Chapter 7

Chapter 7

Thal reached the hanger bay of The Elegant Empireas the crew began to prep her for the evening’s outing. Amalia was there, restocking the bar. Thal approached her and tried to draw her aside.

What now, Thal? I’m busy.”

That was Amalia. Terse to a fault when upset.

Amalia, I need to talk to you.”

Why? Are you going to apologize for the way your treated me last night? Or for the months of silence you’ve given me? Or how about-”

The Diplomat sent me,” he said. He didn’t want to. He had wished that this would go smoothly. But it was clear to him that she still wasn’t in a place to speak to him yet, and she couldn’t afford to let this wait.

She fell silent at the mention of their mutual employer. But then, before Thal could speak, she picked it up again.

What does he want? He upset or something?”

More disappointed than anything else,” Thal admitted. “And a bit frustrated. This is a lot of extra work for him and everyone else — finding you a new job, I mean.”

Why’s he gotta do that? I’ve got a perfectly good one right here.”

Apparently you don’t, or at least you won’t if we leave you here. Attacking Imperial Officers isn’t the sign of a healthy workplace.”

She turned away from him and moved back to stacking her glasses. “Shut up, Thal,” she muttered.

He couldn’t retreat. He had to pilot this into her. It was his job now, and not just a personal desire.

Amalia, the Diplomat’s not reassigning you this time. You have to pay him back, and he’s not going to help you anymore. You’re on your own.”

She froze midway to picking up another glass. There was no reaction beyond that, but it was enough for Thal to notice. After the brief hesitation, she carried on with setting up the bar.

Amalia… did you hear me?” He reached for her arm.

She twisted away. “Yeah I heard you. Doesn’t mean I’m about to stop working, though, does it?”

Stubborn woman. She chose the strangest times to latch onto certain principles. Now, as she was being removed from her job, she decided to develop a strong work ethic.

Thal simply shook his head and turned to leave.

I’ll inform your manager of the Diplomat’s decision. He’ll no doubt want you out of here before the patrons begin to arrive.”

She didn’t say anything.

Amalia… I’m sorry.”

It’s not your fault,” she said bitterly — flippantly, even.

He couldn’t really say anything to that. So he continued leaving. As he reached the boarding ramp, he thought he heard a faint crash of breaking glass echo from the main room, but he couldn’t be sure.

The matter was settled quickly with the ship’s manager. He didn’t ask many questions, nor did he seem especially surprised. It was just as well, Thal didn’t really feel like talking about it.

Outside the hanger bay, evening was approaching, and Thal realized he hadn’t eaten anything the entire day. He turned to follow the streets of the Red Sector to one of the higher-quality cantinas when his eye was drawn to the alleyway where the officer had been killed the night before.

He approached it.

There were no guards or law enforcement sectioning off a crime scene — that kind of strict and efficient investigating only happened on places like Corellia, or Alderaan. No, what little examination of the scene had likely occurred the night of the murder, or even earlier that day. By this point, the scene had likely been contaminated by vandals and other miscreants, even in the Red Sector.

Especially in the Red Sector, some would say.

But Thal still held out hope that he might have missed something, and so he approached.

It was, more or less, as his memories pictured it. The scorch marks, the gouge in the wall. There was nothing new or old to see hear — aside from the specist and anti-Imperial slurs battling one another  as graffiti on the ground where the body had been. This avenue of inquiry was, unironically, a dead end.

He turned away from the alley and continued on his way. He would have to look elsewhere if he hoped to track down that Sith. It didn’t surprise him. But he had permitted himself to hope, just for a moment.

Instead, though, he would now have to trudge through the same process as the officials — inquiring amongst the locals, waiting for additional killings to present further evidence, researching the methods used by the killer, looking for seemingly unrelated facts that might shed light on the situation. Things he had once been very good at, as a Jedi Sentinel.

But it had been years since he had used those skills. Even his investigations for the Diplomat — hunting down fugitive debtors, spying on competitors, and so on — had all been largely blunt work. Clear target. Clear course of action. Simple, skillful execution.

This was more subtle. It would require both more precision and a greater level of flexibility. He couldn’t simply go around asking if anyone had seen a Sith warrior leaping across rooftops — though a part of him thought that might be a good place to start. But no, that would only cause the trail to go cold. The Sith was aware that Thal had seen her. Whether or not she knew he was looking for her was another matter, but would likely be on her guard. And if she had lasted this long without being discovered, she would have to be as skilled at hiding in plain sight as Thal was. She likely had connections throughout the underworld, keeping tabs on certain developments that might expose her presence.

So how was he supposed to find her?

Educate yourself, Thal,he told himself. You’ve always been good at that, even now.

It was true. While at the academy beneath the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, Thal was just as likely to be found poring over various texts and databanks in the Archives as he was to be actually attending his required classes. That was when he’d first been labled an egghead, a scholar, and a brain-case. Depending on the year.

Even after… well, since he’d returned to the surface of Nar Shaddaa… he’d still had a fondness for learning, and it had saved his life. If he hadn’t spent so much time reading and asking questions about the various criminal politics on the planet — much to the annoyance of his surrounding comrades — he wouldn’t have made it through the first year, much less risen to the side of a powerful and influential crime lord.

That was where he had to begin, Thal decided. He had to start by researching the Sith.

But that presented its own set of problems. Researching the Sith was difficult enough in the Temple, where information was present, but scarce, and carefully guarded due to its “dangerous” nature. Here, however, it would be next to impossible. Especially without drawing attention.

He would have to come by the information through circuitous means, he realized. He could use some of his cover identities and lower level contacts, call in favors he was owed. He could even try to research some of the surrounding information — lightsabers, the Force, the Battle at Ruusan, the Mandalorian Wars, even the Jedi themselves — in order to see what they might hint at about the Sith. Inquiring about the Clone Wars would help as well, he decided, since she was no doubt a member of the commune begun by the wayward Count Dooku. Factual information about that recent conflict was also difficult to come by — and often inconsistent — due to the chaotic nature of the war, but it would be better than nothing and would likely raise fewer red flags for Imperial Inquisitors and other curious folks.

They were good ideas, all, but still difficult. And it would be chancy, at best, whether or not they would yield anything useful.

Still, though, he had to try. Didn’t he?

The weight of the metal cylinder hidden inside a pouch at the small of his back confirmed for him that he did. There was no returning to his happy apathy. His shielded ignorance of his own duty. His destiny.

He had to find the Sith. He had to. He was all that remained of the Order.

#

He decided to work the Clone Wars angle first. It would raise fewer suspicions.

The Brokers were the closest thing to the Jedi Archives that Thal was likely to find on Nar Shaddaa, so he decided to meet with them, waiting in the official line this time. Working with the Brokers was risky, as they kept records of everything, but it was less risky than running a public search on the HoloNet.

As soon as the cantinas opened for the night, Thal was in line for a meeting with the Brokers. It didn’t take too long to reach the front, and soon he had his meeting.

Ah, Thal Lirin,” said the spindly, uncoordinated droid sitting at the exchange table. “It has been a long time.”

Not so long,” he said. “I met with you all last night.”

A night and a day are long for a droid such as ourselves,” said the Brokers. “But we speak more accurately of the length of time it has been since you last met with us as an inquirer. We recall that you once made extensive use of our services.”

Damn, the droids never do forget, do they? When he had first started out his criminal career, Thal had made frequent visits to the Brokers for information — spending most of his earnings on learning how to better acclimate himself to the new lifestyle that he had been forced to adopt. He hadn’t understood then the full nature of the Brokers’ networked syndicate, and had simply heard that they were a useful resource for “anyone who needed something.” On the whole of Nar Shaddaa, the Brokers likely knew the most about the extent of Thal’s ignorance. Should anyone want to piece together his past, prying the information about him out of the Brokers would likely be enough.

What is your request today?” said the droid.

I need information on the Clone Wars. Official information.”

Official information is, as you know, what we deal in.” The droid paused and seemed to study Thal for a moment. “The Clone Wars is a very large, very broad topic, Thal Lirin. To process the amount of information you are seeking would take years, even for us. Are you sure there is not a narrower field of focus that you could provide? Some particular area of interest?”

Thal thought for a moment. He obviously couldn’t ask about the Sith. That would get him in trouble all-too-soon, and was unlikely to yield results anyway. He also couldn’t ask about the Jedi, for similar reasons. Asking about Nar Shaddaa’s role in the conflict would no doubt yield a wealth of confusing and conflicting accounts that might hold a hidden gem of truth or else might lead him in a labyrinthine circle.

No, none of that would do. He needed a topic narrow enough to ensure a starting point in his studies, yet broad enough that it wouldn’t attract attention.

Of course. Everyone’s favorite punching bag.

I need a full account of the Separatist leaders,” he said. “There backgrounds, their roles in the conflict, as well as their recorded activity during the war. Is that narrow enough?”

Hm, still quite broad, but certainly narrower than your prior request. So long as we limit the search algorithms to consider only the events where CIS leaders were physically, actively present… Yes, we think it can be done.”

Thank you.”

It was the perfect compromise. By asking after the Separatist leaders, he was indirectly asking after Dooku, Ventress, Grievous, and any others attached to that coterie, which had the chance to lead them to their academy here on Nar Shaddaa.

But no one would care, because the Separatist leaders were often researched by biographers and other opportunists who wanted to make an easy fortune by writing a condemning documentary about the figures who were widely seen as the source of suffering behind the Clone Wars.

Convenient.

The price is steep, but fair, Thal Lirin.”

Name it.”

Five thousand up front, additional compensation upon delivery, depending on the difficulty of the task. You can, of course, pay a flat fee for a static level of effort on our part. But it is unlikely to produce the optimal level of results.”

This was the kicker. He needed all the information he could get his hands on, but the Brokers’ prices were always high. Five thousand wasn’t enormous, but it was a healthy sum. And the Broker’s often charged five to ten times that much for the final package. This would not be kind to Thal’s account, but he was good for it. If he managed to pull a few special jobs for the Diplomat later that month, he could make back the money in little time.

I’ll pay the full amount,” Thal said. “I need as much as you can get for me.”

Understood. Return in a week for a status update. We will, of course, inform you through the usual channels if something comes up before then.”

Thal nodded. “Understood. Thank you for your time.”

Thank you. Our associate will, of course, have you process the necessary and appropriate paperwork on your way out.”

Of course.” Thal rose to leave.

Have a good day, Thal Lirin.”

Thal signed the documents with his biometrics to seal the deal. If he didn’t pay the necessary amount upon delivery of the information at the end of the week, he would be barred from the Brokerage for an indefinite amount of time and marked as an “undesirable investment.” Not to mention the inevitable bounties and interest fees that would accumulate on his head.

He had collected similar bounties during his early days on the streets. Perhaps he could persuade the Diplomat to let him pursue some of the more lucrative ones in the near future. He was going to need a lot of money before this investigation was done.

Outside the cantina, Thal let the air cleanse him from the collected filth of a thousand beings trapped inside a noisy, smokey collection of rooms. Compared to the close, humid quarters of the cantina, the streets of the Red Sector seemed pleasantly cool.

It’s a start,he thought to himself as he turned to follow the streets back to the Diplomat’s headquarters. There’s plenty more left to do, but it’s a start.

 

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