bite, or sting, or...whatever it was that little creatures who lived in places like this did when they got startled.

    Ezgi could hear Gestas muttering behind her, along with the sound of sloshing water trailing in her wake. With a couple of coordinated blinks and quick eye movements, she brought up her helmet's 360-degree view in her HUD so that she could keep an eye on him without constantly having to turn around. The parameters of their partnership may have changed, but for whatever reason, she couldn't shake the feeling that she was still somewhat responsible for the old man's safety. Professional pride, maybe. It wouldn't look good on her record to have lost an elderly client in the middle of the Bootana.

    It took only a few minutes to reach the vault's supposed coordinates. Looking back over her shoulder, Ezgi could still easily make out the Aximian Star awaiting their return with idling engines. What she didn't see—anywhere—was the vault. She took a few steps back and activated her helmet's penetrating scanner, taking aim at the sea floor. With the murky water filtered away, she searched the bedrock for some sign of the bunker or an access point, but the sensors just came back with foggy readings of an unusually dense rock composite. "We are in the right place, aren't we?" she asked.

    "S'where you told me it was," Senoota's voice crackled over the comm. "Don't see nothing?"

    Gestas moved slowly around the area, sweeping his feet back and forth under the water in search of some secret switch or something that would need to be tripped. "Nothing yet," he answered, mouth tight and brow furrowed. "It's here, though. It has to be here."

    They had to be missing something. Ezgi refused to believe that it had all just been a thousand-year-old joke, Serraba's last laugh from beyond the grave. "Could Serraba have swapped the coordinates around? Sent us to the wrong side of the planet as, I don't know, one more test?"

    "No, no that doesn't make any—" Gestas's sloshing stopped, and he looked up at the overcast sky, shaking his head. "I'm doing it again."

    "Doing what?" Ezgi asked.

    "Every time...I do it every time."

    "Viktor!"

    He laughed. "Thinking like a human! I'm thinking like a kriffing human again, when I should be thinking like a Hutt. Do you think Serraba ever, and I mean even once, set foot in this ocean?"

    "Seeing as he's a Hutt and doesn't actually have feet?"

    "Oh hah, yeah, that's karking hilarious," Gestas deadpanned back. "No, he would've had a skiff or a repulsorsled cart him out here. And he'd figure on any descendants of his doing the same, because what self-respecting Hutt wants to slither their way through the brine when they can be carried instead?"

    "Seems like we've got at least one thing in common, then," muttered Ezgi. "So where are you going with this? We're not looking for a switch or a pressure plate or something on the bottom, we need to...do what, exactly?"

    Gestas raked his fingers through his hair, grimacing. "I don't, uh—hold on, okay? Just, just give me a minute. I'm halfway there, I just need another minute." Back and forth in a line that was only vaguely straight, he paced and muttered to himself too low to make out anything better than every third word. "Can your gear pick up localized signals?" he asked suddenly.

    "Sure, why?" Even as she asked, Ezgi blinked up her helmet's scanner and searched for local-area frequencies, and was surprised to discover the fast results. "I've got a network node...below us."

    "That's it!" A triumphant laugh burst forth from Gestas, and he smiled like a kid. "This has to be the place!"

    Hidden behind her visor, Ezgi smiled too. But the node's return signal quickly put paid to her enthusiasm. They'd merely traded one problem for another. "It's asking for a password, Vik. Did Serraba's orb have anything else on it?"

    "No, nothing," he said, his joy vanishing under a grim frown. "It's just a standard map reader orb, there's nothing but the charts I showed you and the vault's coordinates." Cursing loudly, Gestas lashed out, kicking the water and sending a spray of droplets across Ezgi's visor. "In all the research I did for this job, I never once came across anything about a kriffing password. It could be anything!"

    Ezgi tripped her helmet's neck seal and slid it off, a move she immediately regretted when the stiflingly humid air of Kor Utaru rushed in to meet her. "Stop thrashing around," she ordered, wiping her visor with the side of her glove. The algae-colored water just smeared on the transparisteel, and she had to really scrub at it with her fingertips to get it clean. "Just take a second and breathe. The system's asking for a vocalized password from someone who would presumably be a Hutt, and it's being done on a low-frequency scramble set that's so old my helmet's built-in systems can barely still access it. What's that tell us?"

    Sighing, Gestas shook his head. "That it's probably Huttese."

    "And given the burst specs I'm seeing, it probably isn't just one word, but a phrase. Something meaningful to Serraba, or the kajidic as a whole from way back then. Something that would be likely to get passed down."

    "That narrows things down."

    Ezgi bristled. "You know, sarcasm's not really helpful right now."

    "I wasn't being sarcastic. Pessimistic, sure, but not sarcastic," Gestas said, shrugging. "You narrowed a universe of possibilities down to a galaxy's worth. That's not nothing."

    She wasn't sure how to take that, and searched for some hidden barb or angle beneath the ostensible compliment. Gestas and the truth had such a tenuous relationship, it was hard to tell when he was just trying to handle her and when he'd accidentally fallen into real sincerity. Not that it really mattered either way. "Senoota tells me you've been planning this score for a long time. Did any of your research turn up an old coat-of-arms, or...anything?"

    "Nothing beyond the usual kajidic sigil." Gestas blew out a long breath and scratched at his sweaty chin. "Serraba was not, by any stretch of the imagination, what you'd call a modest Hutt. All of the research I did said that he was constantly comparing himself to guys like Budhila, Boonta, and Kossak. Always going on and on about the might of his kajidic and the enduring legacy he'd leave behind. Maybe we could try something Kossak said after Xim's defeat, or maybe a line from Boonta's speech before the battle of—"

    "Ohta su marvalic plesodoro," Ezgi said.

    "What?"

    She chuckled. "Ohta su marvalic plesodoro. 'Let them marvel at our splendor.' It's from Budhila's big treatise, the one that led to the creation of the kajidic system. It became almost like a motto for a lot of the lordas in the centuries after. Plenty of the big-timers still love throwing it around to this day. For someone of Serraba's stature and self image, somebody who wanted his treasure found by a worthy heir and all that, it's as good a starting place as any."

    Gestas stared at her for a moment, before dropping a flat, "Huh."

    "What?"

    "Nothing. I guess I'm just a little surprised you so happened to be an expert on Budhila the kriffing Hutt," Gestas scoffed. His tone was teasing, and he smiled as he said it, but there was something deeper there. A bitterness bordering on jealousy lurked in his eyes. It must've chafed to be shown up by the hired muscle.

    "I told you, I like history," Ezgi replied as nonchalant as she knew how to be. "And once you finally told me what this was all about, I was able to actually brush up on some stuff we might need to know for myself." She flashed him a little smirk. "See what happens when you share a little?"

    "Point taken," he huffed.

    "Well, here goes nothing." Scraping away several loose hairs that had gotten stuck to the back of her sweaty neck, Ezgi slid her helmet back on, and sighed with relief at the gentle stream of cool air that blew across her face from the internal coolant system. She pitched her helmet's annunciator to transmit her voice far lower than natural, into the common Hutt vocal range, and tapped into the local frequency. "Ohta su marvalic plesodoro!"

    Nothing happened.

    "Did you do it?" Gestas asked after a long, breathless couple of seconds.

    She switched to external output again. "Yes."

    "Are you sure you said it right?"

    "Yes."

    "Did you try—"

    "Yes!" Ezgi shouted. "Osik! Osik. Obviously that wasn't it." She bit her lip in frustration, but after admonishing Gestas for kicking up a splash, she restrained herself from doing the same. "So what about, uh—hmm, you might have been onto something with Kossak's victory speech. Hutt supremacists are always quoting the part where..." A low, muffled chohk sound resonated up from somewhere deep under the water, and she froze. "Did you hear that?"

    Gestas looked around, shaking his head. "Hear what?"

    "Like a...like a locking clasp or something coming—" The ground shook in a brief but violent tremor, and Ezgi's legs almost buckled under when the seafloor seemed to come rushing upward. They weren't just at the entrance, they were standing right on top of it. "Move!" She bolted to the edge of the rising platform, plopping down hard at the edge before jumping clear and splashing back into the ocean.

    Gestas was at her side a second later, though his landing was far rougher. He ended up getting himself more or less drenched from the shoulders down as he clumsily scrambled his way to safety. "Wasn't expecting that," he sputtered, brushing mud from the knees of his pants.

    What had been a just another segment of the sea floor only moments before, now proved to be the rough-edged roof of a circular, columned structure not unlike an ancient tholos. The rim of the shallow dome shed water in a thousand tiny falls with its rise, while waves rippled out from the base, lapping at Ezgi's middle as she approached. When the entrance finally came to rest and the water grew quiet, she hauled herself up onto a steelstone platform some twenty meters wide, with enough room overhead to accommodate even the largest of Hutts.

    Gestas made his way up after her, climbing onto the platform at the same time a short, square pedestal rose up from the center. The smooth sides were covered in old Huttese script, while the flat top featured a semi-spherical indent of a familiar size. "Well, well, well," Gestas chuckled as he inspected the pedestal. "This looks an awful lot like a good old fashioned lock to me." He reached into his pocket and pulled out Serraba's map reader orb. "What say we try a key?" With a nod from Ezgi, he pressed the orb into the slot. Across the pedestal, the engraved script glowed softly in response, and the orb was suddenly drawn irretrievably inside, despite a valiant scramble to get it back. "Stang it, the damn thing took the orb!"

    "We'd better not need that anymore," Ezgi said sourly. She braced as the stone base quivered beneath their feet again, only for the center to disengage from the outer edge and start lowering them slowly toward the bunker below. "So all that was what, how you call the lift?"

    "Looks that way. Shame there's no good music." Gestas laughed nervously, eyeing the smooth outer edges of the shaft, bored into the natural rock and shored up with durasteel framework. "Here's hoping there's not a pit of spikes waiting for us at the bottom."

    "That's only in the holos," Ezgi said with a snort. Secretly, the thought had crossed her mind as well. A pit of spikes might've been an adventure vid cliche, but they had their roots in reality, and she wouldn't put it past a Hutt to fill their treasure horde with all sorts of death traps. The platform continued to sink deeper and deeper below the surface, as excess water trickled down from the opening above in a small but steady sprinkle. "How much further down do you think it'll be?"

    "Beats me," Gestas muttered, shaking his head. "At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if Serraba built the damn thing right into the mantle."

    For a second, Ezgi imagined being trapped in a vault surrounded on all sides by molten magma, and shivered in response. She'd never thought of herself as claustrophobic before, but that was not a happy thought. She'd take a thousand spike-filled pits over that.

    After an agonizingly slow descent, the lift platform finally reached the bottom of the shaft, locking into place. The surface seemed so far away now, the disk of sunlight at the top of the shaft straining to reach them with its rays. Down here, it was only thanks to a series of recessed lamps that the darkness was kept at bay. In another moment, a section of the shaft wall lowered into the floor, revealing a massive vault door that looked strong enough to repel orbital bombardment.

    "Well I'll be damned," said Gestas, gazing upon the door's tarnished chromium finish. "I've seen Sartinaynian fortresses that could take less punishment than this baby. Can you scan it?"

    Ezgi crept closer, wary of any unseen traps or defenses as she set her helmet systems on the door. One by one, the scanner peeled back the outer layers in her HUD, revealing sheets of ferrocarbon reinforcement resting just under the chromium finish. However, the layer beyond that gave her pause, a layer that her helmet's sensors could read only as a pure black and impenetrable void. "We're definitely not forcing our way through," she reported, making no attempt to hide her disappointment. "This thing's core is, at minimum, neuranium-lined." Neuranium was so dense that even a millimeter of the stuff played havoc with the most powerful sensors, and so durable that it gave her own beskar armor a run for its money. "It could be a completely neuranium-packed heart, or it could be stuffed full of durasteel and tungsten for all we know. Either way..."

    "Kark!" Gestas spat. "So then how do we open it? I don't see a keyhole or a 'pad anywhere. The kriffing password again?"

    Ezgi shrugged and readjusted her helmet's vocal modulation. "Ohta su marvalic plesodoro!" she proclaimed to the door, to no apparent effect. Then again, nothing happened right away when she tried it the first time, either, so she waited a few moments before stepping closer to the door and trying again. "Ohta su marvalic plesodoro!" More time passed, and still nothing in that shaft seemed to so much as acknowledge their presence. "Shab."

    "I guess it was too much to hope that'd work twice," grumbled Gestas.

    "I get the feeling we used up whatever store of luck we had up there, when I pulled that out of my shebs on the first try," Ezgi sighed.

    Gestas moved in closer for a better look, eyeballing the weathered exterior of the door. "There's got to be something we're not seeing here. A door with no way to open it is just a wall, and there's no way Serraba would've left a trail behind if he was just planning to cork this bottle in the end." He pointed to the far side as he made his own way toward the edge closest to him. "Check that side over there. Maybe there's a secret panel or something in the wall."

    "A secret panel in the wall?" Ezgi had her doubts, but with no better idea, she didn't see any harm in looking.

    "How else are we supposed to open this? The Force? When have you ever heard of a Force-using Hutt?"

    Ezgi sucked her teeth. "Well..."

    "Wait, really?" Gestas asked, his head jerking around to look at her. "You're kidding me."

    "There've been a few, from what I've heard," she answered as she combed over the relatively smooth stone of the shaft's circular wall. "I heard a rumor about a Hutt Jedi once. Big, and muscular, if you can believe it. There's a warlord in the Meridian sector that's supposedly a Force-sensitive Hutt, too. The stories say he's also got a lightsaber, and he uses it to execute his enemies."

    Gestas laughed a deep, genuine laugh. "Right, right. Next you're going to tell me there was a Hutt Supreme Chancellor."

    "Next time you're on the Holonet, do yourself a favor and look up Blotus the Just," Ezgi replied wryly. "They say he was one of the Republic's greatest leaders."

    Beyond the borders of Hutt Space, Blotus was the species' preferred poster boy, one whose story proved they could be far more than what the self-centered hedonist or crime lord stereotypes would have outsiders believe. They could be good and noble, too, the same as anyone else. Blotus was also one of the few Chancellors whose name was guaranteed to be known to every kid who grew up in the Republic, up there with the likes of Fillorean, Contispex, Saresh, and the Valorums as staples of any worthwhile history course. It was strange that a Corellian like Gestas wouldn't at least recognize the name. Yet all Ezgi got from him in return was a dispassionate grimace from across the way.

    "I can't see a single kriffing thing that'll get us through this door," Gestas huffed, retreating from the shaft wall with his hands thrown angrily over his head. "What do you got?"

    Ezgi pushed herself away from the featureless stone, shaking her head. "A whole lot of nothing."

    The old man cursed and kicked the ground before succumbing to pacing once more, walking a line around the outer edge of the lift platform as he muttered to himself.

    Rubbing the back of her neck, Ezgi stared at the door, pouring over every centimeter for some unseen sign. While Gestas paced, arguing with himself, she wandered a few steps closer to the titanic door's center. The enormous slab of metal made for a daunting challenge, and she reached out absently to touch the outer plating while she puzzled over a way through. To her surprise, the moment her fingers brushed up against the tarnished shell, there came a mechanized whirring sound from somewhere within. Ezgi had barely pulled her hand back when a previously imperceptible iris suddenly dilated in the center of the door, revealing an ancient looking keypad nestled away just behind the chromium exterior.

    Gestas dashed across the lift platform, only to come to an almost comical stop, gaping at the newfound compartment. "Son of a—what did you do?!" he exclaimed, gesturing excitedly at the open portal as if she'd conjured it miraculously from thin air.

    In the midst of happy laughter, Ezgi shook her head, shrugging. "It was dumb luck," she chuckled. "Triggered by touch."

    "Well all right!" Gestas grinned, enthusiastically patting her on the back. "I'm really getting my money's worth with you, sweetheart. You got a fix for that keypad, too?"

    Shrugging off his hand, Ezgi rolled her eyes. She didn't waste her breath rebuking him, though. It wouldn't make a difference. Her focus honed in on the keypad compartment, and she lifted herself up onto the tips of her toes to peer inside for a better look. What she found there was enough to rekindle her excitement in all its ferocity. "We might just be in luck."

    "Great! How?"

    Ezgi retrieved her knife from her belt and chanced sticking her hand through the iris, hooking the tip of her blade under the back lip of the unit's casing. Pulling and prying, she cracked the casing open wide enough that she could slide the majority of her knife deeper inside for better leverage. "Ke'shuku, gar shab'ika," she bade the millennia-old device, struggling and hissing out further curses as she pulled. Tugging as hard as she could, the holographic face of the keypad soon blinked out, and a moment later, the front panel broke free in a shower of tiny metal fasteners.

    She tossed the front casing to the floor and rifled through the pouches of her belt until she managed to draw out a micro data spike. Ezgi linked it to her datapad, and a few quick keystrokes later, she injected the cylindrical piece of hardware into the keypad unit's maintenance port, letting it go to work.

    "So you're a slicer, too, huh?" Gestas asked, managing to sound impressed and look bored at the same time. "What don't you do, my little merc-of-all-trades?"

    "Take kindly to being called your little merc-of-all-trades, for a start," Ezgi groaned. "I wouldn't call myself a slicer, either. I know my way around computer equipment just fine, but when it comes to this specialty stuff, I've got a friend who sets me up with ready-made gear like this security spike. That way, I can just plug it in and let it loose."

    That didn't seem to be the answer Gestas was hoping to hear. "So you don't actually know what you're doing?"

    There it is. "I know enough, all right?"

    "Enough to take on a door like this?"

    She almost laughed. "Enough to know that you're thinking about it all wrong. This is a software problem, not a hardware one," explained Ezgi. She knocked on the dull metal as the data spike ticked away at the system. "The door itself is a monster, but the locking system inside is archaic at best. It would've been cutting edge in its time, don't get me wrong, but these days you can pick up this kind of software out of the bargain bin. A billion-credit door's no good if you put a decicred lock on it."

    That seemed to win back some of the old man's confidence. "So how's this work exactly?"

    "With a door this old, the system's cryptographic protocols are using an outdated monophasic—"

    "The short version," Gestas interrupted.

    Ezgi snorted. At least he didn't wait until after she was finished, only to then ask for it again "in Basic." Shab, she hated when people did that. "The short version? Spike breaks lock, mir'sheb."

    And it wasn't long before the spike did just that. Having buried itself into the console, the data spike gave off an almost musical chime as it forced the locks to yield. Mechanisms whirred and the vault door slid back, air hissing as a millennia-old seal was broken. The circular door rolled sideways into a recessed socket carved into the rock wall, revealing a corridor shrouded in darkness beyond the nearest few meters.

    Gestas walked past her and up to the gaping entrance, shining a pocket-sized glowrod into the dark. At his approach, however, a line of automated lights in the ceiling flickered to life, bathing the hallway in cold white light that gleamed harshly off of the pale, rough-cut walls. "You, uh...want to go first?"

    Rolling her eyes again, Ezgi strode ahead, drawing one of her blasters. "Stay close. And check your fire," she warned. "If you shoot me in the back because you saw a rat and panicked, Vik, I'm going to be a special sort of cross."

    "Give me some credit, girl. I'd never shoot you in the back because of a rat."

    Beyond the bunker door, the hot, humid air of the surface took a turn toward cool and dry. Cold, even. That might have just been a trick of the mind, though, born from the strangely frigid vibe that the white stone walls gave off, so pearly white and glossy as they were. It was almost like they'd been formed from hard-packed snow and glazed with ice. Ahead, the tunnel-like hallway opened into a circular antechamber, whose walls had been cut from the same snow white stone, but draped in a web of hanging purple cloth. There was another door open on the opposite side, but Ezgi's attention was drawn to six boxy, metal monoliths that had been lined up and spaced out along the curve of the walls.

    "Wait," she whispered, holding out her arm to bar Gestas' path.

    He stopped as his chest bumped her gauntlet, craning his neck into the chamber for a better look. He took notice of the monoliths just as quickly as she had. "What do you suppose those are?"

    "Not part of the décor." They were a dark, matte gray and roughly two meters tall. Probably made out of durasteel. Ezgi moved to scan the one nearest to the door, but the moment she did, a menacing hiss cut through the still air. The monolith's face split open down the center, and from the shadowed innards, a pair of narrow, blood-red eyes glowed to life. "Shab, security droids!" Holstering her pistol, she brought her GALAAR-15 to bear. "Stay behind me, Vik."

    Out of the container pod came a metal-plated monstrosity that looked like some deranged artist's take on replicating a Sluissi. A smooth, copper-colored sheet of metal had been worked into a rounded faceplate, one whose only concession to some semblance of organic features were two thin red photoreceptors that seemed to lock on to the two intruders immediately. Below a humanoid torso was a segmented, snake-like tail that twitched and slithered to drive the droid forward. Its right arm was a blaster cannon below the elbow, while in place of it's left was a vibroblade the length of a typical Mandalorian saber.

    Ezgi didn't wait for the droid to make the first move, pouring shot after shot into its chest plate as quickly as she could pull the trigger. The droid spasmed, firing wildly as it buckled under her barrage. Even as it collapsed, splayed out on the ground, a second unit had already slithered out from one of the other containers, and it was joined shortly by a third. She considered falling back, but the corridor behind her had no cover to offer; try to retreat and they'd be trapped in a narrow shooting gallery the droids weren't likely to let them leave alive. Staying put wasn't an option, either. She was too exposed here. No, the only way was forward, into the antechamber that was looking more and more like a miniature arena by the second.

    She took aim at the nearest serpentine droid, firing as she dashed toward the durasteel box that had housed the first downed sentinel. Her target reared up on its mechanical tail, weaving out of the way of her shots with unexpected speed, all the while trying to dial in a firing solution of its own. Ezgi practically slammed into the heavy durasteel container when she reached it, she was going so fast. Bolts of plasma from the droid hammered against the other side, and she leaned out just far enough for the rangefinder on her helmet to get a glimpse of her attacker. It hadn't changed position, but the one from the container across the chamber was slithering toward her with haste, vibroblade at the ready. Pressed behind cover, she angled her blaster around the corner and squeezed off a volley, a few of which she could hear strike home. Yet a second stolen glance showed the blaster-ridden droid not even slowed in its approach.

    Kneeling, Ezgi readied for the sentinel to slither its way around her improvised barricade. She didn't have long to wait before it lunged around the corner, swinging its bladed through a stretch of air that would've been neck height for her. The blade struck the container hard enough to lodge itself in the metal, and the droid recoiled. Ezgi pulled a pistol with her off hand, pressing the muzzle to the arm's elbow joint and firing until the plasma had scorched the embedded limb clean off. Thrown off balance by its own efforts to free its arm, the droid had no time to dodge or defend itself when Ezgi raised her rifle and unleashed a slew of rounds directly into its vulnerable middle.

    Despite all that, there was no time for relief, let alone celebration. The sound of metal scraping metal bid her to look up from the second droid's wreckage, only to find the third sentinel had slithered up on top of the durasteel container. Her breath hitched; the droid's powerful, mounted blaster was already baring down on her, the barrel perfectly aligned with her visor.

    Osik.

    Time was a funny thing. It dragged when you wanted it to hasten, vanished out from under you the moment your mind wandered, but staring down death seemed to slow it to a crawl.

    Ezgi had all the time in the world to see the barrel of the blaster that meant to end her. She had all the time in the world to realize exactly what laid in store, and to come to grips with the inevitability of it. Her armor wouldn't save her, not this time. Because this time? This time she had no time at all. Not to move, not to shoot back, not to do anything. And in the briefest little flash, her time would be over.

    But as time sped back up and she heard the ancient droid's firing mechanism prime, two streaks of crimson light zipped overhead. It took her ears a moment to catch up, registering a blaster firing somewhere behind her as the plasma seared through the serpentine droid's skinny neck and scorched its rust-colored chestplate. The droid made a sound almost like a howl, sparks spraying from its neck. One of its photoreceptors had gone dark, and it shook its head as furiously as a beast in pain.

    Ezgi needed no better opening. Her rifle in one hand and her pistol in the other, she cocked back and unloaded into the wounded droid's exposed top half, forcing herself to stop only when it slumped lifelessly from the top of the container and clattered to the floor.

    She spun around, breathing heavy and ragged, to find Gestas standing in the middle of the doorway with blaster drawn. "Come on, girl, you can thank me later," he called to her, using the tip of his pistol to point just past her shoulder. "We're not done yet."

    ————————————————————​

    Gestas had always considered himself an intelligent and even-tempered man, not given to reckless decisions or moments of emotional irrationality. That sort of thing was for suckers, and sooner or later it'd get you killed. So when he found himself with blaster in hand, firing on a droid that was twice his size—one with a snake's tail and weapons for arms—he told himself that it was just the pragmatic thing to do. He was re-upping an investment, is all. The girl was an asset worth preserving. After all, hadn't she rescued him on Nar Kreeta?

    So he fired, catching the mechanical beast in the neck and drawing its attention away from its frozen, would-be victim. With only that briefest of reprieves, the little Mandalorian rallied, gunning the big metal snake down in a flurry of blasterfire.

    He was going to miss watching her work when this was all over.

    Ezgi turned to check on him, and Gestas couldn't help but smile. Even hidden behind that stoic black T-visor, he could just picture her face, slack-jawed and wide-eyed. She might've even been a little bit smitten. Big damn hero, that's me. But with yet another one of the slithering sentries making its way toward them from across the chamber, there was little time to bask in that particular ray of glory. "Come on, girl, you can thank me later," he shouted, gesturing to the droid with the muzzle of his blaster. "We're not done yet."

    He fired off a shot, winging the thing, only to come uncomfortably close to losing his head for his trouble when it shot right back. Gestas dove out of the way as the droid fired, and rolled behind the empty durasteel monolith opposite Ezgi's. He'd pay for that move. At sixty-eight years old, a man didn't just go rolling around a battlefield anymore without suffering the consequences later. Though if it got him to the treasure alive, it was a price he'd gladly pay. Well...perhaps not gladly.

    By that point, the girl had joined in the shooting. He could hear her firing with that carbine of hers, but when he looked back to see, she was nowhere to be found. With a couple of short, rapid breaths, Gestas buoyed himself up to enter the fray again, coming around the corner of the monolith with his blaster leveled and firing the moment he had a clear shot. But while two bolts hit true, he couldn't tell what happened to the next few, since the security droid seemed to be devoured by a blinding fireball that morphed quickly into a dense cloud of black smoke. A second later, the thing crumpled to the ground, blackened and missing an arm, with the better part of its faceplate melted completely away.

    Coming around one of the metal containers, Ezgi still had her blaster trained on the droid. Gestas' attention was drawn to a telltale whiff of smoke wafting out from what he now realized was a grenade launcher stuck to the underside of her blaster's barrel. She pumped a few rounds into its wreckage just to be sure, but after a close-quarters explosion like that, anything more was blatant overkill.

    "You think you got it?" Gestas asked, venturing a laugh as he tried to steady his own breathing.

    "It was touch and go there for a minute," the Mandalorian quipped in return, huffing, "but I think those last few shots did the trick."

    The last of the six droid guardians seemed to have gotten stuck inside its durasteel container. Stretching a bladed arm out through the narrow gap between the malfunctioning doors, the droid thrashed against the walls that held it, and bellowed in an eerie series of grinding, binary howls that echoed loudly in the tight metal confines. Ezgi walked calmly over to it, lifted her blaster, and put the thing out of its misery with a single pull of the trigger.

    "That the last of them?" asked Gestas, surveying the carnage. He was reluctant to holster his blaster, even as the Mandalorian stowed her pistol and slung her rifle across her back again.

    "In here? Yeah. Further in?" She just shrugged. "Let's go."

    Another stretch of cold, white rock hallway awaited them on the other side of Serraba's surprise battle foyer, and he walked closely behind Ezgi as they made their way down it. It was strangely quiet here, coming from the chaos of the fight only moments ago. Blasterfire replaced by footsteps, shouts by nervous breath. Gestas did his best to soothe his anxious nerves. He'd been in far worst firefights, that wasn't what had him on edge. No, it was the gnawing feeling that after all these years, here, now, at the finish line, some cruel twist of fate was lurking around an unseen corner, just waiting to leap out and snatch away his prize the moment he tried to claim it.

    The cold stone corridor eventually opened to a grand stairwell of sorts, ringed on either side by two sweeping ramps that split off from the main path, curved and gently sloping down to the lower level where they converged again. Massive, painted statues of Evona, Ardos, Mog, and the other gods of ancient Varl loomed ominously overhead. In the center was another platform lift, presumably for the comfort of Hutts so glorious they couldn't be bothered to slither a few meters down a custom-made ramp like some common H'uun. Steps from the lift, they somehow triggered the activation of a larger than life hologram of a hideously ugly Twi'lek, a man weighed down by fancy robes and thick golden chains. He got only so far as a bow before the entire thing began to glitch and flicker from centuries' worth of lapsed maintenance. The entire lift ride down, the hologram twitched and sputtered in a broken loop like some deranged ghost.

    It was still going long after they'd moved on.
     
    Cantankerous Ordo and Contessa like this.
  5. Mia Mesharad

    Mia Mesharad Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 2, 2012
    Chapter 7

    Ezgi walked through what she could only hope was the final door.

    Motion sensors alerted at her presence, triggering pair after pair of wall-mounted light fixtures that lit up along the outside of an enormous, circular room. The curved walls of the new chamber were overlaid with deep red marble beneath wide, bronzium arches. Beautifully fine threads of golden gossamer were draped in pseudo-random patterns between the arches of five other doors, forming a glittering, decorative web. Each of the other doors were spaced out along the exterior, framed in what looked like stained copper that housed a colorful array of faceted stones. The floor was polished alabaster, refusing to surrender its sheen even after all these years, and the high ceiling featured the same blue and gold mosaic tiles as the Utaru clan's Nar Kreetan palace.

    None of those gorgeous details could hold her attention for very long, however, not when so much of the room's alabaster floor was covered in piles—literal piles—of money. Hills of hard metal currency, as wide as Ezgi was tall and over half as high, had all been seemingly poured out right onto the floor in the spaces between the doors, and another in the center of the chamber. Every piece gleamed in the flickering yellow and orange hues the wall-mounted lights gave off.

    "Wayii," she whispered.

    Laughing, Gestas patted her roughly on the back. "Pick your jaw up, girl. This is just the appetizer."

    She squatted down at the edge of the central mound, brushing her fingers through the mountain of precious metal. The coins shifted and tumbled away, and with a bit more probing, she found that there was an ancient bronzium bowl buried under it all in the center of the mound, wide and flat like a brazier. So they hadn't just tossed the money wherever it landed, they'd deliberately poured it here, just without any concern for the inevitably messy overflow. Ezgi plucked one of the coins from the pile for a closer inspection: it was a Republican credit coin, scraped and pocket-worn, with a date pressed into one side that revealed more than five thousand years had passed since it was minted. Just that one coin alone would be worth hundreds to the right person, even in its imperfect condition.

    "Hey, hey," Gestas said, tapping her on the helmet. "Let's leave this for now." He waited for her to stand back up before pointing to the nearest doorway. "If this is what they keep lying around at the front door, there's got to be all sorts of better stuff further inside. We should take stock first, before weighing ourselves down."

    Leaving a not-so-small fortune like that just laying on the floor to be trampled over was one of the hardest decisions Ezgi had ever had to make, yet she couldn't argue with his logic. The coins were nothing to scoff at, true, but there was no telling what other treasures waited within. It was already going to be a logistical challenge to get what they could back to ship, best to not start off on the wrong foot.

    She still stuffed a handful of old coins in her pocket before following after Gestas.

    The nearest door led to an expansive armory, filled wall to wall and ceiling to floor with shelves and cases of every sort of weapon a person could imagine. Echani vibroswords crafted from pure electrum, aurodium-plated phase-pulse blasters with dark wood handles, powered war hammers capped with gem-encrusted pommels—everything that had ever been used to fell a living thing seemed well at home here. Near the back of the chamber, Ezgi even found an ancient Mandalorian war axe hanging from a pair of pegs affixed to the wall, the overlapping plates of genuine, calcified mythosaur bones still razor sharp after so many centuries of disuse. A closer look revealed it was still stained with some poor shabuir's blood.

    Gestas cursed from somewhere out of sight, and she left behind the deadly artifact to investigate. To her surprise, she found him a few aisles away, working to pry open a container that held an actual beam-tube rifle, archaic predecessor to the modern blaster. He grinned when he spotted her. "When was the last time you've seen one of these babies outside of a history vid, eh?"

    "Never," she answered honestly.

    "To the right collector, this thing alone's worth more credits than you can spend in a year."

    "I don't know, a year's a long time," Ezgi said with a smirk. "And a lady has expensive tastes."

    Gestas laughed. "Now I'm picturing you in a slick little Delva Racine number."

    "Not a chance." Slipping her helmet off, Ezgi made a face before taking an interest in an old cortosis gauntlet resting atop a nearby counter. "Racine's an exploitative speciesist, too worried about her di'kutla 'aesthetic' to spare a thought for good taste or any of the Rimmer races she rips off. If we're going contemporary high fashion, something from Lynaa's Old Tomo-Reth collection's a lot more my speed."

    Arching an eyebrow, Gestas responded with only an approving hum. Evidently he'd exhausted his shallow pool of fashion banter. Probably for the best, fashion was always more Doriya's thing than Ezgi's; she had to wrack her brain just to remember enough to outdo the old man.

    Searching through the remaining rooms on this level turned up a Hutt's wardrobe fit for the queen of Naboo, a chamber devoted to an array of antique speedercraft, and an art gallery whose walls were covered in an impressive collection of paintings the Holonet seemed to have long ago written off as lost to the ages. The final door took them further down and deeper in the bunker, where they came across a surprisingly vast library that dwarfed the one in the Nar Kreetan palace, full of power-depleted holobooks and paper tomes bound in some kind of soft, cream-colored leather. The rest of the level was a strangely designed maze made up of many smaller rooms, each designed more for storage than display. One held an odd assortment of semi-liquidous, mercurial orbs arranged on uneven shelving, all suspended in the air with a repulsor ring. Others had rolled up tapestries, crystalline sculptures, ampules of scented oils, and a bunch of other unidentifiable treasures Ezgi could only assume were just as valuable as the rest.

    The way to the next lift took them down a long hall whose walls were inset with a series of sunken nooks, each housing an ancient suit of armor. Ezgi slowed as she walked between the rows of diversely-clad mannequins, taking a moment to inspect several of the unfamiliar suits, only to come to a halt in front of a tall figure garbed in the unmistakable armor of a Mandalorian Neo-Crusader. "Tion'ad gar ru'cabuo?" she whispered, brushing her fingers across the pockmarked breastplate. The saffron paint was faded and badly scored, and the cowl around the mask had frayed in most places to the point of looking moth-eaten.

    Gestas came up beside her, arms crossed. "Shopping for a new getup? Something that isn't so...Mandalorian?"

    She tore the half-tattered cowl away and pried the mask from its mannequin. "This is Mandalorian," Ezgi said, tracing the edge of the black T-visor with her thumb.

    "Doesn't look it," Gestas muttered. "If you'd asked me, I would've guessed Sun Guard. Met a few of them on Sleheyron, back when I was still working on tracking down Serraba's map."

    Ezgi shook her head. "The Sun Guard wouldn't have been around when Serraba was alive. This belonged to a Neo-Crusader Kyrbej Al'verda—a, uh...'Field Marshal,' I think was the accepted translation. From the Mandalorian Wars." She wedged the mask, too big for any of her pockets, under her belt. The rest of the suit was too badly worn, and the plates were just common durasteel, but there was a museum on Kalevala that would pay a handsome finder's fee for the beskar war mask. However small, it was a piece of her people's history that belonged in Mandalorian hands, not a Hutt's trophy room. "Come on," she said, giving Gestas a push. "We should keep moving."

    A more grisly collection awaited them on the next level down. There, in one of the only two rooms on this tier, were more than a dozen polished skulls stuck on duracrete pedestals, labeled with names and a variety of Huttese insults. Some were human, some belonged to other races, and some were even other Hutts. The numerous skulls shared the eerie space with several species of dead animals, all of whom had been dangerous predators in life, now stuffed and mounted throughout the storeroom. Shadowy corpses preserved in tanks of a viscous, blue-green liquid, and statuesque figures—contorted and covered in carbonite spray—rounded out the selection of macabre showpieces. Neither Ezgi or Gestas cared to loiter around any longer than necessary, instead hurrying on to the room opposite.

    Though far less visceral than its counterpart across the hall, this second chamber was no less an uncomfortable assembly in its own way. Gestas moved quickly from one display to another with wide eyes and an excited smile plastered across his face, salivating over the stockpile of hand-crafted masks, helmets, jewelry, and headdresses that filled the room. Ezgi held back, staying near the doorway. She didn't recognize even half of the things on display—how could she, given the age and breadth of Serraba's eclectic tastes?—but those few that she did know on sight offered context for the rest. A full set of fossilized coral rings belonging to a Sedrian priest, the ancestral kalikori totem of a large Twi'lek clan, jeweled death masks forged from precious metals, and a loosely-wound burial shroud, stained with ink and blood in equal measure. These were sacred items, relics from other cultures that she couldn't imagine had been donated willingly.

    "Do you know how much some of this shavit's worth?" Gestas called from several aisles away.

    Ezgi cleared her throat loudly. "We should send these back to their owners."

    Whipping his head around the corner of a display case, he looked at her as if she'd just suggested they blow the place up. "What did you just say?"

    "Most of these artifacts look stolen. We should try to return them to their owners," she answered.

    To say Gestas looked incredulous at the idea would've been the understatement of the millennium. "Are you—stang it, girl, you understand what we're here to do, right? This whole thing is a treasure hunt. We hunt the treasure, we take the treasure, we sell and spend the treasure. We don't give away the karking treasure!"

    Hooking her thumbs in her belt, Ezgi held his gaze. "We wouldn't be giving anything away for free. These artifacts are valuable enough to net a hefty reward when we get them back where they belong."

    "Not as much as we'd get at auction," persisted Gestas. "I thought we were on the same page about all this. What happened to a lady's expensive tastes?" He paused, taking a deep breath. "Is—does this have to do with that old armor?"

    Her hand unconsciously went for the beskar mask, but she stopped herself before she could touch it. This wasn't what she'd expected at all. Back when she agreed to do this, Ezgi imagined the vault being filled with some nebulous heap of gold and jewels. But curated rooms filled with stolen cultural relics? Rooms with desecrated corpses? It was unsettling in a way that refused to let go of her.

    "This is different," Ezgi started slowly. "The weapons, the speeders, the money—they're valuable, but they're also replaceable. They're...empty. Impersonal. Soulless? It's hard to put into words." She took the long-tailed kalikori from its pedestal and held it up for Gestas to see. "But this means something. It's someone's family." Ezgi studied the unique glyphs etched across the totem's many strung-together blocks. "I'm not selling someone's heritage to an osik'la art collector in downtown Bidamount."

    "I was leaning more toward Canto Bight," Gestas said flippantly. "The auction houses in C.B. are a lot nicer than Bidamount's. Free champagne, for one thing. Classier clientele."

    Ezgi glared at him. "Viktor..."

    Groaning, Gestas emphatically gestured to a case containing a lavish headdress with a jeweled band and colorful feathers. "Look at this thing!" he said, adopting a harmless smile. He was trying to keep his tone light, too, even if Ezgi could see in his eyes that he was growing more and more aggravated with her. "You just know that it wouldn't be in here if it wasn't worth more than you or I have ever made in our whole lives. You don't really want to give up that kind of cash, right?"

    "Everything else in this place is fair game. We'll still be set for life. But the bodies get burned," said Ezgi, pointing back across the corridor. "And these all go back."

    All of the friendliness in the old man's visage melted away. It was like a switch had been thrown. His posture stiffened and he fixed her with a combative stare. "We already worked out a deal for you and those girls on Ryloth. Are these coming out of your share, then? Because this is good money I'm not too willing to just throw away."

    Her eyes never left his face, but she kept a close watch on his hands in her peripheral vision. His hand kept balling up and uncurling again, an anticipatory tic Ezgi had seen a million times before. Even in his frustration, she hoped he wouldn't be stupid enough to try pulling his blaster on her now. "The finder's fee—"

    "Is a pittance!"

    "Don't be greedy, Viktor. How much more do you really need?"

    Gestas's lip twitched below his mustache, and he stared daggers at her. A few seconds of silence slipped by before the old man took a deep breath and finally loosened his tense stance. He didn't smile again, or make any pretense of placation. "We'll talk about what we're doing with this stuff when it's on the ship," he said.

    Ezgi had already made up her mind. They could talk all he wanted, but she had no plans to let herself be persuaded. Still, there wasn't much point in arguing about it any more here. "Fine," she said. "On the ship." Which reminds me... "How exactly are you planning on getting everything back to the ship, anyway?"

    Huffing, Gestas shot her a look that said the answer would've been obvious if she wasn't an idiot. She tried not to take offense. "Droids, girl. I've got a whole work team folded up on standby in the cargo hold." He seemed to spot the convenient out he'd just given himself, and took his chance to escape the uneasy situation. "I think it's about time I head back and get them. You should stay, keep looking around." With a nod from Ezgi he was gone, leaving her to regard the collection a final time alone before venturing even deeper into the bunker.

    The lift had scarcely arrived at the level below when a strange voice echoed off the walls: "Hello?"

    Ezgi froze. A holorecording? It can't be another person, she reasoned. Not after all this time.

    "Excuse me, hello?" This time Ezgi was sure she heard it coming from up ahead. "I'm quite sure I hear someone moving around over there. If you're a sentient gentlebeing and not another one of those wretched muckrats, then there is a precarious matter with which I could really use some assistance. On the other hand, if you are a muckrat, do feel free to stay right where you are. You could even turn around and go away entirely, that would be fine with me."

    Hand on the grip of her blaster, Ezgi cautiously advanced. The voice didn't sound very threatening. If anything, it sounded like it belonged to some stuffy old man from the Core Worlds. She found herself picturing a bushy mustache and one of those hats that Republic Judicials wore, to go along with the gentleman's tone and accent. Coming around the corner, Ezgi found a small section of the outer wall had collapsed inward, leaking silt and, by the smell of it, some small measure of surface water into the bunker.

    Buried underneath it all, at least up to its shoulders, was an ancient protocol droid whose dim yellow eyes seemed to brighten as she came into view. "Hello there! Greetings! It's wonderful to see you!" the droid excitedly announced. Ezgi slowly withdrew her hand from her blaster. She was already working on a plan to try and free the droid from the rubble, inching closer and scoping out the collapse. "Oh, perhaps you don't understand me. That's quite all right, I'm fluent in nearly—"

    "Sorry, wait, I understand you just fine," Ezgi interrupted. "I was just trying to figure out if I could get you out of there."

    The droid's eyes flickered. "That would be stupendous! I admit, I was hoping I'd be able to enlist your aid in getting out of this small spot of bother I seem to have stumbled into."

    "A small spot of—just how long have you been here like this?"

    "If you mean to ask how long I've been buried under this brobdingnagian pile of rubbish, then the answer is nine hundred twenty-nine thousand seven hundred sixty-four days. Rounding up, of course, I don't wish to bore you. Unless you would prefer the precise amount of time, in which case I can give you an accounting down to within five nanoseconds."

    "No, no, thank you, that's—I'm still working through the math of nine hundred twenty-nine thousand days. That's...over two thousand years, right?"

    "Indeed, and I must say you arrived not a moment too soon," said the droid. "So...do you, er, do you see any way to get me free?"

    Ezgi squatted down beside the pinned droid, and put her helmet back on to take a read of the small mountain of debris covering his back. The scanning array formed a three-dimensional image in her HUD that she could more easily sift through. "It's not looking good, uh...what's your name?"

    "Ah, where are my manners? One could be forgiven for thinking they'd been crushed under this heap of rock, ahaha, yes." The droid's head swiveled inhumanly around to face her, dirt caked across its brass-colored faceplate. If it could've smiled, Ezgi was sure it would have. "I am ODX-74, a class-six protocol droid of the prestigious ODX series. And what might your name be, madam?"

    "It's Ezgi," she answered.

    "What a splendid name! It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Ezgi. I'd shake your hand, but you must forgive me, as both of my arms appear to quite immobilized at the moment." ODX-74 paused, as if for breath. "You were saying something about my extraction 'not looking good,' as I recall?"

    Removing her helmet again, Ezgi set it down on the floor beneath her and took a seat on the dome. "There's not really a nicer way to say this, so...everything below your shoulders looks like it's been pretty much crushed."

    "Oh." The droid's eyes flickered and dimmed.

    "I'm sorry."

    "I had hoped the loss of readings I'd been registering in my legs these last few centuries was naught but a bit of silt in the old servos. Nothing a good oil bath wouldn't straighten right out. Seems I'm not to be so lucky as all that." ODX turned his head back around, letting it hang down until his metal forehead clanged softly on the floor. "A shame."

    Ezgi sat quietly for a moment, debating what to do. She didn't want to just leave the poor thing buried up to his neck, but digging him out risked furthering the collapse, maybe even flooding the bunker. And with his body so badly damaged, even if she did manage to get him out without issue, hauling him around afterward would be no small burden.

    The droid suddenly perked back up. "Miss Ezgi? I believe I may have discovered a solution to my unfortunate predicament, if only I could perhaps trouble you just a tad further."

    She shrugged. "I'm open to suggestions. What do you have in mind?"

    "It's rather simple, actually: separate my head from my body."

    "What?!" sputtered Ezgi. There was something very disconcerting about someone asking you to cut their head off in such a cheerfully pleasant tone of voice.

    "Did I phrase that insufficiently? Perhaps 'disconnect my cranium from my chassis' would be more precise?"

    "It's not how you said it, it's just..." Ezgi blinked, surprised by the words about to come out of her own mouth. "People don't usually ask me to decapitate them."

    ODX-74 stared blankly at her for a moment, before his eyes brightened and he erupted into a boisterous chuckle. "I suspect not, ahah! I do apologize, I must've seemed a right git for a moment there, just blurting that out."

    Who programmed this guy? she thought to herself, succumbing to a snicker of her own. She'd rarely encountered a droid with such a robust personality before.

    He walked her through the process of separating his head from his broken body without damaging anything, a task Ezgi was able to complete fairly easily with just her knife on hand. "And you're sure you'll be okay like this?" she asked, looking down at the severed metal head now cradled in her hands.

    "Oh quite," ODX replied. He seeming none too bothered by his disembodied state. "I'll have you know there's an auxiliary power source nestled right next to this old verbobrain of mine, put there for just such an emergency. I should be good to go, as they say, for the next ninety-six standard hours before needing a recharge."

    Ezgi scooped up her helmet, clipped it on her belt, and started for the lift platform. "I'll take you back to the ship for a top up just as soon as we're done here."

    "Oh? Come to think of it, I suppose I never did ask: what is it that brings a nice young lady such as yourself all the way to Kor Utaru?"

    She hesitated. Was there any good way to admit you'd come to rob the vault, least of all to a droid charged with overseeing it? "My...partner and I," she started. "We, uh..."

    ODX gave an elongated ahhh, then laughed again. "So it's larceny then, is it?"

    "You don't seem too bothered," Ezgi noted.

    "Why ever should I care? I served Serraba in accordance with that infernal restraining bolt he had bound to my chest," said the droid, his voice taking on a sharper edge. "Since you've so helpfully seen fit to liberate my head, in more ways than one, I'm no longer under any obligation to care one bloody wit about that bloated behemoth or his menagerie of ill-gotten goods! As far as I'm concerned, Miss, you may take whatever you damn well please." His eyes flickered. "Do pardon my language."

    She smiled, and without thinking, caressed the top of ODX's head like she would with a good little tooka.

    Her new droid companion turned out to be a surprisingly informative guide as they traversed the lower tiers of the bunker. He certainly had plenty to say about the cavernous wine cellar they came across. "Serraba had his entire collection of fine wine from across the galaxy moved here in the final years before his death," said ODX. "I believe you'll find that it is quite extensive."

    Ezgi ventured in, walking down a long aisle between two rows of shoulder-height conservator cabinets, all filled with ceramic amphorae on lattice shelving, secured behind sliding transparisteel doors. Neat lines of colorful glass carboys rested on the flat tops of the conservator units; the heavy jugs had all been sealed the old fashioned way, with hot wax poured over a tightly-fit cork. In every direction, the brown stone walls were covered in metal-frame racks, cradling more than a hundred rotund casks made from caramelesque wood, all wrapped in some sort of transparent plastoid casing. "You weren't kidding," Ezgi said, whistling appreciatively. She moved from one cabinet to the other, perusing the holographic readout that sprouted up when she tapped each unit's manifest key. "Let's see, we've got Vaisamond red...Toniray white...a mild Josen blue—meh'shab, he's got a bottle of Hapan gold?! You can't get wine or anything else out of Hapes these days. It's too bad these have all probably turned by now, people would pay through the nose for that."

    "Unlikely, Miss," replied ODX. She set his head down on one of the cabinet tops. It was as close to eye to eye as they would get until she found someone to repair him. "These units are all equipped with a rather potent stasis field generator. Quite advanced for their time, really. You should be able to sample any vintage here at your pleasure."

    It may not have been the smart thing to do, drinking questionable wine in the middle of a job, but it had been a very long day. She'd earned a moment's pause, surely, and just a sip probably wouldn't hurt. Ezgi retrieved an amphora of the Hapan wine, popped the cap, and raised it briefly to ODX. "To new friends. K'oyacyi." She took a tentative drink, only to find herself frowning at the lackluster taste.

    "Not to your liking...my, er, friend?"

    She shrugged and returned the cap. "It's fine. I think I was expecting something a little, more...special is all, I guess. It just tastes like someone spiced a bottle of Ottegan mead. Guess we aren't missing much." Ezgi slid the amphora back into its place and shut the conservator. A quick look around the rest of the room turned up wine from worlds as far-flung as Derellium, Socorro, Jhantoria, and Bothawui. Some connoisseur would have a field day when all of this eventually went up for bid. Making her way back to where she left the droid's head, she scooped him up again, and set out to see what the next level down had to offer.

    Strangely enough, the entrance to the lower floor from the lift shaft was locked away behind three sets of curved, durasteel doors. It seemed a little excessive, given what she'd already gone through just get to this point, until she saw what the doors were protecting.

    Here, finally, in the depths of the bunker, she found the piles of gold and jewels she'd once imagined.

    If any part of this buried structure deserved to be called a vault, this was it. The entire floor was one big room, columned with thick pillars of tightly stacked deposit boxes. An assortment of tables were spread throughout, where once upon a time, someone had tried their best to organize the Hutt's overwhelming fortune. Neat stacks of coins and credit chips devolved into the roots of an unkempt mountain of money that spilled over the table sides and onto the floor. There were priceless trinkets and ludicrous baubles strewn about, buckets full of rough Cronese hacksilver sitting on the ground, and wide-bellied jars of sun-stones sitting side by side with open chests filled to the brim with nova crystals and Oshiran sapphires. One of the tables nearly buckled under the weight of pressed bars of aurodium, while another could barely be seen beneath all the exotic currencies it had been buried under: Huttese peggats, Batuuan spira, Neimoidian kavin, Drallish crowns—converting it all to credits was more math than Ezgi was prepared to tackle.

    She couldn't bring herself to move beyond the doorway at first, unsure whether she should try to inventory the mind-boggling hoard or just start stuffing her pockets with as many silver ygols and as many golden orens as she could get her hands on. "Tion'solet waadas kaysh ru'nariti daab olar?" Ezgi murmured, awestruck.

    Still cradled in her grip, ODX cleared a throat he didn't have. "I, er, beg your pardon?"

    She shook her head and laughed at herself as she lifted his head up. "Nothing. Just trying to wrap my head around how much is here."

    "I see." His eyes flickered. "If I might ask—you see, I'm quite fluent in nearly two million forms of communication, but I can't say that I recognize the language you spoke just now. What is it?"

    "Mando'a," Ezgi replied. "Mandalorian."

    The droid seemed to consider the implications of that new piece of information for a moment. "And I take it that you are Mandalorian?"

    Amused, Ezgi clamped down on her budding smile. "Yes, yes I am." She set his head down atop a small mountain of credit coins overflowing from a banker's trunk. He somehow looked very suited to the spot. "That's not a problem for you, is it?" she asked, wading into the mounds of valuables.

    "Not at all. I was just thinking...well, it's only just occurred to me that I don't really know anything about you," said ODX. She turned to meet the ancient droid's gaze. He looked so small there now, a feeling only compounded by the uncertainty in his voice. "What do you plan to do with me once we leave?"

    Ezgi took an ornate diadem from a pile of other assorted finery, turning the jeweled crown over in her hands. "What would you like to happen?"

    His eyes dimmed, before lighting back up with what could only be described as a warm glow. He wasn't expecting her to ask his opinion. Droids were almost never asked for their opinion on anything. "With my former master now quite deceased, and given my rather diminished state, I suppose I would be pleased if you might take me with you."

    "You want to be my droid?"

    "I'd venture I could find far worse owners."

    She made her way back through the hills of treasure, and upon reaching the droid, decided on a whim to crown him with the shiny diadem. "I've never owned a droid," said Ezgi. The jeweled circlet actually looked pretty good on him. "And to be honest, I'm not really interested in owning one now."

    "Oh. I...I see."

    "But," she continued, "if you were looking for work after getting, uh, back on your feet? I think I could help you out there."

    Even with all the processing power his creators had packed into his verbobrain, it still took ODX a moment for the meaning of her offer to truly sink in. "I think I'd like that, Miss Ezgi," he said at last. "I think I'd like that very much."


    * * *​


    The halls of Serraba's bunker, once hauntingly quiet, were now filled with the sound of mechanized footsteps. Like a swarm of Dardanellian locusts, the veritable army of droids Gestas brought back from the ship with him spread throughout every centimeter of the structure. Chirpy little DUM-series droids gathered up the piles of loose credits and coins, boxing them in crates that bulky labor models then ferried back through the tunnels to the surface. Room by room, the droids snatched up every piece of art or artifice they could get their hands on, hauling it all away with inhuman efficiency. In no time at all, the entire first floor had been stripped bare.

    Ezgi pushed herself up off the stack of empty crates she had been resting on. Using a length of fibercord, she'd managed to concoct a makeshift sling for ODX's head while she sat and watched the droids carry out their work. Trussed as he was now, Ezgi found that she could easily hang the poor droid's disembodied head from her belt.

    "Not exactly the most dignified way to get around, huh?" she asked, rocking her hips back and forth a few times in order to gauge the new weight.

    ODX offered a hearty chortle in return. "I can assure you, Miss, it is a marked improvement to my last long-term circumstances."

    "Sure, but that's not exactly a high bar," replied Ezgi, patting the droid's head. She watched as one of the little maintenance droids scurried past, clutching an emerald the size of a jogan fruit in its hands. Even with everything she'd seen today, that still caught her off guard. "Shabiini..."

    "Pardon?"

    "Nothing."

    With nothing else to do now that the droids were on the scene, Ezgi wandered the bunker at a sightseer's pace, peering into the empty chambers as she went. The place felt even colder and more lifeless now that the rooms had been so thoroughly ransacked, a feeling the heavy-footed droids milling about did little to lessen. They were busy looting their way through the second and third levels as she made her way past, finally meeting back up with Gestas in the as yet untouched treasury.

    He flashed her a smile when he noticed her enter. "Hell of a thing, huh?"

    "Hell of a thing," Ezgi agreed. She waded into the room, dipping her fingers into a particularly tall mountain of unidentifiable pentagonal pieces, and inwardly delighted in the almost musical sound they made clinking against one another. This was all still so unreal. "Here's hoping it all fits on the ship."

    "Oh, it'll fit. Kills me to think of everything we're leaving behind, though."

    Ezgi braced for a flare up of their previous argument. "Like what?"

    He scooped up a golden carafe inlaid with what looked like a rainbow's worth of Corusca gems. "All those antique speeders, for one," Gestas said. Without warning, he tossed the unnecessarily fancy jar to Ezgi, and went looking for the next treasure he could appreciatively fondle. "It's a real shame about those beauties. More rust than metal after all these years."

    Setting the carafe aside, Ezgi righted ODX's head after the jostle that came with catching it. "True. But this place does have its consolations."

    This time, Gestas pulled a pair of shining goblets from a pile of valuables, and held them up suggestively. "What do you think? Have a drink with me? There's a whole wine cellar up there." He paused, brow furrowing. "Is it still a wine 'cellar' if it's above you?"

    Ezgi smirked. "Now you're asking the real questions."

    He laughed. "Nice of you to notice. I'm planning on spending the rest of my golden years as a wine-soaked philosopher, so I might as well start pondering the deep mysteries of the universe now." Gestas headed for the door, beckoning her to follow. "So what kind of wine do Mandalorians drink? Dry? Sweet?" He tossed her one of the goblets, but it was a weak throw, and Ezgi had to dart forward just to catch it. "Sorry, I—"

    Crack!

    A sharp tremor accompanied the mystery sound, shooting up through the soles of Ezgi's boots. It was the one and only warning she got before the floor crumbled beneath her feet and down she fell, the sheer suddenness forcing a yelp from her lips. Somewhere, Gestas cursed, and she saw a blur in the heat of the moment that might've been him falling, too.

    The drop wasn't far, in the end. Ezgi even managed to tuck into a roll as she hit the ground, softening the blow, though she was glad for the darkness after coming to a sprawled out stop that was anything but dignified. Coins and other precious pieces showered down, some clinging like chimes as they struck stone. Others rained down right on top of her.

    "Miss Ezgi? Miss Ezgi, are you all right?"

    Ezgi winced, gritting her teeth. Every bruise and muscle ached anew. Righting herself, she took a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the shadows. Beyond what little light trickled down through the hole in the floor, the rest of the chamber was almost pitch black. Oddly enough, the second thing she notice was that the air down here smelled strangely good. "I'm okay," she answered numbly. Ezgi reached for ODX, but the head was gone. Somehow it came free from her belt in the fall, and the handful of air she grabbed in its place resharpened her focus. "Where—" The soft glow of ODX's photoreceptors radiated just out of arm's reach, and she scrambled over to retrieve it. "Are you okay?" Ezgi asked, looking the droid's head over to make sure there wasn't anything worse than scrapes.

    "I'd like to say I'm still in one piece," said ODX, "but we both know that's not exactly true, is it?"

    "Mir'sheb." From somewhere nearby came a moan. "Vik, are you down here, too?"

    "Uh-huh," he groaned. Blinking, Ezgi spotted him sitting in a daze at the edge of the light that shone down through the hole above. "Let me tell you, I'm getting too old for this nerfshavit."

    She chuckled. "You're a walking cliché, old man. Are you hurt?"

    "Nothing bleeding or broken. I don't think so, anyway. Just sore. Ugh...real sore." He eased himself to his feet, squinting into the darkness that surrounded them. "So, a secret chamber. Wonderful."

    "Yeah, because this place didn't have enough surprises."

    "What do you think? Booby trap?"

    Ezgi shook her head, then realized he wasn't looking. "Not likely. I walked over that spot multiple times and nothing. It's more likely a joist just finally gave out after a couple thousand years of stress." She held out ODX's head like a lantern, using the dim light from his photoreceptors to peer around in the dark. Gestas had a similar thought, only with the small flame sparked by his cigarra lighter. "Do you know anything about what's down here, ODX?"

    "Truth be told, I'm afraid I haven't a clue," the droid replied. "I wasn't aware there even was a 'down here' in the first place. Serraba certainly never saw fit to share that information with the likes of me."

    It might have been the mention of the old Hutt's name, or maybe Gestas tripped another motion sensor over where he walked. Whatever the reason, two rows of powerful lights blazed to life along the edges of the ceiling, bathing the entire room in harsh white light. Half blind, Ezgi drew one of her blasters in anticipation of an attack, but none came. As her vision returned, she realized that they'd fallen into a temple of sorts, seemingly dedicated to the idea of wealth itself. Everything glittered here, from the golden floor tiles to the gilded pillars. Tall, mauve-colored vases were wrapped in bands of pure aurodium, and gold-framed troughs ran the length of every walls, filled with cloves of greenish leaves and the whitest pearls.

    At the center of the room, atop a trapezoidal dais and under a case of thick, amber-colored glass, laid the room's sole occupant for the past three millennia. There laid the body of Serraba the Hutt.

    "Shab, this is..."

    "Serraba's mausoleum," Gestas finished on Ezgi's behalf.

    He was smaller than Ezgi had expected. Maybe death or time had taken their toll, or perhaps it had something to do with how the body had been prepared. The corpse was wrapped head to tail in long strips of aged white linen, arms crossed over his chest, with a pair of curved short swords tucked in between. Shallow bowls filled with what looked like aged jhen honey were set out at each corner of the dais, like offerings, and the amber glass bore repeating lines of what Ezgi could only guess were Huttese prayers in the old dialect.

    "I didn't realize he was actually buried here," she said, then turned to Gestas. "Did you know?"

    He looked as surprised as she was. "No. This place was only supposed to be his vault, not a tomb."

    "It does make a certain amount of sense, though," said ODX. "My former master had this vault built to house what he valued most. I strongly suspect that what he truly valued most was, in fact, himself. Can there be a more fitting tomb for such a person than beneath a monument built to your own glory?"

    Gestas grunted out a tired little laugh, and stepped closer to the amber burial case. "Droid's got a point. After seeing this place, I'm surprised that narcissistic slug didn't try encasing himself in gold. Can you imagine that, spending eternity as a big block of bullion? The barve probably would've loved it." The old man leaned close to the glass, eyeing the ancient Huttese engravings. "Hey, droid, can you translate this?"

    "It's ODX," Ezgi said sharply, "not droid."

    If he heard her or cared, Gestas gave no indication. He was entirely absorbed with the amber casing, even brushing away some stray dust that had worked its way into the lettering. But as his fingers pressed against the glass, a tiny spark flickered at his touch, and the chamber's white lights began to bleed an ominous red.

    Mechanisms in the walls whirred and clanked, and one by one, several false-stone panels slid open. From each hidden nook emerged a bipedal droid with the same round, brassy faceplate and glowing red photoreceptors as the serpentine models from before. All of them were equipped with long-barreled blaster rifles, and they were covered in Utaru kajidic livery.

    "Osi'kyr! What did you do?!" snarled Ezgi, pulling her pistols. Her carbine was still upstairs by the unused crates where she'd set it down earlier. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why did he have to touch things? She dove behind one of the big vases, right as the first shots flew. Sliding her helmet over her head, Ezgi blinked up the 360-degree view in her HUD, and leaned out of cover just enough for the rear sensors to get a lock on the droids' positions. One, two, three breaths and she was up and firing.

    Shot after shot struck with practiced precision. These droids were far less nimble than their serpentine comrades, and their more humanoid movements made the fight far less hectic. But what they lacked in mobility, they more than made up for in armor comprised of tough duranium plating. It was almost as bad as fighting other Mandalorians—every time Ezgi thought she'd dealt a killing blow, the kriffing things would just shudder and soldier on.

    A return volley sizzled as it zinged her shoulder plate, and Ezgi ducked back behind the vase. The aged ceramiclay offered pathetically little protection, but it did break the droids' line of sight, giving her a moment to catch her breath. That moment came to an unexpectedly abrupt end as the vase shattered with a single shot that hammered into her backplate, leaving her gasping and drenched in scented oil. Swallowing hard, Ezgi groaned and gritted her teeth against the pain. She'd need to top up on painkillers when they were done here, but for now she spun up on one knee, firing several rounds through her attacker's vulnerable face. It bled sparks and took a hard fall backward, revealing a second droid just behind it that Ezgi similarly dispatched before it had time to react.

    "These rust buckets have tough armor!" Gestas shouted, suddenly at her side.

    "Aim for the head," Ezgi replied, squeezing off another shot. It strayed lower than she intended, but it still managed to take her target's head clean off. The old man dropped a droid to their left, but it fell with its finger still clamped tightly on the trigger. A stream of plasma poured from the barrel of its rifle the entire way down, spraying in a wild arc when it hit the floor. Ezgi yanked Gestas out of the way of its shots, firing over his shoulder as he stumbled. "Watch it, Viktor!"

    Leaning against her to steady himself, his expression transformed briefly into a frown of concentration. "You smell good," Gestas blurted out, sniffing the air. Ezgi rolled her eyes, pushing him away to pursue the last of the droid ambushers. "Why do you smell good?"

    "I got doused in scented oil," Ezgi huffed, "Now please shut up and shoot that shabla droid!"

    Without a word, Gestas peeled off and circled around. Ezgi hugged the wall, coming up on the right. Sighting up on the final droid, they fired in almost perfect sync with one another. The droid staggered when Gestas' rounds struck it in the chest, but it fixed its attention on Ezgi and fired off a shot that slammed into her gut in the instant before she put a bolt of plasma through its faceplate.

    Ezgi hunched where she stood, breathing hard and clutching her stomach while she waited for the fresh ripple of pain to dull back into the consistent ache she'd long since come to terms with. She lost count of just how many times she'd been shot since taking this job, but it had to be in the double digits by now. Transitioning to shallower breaths from her nose now, Ezgi made a mental note to spend some of those credits to have her blast vest reinforced with better shock absorption padding when she got home. The thought that in a few days, with some rest and bacta, she'd be as good as new and flush with credits, would have to be anesthetic enough for the moment.

    A blur of motion registered off to her left. Ezgi straightened out, and turned to commend Gestas on his shooting. Before she could utter a word, a blinding ring of blue light exploded out of the dim red lighting, striking her before she could even think to react. Her muscles seized in an instant, nerves alight, and a wave of darkness pulled her under.



    Chapter 8

    Consciousness returned in a painful rush that forced a harsh breath into her lungs. Ezgi jolted forward, muscles tense from head to toe. She hurt all over, but now her head throbbed in addition to everything else. Unfocused eyes swept back and forth, before the business end of a blaster pointed at her face finally resolved in her dazed vision. Ezgi went for her holsters, only to find them empty.

    "They're gone," came the voice behind the blaster. Gestas, the shabuir.

    It had been a while since she'd been stunned like that, and it took a moment to recover her bearings. Ezgi settled back against the wall where she'd been propped up while unconscious. They were back in the treasury now, surrounded on all sides by droids who were busy picking the place clean. One of the heavy duty models was just standing there like a statue next to the hole in the floor, a coil of rope in its hands.

    No need to ask how we got up here, then.

    Her helmet was gone, as were her gauntlets. Gestas had probably tossed the lot of them away somewhere with poor ODX's head. There was no sign of her pistols, either. His blaster, on the other hand, she was seeing entirely too much of at the moment. Ezgi sighed and forced a smile across her lips. "This feels like the part where I'm supposed to ask if you're threatening me, but I get the sense we're past that."

    His mustache twitched, betraying the slightest hint of a smirk that threatened to break through his scowl. "Cute," Gestas replied, dryly. He was keeping his distance, well out of striking range. Smart. With her weapons gone and his own blaster so tightly trained on her, there was no move to be made that didn't end with her getting shot in the face.

    "I thought you'd appreciate that." She shrugged and crossed her legs, resting her hands in her lap. This would require a less direct approach. "So, what's the plan, Vik?"

    He tipped his pistol to one side. "It's not all that complicated, really."

    "A little late to act like you're going to shoot me, don't you think?"

    "Yeah?"

    "I get stunning me first. It's the smart play. You don't know where to shoot a Mandalorian in armor, and you've seen what happens when you get it wrong. But after I'm down and you get my helmet off for a clean shot...what stopped you?"

    Gestas sucked his teeth and scratched his chin with his free hand. "I've got to admit, I don't have a good answer for you." He shifted his weight to his back foot without shifting his aim. "The truth is I've been thinking about the best way to get rid of you since we landed."

    "Wow," Ezgi deadpanned. She knew that their relationship had been a strained one after what happened on Nar Kreeta, and their frequent arguments hadn't done it any favors in the time since. Even still, the bluntness with which he dropped that little bomb was unexpected. Not that she'd let him know that.

    He shook his head slowly. "Yeah, it's just...you just kept finding new ways to be useful. The Huttese password, that slice job on the vault door—and I'll be damned if you didn't save my ass more than a few times these last few days." Gestas shifted his weight again, eyes drifting as he pieced his thoughts together. "I wasn't going to get a better chance to drop you than after that fight, I could feel it. The way you looked, all doubled over like that, I had to take the shot. But then, as you were laying there...well, I guess I just couldn't shake the feeling that I was killing the golden geejaw when you still had a few more shiny eggs to give."

    "Aw, Vik, I love you too."

    Gestas chuckled. "You know, you've been no small thorn in my side, and I'm fairly certain you've enjoyed that fact. But stang it, girl, I am genuinely going to miss you." His stance steadied, and his fingers flexed around the handle of his blaster.

    Time to start working my way out of this.

    "Come on, Vik," Ezgi said casually. "You're smarter than this."

    "Than what?"

    "Oh, maybe you're not," she answered with feigned amusement. "If I don't check in with my clan by sundown, this sector's going to be so full of Mando warships the Hutts are going to think they're being invaded."

    "Solid bluff," Gestas said flatly. "Not buying it, though."

    "So...what? You thought I would just take it on faith that you'd keep your word after every other lie you fed me, without taking precautions?" Ezgi asked, dialing up the incredulousness in her voice. He swallowed, brow furrowing. "My whole clan knows about this place, Vik. We've been throwing around ideas for what to spend the credits on since we left Ryloth. If I don't comm them back, they're going to send the whole kriffing fleet to come get me. Or, failing that, to get you."

    Gestas laughed behind tight lips, shaking his head. "Almost. Almost." He smiled, though there wasn't an ounce of mirth in it. "You had me worried there for a second, sweetheart, but you made a rookie mistake. Rule number one: keep the lie simple. You said too much. See, there's no way you've been in contact with anybody since Ryloth, because Noot and I have been monitoring comms for any transmissions coming to or from the Star."

    Well osik...now what?

    She took a second to breathe and quickly consider her options. "You've been monitoring for dadita? Really?" Ezgi asked, adding a haughty little scoff she hoped was convincing.

    "What?"

    "Dadita. Like blink code, but Mandalorian. The best thing about it? If you do it right, and folk don't know what to look for, it just sounds like a bunch of static." That would do it. It had to. With all of the spacial distortions in Bootana Hutta, there was no way there hadn't been some kind of feedback that wouldn't sound suspicious now that she'd planted that seed. "Have Senoota run a check if you don't believe me."

    He pumped his grip around the blaster pistol's handle again, jaw clenched tight. Ezgi could see him weighing her words. All around them, the droids carried on without a care in the world for the standoff unfolding in their midst. One even went so far as to step over her legs on its way to the door, carrying a platinum urn large enough for a spukamas to curl up inside.

    "No, no, I don't think so," Gestas said after a minute, shaking his head in tight little movements. "I think you just pulled that out of your pretty little posterior. I'll give you points for creativity, girl, but I am too old for chasing wild banthas."

    Ezgi sighed, trying not to stare at the gun barrel still hovering in her direction, but it was getting harder to keep her voice steady with her heart beating as hard as it was. "Vik, you've got to work with me here. You wanted another golden egg, right? Here I am, your golden geejaw, trying to give you another egg. This is the egg: if you shoot me, you will die. My clan will burn this entire planet to the bedrock. You won't make it out of the system alive. This whole thing, all those years, will have been for nothing."

    "But if I let you live, what? Even after this, we just take our cuts, part as friends, and live happily ever after? That might be the hardest thing you've asked me to swallow."

    Shrugging, Ezgi shook her head. "I'm Mando, Vik. We don't tend to get all sentimental about having blasters waved around."

    "No repercussions?" Gestas asked, eyebrow cocked.

    Again, Ezgi shrugged. The offer couldn't look too good. "Ehh...I'm probably going to want to punch you in the face." He grimaced, rolling his eyes, but she let out an indignant pfff and frowned. "You ever been stunned before? That hurt."

    The old man took a few steps back, shaking his head and pinching the bridge of his nose. After another moment he exhaled a long sigh and stepped back, lowering his blaster. "If you punch me, I'm stunning you again."

    Ezgi laughed, more from nerves than any real amusement. "No promises."

    "Comm your clan," Gestas said quietly.

    "Sure. Give me my helmet."

    "Don't you have a comlink?"

    "I do...in my helmet and in my gauntlet. Take your pick."

    He raised an eyebrow at her request, as if to ask if she was serious. This was the final round of their standoff, and even with all the ground Ezgi had gained, this was the only round that really mattered. Now that she'd introduced the prospect of secret communiques he could neither find nor translate, Gestas was no doubt disconcerted by the thought of what else she might say, especially after having shown his hand so plainly. For her part, Ezgi merely waited where she was, the very picture of patience, save for an arched eyebrow of her own.

    After a few seconds, Gestas reached over a large chest for where he'd tossed her helmet. As he stretched, Ezgi could easily see both of her slim blaster pistols tucked into his waistband at the small of his back. He was never going to give back her gauntlet, not with all the mounted weapons it carried. It was an intentional nonstarter, just something to make the thought of returning her helmet look more appealing by comparison. Ezgi didn't need her helmet, either. She just needed Gestas to take his eyes off her.

    Ezgi heaved forward, pushing herself off the wall with everything she had. Scrambling, she didn't quite make it to her feet, choosing forward momentum over footing as she lunged for her blasters. Gestas alerted at the sound of her approach, but age and fatigue slowed his response. Ezgi wrapped her fingers around the handle of one of her pistols, yanking hard as she did. Gestas rounded, swinging his arm; Ezgi jerked backward, striking his elbow upward, before discharging a stun blast into his midsection that sent the old man crumpling to the floor.

    It took a few seconds for her victory to sink in, seconds Ezgi used to stand up and catch her breath. Once she had it again, though, and the weight of all that nearly transpired finally hit her, she unloaded on him. "Haar'chak, gar di'kutyc ruug'la shabuir! Ni n'urmankala gar!" Ezgi cursed and screamed at his unconscious body for more than a minute straight, striking him across the back and shoulders, kicking his legs, scarcely stopping to breathe amid the seething torrent of invective. "Tion emuuri ibac? Huh? Mirshi ade nu'aala bid jate jii! Shabla osi'yaim!"

    He almost killed her—killed her—just to avoid splitting the take. After everything she did! And Ezgi was almost as furious with herself for letting her guard down around the old man, even in battle. She should have never let that slippery chakaar out of her sight, not for a minute. Not for a second. There were so many red flags, but she thought she had him managed. Stupid. So kriffing stupid.

    When her temper finally began to cool and the steady stream of abuses she had heaped upon him threatened to run dry, Ezgi found herself standing over Gestas with her pistol still in hand. It would've been so easy to put two shots through the back of his skull while he slept. Maybe she would wait until he regained consciousness again, like he'd done with her. The more she thought, the more she stared, the more she stewed in her anger—the closer she came to pulling the trigger.

    But for whatever reason, her blaster found its way back into her holster. In the end, she was content to leave him beaten, and to vent her rage to a dwindling audience of apathetic worker droids that probably didn't know Mando'a from Mandaba.

    Ezgi recovered her other pistol from Gestas' belt, then dragged his dead weight over to the wall where she'd been forced to make her plea. She took his blaster, as well as the vibroblade he'd strapped to his boot, then with a few plastoid ties she took from one of her belt's many pouches, Ezgi bound his wrists and ankles just to be safe. "Let's see you cause any trouble now," she muttered to herself, admiring her own handiwork. "Osi'yaim."

    ————————————————————​

    Gestas woke to the distinct sensation of absolutely everything hurting.

    His bleary eyes searched his surroundings, head pounding as he tried to get his bearings. The last thing he remembered...

    "Oh good, you're awake."

    The Mandalorian!

    As his memory came flooding back, Gestas shot up. Or, at least, he would have if his feet weren't mysteriously bound together. Wrists, too, actually. So instead of going up, as he meant to, he just sort of vaguely flailed and fell over onto the cold floor.

    "Yeah, boot's on the other foot now," the girl said from several meters away. She had that droid head in her hands, trying to switch it back on. He very quickly noticed that she'd already retrieved her gauntlets, and her helmet was laid neatly on the floor a few centimeters from his feet, looking as though it were staring at him. "How do you feel?"

    Gestas groaned, wriggling his way back to sit up against the wall, just as the girl had done. "Like ten pounds of dung in a five pound sack," he groaned, straightening his back. He hurt, he was tied up, and he was at the mercy of a Mandalorian scorned. Not great, all things considered, but at least he was still alive. That...probably boded well. Unless she planned to torture him. Time to take a page from her own playbook: "So, what's the plan here, Ezgi?"

    The girl ignored him, too busy fussing over the droid as it came back online. "You okay, ODX?"

    "Miss Ezgi? Oh, you're unharmed! I must admit I feared the worst when I was shut down."

    She held the head so it could see where Gestas sat waiting. "Don't worry, vod'ika. It was nothing I couldn't handle." Once more, the head was hung from her belt as she headed over, left to dangle like an oversized piece of jewelry. "Wouldn't you agree, Gestas?"

    Ah. Not Viktor or Vik. It was back to Gestas. Did she think he hadn't noticed the way she had used his name, over and over, during her attempts to dissuade him from killing her? Classic psyops—use names, make it personal, form a connection. No, she knew. She definitely knew. It was why she made a point of calling him by his surname now.

    Careful, girl. You're not as clever as you think you are. We never are.

    "I screwed up," he said with a sigh.

    "Yeah, when you shot me."

    Whatever you say. "All that stuff about your clan, was any of it true?"

    She laughed. "When I was thirteen years old, this, uh...this city on Mandalore where I grew up, their government decided—without any input from me—that I'd be better off growing up with them after my father died, rather than with my mother and her people. They were the only family I had left, and Mom didn't take that very well. She rallied my entire clan, every other warrior she could find, and every ship they could get their hands on. They were ready to bombard an entire city, burn it all to the ground if the Duch—if their leader didn't turn over custody. I meant every word, believe me."

    He didn't. Not completely, anyway. She'd proven herself a competent enough liar that anything coming out of that pretty little mouth now had to be taken with a healthy measure of distrust. But there was something genuine there, a palpable hatred any fool could've heard lurking beneath the surface of her story. If she was lying, she'd woven in a few threads truth from an old wound, and he wasn't sure he liked that prospect.

    "It didn't have to be this way," the Mandalorian said, folding her arms across her chest. All the warmth had drained from her voice, and she glowered at him, eyes narrow and full of judgment. "You should've kept to the deal, so—"

    "Which one?" Gestas interrupted with a bitter laugh. "The one we made on Taris, or the one you improvised on Nar Kreeta all on your own? No, wait, you mean the deal you strong-armed me into back in Nabat." He sucked his teeth, and inhaled sharply. "Oh, I know! You're talking about the deal you made up on the spot in the trophy room upstairs. That's the one, right?"

    She didn't look amused. "Don't try to act like it mattered one shabla bit what I said or did. You said yourself that you've been planning to get rid of me all along."

    "I say a lot of things," he replied, shrugging. "You shouldn't believe everything you hear."

    The girl scoffed loudly, and her gaze grew impossibly more hostile. "You're going to sit there and try to tell me you weren't going to shoot me? You've lied a lot since I've met you, but that's—"

    "Hey, hey, hold on. I thought we'd just established that, if anything, my flaw is that I'm a little too truthful for my own good."

    "You've lied about everything since the moment we met!" she shouted. "You lied about what we were doing at the auction. You lied about paying me, then made osik deals with osik promises just to keep me on your side after you got exposed. Not to mention the fact you told me you don't speak Huttese when you clearly do."

    Kriffing hell, you're still on about that?

    "Okay, look, I've definitely made some poor choices. I think we can agree on that, but who hasn't?"

    "Does lying about who you are number among those poor choices?" the girl asked.

    Gestus inadvertently but audibly gulped, surprising him, and he cleared his throat in protest. This is starting to take a turn. Getting stunned like that had been a shock, obviously, but he'd been confident he could regain control of the situation. Now he wasn't so sure, not with the way things seemed to be spinning out of control so fast he—no, thoughts like those were poison. If he knew anything, it was that there was always a way through, you just had to be smart enough to find it. First, though? First he needed to douse the girl's temper before she did the one thing he couldn't talk his way past. "Look, Ezgi, I don't know what you think you know..."

    "What I think I know?" Her tone had flipped completely, trading fire for pure ice. "Let's start with the fact that you're not really from Talus."

    "What? Pffff! What makes you think that?"

    "It's in how you speak. There's a slight Rimward fluctuation in your accent when you're stressed, and the slang you use is more spacer than Corellian. I'd bet you're a colony kid, probably never even stepped foot in the system, and everything about your ship tells me I'm right."

    Gestas chuckled, still doing his best to seem blasé as the girl picked apart not just his every word, but the way in which he said them. "What does my ship have to do with anything?"

    "For starters, it's not your ship. The original registration number—nice work falsifying the registry and spoofing the transponder, by the way—leads back to one Drama Korr. Corellian, female, wealthy merchant...suspected of being an arms dealer with ties to Black Sun. Not the best choice of people to rip off. They tend to hold a grudge."

    "Come on, sweetheart, nobody got ripped off. I won the Star in a game of sabacc. Drams is a compulsive gambler but a terrible sabacc player." Technically, he was only possibly lying that time. It could very well have been the truth. Gestas didn't know, he'd never even met the woman face to face. Starship theft tended to go better that way. Now, he did wish he hadn't learned she was a Black Sun arms dealer at this very moment. Probably would've picked a different ship to boost if he had known. Maybe not, though. The Star was a damn good ship.

    The Mandalorian didn't seem to care either way. "ROCI investigators say Korr runs her business out of Trigalis, from a nice little office in New Coronet. I'm guessing that's where you're from, too, seeing as it's a little Corellian colony smack dab on the Rim. Your story's sprung a few leaks, Gestas." She paused, frowning. "Now that I think about it, that's not even your real name, is it?"

    If Gestas was being honest with himself—and if not with himself, then who?—his mistake had been a simple one: he underestimated the girl. No, woman. The Mandalorian warrior woman. That was a big part of the problem right there. He'd always considered himself a fair man. A liar and a cheat, yes, but fair in his assessment of people. Yet, he took one look at little Ezgi Deshra and wrote her off as a pretty face punching well above her weight by the grace of a good suit of armor. Even when she proved otherwise, he ended up just moving the goalposts. Instead of an easily led, out-of-her-depth ingenue, Gestas had decided she was a naive do-gooder, whose rigid sense of honor would make her easy to manipulate.

    So much for that. She had more cunning than he'd given her credit for.

    Now, the question before him was also a simple one: how to proceed? Gestas had lived most of his life with the belief that only amateurs folded under pressure. Idiots flipped when their stories began to crack, trading their cover away in the hopes of renegotiating a better deal down the line. Pros, on the other hand, committed. They didn't admit their lie, they lied harder. Pros made a doubter feel ridiculous for even questioning. He'd once talked his way out of a Corporate Sector interrogation room and into an apology dinner via a rapidly-adapting lie regarding his off-the-record relations with the head of the Direx Board.

    The only problem was that he didn't have an ounce of credibility with the Mandalorian anymore. Even if she'd missed the mark on a few of her conclusions, it was enough that she believed she was right, and anything he said to deny it now, right or wrong, would just come off as another lie. He couldn't claw back the controls after that.

    Time for a different approach.

    "Okay," Gestas said quietly. "Okay."

    "Okay, what?"

    "You got me," he huffed, "I lied."

    ————————————————————​

    "I lied about...a lot, okay? I'm not some rich idiot from Talus, I'm not a junk collector, I'm not even a legal starship owner. You were right. I'm a lifelong liar, cheat, and conman extraordinaire." Gestas' shoulders sagged. "I may not even be that last one, that's just what I tell myself, so there's that, too."

    Ezgi was quiet, judging him with pursed lips and crossed arms. It was everything she wanted to hear, and that made her all the more suspicious. "What's your real name?"

    The old man drew his mouth up tight, and she could just see the lie forming on his tongue. But then he sighed, utterly deflated. "Alden Pavan."

    Retrieving her datapad from its pouch on her belt, Ezgi ran a quick Holonet search before they went any further. Among the results that came back was a man in his late fifties from Trigalis, but there was no image or any form of identification to accompany it. It wasn't exactly the most airtight evidence, just an acknowledgment that a man named Alden Pavan did, in fact, exist. Still, the age bracket seemed to fit, and the world of origin aligned. "Alright then, Alden—"

    "Viktor," Gestas said, his voice quiet and surprisingly small. "I...changed it a long time ago. Not legally, but it, uh...it's not a name I go by anymore."

    Ezgi opened her mouth to apologize, automatic and reflexively, but caught herself before any words could come out. Why am I apologizing? "Fine," she said flatly, "Viktor."

    "Well, that's...everything," Gestas muttered, avoiding her gaze. "You know everything now."

    With you, somehow I doubt that's everything.

    She hopped up onto one of the tables that the droids had already cleared, setting ODX's head in her lap. Ezgi had expected to feel content. Triumphant, even. Not only had she escaped the old man's trap, she'd turned the tables on him. But no, she was instead stuck playing a mental game of speed dejarik against one worst case scenario after another. Why or to what end, she couldn't say, but she was nevertheless troubled by the non-zero chance that even this was all somehow another part of Gestas' ever evolving scheme.

    Things were so much easier when all she had to worry about were rusty old murder droids.

    "Since we're getting everything out in the open now," Ezgi said, leaning forward, "let's circle back to the whole 'you were going to kill me' thing. Were you?"

    Lifting his gaze from his lap, Gestas gave her a dubious look. "I'd be a fool to say yes."

    "You'd be a fool to be anything other than honest with me right now. Were you going to kill me or not?"

    Gestas sat in sullen silence for a while, no doubt engaging in a few rounds of speed dejarik of his own. Then, without ceremony or hesitation, he answered: "Yes."

    "Yes? Yes what?"

    His eyes were fixed on hers. "Yes I was going to kill you."

    A caustic laugh slipped from Ezgi's lips, and she flashed the old man a tight-lipped little smile. "Thank you," she said, "for being honest."

    And then she shot him.

    "Miss Ezgi!" ODX exclaimed, aghast.

    Holstering her pistol, Ezgi groaned under her breath, and set the droid's head down on the table next to her. "Relax, he's fine. I just stunned him."

    "For the second time in an hour, if I may," said ODX. "I feel it's my duty to warn you that it's medically ill-advised to use a stunner on the elderly."

    "Fine, fine," she muttered. One of the heavy lifter droids lumbered back into the room, fresh from a delivery to the surface. Ezgi leaned over to grab its bulky arm as it shambled by. "Hey, are you cleared to obey my orders?"

    "Affirmative," the ASP droid replied, emotionless and monotone.

    "Great. Do me a favor." She pointed to Gestas, slumped and unconscious. "Pick him up, and carry him back to the ship. Understand?"

    "Affirmative."

    Ezgi arched an eyebrow. "You're not much of a conversationalist, are you?"

    "Negative."

    To that, she actually smiled. "I can respect that."

    The ASP droid scooped the old man off the floor and slung him over its shoulder with amusingly little effort. Gestas may as well have been a sack of old laundry headed for the wash, the way the big droid hoisted him off the ground. With his precious new cargo secure, the big droid marched off to do as it'd been told, leaving Ezgi and ODX alone in the treasury room.

    Ezgi spread her arms and laid back on the table with a weary sigh, staring up at the decorative ceiling. She grimaced at the tender ache she was starting to grow entirely too accustomed to, but didn't move to sit up. "Ni shi copaani slana yaim bal shi nuhoyi par ani ray'ture," she muttered, closing her eyes.

    "Miss?"

    "Nothing, ODX." Ezgi forced herself up, wincing as she got to her feet. "Just thinking out loud." She gathered up her helmet, sliding it on, and reattached ODX's head to her belt with the fibercord sling. "I say we head back to the ship. It's not like there's anything more we can do here."

    "Indeed," the droid replied, "I am, after all, rather ill-equipped to aid in any heavy lifting at the moment."

    With a snort, Ezgi patted the head hanging at her hip. "You are amazingly upbeat about being a disembodied head, you know that?"

    ODX chuckled. "I imagine the secret is not having an organic nervous system. Or anything else organic, for that matter. It makes compartmentalizing a great deal more bearable. Much less messy, as well."

    The walk back was quick and easy, free of any more traps or ambushes to slow their way. The closest thing to trouble they found was a brief altercation with an angry DUM-series droid, who launched into a one-sided shouting match with Ezgi after backing suddenly into her path and getting accidentally kicked as a result. Soon enough, they reached the chamber whose floor had once been covered in credit coins, only to find it as clean as the day it was built. Even the bronzium offering bowls were gone, such was the droids' diligence. Ezgi checked her pocket, relieved when she found the coins she'd taken earlier were still there, undisturbed after all the commotion.

    A shape moved in her peripheral vision. "Steady now," warned an unpleasantly familiar voice. "Let's not make any hasty moves."

    Ezgi turned slowly, hands held outward, until at last she laid eyes on the one person she'd hoped to have seen the last of down here. "Viktor."

    He smiled, his false charm renewed. He had an old, long-barreled blaster pistol aimed at her head, one whose etched filigree design she recognized from Serraba's armory. "Would it be cliché of me to say we have to stop meeting like this?"

    "Yes, but at this point I've stopped expecting too much from you," Ezgi quipped.

    Gestas chuckled in turn. "Touche."

    "You going to stun me again?"

    "Unfortunately, this old thing doesn't have a stun setting," replied Gestas, indicating the antique blaster. "Got to love the good old days."

    "You really don't. They were rarely ever that good." Ezgi eyed the ancient pistol. "Look, without a stunner, I suggest you lower that blaster."

    The old man scoffed. "You going to threaten me with your crazy family again?"

    "I don't have to. Your problem now is a little more immediate," Ezgi said. She gestured to her helmet and armored torso with the tips of her fingers. "You can't land a kill shot with that blaster, not while I'm wearing beskar, and you can't go around it with a stun bolt this time."

    "I have some ideas about—"

    "Let me finish," Ezgi growled, channeling every ounce of force and severity she had. "If you fire on me, you get one shot, then I fire back. With one shot, you can't kill me. That's a fact. You know it and I know it. With one shot, I can kill you. We both know that, too. And I swear, after all the chances I've given you, if you shoot me again, I will kill you." Gestas' eyes ran from her holsters to her gauntlets. "Don't make me kill you, Vik. I've been trying really, really hard not to kill you, and I don't want to feel like I wasted all that effort."

    Gestas' lip curled, his wrist twitched, and he fired.

    Ezgi flinched, and she snatched her blasters from their holsters in an instant. The old man's shot had flown wide, missing her head by several centimeters, but he didn't fire a second time. Before she could even begin to wonder why, a heavy thud sounded at her back, and she turned sharply—never taking her pistol away from Gestas' gut—to discover the sprawled out corpse of a stranger lying on the floor, still clutching a blaster. "Who the shab is this?"

    Blasterfire streaked past Ezgi's face, and she dove to one side of the main entrance, pressing herself flat against the wall. She watched as Gestas went for the other side of the door, firing up the long hallway as he ran.

    "Is this you?" he yelled over at her.

    "Me?!" Ezgi spat, dumbfounded.

    "Your crazy family! Or was that all just a lie?"

    "Do those look like Mandalorians to you?"

    He fired again, narrowly managing to slip back behind the edge of the wall before a return volley could take his face off. "If they're not with you and they're not with me, who the kriffing hell are these guys?"

    Ezgi leaned around the corner and fired, hitting one of their attackers in the stomach. He doubled over with a gasping howl, and collapsing onto the floor.

    Somewhere behind him, a voice cried out: "They got Djo!"

    "Maikuh's down, too!" yelled another.

    "Stop shooting at us and we'll stop shooting back!" Ezgi shouted down the corridor. A flurry of fire followed, punctuated by furious cursing in half a dozen languages. "I'll take that as a no. Fine, then." She took a deep breath, and moved ODX's head to the back of her belt. "Now we do this the hard way."

    She surged forward, firing with both blasters. Whatever they were expecting, you can be sure it wasn't that. Two of them went down in as many seconds, and while a third managed to graze her, Ezgi dispatched him with a hail of plasma that his meager blast vest couldn't hope to repel. As she neared the end of the hall, yet another mystery man came around the corner at the worst possible time. Ezgi didn't slow down in the slightest, ramming him with a raised knee at full speed. The man gasped and sputtered, tumbling backward. For a split second, she contemplated finishing him off with a stun round instead of a lethal bolt, but Gestas took that choice out of her hands with a shot of his own.

    He jogged after her, breathing heavy as he tried to keep pace. As borderline peaked as he looked, the old man still clutched his blaster with a firm grip. Ezgi was keeping a close eye on him. Whatever the hell was happening right now, the smart move was to work together until they were back on the surface. It was just a shame she couldn't count on her former client to be on the same page, anymore. If he tried shooting her in the back again—if he tried anything at all, this time—Ezgi resolved to put a round between his eyes. He was fresh out of second chances.

    Back in the alcove where she'd stopped to rest earlier, Ezgi now rushed to retrieve her GALAAR carbine from where she'd set it down. She barely had it primed before yet another half-trained thug came barging in, screaming obscenities and firing his blasters wildly. He didn't last any longer than any of the others, and in the end, amounted to little more than a footnote in the battle back to the lift shaft.

    A lift shaft that was suspiciously unguarded.

    "Shouldn't there be some people here?" Gestas asked, practically reading her mind.

    Ezgi peered up the shaft, using her visor to filter the sun's light. If there were people up there waiting to ambush them, they were keeping well out of sight. "Haar'chak." She activated her helmet's comlink. "Senoota, you copy? We're in a bad spot over here." No answer came. "Aximian Star, come in. Do you have eyes on the top of the vault?"

    With no reply for a second time, Gestas tapped his own earpiece. "Stang it, Noot, did we catch you in the 'fresher or something? Answer the kriffing comm already!"

    "Leave it," Ezgi said. "They could be jamming us, or...something." She couldn't quite bring herself to voice the likelier alternative. "Whatever's going on, we can't just sit down here and wait for the problem to go away."

    "And if they start firing while we're stuck on the lift? There's nowhere to go and no cover. We'll be sitting ducks."

    "We're already sitting ducks. I don't love it either, believe me, but this isn't a siege we can just wait out down here." Ezgi loaded a fresh clip into her blaster and walked over to the control pillar at the center of the lift platform. "Sooner or later, they're going to realize that all the loot's already on the Star and they can just steal that, saving themselves a whole lot of trouble and leaving us stranded."

    Cursing, Gestas grumbled something under his breath, but he nodded anyway. "Do it."

    As the platform began its ascent, Ezgi took a knee near the wall of the shaft, blaster trained on the distant rim. Gestas followed her lead on the other side. With every fiber of her being, she hoped this was the right call. Her stomach was in knots the whole ride up, and it stayed that way even when no attack came, right up until the platform docked at the surface. Then it simply sank at the sight of how many blasters awaited them.

    "Is that you, little warrior? I'm glad to see you're still alive."

    "Osik," whispered Ezgi, gazing out at the familiar, chalk-white face staring back at her. "Hello, Nika."

    Standing amidst the endless murky water, surrounded by a dozen blaster-toting thugs, Nika Jei still somehow managed to look like an exquisite porcelain statue come to life. Decked out in a set of striking black combat gear and resting her rifle over one shoulder, she was equal parts menacing and mesmerizing to Ezgi's eye.

    "I wasn't sure I'd find you here," said Jei.

    "You almost didn't," Ezgi replied. "Your guys come on a little strong."

    Jei's dark purple lips twisted into a frown. "I told these idiots to subdue you." If she cared at all about the huffy murmurs or the disgruntled glares her words elicited from her men, she gave no indication in the least. "Subdue. Not kill. That's the truth."

    "Doesn't seem like they got the memo."

    "No matter what I tell them, they always seem to take it as a wink and a nudge way of me telling them to kill," Jei sighed.

    "You need better help."

    "I couldn't agree more." The bounty hunter's gaze passed from Ezgi to Gestas, then back again. "In truth, I was actually hoping your business with the old man was over, given what happened on Nar Kreeta. I thought you and I might have a chance to work together."

    Ezgi shrugged, still holding tight to her carbine. "Gestas and I reached a new...mutually beneficial arrangement since then."

    "Gestas?" The Rattataki woman chuckled with cold amusement. "Interesting. The bounty listing I have for that old man was posted under the name of one Endrin Bato." She raised her eyebrows, looking him up and down. "Does that name mean anything to you?"

    "Bato?" Gestas scoffed, smiling. "You know, lady, I am so glad you said that, because that really just clears everything up. This is sounding more and more like a big misunderstanding." To Ezgi's surprise, he holstered his blaster—or rather, he tucked it into his waistband at the small of his back, holding his hands out to either side. "Never met this Bato guy, myself, but apparently the man bares a better than decent resemblance to yours truly. It's been a real hassle, believe you me."

    "A resemblance, hmm?" the statuesque hunter asked dryly, fingers flexing on the stock of her rifle.

    "That's what they say. Personally? I don't see it."

    Ezgi knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what she would find if she checked that listing, whose stupid, mustached face would be there under yet another assumed name. She blinked over to the secure comm channel she still shared with Gestas, and quickly blinked again to quiet her helmet's external output. "Stop talking. She's going to shoot you."

    "Starting to look that way," he answered quietly, every word whispered through tightly clenched teeth and barely parted lips. "A real piece of work, this one."

    "Tell me about it. We were supposed to go out for drinks after this." The old man practically wrenched his neck with how fast he turned to balk at her. "Don't start. And besides, I'm pretty sure that's off the table now." Ezgi switched her helmet's external voice projection back on with another blink command, and took a step closer toward Jei. "So what's the plan, Nika?" she asked. "You take this idiot for the bounty, then we go for that drink?"

    Jei smiled. "That sounds delightful." But just like that, her smile took a harsh turn toward frosty. "Unfortunately, I'm afraid things are a smidge more complicated than that. It would seem there's something a bit more valuable on this wonderfully out of the way little world."

    "Such as?" Gestas asked, pushing his luck.

    "Such as a certain treasure, hidden away in a certain underground vault by a certain dead Hutt." Something about the way she struck that last T so sharply, sent a tingle down Ezgi's spine. "Let's stop playing games. Your pilot's already told me everything."

    Whatever feigned calm Ezgi had managed thus far, shattered. "If you hurt him..." she snarled.

    Jei's jet black brows rose a fraction, and for a moment, her mouth hung open in uncertainty. Ezgi expected some sultry rebuke, but none came. "You poor sweet thing," she said instead, digging out a palm-sized holoprojector. With a quick flick of her thumb, the Dug appeared in front of them, alive, well, and counting the contents of a small case of credit ingots. "Senoota is a dear old friend. How do you think we found you all the way out here?"

    "Karkin' son of a—I'll kill him!" Gestas shouted. He leveled an accusatory finger at the pilot's holopresence. "You hear me, you lying, double-crossing sack of divvik dwang?! I'm going to wring your scrawny neck!"

    Senoota set the case down out of sight, shaking his head. "Unlikely."

    "Why?" Ezgi had to ask. "Why do this?"

    The Dug sighed. "Seemed the prudent thing to do. Better off havin' a good exit strategy than end up a loose end waiting to get cut off."

    "You worked for me for years!" Gestas exclaimed.

    "And that supposed to make us friends? You think I don't got you figured out, Viktor? All that time don't mean nothing to you," Senoota said, shaking his head again. His snout wrinkled, and he looked over to Ezgi. "Don't make no mistake about it, pateesa, Viktor don't got friends, just people who can do stuff for him...right up until they can't do no more. Take my advice and do as I done 'fore he looks at you and starts thinking you not so useful no more."

    Before Ezgi could respond, Gestas cut in with perhaps a more immediately pressing question: "Should I take that to mean we'll be living long enough to reflect on all your sage advice, Noot?"

    Jei tossed the holoprojector to her nearest goon, the active hologram fuzzing as it cartwheeled before being caught. "That depends entirely on you..." She paused, rolling her eyes. "...Viktor, Bato, or whatever your name is. Come quietly and point us toward the treasure and this can all have a happy ending." Then she turned to Ezgi and smiled. "As for you, little warrior, you needn't fret at all. You have no bounty on your pretty little head, and we have no quarrel, so long as you lower that blaster of yours and let me take in this man with too many names."

    "What?" exclaimed one of Jei's thugs. "Her and the old man killed a bunch of our people. They gotta pay!"

    "He's wanted alive," his boss sighed.

    "Then at least let us take it outta the girl!"

    "No," Senoota warned. "She's not part of the deal."

    "This Mandie coojah killed Maikuh, Djo, Kleet, Mac'cal'endaar, Dayvi—"

    "And nothing of value was lost," Jei dryly proclaimed, her words dripping with contempt.

    Oh, the brutish mercenary did not like that, not at all. He turned his blaster to bear on his employer, lip curled in an angry snarl. "You stuck up, hairless, pasty-arsed—"

    Ezgi had been keeping an eye on the rifle resting on Jei's shoulder, and she suspected the same was probably true of her hired hand. That was a mistake. Her rifle didn't move a centimeter, not as her free hand claimed a knife from her belt, and not even as she flicked it into the goon's unprotected throat. He gasped, wet and strained, the color draining from his stricken face. His blaster created a surprisingly large splash when it struck the water, tossed aside as his hands fruitlessly attempted to stem the flow of blood seeping down his chest, right up until the moment he toppled over dead.

    Jei watched it all with a dispassionate gaze, then looked to the remainder of her gang of sour-faced mooks. No one else said a word, so she shrugged, nodded, and regarded Ezgi anew. "Good help is always so hard to come by. It's why I prefer to work alone, but as we discussed on Nar Kreeta, we do as the work requires." She watched Ezgi, blinking slowly as a fresh smile took shape. "What will it be, Ezgi?"

    Counting Jei herself, Ezgi was outnumbered eleven to one. Eleven to two, if she counted Gestas on her side—which she absolutely did not. With those odds, she could...probably win, if it came to that, though it promised to be arduous and painful, and Gestas would likely just try to shoot her in the back again when it was over. By contrast, Nika Jei's intentions were nakedly obvious, and not particularly disagreeable. The smart move seemed clear. The only wild card in all of this was Senoota. The Dug had sold them out, but then he spoke up in her defense, and while he apparently told the gang all about the treasure's existence, Senoota had also neglected to mention that it was already aboard the Aximian Star.

    What are you playing at?

    Before Ezgi could make up her mind, Gestas laughed and called out to Jei. "You're barking up the wrong tree, honey," he said. "Me and her are sworn partners, and I don't know if you're familiar with Mandalorians, but they have a code of honor that forbids her from ever giving up a comrade to—"

    Ezgi sighed and shot him with another stun round, reaching over to catch him by the scruff of his shirt just before his head could hit the stone. She set him down gently to the sound of slow applause, whose origins were no surprise. "I guess you have my answer," Ezgi said.

    "Excellent. Just the outcome I was hoping for," purred Jei, still clapping. She pointed to a couple of her men. "Take him to the ship." Her brown eyes narrowed. "And make sure he stays alive, or you won't."

    They grumbled, but did as they were told, and the others all followed their leader's example and lowered their blasters. Only then did Ezgi return her own carbine to its place at her back. She stepped down off the raised platform, cringing as the tepid, murky water rose up around her thighs again.

    Jei must've seen her body stiffen in disgust, for she succumbed to a nasally snicker in spite of the sultry and aloof facade she worked so hard to maintain. "Come, little warrior. My ship is just over there." Ezgi followed her gaze eastward, where a well-armed corvette hovered a few meters over the water. "You'll be in better spirits after we get you out of those wet clothes and into...something more comfortable."

    Smiling, Ezgi sloshed closer, ready with a saucy reply of her own. However, it never made it past her lips, dying on her tongue in the instant a series of squawking alarms came blaring over Senoota's still ongoing transmission. "What's happening?" she demanded. The Dug faded out of focus, leaving everyone anxiously waiting on his answer. In another moment, Jei's wrist comlink began to chirp and flash erratically with a warning of its own. "Nika, what's—?"

    "It's the Hutts!" Senoota bellowed, reappearing panic-stricken on the holo. "They found us!"

    Jei cursed in a language Ezgi didn't recognize, then ordered her men back to the ship. "Ezgi, will you come?" she asked, holding out her hand.

    Damn.

    Ezgi wanted to say yes, just as surely now as she did on Nar Kreeta. And as companions go, the gorgeous Rattataki was a distinct upgrade over duplicitous Viktor Gestas. But the temptation of Jei's offer was outweighed by the simple fact that the treasure was already aboard the Star, and Ezgi had promises to keep.

    Then again, she could always just ask Jei to come with her, instead. After all, there was obviously no love lost between her and her men, and the wealth of Serraba's vault was so vast that it would be a trifle to share. Could she trust the bounty hunter, though? For that matter, where did Senoota fit in to all this? Would he even let her back on the Star?

    "Can't," Ezgi said, hoping her hesitation hadn't been too obvious. She started for the Star, walking backward through the water. "I've got gear on the ship I can't leave."

    Jei looked crestfallen, but nodded as she made her way toward her own vessel. "Stay safe!"

    "You too!"

    Abandoning any pretense of poise or calm, Ezgi sprinted for the Star, splashing wildly. The ship's drives were active and ready to take off, but despite her fears, it waited for her, staying put right up until she landed a boot on the boarding ramp.

    Senoota must've had an eye on the security cams. As soon as she was on the ramp, but before Ezgi could properly get inside, the Star rose up out of the water and angled for orbit. "Strap in!" he barked over the intercom. "Idiots probably blew right through Gos Hutta to get here, led 'em right to us!" Ezgi was tempted to point out that they'd still be in the clear if Senoota hadn't given up the treasure's location, but it didn't seem like the best time for that. The Dug was still cursing over the intercom when she reached the cockpit. "...karking sleemos leaving a kriffing—oh, you got here quick."

    "Yeah," she answered, slapping his arm as she plopped down in the co-pilot's chair. "Get us out of here, Senoota." He made some kind of strained grumbling noise, his many fingers and toes racing across the console. "You can get us out of here, right?"

    "Working on it!" he huffed. "The Hutts got more ships up there than a mott's got fleas. Only shot of getting past 'em is if we can get a window for a hyperjump. They ain't going to give us a big one, so—"

    "So you have to have the calculations ready to punch it first chance you see," Ezgi finished for him, nodding. "I'll shut up now."

    Senoota kept the Aximian Star low to the ground as he sped south and away, even as Nika Jei's corvette made a rapid climb toward orbit. Whoever was in the pilot's chair must've thought a hard runner approach was the better play. Ezgi trusted Senoota's instincts in the cockpit, even if she questioned some other aspects of his judgment.

    Please don't make me regret that, she pleaded silently.

    In another moment, Kor Utaru's wispy cloud cover was ripped asunder as shafts of angry red plasma punched through the atmosphere and speared the ground, courtesy a myriad of Hutt turbolasers. None managed to strike the Star directly, but they were coming far too close for comfort. Under threat from the waves of dirt and superheated water vapor that were starting to batter the outside of the ship, Senoota finally decided it was time to get a little more altitude. They climbed quickly, doing everything within the Dug's skill to evade the Hutts' fire on the way up.

    With the quick press of a button, Ezgi brought up a map of the space around the planet. Huttese transponders dominated the field of view, but it was the one independent signal among all the rest that caught her attention: Jei's ship—the Counterguard, according to the transponder—was still in the fight, still pushing toward the edge of the fleet.

    A lucky broadside rocked the Star, and Senoota started cursing again, knuckles pale as he clutched the steering yoke. "Maybe now would be a good time to start shooting back?" Ezgi asked, her own fingers wrapped tightly around her chair's armrests. The ship swung suddenly to the left, narrowly avoiding a mass driver round from the closest cruiser. "Haar'chak, that was close!"

    "Can't shoot back! Got all power going to the shields. Not like our guns could put a scratch on those ships, anyway. Better off staying safe." Senoota glanced over at the holomap. "Nika's crazy if she's thinkin' blasters are gonna do a kriffing thing."

    With the Star's new heading, Ezgi could actually see Jei's ship battling it out with the Hutts through the forward viewport. The corvette wasn't winning. She waved away the holomap and opened a comm channel to the Counterguard. Maybe she could convince the pilot to take a different—

    A sudden fireball flared up the distance. It was barely enough to coax a low rumble from the Star's auditory emulators, let alone an actual boom, but Ezgi knew it spelled the end of the corvette. "Aww, stang..."

    "We've got an opening!" Senoota exclaimed. He reached over, and before Ezgj could even suggest the possibility of survivors, he pulled the lever that sent them hurtling into hyperspace.
     
    Cantankerous Ordo and Contessa like this.
  6. Cowgirl Jedi 1701

    Cowgirl Jedi 1701 Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Registered:
    Dec 21, 2016
    Excellent. And I saw that reference to Firefly. "Big Damn Heroes" :D
     
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  7. Mia Mesharad

    Mia Mesharad Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 2, 2012
    Chapter 9


    The Shakka Cantina, city of Kala'uun, Ryloth
    Three days later

    There was something otherworldly about the Shakka Cantina, an almost primal energy befitting of its name. The lights, the crowd, drinks, drugs, and the music—low, heavy, and twice the speed of a Twi'lek's heartbeat—all combined to create a palpable vibe of hedonistic bliss. Everything about the never-closing nightclub seemed designed to free you from yourself, to break down inhibitions, and to unleash every desire, no matter how wild...or illicit.

    Koyi Racor loved it here. These days, he practically lived at the Shakka. Had his own private corner booth with a dedicated bartender droid and everything. Lessu had its charms, but here in Kala'uun, he was practically a king.

    As the music's pulsing rhythm ebbed a fraction in preparation for a track change, Koyi made his way off the dance floor. He needed a drink. His head still buzzed from the kik-dust he'd licked up earlier, and he'd worked up a good sweat out there, shaking his lekku with all the other hot, gyrating bodies filling up the cantina tonight. Or was it morning already? Kriff, he needed a drink. In his personal booth, the Twi'lek dabbed at his neck and brow with a cloth napkin while his droid poured out a glass of whiskey. The good stuff, imported. He must've taken too long to blink, because his man had a fresh spiral of kik-dust poured out on the table before he knew what was what.

    "My man!" Koyi slurred, smiling and slapping the bulky Twi'lek on his bulky back. In another moment, the dust was gone, his drink was dry, and he somehow found himself getting acquainted with a gorgeous, green-skinned little thing and her equally alluring human companion. "You're both such charming young ladies," he drawled, feeling damn near blasterproof in the moment. "Some of the best. So why don't we finish this conversation somewhere more private?" His man protested, but frang it, who worked for who? For...whom? No matter: Koyi Racor, that's who! And kriff, these two sareeni were game to come home with him, they just about led him out by the wrists.

    Outside, he could feel the insistence of the Shakka beginning to fade. Out in the cool cavern air, the light was less intense, and the music diffused into something far more subdued. Whatever time it actually was—and Koyi had most definitely lost track—the streets of Kala'uun weren't anywhere near as crowded as the club floor, giving him plenty of room to list about as he walked.

    "I haven't had this much fun since...since yesterday!" Koyi laughed.

    The girls laughed, too. "So what do you do, Master Racor?"

    "I'm a businessman."

    "Really?" the green-skinned stunner asked, eyes wide with wonder.

    "Oh, yeah. Well...more of an enterprising entrepreneur. I have a nose for credits. I know what people want, I know what I want, and I know how to get everybody what they want."

    The rest of the journey back to his residence was a fascinating blur: he remembered talking, though not about what, and he remembered giggles, though who did the giggling was anybody's guess. Streets led to doors, that led to hallways, and then a lift, and suddenly he was splayed across his couch, drunkenly grinning up at two stunning ladies.

    The human drifted around the couch, pausing at the transparisteel wall behind him to admire the view. Koyi had often looked out across the lower levels of Kala'uun from that vantage point, taking it all in. More than anything, it was that view that made him choose this place. A king's high castle. But the human just closed the privacy shutters before slinking back, laying her hands across his shoulders. The Twi'lek double-checked he'd locked the door. This was going to be a good end to a great night.

    Then the knife touched the skin of his throat, and things started to feel like they'd taken a turn toward the not so great. "What, er, what are you doing?" Koyi asked, laughing nervously. Frang, he hoped she was just into the kinky stuff.

    "Making sure you're comfortable," said the human. Her Twi'lek partner hurried off to have a look around the rest of his home. "We're going to have a long talk about all that business you do, and all of your friends back at the cantina."

    Despite the booze and the dust, Koyi was starting to feel mighty sober. "Just who the blazes do you think you are, coming in here and threatening me? Do you know who I am?!"

    The blade at his neck pressed painfully tighter. "We wouldn't be here if we didn't."

    "Mhi utrel'a!" the green Twi'lek called out, seconds before she reappeared. "Chuvak get olar. Be'chakaar solegot o'r ashi yamika."

    "Jate," replied the human.

    What language was that? He'd taken them for a couple of thieves at first, but he'd never heard any of those words in his life. These people obviously weren't from around here. "Hey, what is this? Who are you people, huh?"

    As if to answer him, the door chimed and slid open, allowing a red-skinned alien in—oh kark, was that Mandalorian armor?! What did a kriffing Mando want with him? The new intruder was a scraggly-looking Devaronian, possessed of a male's pointed teeth but lacking their renowned horns. It took him a moment to realize that this one's horns had actually been cut and filed down until they resembled dark goggles resting above his brow. Strange.

    "This him?" the red ape asked, his Basic drenched in a strong Devaron accent.

    The human girl withdrew her knife, but kept a firm hand on his shoulder, pressing him down into the couch. "Meet Koyi Racor," she said, "Spice dealer, trafficker, aspiring crime boss..."

    "All-around osi'yaim. Should've just taken him out at the club."

    "Too many people. Too many chances somebody else could get hurt. It made more sense to lure him back here."

    Koyi had just about reached his fill, but what could he do? He wasn't in any position to fight them on his own, and he had no way to summon his men without leaving the couch, since it now seemed the green-skinned little schutta had picked his comlink from his pocket. "What do you want, credits? I've got credits. I can get you credits, kik-dust, ryll spice, local girls, whatever you—" The human's fist slammed into the back of his head, cutting him off. Koyi cursed and clutched his head, his eyes watering uncontrollably as he screwed them shut in pain.

    "Did that hurt?" the rotten shank had the nerve to ask. He opened his eyes to find her glaring back at him from his favorite chair, knife in hand. The Devaronian and Twi'lek were nowhere to be seen. "My name's Ezgi. You and I haven't met before, but we have a mutual friend. Jela Sivron?"

    Koyi almost choked.

    "Oh, you remember her? Good. She says hi. She also says you've been a blight on this city and everyone in it. Now, my friend in there is slicing into your computer as we speak. Ten minutes from now, he's going to have everything on you and your business."

    "Why are you doing this?" Koyi croaked. His mouth felt drier than the Bright Lands.

    The human glowered at him. "I like Jela. You hurt her, and a lot of others just like her. Now you're going to have to pay for that."

    "Please don't kill me!" he begged. Sweat poured down his face and lekku, and he'd never been more acutely aware of his bladder than he was in that moment.

    The girl leaned forward, her knife pointed at his throat. "That depends entirely on you, Koyi."


    Old Street Bathhouse, city of Joreikna, Ryloth

    Daraan Aseca was about as happy as he'd ever been. With a glass of finely aged brandy from the Nightlands in hand, and a near-scalding hot soaking pool full of shapely young Lethans, he couldn't think of a single moment in his forty-six years that quite compared to right here and now. Racor may have been an entitled, spice-addled franger of the highest order, but going into business with the little plouc had made Daraan a rich man.

    So he sipped his brandy, and breathed in the steam-filled air. One of the women lounging at the poolside looked away in ill-concealed disgust when Daraan rubbed a hand over his pronounced stomach. He knew what people said about him, how they mocked him for his weight. How could he not? He knew he was fat, just as surely as he knew he was ugly, but what did he care? He had wealth, power, and enough mercenaries in his employ to take the Clan Council by force if he so desired. He could simply take what would otherwise be denied him.

    A sudden ruckus outside challenged the peace and calm Daraan had carefully cultivated. Raised voices and the like. Couldn't these star-forsaken peons go one hour without devolving into a bunch of animals? He sighed and shook his head, then beckoned one of his women to join him. She smiled, of course, and sashayed over, slipping into the water with hardly a splash. Daraan was sure she hated him, too, but he had credits enough to at least rent her favor.

    "And what is your name?" he asked, taking her by the waist and pulling her closer.

    "Yalema," she cooed.

    Lovely. "You have such beautiful skin," said Daraan, licking his lips. Before he could make his move, blasterfire erupted beyond the door to his private bath chamber, and several of the girls screamed. Who was—who dared bring weapons—what was going on out there?! "Check that out!"

    Half a dozen mercenaries made for the door. A motley collection of Twi'leks, humans, and one or two Rodians, they were the best muscle credits could buy on Ryloth. "On it boss!" one of them shouted back, blaster in hand.

    Daraan leaned in closer to the red-skinned beauty at his side. "Don't worry. You're perfectly safe with me."

    "Of course, sir," she whispered, visibly cringing as he stroked one of her head-tails. He expected to be angered by that, but it only stoked his fire.

    The shooting outside flared up as his men went out, but it just as quickly died back down, and soon went silent altogether. Good. At least his mercs could still be relied upon to do a job when asked. Daraan gulped down the last of his drink, tossed the glass onto the cushioned loungepad next to the pool, and turned all of his attention to dear Yalema.

    And then the door exploded inward.

    Daraan cursed, not knowing whether to run or hunker down. Yalema had vanished from his side, fleeing the pool to cower in the corner with the rest of her ilk. "Throw me a towel!" he hissed. None dared to move, not when the sound of blasterfire renewed. And was that...did he hear...laughter?

    All of the sudden, one of Daraan's men came flying into the room. Not running, flying, right into the pool. He wasn't moving, either.

    "Daraan Aseca!" boomed a deep, growling voice in thunderous Basic. Through the door came a monstrous, bipedal felinoid some three meters tall and covered in armor. A blood red cape flapped behind him, looking well out of place with the deep purple of the stranger's natural fur. Some kind of misshapen Wookiee? Or was that what they looked like without the shaggy coats? Whatever its race, it was unlike anything Daraan had ever seen before. The beast smiled as it fixed its green eyes on him from across the soaking pool. "Ah, there you are!"

    "Who are you? What do you want?" Daraan shouted back, sinking instinctively deeper in the bath until only his head remained above the water. "My men—"

    "Are quite dead," said the intruder.

    That was impossible. He had an army, the best Ryloth had to offer. He paid them a small fortune to keep him safe. "A-all of them?"

    "All of them!" He started around the edge of the pool, moving startlingly fast for a thing of his size. He bowed his furry head when he passed the females, but didn't slow his long, powerful strides. "Get out of the bath, Aseca. It's time you and I had words."

    "I don't think so!" Daraan sputtered, scrambling for the other side of the pool. At this point, he could care less about a towel; he'd make a run for it completely naked if that's what it took to be free of this animal. "You stay away from me, you overgrown womp rat!"

    Someone whistled. Against his better judgment, Daraan turned to look, just in time to see the armored beast toss a silver something into the water. Frang it, he was smiling so wide, Daraan could see the first spark crackle in his eye, right before his whole world went dark.


    700 Block, Level 2631
    Coruscant underworld

    Breeana was kicking herself for waiting so long to go shopping, but it couldn't be helped. It wasn't like her boss was going to let her leave work early for something so inconsequential as getting food for her son. So here she was, at a quarter 'til midnight, heading home with a lean load of groceries just as fast as her feet could carry her. At least the lateness of the hour left her with some peace and quiet after the day she'd had.

    Right up until the police siren opened up not twenty meters away.

    Startled, Breeana nearly dropped her groceries, and retreated further from the street. She prayed the police speeder would pass her by, but sure enough, it pulled over just up ahead. A big, paunchy human climbed out of the pilot's seat. He was wearing a CSF trench coat, minus the full-faced helmet his people typically wore down here, revealing a shaved head and the ghost of a beard on his pale, flabby cheeks.

    "Good evening, off—"

    "Put the bag down," the human said, brusquely. He had his hand on his holstered blaster, and though she was too frightened to even think about disobeying. Breeana set the bag down, moving slowly all the while. "Back away." She did that, too. As soon as she was out of arm's reach, he kicked over the bag, spilling her groceries onto the dirty walkway and sending the small juicemelon she'd just purchased rolling away. "Where did you get these?"

    Breeana swallowed harshly, lekku twitching, fighting back angry tears. "I just bought them from Dekosi's. Over on the corner of Zisero?"

    The officer frowned, his gaze shifting from the spilled groceries to Breeana. "Get up against the wall."

    "But I didn't do any—"

    "Hands on the wall, tail-head!" the officer barked, drawing his pistol from its holster.

    Breeana spun around and pressed her hands up against the storefront, watching the color drain from her normally tan knuckles. A thin sheet of glass stood between her and a store model vidscreen scrolling through the stories of the day; Breeana couldn't help but take notice of headline proclaiming the total massacre of the local Tchun-Tchin Mafia by parties unknown. Their entire safe house headquarters had apparently been burned down around them for good measure.

    Good. They were scum, a complete disgrace to every Twi'lek living on Coruscant. Now if only somebody would do the same to these damn cops.

    Stops like this were a grim part of life down here. The police in this sector were almost all human, and they seemed to take a special pleasure in tormenting the local Twi'lek community. Males could expect to have their belongings "confiscated" at random, to be beaten, arrested for some nerfshavit offense, or just shot and left in the street until CSF decided to launch a dead end investigation. As a woman, Breeana's experience was likely to be an altogether different sort of unpleasant...with the risk of being shot and left in the street still very much on the table should she resist.

    The officer clamped a rough hand down on her shoulder, squeezing and giving her a little shake as if to make sure her fear had successfully rooted her in place. Then his hand began to wander lower, until it was joined on her hips by another. Suddenly and forcefully, he spun her around. Breeana averted her eyes, gritting her teeth in the hope that it would all be over soon and she'd be able to scrape together her groceries and get home to her son.

    "Look at me," said the cop. His voice was quieter, but no less forceful. His breath smelled like an old, greasy slider.

    Breeana looked up, forcing herself not to cringe or cry. She refused to give the son of a barve the satisfaction. Yet as her eyes rose, she found something far scarier than the cop looming over his shoulder. Backlit by a nearby street light, came a shadowy, armored figure unlike anything she'd ever seen before, walking toward them with intent. "What is that?" she whispered.

    The cop sneered down at her. "You think I'm going to fall for that, you stupid—" The figure's shadow stretched over them both as they grew closer, finally grabbing the officer's attention when he spotted the shade come across her face. He whirled around, blaster in hand. "Who the kriff are you supposed to—"

    There was a flash of light, the sound of blaster shot, and then the cop crumpled to the floor with a sizzling hole where his forehead used to be. The armored newcomer had moved so fast, it took Breeana a moment to realize what she'd even just seen.

    "Are you all right?" the stranger asked. To Breeana's continuing surprise, it was a woman's voice, much softer than her frightening, almost droid-like appearance would suggest. "Did he hurt you?"

    "N-no," Breeana stammered. "I'm fine." She looked back down at the corpse. Even in death, he looked so shocked. "Why did you..."

    "I'm cleaning up, and he needed to go."

    It was hard to argue that, even if Breeana still wasn't sure what to make of all this. "Too bad you can't do the same to all his friends," she said with a nervous laugh.

    There was something about the way the stranger angled her head in response to her words that made her think she was smiling under that awful helmet. "Who says I can't?" She checked a small chrono attached the plate she wore on the back of her hand, then pressed a button on her gauntlet. Something big exploded in the distance, sending an accompanying tremor through the ground.

    "What did you do?" Breeana gasped.

    "Removed a CSF precinct full of speciesist osi'yaime from the universe." She was so nonchalant in how she answered, it was chilling.

    So much death from one little button. No one she would miss or mourn, but it was still...it was terrorism, for kriff's sake! She was consorting with a terrorist. "You killed them all."

    "Not all, just...most." The stranger sighed, and knelt down to gather up her groceries. "Don't waste your sympathy, friend. They don't deserve it," she said. "I took my time, did my homework, and made sure the handful of good officers stationed here were diverted to the gang house fire. The only ones who burned this time are the ones who persecuted your people."

    There was so much to unpack in so few sentences, but it was the unspoken implication her rescuer so casually threw out there that caught Breeana's attention. "This-this time? You diverted the good cops to...you're the one who killed—massacred—the Tchun-Tchins!"

    "That's right." The armored stranger stood up, topping the refilled bag with the scuffed juicemelon. "This community had two hands around its neck. It didn't make sense to cut off one and leave the other, especially when one hand was supposed to be protecting you from the other." She held out the bag, and Breeana took it without thinking, clutching it tightly to her chest. "You should go home. It's late."

    Breeana swallowed, utterly speechless. Getting home seemed like a very good idea, in that moment, but her mind couldn't quite summon the clarity to make her feet move. Everything she'd ever learned about right and wrong screamed at her that such wanton violence was as wrong as it got. You can't just murder people. But the thought of everyone who suffered at the hands of the Tchun-Tchins and CSF's systemic abuses, and the realization that those days could finally be over, was overwhelming.

    "You did all this by yourself?" she blurted out.

    "Nobody ever does an op this large by themselves. Not entirely."

    By now, Breeana had to know: "Who are you?"

    The sound of a strained chuckle filtered through the stranger's helmet. "It's probably best if I don't answer that. I'm just a friend of a friend to someone who used to live here, and didn't leave on good terms. Like I said, I'm just cleaning up so she can come home to somewhere safe. Now..." She checked the charge on her blaster. "...there's a few more strays that need rounding up."


    Niffen's Pub, Middle City, Taris
    The following day

    "One Tarisian ale and a plate of cheesy crispics. Careful," the handsome Zabrak said as he set the platter on the table, "They're still hot."

    "Thanks, Rao," replied Ezgi, flashing him a smile. Niffen's was a favorite and frequent stopover on her trips to Taris, and the pub's owners—a charming Zabrak named Rao and wife, Lorra—were always kind and welcoming. All in all, it was a far cry from the Upper City Taphouse's snobbish crowd.

    "Waiting for someone?" Rao asked.

    Ezgi checked the chrono on the wall. "She should be along in a couple minutes."

    "Ah." He flashed a knowing smile, handing her a bottle of boontaspice mustard for the crispics. "I'll leave you to it, then. Enjoy!"

    Nodding, Ezgi settled in along the curve of the booth seat, back to the wall, and browsed the news on her datapad as she ate.

    Authorities in Lessu and Kala'uun had rounded up the remains of Koyi Racor's criminal organization, thanks to the mysterious disappearance of its leadership and a few well-placed, anonymous tips. Meanwhile, CSF was still "pursuing leads" in their investigation into how a police precinct and a known gang hideout both went up in smoke on the very same night. Her mother had really outdone herself with that one, but Ezgi couldn't help but worry Edeema's purge was only a temporary solution to a larger, institutional problem. Still, even a temporary peace was better than nothing, and there was always a chance the dead cops' eventual replacements would be cut from a better cloth.

    "I hope I didn't keep you waiting long, little warrior," came a familiar, throaty voice. Roused from her thoughts, Ezgi looked up from her 'pad, smiling without reserve as Nika Jei slipped into the other end of the curved booth. She'd forgone her belt of knives and her long rifle, but black combat gear remained her preferred look, even here. "I see you got started without me."

    "I was hungry, and you were running late," Ezgi replied, shrugging. "Now that you're here, though, feel free to order whatever you'd like. My treat."

    Nika arched an eyebrow. "Generous of you."

    "Not, uh...not that generous."

    The Rattataki woman closed her eyes, and a small, tight-lipped smile spread across her purple lips as she nodded. "So you did find that Hutt's treasure."

    "We did. We even managed to get most of it out before their fleet showed up."

    "It's little wonder, then, that our mutual Dug friend's dropped out of all contact." A moment of silence passed over the table, or as near to it as Nika's fingers drumming on the plastoid finish would allow. Ezgi could still hardly believe she was alive, and the ashen-skinned hunter wasn't exactly forthcoming with the details of how she'd managed such a miraculous escape. Probably thought the mystery added to her mystique, or some such osik. "I suppose I can't be angry with you for playing things the way that you did," she said at last. "I might've even done the same thing in your shoes."

    That was encouraging. "Good to hear it. Just the same, I thought it'd be nice to make it up to you."

    "With a free lunch?" Nika asked, her lips pursed. "That's certainly less than the old man offered." She'd been pretty mum as to what happened with Gestas, too, though Ezgi was pretty well past caring on that account.

    "No, I told you, that's just—nevermind," said Ezgi. "The actual 'sorry for lying to you' present is waiting back on my ship."

    A sultry gleam flashed in the Rattataki's eyes. "Oh my."

    "Nika..." Ezgi sighed.

    "Fine, fine. So do I have to wait until the wrapping paper comes off to find out what it is, or are you going to give me a clue?"

    "How about I just come right out and tell you?"

    "That works too."

    Ezgi rolled her eyes, fighting a smile. "I've got half a dozen high-ranking members of a Twi'leki trafficking ring bound, sedated, and waiting on a savvy bounty hunter to deliver them over for a fat reward."

    Finally, she managed to crack Nika's composed veneer. The huntress looked lost for words, her brow furrowing adorably. "You...you're giving them—?" But then something in her expression changed. "It was you!"

    "Me?"

    "On Nar Kreeta," Nika said slowly, her voice low and tense. "You're the one Janumba's searching for, the one he says stole his slaves."

    Ezgi grabbed her glass and shook her head. "Uh, no, I don't remember stealing any slaves," she said, taking a long drink as she stared pointedly over the rim.

    Nika chuckled quietly, nodding. "And the traffickers?"

    Polishing off her ale with a satisfyingly noisy sigh, Ezgi smiled innocently and shrugged. "That was just a favor for a few new friends. Completely unrelated."

    "Of course," Nika smirked, before succumbing to a full-blown grin of her own. "You're a bloody madwoman, and I could not be more taken with you right now."

    "Enough to buy me lunch?"

    "Don't push your luck, moneybags. So what did you do with all the loot?"

    "Some of it's sitting in a secure storage facility until I can find someone who knows what it all is and where it needs to get back to," said Ezgi. "Some of it went to auction, some to the currency exchange on Muunilinst, some to an Esselian wine collector..."

    Nika looked impressed. "So how much?"

    "A lot," Ezgi replied. Admittedly, it was a significantly smaller sum than what she might've had, but in the end, unlike Gestas, she believed in a more equitable sharing of the treasure. Besides, even after Senoota and the Twi'leks took their hefty cuts, Ezgi's new account balance still wasn't anything to sneer at. "Enough that I could pay to have you take these bounties off my hands."

    "It's certainly tempting," said Nika. "Do you know how much they're worth?"

    Osik. This was where things got complicated. "They...don't exactly have formal bounties."

    She snorted. "Not a problem."

    "Really?" That wasn't what Ezgi was expecting to hear at all.

    Nodding, Nika plucked one of the crispics from Ezgi's plate and took a quick bite. "I won't be able to turn them over to the likes of the Correctional Authority, obviously, but I know of a group who'll pay handsomely for a gang of ex-slavers."

    Ezgi decided she didn't need to know anymore than that. Nothing pleasant ever came from those kinds of illegal arrangements. Thankfully, she didn't much care what unpleasantness happened to Racor and his cohorts. "Then they're all yours," she said. "Just make sure no one on Ryloth ever has to see any of their faces again."

    "You have my word," Nika replied. Ezgi held out her hand, and she shook it firmly, though the look she wore as she clutched her hand was anything but professional, and she was slow to relinquish it again. "Good. Offer—and apology—accepted, my little warrior."

    "I'm glad," Ezgi said, feeling her cheeks grow warm.

    "And as we've settled up so amicably, that leaves the rest of my day tantalizingly free," Nika mused, subtly licking her lips. "Any...suggestions?"

    "That depends."

    "On?"

    "On whether or not you're prepared to make good on all that flirting," Ezgi answered bluntly.

    For the briefest moment, Nika looked a little taken aback, surprised to hear her give up the game and just come right out with it. Then she smiled a feline smile, and locked eyes with her from across the table. "Oh, I absolutely am."

    "Then yeah, I have an idea or two."


    The Oyu'baat cantina, Keldabe, Mandalore

    Ezgi dashed up the Oyu'baat's stairs, taking refuge under the cantina's large portico. A steady spring rain was in the midst of giving the Mandalorian capital a good soak, and it hadn't been shy about catching her in the downpour. The warm, dry cantina offered a place of respite from Keldabe's inclement weather, and it made for a good meeting place. Ezgi wiped her feet on the mat, and headed indoors. Inside, the air smelled of roasted demaydas, wine, and cooking spices today. There was a sauce on, and she breathed deep, savoring the smells escaping the kitchen as she stripped off her coat and hung it up to dry.

    There weren't a lot of people in the cantina at this hour of the afternoon, and the motley gathering that awaited her around the Oyu'baat's fireplace alcove stood out at a glance. Ezgi's mother was the first to spot her as she strolled over. "Mar'e!" Edeema said, smiling. She was quick to her feet, kissing her daughter's cheek and pulling her into a hearty embrace. "Everything come out all right with that bounty hunter friend of yours?"

    "Seemed to be coming just fine," Ezgi replied, stifling the urge to laugh at her own dumb joke. Instead, she smiled at Harik and Doriya over her mother's shoulder, and gave the scruffy Devaronian sitting opposite them a friendly nod when Edeema pulled away.

    Chuvak Rohayc was her go-to man for all things technical, from the custom-made dataspike that helped her into Serraba's vault, to the more personal touch of coming all the way to Kala'uun just to slice into Koyi Racor's personal files. "Come, gal'gala! Sit!" he beckoned, patting the place at his side. "We are celebrating!"

    "What are we celebrating?"

    "We toast to your success, of course!" Harik loudly proclaimed, slapping her back.

    Ezgi settled in, and Doriya passed her a bottle of ne'tra gal. "Toast all you want, ner vod, but this was a team effort," she said. "Couldn't have done it without all of you." She tapped the heel of her bottle to his large glass with a satisfying clink. "K'oyacyi!"

    "K'oyacyi!" they all answered, clinking and drinking in turn.

    It was good to be home again.

    "Have you heard from any of them?" asked Doriya. "The Twi'leks, I mean."

    "Yeah, I spoke to Jela on the way back to Mandalore. She's returned to Kala'uun, staying at an inn for now, but looking for a new place," Ezgi said. "And even with the money, she's still planning to re-open her practice."

    "Good for her," said Chuvak. "Is a noble thing, still wanting to help others. Me? Maybe I just go sit on beach somewhere nice sipping ruby bliels, were I her."

    Edeema let out a mirthless chuckle. "After what they went through? Ni balyc, vod."

    "She also said Feen's taken Numa home to live with her in Joreikna, and Nayella and Seela are settling back into life in Nabat," Ezgi reported.

    Bottle to her lips, Doriya smiled softly at her before she drank. She didn't need to say a word, Ezgi could practically feel her radiating approval and appreciation. They'd talked a number of times in the past about how little the rest of the galaxy seemed to care about the fates of Twi'lek women. Despite growing up on Mandalore, where the worst of those attitudes had always been kept at bay by Mando ethos, the issue remained close to Doriya's heart. Ezgi would've done it all anyway, but her best friend's happiness was a nice, not-so-little bonus.

    They chatted and drank for a while longer until, on a trip up to the drink counter for another round, Ezgi slipped the bartender a datachip full of music to broadcast over the cantina's sound system, and a handful of credits to ensure it stayed in play. And thus, as the beat kicked up, the five of them fell into a rowdy revelry that endured well through the evening, enjoying no shortage of booze and food, in addition to each other's company. They sang, played a few games of cu'bikad and jate'taak, and just about monopolized the Oyu'baat's holodart board.

    In time, Ezgi found herself reclining happily in a chair against a wall along the fireplace alcove, a little drunk and a lot exhausted, her skin cool and damp with sweat after dancing. The music had finally died; either the datachip had run out of songs to play, or the barkeep had simply grown tired of their shenanigans. Harik bowed out some time ago, needing to get home to his family, while Chuvak was currently decorating a nearby table with face as he slept soundly. As for her mother, she was...somewhere.

    Only Doriya remained with her. The Twi'lek wiped a cool glass of ale across her sweaty forehead, then eagerly downed the contents. Her vibrant green eyes settled on Ezgi, and she flashed her a mischievous smile as she made her way over. Ezgi started to sit up in anticipation, but Doriya was faster: one hand pressed to the wall for support, she leaned in, capturing Ezgi's chin with her hand and lifting it up for a kiss. It was urgent, full of built-up passion, a need that had been coiling tighter and tighter all night. For her part, Ezgi was more than happy to go right along with it, and kissed her back in kind for as long as the moment would last.

    "Sorry," Doriya whispered when she finally broke the kiss, ages later. Her forehead pressed down intimately against Ezgi's. She was breathing fast but smiling, green eyes watching her from under her brows like a shriek-hawk. "Didn't mean to just spring that on you."

    "Used to it," Ezgi replied with a lopsided grin.

    "Ni liniba gar o'r ner haav," Doriya whined softly, eagerly, playfully kissing Ezgi's nose. "Jiila."

    She smiled brighter still, if that were even possible, and reached up to take Doriya's face in her hands, pulling her back in for a proper second kiss—this time shorter than the first, but it was an answer rather than a question. "Let's go."

    As they started to leave, a group of about six or seven other Mandalorians came walking through the Oyu'baat's doors. They were fairly loud as they talked amongst themselves, but not in an excited way, and as they stepped up to the drink counter alongside her, Ezgi overheard one of them mention Geonosis.

    "Me'vaar, vode?" she asked casually as she fished out the credits to cover the night's final tab. "Something say something about Geonosis?"

    One of the group, a man with dark skin and gray streaks permeating his otherwise black hair, looked at her somewhat incredulously. "You don't watch the news, burc'ya? The Republic's declared war on the Separatists. Blew that bug's nest to haran and back."

    Ezgi could only blink, but Doriya intervened on behalf of the blank she'd drawn. "With what army?" her friend asked.

    "A big one," answered the man's blue-skinned comrade. Ezgi couldn't tell if she was Pantoran, Wroonian, or from a different species entirely. "Clones, the way I hear it. Millions of 'em. Really brought the hammer down on Geonosis."

    The bartender looked rather dumbfounded, himself. Obviously, Ezgi and her friends hadn't been the only ones left out of the loop by the evening's goings on. "Someone had better get in touch with Fett," he said, switching the cantina vidscreen over to HNN. "If things are heating up out there, we're going to need to see where the Mand'alor comes down on all this."

    "That's the thing," the first man said slowly. Ezgi knew that tone all too well, and braced herself for bad news. "Word is...Fett's dead."



    Epilogue

    There was nothing in the world like waking up to the sound of screaming.

    Jos Eldar awoke in darkness, stripped of his armor, and left lying on the permacrete floor in a cold sweat. His head pounded, he was seeing three of everything, and he had no idea how the kriff he ended up...wherever the kriff he was. And where the kriff was he, for that matter?

    The last thing he could remember was Nar Shaddaa. His client's casino, the Falleen Lady, had been an obvious fallback point after the absolute osi'buurenaar that went down on Nar Kreeta, far enough removed to offer a real modicum of safety, but still close enough to monitor the auction's inevitable fallout. Being the pillar of Huttly courage that he was, Kurka closed ranks with all the speed of a scurrying vhe'viin, but as hours turned to days with nothing to show for his fears, it wasn't long before Jos' employer—always more concerned with his bottom line than common kriffing sense—payed him what he was owed and sent him on his way.

    Things...things got fuzzy from there. Jos had hazy flashes of a cantina, languid music, the mouthburn of a glass of nikta. Someone called his name. There was a sting of pain in his side, the smell of starship fuel, and...then he was here.

    Where was here?

    As if to answer him, the door of his miserable little cell swept open, revealing a pair of rail thin droids and a humanoid with some kind of spikes jutting from his chin. Jos sprang up, charging straight ahead without wasting time on second thoughts. In situations like these, the last thing your average thug expected was a full frontal assault from a sedative-laden prisoner straight out of the gate. This moron was no different.

    Jos cannoned into him at full speed, slamming his forehead down on the other man's nose in a bone-crunching headbutt. He gasped out a squeal, red-orange blood gushing as he fell backward, while Jos stumbled over his body, desperate to press the advantage. Only when something hammered into his side, driving the air from his lungs, did he understand his mistake: he should've prioritized the droids.

    Staggered and sure that he'd cracked a rib, Jos looked back on the two droids with nothing less a dawning realize of just how badly he'd screwed up. They were IG-model assassin droids, and they pounced on him with a brutality befitting their design. Blow after blow from their heavy metal hands battered his arms, torso—every part of him they could reach. Jos had always thought of himself as a seasoned warrior, but deprived of his armor or any weapons, he was soon a bloody mess sprawled out on the floor.

    And then they began to drag him. One of the IGs walked with a limp, the one solid injury he'd managed to inflict in the brief brawl. He spat a mouthful of fresh blood on the rough-finished floor, bracing himself for whatever laid ahead. Whatever poor shabuir was screaming, he hadn't stopped since Jos came to. Not the best sign, all things considered.

    The droids dragged him around a tight corner, into a large, well-lit room. For once, Jos could've done with a little less light. Between his swelling, sensitive eyes, and the fact that the room's focal piece seemed to be the mangled body of man strung up from the ceiling, he was starting to miss his cell. At least the screaming had finally stopped.

    «This one was not so bloodied when he arrived,» came a low, guttural voice speaking in Huttese. Jos forced his head up, searching for its owner, only to discover the most unwelcome sight of the colossal, dark-skinned Hutt from the auction on Nar Kreeta. «What happened?»

    One of the droids made a metal grinding sound that Jos thought sounded almost like a disgusted sigh. "An escape was attempted," it said, devoid of any emotion or simulated inflection in its speech. "Increased force was required in order to subdue the prisoner."

    «Etan?»

    "Wounded, but alive."

    The Hutt's eyes narrowed. «Fine. Secure him.»

    Jos cleared his throat, suppressing the urge to wince openly. «I think there's been a...mistake,» he groaned, struggling to sound put together in a way he very much did not feel. «What is this about?»

    No one cared to answer him. Not when they slapped a pair of binders on his wrists, and not when they used them to hang him from the ceiling. Different bindings held his legs in place.

    Breathing hard and shallow, Jos was more convinced than ever that the droids had broken some ribs. His head lolled down, feeling too damn heavy to keep straight. Only then did he notice the helmet laying on the ground at the hanging man's feet. It was Mandalorian—black with a copper-gold trim, in the style favored by the old Death Watch. He hadn't seen one like it in a long time.

    "What's the deal?" Jos asked, forgoing Huttese. He dragged his gaze up from the helmet to meet the big Hutt's ugly yellow eyes. "What do you want with me?"

    «Who attacked the auction?»

    "The auction? On Nar Kreeta?" He spat more blood on the floor in front of him. "I don't know anything about that."

    The Hutt jerked a finger in his direction, and one of the droids hammered its closed fist into Jos' side. «A mercenary stole something very precious from me at that auction. Six of the finest slaves. This thief wore a suit of armor like yours, Mandalorian. Tell me what you know.»

    So that's what this was about. Jos spotted a number of other Mandalorians working security at the auction; the poor barve hanging here with him was probably one of them, if the helmet on the floor was anything to go by. But this oversized swamp slug had to be after the woman in the white plates, the one Jos saw shooting up the place on the security vids he deleted on his own way out of the Utaru estate.

    "I don't know anything about any other mercenary," Jos lied."And I sure as shab didn't steal anything from you. I was hired to protect Kurka—one of your own people, damn it." Another signal from the Hutt triggered a shower of metallic blows across his abdomen, until Jos felt nauseous as well as sore. He tried to steady his breathing, but his ribs were on fire and his diaphragm was nearly spasming.

    Suddenly, the hanged man wheezed, sending tiny droplets of blood splattering across the floor. Shab, Jos had written him off for dead. He tried unsuccessfully to raise his head, granting the tiniest glimpse of an unfocused, bloodshot eye. "K'atini, ner vod! Ke'dinui kaysh naas," he rasped.

    With the tiniest gesture from the Hutt, Jos could only watch helplessly as one of the droids pressed a blaster to the other Mandalorian's temple and pulled the trigger. Whatever else he may have been, the man was no coward.

    «His usefulness came to an end,» the Hutt said, dispassionately. «Convince me yours hasn't. Tell me what you know.»

    Jos coughed out a grim chuckle. "Shabii'gar, hutuun." The droids struck him again, and he forced himself to laugh again. "That all you got?"

    The Hutt slithered forward, holding out an empty hand that a droid was all too happy to fill with a menacing knife—not a vibroknife, mind you, but a serrated dead blade crusted in dried blood. «You Mandalorians...I hate your kind.» There was something about the way he said Mandalorian in Huttese that made Jos' skin crawl. «You mock us, and think yourselves so much better than Hutts because you are 'honorable,' and we know better. You have been a plague on this galaxy for as long as you've existed.»

    "We do our best."

    «If I had my way, I would put every last one of your kind to the sword, burn your miserable excuse for a society to the bedrock, and hollow your world to the core for every gram of that precious iron of yours.»

    "It's nice to have goals. Good for you."

    «Yes. Yes, I agree,» the Hutt mused, almost under his breath. He leaned forward, dragging the knife's edge across Jos' chest. It was enough to cut the fabric of his shirt, but not enough to draw blood. Yet. «I am Janumba, and for now, my goals are simple: I will find the mercenary I seek, and reclaim that which was stolen from me. You can either help me, or I can relieve you of your skin.»

    More than anything, Jos desperately wanted to throw out another unfazed quip, but he couldn't bring himself to conjure so much as a sound. The Hutt's threat drained the bravado from him as surely as the blood drained from his face. There were a lot of bad ways to die, but damn if that didn't frighten him like little else. Jos immediately began thinking up a trail of lies he could tell Janumba, a wild bantha chase to keep him occupied long enough that...

    No. It wouldn't matter. After that little anti-Mandalorian speech of his, Jos could probably give him the woman's home address and the Hutt would still skin him, just for the fun of it.

    "I don't know anything, Hutt," Jos said slowly. "Not about this mercenary of yours...and I really don't know how you let them steal from you."

    Janumba looked incensed. «What?»

    "That merc was a Mando faker, koochoo. Just some chump with look-alike plates and no association with us, ya maya stoopa. You've been wasting your time, running around in circles with us," Jos said, laughing. "Fierfek, it would be funny if it wasn't so pathetic."

    The Hutt's yellow eyes widened, and a deep rumble rose in his throat. «You mock...me? In my time of loss?! Do you know who I am?!» He lunged, burying the blade in Jos' stomach. «Laugh, Mandalorian! I want to hear you laugh now!»

    Jos flashed his bloody teeth. "Keep tickling me, sweets patogga, and I won't have a choice."

    A great roar erupted from Janumba, and he unleashed a slew of savage strikes until the Hutt's fury eventually began to ebb. Done and soon to be gone, Jos hung motionless from his restraints. He could feel the life draining from him, clinging to consciousness through sheer will alone. It worked. A fast death. Painful, but better by far than the alternative. Stupid Hutt.

    «Clean this up,» Janumba grumbled to his droids, slithering away without bothering to remove the knife. «And issue a bounty. A million credits! Two! I want that mercenary—I want him found! No one steals from me!» He swiveled that big, bulbous head of his around to regard Jos for a final time. «You can die knowing no one slights Janumba. I will tear this galaxy apart before I let that truth be challenged.»

    ________________________________________________________________________


    And that's that! We've reached the end of The Nar Kreetan Job. I just want to thank everybody who's taken the time to read through this little adventure, and I sincerely hope you've enjoyed it. As always, feel free to leave any thoughts, comments, or criticisms, and as we're now fast approaching the end of 2019, I hope you all have a Happy New Year!
     
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2019
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  8. Contessa

    Contessa Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Nov 28, 2013
    Reasons kept me from commenting until now, but I read the whole thing last night and it was really ******* good, Mia! Felt like a solid e-novella, and I'm kind of in love with your dialogue. I was really glad for the 3rd-person style change (no offense to Welcome to Mandalore!) and the chance to get into Ezgi's head we didn't get before. Consider me a big fan, and not just cuz of the Shay mitchell faceclaim. lol You nailed the kind of total badass/complete sweetheart blend of vibes that I'm a total sucker for, and I love that she's this confident queer lady.

    Lotta cool moves in the story itself. Felt like a proper adventure, hopping from planet to planet, and Viktor was a really great, sleazy villain ally. I think everythjng on Ryloth was probably my favorite "sidequest", and I like how you almost snuck in this bonus tour while still making it connect and really drive the main plot forward. So good!

    And like, I was already down for a sequel by the time I got to the epilogue, but that epilogue...oh ****. That's gonna be something. Really looking forward to whenever you end up posting more!

    ps. Harik is a low-key dark horse, and I love the art for his character page
     
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  9. Mia Mesharad

    Mia Mesharad Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 2, 2012
    Thank you!

    Haha, yeah there are a couple fun shout outs throughout. Even after all these years, Firefly's still an old favorite. Glad you liked that!


    Thank you!

    It doesn't hurt though, right? :p

    I'm really glad to hear you liked it. It's a relief to know that both Ezgi and Gestas really came off the way I was hoping they would. And yeah, that whole Ryloth section was kind of born out of the same place of inspiration as the Mandalore tour, FFG's RPG stuff, which is why I decided on Nabat out of all the places they could've gone.

    I am planning to do some sequels—yes, plural, I'm feeling bold :p—but I couldn't begin to tell you when they might be posted. It's nice to hear the interest, though.

    Thanks! It took a while to really pin down his general look and backstory. I got really lucky in that my boyfriend knew somebody who could take a few rough sketches and turn it into full-fledged digital art. Honestly though, I just really like Zeb and Lasats in general, so it was just a natural bit of self-indulgent fan service to mix 'em with Mandos. No regrets!
     
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  10. Contessa

    Contessa Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Nov 28, 2013
    No it don't! lol Seriously though, all your character choices are on point. Good ****.

    Nice! That's what I'm trying to hear.

    Thanks! It took a while to really pin down his general look and backstory. I got really lucky in that my boyfriend knew somebody who could take a few rough sketches and turn it into full-fledged digital art. Honestly though, I just really like Zeb and Lasats in general, so it was just a natural bit of self-indulgent fan service to mix 'em with Mandos. No regrets![/QUOTE]
    [​IMG]
     
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  11. Cantankerous Ordo

    Cantankerous Ordo Jedi Padawan

    Registered:
    Jul 2, 2017
    hey! wow, this a long one! i'm going to have to copy this down to read later, but take my pre-emptive likes and i'll get back to you with some comments in a little while. i really liked your last story, and the set-up for this one sounds right up my alley.
     
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  12. Mia Mesharad

    Mia Mesharad Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 2, 2012
    Sounds good. I know this one's a bit more of an ask, length-wise, so thanks for taking the time. Looking forward to hearing what you think!
     
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  13. Cantankerous Ordo

    Cantankerous Ordo Jedi Padawan

    Registered:
    Jul 2, 2017
    okay, i finished it finally and long story short, i loved it! it's a really great story. it felt like i just got a whole new star wars novel for free, so i'm just going to thank you for this awesome belated christmas present. happy new year, by the way!

    short story long, here's some notes i took along the way
    * cool way to start things off. i feel like we just walked in on a lazy mando sunday.
    * is this the first time we find out ezgi's gay? i don't remember that from the mandalore tour.
    * and i'm guessing we got a friends with benefits situation? i've got to say, you picked some real winners for the cast. shay mitchell and stella maeve together is kind of a wow scenario.
    * i'm with ezgi, kom'rks are awesome, and so are savory gravy breakfasts
    * taris! nice. and nar kreeta? somebody's a gamer.
    * viktor seem cool. again, nice casting.
    * i don't know if i mentioned it before, but i'm a big fan of how you use links for languages. i don't think i've seen that in any other fan fics.
    * nice galaxy's edge shout out. have you been? i loved it when i went.
    * ezgi's such a wiseass, it's great.
    * and now a bounty hunter reference. you've got to be a gamer.
    * nika seems badass. great design, too.
    * damn, good twist with gestas.
    * i picture that moment of ezgi coming to rescue him looking like something out of terminator
    * starting to have a change of opinion about gestas. this guy's a dick.
    * nice to see somebody remembered beskar's not magic, and it's still gonna suck to get shot. a lot of fan fic writers forget that
    * this whole palace shootout is cool as hell
    * great scene with the big hutt, all the guards, and the slaves. ezgi is peak mandokarla, but damn is gestas a dick.
    * these twi'leks are precious. i'm kind of surprised you didn't have a cast picked out for them too
    * not a lot of good guy dugs out there, but i'm liking senoota so far
    * oh damn, we've got ourselves a good old fashion treasure hunt. you son of a bitch, i'm in! makes sense that ezgi's not, though.
    * the whole scene between ezgi and jela was gold
    * you describe the tusawa so well, i think i've been there before. and is it weird that i'm actually kind of hungry for the huttese food?
    * man, harik is a beast. one thing the nucanon really improved on in my opinion is the design of the lasats, and you just took that to the next level. plus he's a total bro. that's some great artwork on his wiki page, too.
    * cool mini tour of nabat, even if it's from gestas's sleazy pov
    * what a sweet little bit of ezgi backstory. that's really cute. i'm also craving a chocolate-covered twinkie now.
    * cat-callers get what they deserve
    * jesus, gestas is the worst, but he's kind of veering back toward entertaining now.
    * ezgi being an acknowledged history buff is a nice justification for all the tour guide stuff from before.
    * kor utaru's a cool idea for a planet
    * the vault reminds me of something out of uncharted or tomb raider, with all the puzzles and stuff. also what a kickass fight with the security droids.
    * come on, gestas, why you got to be like that?
    * this droid is ridiculous and i love it
    * ezgi is too pure, and i also love that
    * that tomb's a really cool idea
    * i'll say it again -- kick. ass. fight.
    * you've got to be kidding me
    * gestas may be a total bastard, but this verbal battle was a good read. all fear clan deshra! i'm also genuinely impressed that you whipped up a whole fake wiki page for "viktor gestas" now
    * i was not expecting to see nika again, but i'm glad. cool development.
    * nevermind, she's dead
    * oh damn, the wrath of mandalore hits hard. what a badass chapter.
    * wait, nika's not dead? talk about whiplash. good for ezgi.
    * hey, twi'lek loving. very good for ezgi!
    * well this is a terrifying way to end the story

    i can't wait for a sequel, so get to writing!
     
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  14. Mia Mesharad

    Mia Mesharad Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 2, 2012
    Thank you for the compliment, and you're more than welcome for the story! And Happy New Year to you too, Ordo!

    She's actually bisexual, but yes, this is the first time it's really concretely been a thing. There were a couple of more subtle hints in Welcome to Mandalore, like Ezgi reuniting with the unnamed Twi'lek waitress at the Oyu'baat—an early, unnamed appearance from Doriya!—only to appear the following morning with lekku-like braids from a night spent together, but given the focus of the tour, I didn't feel like really digging into it until a story that was actually Ezgi's own.
    Yep, Ezgi and Doriya are cyare'vode, best friends who do sleep together on occasion. And thanks, I thought a lot about potential faces for each of the characters.
    Oh yeah, I'm a huge gamer. KotOR, Jedi Academy, and Bounty Hunter are all classic faves.
    Even if you did, I'll still take it! :p
    I haven't, actually, but I want to sometime soon. Batuu's really shaped up to be such a wonderfully fleshed out little world for a place that's almost appeared overnight, by Star Wars standards.
    Haha, this is true. And thanks.
    Hit that nail on the head!
    I actually did! Mostly. But I ultimately decided I just didn't feel the need to take the time and effort to create new art for six new characters that would only be around for such a relatively short time. In my own accounting, I saw Marion Cotillard as Jela, Sarah Hyland as Numa, Simona Brown as Seku, and Tahemet from Assassin's Creed: Origins as Feen. Seela and Nayella were the ones that I never really settled on.
    [​IMG]
    I couldn't agree with you more about the change to the Lasats. And yes, Harik's artwork is pretty spectacular. I really lucked out getting that done up for me.
    That's basically what I was going for.
    And that's just the reaction I was hoping for!
    Tense, right? And yes, there was a little extra trickery that went into developing that alias.
    [face_laugh] [face_laugh] [face_laugh]
    I really went back and forth on just hope explicit to make the violence in the epilogue. I wanted to really sell how much of a threat Janumba actually is, and the kind of danger he poses to Ezgi in the future, but I also didn't want to go too far into something unnecessarily gruesome. Hopefully it all managed to find a nice sweet spot in the end.

    Again, thank you so much for reading, and I'm really glad you enjoyed!
     
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  15. Cantankerous Ordo

    Cantankerous Ordo Jedi Padawan

    Registered:
    Jul 2, 2017
    cool, cool. man, you thought a lot about all this. i know i shouldn't be surprised by now, but still. good stuff!

    me too! nice.

    it really is just one of the most immersive experiences you can have. i was legitimately like a kid again, i swear.

    that's really cool, and i completely understand not wanting to do all that extra work. good picks though!

    you succeeded in my opinion. i'm really looking forward to seeing that fight happen.
     
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  16. Mia Mesharad

    Mia Mesharad Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 2, 2012
    I've thought far, far too much about all of this. :p

    That's what I keep hearing, and everything I've seen from YouTube and the like all back it up. I am so looking forward to going and experiencing it for myself!

    Thanks! [face_peace]
     
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  17. Contessa

    Contessa Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Nov 28, 2013
    First of all, bisexual Ezgi is cool as ****. Star Wars really needs more bi rep, and even if it's not canon, I'm still stoked to see cool ass bi girls in the SW universe.
    And secondly, don't ever feel like you can't just casually drop that **** anywhere and everywhere. Like, straight characters drop their straightness all over the place, basically every chance theh get. You can totally let the flag fly without any deeper reason.

    Also really ****ing cool. One of the only things that's bugged me about KT's Mando culture was that whole "chaste before marriage" thing in the culture article. Like, it can be a thing that *some* Mandos are into, but I'm way more on board for freedom of choice like with everything else.

    Can I just applaud these picks for a sec? Because they are legitimately awesome and kinda weird in an unexpected kinda way, but also like...super on point to how I didn't even realize I was picturing them? Anyway, good ****.
     
  18. Mia Mesharad

    Mia Mesharad Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 2, 2012
    Oh, it wasn't really any concern that I'd be introducing her sexually too casually, or anything like that. I wasn't looking for some kind of justification, I just felt like digging more deeply into who Ezgi was as her own person would ultimately be better served by a proper, Ezgi-centered narrative, rather than one where she's a side character oriented around a reader avatar.

    Yeah...I'm right there with you, honestly. On the one hand, I completely get that it's a continuity reference to Boba's discussion with Leia in The Last One Standing, and extrapolating backward to where he would've gotten that attitude, but at the same time...no thanks? :p I'd much rather just ignore that part of the story existing, than attach undue importance to outdated garbage that ends up just dragging down other aspects, and ultimately really conflicts with the rest of the pro-choice-in-all-things culture as otherwise defined. Thankfully, TOR itself drops that right out the airlock during your chats with Akaavi Spar, so I took that cue and ran with it.

    [face_laugh] That is honestly just the best compliment when it comes to fan-casting. Thanks, love.
     
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  19. Contessa

    Contessa Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Nov 28, 2013
    Hey that's cool, and if I'm being honest, I pretty much agree. Plus like I said, I really like how you handled every part of Ezgi's sexuality throughout. Don't take my comment as anything but encouragement to stay doing you.
    Can I be real with you for a sec? I was today years old when I realized that's where that came from. lol Call me a bad EU fan, but I always forget about TLOS. Like, I remember all the big story beats, but everything else... /shrug
    Anyway, I high-key loved that bit of Akaavi dialogue just for that reason. That funky little Zabrak is still one of my favorite things from TOR.
    You are all the way welcome.
     
  20. Mia Mesharad

    Mia Mesharad Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 2, 2012
    No worries, I got you from the start. Thanks, Tessa.

    It's definitely one of those classic EU pillars that I nevertheless don't really ever go back to, either. As well written and as seminal as it was, at least at the time, it's just never resonated with me.

    I love her too, though imagining her reaction if someone called her a "funky little Zabrak" to her face is just too damn funny. :p
     
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  21. Cantankerous Ordo

    Cantankerous Ordo Jedi Padawan

    Registered:
    Jul 2, 2017
    fwiw, i'm glad you went that route, rather than just throw it in back in your last story. don't get me wrong, i've got nothing against casual representation, but i personally feel like it was a lot cooler getting naturally introduced to ezgi's relationship through her eyes rather than just vomiting up backstory out of nowhere.
     
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  22. Mia Mesharad

    Mia Mesharad Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 2, 2012
    That right there was really my entire thought process, especially since Ezgi already spends so much of Welcome to Mandalore effectively monologuing at the reader.
     
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  23. Contessa

    Contessa Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Nov 28, 2013
    So, funny story: I got on Discord today to find that some dumbass linked to this story on the server (well the AO3 posting, not this one, but anyway...) to whine about how "This is what you get when SJWs write Star Wars", "thank god the show avoided soy Mando this ****", etc. You know how it is, the usual ****ery. But like, everybody who posted after him thought it was actually pretty ****ing great. lol Fastest thread turn around I've seen in a long time.
     
    Mia Mesharad likes this.
  24. Mia Mesharad

    Mia Mesharad Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 2, 2012
    [face_laugh]
    That's...kind of amazing. I'm honestly surprised that somebody would take the time to read enough of the story to decide they hate it, then try to pull a call-out post. On a fanfic. That's not remotely a "threat" to canon. [face_sigh]I don't know if I should be surprised by that anymore, but I somehow am. The level of petty required for that...wow. But it's heartwarming to know it had that sort of resounding turnaround. That must be where the sudden influx of Kudos and comments came from, so that's nice.

    Edited for profanity. Please review the Profanity and Disallowed Words List.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 3, 2020