Chapter 2

Chapter 2

The Diplomat’s headquarters was a reasonably well-maintained manse just off the Promenade. The Diplomat himself didn’t stay there, of course. He lived in a deluxe loft suite above the Red District, oddly enough, but he spent so much of his time at the ganghouse that Thal often made the mistake of assuming he was always there.

For those reasons, Thal wasn’t so much disappointed as he was surprised when he returned with the thugs and learned that the Diplomat had left for the day.

“Where did he go?” Thal asked one of the guards, more out of curiosity than urgency.

“Out,” said the guard, a Twi’lek of reasonably respectable social standing. The kind of minion that the Diplomat attracted to his inner circle.

Deciding to try once more, Thal pursued the line of inquiry. “Out where?”

The guard shrugged. “I do not ask the boss questions. Do you?”

Not often.

Shouldering past the alien into the common room, Thal found one of the leftover meal packages and popped it in the thermo.

About a quarter-hour later, while Thal was sitting alone with his meal, Ganis slithered over from behind the kitchen counter when she saw him and deposited herself at the end of his table.

“Thal, my boy,” she said, drawing out the lone vowel of his name in her medium baritone. “You seem upset.”

“I’m not upset, Ganis. I’m alone. There’s a difference.” He set aside his fork to reach for his drink, he still hadn’t looked at her. “Why would you think I’m upset?”

“You said yourself. You’re alone.”

“I’m always alone, Ganis. Why is tonight so different?”

Ganis spread her flabby arms wide in a mock imitation of a human’s shrugging motion before settling them back on her paunch again. “You tell me, Thal. It’s your depression.”

“Oh, so now I’m depressed?” said Thal, slamming the cup down on the metal table. He held it tight for a moment, knowing that he shouldn’t have allowed such an outburst. Ganis would be sure to make a point of mentioning it.

Sure enough, he was right.

“I might be wrong,” she said. “But I’m pretty sure you’re upset. Or angry. So many of you around here are angry.”

“So many of who, Ganis? Are you lumping me in with…”

He waved vaguely.

“Sure. Why note?” she said. “You work for him just like everyone else. But now you’re angry. Why else would you be eating alone?”

Thal glared at her. “I eat alone because I don’t want to be counted among them!”

He turned back to his meal, took a bite, then set the fork aside again.

“I work with them, Ganis. That’s all. It doesn’t make me one of them.”

“Of course, my boy. But why not?”

He stared at her again, his expression blank.

“What makes you so special?”

I’m a Jedi. The thought passed through Thal’s mind almost by rote these days. It entered and left without leaving much evidence that it had been there at all. It was growing harder and harder to cling to that identity each year. Did it even matter to him anymore?

“We all work together,” Ganis said, continuing her speech. “We may not particularly like each other all the time, or ever. But we’re still counted together. If some overzealous Imperial officer decides to clean up this cesspool of a city, he’s not going to care if you’re ‘one of us’ in your mind or not. You work for the Diplomat. And you’d better be ready to accept everything that that means. Including, I might add, spending a little time with these boys — and gals.”

Thal didn’t respond. He just picked up his fork and continued shoveling food down his throat.

Ganis sighed. It was a deep, rumbling noise that would have been mistaken for a burp had it come from a human. “You want me to fix you up anything new? Those meal packs are already a few hours old.”

Thal shook his head as he took a drink.

“Fine. I’ll be throwing together a new batch of stew soon anyway. If you’re still hungry, you can get something then.”

She crawled away, slowly wriggling back toward the kitchen, her bloated, slimy tail dragging behind her body.

 

#

 

The Diplomat returned later that night, as the promenade dimmed and emptied of the signs of its official purposes — stormtroopers no longer patrolled the streets, the hutts remained indoors, well-dressed socialite businessmen and women were nowhere to be seen.

It was the nightlife’s city now. Flickering lights illuminated the main thoroughfares of the Red Sector, New Vertica, the Corellian Sector, and all the other hotspots. And if you didn’t know the right people, or the right places to go, you could find yourself lying in a heap in an alley without anyone paying the slightest of attention to you.

The Empire may have claimed the galaxy for its own, but Nar Shaddaa was still the criminals’ city when the sun went down. And every night, crime lords, gang leaders, pimps, gamblers, and all manner of other individuals and organizations who aimed to profit at the expense of others would gather themselves together and set out for an evening of enterprise, preying on the weak or gullible.

That was, of course, why the Diplomat had returned to the headquarters. He always made a point to oversee the night’s operations personally. Even if he seldom left the gang’s base of operations anymore, he still wanted to be in the thick of the action in case something went wrong.

And so Thal found himself still sitting in the lounge, reading galactic news reports, when almost a dozen other senior members of the crew stumbled in and took seats, waiting for the Diplomat to arrive.

“What d’you think’ll be on the schedule for tonight?” said a human in broken, informal Huttese. He had clearly learned the language in the spice dens. How he had made it this far up in the Diplomat’s esteem, Thal didn’t know.

A Mon Cal, one of the Diplomat’s favorite slicers, spoke up next. “You know he never lets word of his operations escape before telling us, Dash. You should not be so impatient.”

“Sure,” said the human. “But it’s always fun to speculate, right?”

The Diplomat himself silenced any other discussion on the matter by walking in at that moment.

A respectably middle-aged man, the Diplomat was large, by human standards. Standing at almost a full two meters, he was broad in the shoulders and square in the jaw. His entire demeanor was one of power and intimidation. He didn’t fold in on himself with his posture, like so many others on Nar Shadda. Instead, he stood almost like a military man, with shoulders squared and back straight.

But he didn’t shut anyone out. That was important. He had a way of being both welcoming and terrifying at the same time. Everything about him demanded respect, and that constant tension between invitation and dominance achieved it most of all.

The thing that Thal liked most of all about the Diplomat’s appearance, however, was the way he dressed. He always looked like he was coming from a Coruscanti opera, or even the Republic — well, Imperial, now — Senate. It was all flowing, elegant robes and capes with him. Sharp whites contrasting with muted, regal blues and purples. He even wore a little gold on him, from time to time. Everything suggested an opulence that one seldom saw on Nar Shaddaa, and it reminded Thal, for some reason, of the Jedi Council — even though they often dressed in drab browns.

We are sending you to Nar Shaddaa.

The words echoed in his head once again. He reached up with his long fingers and gently massaged the fleshy dome that was his head.

The Diplomat’s voice, sonorous and deep, drew him back to the present with its measured tones.

“I am glad to see all of you here, tonight,” he said. He did not sit. The Diplomat never sat when he came to address his crew. “This is a very important night for us.” He always said that. “I have a very special task for each and every one of you.” He also always said that. “Some of you will work together. Others will work alone. A few of you will even be responsible for our less-restrained members. I trust each of you according to your worth. Understand this: what you receive from me, you earn. Nothing more, nothing less, and nothing I would not do myself.”

It was, more or less, the same speech he delivered every night. Sometimes he left out certain parts, or moved them around. But the sentiment was almost always the same. Respect. Fair trade. Responsibility. Trust. All things that seemed to Thal so incongruous with the type of work they did.

But that’s how it was, he supposed. It was impossible to live on Nar Shaddaa without settling on a few compromises with your conscience. Some people didn’t even have that much decency.

The assignments were doled out in the same, fatherly manner.

“Dash, you are to go to the swoop races. We have a friend there and we need to show him our support. ZABRAK, protection. We must reward our faithful patrons by showing them what their money is buying. Venlyss, Moza, Thal, to the Red Sector. I need you to look in on the gambling and spice markets. See who’s up what and what’s down who. Our investments have been seeing some recent losses and I want to know why. MON CAL, WEEQUAY, you need to go to the Promenade. There’s some information there that I need you to retrieve. The details are here.” He set a datapad on the table in front of the Mon Cal and tapped it with his two forefingers. “As always, I trust you to be discrete. Finally, TWI’LEK, as you know, we have a special shipment coming in through the usual resources. Take some men down to the port and make certain they have no trouble.”

With that, the Diplomat stepped back and folded his hands behind his back again. “Thank you, everyone,” he said, “For your cooperation. If you have any trouble, be sure to contact me and I will try to work it out. Until next time, have a good night.”

He nodded, turned, and drifted out of the common room.

The Red Sector? thought Thal. What does he think he’s doing? The Diplomat hadn’t sent Thal to the Red Sector in months.

As the others dispersed, Thal turned back to his meal in frustration. Why was the Diplomat sending him back to the Red Sector? It wasn’t that Thal couldn’t handle the job, he just didn’t care for the place. It reminded him too much of how far he had drifted since originally coming to Nar Shaddaa.

The Gand and the Ithorian, the other two members of the Diplomat’s crew that Thal had been saddled with for this unpleasant task, sauntered over to his table once the others were gone.

“Well, shall we be going yet?” said the Ithorian, Moza, with the booming voice of his kind. It was difficult for him to speak Huttese, and the native philosophies that he had grown up with encouraged him to always speak with a question, even when trying to prove a point or make a statement.

The Gand, however, having grown up on Nar Shaddaa, was another matter. “Thal is too good for Venlyss and Moza, now,” she said bluntly. “He’s two months away on other jobs and suddenly he’s snubbing his flat nose at them.”

“Is that true, Thal?”

“You can practically feel his disgust radiating off that bulbous head of his.” She folded her arms and glared at him. Venlyss was barely at eye level with Thal when he was sitting down, so the gesture was only marginally effective. But her belligerent attitude had helped her compensate for the lack of height on many occasions, and was just as effective here. “Go ahead, Thal. Deny it.”

“Do you think your actions help Thal to appreciate our company?” said the Ithorian.

Venlyss scoffed at me in that way only insectoid aliens with breathers can — a mechanical clicking in her apparatus indicated a holding of breath and the chitinous skin around her multi-faceted eyes chattered, a result of her switching her visual attention on every object in the room but Thal. He had read about the phenomenon in Xenopsychology texts many times before coming to Nar Shaddaa, but it hadn’t been until he met Venlyss that he had had the experience of being subjected to it.

Since then, however, it had become a fairly regular occurrence.

“Nothing’s going to help Thal appreciate the company of his former friends,” she said, carefully avoiding the personal pronoun, like much of her species. “Venlyss doesn’t see why she should care what helps him or not.”

“Listen,” said Thal. “I just don’t understand why the Diplomat would send me back to the Red Sector, that’s all. I thought you two had it under control.”

“The boss does what he does,” said Venlyss. “It’s not your job to question him.”

“Do you think the Diplomat does not have reasons for his decisions?” said Moza. “Or do you think you are being treated unfairly?”

“Not at all,” Thal lied. “I just don’t see what use I’ll be. Most of my contacts in the Red Sector are probably gone by now. It’s your turf now.”

“Venlyss, do you think the Diplomat may have asked Thal to go to the Red Sector so he could reestablish some contacts there?”

The Gand shrugged. “The boss makes the decisions. Venlyss and others follow. That’s all you need to know.”

Thal sighed and stood.

“You two go on ahead. I’ll catch up in an hour, unless you hear from me before then.”

“What are you going to do until then?” said Moza.

“He’s gonna go talk to the boss,” said Venlyss, her smugness indicated by the clicking sound of her eyes refocusing on Thal.

He gazed into those golden mirrors — dozens of his own reflection staring back out at him, accusing — and then strode out of the room without another word.

 

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