Thal found the Diplomat in his office, as he knew he would. A gentle rap on the door brought the man’s attention away from his datapad.
“Thal,” he said flatly. Much of the grandeur was gone from his speech and demeanor now, though he still held himself with a military man’s precision. “Can I help you?”
“Can I come in, sir?”
The Diplomat nodded.
Thal sat down across from his mentor and glared at him. “The Red Sector? Gaul, I thought I was done there.”
The Diplomat leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. Thal was one of the few members of the crew who know his true name, and he seldom used it.
“Go on, Thal. Do you think I am being unfair?”
It was a trap. Thal knew. Gaul had asked him to go on, inviting him to share the rest of his complaints. Yet he had also asked a direct question, and if Thal ignored it, Gaul would perceive it as a slight. It was a cunning move, it gave the subject the impression that he was being open and accommodating, yet it also focused the conversation on where he wanted to go. Had he used it on anyone but Thal, it likely would have gone unnoticed.
As things stood, however, Thal still couldn’t afford to maneuver around it — even if he did hold some small amount of pride at forcing the Diplomat to resort to his favorite crutch.
Even so, Thal had some rhetorical tricks of his own.
“You know that I would never consider what you’ve done to be unfair,” he said, threading his fingers together. “But I’m curious to know your mind in this matter.”
“What of my mind needs to be known?” said Gaul. “I need you in the Red Sector tonight.”
“But why, sir? My contacts are all dried up in the Red Sector. I’ve been helping you elsewhere for months. Venlyss and Moza have it under control, I don’t understand why you’re sending me there.”
Patience! Thal screamed inside himself. You’re pushing too hard. The Diplomat doesn’t appreciate complaints.
“Your place in this organization is not to understand,” Gaul said as he turned away from Thal and leaned back in his chair, “but to obey. Hear my words, carry them out in actions. That is all.”
Thal felt a tightening in his chest. He had lost. There wasn’t any sense in pursuing the debate any farther. He turned and began to stand with a mutter of “Yes, sir.”
But the Diplomat interrupted him. “However, Thal, you are a loyal member of the crew and it is true that I have often held you in my counsel and esteem. So, for the respect I have for you, I will make clear some portion of my mind, with the hope that I will not lose your respect for me. Does this sound… fair?”
Thal nodded as he sank back into the chair.
Gaul sighed and massaged his brow. “Thal, I appreciate your work. You lack the pride that prevents many of your peers from taking otherwise lucrative jobs. Or, at least, I thought you did.”
He leveled a glare at Thal.
Thal collapsed beneath the weight of that glare. Heavy eyebrows casting deep shadows over the pools of his eyes. Stone jaw setting itself in hard lines. He was a wall, looming above Thal without emotion or remorse. “Do you still want me to think so highly of you, Thal? Or should I label you as another one of the selfish, arrogant, upjumpers like Dash, Venlyss, and the rest?” His eyes were fire now, illuminating the dark pools of deep shadow as they flashed with malice, hatred. “Tell me, Thal. I want to know.”
“I…I did not realize–”
“Of course not,” said Gaul, deflating and sinking back into his chair with a defeated weight about him. “How could you?”
With a deep breath, Gaul looked back toward Thal, but he didn’t really look into him the way he had before. “You,” he said, “are my most useful resource. You are equally comfortable working alone or working with others. I put you where I need you, and tonight I need you in the Red Sector. Is that not enough for you?”
Thal stared at his interlaced hands. Trembling, he rose.
“Thank you for your time, sir. I think I understand now. I’ll be on my way.”
“While you are out,” he said as Thal reached the door. “Be sure to check in with the Brokers on our whores. I heard they were having some trouble this week with Amalia. You remember her, I trust?”
Thal swallowed a lump in his throat and turned.
The triumphant glint in Gaul’s eye betrayed his dominant joy. Whether it was his intention for Thal’s assignment all along, or a final twisting jab at his heart, Thal didn’t know.
Nor did he care.
“Yes,” he said simply. “I remember.”
The Red Sector was the beating heart of Nar Shaddaa’s “respectable” nightlife. Gambling of the tabletop variety mixed with spice dens and whorehouses to provide a buzz for anyone’s tastes, so long as they had the credits. Meanwhile, cantinas filled with evening entertainers served as meeting places for “legitimate” dealings between underworld business partners. Smuggling, blackmail, forgery, impersonation, kidnapping, bounty hunting, personal security, and assassination. All of it was discussed across tables in the Red Sector.
And above it all presided the Brokers. A droid collective that was present at every deal, treaty, “arrangement,” and scam that had its beginnings in the Red Sector. The Brokers were the magistrates for the ungoverned, the managers for the unmanageable. They made it so the Imperials didn’t need to get involved.
And Thal hated them.
They were a constant reminder of what this city — this entire kriffing planet — was. An organized celebration of the fouler things in life. And Thal was far from exempt in that accusation.
Upon entering the Red Sector, Thal made his way to The Elegant Empire, the deluxe pleasure-barge owned and operated by the Diplomat, to see what the problem was with Amalia.
There were a lot of combination spice-and-whore houses in the Red Sector. It made sense, one thing often led to another no matter which way you took them in, and offering both under the same roof was an easy way to boost profits. But The Elegant Empire was different. Not only was she one of the few pleasure houses that dealt strictly in human, female companionship — no aliens, males, or spice here — she was also one of the only pleasure houses located on a luxury yacht.
Soaring high both physically and emotionally probably made both sensations feel better in a way that spice could never achieve. But Thal certainly didn’t know. The Elegant Empire catered solely to human clients, and was maintained by an entirely human staff — except for the rare occasion when Gaul had to send one of his lackeys to clean up a problem.
Like tonight. With Amalia. Again.
It was still early, so The Elegant Empire hadn’t yet departed for its four-hour cruise through the skies of Nar Shaddaa, but patrons were already settling into the various comforts offered by the establishment. Thal simply nodded to the door guard as he passed, circumventing the long line of reservation-holders still waiting to meet their ladies.
The Elegant Empire didn’t sell nightly tickets or use any other method of admission so crass as that. Instead, those who desired to partake in its unique experience had to make a reservation — often weeks or months in advance — in order to ensure that each guest would have there own space. So they weren’t entirely pleased when someone like Thal — a non-human even — simply waltzed in like he owned the place. The uproar quickly died down, however, as the reservation host calmly assured them that Thal did own the place, or whatever other story he had come up with for the night, and Thal continued on his way.
Reaching the boarding ramp, Thal climbed up into the ship and headed for the bar.
Amalia was there, serving drinks with an eager smile as ever. She noticed him lurking in the doorway a moment later and quickly grew subdued. After serving the last customer in line, she tapped the other woman at the bar on the shoulder and said something to her. Then she stepped out from behind the bar and made her way over to where he was standing.
“Thal,” she said as she reached his side.
“Amalia,” he said.
“It’s been a long time. Why you don’t come around to visit me anymore?”
Thal shrugged. “The boss has me working other areas.” He wanted to keep this short, so he jumped right to the question that he needed to ask. “What happened?”
“What d’you mean?”
“The Brokers say they’ve been having trouble with you. What’s going on?”
“Oh, you suddenly care now?” She settled her hands on her hips and glared up at him. “You’re gone for two, maybe even three whole months — I don’t hear from you a whisper for that whole time. Now you suddenly want to talk about my problems? Too bad, Thal. I’ve gotten pretty good at taking care of myself!”
She spun and marched off away from him, leaving him in the shadows of the doorway.
But she hadn’t walked back to the bar. She left the cantina entirely, heading to one of the deeper levels of the ship.
She wanted him to follow her. It was the only reason she wouldn’t have gone back to the bar. She may have been flippant about her responsibilities when Thal had known her earlier, but she also loved her work. The attention it gave her.
It was his attention she wanted now, though. But Thal was in no mood to play that game with her.
Instead, Thal left the yacht and made his way down the streets of the Red Sector to find an aliens-only bar. As he emerged from the hanger bay, he heard the distinctive sound of The Elegant Empire starting her engines and lifting off from the landing platform to begin the evening’s festivities and carry Amalia beyond his reach.
The Scum-Suckers Cantina wasn’t Thal’s favorite bar on his list, but it was the closest. All he needed was a minute and a quick drink before seeking out a representative of the Brokers. The venue didn’t much matter at this point.
Even so, he would have preferred a better one than this. In his experience, the fewer forms of entertainment — or, just as often, the lower the quality of that entertainment — provided, the greater the chance for brawls, shootouts, and other unpredictable behavior.
Unfortunately, the Scum-Suckers was just a cantina. No music, no girls, not even a sabaac table. Just drinks. Which meant Thal was in for an unruly night if he stayed too long.
Sauntering up to the bar, he sat in a stool and grabbed the tender’s attention.
“One,” Thal said, holding up a single, long finger. “Doesn’t matter what you mix it with, just make it half as strong as a single. Okay?”
The bartender looked at him askance, but Thal held his expression resolute and so the gruff Quarren hustled off to make the drink.
Thal never drank much. Part of it was his Jedi training — drinking was frowned upon amongst his peers, and so he had never had an opportunity to encounter it. Another part was his species — when you had a brain as large and as complex as a Bith, and a body mass almost inversely proportional to that, alcohol had a way of affecting it much more quickly than some of the denser species. Gamorreans, for example, were notorious for the gallons of hard liquor they could consume without much visible change, as two of them were quickly proving at the other end of the bar.
There was also a Kel Dor.
Thal found that odd. Kel Dor, Gand, and other breather-dependent species seldom frequented establishments like this. Eating and drinking for pleasure was something of an impossible, foreign concept for them while living in oxygen-rich environments. Instead, they would visit the gambling parlors, and the music halls, and the various forms of “visual entertainment” to be found within the city.
So what was this one doing here?
Thal stared at the Kel Dor until the Quarren returned with his drink. Looking down at it, Thal found that the bartender had mixed a half-shot of Krayt’s Blood with straight water. He sighed and stirred the mixture a moment with his finger before tasting it.
Krayt’s Blood was a powerful drink, and rightfully so since it was named for the fearsome Krayt Dragons of Tatooine, where the drink was distilled. But mixing it with water…?
Well, Thal hadn’t come here for the quality. It was just a drink.
After taking a sip of the disappointing mixture, Thal returned his attention to the Kel Dor.
The Gamorreans were guffawing now at some joke or another. It was hard to tell, as the Kel Dor moved little when he spoke, and Gamorreans hardly spoke at all. Thal’s guess was that the Kel Dor had said something the Gamorreans had found funny. But an equally likely theory was that one of the fat pigs had burped.
As Thal continued his study of the inscrutible Kel Dor, the masked creature turned his head toward Thal.
It was difficult for him to say, but Thal thought the Kel Dor was looking straight at him. The creature inclined his head in a brief nod before turning back to the Gamorreans.
Thal felt his mind buzzing with questions. What was that supposed to mean? Did the Kel Dor know who he was? Did that matter? Was it the same Kel Dor who had been in the swoop shop earlier that day? What was he doing in a bar?
He didn’t have time to answer any of them, though, because a fight broke out at one of the side tables.
“Give me the money, worm!”
Thal turned as he heard the shout above the already noisy din of the cantina. Turning around in his stool, he saw a Duros get knocked to the ground as a small, petulant Dug slammed into him with his two forehands.
Landing atop the Duros, the Dug stood on one hand, grabbed the Duros by the collar with his two forehands, and then raised the fourth hand in a fist.
There was a low murmer of conversation from the Duros, but Thal couldn’t hear it from where he was sitting.
“If you don’t have any with you, you couldn’t pay for yer drinks!” The Dug swung at the Duros face with his powerful hand, leaving a sizable bruise on the side of the Duros’ face.
Thal left his drink on the bar and slowly drifted through the crowd that had grown to surround the fight until he stood just inside the ring.
“Yer not allowed in any bar on the Red Sector until you pay up, slime.” Another fist across the face.
“But, I-, I was promised more time.”
“Time’s up, filth.” The third punch knocked the Duros unconscious. As the grey-skinned alien fell limp onto the ground, the Dug capered off of him and motioned for two of the others standing nearby — a Twi’Lek and a Quarren — to drag the body outside.
As they did so, the Dug looked up at the crowd of surrounding faces.
“What’re all of yous lookin’ at? I ain’t here fer you, so if you do owe money, better go pay it before I do come after ya.”
Then his eyes fell on Thal.
“What’o ye want, brain-head?”
“Drelga,” said Thal, crossing his arms across his chest and nodding to the Dug. “Didn’t I see you collecting for the Corellians last week?”
“Sure, but they got they own crew now, so I don’t do much for ‘em anymores.”
“And they just let you setup your own little gang here? Isn’t this the Brokers’ territory?”
“Yeah,” said Drelga in the meancing, matter-of-fact kind of tone that only a Dug could muster.
They moved to a side table, where their conversation wouldn’t be considered a part of the spectacle the Dug had just put on. As they sat, Drelga grabbed a bystander roughly by the forearm and ordered two, harsh drinks — both for himself.
“You don’t have the authority to ban clients from bars, Drelga. Not here. It’s bad for business, so the Brokers won’t allow it. You’re going to get yourself in trouble.”
Thal had known Drelga for about as long as he’d been involved with the Diplomat. They had both started working for the crime lord at the same time, but the Dug’s attitude hadn’t meshed with the Diplomat’s style, so he had cut him loose.
Fortunatley for Drelga, he hadn’t made it very deep into the organization, so it wasn’t necessary to execute him.
Thal kind of saw Drelga as a mirror to himself. Keeping tabs on Drelga helped him reflect on where he was in his own life. And if Drelga decided to try something, chances were that Thal should keep clear away from it.
“I’ve got a new trick, brainy. It’s freelance enforcing. You want me to go after somebody or fight for you? No problem. Just make sure I get paid.” The Dug leaned back in the booth as if he had just spoken the most profound words ever uttered by one of his kind — which, for all Thal knew, they might have been. Folding two of his hands behind his head, he reached forward with the others in order to grab one of his drinks that had just arrived. “Started small,” he said, continuing his story. “But I’ve probably got about half a dozen other guys doing the same thing for me now. We work in teams, alone, pairs, all kinds of ways. Been pretty successful, too.”
Thal studied his former friend for a long moment before speaking. “So, what makes you different from a mercenary?”
“Easy,” said Drelga after swallowing the gulp of his drink. He leaned forward and set a pair of hands on the table. “I understand this world. You want a mercenary? Go fight a war!” (Thal was about to interrupt as he puzzled over this statement, but the Dug continued talking at an implacable pace.) “No. You hire me and mine because we know how to work in this environment. We know how to intimidate a client. How to colect your protection payments. Heck, we can be an all-in-one protection racket for you, if yeh don’t want to train the men yourself.”
“Impressive,” said Thal. This was something new, he could tell. The worst part, though, was he had never heard of this. Drelga’s operation was new and interesting, but it didn’t seem to be catching on. Unless he had started it last week.
Which, Thal realized as he thought about it, was entirely likely.
“So, you’re basically mercenaries for the underworld, is that what I’m hearing?”
“Yep,” said Drelga before he took another gulp.
“But why would they hire you instead of training their own men?”
“Two words, my bolbous-headed friend: experience and deniability.”
Thal was about to make a backhanded insult out of asking what kind of experience Drelga had, but the Dug spoke over him in order to explain the deniability part.
“See, a lot of folks, like you’re friend the Diplomat, want to cultivate a certain image. Others, like the Duros, have a certain racial elitism thing going on. That’s fine, I can respect that. But this is a rough galaxy, right? You’ve got to take the advantages where they are, right? You can’t just ignore an opportunity because it doesn’t line up with your ideals and goals, right?”
“Right,” said Thal when it became apparent that he was supposed to say something.
“Right,” said Drelga again, seeming to lose his place for a moment. “Right, so anyway. Point is, maybe you don’t want to take the time you need to setup a protection racket. Maybe you’re not a species who’s particularly gifted in the blunter things in life. I am — or at least I can be, for the right price. Then, when some poor, little Corellian family comes complaining to you about how your goons roughed ‘em up, you can say, ‘Hey, that wasn’ us. We’re Corellians. We care about our fellow citizens and would never intimdate you like that. Must’ve been someone else you owe money to. Heh.’ See, Thal? I can be the bad guy. And as long as you pay me, I’m happy to do it!”
Thal stared at the Dug for an even longer time than before. Then, just as it was clear that Drelga was about to speak again, he said something.
“So… you’re an actor?”
The Dug sighed and shook his head, nearly sliding beneath the table as he visibly deflated.
“You know what, if that helps you understand what I’m doing, then fine. Sure. I’m an actor. I’m the leader of a whole, damn group of ‘em if you want to see it that way. Point is, it works. We’re getting paid. Folks want this kind of service. I just… well, we need to get the idea out there a bit wider before it really sticks. I think these Broker guys are really going to be good for us, though. Reduces the amount of fleshies they have to deal with, y’know?”
“Why don’t you just become a bounty hunter, Drel? That’s basically what you’re doing.”
The Dug slammed his mug on the table. “It is not! The definition of a bounty hunter’s job is way too narrrow for what we do. Besides…” he said quietly as he raised the mug to his mouth again. “Then I’d have to pay guild fees.”
“Ah,” said Thal with a knowing nod. “I see.”
“Hey,” said Drelga. “It was good to see you again, egghead. Let your boss know about our work, okay? He could probably use a little extra muscle.”
Before the Dug could rise out of his seat, however, the truest definition of muscle on Nar Shaddaa walked into the bar.
Armored from head to toe in a manic collection of multi-colored plates, braces, and ties, the five of them stood in the entryway looking around for a long moment before someone noticed them.
“Damn,” said Drelga. “Bounty hunters.”
Thal shook his head. “Worse. Mandalorians.”