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. 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. Oh, and once again: context should inform most minor non-English terms, but for several words and phrases featured throughout the piece—brown-linked for convenience—a 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... 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!