Later that day, the Diplomat called Thal into his office.
“So,” he said once Thal had taken a seat and refused the customary offer of wine. “How was your night?”
“Productive,” said Thal, stifling a yawn. Bith didn’t yawn the way humans did, and the Diplomat likely wouldn’t even notice if Thal had let himself go, but it was another one of those habits he had picked up from the humans. Yawning, even when no one noticed, felt like a dirty habit or social indecency. And so he stifled them.
“I’m surprised,” the Diplomat said. “After all your pouting in here last night, you found it productive?”
Thal didn’t say anything.
“And when Venlyss and Moza told me that they never saw you during the course of the night…well, what was I to think?”
Kriffing damn it, I forgot about Venlyss and Moza. Spaz.
“I guess I missed them,” he said aloud. “Your task with Amalia kept me busy all night.”
“The whole night? Goodness.”
Thal didn’t like that tone.
“It wasn’t like that,” he said. “It just proved more difficult to obtain the information I required.”
“Did you settle the matter?” Gaul swung to the side in order to lean back, away from the desk. Even in profile, he was enormous and intimidating.
“Not yet. We have some payments to make. I’ll need your clearance for it.”
“I see,” he said, closing his eyes. “How much?”
The Diplomat opened his eyes. “Was the incident her fault?” he said, looking through narrowed eyes at Thal.
“Yes,” he said. “More or less.”
Gaul slowly rotated back to face him straight and leaned forward to rest his elbows on the desk, hands folded. His gaze was as flat and unyielding as the wall at the dead end of the alley Thal had found himself trapped in last night.
The events were still trapped in his mind as a series of images — a strange mix of holorealism and impressionistic charcoal sketches — where they would stay for the rest of Thal’s life. He had yet to rid himself of any memory. He merely manged to shut them away for a time. But much of that was undone now. The locks he had put on the unpleasant realities of his present life had been opened by the retrieval of his lightsaber, and now the pages of his memory were spread open before his mind like a scrapbook.
And not just all of that. But also the friends. The comrades. The enemies. The innocent lives lost by his incompetence. Or the incompetence of others.
The compromises he had had to make. Those were the most difficult to see again, and so, of course, they were the ones that kept rising to the surface of his self-perceptions.
The first lie he had told had been difficult, but it had been years ago, and so he barely recalled what it was.
Likewise, the first theft had caused him to hesitate, but in the end it had come easy for him because it had been from an enemy.
But the first time he had stolen for survival. Fleeing from the Purge. Delving deeper into the undercity of Nar Shaddaa. Taking from those who had little so he could have some. Realizing the choice was between his own life and the lives of those he condemned with the theft…
That memory left him as raw as the action had.
The Neimodian family huddling around a fire beneath a gutted-out lower section of a building that towered above them all. Their eyes looking up at him filled with terror and awe at his blade and the power it represented.
They were fugitives just as he was, Thal had realized then. Simply trying to survive. To escape the prejudices of the world above.
Neimoidians hadn’t been treated kindly in the years following the Clone Wars.
But that was the extent of the rational thought that had crossed through Thal’s mind at the time. By then he had been half-feral with hunger and was doing everything he could to last another day.
It had been the first time he had encountered other sentient beings in months. And they had food…
A mere two weeks after that encounter, Thal had returned to the surface — or, rather, what counted as the surface on Nar Shaddaa. It had been an accident that brought him up, and at first he had been afraid. Fear leads to the Dark Side. But apparently the Empire had given up searching for Jedi on the Smuggler’s Moon. And Thal was able to move and act with impunity.
It was, after all, where people went to disappear.
With a supreme effort of will — and a little help from some meditation techniques that he hadn’t used in years — Thal slid the images back into their sleeves within the scrapbook and closed the cover.
For a long time, he had managed to hide those memories from himself. But that was all done with now. The barriers had been shattered last night as he lay helpless against the implacable wall of an alley in the Red Sector, watching a Sith save his life.
Had it not been for that wall, Thal might have escaped. He might have made it out and away from the Imperials. But that wall had stopped him, and he hated it for that. Hate leads to suffering.
It was that wall that Thal now found reflected in the eyes of Gaul Corlona. And it was the words of this man, the Diplomat, that brought Thal outside of himself and his past and back to the present.
“As I said, Thal. Which is it? More…” He held open one hand. “…or less?” He held open the other.
More or less what? Thal thought for a moment, but then the memory of the conversation replayed in his mind. Of course. Amalia.
“I’m not sure if I understand, sir,” he said aloud. “Amalia was provoked, of course. But Amalia is always provoked.”
Why did he say that? Did he want to get her in trouble? He knew the problems this would create for her. Maybe he thought it would help her to change. Shake her up a bit.
But he knew better. Amalia would never learn.
The Diplomat folded his hands on the desk again. “I see. What happened?”
“One of the Imps propositioned her, likely because he thought she was one of our whores. Unfortunately for him, she wasn’t. So she threw a glass of alcohol in his eyes.”
Gaul closed his eyes and sighed. “Which, naturally, meant he needed bacta.”
Thal nodded, even though he knew the man wouldn’t see the motion.
Gaul rubbed his forehead. “Why does she do this to herself?”
“What do you mean, sir?”
“I can’t afford to employ someone like this, Thal. I’ve moved her from establishment to establishment, but she always manages to get herself in trouble. I’m running out of opportunities for her.”
“I know, sir. I…well, I’ve been involved, as you know.”
Gaul looked up briefly, then grinned and chuckled flatly. “Yes, of course. I do not know how I forgot.” He sighed, and then. “We will, of course, pay the Brokers for managing the situation. We will also have to remove Amalia from the current venue. The Empire would not find it appropriate for us to continue employing a woman who attacked one of their officers.”
Thal nodded. It was as he had expected.
“And she is going to have to pay us back, Thal. Make a note of that on the ledgers. Have my clerk deal with it. One thousand credits, is it?”
“Fifteen hundred, then. Twelve, if she can pay it all at once, which we both know she cannot. Maybe that will teach her to show some restraint in the future.”
“Maybe,” Thal said, though he didn’t believe any more of it than the Diplomat did himself. It was a formality, that was all.
“Was there anything else?” the Diplomat said, returning to his business demeanor. It was all professional between them now, and Thal had to remember and respect that. The shifts in their relationship were often difficult for him to predict, but they were impossible for him to misread. So long as he responded appropriately, they did little to disrupt their interaction.
“An Imperial officer was murdered in an alley outside the hanger bay for The Elegant Empire around four in the morning,” he said mechanically. He still wasn’t sure if he should be telling the Diplomat what he had discovered. But he knew that, even if he didn’t at least report the event, the Diplomat would learn of it soon and ask Thal why he hadn’t.
“Distressing. Is it possible for them to implicate us in the killing?”
“Doubtful,” said Thal. But he didn’t elaborate.
“Why is that? Did you get a good look at the body?”
Again with the double-questioning? Many humans allowed a bunch of questions to tumble out of their mouths due to laziness of thought or simple impatience. But the Diplomat set two of them up together for his own careful purposes. Sometimes it was a trap, other times it was in order to study which one you answered. In any case, it was annoying to Thal, who never enjoyed leaving a questions unanswered.
Fortunately, in this case, he could answer both questions with one explanation. Whether it was wise for him to do so, however, was another question…
“I did look at the body,” he said. He didn’t mention returning to the scene after the body had been cleared, though. “It was a brutal killing. Not our style. More importantly, sir, it was done with a weapon that we have no access to.”
“Are you sure? We have some impressive resources, Thal. What manner of weapon could this be that we could not obtain it?”
Thal hesitated. Did he dare reveal what he knew? Again, not telling the Diplomat could only cast suspicion on him later, once the man had learned the necessary information. But if Thal revealed his own knowledge, it would open new questions about his past, questions that the Diplomat had been pleased to ignore these past several years.
In the end, though, the clear and eventual repercussions outweighed the potentially immediate ones in Thal’s mind.
But that didn’t mean he couldn’t lie a little about it.
“I have yet to look into it fully, sir, but there were whispers among the crowd that the wound could only have been inflicted by the blade of a Jedi.”
That was good, Thal realized as he considered the words he had just spoken. By identifying the order in a dissimilar manner, you show an unfamiliarity. That should distance any thought of you from him in the future.
Thal was pleased with himself. The habits and observations he had picked up while living and growing among the humans were finally paying off, instead of simply annoying him.
The Diplomat leaned back, pivoted his chair away from Thal, and was silent for a long moment. Then he glanced at him through the corner of his eye and spoke.
“Are you sure?”
“As I said, I got a good look at the body. From what little I’ve heard of these things, I don’t see how it could be anything else.”
“Frankly,” Thal continued, thinking of a final comment to add that would fully cement his distance from the Order. “I don’t see how any weapon could do such a thing — the man was cleaved in two distinct pieces by one smooth swipe — but if any weapon I’ve heard of could, it’d have to be a lightsaber.”
Damn, Thal thought. He didn’t allow himself to react to the slipup or try to cover it up. But there it was, hanging out there between the two men. An admission of familiarity. Of knowledge. The proper term.
He hadn’t said it in so long. It almost sounded silly to him now, said aloud. But he couldn’t dwell on that. He couldn’t think back on the days and weeks and months and years spent honing his skills with the weapon of the Order.
Deflecting blaster bolts.
Sparring with other padawans and knights.
The dozens, or hundreds even, of times the golden, glowing blade had saved his life.
He couldn’t! He didn’t have time. He had to focus on the conversation at hand. The immediate. The present.
The Diplomat did not react in any visible way to Thal’s misstep. Either that was a good sign: he hadn’t noticed. Or else it was a very bad sign: he had noticed and had chosen not to do anything about it now. In Thal’s experience, the more patient a person was with a problem, the more terrifyingly effective their solution would be for it.
If Thal ever managed to make himself into a problem for the Diplomat, he hoped he was dealt with quickly. Preferably the moment he became a problem. In that situation, he might only be killed. The other options were… unsettling.
They sat in silence for what seemed to Thal an eternity as he fought off the encroaching memories, waiting for the Diplomat to say something.
At last, the man did. “This is unsettling news.”
That was all. They returned to silence after that, the Diplomat still staring over his folded hands with a piercing gaze at the stack of notes on his desk, though it was clear to Thal that he did not truly see it. His mind was elsewhere.
Eventually, Thal began to grow concerned. He hadn’t expected the news to mean that much to the Diplomat. It was a murder. A particularly unique and exciting murder, sure. But still a murder. They happened all the time on Nar Shaddaa. It seldom disrupted business for long.
In the past, news like this had sent the Diplomat into a frenzy of damage control as he sent agents to discover the identify of the deceased, his contacts and influences and operations, in an attempt to maximize the opportunity or minimize the damage of losing a key or not-so-key member of the criminal society.
But now… he was simply quiet.
“Sir…” Thal said tentatively. “What do we need to do about this?”
The Diplomat stirred like a starcruiser engaging its engines.
“Hm? Oh, Thal. I apologize. I seem to have lost myself in my thoughts. Thank you for this news. It is… something I will have to think on.”
Thal nodded carefully. “Yes, of course. Just… let me know if there’s anything you need me to do.”
The Diplomat nodded ponderously and waved Thal out.
As Thal retreated out of the door, however, he heard a faint and powerful call from the office, delivering his boss’s commands.
“Go ahead and speak with my clerk and take care of that matter with Amalia for me, will you? Thank you, Thal. Good work last night.”
With that, Thal was back in the moment. A high-ranking member of a prestigious criminal organization. Lucrative. Powerful. And run by the highest caliber of gentleman to be found on the Smuggler’s Moon.
It wasn’t saying much, but it was something.
Unfortunately, as with any job, it was not immune to interpesonal issues. Nor did it absolve anyone of their past mistakes.
With the Diplomat’s latest command, Thal had to go out now and deal with both.