“Approach the Mandalore on my behalf,” Gaul said. “Try to enlist his services for our upcoming shipments.”
Thal nodded, though he didn’t quite follow the Diplomat’s logic.
“We’ll need the extra protection. Pirates along the trade ways have been increasing their activity.”
They walked down the halls of the headquarters together, the Diplomat explaining Thal’s next mission along the way. He paused for a moment as he spoke, turning to face Thal.
“I also want to know what they’re doing, Thal. See if the Imperial government on this planet has enlisted their help. Mandalorians were notorious foes of the lightsaber in the past — rumored to be the only ones who could defeat a fully-trained Jedi. If the Empire knows what they’re up against, they may think to employ the warriors again, even if these aren’t full Mando’ade.”
They began walking again.
“Granted, even if the Empire does know what’s happening here — or, rather, what you suspect to be happening here — they may not turn to the Mandalorians. They are just as likely to use their own resources, but I want to at least get an inkling of their movements. We cannot exploit what we do not know.”
“Understood,” Thal said with a nod. It was a perfect opportunity. Thal could gain new insights into the murder while still doing his job. Efficiency defined.
He had, of course, asked the Diplomat about earning some extra money through bounty hunting. Gaul had said he’d consider it, but this was the first special assignment Thal had received all week.
“How do you propose I obtain this information, sir?”
“I’m not especially particular as to the how, but I would not recommend bribery. The Mandalore seems to frown quite heavily on that avenue.”
At that moment, Johram Falso arrived. Jhoram was a Weequay, and a member of the Diplomat’s inner circle — much as Thal was. The man approached Gaul with a sense of urgency about him, and so Thal nodded his farewell as the Diplomat turned his attention to Jhoram.
The rest of the afternoon, Thal spent in meditation.
It was still there. The infinite Force pressing itself against the barriers of his mind. It was difficult, at times, to tell if the Force was trying to get in from the outside or escape from within his own self. Were the walls meant to repel or contain?
Thal had honestly forgotten about those walls. They had been up for so long that they seemed natural. Sentinels received extensive training in hiding themselves from the Force, diminishing their presence in order to seem more like a mundane being, instead of a Force-user. It helped them in their role as infiltrators and watchmen for the Force. They protected the galaxy and the Order by hunting down the evils of the Dark Side and destroying them. It was much easier to do that when they couldn’t sense you coming.
Apparently, it also made an effective defense technique against the Dark Side’s own hunters.
Thal approached the wall within his mind and raised a tentative hand to rest against it. The warm vibrations were like a faint buzz against his mental touch.
What would happen if he were to take down that wall? The Force would flood him, yes, but would that be so bad? He would have the power of the Jedi again — the omnipotent power of the Force flowing through him. He would be a conduit for its will, channeling its power as a beacon of light on Nar Shaddaa.
…and it would be that very beacon that would call down the Inquisitors, the dark hand of the Empire.
No. The Force was cut off from him, and for good reason. That was a life left behind him now. He had to go through this alone.
A knock on his door roused Thal from his meditation. He rose and opened it to find Johram on the other side.
“Master wants to see you,” he said. Then he turned and left, walking down the hall toward the Diplomat’s office.
Thal followed without engaging the Weequay in conversation. His mind was too busily occupied by other things.
Was it time for him to visit the Mandalore already? What had the Weequay wanted with the Diplomat? How much longer would it take for Drelga and the Brokers to return Thal’s information? He had been waiting for three days, and still nothing.
“Thal, come in.” The Diplomat set aside his bundle of documents and looked up at Thal, square jaw set in determined displeasure.
“It seems we have an issue with one of our suppliers, Thal. He was supposed to meet Johram here earlier today, but thus far he has not shown. We still have men at the meeting point waiting for him, but the truth seems obvious. Johram and I both agree that the supplier has likely skipped out on us.”
“Unfortunate,” Thal said carefully. Why was the Diplomat telling him all this?
“It is. And it looks to be a matter that will require some care and diligence to resolve. That is why I am sending you to look into it.”
Thal blinked. “Sir?”
“Johram here, while a faithful employee and imposing to a fault, is not well-suited to this kind of work. He will assist you, of course, but I need someone who has the necessary experience in investigation and pursuit to hunt this man down. Naturally, I thought of you.”
Thal was about to express his disbelief again, but the Diplomat interrupted.
“I had assumed that you would be happy to accept the task,” he said. “Was I wrong? Did you not two days ago ask if I could provide you with bounty hunting opportunities to earn some additional cash?”
Oh, right. That.
Damn, why does everything I do have to come back and bite me?
“Of course, sir, of course. I was simply hesitating because you have already sent me to meet with the Mandalore of Nar Shaddaa. Do you not think that that is a more important obligation than this investigation? Or can I at least not go until I’ve met with the Mandalorians?”
The Diplomat’s demeanor grew cold and hard. “I will decide what is important around her, Thal Lirin,” he said. There was a long, frightening pause before the Diplomat softened and spoke again with a hint of warmth. “I shall arrange for others to deal with the Mandalorians. Or, if you manage to sort this matter out quickly, you may still be able to make it there today. We shall see. For now, though, attend to this for me. You shall be rewarded.”
“Very well, sir,” said Thal with a respectful nod. “I go.”
They made their way for the Corellian Sector, much to Thal’s displeasure.
The Corellians were a newer addition to Nar Shaddaa. Despite the fact that Corellia itself had been spared direct military action during the Clone Wars, many refugees and drifters from the planet had settled on Nar Shaddaa during the following years.
Thal supposed it made sense. Corellians were independent to a fault, and falling under the heel of the Empire after waiting out the war in relative neutrality must have stung a bit.
Whatever it was that had driven such large numbers of Corellian independents to Nar Shaddaa, Thal cursed it. He hated Corellians. Especially the Corellians of Nar Shaddaa. They had taken that independent streak and turned it into xenophobic, isolationist tendencies, with a dash of militant flavor thrown in for good measure.
Sure, it had started out innocent enough. Corellians came and settled in, joining in the criminal enterprises and gang wars just like everyone else. But then more Corellians came and they settled near other Corellians. And soon more Corellians came and more Corellians came until soon they had established a small city within the Vertical City of the Smuggler’s Moon.
And they didn’t let you forget it. The Corellian Sector was one of the most zealously guarded turfs on the planet, in theory only rivaled by the Red Sector, but at least the Brokers were lenient toward outsiders when they could earn some cash from it. The Corellians weren’t anywhere near as forgiving.
Thal had initially thought about asking why the Diplomat had a supplier in the Corellian Sector, but the answer to that question was too obvious — they were among the best smugglers on the planet, and that was saying a lot.
Instead, he settled on asking how they had managed to get a Corellian supplier.
“The Corellians are men and women of decorum, much like myself,” Gaul had said. “They respond well to a polite, professional manner.”
Especially if you’re human, Thal thought as he and Johram reached the edge of the sector — colloquially known as “The Blockade” to most non-humans and other outsiders.
Members of the Corellian Port Authority — the self-described “premier security force on Nar Shaddaa” — stopped Thal and Johram as they approached.
“What’s your business in the Corellian Sector today?” said the inspector, a slick ruffian, but a ruffian all the same.
“We’ve been sent by the Diplomat to meet with one of his associates,” Thal said, hoping the man would have enough sense to recognize the name and let them through.
“The Corellian Port Authority does not recognize any known associates of the Diplomat,” the man said.
Thal’s head began to hurt as he began speeding through all the potential responses he might give to that, searching for the one that was least likely to get him and Weequay into trouble.
Then the other boot dropped.
“If the Diplomat has some token of gratitude for the loyal, hard-working men and women in the CPA, though, I’m sure we’d be appreciative.”
Ah, though Thal. So that’s the way we’re going to play it today? All right.
“I’m sure the Diplomat would be pleased to offer a donation to the men and women of this checkpoint,” Thal said, slipping out one of his portable credit cylinders. “Shall we say… five hundred credits?”
He was running low. The funds would have to come out of his account for now. Hopefully Gaul would reimburse him when he returned — he was very prompt about that kind of thing — but the unexpected nature of the thing might lead him to write it off as an “incidental expense of your incompetence.”
The man shrugged and glanced back at his four partners at the checkpoint.
“Five hundred’ll really help clean things up around her, I’ll admit. We’d be quite glad to have it. But… I think a thousand would help even more, and I’m sure it’s an amount that the Diplomat is willing to part with.”
Maybe, thought Thal. But I’m not.
He coded in the amount anyway and slipped the cylinder to the Corellian.
“We’re grateful,” said the man. “We really are. And any friends of our friend the Dipomat is welcome in the Corellian Sector. Just don’t cause too much trouble and you should get out alive.”
With that, Thal and Johram crossed through the Blockade and entered the unfriendly territory of the Corellian Sector.
The supplier’s house was down the street. Thal hadn’t bothered getting the man’s name, Johram was leading the way and it didn’t seem to matter much to him.
They passed numberless individual Corellians as they walked, the peoples’ reactions ranging from indifference to disgust. Thal just kept his gaze locked firmly on the back of Johram’s head as the Weequay led the way toward their destination.
When they arrived at the place — a dingy, one-room apartment on the third floor of an only slightly better building — Thal immediately knew something was wrong.
They tried knocking three times, and when no one came to the door Thal had Johram kick it down.
Inside, the place was a mess. Broken furniture indicated a conflict of some kind, while the various personal items haphazardly strewn about the room told Thal that someone had been here looking for something.
But then he saw the bags and the story changed.
This man was leaving, he thought. Trying to get off planet, just like Gaul said. But he’s not gone yet. So where is he?
His answer was around the corner, behind the counter of the small kitchen.
Lying on the floor was a dead Corellian man.
“Seems someone got to him first,” Johram said.
Thal nodded, but didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to contaminate his opinions before observing the rest of the scene.
Whoever had been here before had apparently been looking for something, Thal decided. Sure, much of the disarray in the apartment came from the Corellian’s hurried attempts to pack, but it didn’t seem as though here was much of a conflict. No obvious signs of damage to the larger objects like walls, counters, and shelving. Instead, there were simply signs of a systematic search as whoever-it-was tore through the apartment to find…
Something. Thal wasn’t entirely clear as to what. As he looked through the documents and evidence, he found that there were certainly potential motivations for killing a man and ransacking his house scattered all over the floor. Smuggling, identify falsification, swindling, even a little piracy. There were likely dozens of former clients and targets of his less scrupulous dealings who would’ve been happy to hear that he was dead.
But if so, wouldn’t they want the evidence?
No, Thal decided. That would leave a paper trail. Wouldn’t it?
That idea was dismissed immediately. A paper trail would only exist and develop if someone else had a copy of the documents. Otherwise, no one would know if one was missing.
Thal froze. Stood. Looked about the room again.
That’s what it was. It had to be. Whoever had killed the Corellian had to have taken whatever they were after, and because Thal didn’t know the extent of this man’s operations, he had no idea of what that thing might be.
Damn. It was an airtight scene. No way for him to even begin to decide how to open it up.
“Um, don’t touch him, please,” Thal said as Johram leaned over the body. The Weequay slowly straightened up again as Thal hurried over. “I still need to inspect him for cause of death.”
I suppose that’s as good a place to start as any.
As he knelt beside the body, he immediately got the impression that something was wrong. He felt for the man’s pulse in his neck first, just to be sure, then began prodding various points of the body to search for breaks and abnormalities.
He found one. Around the abdomen, there was a faint depression in the consistency of the man’s shirt. When Thal prodded at it, he felt no resistance beyond the tension of the shirt.
Odd, thought Thal. A thought began to nibble at his conscious mind. Could he be so lucky?
“Johram,” he said to the Weequay standing over him. “You’re blocking the light. Could you go look through the rest of the apartment for weapons and hidden compartments? We need to know the extent of this man’s operations. He clearly wasn’t swindling just us.”
The man nodded and stalked off to another corner of the room.
Now was Thal’s chance. Lifting the shirt, he inspected the depression.
Sure enough, there was a hole straight through the man’s gut. More tellingly, the wound was cauterized.
Lightsaber. Damn. It’s her again.
Thal lowered the man’s shirt. This was huge. And very strange. The way the body was presented implied that the Sith had killed the man, and then taken care to replace the shirt in order to hide the wound.
Methodical. Deliberate. Cold.
It was a dangerous mindset. The Sith of Old that Thal had studied in the archives had been passionate, fiery, near-mindless berserkers in battle, fueled by their rage. This kind of cold fury, this hatred, seemed to Thal to be something else entirely.
Of course, it made sense. In order for the Sith to have remained hidden here for so long, she would have to be careful and deliberate.
But then…why had she struck at the Imperial out in public. That didn’t seem to fit the impression he was getting of her from this scene. Had she merely lost control for some reason, whereas this had been carefully planned?
Thal shook his head. It didn’t make sense.
He continued his inspection of the body, moving down through the legs to search for breaks and to look through pockets.
As he reached into one of the pockets, Thal’s hand closed around a wrinkled piece of paper.
Thal glanced up to see that Johram was occupied elsewhere, and then he withdrew his hand from the man’s pocket.
Unwrapping the crumpled paper, he stared at the words and felt his heart grow cold.
It read: “Description: One hundred metal cylinders, collected from artifacts dealers all over the galaxy. Unknown purpose or origin. Task: Deliver without their presence on Nar Shaddaa being recorded. Payment: Ten million credits.”
One hundred metal cylinders…
Lightsabers. Thal was sure of it.
There was more than one Sith on Nar Shaddaa, he realized.
They were training here.