Chapter 1: "Treading the Path of Duty"
When the tall, powerfully built woman stepped out of the shadow of the spaceport entrance into the warm sun of a Balmorran noon, half a dozen people scrambled to put distance between themselves and her scowl. As they scurried into cover, the slender young Twi’lek following half a step to the left smirked after them. The ex-slave still enjoyed basking in the reaction people had to her friend’s lightsaber, confident bearing,...and distinctive Sith features. In the Empire, these combined to suggest someone whose attention was better avoided, especially when angry. Much better avoided. Vette snickered silently. Ucevi was not capricious, and had even been kind in her own brisk, if acidic, way, but only Vette knew that, and even she was still uncertain just how far she could press that tolerance.
That habitual scowl was currently being fed by a furious internal tirade. How the blazes did I end up trapped as the apprentice of a brute like Baras? Dammit, Grandmother must be rolling over in her grave. Or more likely rampaging through the family compound as a Force ghost. I was fond of the old bat, but she was not the sort to let go quietly.
Of course she knew how it happened. Grandmother would have said everything followed from Sindari's failure, but it was the enemies she herself made in her own rise to Darth which had first led to Sindari’s loss of honor, then this. Ucevi should have been apprenticed to her grandmother, and failing that, to one of her family’s allies. Instead, the few surviving Shadows of their house were scattered and in hiding…
She mentally shook herself. Remember the Sith code and the old ways. Nurture that anger to fuel the day you’re ready to break the chains binding you to this bastard. He doesn't know, won't suspect those hidden Shadows already bound to you by honor. In the meantime, she had to serve honor and duty. Duty to the Empire and the Sith demanded that she obey his orders and serve him...for now. Her family’s honor demanded that she also subvert his most destructive intentions whenever it was possible. It was a delicate thread to walk between the two, fulfilling the letter of duty while preserving her family’s honor, but she had already discovered the brute was quick to misinterpret her actions without much effort at manipulation on her part.
They strode silently through the Imperial compound, people scattering ahead of them under the force of her scowl. Ucevi’s sour mood lightened a little at Vette’s (mostly) innocent pleasure. For a non-human ex-slave and criminal within the Empire, being feared, even as a shadow, was a novel, even intoxicating experience. Another failure of our Empire, the waste of such a quick, clever mind. So much potential like hers is lost to narrow mindedness.
They arrived in time to overhear an Imperial lieutenant chewing out one of the soldiers under his command, and Ucevi paused at a distance, arms crossed, to evaluate this agent of Baras’s, Malavai Quinn. Precisely cut dark hair, blue eyes, slender but fit in a wiry way, disciplined military bearing...she snorted quietly with a wry twist to her lips. But when Vette shot a curious glance at her, she simply gave the Twi'lek one of the signals they had worked out, warning her to save questions for private. Well, apparently Baras wasted no time finding out everything he could about me and assumed I don’t understand my own vulnerabilities. Of course he’d go for a crude attempt to place someone close to me that way; he consistently underestimates women as far as I’ve seen. Not that I object to the advantage that gives me, but it does raise the question: why take me as an apprentice?
The lieutenant finished briskly, then greeted her with an apology. To Ucevi’s surprise, he was remarkably professional, deferential without descending into obsequiousness, and briskly competent. Nor, to her surprise, did he make any attempt to flirt, not even eying her speculatively---and the lighter armor she often wore when not in the field certainly was intended to invite such speculation. Curious, how to reconcile his relatively low rank with his obvious experience, age, and responsibilities? Also, he was naval; why was he assigned to a ground post?
She dismissed her speculations for the moment, and listened with carefully concealed disgust to orders from Baras that would ultimately end in the death of a good, loyal Imperial officer whose only crime was serving someone who’d earned the enmity of a vengeful Jedi. She spoke coolly to Quinn after her conversation with Baras, but still found herself impressed with his disciplined demeanor. How the blazes does a bastard like Baras inspire loyalty in capable men?
Once they were clear of the compound, Vette nudged her. “So, want to tell me what that was about now, my lord?”
The Sith shrugged. “I think our too-perfect lieutenant is intended as a trap for me.”
“Why do you say that? What kind of trap?”
“Hmm, remember that junior lieutenant I had drinks with in the Kaas City cantina that first night on Dromund Kaas?”
“How could I forget? I’m just glad you’d already paid for a separate room for me that night.”
“And the major I met in the cantina a couple of weeks later?”
“And that old friend of yours, the naval captain we met up with on that side trip to Nar Shaddaa on the way here? What do they have to do with Quinn?”
“Describe them. Appearance mostly, but anything else you noticed they had in common.”
Vette looked puzzled as she thought. “Dark hair, kind of average height, thin rather than heavy. Moved like they knew how to fight, but not exactly bodybuilders either. Stuffed shirts with a durasteel rod in their spines and about as much sense of humor as a gundark. At least until you started talking to them. Love to know how you do that.”
“And now Quinn?” Ucevi ignored the almost-complaint, smiling inwardly.
At that moment, Vette’s eyes lit up. “Oh! You mean that creepy old guy giving the orders is THAT creepy? Eww. I mean, I don’t get what you see in those stuff shirts anyway, but really? He’d order one to, well, you know?”
“My dear Vette, I am Sith. I simply choose to draw on a wider range of passions than most Sith. And if you know what to look for, those stuffed shirts, as you call them, can conceal a deep capacity for passion behind their disciplined exterior, as well as a compulsion to, hmm, excel at anything they do.”
Her grin turned wicked when Vette rolled her eyes, amused by the way the young Twi’lek alternated between casual ribbing about her exploits and almost blushing. “Vette, never do anything you aren’t comfortable with. But if and when you do, make certain you choose someone who’s worth your time. And believe me, anyone who doesn’t treat you like precious irodium isn’t good enough for you. Anyone who mistreats you will answer to me .” There was something feral in the way the tall woman barked that last word that made Vette lose her embarrassment at the topic and laugh loudly enough to draw attention.
“Relax, my lord, or half the people on base will be running for cover. And no one’s even breathed loudly in my direction since we met on Korriban, much less made a pass. You know, with you glaring at them over my head. Not that I don’t appreciate having a scary Sith friend.” She grinned easily up at Ucevi, oblivious to the way several soldiers loading a cargo hauler nearby had paused to stare, charmed by her laugh...then hurriedly returned to work with renewed energy when the Sith caught their eyes “So, you think that the creepy old guy had someone keep tabs on you and decided you liked men that look like this Lt. Quinn? And he’s, um, supposed to get into your bed? Why?”
“It’s common for apprentices and masters to turn on each other, particularly when they detest each other as we do, and you can safely assume that Baras is already plotting to make certain he gets there first. He clearly thinks he found a weakness he can exploit without risking himself. I’m betting Quinn’s supposed to get into my bed and win my trust, and when Baras is ready to get rid of me, he’ll order him to arrange an accident. Or if he’s ready to sacrifice Quinn too, simply order him to kill me while I sleep and let him face the punishment. You heard Baras, Quinn owes him, and that old man doesn’t waste time or resources on anyone unless he believes he has complete control over them. And Baras will never face me in an open fight if he has a choice.”
She paused, tapping a finger against her lower lip, scowling again at what was now a broad swath of unoccupied space around them. “Vette, here’s an opportunity for you to exercise your talents for being ‘sneaky.’ I made sure you were cleared under my authority to go almost anywhere on base when we arrived, and from one of their own terminals, you wouldn’t have to get through the security between their internal network and the holonet. Think you can slice into his personnel records?”
“Piece of cake. Those are barely considered sensitive, much less classified. What am I looking for?”
“There has to be something in Quinn’s past. An officer as competent and experienced as he appears to be just doesn’t accidentally end up assigned to a backwater like Balmorra for years, not to mention the volume of work he appears responsible for without a rank to go with it. What happened? What is it Baras did for him? And I’m betting...holding over him.”
“Got it.” Vette flashed the identicard that Ucevi had insisted be issued to her and grinned. “Where will you be?”
“I had Toovee reserve a couple of rooms for us at the cantina for tonight rather than putting up in temporary military quarters. We’ll be in the field most of the time for the next few weeks on this hellhole, and we deserve at least one night of real food rather than military rations, comfortable beds instead of bedrolls, a few decent drinks.”
“ Two rooms, huh?” Vette smirked. “Sounds to me like you’re planning on more than a few drinks. You just told me that Quinn was a trap, surely you aren’t planning to…?”
Ucevi’s grin was only a little feral now. “Oh, depending on what you find, the best way to defuse his threat may be for me to seduce him , then visibly and immediately drop him for someone else. He and Baras will just assume he did something wrong, and Baras will try something else. But no, not tonight. I need to know more about him first.” The Sith woman winked at Vette. “Remember my naval Captain? His ship left Nar Shaddaa for Balmorra just before we did. Until he gets free of the military formalities, I’ll be making the rounds in the cantina to see what gossip I can pick up about Quinn’s service as an officer here on Balmorra.”
Vette rolled her eyes. “Should I hold onto whatever I find until tomorrow since you have your...evening planned?”
“If I’m still in the cantina, let me know when you arrive. Joran will be unsurprised that I have someone who needs to report on something. If not, use your discretion as to whether or not it can wait for breakfast. One of the advantages to military officers is that they aren’t offended by interruptions for urgent official business, no matter how...preoccupied we are.”
Chapter 2: "Stalking Passion"
An unexpected change in plans for Ucevi's evening.
Ucevi cradled the glass between her hands, watching the rich gold of the Corellian whiskey swirl like a tiny whirlpool. She'd been pleased to discover that this backwater cantina had some good brands stocked, and with her tolerance and a little help from the Force she could drink several shots even on an empty stomach before it began to cloud her judgment. The ability to smoothly down shots of the fiery drink without even blinking was often useful to her, especially when stalking human officers.
She'd made one revolution through the room, scouting and buying drinks for a few likely possibilities, men who looked as if she might get information from them. The best candidates were those who regarded her with some wariness, but also eyed her with speculative interest. If she hadn't already made plans with Joran, in fact, at least one of them had shown distinct promise---definitely someone that she intended to cultivate later.
She doubted that Baras’s agent had actually captured more than the superficial physical similarities between the men she had dallied with. Ucevi rarely considered other Sith as lovers--- too risky---and never fellow Sith-bloods. But men with black or dark red hair like her people’s own were particularly attractive to her. She couldn’t quite explain her attraction to smaller, wiry men, other than a certain agility they tended to share. Conveniently, men with that build seemed more likely to serve with the Imperial navy than with ground forces. Convenient because naval officers also tended to have a particular type of discipline and were usually intense, driven, and quick-witted, all qualities that she particularly valued. And she felt confident that even if Baras’s agent had speculated on any of that, Baras himself would have seized instead on the shallower physical qualities.
And I really doubt Baras will ever bother to dig past the official records of my past, though Tremel somehow knew to look for me, damn him. “Prove there is still strength in your family worth preserving by removing Baras, or die and be forgotten and let your family’s name fade into dust.” Baras is his enemy, not mine. She scowled into the depths of the liquid, then knocked it back quickly, enjoying the sensation of fire burning its way to her belly. Six more blasted months was all I needed, damn Tremel’s eyes.
By now, she’d had five shots on a mostly empty stomach and began to debate ordering a meal even without Joran when her holocommunicator signalled. Damn, it’s Joran. Now what? She turned it on, and the trim, rather cocky young captain appeared. “Yes, Joran?”
“My lord…” he started, but when she raised a brow stalk at his image for the unexpected formality, he gave the tiniest of flicker of his eyes to her left, imperceptible to anyone not directly in front of him. So, someone’s listening . “I have to apologize that I will have to break our appointment for this evening. I’ve been ordered out on an urgent mission and I’m just about to board the shuttle back to my ship.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Captain, but of course, your duty to the Empire always comes first.” Now they were both acting roles of formality and indifference, though sincere enough in content, for the unseen listener.
“Thank you for your understanding, my lord. Perhaps if you are still on Balmorra when we return, I can make my apologies in person.” So, he didn’t expect the mission to take long, and he did expect to return to Balmorra.
“I look forward to hearing from you, Captain, and I wish your mission the very best. For the Empire!”
She closed the connection and pocketed the holocommunicator. Dammit, if Baras is sending him off to get killed, I’ll strangle the old bastard with my bare hands and piss on his corpse for sacrificing another good officer, especially Joran. It’d be damned ironic if he gets killed for playing the role that’s supposed to protect him. Is this just because Joran might pose competition for Baras’s mole? If the person listening in had simply been one of the people under his command, the tone would not have been so formal and vague. The entire point of the subterfuge was to ensure that any observer dismissed him as simply another of her casual lovers, masking their real reasons for meeting and reducing his importance as a target. Well, at least it started that way, she thought in irritated amusement. By intention, his entire crew knew he had a Sith lover. So, who was listening and why?
The Sith woman was just beginning to revise her plans for the evening when a flash of movement at the entrance caught her attention. Well, of course. Lt. Quinn himself, right on schedule. Damn Baras. But to her surprise, the man gave no indication of looking for her. He simply approached the bar to accept a drink from the human bartender who apparently had it waiting for him. Then with the assurance of long-established habit, he pivoted toward a far corner and joined two other officers who looked to be about the same age, without a single glance around the cantina.
Now, that’s unexpected. Unless Baras’s agent has far more subtlety than Baras himself.
When she turned back to her own glass, Ucevi discovered the attractive young officer she’d noted as worth cultivating standing a polite distance from her table with two glasses, backed by a cautiously charming smile.
“My lord, if I’m being presumptuous, please forgive me, but when we spoke earlier, well, I had the impression you might not object to my company, and you are sitting alone.” Ucevi’s lips curved into a knowing smile, and he responded by taking a step closer and offering one of the glasses. “Unless, of course, you’re seeking...solitude?”
Well, this evening may not be a total waste after all! “Not at all.” She nodded to the chair next to hers, accepting the drink with a smile that only hinted at sensuality when his fingers brushed hers. “Lieutenant...Parit, I think?”
He slid into the chair, moving it slightly closer, but remaining at a reasonably respectful distance. Good. I can count on naval officers to understand the right balance between caution and boldness. Cautious enough to never forget they’re approaching a dominant predator, but bold enough to see rewards worth taking the risk. “Yes, my lord.” He tilted his dark head toward the corner where Lt. Quinn sat with the others. “You were watching Lt. Quinn. Do you have some interest in the man, my lord?”
Observant. But if he thinks I was eyeing the man, at least he didn’t let it put him off. Tenacious, I like that. Ucevi had gleaned a little from her conversations earlier, but her main interest had been in establishing the lay of the land and making initial contacts. Cautiously, she could probably get more from Parit without discouraging his...other interest. “Baras has assigned him to provide mission support to me on Balmorra. Understandably, I’d prefer to know now whether he’s really as competent as he seemed when we met rather than being... disappointed once I’m out in the field.”
Parit shrugged noncommittally, studying the corner. “As far as operations go, I think you’re in very good hands. He doesn’t precisely inspire devotion in his forces, but they trust him when they’re in the field, even the ones who detest him in the barracks. Meticulous, plans for everything, quick to see openings or flaws. He doesn’t throw men away as if there’s an endless supply of trained replacements. Not exactly social, not popular even with the rest of us officers, but once he’s been given an assignment, the work gets done quickly and well. Man’s been here forever, wouldn’t want to guess which of the rumors about why is right.” Emboldened by her focus on his face now, he reverted to that charming smile as he sipped his drink in an almost-toast.
While he’d been looking at the far corner, though, she had dipped just the tip of her index finger into the drink, triggering a clever device built into the glove. When she raised her glass in response to his gesture, she could see the inside of the palm. No color changes in either of the discrete patches. No known drugs, chemicals, or poisons. Not that she expected an open assassination attempt here, and he was far too intelligent to try anything that would leave her alive to take revenge later. But ignoring ordinary precautions with food and drink in a strange place was a route to an early, unmarked grave.
With that reassurance, she returned his toast with more than a hint of sensuality on her lips now, letting her eyes drop to his lips briefly. When she raised her eyes to his, his charming smile became hopeful, his gaze openly admiring now. “Hmm, no flaws that might be a problem? Reputation for drinking binges, gambling, lady’s man?”
When she added the last item, the hope flickered briefly before Parit spoke a little more formally. “Not that I’ve heard, my lord. Comes in and has a drink most evenings with a few old academy friends, almost can set the chrono by him, but almost never more than two drinks. Doesn’t even gamble in the unit pools on sports games. And while I wouldn’t say he’s precisely a recluse, I can’t recall his name connected with anyone for more than a few days. Though naturally lieutenants aren’t stable enough in their careers yet to pursue anything serious, nor is Balmorra an...ideal location for that.”
His eyes wandered briefly as he spoke, though not, she noted approvingly, below her neck. Nor did his eyes linger on the ridges along her cheekbones and neck or the chin spurs. It was one thing for a Sith pure-blood to be attracted to the patterned sinuosity of those tell-tale signs of their own species, but she was profoundly uncomfortable with humans who stared at them in fascination, finding something unnatural about their attraction. Parit, however, was clearly accustomed to those differences. And the lieutenant’s eyes paused only briefly on the three vertical scars on the left side of her face, the souvenirs of childhood bravado and a large predator, lingering there more in curiosity than anything else. Then his eyes returned to hers with a cautious question dancing in them.
Abruptly Ucevi came to a decision, tapping the table to bring up the holomenu. “That’s reassuring. Join me for a meal, Lieutenant? I could do with some...pleasant company.”
Chapter 3: First Scent
Ucevi's morning after, and coping with the mystery of Quinn's past and Vette's safety.
“Late night?” Vette grinned as she offered a cup of the Sith’s favorite caff to the yawning woman. Ucevi took the cup and returned the grin with a self-satisfied smirk of her own before sliding into the booth next to Vette.
“Not all that late, but rather...exhausting, even if my evening didn’t go exactly to plan.”
“Yeah, I know, I got here in time to see you leaving with a lieutenant I didn’t recognize. I take it your captain didn’t make it?”
“Unfortunately, no.” She sliced off a bite of the cutlet waiting for her and began eating heartily. “Parit’s no Joran, sadly, but he was definitely worth my time, in more ways than one. He knows all the gossip about the Imperial forces on Balmorra, though he seems reasonably discrete in dodging certain subjects.” She pulled apart a roll and slathered it generously with some sort of tart, preserved fruit that she didn’t recognize. “If you were here, why didn’t you stop me to report? Or did you not find anything?”
Vette shrugged. “Oh, I found some things alright. But I had a feeling you’d want time to read this over and think about it, and that might have ruined your evening.” She produced a data pad, but her expression was a little uncertain. “You did tell me you wanted me to use my judgment.
Ucevi chuckled and tossed a second roll at the young woman who caught it with all the unconscious reflexes of a not-so-former burglar and thief. “So I did, and I appreciate the discretion. Just don’t ever put my...amusements ahead of important business if I might need to see something immediately.”
Vette slid the data pad across the table with a chuckle, then dug into her own breakfast. Ucevi began to read the information on the data pad in silence, almost forgetting her food as she kept scrolling. Dammit, obviously there are holes in this, I wonder if Baras had parts of his record expunged? Stellar record, then suddenly, he’s brought up in front of a court martial. No transcript, no details, not even specifics about the charges, just a simple notation that by a special request , the proceedings were halted and Quinn reassigned to Balmorra. Definitely sounds as if this is what Baras is holding over him, and from the stiff way things are worded, the brass resented the interference. Stellar record since that point, high praise from some of his commanding officers, but every request for transfer or promotion summarily blocked. Judging from what I know of the Imperial officer corps, there is something very strange going on.
Finally she shrugged mentally, turned her attention back to the cooling cutlet and cheerfully accepted a refill of her caff from Vette. As fascinating as the puzzle was, it was also irrelevant to her current concerns. Clearly Quinn was competent, and almost as clearly, Baras had stood between him and some disaster. And in the Empire, disasters were not always of a person’s own making.
So, she could rely on him for support for this mission, while constantly reminding herself that he owed his real loyalty to her master. It was highly unlikely that Baras considered her enough of a threat to intentionally try to arrange for her to be killed in the field just yet. And once we're off this mudball, Quinn will no longer be a danger, so no need to disarm his potential threat by seducing and discarding him either. But that doesn’t mean I can’t pretend the dance of interest. If nothing else, it will reinforce Baras’s belief that I only care about destruction and pleasure and have no foresight, not to mention delaying Baras’s next attempt to plant someone close to me.
She pocketed the data pad to re-read later, then stretched slowly and deliberately, with almost a feline contentment. Ucevi had certainly spent less satisfying evenings than last night, though Ucevi suspected that Parit’s interest was at least as much ambition as attraction. He was not the first if so.
It certainly did no harm to a young officer’s career if they brought themselves to the favorable attention of a rising young Sith, at least while the officers were young enough not to have formed other, permanent ties. The risk was minimal as long as they listened to rumor to avoid those who were...less than gentle with their own allies. If that Sith continued to rise, they might be able to form an alliance of sorts later or at least receive friendly consideration. If the Sith failed, however, no one was likely to view the officer as so tightly connected at this point that they’d be targeted too. Of course a bit of fun alone wouldn't be enough to influence her later. But some of the contacts she made would eventually prove mutually useful.
“Come on, Vette, it’s almost 0630 local time. The Imperials should be finishing up their morning calisthenics, and I want to co-opt a couple of their trainers.”
Vette made a face, but complied, draining the last drops of her caff as she stood up. “I don’t get why you bother with this. Don’t you get your combat skills from using the Force or something?” She vaguely waggled her slender fingers at Ucevi.
“It never hurts to know how to keep yourself alive without the Force, or at least that was my grandmother’s philosophy. And you can’t deploy troops effectively if you don’t understand what their capabilities are.” She led the way outside under an overcast sky, a grey day in more than one way.
“Nobody’s going to put me in command of an army, so why do I have to do this?” Vette grumbled almost petulantly.
“Because I want you to stay alive, and I want you to have every tool to do that, even if I’m not with you.” Ucevi sobered. “I’m fairly certain I don’t need to explain to you that you’re going to be the first target of anyone coming after me.”
Vette somehow shivered and rolled her eyes simultaneously. “ Yeah. Well, they have to catch me first. But...point taken. Besides, if I ever find myself on my own again, knowing how they fight and think ought to give me an edge.”
They were moving at a brisk pace and had almost reached the entrance to the secure compound when Ucevi stopped, fixing Vette with a stern glare that caused several passing soldiers to hastily put a safe distance between themselves and the two women. “You know when I gave you your freedom, I meant that literally. You are always free to walk away if things get too threatening, and sooner or later Baras and I will come to a showdown. If I lose...”
“You won’t.” Vette flashed a cocky grin, though her eyes were worried. “I’d much rather see you come out on top than that creepy old guy any day, so I plan to stick around and make sure that happens. Besides, who would tease you about your, ahem, ‘friends’ if I’m not here?”
Ucevi chuckled, then slapped Vette on the shoulder with just enough force to unbalance her for a second. “‘Friend’ is not the term I’d choose, except maybe Joran, and even he is more ally than friend.”
“So, no friends for the Sith. Got it.”
Ucevi led the way inside the fence, pausing to study the lingering trainers who were barking orders at a few recalcitrant soldiers, tossing a last thought over her shoulder almost absent-mindedly. “There’s at least one person I might call a friend, however annoying she may be at times.”
With that, the Sith woman stalked across the compound toward a knot of men and women, leaving Vette gaping after her.
Chapter 4: Shadow of the Predator
Quinn's observations and his orders
Quinn emerged from his quarters at precisely 0655, freshly showered and dressed after his morning workout. As was his habit, he first stepped outside to briefly survey activity in the secure compound and, if truth be told, to simply see daylight for a minute or two, a rare indulgence he allowed in his routine. His predictability, he knew, was a source of amusement to more than a few of his fellow officers, as was his obstinate refusal to take advantage of the lax conditions on Balmorra, but even his disgrace and bitterness would not stop him from giving his very best to the Empire.
This morning, however, that cursory glance revealed that conditions in the compound were anything but routine. Discrete knots of both enlisted troops and officers had gathered around the edges of the open space to observe the sparring that was unfolding in the center. Quinn was mildly unsettled at the sight of that Twi’lek servant of Baras’s apprentice practicing basic hand-to-hand release moves with one of the most experienced Imperial combat trainers. Considering her lack of discipline and her sarcastic irreverence, at least she seemed to be giving him surprisingly respectful attention. But the compound was focused on the pair in the middle, and Quinn’s own mouth almost dropped open at the sight.
Baras’s apprentice, a full Sith who was rumored to be exceptionally powerful, was sparring with a grizzled (and deadly) Imperial trainer. Not with a proper lightsaber or even an ordinary melee weapon. Hand-to-hand. And if the sight of a civilian---an alien ex-slave at that---receiving the attention of an Imperial trainer had been unnerving, Quinn found this spectacle vaguely scandalous. Sith fought with a lightsaber and the Force, and this woman was a Sith pure-blood as well. Rumor had it that they were trained from the moment they could stand to fight with a practice saber.
No, here was a Sith holding her own in a combat style which she shouldn’t know at all by conventional wisdom. Sergeant Fesnil wasn’t going all out, but this Sith wasn’t exactly a beginner either and clearly she was thoroughly enjoying their workout. She was grinning ear-to-ear, a grin the trainer was matching, if a little warily.
Baras had specifically ordered him to observe this woman and report his observations, so he dismissed the unease he felt at disrupting his morning routine to continue gawking. This apprentice, Ucevi, was more than a bit of a puzzle so far. Baras seemed to believe that his newest apprentice had no more subtlety than a common thug, powerful but never thinking beyond the physical and immediate.
Quinn already had his doubts. Certainly, the light armor she wore yesterday and this morning was less intended to intimidate than to...distract. He’d been close enough to realize that the “bare” midriff and arms were actually encased in some flexible transparent material that he had to assume provided unadvertised protection. Transparent duraplas, perhaps? It certainly does nothing to hide her well-muscled midriff, back, and shoulders , then he scolded himself at the unprofessional thought. Her interaction with him had been both commanding and professional, and her questions about conditions on Balmorra indicated a quick mind and forethought, all of which contradicted Baras’s belief that she would be inclined to simply charge in and expect strength alone to carry her fights.
Last night at the cantina, though, he’d looked up from his drink to realize she was across the room at a table with Lt. Parit. That encounter certainly supported Baras’s opinion of her. Outwardly. And yet, he'd noticed she’d supplied food and drink and a keenly attentive ear, letting Andros do most of the talking. Almost as if sex was secondary to something else? Intriguing. And inconsistent with someone simply bent on self-centered pleasures.
Quinn had few doubts that Andros had approached her himself; the man was a social climber, though a competent enough officer, and less inclined than many to back-stabbing. Still, he couldn’t say why, but Quinn had sensed a certain cynicism in the woman as she and the lieutenant had gone through the door toward the private rooms.
Privately, Quinn uncomfortably recognized that he wasn’t immune to the effect she had---in the Empire at least, Sith pure-bloods were generally considered the physical ideal, and their considerable power only added to their attractiveness. But her movements were the efficient, controlled ones of a predator. He wouldn’t call her graceful as much as perfectly balanced. She stalked when she moved, with surprisingly little sway to her hips, deadly rather than seductive, but also somehow announcing a comfortable sexuality.
And that display of skin was just as much a display of powerful, well-developed muscle, possibly even a test to see which message someone understood. For just a moment, he felt a surge of doubt before reassuring himself. Surely Baras sees both messages? Of course. He probably views both messages as signs she won’t think beyond the physical.
Parit was standing in another doorway with a couple of cronies, watching with more than a trace of smugness. Idiot. I wouldn’t give two credits for his ambitions if she catches sight of that expression, especially if she decides he’s using her name to promote himself.
He couldn't quite put his finger on why that thought occurred to him. But something told him that there was quite a bit more to this woman than met the eye. An eye which he'd been ordered to keep on her.
Chapter 5: "Honor Strikes"
Ucevi in a rage, Quinn, Joran, Parit, and flashbacks.
Ucevi stalked through the Imperial compound in a cold rage, oblivious to the reactions of soldier and civilian alike as they scattered. She hadn’t even taken time to switch out of the heavier armor she wore in the field when they arrived, still wearing the substantial field armor that made her even larger and more intimidating, that obscured everything except her face. A face that was anything but reassuring at the moment, reflecting fury and frustration.
Damn Baras, forcing me to deal with that useless get of Rylon’s! I'd as soon run through a bound nerf calf as dishonor my lightsaber on someone like that! She’d taken a vicious delight in subverting the bastard's orders this time. It would never occur to Baras that she wouldn’t automatically use his order as an excuse to indulge her bloodlust. Part of her didn’t even care whether the drug used to erase the boy’s memories was truly permanent or not. Once Rylon’s removed, it really doesn’t matter if his son reveals anything. The chain that might have led to the rest of Baras’s network will be severed with the father’s death. That old brute just enjoys ordering deaths to make himself feel powerful.
Vette trailed along behind her, uncharacteristically silent. In truth, she hadn’t said a word since the Sith had growled an order to have their things delivered to the cantina. At the door to Quinn’s offices, however, the larger woman paused, closing her eyes to visibly control herself. Quinn’s tactful operational support throughout had been flawless thus far, and despite her suspicions, she wasn’t about to take her rage at Baras out on the man. Most other Sith might dismiss the Imperial military as simply tools to use or bodies to spend. She valued them as a vital stabilizing force in the Empire, or at least those who were competent and loyal.
However, she found her resolution to remain professional slipping in the face of Baras’s drivel about her success, and she took more than a little pleasure in Vette’s smug expression when she responded once with heavy sarcasm that Baras seem to miss. The encounter certainly didn’t improve her savage mood or defuse her simmering rage, however. Clearly Quinn himself shared Baras’s estimation of her, and dealing with him after Baras was only another reminder of Baras’s constant manipulations and her own intolerable situation.
When Quinn relaxed enough in his briefing to comment that he was excited by the prospect of the destruction she would cause at the Balmorran arms factory, she gave into impulse and decided that it was past time to begin disarming his threat as firmly as possible. In the sultriest drawl she could summon through her rage, she almost purred “So I excite you, do I?”
Ucevi felt fairly certain he wouldn’t catch the edge of anger under her comment, but she found herself challenged to conceal her own surprise when the mild innuendo flustered him. Would an agent of Baras’s, specifically tasked with getting into my bed, really be that unprepared? Especially when he had just given me such an obvious invitation to respond suggestively? Awkwardness was definitely not a trait shared by any of the people his investigations turned up. Unless Baras picked him solely on appearance and gave no consideration of whether he’d have the slightest idea how to approach me? Unexpected doubt tempered her responses to something much less savage than her mood, though she continued to drive that needle of suggestiveness at this crack in his exterior throughout their conversation, using it to divert her from that deeper well of rage she needed to keep in check. For now.
As she and Vette walked to the cantina, she mused on Quinn’s contradictions. Surely Baras has a much better measure of the people under his control than this? Though based on his snap judgment of me, how easily he’s been fooled, he really is a brute who only believes he’s subtle. The subtlety has all come from the agents he’s chosen…
Baras’s voice, insulting, condescending, telling her that she didn’t understand what it meant to be Sith. The old fool really did see only what he expected from the “official” record. His voice still echoed in her head… “Recite the Sith Code for me, acolyte, and explain its meaning in battle, war, and politics.” How easily he accepted a few mumbled, meek words “confirming” that she couldn’t because that was what he expected to hear! A code that was her first lesson as a child…
She finally realized that Vette had been unnaturally quiet for hours now and paused just outside the cantina to look at the young Twi’lek apologetically. “I’m sorry, have I been that scary, Vette?”
Vette chuckled. “No. Well, sort of. Not scary to me, I guess. But it did look like a bad time to ask if we were doing shots in the cantina tonight, you know?”
“Hmm, true. Especially since I’m feeling far from celebratory.” She deadpanned, “Somehow, I don’t think getting into a drunken brawl in the base cantina would set precisely the right tone with the brass, even if the troopers might enjoy seeing me take a couple of the worst officers down a notch or two.”
Vette covered her mouth hurriedly, converting a bark of laughter into a cough as a pair of officers passed within hearing range on their way into the cantina. “So, I take it that Flaming Ilum shots and getting into brawls should be restricted to Nar Shaddaa, my lord?”
“Sadly, yes. Or at least for non-military cantinas of the seedier sort.” Ucevi bared her teeth in a grin that had little of humor in it, but Vette knew her mood had lightened and inwardly sighed in relief. There were few if any repercussions to a Sith venting their rage on the non-sensitive. But while Ucevi had been mostly free of sadism or cruelty so far---amazingly so compared to Vette’s other experiences of Sith---she was also capable of cutting down an enemy ruthlessly, even in cold blood, with a fire in her eyes that made Vette fervently thankful that the Sith not only liked her, but seemed to view herself as the Twi’lek’s guardian. But she measured her opponents on some unspoken scale, a scale that sometimes wordlessly and contemptuously left behind a defeated but living enemy.
“One of these days, you’re going to have to tell me how you learned to brawl like that, my lord.”
“Hmm, someday. Remind me to tell you how Joran and I know each other.”
“As long as you leave out the, um, other details I don’t need to know.” Ucevi barked a laugh at Vette’s dry retort, slapping her on the shoulder. “Speaking of things I prefer not to know too much about, do I get us one room or two for tonight?”
“I don’t know yet. I need to see if Joran’s left any new messages; he’s up to my angrier moods.”
“Um, uh, right.” Ucevi’s managed to suppress her grin at the young woman’s misinterpretation of her meaning, but it was also a bitter reminder that Vette had spent a great deal of her life as a slave or a pirate. As sweet as her ability to get flustered might be, she was no innocent. Despite what Vette thought she meant---and Grandmother had taught her that it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing even for friends and allies to believe wild things about her private escapades---the truth was hardly that extreme. Joran had a knack, not for defusing her dangerous moods, but for turning them to something more...carnal. Of course, the minor room damages Ucevi had paid for on Nar Shaddaa probably fed Vette’s darker suspicions about her entertainments. But it had been worth every credit.
Laughter, growls, a piece of leg armor launched across the room, a shattering sound as it made destructive contact with a light fixture. More armor and clothing thrown from the bed with less violent force. Teeth on her shoulder, wrestling skin against skin, pinning his hands to the bed while straddling his stomach. A grin up at her before lunging to try to bite her other shoulder ....
Damn. I can let my guard down with Joran, and I need to let go of that restraint tonight, turn my anger into other, more pleasant, safer channels.
Once inside, Vette went to the bar to get drinks for them both while Ucevi checked her drops for messages. Out in the field, she’d been lucky at times to even access the planetary comms network, much less any of the intersystem networks. She and Joran had a discrete contact through which they could pass private messages, which had been necessary on occasion---like Tremel grabbing me and shipping me to Korriban without warning. Their sexual relationship was no secret by necessity since the entire point, initially, had been a reason to meet that no one would examine too closely.
Even in these communications, they were careful to say most things in words that would reveal little to anyone who might intercept them, against all odds.
“My lord, again I extend my apologies. We finished the mission that took us from Balmorra, but before we could return, I received new orders from Admiral Parit to take my ship out to Taris to support an operation here. I’m not sure how long I’ll be here, but duty first, of course. I really was looking forward to catching up with you. We had too much of other kinds of catching up to do on Nar Shaddaa to have time to talk. I’d like to hear more about this Darth you’re now apprenticed to?
No real news to report on anything else, only minor progress. Between one thing and another, everything just keeps getting more tangled, doesn’t it? But we’re both alive. Try to keep yourself that way, my lord.
‘My word is my honor, my honor is my life.’”
Dammit. Pieces suddenly dropped into place, and her fury, briefly contained, boiled back up. Parit! I should have known he’d have a high-ranking relative! I knew he was ambitious, but how the blazes did a lieutenant on Balmorra know about us when we’d both just arrived and hadn't even been seen together here yet? Unless the Parits are more of Baras’s creatures… Her eyes darted around the cantina unobtrusively, and sure enough, there was Parit standing where she’d first seen him, with several of his cronies. Undeniably smug. Idiot. Ambition I’ll tolerate. Manipulation I will not, a mistake you’ll pay for. Especially if you and your Admiral put a good officer, one of mine, and his men at risk.
She glanced back down at the message, and, unbidden, another older memory flashed across her mind.
A much younger Ucevi scornfully sizing up a young man, three or four years her elder, an imperious gaze returned by a certain cool arrogance of his own. A challenge, an illicit sparring match that left telltale bruises, a black eye, a split lip, and tentative mutual respect. Blithely lying, then insisting she had thrown the first punch when it looked as if his age and status were weighing against him. Grandmother’s voice yelling, but barely attempting to conceal her amused approval.
The memory was gone almost as quickly as it flashed into her mind. Grandmother never could hide her approval when I flexed my muscles or dared to chart my own course. And like her, I’m far more impressed by someone who will risk possibly deadly repercussions in defense of his or her honor rather than groveling. And I detest being manipulated with a passion. Honor cannot accept manipulation.
Grandmother. How would she deal with a Parit? Slowly, a smile that had held a great deal of vindictive amusement began to echo an idea growing in her head. And as Vette approached with their drinks, the younger woman perked up eagerly at the sight. That calculating expression usually foreshadowed a particularly creative use of her skills.
Chapter 6: "Curious Duty"
Another morning after, and more observations by Quinn.
This time, Quinn was unsurprised to find Baras’s apprentice and her servant again dominating the courtyard. And somehow the sight of a Sith engaged in ordinary hand-to-hand combat was less shocking than before, even if her non-military armor still seemed out of place. Curiously, this morning she had reverted to the lighter, revealing armor of their first meeting.
He suspected her shifting choice of armor reflected her mood almost as much as mission needs. She’d arrived at his office yesterday still wearing the heavy, concealing armor she'd been wearing in the field during holocalls, radiating suppressed rage for some reason. Not that that was surprising in a Sith, as he understood them and their use of the Force. But in the middle of their briefing, she had abruptly shifted mood, catching him completely off guard with innuendo delivered in a voice that dripped with suggestiveness. Until that moment, she had been so brisk in her interactions with him that he'd assumed she was like some officers he knew, people who indulged heavily off duty, but were all business on, almost as if they were two people. Not that he had ever considered himself the sort of person to attract attention of that sort in either case from a Sith.
There'd been something in her eyes, though… When he'd arrived in the cantina, he'd been unable to resist keeping a discreet watch on her. She'd stayed in her field armor which still showed the signs of hard use, though it had been roughly cleaned. Not only that, she kept the hood of the armor up, presenting a stark, impenetrable contrast to the sensuality today's armor suggested. Unapproachable, deadly, ready for provocation perhaps? Nor had anyone been brave enough to approach her on this occasion, not even Parit, though the man had tried to catch her eye several times. But the only person she acknowledged last night was that young Twi'lek servant. The two had shared a rather luxurious meal, at least for Balmorra---and while it was one thing to eat rations with a common subordinate in the field, it was scandalously inappropriate to share a fine meal with a servant. And while they drank moderately, their laughter carried a definite edge. This time, she'd left the bar for the private rooms in company only with the Twi'lek.
Parit left the bar immediately after that, obviously sulking. Idiot. I wonder what he did to offend her? And I wonder if he's heard the whispers that are already going around this morning? Whatever he did, it infuriated her enough to start rumors about his...endowment and hygiene, among other things. Quinn personally had no doubts as to the source of the rumors. He'd intercepted a frighteningly cold look at the back of Parit's head at one point in the evening, and frankly would not have been surprised this morning to hear that the younger lieutenant had met an “accident.” If Baras’s assessment of her was correct, he should have. It was obvious to Quinn, at least, that left to her own devices, she preferred a less bloody though perhaps more lingeringly painful revenge. He also had no doubt that Parit had done something supremely stupid to get such a vicious response from a woman he felt certain was not whimsical, however accomplished she was at keeping Quinn off balance.
Baras, though, had flatly dismissed Quinn’s polite attempts to suggest that there was more to his enforcer that the casual delight in violence and killing so common among young Sith. Baras had pointedly stated that he believed that the Imperial was relying on instinct rather than observation with regards to Ucevi. And on this point, Quinn was beginning to find himself reluctant to try to change his superior’s mind. He’d done his duty. Baras surely knew the dangers of underestimating an ambitious apprentice, after all.
Dismissing his speculations for a moment, he allowed himself to simply enjoy the spectacle. She'd somehow won Sgt. Fesnil’s full confidence because she was drilling her as casually and relentlessly as the lowest private. More, the Sith blithely accepted her barked orders. As if she was accustomed to military discipline?
That posed the question: Where had she learned not just formal hand-to-hand combat, but a style that was so close to that taught by the Imperial military? Baras’s information on his enforcer was that she was an orphan of two minor Sith killed in action a few years before the treaty with the Republic, passed around among several relatives until she was old enough to be sent to train as Sith. Had one of them, perhaps, been a non-Force user? The Imperial military was the most common dumping ground for the failures of Sith pure-bloods; perhaps she had spent a year or two on a military outpost with such a relative. Whatever the source of that training, it clearly contributed to that near perfect balance she had. And the sergeant was openly enjoying a student who was so intent. By Quinn’s estimation, she was already better than many soldiers who had only learned the basics, perhaps at the level of a specialist just entering advanced training.
In fact, Quinn’s gut instincts said she presented a mystery, instincts supported by so many contradictions about her. And yet, from her interactions with Darth Baras that he’d been able to observe, he could also understand how the Dark Lord might cling to his conclusions that his enforcer was a simple creature, if he took her responses at face value.
But Quinn felt certain nothing about this Sith should ever be taken at face value.
Chapter 7: "Old Shadows"
Quinn joins the crew, and Vette has some serious doubts.
“Thank you, my lord, I will submit my reassignment papers as we depart.”
As Quinn turned away, Ucevi subtly signaled Vette to stay silent until he was completely out of sight. But the second he vanished, Vette frowned at the taller woman. “So what gives? You've been warning me that the creepy old guy planned to use him against you, and now you're letting him on the ship with us? I thought the flirting was just you trying to confuse them; are you starting to like him?”
“Calm down, Vette, and think a moment. This explains why Quinn’s behavior was so peculiar; Baras planned to insert him on board all along. One way or the other, Baras is going to keep trying to insert someone close to me, and the next time, it might not be someone as easy to spot or potentially control.
“If I'm going to have a spy on board, I’d frankly rather have a competent officer who will at least make himself useful, a known spy that I can feed the information I want Baras to receive. Someone I can monitor. Especially one I can shove out an airlock if he becomes dangerous without Baras sparing him a thought. It’s clear Baras considers him nothing but a tool to be used and discarded.”
“And you don’t?” Vette’s tone was more than a little shaken at the casual analysis, but she barrelled ahead stubbornly when Ucevi raised a brow stalk at her. “I mean, you just said you’d put him out the airlock. My lord.”
Something in the way she paused then bitterly added the last two words made Ucevi close her eyes before continuing. “This is about survival, Vette. Our survival. No, I don’t think Quinn is just a tool to be discarded any more than I think you are. That’s what bothers you, isn’t it? The idea I may think of you the way Baras thinks of Quinn. And of me?”
She didn’t open her eyes again until a very small voice finally answered. “Maybe. I mean, the way you talk sometimes…”
“Vette, I am Sith and a loyal Imperial, you know that, and I cannot tolerate anyone, even you, who puts either our safety or the Empire at risk. But I also made promises to you when you joined me, on my honor, and without my honor, there is nothing. I will never treat you or anyone else who should be under my protection as a thing or a non-person." She cocked her head sideways, and those reddish-gold eyes seemed to stare uncomfortably into the shadows. "Or a possession?" Vette glanced away uncomfortably, then gave a tiny nod.
“That said, I will sometimes do or say things to build a reputation as a sufficiently ruthless Sith---and to protect that reputation---that you may find disturbing, and I won’t apologize for it. And yes, sometimes I'll use my position and power to act as judge and executioner for those I believe are too dangerous in the Empire. Somehow I didn’t think you objected when I suggested that a few slavers would be in that group?” Vette snorted, then shuffled her feet a little awkwardly.
“You know I don’t. I mean, the rules weren’t exactly written to protect people like me, someone who’s been a slave, a pirate, a thief, so I’m not gonna point fingers. And I have my own list of people the galaxy could do without. But you made me think of your boss when you said you’d shove Quinn out the airlock. I mean, it’s not like I like that stuffed shirt, but still…”
Ucevi put a hand on Vette’s shoulder, squeezing lightly before letting go, embarrassed by the brief demonstration of affection. “Then tell me. I give you permission to ask me why I do or say things. In private only, though. In this case, there are too many ‘accidents’ that can happen on a ship if someone proves to be a loose cannon. I won't put us all at risk if he is.”
“Hmm, permission to call a Sith on her decisions? Sure about that?” Vette’s normal cockiness had returned, but Ucevi just waggled a finger in mock seriousness.
“Imp. Remember, in private only. But for all my family has spent more than a millennia trying to keep alive some hope of changing the Empire, we’ve still lived in and served the Empire. You can’t help being shaped by it, so I need you to make me stop and think. But I'm just promising to talk, not to back down if I think I'm right, so it's up to you to convince me. Just as I promised to listen to your ideas about what needs to change.”
“Fair enough and much more than anyone else would offer somebody like me. You’re a strange one, my lord, but you haven't given me reason to doubt you. Besides, where else would I find a Sith who brawls like a street rat and lets me use my sneaky talents to humiliate stuffed shirts?” Vette seemed to have completely recovered her spirits.
“I hope to find lots of enjoyable opportunities for you to exercise the latter, then.” She grinned with a rather savage nostalgia. Vette’s expert undermining of Parit’s reputation had resulted in the man virtually hiding in his office, and rumor had it that he was being transferred soon. Then she shrugged. “Change, the good kind of change, will never be imposed in the Empire from outside. If the Republic wipes us out again, the survivors will just flee together and rebuild and come back again. But every time they’ve tried to wipe us out, what they’ve done is reinforce the extremism, the worst parts of the Imperial system. My family is honor bound to try to moderate that, changes that would mean people like you have a chance.”
Chapter 8: "Harpy’s Revenge"
Quinn's first night on the Harpy's Revenge
Once his gear was stowed, Quinn came out of his small cabin aboard the Harpy’s Revenge to find the ship's droid setting the table with what was very definitely not a regulation meal. In fact, it smelled better than anything he could remember since the last time he’d set foot on Dromund Kaas. He'd felt immense satisfaction, not to say vindication, with at least the symbolism of his new cabin, but this... I knew any cabin on board a ship would be significantly smaller than my quarters on Balmorra, so that was no surprise. Any private cabin is a luxury on a ship and a bit of a compliment, considering. I’d frankly have accepted a bunk in common crew quarters to escape Balmorra. But a meal like this is an unexpected luxury.
Before he had time to begin to feel uncomfortable simply standing there under the watchful, and anxious, eye of the droid, a door panel slid open, and Ucevi and that Twi’lek, Vette, entered the common area from what appeared to be a moderately sized cabin. At least he surmised from the brief glimpse he got before the panel slid shut behind them, with a click that suggested an automatic locking mechanism.
“Finish the rest of those system checks in the morning, Vette. Tonight you rest. And I want to look at that bruise again after breakfast tomorrow.”
“The way you’re fussing at me, better watch out or I’ll start calling you mom.”
“Hmm, try it and I’ll regale you with stories about how Sith-bloods raise their children.” The two women grinned comfortably at each other, the Sith woman rubbing a thumb knowingly along one of the distinctive claw scars on the left side of her face. He tried to tell himself his discomfort had more to do with the inappropriateness of a Sith treating an alien servant, formerly a slave no less, with such familiarity and not because he felt...shut out. But his own honesty wouldn’t quite accept that answer.
As if the thought itself attracted attention, Baras’s apprentice caught sight of him. “Ah, Captain! Did TooVee get you settled in? I know an Imperial officer isn’t surprised by the quarters on a ship, so I won’t apologize. But if there’s anything you need, let TooVee know.”
Before he could do more than murmur appreciation for her concern, she was sliding into one of the seats at the table. “TooVee, this looks delicious, thank you. Especially after weeks of field rations.”
“Oh, thank you, master!” She let the droid babble for a few seconds as Vette took a seat next to the Sith woman, then Ucevi waved a hand at Quinn.
“I assume you’re hungry, Captain, please have a seat. Though if you object to eating something other than standard military rations, I’m sure TooVee can accommodate you.”
Quinn took a seat on the opposite side of the table from the two women, thinking quickly. Ucevi had meticulously addressed him by his pending rank, a courtesy after his decade on Balmorra that meant more to him than all the riches of Nok Drayen. But there was an ironic edge to her last statement that left him feeling unbalanced and he answered cautiously. “The food looks and smells delicious, my lord. I think I can set aside any scruples.”
“Good! I’m a firm believer in refreshing body and spirit thoroughly when we can. Keeps you going when you’re spending the fourth night in a row trying to remove rocks from under your bedroll and it just started pouring rain and in the morning you’re fighting your way into a Republic base.”
TooVee was hovering, and she waved at him. “The wine, please, and see what the Captain would like to drink.” She raised a brow stalk at him. “You’re officially off-duty, Quinn, and I don’t short my people when it’s time to celebrate. We pulled off Baras’s job despite the odds.”
Still feeling off-balance, he diffidently asked the droid for a double whiskey on the rocks. But his unease melted away as Ucevi began to serve herself with food, then impartially passed each bowl or platter either to him or to Vette. She fired off a stream of questions to both of them as she did so. Most of her questions to him clearly were gauging his skillset and what he would still need to learn to manage a ship such as hers, and he found his estimation of her own knowledge climbing quickly.
When TooVee handed him a glass, he took a cautious sip, his eyes widening. Corellian whiskey, and one of the better brands! Not something a lieutenant’s budget often embraced. Vette caught his expression and laughed, “My lord keeps a nice liquor cabinet, especially whiskeys.”
Ucevi just grinned. “If you like whiskey, then we share something in common. I generally prefer wine with food, though.” She toasted him with a glass that TooVee had just handed her, filled with a deep red liquid.
The food was every bit as good as the aromas promised, though perhaps simpler than he’d first guessed. Much spicier than the insipid mess hall rations he was used to. Some sort of deliciously warm flatbread, dishes of spicy legumes, grilled meats, and sautéed vegetables to use as fillings, and small dishes with sauces ranging from an almost tasteless soft cheese to a green paste that Ucevi blandly mentioned was “a bit on the hot side.”
The tone in which she delivered that warning made him cautious, and a single tiny taste spread on the flatbread convinced him that he’d better leave it alone if he didn’t want to spend the night in agony. He felt comforted by the fact Vette also avoided that sauce. Ucevi, however, cheerfully spread the paste generously on a flatbread and topped it with grilled meat of some sort and a starchy yellow vegetable that she seemed to favor before folding it up. Quinn winced inwardly as she wolfed the fiery roll, and wondered if he was imagining the glint in her eye as she did.
The spicy meal was followed by delicate light pastries, just barely sweet, and slices of candied fruits, and TooVee refreshed his drink and poured Vette more wine. Ucevi accepted a large whiskey, neat, and leaned back to watch TooVee clear the platters. When the droid was done and had vanished back into his work area, she held up her glass.
“To the Emperor!”
Quinn hastily echoed her toast, “To the Emperor!” sipping his own whiskey.
“Now.” She cradled her glass between her hands. “Just some idea of the basic routine while we’re aboard ship. We keep regular hours for work and take turns standing watches at night, though sometimes I’ll order everyone to get a good night’s sleep and leave it to TooVee. Quinn, you’ll start by taking over all quartermaster’s responsibilities. If you find something odd or think I’ve made a mistake in what we need, bring your questions to me. I will gladly admit you know far more about operational needs and logistics than I do, especially for a vessel of this sort. I've explained to TooVee precisely what I want kept on-board in terms of consumables, however, so if you have a concern with one of his requests, please discuss it with me. We’ll work out other duties as we go. I feel reasonably certain that we'll have you up to a full workload within days.”
He simply nodded as she barely paused in her instructions. “On board, we eat together for breakfast and supper most of the time. People need a break and it’s often an informal briefing as well. For lunches, TooVee puts out food that people can grab and go, so make certain you eat something then.
“Breakfast is at 0630. Vette and I usually meet at 0600 for some training, so I hope you aren’t offended if we eat breakfast in workout clothes. I assume you have your own conditioning routine; feel free to either continue your own or join us. Ship’s day usually starts between 0700 and 0730 and runs until supper around 1900.” She fixed him with a stern look. “I expect my people to take care of themselves. Enough sleep, and at least a little relaxation in the evening. We have a decent hololibrary and Vette has ‘acquired’ a fairly good collection of recorded entertainments. Any questions?”
Before Quinn could react to this brisk, almost military briefing, Vette piped up. “You know, maybe that bruise is bothering me more than I admitted. I really don’t think I’m up to hand-to-hand tomorrow morning, my lord.” She winced dramatically, rolling her left shoulder as if in pain.
“That would be more convincing if it was the left shoulder you bruised. Besides, the pain will be a good motivator.” She grinned as the young Twi’lek rolled her eyes, then the Sith raised a brow stalk at Quinn. “I’m sorry, did you have any questions, Quinn?”
“Um, no, my lord, not yet. That is a most agreeable routine, actually.”
“Especially when it comes with meals like this.” Vette chortled. “Wish we could take TooVee into the field with us.”
“I don’t. He’d be terrified by any combat, and he isn't programmed for it. Besides, we’d take this all for granted if we didn’t have wet bedrolls and cold rations to compare it to.” Abruptly, she tossed down the rest of her whiskey and stood, leaving Quinn to scramble politely to his feet. “Vette, if you would, show the Captain the ship’s stores so he’ll have some idea what he’ll be starting with tomorrow.”
The Twi'lek chattered at him as she led him into one of the storage holds, almost masking the sound of Ucevi’s voice as well as another fainter one in the other room. When they returned to the common room, Ucevi was no longer there. They found her on the bridge setting a course into the nav computer and carefully locking that course so no one else could alter it. “Ah, good. I’m turning the bridge over to TooVee for tonight because I want everyone to have a good night’s sleep and we’ll be in hyperspace anyway. We’re making one stop, probably tomorrow after lunch, then it’s about two more days to Nar Shaddaa.”
Vette raised an eyebrow. “What’s the stop?”
I assume there are more cabins on board than are actually shown; (after all, no refreshers are evident either or any sort of galley, but there are a couple of doors that go nowhere.) But those extra cabins would be fairly tiny. The bunk room we do see is most appropriate for common crewmen and perhaps very junior officers---used on a rotating basis, you could actually sleep three people per bed in a pinch: friends of mine who are navy veterans describe exactly that sort of arrangement. Based on that, I assume cabins for at least 4 or 5 officers, apprentices, specialists, assistants, and important guests of the Sith who owns the vessel. I also assume additional stowage in any available "dead" space that wouldn't block vital equipment, and furniture---chairs and work surfaces---that fold down from the bulkheads.
Also, the name of the ship, In SW Rebels, Ahsoka Tano calls someone a harpy, so that's canon enough for me.
Chapter 9: "Curiosity Lurks in the Shadow"
An unexpected meeting in the quiet of the early morning...
"Curiosity Lurks in the Shadow"
Quinn woke shortly after 0500, and for a few moments he was overwhelmed with the immediate memories that swept over him. The nightmare’s over. I'm really off Balmorra. He reveled in the background noises peculiar to a working ship, letting them comfort him, reassure him that it hadn't all been a dream. After a decade of humiliation and exile, he finally had a chance to contribute something worthwhile for the Empire again. Thanks to Baras. And , honesty forced him to admit, Baras’s apprentice .
Lying there in the soothingly dark cabin, he wondered at his own impulsiveness. Why had he taken Baras’s suggestion to join his apprentice, this Ucevi, as a member of her crew? He wasn’t normally impulsive...and his private dreams about a future off Balmorra had never once included personally serving a Sith, not even one attached to Baras. His dreams all revolved around serving the Empire through the military.
He still wasn’t even certain he liked her, though whether or not he liked a commanding officer was irrelevant. Still, that made his decision more puzzling though he'd been curious about her even before they met. When Baras first told him about her mission on Balmorra---well, part of it, he now knew---Quinn had been rather cynical about her chances of success. If Baras hadn't asked Quinn to observe her and report, he’d have believed that Baras was using almost impossible missions to weed out an annoying or incompetent apprentice. But why bother with observations if Baras expected her to die? She had not only survived, but succeeded rather spectacularly. And perhaps that was what concerned Baras, despite his inexplicably low opinion of the woman.
A woman. That was part of Quinn's unease at this moment. Not that he had ever thought twice about whether he was commanded by a woman or man, but the professionalism of most Imperial officers muted gender, while Ucevi's somehow seemed magnified. Her arrogance and commanding attitude didn’t bother Quinn. Far from it. She was Sith and apprentice to a powerful Darth, and in the Empire, that meant someone who was destined to command others. Humility was a liability in a Sith. Yet he couldn't help appreciate her respectful attitude toward the Imperial military. While she demanded their help where needed, as was her right, she also wasn’t wasteful of their lives. And acknowledged them.
Quinn hadn’t had direct contact with many Sith besides Baras, but he’d seen more than one ship or ground unit thrown away pointlessly in the pursuit of petty feuds between Sith, rather than against the Empire’s enemies. Even on this short acquaintance, he felt certain Ucevi wouldn’t waste lives. Maybe it was that impression that had influenced his decision to follow through on Baras’s suggestion? While he wasn't certain he liked her, she had definitely earned a measure of respect from him.
Glancing at the chrono and deciding that twenty minutes wasn’t enough to try to go back to sleep, he threw back the blankets and stood, the lights reacting to his movements. Then he quickly and neatly made the bed almost without realizing he had done so and shut off the alarm set for 0530 before donning his exercise clothes.
And hesitated. On Balmorra, his quarters had been generous, and he’d been able to work through his morning exercises without leaving them, in blessed solitude. But here, he’d be risking an injury if he tried to do more than some simple stretches in the tight space.
He’d memorized the ship’s schematics and plans before bed last night, and rapidly scanned through it in his head. There was a large cabin---clearly Ucevi’s---plus this tiny single cabin, two small double cabins with a bunk bed each, and a large bunk room with space for at least six---or up to eighteen crew in a pinch. He dismissed most of the common areas as potential exercise spaces, but there was one large hold, roomy enough for transporting even small armored vehicles, currently almost empty except for Ucevi’s speeder bikes. Perfect.
Glancing around to reassure himself that everything in his room was stowed properly---civilians frequently failed to understand the missile dangers of loose clutter aboard a ship intended for combat---he stepped out of his room.
He wasn’t terribly surprised to find the ship’s droid, TooVee, already in the common area, setting up a caff service on a sideboard. The droid paused to stare at him in alarm, then asked anxiously if he needed anything. When he brusquely answered no, it returned to work, none-too-subtly watching this newest member of the crew.
He glanced at the table as he passed it, remembering. There was something troublingly familiar yet alien about last night’s meal. Familiar in that it had a quality very much like the captain’s table of an officer’s mess with Ucevi firmly in control of the meal, but no officers’ mess would have served casual food that was eaten with the hands or have seated an alien at the table. And the atmosphere had not exactly been either formal or informal, not quite military or civilian. And that was the crux of his unease, he realized, the inability to assign it to one or the other.
He reached the door of the hold, still deep in thought, to be drawn up short. Quinn had assumed he was the only one awake and about at this hour, though he should have guessed from the schedule she outlined last night that Ucevi, at least, was an early riser who generally observed a tight schedule. I really need to stop expecting entirely civilian behavior from her.
Ucevi was dressed in form-fitting exercise shorts which came to her mid-thigh, and a cropped top that Quinn knew was designed to function as firm support while exercising. Her short dark red hair was held back by a sweatband. At the moment, she had her back to the hatch, with a pole that looked to be about two meters long over her shoulders, her arms draped over it as she did slow leg lunges to stretch.
If her light armor was meant to remind the viewer of her power in every sense, these clothes were about delighting in the sheer physicality of a predator. She had the nicely defined muscle development of the best trainers Quinn had worked with. Not the heavy definition of a serious body builder, though her shoulders and upper arms were developed enough that she clearly trained with weights regularly.
His treacherous eyes followed the toned lines of her back to her ass, and as he saw the muscles there tighten and relax with the exercises, he was shocked to feel himself responding to her. Emphatically and embarrassingly. Not that he’d been unaware that he was physically attracted to her, but surely he had more control than that at his age!
Before he had time to get his response under control, she casually greeted him. “You’re up early, Captain.”
Thankfully, she didn’t turn, or his red face would probably have shown his internal struggle as he tried to look anywhere else, even if her eyes didn’t drop...lower. Somehow, he had no doubts that she would look if she saw his face. “I’m, uh, sorry, my lord, if I’m disturbing you. My quarters aren’t really suited for exercise, and TooVee made no mention that you were already awake.”
“He’ll never volunteer information. His programming.” She apparently had finished stretching because she removed the pole from her shoulders and began a series of slow motion combat movements using the pole like a weapon. Quinn began to forget some of his embarrassment and watched in fascination as one movement flowed into another. The military taught the use of stun batons as a weapon, but nothing like this. The slow motion strikes, spins, blocks, and jabs followed one after the other so smoothly that he couldn’t help feeling he was watching a set dance rather than weapons training.
One thing was certain, she hadn’t learned this from her formal Sith training or a relative in the Imperial military. And from the absence of any hesitation, the absolute control she had over the pole, Baras's apprentice clearly hadn’t learned this recently.
Then she began picking up the speed of her exercise, and suddenly he had no doubts that the apparently primitive pole had the potential to be a deadly weapon in her hands. A pole!
Who the blazes is she?
Chapter 10: “Si-Thar-Ka”
"We still survive". Dancing in the pre-dawn.
Ucevi brought herself up to full speed by the end of the first movement and unconsciously shifted stance for the second. Now the staff was continuously spinning as she shifted it from hand to hand, a style dependent more on footwork than anything else.
She almost forgot her audience as she lost herself in the sheer physical pleasure of performing the traditional si-thar-ka , one her grandmother claimed their family had first created in the aftermath of the Great Hyperspace War, when they had fled their homes. The Jedi’s unprovoked genocidal attack on their neutral world had been devastating and left the survivors determined to never be found unprepared again.
The si-thar-ka had been created as a ritual to honor those ancestral victims by not only preparing the children of the family for lightsaber combat, but ensuring that no child of the family was ever helpless again. We still survive. Their honor was intimately tied to resisting another attempt by the Republic to erase them from the galaxy, and this ritual renewed their commitment every morning. So little of their traditional culture had survived the centuries even among the few remaining Old Sith families, but her family had clung to this art with all the fierce stubbornness of their line.
Some corner of her mind not involved in the ritual was aware that Quinn continued to watch rather than beginning his own exercises on the other side of the hold. Nor had she missed his brief surge of lust earlier, though she doubted he guessed the double meaning of her greeting, "you're up early," had been intentional. The Force didn’t generally give her much insight into others’ emotions, but that one she almost always sensed, probably because physical passion played such a powerful role in her connection to the Force.
Well, at least I’ll know it's more than Baras’s orders when he tries to get into my bed. She had few doubts that his request to serve with her had something to do with Baras, and if he had been deliberately angling to put himself permanently in her company, his peculiar inaction on Balmorra made much more sense. At the moment he’d asked to accompany her, she had been certain that he’d simply been a particularly clever agent of Baras’s, taking time to observe her better before initiating anything. Ucevi couldn’t quite make that fit with her observations of him since he’d come on board, however: his uncertainty, his honest appreciation of the food and whiskey at dinner. And his face every time she’d called him Captain rather than Lieutenant...if she were less cynical, she’d have said it was surprise and something very like gratitude.
Still, one of Grandmother’s first lessons was that there was no gratitude in the Empire; at best there were debts of honor and duty, and occasionally loyalty stemming from personal relationships. No matter what else, Quinn and his debt to Baras were serious liabilities, but at least she knew where the vulnerability was and could watch it, even feed misinformation to Baras through him if necessary. If the man really was honorable, she could respect that, even as she tried to stay ahead of Baras. But if he, like so many in the Empire now, put self-interest above honor and duty, then he was far too dangerous to have on board, and someday he’d have an “accident.” Someone motivated only by greed could always be bought by a higher price.
Quinn had finally overcome his fascination with her ritual and had begun a series of stretching exercises of his own. She was in the fifth movement now, a defensive style primarily of complicated blocks and parries. She always felt an ache of loss as she danced. This ritual was the first step toward the traditional weapon of her family, the double-bladed lightsaber, but no Sith trainer or overseer would ever have believed she was a rank novice with a double-bladed lightsaber, and survival came before even tradition.
Tremel, blast him, should have been looking for someone training in one of those forms, not a single-blade form, Shii Cho. All Grandmother’s maneuvering and planning for nothing. I wonder if I’ll ever know how he worked it out?
She reached the end of the fifth movement and brought the exercise to an end, disciplining her mind and thoughts into the proper focus as she brought the staff back to the ready position and held it for a few moments longer. There were nine core movements in all, plus variations. Her true heritage. Some days Ucevi was able to lose herself in the movements, achieve what someone less cynical might have called ecstasy, a transcendental delight, and on those days, she flowed through all nine movements and several variations as well without conscious thought or any sense of time. She existed only within that tiny bubble enclosing her, and nothing existed outside for an instant and an eternity. Jedi were fools for trying to divorce themselves from emotion and attachment and most Sith half-blinded themselves by turning only to a few dangerous emotions. The Force was so much more than either.
Not today, though. The Sith woman had been far too conscious of the other presence in the cargo bay to lose herself. She lowered herself to kneel on the cold metal floor, the staff horizontal to the floor across her thighs and tried to discipline her thoughts for the meditative ritual, but quickly realized her awareness was fixed on the other side of the room.
Alright, fine. Admit it. I am attracted to him, damn him, and not just because I’ve been celibate since my first night on Balmorra. Whether Baras was cleverer than I think or he was simply lucky, Quinn is a very capable officer, exactly the sort of Imperial I most admire. If he wasn’t such a threat, well, it would be very pleasant to have someone in my bed regularly. Still, frustration provides almost as useful a well to draw on as passion, and it’s not as if I won’t be able to feed the latter later today. Then Nar Shaddaa itself should provide much safer opportunities for more than one passion.
Now that she had addressed the problem head-on, Ucevi was able to discipline herself into the meditative ritual, centering herself and feeding those wells of power deep inside. Rage, that came easily enough, fed by Sindari, Grandmother's death, and most recently, by Tremel's coercion and the sordidness of Baras's machinations. Hate, too, though that was mostly more abstract...the Jedi, the Republic, both a constant threat to the survival of the Sith-bloods. Fear. She wondered if Baras could begin to comprehend the things she feared. Dishonor, failing in her duty to the Empire and her family, disgrace. Each of these she used to feed those reserves.
Then other emotions. Her role as pleasure-seeking hedonist wasn't entirely an act, however useful it was to distract idiots like Baras from looking for anything deeper. Pleasures of the palate, of sight and sound, of touch, of the body. Physical pleasure was a particularly strong source to draw on. Lust, arousal, the mixed pleasure and pain of release… She supposed love was as strong or stronger, but it was far more dangerous than pure physical pleasure. Love could be used to manipulate people, either by directly threatening the loved one or by betrayal, particularly if the love was produced by deception.
And neither have ever happened. She took the anger that bitter, cynical thought generated and channeled it. Pleasure is enough. I have my honor and my duty to my family and the Empire instead, and while honor and duty may be harsh lovers, I can believe in them.
The irony wasn’t lost on Ucevi, of course. The Jedi feared emotion while the Sith revelled in it, but love...both feared love for parallel reasons. As she understood them, Jedi feared that “attachment,” their euphemism for love, would cause a Jedi to put that person ahead of the order and their duty, to “fall”. Most Sith feared love would be used to betray them. Ucevi feared both betrayal from without and within.
Suppressing that thought ruthlessly, she let the fierce surge of passion wash over her that came from contemplating her duty and honor, the pride of a line that stretched back over a millennia, holding fast to an ideal. Not that they had remained unchanging. Simple survival had demanded change and compromise, especially at moments like this when the family had almost vanished completely. “Prove there is still strength in your family worth preserving by removing Baras, or die and be forgotten and let your family’s name fade into dust.” Rage swept through her at that memory of Tremel’s voice, a rage that reinforced her determination and pride. Damn him, tying our fates to his petty vendetta. Him, a minor nobody, son of Sith whose only achievements were survival, daring to judge us!
That small part of her that always remained alert even while meditating noted that Quinn had finished warming up and had begun conditioning exercises. Since he was now preoccupied and she had finished her meditation, she allowed her mind to drift in his direction again. From habit, she had turned toward the door before kneeling, and she was able to observe him through slitted eyes far more closely than previously. From his records, she knew he was in his late 30s, though she’d have guessed younger, and the close-fitting shirt and shorts confirmed her belief that he’d kept himself in excellent condition.
As she observed unobtrusively, he began push-ups. Mmm, I don’t think there’s any exercise I enjoy watching more than push ups. Unless it’s putting those same muscles to...better uses. Imagination instantly filled in that image, which she let run through her mind for a few moments before she firmly squashed it.
She unwound from the floor with the rapidity of a spring uncoiling, briskly racking her staff. Quinn had paused in his push ups, watching her from the floor and clearly wondering if she was going to want him to begin work immediately. Ucevi grabbed a towel from the top of one of the crates, swabbing her neck and face before waving at a nearby wall locker.
“You'll find a set of electronic weights in there, Quinn, and a few other pieces of exercise equipment you may like. Feel free to make use of them, and if there's anything you prefer that we don't have, let me know so we can get it. The hold is all yours until Vette is ready for our workout.”
NOTE: I know some people have done work on languages. I did not look at that research and simply created a term for story purposes for several reasons, but mostly because the ancient languages don’t play any real importance in this story. Just assume it’s from an obscure dialect, or even one created to protect the secrets of a sub-culture.
Also, while I will try to keep posting as regularly, there is something which may unexpectedly require my sole attention for a couple of weeks. I apologize in advance.
Thanks to Oregonienne for being my reader for this one!
Chapter 11: "Watching the Watcher"
Ucevi and Vette take precautions.
Later, after Quinn was safely occupied, familiarizing himself with the ship's stores, records, and unused storage capacity, the two women retired to Ucevi’s quarters with a pot of caff and a locked door. Ucevi perched cross-legged on her bed with data pads lined neatly in front of her while Vette used the terminal at the desk.
“Our first priority is to finish securing all ship’s systems, particularly anything that would allow tampering with the environmental or navigational controls.”
“Sure. I already took care of most of that when Baras first gave you the ship and I found and disabled all the crap he had built in. Man, was that creep planning ahead---three ways he could shut down the environmental controls, plus two ways to tamper with them! Brrr! Dying in my sleep from poison gas isn’t the way I want to go.” Vette visibly shivered before shrugging off that thought.
“But yeah, piece of cake. I left the public level of security alone, then built in a trigger on the second layer that automatically sends an encrypted alert if anyone touches it. Always sends to both of us even if it's one of us in the system, and it can’t be disabled. I assume you’ll want him to have access through the public level of security?”
“Unless I’m going to completely alienate Quinn, yes. I'd rather do as much as I can to win his trust, even if all I gain is a second of hesitation eventually. Do you believe he can get through that second layer?” Ucevi sipped her caff, then frowned at the data pad she currently held.
“Your lieutenant probably won’t go any further than that. See, it’ll look as if there’s two alarms, but the first, more obvious one, is a blind. It looks as if it’ll alert the whole ship if you try to circumvent it, so he’ll go searching for the source of that alarm in the ship’s computers. Thing is, you can’t circumvent that alarm because it doesn’t actually exist. It wouldn’t fool a real slicer or security specialist, of course, but he isn’t. The real alert will give you plenty of warning while he searches.” The Twi’lek grinned over her shoulder at the Sith woman who simply shook her head.
“True, but if Baras orders him to slice into the ship’s systems, we can assume he might bring one in.”
“That’s what the third and fourth layers of security are for. If someone gets past the second and tries to make any changes without the proper unlock sequences first, the system acknowledges any changes, then automatically reverts to our defaults and sends us a private alert. Only a really good slicer will notice that immediately, but if they make a change without unlocking it properly, then try to do anything else, the entire system automatically goes on lockdown and sends multiple alarms to both of us, among other things. No mistakes, one try before it locks down. After that, the systems have to be unlocked by one of us, personally, from the bridge.”
“Excellent. And you’ve lined up someone to help with that last layer?” Ucevi set the cup of caff on the bedside table then began scrolling through the data pad, eyebrows drawn together.
“Yep. Got an old buddy waiting to meet us on Nar Shaddaa. Really good with emergency codes.” The tips of both lekku curled up just a little, suggesting Vette found something about this “old buddy” amusing.
“Good. Will your contact on Nar Shaddaa have that new sleep gas system ready when we arrive?” Her expression cleared as she dropped the data pad back into the line of others and picked up her caff again.
“Yeah. Nice touch, by the way, redesigning what creepy old guy planned to use on you into a defense.” Vette smirked over her shoulder again. “Odorless, and they swear the gas will be particularly effective on humans and Chiss. If someone actually makes it past the third level or if either of us enters two of the emergency codes, the entire ship will be gassed.” Vette paused to shake her head. “Scary how you Sith think, my lord. You know, there’s always gonna be someone who can find a counter though. Eventually.”
“True, but I want to make it so hard that it’s not worth trying to take over the ship to get at me.” She took a long draw from her caff mug before continuing. “Those systems Baras had added were only a very basic precaution, just like the cameras and other bugs you cleared out. If I hadn’t found and disabled them, he'd have known that I was stupid or careless.”
“And Lieutenant Stuffed-shirt?”
“I haven’t made up my mind about the Captain ,” she raised a brow stalk at Vette in a mild reproof, “But we need to start minimizing his potential for damage in case I can’t undermine his loyalty to Baras. I'll take him with me on Nar Shaddaa instead of you. The more we can avoid leaving him unobserved on the ship, the better, and that will give you time to finish securing things.
“Won't he plant bugs to replace the ones we found and removed?” Vette had turned back to her screen, frowning in concentration while one lekku twitched a little.
“Yes, and I want you to check every day for new ones, but I think we should leave one somewhere as if it was overlooked. If he has one we know about, maybe Quinn won’t get creative enough with something else that we won’t catch it and we can use it to feed misinformation to Baras. Someplace we won't use for anything we wouldn’t want him to hear.” The last sentence had a slight upturn in tone, inviting suggestions.
“The conference room?”
Vette sat back in the chair, arms behind her head as she swiveled it to face the bed. “So, I’m gonna be confined to the ship on Nar Shaddaa because of him?”
“Not at all.” She gestured carefully with the caff mug. “Just try not to get into so much mischief that you have to yell for me to bail you out and I have Baras asking questions. I put enough credits in your account to have quite a bit of fun; let me know when you run low. And go get your lekku buffed.” Ucevi grinned suddenly. “One of these days, you'll have to explain what that means exactly.”
Vette giggled, then straightened from the desk to stretch her legs out in front of her. “Come with me, and you can get a massage while you watch. Not sure they’ve ever had a Sith walk in before, though.”
“In that case, you might need to get them used to the idea first. A massage sounds lovely, but I don’t think it would be much fun if the people around us were worried I was going to Force choke someone for hitting a sore muscle.”
“Speaking of fun , that stop later today at Taris?” Now Vette was openly smirking. “Detouring to see that captain friend of yours?”
“Naturally.” Ucevi raised a brow stalk back at Vette with her own smirk. “A visit with Joran is the perfect revenge on these Parits, and besides, Quinn will report the detour, and it’ll cement my reputation with Baras as a short-sighted hedonist. And it'll send a message to Quinn, though probably not one he'll understand.”
“If you say so. Are you really sure Captain Stuffed-shirt is under orders to get into your bed?” Vette wrinkled her nose at the thought.
“Not nearly as certain as when he first asked to serve under me; even Baras would pick out someone with a better idea of how to proceed. But either way, he’s a liability for now.” Abruptly the Sith-blood uncoiled from the bed, putting her mug of caff from the shelf before stretching sensuously. She clapped Vette briefly on the shoulder after she neatly piled the data pads on the desk next to the terminal. “I’ll just check on our captain. Oh and if Joran and I...vanish at any point, keep an eye on Quinn, especially on the bridge.”
I tend to feel the canon story doesn't show nearly enough maneuvering, especially if the SW really doesn't trust Quinn from the beginning.
Chapter 12: "Shadow Pride"
A stop at Taris orbital station, and luncheon with an old friend.
They arrived at the Taris orbital station in time for a late lunch, and Ucevi was adamant that Vette and Quinn accompany her to the cantina on the station. They were no sooner seated than a tall, slender man in the uniform of an Imperial captain (senior grade,) approached their table with a charming smile, hands outstretched to Ucevi in greeting. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Quinn’s reaction to an Imperial officer who was senior to him...and Chiss.
To his credit, although there was a moment of something in his eyes when he saw the rank insignia, he recovered quickly and stood at attention with a salute, holding it while Joran clasped hands briefly with Ucevi before returning his salute. “At ease, Lieutenant, please. This is purely social.”
Quinn relaxed from the salute, but remained standing at parade rest as the man turned his attention back to the Sith with a slight bow. “My lord, you do me honor with your visit. You look quite well for someone who’s spent the last month or two devastating the resistance on Balmorra. I believe it must agree with you.” Despite the formality of his words, he spoke with a cheerful familiarity.
“Sadly, my mission wasn’t focused as much on that as I’d have liked.” She gestured toward the two with her. “You met Vette on Nar Shaddaa, and this is Captain Malavai Quinn who joined us on Balmorra.” His eyes flickered briefly to Quinn’s rank insignia. “The insignia hasn’t quite caught up with the promotion, but Captain Quinn was indispensable to my mission on Balmorra. Captain, this is Captain Joran of the Raptor , an old...friend.”
The way she hesitated, followed by the stress on the word friend, was clearly intended to convey something else. She didn’t miss Quinn’s brief flicker of surprise before he covered it by resuming his seat while the Chiss politely took Vette’s hand in an attentive greeting. Once done, he sat down in the fourth seat at their table between Ucevi and Vette. So, he’s surprised that a Sith-blood might find a non-human attractive? Either Baras’s people haven’t done their job very well or Baras failed to share that information. This should be interesting, then.
The food and Joran’s tea arrived promptly and, while Joran kept Quinn involved in the conversation with polite questions about his assignments and academy training, she caught him studying the older man. Later, when Quinn turned to accept a refill of his tea, the Chiss raised an eyebrow at her. Her only response was the briefest flicker of her eyes upward, a signal he knew well. He was never careless in public when they might be observed, but he clearly began to choose his words with particular caution after that. Good man.
The food was tolerable, obviously catering to a military clientele who had few choices normally, but not so poor that officers would raise a stink. It was at least an improvement on the rations the military ate in the field or on board ships. No alcohol mid-day, sadly, but any decent wine would have been wasted with this food.
Quinn had relaxed considerably and even warmed to the Chiss. Not surprising since Joran’s greatest talent was his ability to charm almost anyone who wasn't a diehard xenophobe. She doubted that he'd have been given command of even such a small vessel so young otherwise, despite his capabilities. And his connections, however subtly exerted.
Finally, she sipped her rapidly cooling tea and watched the others eating the overly sweet pastry that was served before asking Joran nonchalantly, as if she didn’t already know the answer. “Joran, will you be taking the Raptor back out this afternoon?”
He used a napkin to clean his mouth of the sticky icing before answering just as casually, “Actually, no. We gave chase to a smuggler’s ship earlier this week and took some minor hull damage when they fought back, then the Raptor developed some problems with the stabilizers. They should be done by supper, so I gave all but a skeleton crew shore leave until half an hour before supper.”
“Smugglers? Here? Even the Republic barely has a presence here, who are they smuggling to ?”
“Command here recently found that smugglers use a nearby moon and an asteroid field to transfer illegal cargos headed into the Empire. Several smaller ships have been kept on patrol pretty constantly, trying to intercept smugglers. They'll move operations once we've caught a few ships, of course, but it'll close down this location, at least. We've got orders to head back out tonight, presuming they finish with the ship.”
Quinn nodded his approval of the officer's words, but before he could ask any questions, Ucevi raised one brow stalk quizzically. “In that case, do you have to get back to your ship immediately or do you have an hour or two for a tour of the Harpy’s Revenge ?”
“My XO is also my engineer. She has strict orders to contact me immediately, of course, if there's any problem. And if that's an offer of a tour, I'd be honored.”
Ucevi took a moment to take a last sip of her tea, then rose, waving at Vette and Quinn to finish their desserts. “Captain, when you’re done with your dessert, see what the quartermaster on station can do about filling in any important deficiencies in ship’s stores. Vette, do you think I've left you with enough to keep you out of mischief this afternoon?”
The young Twi'lek smirked knowingly. “If you mean, will I be on the bridge and out of the way of your ‘tour,’ then yes. I'll even keep 2V busy and out of the way.”
“Cheeky.” Ucevi mock-scowled at Vette who grinned back in equally mock innocence. “Just remember my orders.”
“Yes, my lord.” Then she smirked again and waggled her fingers at the Sith woman. “Enjoy your ‘tour.’”
Ucevi snorted before turning to the Chiss officer who had stood through the exchange with barely concealed amusement. “Captain, shall we?”
Chapter 13: "Honor's Dance"
Ucevi and Joran on the station and on the Harpy
At the back of her mind, the way Quinn stiffened at Vette’s familiar teasing had registered with Ucevi, but she dismissed it as an issue to think about later. For the moment her focus had narrowed to Joran. But as they made the short stroll from the cantina to her airlock, the part of her which always maintained an awareness of her surroundings identified at least three officers covertly watching them. Not in a way that set off her warnings of danger, though. Animosity, yes, but aimed at Joran, not her, which she’d expected. Her presence with him was intended to send a warning message about the risks of that animosity. Still...
Joran finished cheerfully telling her about his fight with the smuggler’s vessel, and she asked in a soft voice, “Anyone to worry about?” while subtly indicating one of the officers. His eyes stared steadily into hers in a signal that he knew exactly who she meant.
“No, I think my crew has done its job well. Of course there’s some curiosity , you know.” He spoke the first part in a normal tone and only slightly lowered his voice for the rest, but the exchange, which could easily sound like a continuation of her questions about his recent patrols, told her what she needed. His crew’s taste for gossip had made certain that at least half the station had heard the rumor that their captain, the sole Chiss officer stationed here, was a Sith’s lover...and word had gone around that she was making a visit. Probably had bets on whether or not it was true. Or just wanted to lay eyes on her.
Deliberately, she touched her tongue to her lips very briefly with just a flash of smoldering impatience in her eyes that was all too genuine, especially in the very real physical awareness they were exhibiting toward each other. This should erase any doubts about the reason for her visit since she was being far more overt than one usually saw in public from the very reserved military who were accustomed to quite a subtle dance of interest. At least she could count on fear preventing anyone who resented his command from doing anything rash. Her open interest should provide Joran with a measure of protection from jealousy since a Sith-blood might have powerful relatives or allies willing to intervene. As long, that is, as nothing happened to her.
All pretense of a tour evaporated the instant they were inside the airlock and it began to cycle. Abruptly Ucevi pinned him to the hatch for an impatient, hungry kiss, unleashing all her pent-up frustrations. He returned the kiss just as fiercely, managing to free one hand to pull her tightly against him, pelvises grinding together.
When they finally surfaced, she looked him up and down with a raised brow spur. “Judging by that, I assume you’re still interested in more than the public performance?” He grinned, catching her lower lip between his teeth in answer. “I suppose I shouldn't do any damage to your uniform this time since you'll have to walk back through the station in it.”
He leaned forward to bite her neck with a growl, just hard enough to extract a gasp from her. “Always. And sadly, yes. We should find your cabin before we go any further, though, or your young Twi'lek friend might walk in on us. I have this feeling we'd make her blush. Which might be rather charming to see.”
“It would serve her right for teasing me in front of Quinn.” She kept an arm around his waist as she guided him to her cabin. Once inside, she slapped on the palm lock that would prevent anyone from getting in until she hit it again. She casually tossed aside the heaviest, most inflexible pieces of her armor while Joran stripped out of his uniform and folded it neatly onto a corner of the desk. Then he neatly dodged sideways as he turned, anticipating Ucevi’s unannounced lunge for him and narrowly dodging it. The Chiss grinned at her as he dropped into a wrestler’s crouch.
“You’re becoming predictable, Ucevi. Or are you just that impatient?”
Her answering grin was feral, and her eyes gleamed at the challenge he’d issued. “I’m always impatient, nuyak hadzuska , or have you forgotten?” Suddenly she feinted to the right, then charged forward, her momentum taking him with her. They landed hard on the bed with her straddling him, his hands pinned above his head as they both laughed breathlessly. “Better. Exactly where I like you.”
His eyes gleamed back at her, and suddenly he twisted one leg around hers and managed to flip them so he was straddling her with her wrists pinned. Ucevi cackled with delight. Then she quickly managed to slither one hand out of his grip, and she just as suddenly had him on his back again, leaning forward to kiss him with even more intensity.
When she lifted her head from his, running her tongue over her lips suggestively, she smirked before twitching a brow stalk curiously. “That was new. Found someone to practice with?”
“Sadly, not like this. There are no other Chiss on station, and…” He shrugged to wordlessly indicate the attitude of the human officers. “I picked that up from the hand-to-hand trainer.”
She grimaced at his reminder that he wasn't always welcome among the human officers, then Ucevi bit his chin lightly, with a throaty chuckle. “Then we both have some frustrations to work off today. Shall we continue wrestling or would you prefer a more pleasant dance?”
I'll leave it to my readers to work out the meaning of "nuyak hadzuska" (and yes, I checked some of the lore on Sith language this time.) Mostly, I'm leaving it to people to decide whether they want to know yet, but I'd be glad to add that if anyone asks.
Chapter 14: "Fire and Smoke"
Vette and Quinn, both irritable and tempers flare.
Vette was concentrating deeply when Quinn returned to the ship and entered the bridge, so deeply that she jumped slightly before quickly closing her connection to the ship's systems and securing them. Her irritation at being caught off-guard as well as Ucevi’s suspicions about the man led her to snap in an annoyed tone without turning around, “Yeah, what do you want? I'm busy.”,
The officer stiffened at her tone, his attitude shifting from hesitant to frosty. “I finished with the stores for the moment, but I cannot access the ship’s navigational and interstellar communications systems. I believe your master has left the security measures in your hands. Please update this immediately.”
Vette spun, her eyes glittering in anger. “No one is my master, Lieutenant. I serve my lord because she’s my friend. And I don’t make any changes to security accesses until she approves it with me in person.”
“Then she has questionable taste, especially since your slave upbringing apparently didn’t teach you how to behave properly in public. I can’t think of any other Sith lord who wouldn’t have punished you for your insolent tone at lunch.” And with that he stalked out, leaving a furious Vette staring after him.
Apologies that this is so short, but I felt it did best set off by itself. I always thought their difficult relationship in game wasn't adequately explained...
Chapter 15: "Nuyak Hadzuska"
Ucevi and Joran engage in a bit of pillow talk
One sort of wrestling morphed gradually into another, eventually ending with the two, sweaty and much more relaxed, leaning against the headboard with their arms around each other. And one sort of catching up had given way to another.
“How the blazes did this Tremel find you? Or even know to look for you in the first place? I thought your grandmother had made certain no one who didn't belong to your house knew you existed?”
“I couldn't get any answers from him. Someone was indiscreet, obviously. Now, what's done is done, and trying to undo it would expose me too soon. The problem is working out how to survive whatever Baras is planning...with honor intact.”
“Nasty brute. I'm worried about you allowing this agent of his, Quinn, onto your ship. But having met the man, I have a hard time imagining him trying to seduce you.”
“I’m not so certain that’s what Baras intended myself any more. It’s possible that he just assumed sooner or later I'd brainlessly coax him into bed if we were kept in contact. And if I really was ruled by my lust, I probably would. But whatever Baras had in mind, Quinn and his loyalty to Baras are a liability. The question is whether he’s a liability I can manage or even manipulate into an asset.” She stroked her chin spurs thoughtfully. “The thing is, Quinn’s an exceptional officer. Until the moment Baras tries to use him against me, he'll be very useful.”
Joran uncosciously mirrored her thoughtfulness with a thumb stroked along his own chin. “Isn't that a problem on its own? Don't tell me you're not attracted to him, I've known you too long, long enough I watched you discover sex. And you particularly admire competence and dedication. You're going to be in his company constantly, and Balmorra probably won't be the last time you end up celibate for a while. You're playing with fire.”
“I know.” She growled. “It’s the weak point in the path my family walks, but if I can't navigate through it, then I don't deserve to survive.” Ucevi turned her head to grin at his profile. “You're not bored with this, are you? We can return to pretending to be lovers.”
“Someone would have to be very jaded to be bored with you, Ucevi, and as long as I serve with the Imperial military, this arrangement is more to my benefit and convenience than yours. I'd much rather work off my frustrations with you than some officer who just wants some thing exotic in bed. Even if there's nothing deeper, at least we have good chemistry.”
“Joran, I don't have to be on guard constantly with you, and that's no small thing." She trailed her fingers down his chest in light spirals that were greeted with a sharply inhaled breath. "Even without the work you do as a go-between. Chemistry is all I need or want, as long we're both enjoying this. Though sometimes I'm sorry that neither of us feel more than chemistry; the one person I could trust close to me would be nuyak hadzuska. Look at the old man.”
He suppressed his grin with mock embarrassment, eyes twinkling. “I'm not sure my ego has ever recovered from having a pre-teen challenge me to a sparring match and win, Sith or not." She growled, lightly biting his hand on her shoulder. "But speaking of the old man and go-betweens, I saw him while I was on Nar Shaddaa. Briefly.” He rolled out of bed to rummage briefly in his things, smirking when he turned abruptly to find she had been admiring his well-muscled ass. “Of course, it does no harm to my ego to get that reaction from a powerful Sith, you know.”
“Is that a remark on my cheek or my cheek?” He ducked the pillow she threw at his sly innuendo, then handed her a data pad. “He sent this, it has a brief message from him and an encrypted list of new dead drops. You can get credits through a few of them if you send someone physically, but he reminds you to be cautious about spending noticeably more credits than you should have.”
“The old man must think I'm as naive as a Jedi if he thinks I've forgotten everything Grandmother taught me. It’s too bad I couldn’t see him when you and I met on Nar Shaddaa and reassure him myself, but Baras is having me watched, and not just by Quinn. The old man is the last known member of the family. Even Baras might connect him with Grandmother and begin to draw a line from me to her through him. Fortunately you have an excuse to visit that has no connection to me or even the old man himself.” She snorted as she quickly skimmed the message, then tossed the pad aside on the bedside table. “Nothing urgent, mostly he wants the story of why I ended up on Korriban early. That obviously threw several plans into chaos.”
“You suddenly vanished between one regular run to that academy where you were and the next, and no one would tell me where you had gone. Lowly Imperials can't demand answers from Sith trainers, you know, especially when it would be dangerous if anyone knew either of us were connected to your family. I knew you hadn't been killed in training, but it was weeks before you managed to get that message out to us. The old man wasn’t the only one worried for you.”
She rolled over to straddle his legs, hands resting on his shoulders as she stared intently into his eyes. “Joran, were you afraid for me?”
He huffed out a long-suffering sigh. “You know my fate is tied to yours, are you surprised that I worried?”
“My word is my honor, my honor is my life.” She quoted from his letter, and a small smile curled his lip in response. “ Nuyak hadzuska, the Sith way means I will have to put myself at risk, prove my strength and ability to lead, sometimes just my ability to survive, over and over. If I fail, I wasn't strong enough or cunning enough to lead. You can't worry over all of those risks, oath or no oath, my Shadow.” She startled him by leaning forward to kiss his cheek lightly in a rare gesture of genuine affection, and he reached up to touch her cheek lightly in return.
“But it's still there, Ucevi. Besides, I'd much rather have you as the future of the Empire than brutes like this Baras.” Abruptly his mood shifted, and his hands slid down to caress her hips while his eyes glittered. "Now, since you have, by some improbable feat of willpower, stayed celibate for almost two months, I feel it's my duty to stoke your passions as much as possible."
"Duty, hmm?" The Sith woman rocked her hips slowly forward and back, feeling him beginning to stir under her, lightly scraping her fingernails down his arms. "Am I simply your duty now?"
"My dear, nothing about you has ever been simple." He drew her down into a kiss that silenced any other response.
Chapter 16: "A Shadow of the Past"
Joran worries a bit more, then says goodbye...for now.
When Ucevi and Joran emerged from her cabin, they discovered Quinn and Vette lurking in metaphorical ambush at opposite ends of the lounge, both radiating outrage. Shit. The very first time I leave them alone. And I was in such a good mood. Ah, well. I know exactly how to put them both off for a minute or two.
She halted Joran with her hand on his arm and raised a brow stalk at one lurker, then the other. “What, are you both so short on entertainment that you were listening to the sounds of sex from my cabin? I hope we lived up to expectations then, or do you need a reprise performance?” Predictably, Vette and Quinn both blushed, sputtered, and disappeared through the nearest doorways. Joran chuckled as she exhaled sharply in irritation.
“You remind me so much of your grandmother sometimes, it's frightening. But you know, here’s the problem with not being as terrifying as most Sith. They wouldn’t dare bring petty grievances to a Baras or a Thanaton.”
“This works. And you know they’d be a lot less useful if I used genuine terror to keep them in line. People grow numb to terror after a time. And that’s not to mention turning them into a very real threat if they fear me too much, or hate me. Especially Vette. I can assure you, anyone who’s survived slavery twice and still has her spirit is someone who will dig her heels in if I push her. I have to trust the security of my ship to her, you know.”
He squeezed her hand warmly as they finished the short walk to the airlock. “I can believe that about her. You were lucky Vette was willing to join you, and I agree with your hopes for her. But this is still the Empire, and if you don’t draw a firm line, they’ll cross it repeatedly and challenge your authority. That’s how the Empire works, after all: challenge your superior and if she’s weak, replace her. If they don’t, someone else will notice and test you instead.”
“Oh, don’t mistake me, I can draw a line and hold it, and I’ll make certain they understand where that line is. But anything more would be to deny everything my family has struggled toward. Or are you arguing that the Empire should continue its anti-alien policies and let Sith keep unlimited power over the non-Force sensitive, no matter how destructive it is?”
He simply laughed at her droll question. “Sometimes, though, I think you take too many chances, akisari, try too hard to live up to an ancient ideal.”
Ucevi chuckled, low and husky. “Arguing with the wisdom of the ancestors, Joran? Afraid it makes me appear weak?”
“Just wishing for a bit more pragmatism sometimes. But I’m with you until the end, you know that.” Just before he went through the airlock, he took her hands in his and held them for a long moment. “There’s no telling when I’ll be reassigned from Taris, Ucevi, but do drop me a message from time to time and let me know that you’re alright?”
“Don’t get sentimental on me, Joran.” Despite her tart words, she smiled slightly and gave him a very brief, if passionate, kiss. “I am Sith, we live by our passions and our strength, and you’ve always known that few if any of us die in bed of old age. Or weren’t you listening to me or Grandmother? Or the old man? Sounds like a boring way to go, truth be told.”
“If nothing else, liven up my dreary existence with stories about your amorous adventures.” He squeezed her hands one last time before letting them go, then whisked himself through the airlock and back to his duties.
This is a short one, but the next (short) one should be up in the next day or two.
Chapter 17: “Beware The Predator”
An interlude on the way to Nar Shaddaa. Ucevi leaves no doubts about where the line is...
The ship finally entered hyperspace and Quinn realized he'd been gripping the arms of his seat so tightly that his fingers ached. Vette leaned back from the controls and stretched, grinning triumphantly over her shoulder when Ucevi entered the bridge, still removing the headset she had worn while manning the gunner’s seat.
“Superb piloting as always, Vette. Maybe we should recruit more former pirates as pilots.” Her grin matched Vette’s, and Quinn detected a light in her eyes and an energy to her movements that suggested the harrowing fight through the ice field above Saleucami had fueled a rush of adrenaline.
“Easy with a ship like the Harpy and a gunner who seems to know where I'm turning before I do.”
“The Force does occasionally provide me with an advantage.” Vette cackled at Ucevi’s dry words.
“I would never have guessed.” But the Sith’s attention had already shifted to Quinn.
“Lieutenant, any comments? I assume our performance measures up to military standards?”
The ironic edge in her voice was a sharp reminder that she had not yet expended her displeasure over the words he and the young Twi'lek had exchanged. After Joran had left, she had called Vette into her cabin briefly, then asked to speak with him alone on the bridge. She had listened silently as he tried to explain, then with two or three direct, biting questions, she had made him feel smaller than a Tatooine sand flea. She followed with a mercifully brief and memorable chewing out which ended with a pointed threat that if he ever tried to override her direct orders again short of a true emergency, he'd find himself exiting the airlock in deep space without a suit. And she'd let the person he tried to overawe cycle the airlock.
Later, as he privately berated himself for violating the chain of command, it had finally struck him how close he'd skirted to disaster. However angry he had been at the Twi'lek’s insolent tone, he knew she had the trust of Baras's apprentice, and at some level, he knew he resented the younger woman for exactly that reason. Most other Sith wouldn't have thought twice about force choking him or shocking him with lightning for his infraction, and many would simply have killed him on the spot. Especially since he'd begun to sense that his presence on her ship was not entirely welcome, or that she was at least ambivalent about him for reasons he couldn’t fathom. Not that there was anything weak or sentimental about her. She simply appeared reluctant to waste a useful resource capriciously.
“It was a very impressive display, my lord, and exceptional coordination.” He chose his words cautiously and kept them brief rather than risk irritating her further. For an instant, something flashed across her face, both dangerous and enticing at the same time, then the Twi'lek smirked at him openly, that odd moment gone as Ucevi raised a brow stalk at her. Whatever mild reprimand she had received for her role---and Quinn suspected that was the only thing that could subdue the irrepressible ex-slave---she had quickly recovered to begin to take every chance to needle him both publicly and privately. It was a situation which needed to be defused, but he simply had no ideas for coping with an insubordinate civilian personality like Vette’s, especially when she had the protection and confidence of a Sith.
Apparently his discretion satisfied Ucevi because she simply nodded acknowledgment and tossed the headset she’d been dangling from one finger to Vette. Then she casually asked, “Vette, did you set up the Captain’s access to the navigation systems?”
“Yes, right after you gave me the order last night when we left Taris.” Her slight stress on the word order was simply her latest pointed jab at Quinn, but when Ucevi again raised a brow stalk at her, she had the grace to look down at her hands awkwardly.
“Good. Captain, we’ve spent enough time on this little detour, however much it may have benefited the Empire. Calculate the rest of the hyperspace jumps to Nar Shaddaa. Vette will watch and when you’ve finished, she will notify me that she’s checked your calculations.” Her eyes narrowed, and both froze at the abrupt chill in her gaze. “And you two will do this without a single word that isn’t professional and cooperative. Because I want one thing very clear. I don’t give a single damn if you two despise each other and slug it out off-duty. But if it affects your performance on duty, I will slap you down like an insect and flay you alive. Probably with my tongue, but if you also endanger anyone in the crew or one of our missions...well, you really don’t want to tempt me that way.”
She began to stalk out, then paused in the doorway without turning. “And if I am ever embarrassed in front of a guest again, for any reason, expect to pack your bags. You were both just lucky that it was Captain Joran.”
The two sat in stunned silence alone on the bridge, then stirred themselves in unison and briskly got to work without a single unnecessary word.
Chapter 18: “Distasteful Duty”
Quinn lurks, beginning to find his assigned role distasteful.
Quinn prowled around the edges of the cargo hold after supper, watching, and not watching, Ucevi train. Not because he wanted to snoop, despite Baras’s orders to observe her---after all, how much of interest could he learn from observing training every Sith did? Training which meant little to the non-Force sensitive?
No. He admitted to himself that he was simply hiding. He and Vette had reached a truce of sorts, at least while performing their duties during the day. Vette had resumed needling him after supper, however, when Ucevi retired to the cargo hold for her evening workout and he’d been desperate to escape the young Twi’lek’s sharp wit without giving her the satisfaction of a reaction.
Ucevi ignored his presence outwardly, working in silence as he puttered around the hold, pretending to inspect her speeder bikes to ensure they were properly secured. Frankly, he was just as pleased that Baras’s apprentice was taking no notice of him, or at least pretending not to. More and more, he was realizing that he’d escaped being put off her ship in disgrace by a hair, and if he failed to remain in place as Baras’s eye, Quinn had a sick feeling that the Darth would leave him to his enemies. To Broysc. And once he found out I was off Balmorra…
Stubbornly, he forced that thought away from him. I’m off Balmorra, and she did not put me off the ship. And Baras would not have asked me to do this job if it was easy or could be done by anyone, though if I'd known this was what he had in mind, I would not have agree to ask to join her. I just hadn't expected to find spying on his apprentice...distasteful. This would be so much easier if she were the simple creature Baras thinks.
This evening workout involved conventional exercise and sword drills followed by weight training all of which she pursued with a rather single-minded intensity. Admittedly, he knew relatively little about Sith, but he had been cautiously impressed by the dedication and discipline with which she pursued her training during the trip. Before breakfast, stretching followed by that odd workout with a pole (staff, it was called,) meditation, and the hand-to-hand training with Vette and then this conditioning workout in the evening.
She pushed herself just as hard during what she had designated the official ship’s day, generally doing some sort of study or research at the lounge or the conference room tables when she wasn’t going over ship’s business with one of them, with the addition of yet another workout in the late morning, an hour or two of lightsaber drills. Small wonder she was in such superb physical condition. Everyone in the Empire knows that the Sith are self-indulgent and unpredictable, yet most of the officers I served with on Balmorra fall short of her level of self-discipline. Not that she doesn't indulge her passions, like that Chiss, but we're told that only Jedi repress their passions.
Finally, Quinn decided he couldn't linger any longer, pretending to work, especially now that she had moved to her weight training. A part of him wanted to offer to work with Ucevi with the weights, but he was afraid in light of his current status with her that she might take offense. Worse, she might realize that he was finding the combination of the form-fitting workout clothing, her movements, and the sheen of sweat on her bare skin quite distracting. In fact, he was very, very aware of the muscles in her abdomen as they tightened and relaxed with each repetition of the curls...
About that time, as he struggled with his reaction to her, he realized her eyes were tracking him as he tightened the cargo strap on the last speeder bike. And from the very tiny smirk on her lips, he felt certain she was quite well aware both of his reason for hiding in here and the current less-than-professional things he was imagining.
Somehow, he managed to reach his quarters without encountering the Twi’lek, who would have spotted the color in his face in an instant. Emperor preserve me, but my lord can make me feel like a cadet caught gawking at an attractive officer while in formation! I'm at least fifteen years older than her, how does she do that?
After he was safely shut into his quarters and had himself back under control, he distracted himself by setting to work on his report to Baras, though when he'd get the chance to transmit it privately, he had no idea. After Baras had dismissed his earlier attempt to suggest the woman was far more complicated than Baras believed, he was reluctant to write anything which again seemed to suggest their master was wrong about her.
Instead he kept his report factual but brief, and at times rather vague. Since Baras believed she was a thug and a rather heedless hedonist, he emphasized her side trip to Taris for “entertainment,” without giving any details about Joran himself or his sense that the two were not recent acquaintances. Considering the quality of work and length of time she had spent in the field on Balmorra, their master would dismiss the few hours lost on the detour as a not-unreasonable reward for an outstanding mission, then chalk it up as more evidence that she wallowed in pleasure and pain.
As for the ship, he simply described how duties had been divided between them, mostly describing his and Vette's duties and very little on Ucevi’s shipboard activities, except mentioning that she trained in lightsaber drills and had a taste for good whiskey and a fine table. Let Baras read between the lines, past the indications of her hedonism, to work it out for himself that his apprentice not only had ambition, she had discipline, intelligence and a formidable drive.
He didn't stop to ask himself why he was thwarting Baras by biasing his reports for the sake of someone he barely knew, much less someone who'd openly threatened him. If he had, he'd probably have dismissed it as bowing to Baras’s own assessment of the woman. After all, he didn't exactly like her. Respect her, yes; he could be, and had been, under the command of far worse leaders. But like was another matter.
Sorry this took a while, especially for such a short chapter, but I decided to rewrite this from Quinn's perspective (plus catch up on a few backlogged writing prompts.)
Chapter 19: "Passion and Duty"
Quinn reflects uncomfortably on what's he's learned about Ucevi during their time on Nar Shaddaa.
(This takes place after they've been constantly together on Nar Shaddaa for several weeks, so a bit of a fast forward.)
“Hold tight, Captain!” Ucevi yelled over her shoulder as she gunned her speeder bike, and Quinn reflexively tightened his arms around her waist, doing his best to ignore the fact that his torso was pressing up against her back, his thighs gripping the outside of hers. Not that he'd be thinking of that once she started. He'd discovered shortly after their arrival that, like everything else, she rode her speeders at what he felt was an unnecessarily breakneck speed. And insisted he ride with her.
Ostensibly she was afraid they'd get separated, but Quinn suspected that was only part of the truth. She had continued to irregularly drop offhand comments that unmistakably suggested she was interested in him, though he refused to believe that he was or could be more than a momentary diversion for her. And when he'd hesitated to climb on the bike behind her the first time, the glint in her eyes made him believe that she was well aware of the reason for his reluctance.
It wasn't as if she was even wearing the lighter armor that displayed her superb physical condition to what he had to admit was quite an advantage. And she’s well aware of how heads turn to watch her when she is wearing it, at least until they register that she's a Sith-blood carrying lightsabers. Though some of them simply become more...circumspect, undeterred by the danger. Which, honestly, seems to amuse her.
No, she was in her heavier field armor at the moment, armor which already showed enough blaster and lightsaber scars to give even the Exchange hoodlums of Nar Shaddaa pause. But the concealing armor and hood weren't proof against his too-accurate memory of just what that armor concealed, memories reinforced regularly by her exercise attire. On nights when they were able to return to the ship to sleep, she usually managed a truncated workout in the evening, and never skimped on her odd morning routine. Even if he didn't join her workouts to do his own calisthenics, she breakfasted in the cropped top and skin-tight exercise shorts. None of which made it any easier to forget what lay under that armor now. And surely I’m mature enough to not imagine that now just because we’re in physical contact, he scolded himself uncomfortably.
But sometimes they were too far from the spaceport when Ucevi called a halt to the day's work, and she would steer him into a local cantina after consulting with that Twi’lek, who appeared to be quite familiar with the areas they visited. In the better cantinas, she would get separate rooms, then chivvy him into eating a good dinner and having a couple of shots of whiskey with her.
Who would have imagined she could be such good company...when she wants to be? Though where did she develop that knack of keeping the conversation centered on anything except herself? And why is she so curious about my past in the Imperial military? After several weeks of this, he still knew little more about the person behind the lightsabers than than when they met. Well, there had been one night they'd discovered a mutual love of classic Sith opera, and he'd forgotten caution and discretion enough to argue with her over the symbolism in one of the historical epics about the end of the Great Hyperspace War. But she not only had not taken offense, she had entered into the argument with gusto. If anyone were to ask me, I’d even say she approved when I stood my ground. Odd...
He had learned two things from that evening. She had been educated rather well for the orphaned daughter of minor Sith. And at some point, she had lived on Dromund Kaas because she often spoke with the unconscious authority of someone who had seen some of the operas performed in person, mentioning the acoustics in Kaas City’s premier opera house. He couldn’t imagine Baras finding these details interesting, but Quinn's image of Ucevi was becoming more and more incompatible with what Baras had told him. And there was another anomaly. Why did she bill her room separately when they took separate rooms?
However, at least once a week she ate supper quickly instead---and mostly in silence---before bidding him a distracted goodnight and moving to the bar to drink. And whether he remained at their table or retired to his room, he quickly realized that these were the nights someone had caught her eye. The next morning she would usually be more businesslike and intense than usual, if also rather like a Vorr cat who'd been into the nerf milk. And that is exactly what Baras expects, after all, a Sith who indulges her passions first and foremost.
Perhaps the worst were the nights when they were forced to get a room in a shadier cantina where Ucevi would insist on a single room for safety. Vermin and disease, at least, weren't a problem. As soon as they got the room, she'd toss in a device the Twi’lek had given her, and by the time they returned from dinner, the room would be safe, though she insisted they sleep in bedrolls on top of the (thankfully separate) beds. It wasn't as if he hadn't shared quarters with women before in the field. To his relief, she was briskly businesslike on these occasions, with none of the cynically measuring glances or deliberate innuendo that sometimes sprinkled their more relaxed moments in the field. Once they began to take turns in the fresher, in fact, she would pointedly ignore him for the rest of the evening. Generally she didn't look directly at him again until they had both washed and dressed in the morning. Odd, I’d expect that sort of tactful courtesy from another officer, not a Sith who has no known connection to the military.
None of which entirely eased his...awareness that she was sleeping a few feet away. Almost all of the women he'd really known in his life had been serving in the Imperial military, even his mother and aunt. Brisk, professional, career-minded...and reserved. Not inhibited, exactly, but a military mindset was ingrained in them that muted all gender while in that role.
No one would call Ucevi unprofessional, and she was frequently brusque and quite intense. But nothing about her was reserved, even though she generally observed military courtesies scrupulously, and for a Sith, unexpectedly. Indeed, from the first time he saw her enter combat, some part of his mind that was uninvolved with keeping them both alive drank in her lethality. And in some way he only partly understood, that lethality was entwined with her sexual awareness. There was something elemental in her aggressiveness, the sense of something dark and ferocious barely held in check, that he couldn't quite put out of his mind. When he thought about it in quieter moments, his treacherous thoughts would inevitably imagine that same elemental intensity in...more carnal circumstances. Dangerous thoughts, my lad, not that someone like her would do more than get a moment’s amusement from you before moving on. However tempting she may be, Siths’ love affairs often end badly...for the non-Sith. And you are here to help her complete Baras's missions and keep an eye on her. Certainly not to fantasize about her...
And none of those lectures he gave himself made these terrifying and thrilling rides on her speeder bike with his arms around her waist any more comfortable.
I want to say a huge thank you to oregonienne who has been acting as a reader for me!
Chapter 20: "Passion and Honor"
Ucevi contemplates on the puzzle that is Quinn, and an awkward moment.
Continues last chapter from Ucevi's POV.
Ucevi felt Quinn’s arms tighten reflexively around her waist as they shot into the air, and smiled inwardly. So far, he'd been able to deal with his fear of her seemingly reckless driving without even the hint of a complaint. She grudgingly had to admire that. There’s so much more courage in being afraid of something and still doing it than doing something because you’re too foolish to be afraid.
Nor had she been able to ignore his physical attraction to her. In fact, she was rather constantly, and pleasantly, aware of it, drawing strength from it. However, she'd been forced to conclude from the evidence of how he wrestled to control his attraction, not to mention the obvious embarrassment it caused him at times, that Baras had not made clear to the man his entire intention in planting him in her crew. Which should have made things easier for her.
Except Joran was right, damn him. The Imperial was as meticulously efficient and competent in the field as he had been as her support system on Balmorra. And who would have imagined that he had such a delightfully subtle, dry sense of humor? Carefully tempered by military discipline, naturally. There’s a dangerous line there between Sith and the military. Familiarity from someone like Vette, certainly, but when an Imperial officer steps over the line, you’ve probably lost their respect.
But even if Baras didn’t enlighten him as to the purpose of this assignment, Quinn could just as easily have seen getting into my bed as a ticket to restore his own military ambitions, especially since I haven’t been subtle about finding him attractive. Obviously he wants to. But doesn’t. While she was willing to tolerate an Imperial trying to establish connections that way with a rising Sith---within limits, a non-Force user had no chance of faking attraction---she had discovered that she felt grudging respect for Quinn’s refusal to try that easy route to overcoming whatever had stymied him for a decade.
The night they got into a debate over Sith opera, she realized she had shifted onto dangerous ground. While he was carefully respectful in his arguments, he wasn't willing to back down from his own opinions. At least twice Ucevi had intentionally misstated some detail. Most people, when I offer an opportunity like that, particularly someone trying to get on my good side, would simply have agreed. Not Quinn. He stood his ground, gave me evidence for his correction politely, without any condescension. That would have poisoned her opinion more quickly even than manipulation. And when she had clearly known a topic better, complete with her own reasoning, he quickly and gracefully conceded. Without groveling or flattery.
And that intellectual stimulation of a quick mind unafraid to engage in a lively, respectful debate had been...appealing. Far too appealing, dammit, when I’m already attracted to him, so much so that I think I forgot myself more than once because there was something in his expression. Speculation, perhaps. She had seriously considered asking him to go back to her room before she caught herself. Damn Baras and damn Tremel both! If I could have met him without so much hanging over my head… And damn Baras for leaving him to rot for a decade!
Another thing puzzled her. By controlling where they stayed, Vette had been able to intercept his private reports to Baras. Not that I had many doubts that Baras had orchestrated his request to serve with me, but it was good to have it confirmed that I was right. Not that there could have been much dangerous in those reports, Baras has bought the image of me as the thoughtless hedonist and once he thinks he understands someone, he’d need overwhelming evidence to change his mind. He’s too arrogant to have much self-doubt. But she never forgot that carelessness could be fatal, and knowing just what Baras knew could be the edge she needed to survive.
However she found the reports puzzling. This is not a sloppy person; Quinn's far more likely to include every detail down to how often I use the refresher than to omit potentially significant details.
Except he had. The reports barely mentioned her lightsaber drills, which were a given for any Sith who hoped to survive, much less her other workouts or her studies. Potentially, the Si-thar-ka posed a threat to her cover...or would have if Baras had had alliances with the Old Sith families. Of course if he had those ties, none of this would be needed. Had Quinn reported those structured drills with the staff, the wrong person could have suspected she had...connections that the child of minor Sith guards should not. Fortunately Baras appeared to be unaware there were quiet sub-cultures submerged beneath the surface of the Sith-blooded. Still, Quinn’s omissions just make it that much less likely that Baras will begin to suspect that I am not the apprentice he thought he’d grudgingly accepted, a woman with no connections, much less someone with the beginnings of a power base.
At least they were almost done on Nar Shaddaa. Quinn had surprised her with his own flexibility by suggesting that they make use of a unit of Republic forces. Most Imperials were too fanatical for expedience. She only hoped he wouldn't voice disapproval when she honored their bargain, but she had given her word, and she wouldn't betray her honor even when it meant keeping her word to enemies.
Ah well, for the moment she could enjoy the sensual pleasure of his arms around her waist reinforced by her sense of his...desire. Through passion I gain strength...
Lord Rathari bowed his way out with one last assurance that he was now her man, then she sent the rather startled Republic troops on their way as well. She thought their commander, at least, had understood that she acted out of a sense of honor and strength that formed a small space of common ground between them.
But as soon as all of them were out of sight, she grimaced and began to remove the armor on her left arm. To her surprise, Quinn was instantly at her side, lending his assistance silently. She was unsurprised to discover that there was an angry line of red on the inside of her upper arm where Ratheri had scored a hit through a weak place in her armor. Adrenaline and combat focus had kept her from being more than marginally aware of the wound...until the melee ended.
Force of will and long practice had kept her from showing any sign of weakness in front of the others, though, and fortunately lightsaber wounds were self-cauterizing. Sith learn to endure, then channel pain, almost as soon as we learn to talk after all. But an undamaged body performed better in combat, and she had felt certain Rathari’s wound was bad enough to hamper her.
Nor was she wrong. Quinn scowled when he saw it. “My lord, I'm sorry I didn't realize he'd scored you so deeply. You should have said something sooner.”
She barked a rough laugh. “Captain, please, even the strongest predator does not dare let other predators smell blood.” Although she watched him work with detachment, a less detached part of her mind was far too aware of the delicate touch of his long, fine-boned fingers gently working on her arm, leaving a line of warmth behind that had nothing to do with pain or healing. That part of her mind that removed itself from pain, in fact, was treacherously conjuring up images of those slender fingers touching her in far more pleasant, less impersonal ways. Mmm, what I suspect those clever fingers could do...
Ucevi watched the crown of his dark head as he worked, applying kolto, but stopped him before he applied an analgesic. “No, Captain, I can use the pain.”
He obediently put the pack away, but frowned as he bent back over her arm to wrap it in a bandage. “If you say so, my lord, but won't the pain slow you down?”
“Sith channel the Force through passion, through emotions, and pain is a powerful fuel.” Unconsciously, she let her normal scowl slip, smiling at the top of his head. So few people ever dared ask. Even Vette was uneasy with the idea of how her abilities worked, clearly preferring to pretend it was magic. Joran, of course, had asked, but that particular conversation had led them to exactly the sort of relationship she didn't dare initiate with Quinn...however suggestive his sure touch on her was.
At exactly that moment when exhaustion and conflicted affection overrode her practiced demeanor, Quinn looked up unexpectedly, catching her unguarded expression. And whatever he saw before she covered it up caused him to pause for a long moment before he visibly swallowed and directed his attention back to her arm.
Chapter 21: "Curious Dance"
Drinks, dinner. Quinn surprises Ucevi with a confession. Making plans. And Vette.
Ucevi firmly informed Quinn that they wouldn’t be leaving Nar Shaddaa for at least two days to take care of maintenance---armor, weapons, the ship, and the crew themselves. He opened his mouth, then shut it silently as she scowled back, clearly realizing that she would accept no debate on the matter. The next planet Baras sends us to might barely have an Imperial presence---or any facilities---after all. It would be foolhardy to assume we’ll have adequate support, and he knows that.
A quick call to Vette produced directions to a nearby cantina from her list of “safe” ones, as well as her cheerful agreement to meet them for a bit of a celebration. Once there, the Sith briskly steered Quinn to an out-of-the-way table and sent the server droid scurrying with a no-nonsense order for Corellian whiskey, soda water, and appetizers.
The crowds wouldn’t descend on the cantina until a more fashionable hour, which meant they had their corner to themselves for the moment, and the droid quickly returned with a steaming platter and a half-bottle of whiskey before withdrawing with even more alacrity. Ucevi poured shots for each of them, trying to shift the mood away from that earlier, uncomfortable moment. After their second shot and several Bothan pot stickers each, it was clear that Quinn was just as eager to put any awkwardness behind them.
And then Quinn began telling her a story. Here we’ve been poking around, trying to find a way to fill in the gaps in his record, and he offers up the story of the Battle of Druckenwall as casually as if he was describing a trainee being reprimanded for failing to make his bed to regulation! Then she examined him more closely. If he grips that shot glass any more tightly, it’s going to shatter in his hands. It’s not indifference, he’s keeping an iron control over his feelings...feelings only someone with a strong sense of honor would have, or someone with a strong sense of duty would try to suppress. He was punished for being a good officer, dammit!
But while she found herself getting angry at the Imperial military for its callous treatment of Quinn, her anger at Baras himself grew far more. I can’t be certain why he intervened in the first place, and I can’t very well ask unless I want Quinn to guess that I’d already seen his record and knew he’d been court martialed. But Baras was clever in who he chose. Quinn feels such a strong debt to Baras for preserving his honor that it never occurs to him to ask himself why? Why hadn’t he arranged for Quinn to get off Balmorra or at least receive a promotion in all that time? A Sith with Baras’s power can overrule a mere moff, and by releasing him from Balmorra when I left, he proved that he damned well had had that ability all along.
Pointing this out to Quinn would hardly be productive at this moment. But later, yes, I want to make certain he’s considered that. For now, it was enough that she could read the relief in his face when she expressed her confidence in him. And again she cursed Baras inwardly. The longer I serve that brute, the more personal this vendetta of Tremel’s becomes for me.
After that, they both silently finished their third shot of whiskey and were making inroads on the savory pot stickers when Vette finally arrived. She cheerfully slid into the booth next to Ucevi, handing her a data pad in exchange for a shot glass with a mischievous grin. “What, no Flaming Ilum shots tonight...my lord?”
Quinn stiffened a little at the Twi’lek’s casual dismissal of the fine whiskey in her hand as well as the familiar insolence in that pause before Ucevi’s title, but his slightly offended air shifted to puzzled when Ucevi herself chuckled. “Not tonight, Vette. I believe our medic here would be offended if I undid his work on my arm by brawling, but there’s always tomorrow night.” He looked at her as if debating whether or not she was joking, but he clearly felt compelled to treat the comment seriously.
“My lord, if you’ll forgive me, I’m not certain it would be wise to stress your healing injury unnecessarily. That lightsaber wound was perhaps deeper than you realize.”
“Not to worry, Quinn, between your expert handiwork and the Force, I’ll be ready to wrestle a gundark by tomorrow night.” She toasted him with her shot glass, eyes gleaming with unexplained humor.
“If you say so, my lord.”
“So, how’d you get yourself banged up, my lord?” Vette grabbed one of the last pot stickers then took a sip of her own whiskey with a satisfied sigh.
“Rathari’s offer was a trap, of course, and we had to fight him and his people. Fortunately Quinn had arranged a counter to it, but Rathari managed to score me before I brought him to his knees. I have to say I’m very pleased with how that worked out. Baras’s spy has been silenced and Rathari is no longer interfering with his operations here. And I now have a full Sith lord who answers to me.” Though I need to remember to hint to you later that perhaps someone else should interfere with his slavery operation on Nar Shaddaa. Because you've more than hinted that you have contacts that can.
“Not bad! At least as far as I understand how you Sith work. I mean, this Rathari kinda out-ranks you, doesn’t he? So did he get demoted or did you get promoted?”
“It’s a bit more complicated than that, Vette, unless it’s the person directly above you and then you have to prove your, um, discretion. But yes, one route to elevate yourself is to defeat someone who outranks you, even if it’s quite...informal. The more powerful Sith you have under you, the more dangerous you appear.”
Vette toasted her cheekily with the whiskey, then set the glass on the table with a sigh. “Whatever. Just keep yourself breathing and I’m good. Well, I got your upgrades finished on the ship. And the armor-maker’ll be ready for you tomorrow morning. She took measurements from your spare set so there's only the final fittings, and she should have any adjustments to your new armor done within a day after she sees you.”
“Excellent! You're sure she's good?” The Sith woman idly twirled an empty shot glass between her thumb and forefinger.
“Best custom armor-maker on Nar Shaddaa, found and commissioned. Nothing but the best for my lord!” Her cocky grin was contagious, and Ucevi chuckled.
“Or the best my funds can afford, at least.” The Sith chuckled. “But good to know. Captain, most of your gear seems to be in new condition, but I want to take you shopping for a new blaster and restock your medical supplies. In fact, make a list. Replacement battery packs for weapons, any crucial parts and components that might be hard to get in the field. Think long-term and assume we might not have access to resupply for up to three months and make a list.” Then she raised a brow stalk before glancing toward the bar. “Tomorrow. Tonight we celebrate.”
Vette followed her gaze, then smirked. “Booked rooms for tonight already, my lord? I mean, if you're making plans.”
Ucevi gave her a mock-scowl. “Yes, I've booked rooms, tease. And yes, you both have your own, which I assume answers your real question?”
“Maybe.” Vette continued smirking. “Can I help it if I saw who you were looking at, my lord ?”
“Hmm, not for the reasons you’re thinking for once. He may not be wearing robes, but there’s a light saber under that jacket, not a blaster---the bulge is just a little different if you know what to look for.” Ucevi shrugged, then pulled up the holo-menu from the table. She scrolled through it thoughtfully while Quinn fidgeted uncomfortably with his whiskey, trying to pretend he didn’t understand perfectly well what Vette had been asking. It isn’t as if he shouldn’t know by now.
“So? I’d think another Sith would be perfect, all that passion and, er, stuff.”
“He’s not Sith.” Ucevi dropped the words casually, but it took a second or two for the implications to penetrate, then two heads snapped around almost in unison to glare intently at the slender, pale human in clothes more typical of a freighter captain than a Force user of any type. “Don’t worry, he’s noticed me, but I’m not his focus. The Hutts don’t expect much, but they insist people observe a truce of sorts in the better areas of Nar Shaddaa.” Both stopped staring, but were clearly uneasy with letting the enemy out of a clear line of sight. “Besides, I’m not interested in either Jedi or Sith for tonight. Or any night. As satisfying as it might be to corrupt the dedication of a Jedi.”
As Ucevi pushed the button to summon the serving droid, Vette asked curiously. “Why not? Not that I really understand the appeal to begin with.”
“So you’ve mentioned.” The woman’s tone was light, but the serving droid arrived and she placed an order for several entrees, pausing with a raised brow stalk in a silent inquiry to let her crew express an opinion. But once the droid was gone with their order, she refilled everyone’s glass and leaned back, apparently completely at ease despite the Jedi still at the bar. “No Sith, and especially no Sith pure-bloods.” She turned the full glass idly in her fingers, staring at it rather than drinking.
“OK. So, why?” Vette, as usual, was like a pet tukata with her teeth sunk into an old rug, dragging it stubbornly across the floor.
“Far too dangerous, at least on casual acquaintance.” Ucevi shrugged. Neither of them need to know the rest of it, not that I’m prepared to trust even Vette with that information yet. “Or did you think Sith never use that means to get close to someone they want to remove? I would know there was something wrong with a non-Force user, but a Force user?”
“Wow. Glad I don’t have to think like that. Not that I plan to...well, you know.” Vette managed to embarrass herself briefly, eyes flicking uneasily to Quinn, then she seemed to shrug it off.
“If that’s always been part of it, you really don’t think that much about it. Of course, a touch of danger adds to the…”
“Never mind!” Vette interrupted hastily at the wicked gleam in Ucevi's eyes. “So, you’d always know with a non-Force user?”
“Hmm, someone particularly well-trained might be able to hide their intentions from me, especially if he or she were genuinely attracted.” Her expression was bland now, but Quinn gave her a suspicious look, as if aware of the mischief lurking beneath. “Or just got their kicks from assassinating people in the act.”
“Wait, what?” Vette’s shock outweighed her embarrassment at the discussion, and distracted her from the fact that Ucevi hadn’t quite answered her question. “You mean there are people who...eww! That’s disgusting.”
“Passion can be a strange thing sometimes. And yes, there are some people with very odd ideas about pleasure, which I would think you’d know by now.” Ucevi finally took a sip of the whiskey she held, eyes flicking from Vette to watch Quinn, his composure firmly in place, even if he clearly wished the subject was almost anything else. Yet more evidence that Baras is playing him as a pawn in all this. That’s not the response of someone who’s been trained or even expects to use sex as a weapon.
“Wow. Now I’m going to have bad dreams tonight.” Vette downed her shot smoothly and reached for the bottle, refilling her own glass. Not that you show any signs of being interested in anyone, certainly not someone you'd meet in a cantina, but I want you to remember this if that time comes.
“Good. Because it’s a particularly easy way to get someone into a position to be kidnapped as well.” Her eyes caught movement, and the Sith woman set her glass down cheerfully, as if the topic had been nothing more than the latest swoop race and not sex, murder, and kidnapping. “And here’s our dinner!”
Chapter 22: "To Dance with Words"
Breakfast, a bit of verbal sparring, and shopping, punctuated by more questions.
Quinn entered the cantina early the next morning with his datapad in hand, expecting to work alone for an hour or two over caff and breakfast. Not that Ucevi was normally a late sleeper, but while he’d had a few drinks, spread over the entire evening, the two women had indulged a bit more heavily. And Ucevi had eventually allowed herself to be approached by an attractive, dark-haired man who had the bearing and manners of someone who was or had been an Imperial officer. Clearly she had planned to make a late night of it and, presumably, a late morning as well.
By now, Quinn had observed enough to be aware that, while Ucevi often made a point of speaking to men she found interesting, often flirting briefly with them, she always walked away and left it to them to approach her to follow up on that flirtation. I can’t decide if she’s issuing an invitation or laying a trap. Certainly some find themselves firmly rebuffed, and a few have been foolish enough to forget who she is, like that local businessman who tried grabbing her shoulder when she turned her back on him. I suspect he didn’t recover his voice after being choked for at least a couple of days and I’m certain her knee left a, um, rather lasting impression.
For some reason, Quinn had found last night’s flirtation unsettling, though the man had certainly been both respectful and properly cautious in his admiration, and even Quinn couldn’t find anything to criticize in his demeanor. Though in all honesty, she doesn't tolerate those who aren't. But Quinn had excused himself and left Vette alone in the cantina once Ucevi and the man started dancing, using the opportunity and privacy to make his report on the successful mission to Baras, and planning to make an early night of it. Instead, he’d tossed and turned for an hour or two, unable to explain his uneasiness. It certainly isn’t any business of mine where she finds her entertainment, after all, he scolded.
At least Baras had seemed distracted and was quickly satisfied with the most cursory report, only barking a humorless laugh when informed that his apprentice was safely distracted at the moment. Just as well...I don’t think he’d be pleased about Lord Rathari. And if Baras finds out and reprimands her for it, she’ll know where he found out. But Quinn was still a bit sleep-fuddled after the restless night, mostly thinking of the resupply list the Sith woman had asked him to prepare, so he was taken completely off-guard when he glanced up to discover Ucevi already sitting at the same table as the previous evening. She was alternately eating from a bowl of some sort of grain and meat that even from here smelled rather delicious---if rather spicy from his experience with her preferred foods---and from a plate of sliced fruits, her attention fixed on the datapad in her hand. In front of her was a large pot of caff and two empty cups in addition to the half empty cup in front of her, clearly meant for Vette and himself.
“Good morning, Captain. Sleepless night?” By now, he was accustomed to the fact that she could identify him without looking up, but he did find himself unaccountably blushing about his sleeplessness. Buck up, man. It isn’t as if she knows, and I am not interested. Quinn firmly ignored the little voice that mocked that last thought.
“A little, my lord. I think the adrenaline from that final fight may have been slow in wearing off.”
“Of course.” She took a sip from the half empty cup of caff without looking up at him. “Of course there are also ways to burn off that adrenaline quickly so you sleep better.” There was just the hint of a drawl, and a tiny knowing curve to Ucevi’s lips that made him incredibly thankful that she did not choose that moment to look up at him and catch his blush.
“I’ll...take your word for it, my lord.”
She vaguely gestured at the other chairs, still intent on the datapad. “Get some caff and some breakfast, Captain.”
Feeling off-balance, he sat down and poured a cup of the caff. Then, in response to some impulse he couldn’t explain, he suddenly asked, “You were up rather early, my lord, I hope your evening didn’t go awry?” The moment the words were out of his mouth, he regretted them, his cheeks burning again. And this time, she finally looked up at him, golden eyes dancing with barely suppressed laughter.
“Why, Captain, are you asking if I...enjoyed my evening?”
Oh, Emperor! What have I gotten myself into? Then with more of that inexplicable impulsiveness, mixed with new resolve, he decided he’d had enough of simply being a spectator on the banter between the two women. “My lord, why shouldn’t I be concerned, if, as you said yesterday, your strength comes from your passions?”
Her eyes widened in surprise, and Quinn felt just a moment of pleasure at having caught her off-guard, even as his gut twisted in anticipation of some sort of retribution for his insubordination, however subtle. No matter how much evidence he had that she was not capricious, a lifetime of training was hard to ignore.
Then she leaned back in her seat and chuckled in delight, still holding the datapad against her chest. “Well said, Captain! In that case, I can reassure you, my evening ended quite well, though perhaps earlier than I’d planned.” The Sith-blooded woman grinned mischievously, and he furiously struggled to not speculate on why it might have ended early. “From the way you looked when you approached the table, I may have gotten rather more sleep than you did. Might I suggest you might need an...outlet for that adrenaline?”
To his relief, she looked back down at the datapad rather than watch his blush that seemed to have become a permanent feature this morning. He sipped his caff, accepted the bowl the serving droid handed him, then ate for a couple of minutes in silence, watching her study the datapad. “Something important, my lord?”
“Hmm? No, sorry, just catching up on something Vette sent me late last night.” She cleared the display on the datapad and set it down, addressing herself to her food with gusto. “And I just sent Vette a wake-up message. Otherwise she’s likely to sleep until lunchtime.”
Ucevi cheerfully hurried the others through breakfast, then whisked them both off by taxi to an arms dealer that Vette had apparently located on Ucevi’s orders. A legal private arms dealer, as the Hutts had few laws regarding any profitable business. Well, as long as they got their cut of the profits. The man who greeted them answered most of Ucevi’s questions with wordless nods and shakes of his head, only speaking when promising he could deliver customized weapons on short order. Startlingly knowledgeable questions, actually. In fact, Ucevi did almost all of the initial negotiations, only asking Quinn and Vette for input on their personal preferences.
Quinn was all too aware that he failed to conceal his surprise at her familiarity---at least in theory---with blaster pistols. She's Sith-blood! Who trains a Sith-blood in any weapons other than a light saber, unless it's clear that they aren't Force-sensitive? It makes no sense, when her records show someone who should never have learned any hand-to-hand combat or the basics of blaster-type weapons?
He felt himself flush with embarrassment---he was beginning to feel as if he’d spent the entire morning red---when her lips twitched at his surprise. But to his profound relief she pretended not to notice. This time. After yesterday and this morning’s breakfast, I'm not sure how I'd handle it if she said something suggestive in front of Vette, much less a stranger.
She also insisted that he and Vette both take their time and thoroughly test every blaster pistol with live fire on the shop’s range. Vette grumbled a bit at the tediousness, but he felt his estimation of the apprentice’s common sense rising. You can only be certain of a weapon’s performance by actually using it. Ucevi was quietly adamant in the face of Vette’s reluctance, personally supervising as they tested each weapon on targets.
Nor did she quibble at price, instead prioritizing durable, accurate weapons which they found comfortable for their hand with the grips fitted and the sights adjusted to exactly suit them. Not that blaster pistols were expensive...as weapons went...unless they were prototypes or one-of-a-kind pieces. But Quinn felt a bit giddy at having a high-quality weapon customized just for him, almost decadent. He'd always made do with standard issue weapons; only officers from wealthy families or a handful of snipers could ever expect to use such a high quality weapon. Technically, I suppose the weapon belongs to her, but how much use would someone else get from one customized for me?
Once she was satisfied, she summoned another taxi, allowing Vette to enter the destination while she reclined against the seat, and Quinn was uncomfortably aware of her eyes on him, measuringly. He still was grappling with what he had glimpsed in her face the day before. No, I have to have imagined that. Wishful thinking. During that long, too-warm night alone in his room, he had tried repeatedly to convince himself that he had imagined it, especially since she had abruptly gone from comfortably companionable back to her earlier detached coolness after that. Even the verbal innuendo between them this morning now felt somewhat impersonal.
It wasn't that touch of heat in her eyes that had surprised him, either. I’ve seen that warmth and interest in her eyes directed at others often enough to recognize it when it’s directed at me. Though the void alone knows why she might find me physically attractive, especially when there are men like Captain Joran… She has no lack of male attention, and I suppose female attention as well if that interests her. Captain Joran, he may be Chiss, but clearly people find him charming. Reluctantly, he admitted to himself that even he had felt warmed by the man’s genuine interest in the people around him. And she finds him charming enough to make a detour to visit him, a visit that he just as clearly welcomed.
No, it wasn’t that warmth that had left him shaken. In combat, Baras’s apprentice exuded that odd elemental lethality that Quinn privately found so attractive. And socially she could relax and demonstrate a surprising sense of humor for a Sith. At other times she turned on a sensuality directed at him that he found both compelling and uncomfortable. But most of the time, she was simply intense, cynical, arrogant...commanding. In his mind she was the perfect Sith, the projection of the power and passion she represented while discouraging undue familiarity from all but those closest to her.
But for a single moment, he felt as if a curtain had briefly parted. Confidence, but not arrogance, no cynicism, just a quiet smile that invited....that very familiarity she normally discouraged? And even, perhaps, genuine fondness.
No, surely I imagined it.
Well, this chapter took a while, and in fact kept growing as I edited it and finally became two chapters. Hopefully, since I've already done quite a bit of editing on the next chapter that I split from this, I'll be able to get it online more quickly.
Chapter 23: "To Live in her Shadow"
Shopping, and a very private conversation about the past, present, and future.
Continues the last chapter from Ucevi's POV, with a bit about her past and introducing another new character.
Vette chirped a bright greeting as they entered the armor shop, answered by a wordlessly sour nod from the Twi’lek craftsman, a woman whose scowl only marginally relaxed when she was introduced to Ucevi. She responded with an equally wordless nod, peripherally aware that Quinn was frowning at the old woman’s brusque manner, clearly offended on her behalf. At least it gives him something else to do besides give me sidelong looks when he doesn’t think I’ll notice. I thought he was relaxing a little earlier, at least. Ah, well. He’ll have to get used to the idea that outside the Empire, people don't show the same deference to a Sith as within if he’s going to remain in my crew.
Grandmother had brought her to Nar Shaddaa as a child specifically to make certain she knew what it meant to be Sith outside the Empire.
Among other things. And this was one of those "other things".
Ucevi nodded curtly back at the woman who silently pointed at an intimidatingly massive set of armor that was ready for her inspection. The Sith-blooded woman subjected the finely polished exterior surfaces and the flexible joints to a meticulous, and expert, scrutiny. Satisfied, she raised an eyebrow stalk at the two with her, quickly giving them instructions while the craftsman tersely ordered one of her droid assistants to take the armor to one of the fitting rooms. “Rather than stand around watching as they spend an hour or two adjusting padding to get the fit right, Quinn, start that list we discussed. Vette, talk to some of your cronies and find out the best places to get those supplies. And see about a good place to get lunch.”
She made her expression as stern as she could while giving them their orders. This is work today, not a holiday, dammit, let’s see if they can act like a team without my presence.
Leading Ucevi into the back of the shop, the woman maintained her scowl until they were behind closed doors with the set of armor. Then as soon as the door was secured, the woman dropped her mask and gave a relieved sigh, extending her hands to Ucevi with a brief, but sincere, smile. “Dammit, my lord, I began to wonder if I'd ever see you again after we heard that you'd vanished a few months ago. I was so relieved when the old man sent word to expect you soon.”
Ucevi squeezed her hands in return, then pulled her briefly into a brief embrace, chuckling. “It’s been a closer thing than I like more than once, Toth’anla. But I'm here now. First, though, do you have a surveillance camera on the reception area?”
Silently---except for a disdainful sniff---the older woman flipped a switch, and a screen lit up showing the officer and ex-thief stiffly but politely working together. The woman tapped her lip with a frown. “Are either of them...?”
“She knows a little, and I think she might work out. But him...he owes the bastard I'm apprenticed to, who'll probably demand payment with my head eventually, so be particularly cautious around him. He's under orders to watch me, and the main reason for this subterfuge to meet with you.” And if he ever heard you speak enough to realize your accent isn't just Imperial, but pure Dromund Kaas...
Ucevi began stripping casually while the woman undid seals and fasteners as a prelude to helping her into the new armor.
“Understood, though I’ll feel a lot better once you’re fighting in a proper set of my armor. I'm glad you thought to write your instructions down. Otherwise by the time they passed through Joran, Joran’s contact, the old man, and his courier, I'm not sure I'd have trusted them.”
“That was the easy part. The difficult part was thinking up criteria that almost guaranteed Vette would end up at your door without knowing I wanted her to find you.” Ucevi raised her arms to allow the chest piece to be lifted up and fastened onto her. “I admit, I also knew Vette would favor you because you're Twi’lek, which feels a bit…”
“Cynical? Sometimes you have to work with every weapon you have, though I can't say being a Twi’lek has ever worked to my advantage before. I admit, when a cute young Twi’lek walked in and asked about a commission for a Sith’s armor, I never would have suspected she was your contact. Your grandmother couldn’t have hid her reaction better than I did when that girl dropped my own handiwork on the counter to use as a pattern.” She briskly grabbed an arm, rotating it in a full circle to ensure that the Sith could move it freely and comfortably, then repeated the process with the other arm, her scowl returning out of habit.
“The armor should fit almost perfectly, my lord; Joran included a copy of the scans he took of you for the old man. Outwardly, it’ll just look like you splurged a bit on quality custom-fitted armor, but not expensive enough to raise any suspicions. Or any brow stalks, as the case may be.” Ucevi snorted at her tart humor.
“I used prototype materials, from the armor plate which is a low weight alloy to a more flexible and comfortable synthetic for the joints. All finished to look like something cheaper, of course. And it’ll help you maintain your temperature, powered with a kinetic system. As long as you’re in motion, you’ll generate power for the system, and the more you fight, the better it performs. I’ve heard rumor of experiments on armor that includes kolto systems and self-repair functions, but I haven’t been able to acquire reliable details yet.” Her tone was a little wistful at admitting that lack of intel.
“That definitely sounds useful if you can track it down. Let's test the rest of it to be certain I haven't added or lost any muscle since Joran took the scans, then take advantage of the rest of the time they expect you to spend on getting the padding perfect.”
The craftsman worked rapidly, helping Ucevi into each piece and giving every rotation point several tests for rubbing and freedom of movement, questioning the Sith woman fiercely. When armor did not have the perfect fit of a second skin, it could slow or throw off the wearer at a crucial moment, and unexpected pain from a blister or a spot rubbed raw could do the same. As they worked, Ucevi recounted a brief summary of her reluctant Trial that had made her Baras’s apprentice.
When the entire set had been donned and scrutinized, the craftsman stood back while Ucevi ran through a quick series of practice blows and full movements before nodding her approval. But Anla scowled. “Never thought I'd be called on to fit one of your family into that kind of armor, much less see any of you fight in that style, my lord.”
“Not even to put me into deep cover after Grandmother’s death?” Ucevi’s lips curled in amusement.
“Not deep enough, apparently.” Anla snorted.
Instead of answering, the Sith glanced at the screen to see Vette holding a holocommunicator while Quinn patiently described something to the flickering image of a Cathar man. Well, they don't exactly look thrilled, but if that's the most distasteful duty I ever ask them to do, they'll be remarkably fortunate. Her lips twisted briefly. “It would seem I put enough fear of the Sith in them that they’re taking me at my word. That’s one less thing to worry about.”
“Problems, my lord?” Anla glared at the screen as if considering how best to reach through and choke both of them, only relaxing reluctantly when Ucevi chuckled.
“Anla, your job isn't keeping my crew in line; mine is.”
“Habit, my lord. My word is my honor, my honor is my life. ” She echoed the phrase with less fervor than Joran, delivering the words almost like a eulogy. Then again, perhaps for her, it is. Then she slapped Ucevi on the shoulder with surprising familiarity and began to help her out of the armor. “I wouldn't be here without your grandmother.”
“Which is your polite reminder that you still think of me as her grandchild, first and foremost.”
The woman snorted, then grinned sideways. “Of course not. I would never look at you and see a scrawny kid with a black eye and bruises, trying to out-glare a Darth rather than confess what she'd been into. This time.”
“Sith children who are timid don't survive.” Ucevi stretched her arms over her head to allow access to the fasteners on the chest piece.
“I'll take your word for it. Timid is not a word anyone would have ever used to describe you, but no one would have called you impulsive either, even as a child. You planned your mischief. Which she knew.”
The woman settled the last piece of the armor back onto the form she used to work on it, then stood with her fists on her hips, studying the younger Sith woman with a critical eye before nodding. “I think she'd be pleased with who you are now. Almost as pleased as the day you got those .” She pointed briefly at the parallel scars on the left side of Ucevi’s face, then began handing pieces of her old armor to Ucevi to re-dress.
“I’d never have guessed from the way she carried on.” Ucevi said dryly.
“Of course she was. There you were, bleeding all over the armory floor and your brand new armor---your first armor that I’d just finished making the day before, if you’ll recall---glaring back at her as you tartly informed her you were no idiot. You'd spent a month observing a sleen’s nest, thank you very much, and knew exactly when the parents and the rest of the pack were away before you nipped in to steal one of the half-grown hatchlings. Armed with nothing but that pole you trained with. You'd considered everything.”
“Everything except the hatchling deciding I was food.” Ucevi laughed ruefully. “But I made it back with her.”
“And that was when your grandmother knew for certain that you were the successor she needed, the one Sindari could never be.”
The grin slipped from Ucevi’s lips, and she studied the older woman intently. “You knew…”
Before she could finish asking her question, Anla was shaking her head. “I know what you’re going to ask, more or less. Of course I knew her, and no, I’m not going to answer questions.” Anla straightened, her arms folded across her chest. “I may not understand why your grandmother made the choices she did, but I owe it to her to respect them and believe she had her reasons.”
“And you never have any doubts?” Ucevi studied the floor as she asked the question in an uncharacteristically subdued voice.
Anla studied her for a moment, then stepped closer, one warm hand tilting Ucevi’s face up to meet her eyes with unexpected warmth. “We all have doubts, child, and you have more reasons to doubt than most. But what are the alternatives? Fail and quietly accept dishonor and oblivion?”
“I know. But it’s already been nine years, and I may not be able to fulfill my bargain with Tremel for years more…” Ucevi shrugged, then straightened her shoulders with a deep breath, raising her chin proudly. “I am Sith. We endure. And we definitely don’t whine about the galaxy being ‘unfair.’”
“Whine away while you have a few minutes as yourself. I’ll just kick you in the ass for your Grandmother if you start wallowing. My lord.” The woman scowled, but the corners of her lips twitched.
“Now you sound like Grandmother. I’m not sure if it’s more unnerving to hear you call me my lord or more irritating that you’re still calling me child .”
“Someone has to.”
Ucevi laughed then raised one brow stalk as she pulled out a datapad. “As delighted as I am to see you, your brilliance with armor was only an excuse.” At the older woman’s scowl, she corrected herself with just a touch of complacent satisfaction that she’d successfully needled Anla. “Well, mostly. I can’t pretend I haven’t spent far too much time in the last few years wishing for some of your finer work.”
“Hmmph, I should hope so. That set she dropped on my counter was meant for light training, not real combat.”
Ucevi’s eyes twinkled. “Your idea of light training armor is better than most Sith guards wear, and served me quite well through a lot of real combat.” Then she flipped the datapad up with a flourish, before presenting it to the other woman. “But this was the real reason I took a chance. Partly, I was sent here to remove a Sith lord who was threatening Baras’s operations on Nar Shaddaa. Including a slaving operation.”
Anla’s crossed her arms, sobering instantly. “And since you succeeded, slaves are moving through to the Empire without hindrance again, yes?
“Yes.” Ucevi grimaced. “Duty required me to carry out his orders, even if I interpreted those orders my own way. Honor, however, requires that I balance out that harm.”
Anla extended her hand for the datapad. “Leave it in my hands. We’ll make sure ‘accidents’ happen that mysteriously allow as many slaves to escape as we can manage. We’ll have to be subtle, though, because if the Empire complains to the Hutts, things could become...difficult for us.”
“Which would put the old man’s operation at risk. Do as much damage as you can without risking your people or him. However, the young Twi’lek woman who approached you? I believe she and some friends of hers here on Nar Shaddaa would be vitally interested in participating. When she comes to pick up my armor tomorrow morning, use your judgment about whether to feel her out cautiously or to simply drop a little of the information on that disc to her.”
The Twi’lek woman frowned. “You don’t want to recruit her for this yourself?”
“No. She has a lot of ambitions for changing things for Twi’leks, but I’d rather put opportunity and resources in her way that she can choose to use rather than let her know I was involved. I want her to know this is her achievement, not feel as if it’s a gift from me that she has to feel grateful for. Gratitude is poisonous. If she ever asks for help, of course I will.”
The older woman glanced at the disc, then back at Ucevi. “Very well, then. I’ll pass word back through to Joran so he can let you know how involved she gets.” Her eyes had grown suspiciously bright, but she simply turned to the display. “Now, you know about the Old Man’s request ,” the last word spoken with heavy irony and emphasized with a pause, “but he also sent some reports you should see...”
Chapter 24: "The Dance Between"
Ucevi gets philosophical, Quinn surprises her, and Vette gets a little jealous.
Ucevi slowly bent her right leg in a lunge, arms draped over the staff across her shoulders, feeling the stretch. And inwardly winced as a new bruise made itself known. Not outwardly, though. Outwardly she grinned, as much at her own folly as to pour oil on the flames of silent disapproval she imagined from her audience on the other side of the cargo hold as both started their morning workouts late.
Quinn clearly had taken the jokes between her and Vette about Flaming Ilum shots and brawls as just that: a joke. Judging from his face when the dust settled last night, I’m not certain he will recover from the shock of a full Sith cheerfully brawling with a couple of dock rats. Not that either woman had over-indulged---the shots, made properly, had relatively little alcohol in them by the time they were consumed, a trick many were unaware of---but in the right, or perhaps wrong, cantina, it was almost a certainty that someone would take offense. Which, of course, is why both Vette and I enjoy them. I’m not sure who was more surprised the first time---me discovering that Vette enjoys a good scrap, or her discovering that I do…
The injury to her upper arm from the fight with Rathari was mostly healed, thanks to Quinn’s careful attention, but she still was very conscious of it each time she stretched, and Ucevi scowled out of habit. Between that, the bruises from the fight, and my very pleasant entertainment later---an Imperial officer out of uniform or I’ll eat my lightsaber---I’m probably not going to lose myself in the si-thar-ka this morning.
But it sounds as if Baras is ordering us to Tatooine next and from what Vette’s been able to learn, the Empire’s presence there is almost non-existent. I wasn’t about to pass up a last chance for a while to enjoy myself. One tiny settlement---Mos Ila---and a handful of outposts and camps. And sand and heat everywhere. Vette said Imperials complain that you can’t even get a drink without sand at the bottom of the glass. The heat’s not a problem for me, one of the first things Grandmother taught me was to use the Force to adjust my body to heat or cold. But I’ll have to watch Quinn. I’m not about to leave him on the ship unsupervised, even with all of Vette’s precautions. And I should see if he needs protection from the sun as well as heat; with that fair skin, he could get a dangerous burn almost the instant we walk out of the space port.
She finished the last stretch and swung the staff from her shoulders to begin the first movement of the si-thar-ka. Her movements were even slower and more deliberate than usual as she let her line of thought slowly drift to its natural end while unconsciously measuring the increase in speed against the readiness of her body and mind.
At least we’ve dealt with all of Baras’s spies for the moment, damn him. Just the thought of being forced to kill a capable Imperial like Commander Rylon still stirred a cold, hard knot of rage in her stomach. When the conflict inevitably heated back up, he would have been in a position to consistently sabotage Republic battles and provide critical intelligence to the Empire about troop deployments, possibly one of the most valuable assets the Empire could have had, and so loyal that he helped engineer his own death to protect his cover. All that potential thrown away on an feud between two old men. A petty grudge. At least the commander died knowing that the wretch he fathered still survived, and maybe that pathetic child will make something of himself with a fresh start. Who knows? Maybe he’ll try to live up to his father’s reputation now that his knowledge that his father was a spy has been removed. Wouldn’t that be ironic?
She’d felt no similar qualms about the spy on Nar Shaddaa. After all, Lord Rathari killed him, not her, and the worm had already proven he would turn quickly on the hand that fed him, though at least he hadn’t gone to the Republic. Not that she counted on Lord Rathari’s own loyalty to last past the moment he perceived someone else as a threat to her . His loyalty rested solely on his belief that she was strong enough to remove Baras. And while he might briefly feel grateful for surviving, that would be balanced, perhaps outweighed, by the sense that her mercy demonstrated weakness on her part. Never trust in gratitude alone, especially in the Empire.
Still, if she used him cautiously and Anla’s people kept close tabs on him, Rathari could be a valuable asset. Baras would know, of course. She couldn’t count on Quinn’s curious reticence about some of her daily activities to extend that far in his reports. I can’t count on more than a lie or two by omission. But I’m the only asset Baras has who is powerful enough to take down Rathari, not without expending more resources than he can spare...at least not for someone no longer a direct threat. And she could count on Rathari’s hatred of Baras to protect her from his direct subversion, at least by Baras, and that hatred might give his gratitude enough weight. Maybe .
Ucevi let go of that last thought as she flowed from the last thrust of one movement into the spin that began the next movement, settling for a slightly slower speed than normal. Surprisingly, she lost herself in the spins, thrusts, jabs, blocks, strikes, and intricate footwork more than she had anticipated.
The si-thar-ka ritual was not primarily a trial of endurance or an exercise in pushing past pain, but one of precision, a quest for perfection of movement and motion in which the mind watched for any flaws in the body’s memory. When body and mind worked together, when they approached that perfection...there was no experience like that fierce pleasure, the sense of eternally revolving on a pivot point between the chaos of creation and the inertia of death. Perfectly poised on that edge of struggle, of battle.
“We dance between creation and destruction. Through passion and struggle we gain power over ourselves and others. The power to build and fight, the power to lead to victory. But while the Force sings with our passions, it hungers for our lives. That power to create and build is also the power to destroy, and one is meaningless without the other. All life is struggle, and only in the instant of death can we know the illusion of peace, the absence of passion, of life.”
A slight twinge from her upper arm brought her back to herself, and she gradually slowed, bring her current movement to an end, and after holding the final position for a few moments, she relaxed and knelt, staff across her legs, to meditate.
Odd that I can still hear that chant, hear Grandmother’s voice, so clearly. All things that live also die and in death eventually find peace or rebirth, though even then that death still feeds the chaos that is life. But there must first be passion, birth, struggle. Sometimes I wonder if any of the Jedi have ever realized what they sounded like to my ancestors with their reverence for peace at any cost and their fear of passion. No wonder they saw the Jedi as a dangerously perverted death cult that unbalanced the Force, even without the Jedi attempts at genocide.
Without passion, without struggle, without change, there is only inertia, true death, an ending of all life. Not that the dark ones who found and conquered my ancestors were much better, but at least we could find common ground with them and from that common ground came the Sith Code. Sometimes I wonder if my ancestors would recognize those of us who survived, who adapted. Would they think us more human than Sith-blooded?
After so many centuries, how much do we truly remember? We memorize the words and the lessons, but have the meanings of the words changed? The world we live in now, the compromises we’ve made, how much have they changed how we understand the words? How much have we lost? Forgotten? Buried on purpose from shame?
Most mornings, her meditation served to focus her passions, her connection to the Force. But not this morning. Perhaps it was seeing Toth’Anla again that had unsettled her and brought her doubts back to the surface. But Anla was right. She could choose to embrace that struggle, believe in the fierce passion of that dance, or she could accept dishonor and oblivion, for herself, for all the others. And betray the Shadows.
Does it matter if the words have changed if they’re our words now? After all, nothing is served by clinging to a dead culture except death; only a living, changing one serves us as we are now and as the galaxy is now. The measure is in how it serves our struggle to survive, here and now, and how it has helped keep us alive as a people. Quiet and hidden, perhaps, but still here.
With that, she finally began to quiet her doubts and banished the sense of imminently tumbling off that pivot point on which she danced...and just in time. Her awareness of her surroundings warned her that Quinn, who had been radiating uncertainty since he’d entered the cargo bay, had stopped his own workout and was now standing nearby.
“Yes, Captain?” Ucevi took one last deep breath, and opened her eyes reluctantly, wondering if the Imperial was going to, politely, express his disapproval at her undignified fight with common dockworkers. At this moment, that was not a discussion she wanted to have, and she had to struggle to keep her tone even.
Quinn did look uneasy, as if steeling himself to do or say something. Damn.
“My lord, I, uh, was thinking about last night, and I wondered….” He hesitated when Ucevi’s eyes narrowed, and her lips thinned.
The flatness of her words clearly unnerved him a little, but he squared his shoulders and plunged ahead anyway. “I noticed that you took advantage of one of the hand-to-hand combat trainers on Balmorra, Sergeant Fesnil I believe, whenever you were near the base in Sobrik. But since then, you have only had Vette as a practice partner.”
The direction of Quinn’s comments left Ucevi feeling off-balance. No disapproval? No reminders of the importance of representing the Empire and Baras in an appropriately dignified manner? “True, but the practice is good for her. She needs to be competent to defend herself in any situation.”
“Agreed, my lord, but she is a beginner and no challenge to your skills. I thought...well, I thought perhaps you might enjoy having someone to spar with who could challenge you a bit more.”
“Who?” Ucevi mentally shook herself, not sure she was really grasping the unexpected direction of the conversation. “Are you...are you offering to spar with me, Quinn?”
“Yes, my lord.” He seemed to gain confidence from her confusion. “I may not be on Fesnil’s level, but I believe my abilities are relatively close to your own.” Quinn hesitated for a moment. “I found...self-improvement to be an excellent substitute for the lack of recreational opportunities on Balmorra.”
You mean you spent a decade rotting. And I’m betting most of the other officers shied away from associating with you for fear that whatever scandal had relegated you to that hellhole would taint them as well. Damn Baras and damn Broysc both. Slowly, her lips curled up in a lazy smile of anticipation. “Captain, that is an excellent idea, and I accept your offer.”
She unwound from her kneeling position on the floor, racking her staff briskly. “In fact, since we’re both warmed up, shall we start now?”
Vette hummed to herself as she approached the cargo bay, dressed for her hand-to-hand practice with Ucevi. For all the grumbling she did openly, she had been rather pleased that the Sith was concerned enough to make her learn combat skills that would ordinarily have been closed to her. And she’s a lot more patient than I would have thought. Not that I’d tell her than.
But her step slowed when she heard unfamiliar thump from the cargo bay, followed by Ucevi’s laugh and a man’s voice. Captain Stiffneck? She stopped humming and approached the hatch to the cargo hold silently, glancing around the edge of the opening to see Ucevi behind Quinn with her arm around his neck. What the…? Before she could finish the thought, Quinn let his legs drop from under him, rolling forward and throwing Ucevi over his head. She twisted as she fell, rolled as she landed and was on her feet and facing Quinn before he could follow up on his advantage.
Vette continued to watch silently and unobserved as the Sith woman bared her teeth in a grin and beckoned with one finger, daring the Imperial to come at her. OK, I already knew she loved sparring like that. But with him? I must not have gotten enough sleep last night, because it looks like he’s enjoying himself, and we all know he only has fun if there’s a regulation requiring it. After a few moments, she drew back, leaning against the bulkhead by the hatch, lower lip caught between her teeth. OK, fine. He’s better at it than I am. But I bet I can be better than him if I work at it, and then she’ll practice with me instead...
As I've mentioned, I headcannon multiple sub-cultures among the Sith-blooded. In Ucevi's case, this means a rather gray type of Force philosophy, mostly my own invention, but with roots in some things implied or mentioned in game.
Chapter 25: "Passion and Predator"
Master Nomen Karr, Agent Voloren, and Quinn blushes. A lot...
I don't normally change POV during a chapter, but this one does. The first part mostly provides an introduction to the second part.
“I am Jedi Master Nomen Karr. Do you know me?”
Quinn watched silently as Baras’s apprentice crossed her arms, legs apart with the confident tension of an experienced predator prepared for a fight. I know she’s supposed to be young...21, I thought? But where does even a Sith-blood get that level of confidence when facing a Jedi Master so young? She’d never faced any Jedi before the investigator on Balmorra, or a Sith more experienced than an acolyte before Lord Rathari. Had she?
“You’re my master’s sworn enemy.” There was more than a trace of contempt in her voice, Quinn thought, which was as it should be, though he was a little surprised at the intensity of her stare. Almost as if she’s memorizing the man’s face?
And he was unsurprised when the young Sith allowed the men manning the monitoring station to leave unharmed. They were clearly non-combatants and no threat, and Ucevi had demonstrated a certain...pride in only facing opponents worth the exercise of her skills. In fact the first time he had followed her into combat, two bystanders had been caught up in the fight, but when they’d tried to engage her, she had struck them in the temple with the hilt of her lightsaber with a surprising degree of precision.
If it was an act of mercy, odd as that might be for a Sith, she certainly showed no interest in their condition, whether unconscious or dead, once the fight was over. She stalked away from them as if they were beneath her notice, which I suppose they were. Still, it’s curiously unlike the reputation most Sith have...unless it’s peculiar to the Sith-blooded?
Her verbal sparring with the Jedi was carried through with all the aplomb of a Sith Lord with decades of experience behind her, someone who’d faced a dozen Masters. And he felt certain she was aware of Quinn’s approval. Just as she tensed when his head jerked around involuntarily when she claimed to mean the mysterious padawan no harm. Perhaps she is hoping to trick him? But surely she cannot think he’d believe that?
Yet when Karr ordered his ambushers to capture her, she spun to face them with a confident sneer. In truth the fight was almost embarrassingly brief, then the Sith woman contemptuously issued a challenge to Karr to face her himself, chin jutting out, eyes flashing. Bravado? Maybe, but she has never been impulsive or failed to plan or evaluate a situation carefully. Taunting him? Trying to convince him she’s reckless? Maybe.
Quinn was caught up in admiring her controlled, confident demeanor when he abruptly realized there was a trickle of blood on her right cheek and along her neck. Damn. How did I miss that? Well, nothing for it now. Given what she said after her confrontation with Lord Rathari, she absolutely would not want me to “notice” the blood until she’s outside any chance of Republic surveillance, give them anything which suggests weakness. Still, Quinn couldn’t help the way his fingers curled, resisting the urge to react to the injury.
Ucevi perched stoically on the examining table, resisting the urge to straighten the loose wrapped shirt she had swapped for her armor while Quinn carefully cleaned the gash on her right cheek. She gave no sign of the sting of the antiseptic---after all, I learned to tolerate more pain than this before I was old enough to really remember clearly. But it was a relief when he distracted her from both her pain and her forced idleness---a state she’d always detested far more than simple pain---by presenting a surprising story and request to her.
Why the blazes hasn’t the Dark Council, anyone, taken notice of this moff’s incompetence? Ignoring an opportunity to neutralize a highly capable SIS operative like this Voloren isn’t just incompetence, it borders on treason! Though… she schooled her expression to anger, which hopefully hid her examination of the officer, Baras’s man, she sternly reminded herself… Quinn’s record hadn’t indicated this level of involvement in counterintelligence, so now I have to wonder just how deeply involved he was with Baras’s operations even before Druckenwell? Should I have Vette step up our security measures even further?
“Of course you should pursue this, Captain. This man is clearly a threat to the Empire’s security and should have been dealt with a decade ago.”
As Quinn finished with her cheek, he shifted his hands to examine the shallow gash on her neck, automatically holding her still by resting one hand on her upper back. Ucevi, intent on her thoughts about Broysc, missed the motion, however, and the light touch across her ridged skin, even muffled by the thin shirt, took her by surprise. He snatched his hand away when she stiffened and pulled away with a gasp.
“My lord, I am so sorry, did I miss an injury to your back as well?” Cautiously, he pulled the neckline of the loose shirt lower to examine her back, his probing touch even lighter than before. Blast, it’s hard enough to sit here half dressed and pretend not to notice his hands on me without him doing that! If I thought he knew what he was doing, I’d give him a taste of the Force choking the air from his lungs...
“No.” Her voice was muffled by clenched teeth, eyes closed. “Since when have I ever flinched away from pain, Captain?” She felt more than saw that his eyebrows had drawn together and could even picture the lines in his skin between them as he failed to understand the hint. She was almost grinding her teeth, her breath becoming shallow and quick when he unexpectedly traced one of the ridges with a delicate finger, barely managing to resist the urge to turn and shove him back into the wall, pinning the offending hand to it. Shit. Should have known curiosity would win over common sense. If he knew, he’d barely be able to look at them without turning redder than a Sith’s skin. With a great effort, Ucevi got her breathing and reactions under control.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand then, my lord.”
“Captain, I would strongly recommend that you stop that, unless I am to take this as an indication that you’ve been playing hard to get? I’ve done you the courtesy of assuming you were sincere in not returning my interest.” Her eyes snapped open as she growled the words, and he froze under a fiery glare. Whether or not the meaning of her words penetrated, something in her heated gaze did because Quinn abruptly snatched his hand away from her back and let go of the collar of the loose shirt as if she were radioactive. I was right. I know Sith-bloods whose skin isn’t as red as his cheeks right now. Charming.
“Mmm, mmuh, my lord!” He stammered. “I never, I mean I would never …”
“Captain.” The flat word cut off his fumbled attempt at an apology. “Fortunately for you, you don’t need to tell me that you’d never knowingly do something … inappropriate. However curiosity doesn’t excuse the fact that unexpectedly touching someone, particularly someone who is non-human and you don’t know about that part of their physiology...it is still inappropriate.”
“Of course, my lord!” Now the flush on his pale cheeks had far more to do with shame than simple embarrassment. “I have no idea what I was thinking, I mean…” Quinn trailed off as he focused his attention on moving all the medical gear on the treatment table to line up perfectly, spaced precise distances apart. Anything rather than look at me right now. But it’s time to drive this lesson home.
“Curiosity, as I said. However, you will be expected to treat non-humans while in my service, and I’d highly recommend you keep your curiosity under strict control while doing so. Can you imagine if it had been Vette you’d done something like this with?”
A shudder ran through him briefly, and his hands tightened on the packet of antiseptic he was putting away. “I’d have had to put up with months of you two refusing to look at each other. After she’d broken your nose, if she didn’t leave you with a...more personal lesson. In fact, I’m going to order you to invest some time in a more in-depth study of Sith-blooded and Twi’lek physiology rather than re-optimizing the ship’s storage again during the trip to Tatooine.”
Blue eyes met hers in surprise, though the flush still hadn’t faded from his cheeks. “How did you…?”
“Already know your plans?” Ucevi chucked low in her throat. “TooVee. He asks me to confirm any order he doesn’t like, of course. He’s too afraid to openly complain. Don’t worry, I reminded him that any order from you is to be treated as coming from me unless that order contradicts an order from me.”
“Thank you, my lord.” His irritation at the protocol droid seemed to help him conquer the worst of his embarrassment. “Perhaps...I should finish treating your neck, my lord. If you still want me to, I mean.”
“Of course. But Captain.” She caught and held his eye sternly. “You already know that if I were another Sith, you might have found yourself in a situation which was more than simply awkward, possibly even dangerous. Or at the very least, had to explain why you were taking liberties you weren’t prepared to follow-up.” He flushed again, but nodded. “But whatever else you take from this incident, Captain, also remember this. Believe what you will of me, but I have never and will never have anyone in my bed who is not eager, who even has a doubt of whether they want to be there. You are absolutely safe with me, possibly safer than you are with yourself.”
His blush began to fade, and after a moment of uncertainty, Quinn nodded slowly, then picked up the packet of antiseptic wipes to return to work on her neck. But she couldn’t resist extracting one last blush from him.
“Cheer up, Captain. At least now you don’t have to worry about me using up the ship’s supply of hot water when I shower for a few days.”
Dammit. Cold showers and some time alone in my quarters! I just hope the cantina in Mos Ila isn’t as dead as Vette is reporting...
Thanks to Tashlen for acting as a sounding board on part of this chapter!
I know this chapter took a month. My real life work goes in cycles, and this month wasn't kind to focusing on writing (and discovering I didn't have video footage I thought I did, lol.) Good reasons, mostly, but updates may take a bit longer for the next few months.
Chapter 26: "Fire and Sand"
Ucevi and Quinn land on Tatooine.
from Quinn's POV
Quinn blinked tears from his eyes, squinting against the full force of the Tatooine suns as they approached the exit from the spaceport. He quickly copied Ucevi who already had her protective goggles in place.
And then the full wave of heat struck him in the face. Blast! I thought the air cooling system in our hangar was faulty...
Suddenly, he wondered if his protection---a combination of the most powerful sunblock available with a desert uniform that covered everything except his face--- was going to be sufficient. The hat even had a flap of cloth to protect his neck, but that suddenly felt like a pitiful barrier between the searing hot light from the suns and his pale skin.
Not that that’s going to be a problem for Baras’s apprentice. He watched enviously as the tall, powerfully built woman stepped out of the shadow of the spaceport entrance into the direct blast of heat and sun, her red skin almost glowing as she briefly tilted her face toward the pitiless suns, clearly basking in it.
Like the zoology holos of tukata sunning themselves on Korriban. For all that we revere Korriban, I suppose we’ve become so used to Dromund Kaas as the seat of the Empire that we forget that Korriban was once their home world...and only theirs. And the jungle climate around Kaas City is foreign to them. Well, at least she will feel at home on this broiling sandbox. He’d been reminded of this rather forcibly while studying Sith and Twi’lek physiology, but if even if he hadn’t, he would have been struck by the sight of her, even more skin than usual exposed unflinchingly to the harsh suns. Though even she has packed a couple of light desert-camouflage robes for the desert itself.
He waited patiently, re-checking their gear on the anti-grav float to reassure himself that it was completely secure. I know her idea of acquiring beasts as mounts makes sense, given the difficulty of keeping most equipment functioning in light of this beastly planet’s sand, but I’m not certain which prospect is worse---riding behind her at maximum speed on her swoop bike or riding behind her on an unpredictable beast. Probably at equally wild speeds.
About this time, she let out a long exhalation of air, and began to stalk forward. Even the goggles didn’t cover up the scowl she’d worn since that odd woman, Sharack Breev, had referred to Baras as Ucevi’s “Lord and Master,” a statement quickly and fiercely rebutted. And perhaps not exactly accurate, even if he himself didn’t entirely understand how the Sith hierarchy worked. Clearly the woman had struck some sort of nerve, though, that still rankled.
Still, when half a dozen people scrambled to put distance between themselves and her scowl, Quinn was torn between sympathy and approval. Not that she’s capricious, Emperor preserve me, I should know. But that’s hard to recall when she looks furious enough to charge into a fight with a rancor with nothing but her bare hands.
He was also making a conscious effort to keep his eyes averted from the ridges fully on display on both her back and her neck, disappearing beneath the fabric of the strip of cloth she wore wrapped around her as a shirt today. The chevron shape of the ridges seemed to encourage the eye to follow them to---and under---the edge of that cloth.
What the blazes was I thinking? Especially to do something like that to her, a Sith! Not that she’d mentioned the subject of his blunder again, other than to coolly inquire once or twice about the progress of his studies. At least now I know why she reacted like that, and when I should ask before touching her in the future, even if she’s injured. He was uncomfortably aware that this new knowledge of Sith-blood physiology had its own drawbacks, however---now his reluctant dreams had become far more detailed. And his treacherous memory was persistently recalling those at the most inopportune times, especially when they practiced hand-to-hand combat in the early morning.
At that very moment, he felt his cheeks warm as a flash of dream fantasy mixed with reality intruded--- a soft growl, laughter, powerful legs around his torso--- and at that same damnable moment, Ucevi turned her head toward him with just the hint of a smile. A very knowing smirk, which was enough. Heat rushed to his face to betray him.
“Captain, we need to get you out of the sun quickly and check to make certain your sunblock is applied correctly. I do believe you may already be feeling the heat.”
He was grateful that she briskly strode off without waiting for his reaction to her amused words, and even more fervently grateful that her earlier scowl had ensured there was no one looking at them from less than ten meters away. Or, Emperor help me, Vette! Guiding the anti-grav float at least gave him something to distract his mind until he had time to get his reactions under control.
When they reached the only cantina in the entire settlement of Mos Ila, Quinn had to suppress a shudder as they entered. The Siltshift Cantina was easily as bad as the seediest place they’d stayed on Nar Shaddaa, though at least the oppressive heat was bearable once they were inside.
Even more of a relief was discovering that the rooms Vette had arranged were below ground and almost comfortable, off a bar with, surprisingly, a stage for live music. Fortunately, the rooms seemed to be carved into the earth which meant the walls were thick enough to be well-insulated.
Since they’d arrived late in the planetary day, close to Firstset, Ucevi had opted to postpone making official contact with the Imperial post in Mos Ila until the next day. Vette would be joining them shortly for the evening after completing some assignment or other, but she would remain here at the spaceport with the ship. Quinn was rather relieved, but at the same time surprised that the Sith didn't want Vette along more often. They clearly had a close relationship. I do have to admit that Vette is rather talented, however disreputable most of those skills are. She's certainly a valuable asset and on a lawless world such as this, her skills would be particularly useful. Now if only something could silence her!
He was going to be extremely relieved to escape the young woman’s insatiable and voluble curiosity for the duration of this mission. She'd begun prying very persistently since he'd restarted his investigation into Voloren. Not that he was unwise enough to say that aloud, at least. Still, he'd sensed a new edge to her snipes at him since he and Ucevi had begun sparring hand-to-hand.
To his surprise, they were directed to a small suite of rooms with a compact sitting area and two doors on either side. One of those doors led to a fresher---no water shower of course; he’d noticed half a dozen notices about conserving water on the way in---and the other three were cubicles just big enough for a bed and small table that doubled as a desk and nightstand.
He was less surprised, and even a bit relieved, when Ucevi silently hoisted her bags off the float and into the room next to the fresher. Separate rooms meant she was probably hoping for...a rather sociable evening, and the distance and thick walls should prevent any awkward sounds from reaching the others.
In its own way, that rather surprised him. She had reserved that sort of sociability on Nar Shaddaa to nights when they had stayed in the better class of cantina. Then again, this cantina apparently was as good as they got on Tatooine, and he was quite certain his lord wasn't the sort to pass up her last opportunity for weeks or more as they headed into the desert. Alone together. And not after I blundered so badly. Oddly her reassurance that I can trust her really is reassuring, but perhaps for that reason, she is trying to reduce the tension between us?
And sexual tension it was, he had been forced to admit to himself as he stowed his own gear in the room diagonally across from hers. I had thought she was flirting with me simply from habit, or because it amused her. But since that moment in the med bay, well, I watched her closely enough while we were on Nar Shaddaa to recognize that look in her eyes, and I can’t keep pretending that she isn’t actually attracted to me. He felt a shiver run along his spine at the memory of the intensity of her gaze, that sensation of elemental aggressiveness focused firmly on him with nothing masking it. The memory was still exhilarating and a little terrifying all at once. And you already know that any thoughts in that direction can only end badly. You are not only not Sith, you're an officer whose chance at reaching senior ranks was lost a decade ago. You can never be more than a brief diversion for her...
“Captain?” The object of his musings interrupted from the sitting room, and he quickly closed his case and joined her. Ucevi surprised him by showing him a small boxlike device that he recognized as a form of white noise generator, meant to disrupt any attempts at listening into conversations. Not that this would present much more than a brief challenge to any trained SIS or Imperial Intelligence agent, but it was equally unlikely that the local gangs would be prepared for it. Curious, though, that a Sith would know about and use such a precaution on her own.
She placed the small box on the table and openly pressed a button on it before she gestured Quinn into one of the uncomfortable chairs drawn into an arc in the sitting area. “Captain, until Vette joins us for dinner, let’s take advantage of what privacy we have. I want to hear your thoughts on Sharack Breev and this man she’s sending us to meet, Izzeebowe Jeef, I think his name was?”
I know a lot of people assume Korriban is a cold desert world, and there's apparently something in the EU that suggests that. But in game, no one on Korriban is dressed in anything except light clothing (other than troops in armor.) So, I've headcannoned it as a hot desert world instead. I add sun goggles because the reflection off the light-colored sand of Tatooine has to be almost as blinding as the sun off the ice and snow of Hoth.
Chapter 27: "The Taste of Water"
An unexpected encounter with an acquaintance, and Quinn continues struggling with his attraction. Ucevi is...Ucevi.
Note: Thanks go to Rainofaugustsith, Riajade01, Motheatenscarf, and Shecamefromwildspace for suggesting alternatives to "hellhole" for this chapter!
The food in the cantina was, well, at least a step up from dry field rations. Barely. Quinn mused that it had taken a surprisingly short time for him to become accustomed to, and miss, the quality of food the Sith woman normally insisted on. And it took only one sip of their “best” whiskey for Ucevi to push the shot glass away with a grimace. “A planet where the whiskey is undrinkable and water is the most expensive drink on the menu. Lovely. I hope this Master Yonlach isn’t half as well hidden on this damned hellhole as Baras thinks.”
Vette snickered, stacking her mostly-empty plate with the others on the end of the table. Which also says something for the quality of the food. She never lets food go to waste. Quinn shifted uncomfortably, trying not to think back to idle comments Ucevi had made after meeting Halidrell Setsyn about slave subsistence rations and children who labored harder than most adults. Or perhaps not-so-idle. My lord rarely does or says anything without reason, and dammit, now I feel guilty every time I want to bite Vette’s head off when she starts needling me.
“Yeah, I’ll be thinking of you while I’m tinkering with the ship and enjoying TooVee’s cooking, my lord.” The younger woman smirked at Ucevi who only chuckled in response.
“Careful, you’ll make the Captain think he’s being punished by having to go into the field with me.”
Vette made a mildly rude gesture in response that set Quinn’s nerves on edge. After all, we are in public and half the people in this cantina are probably watching. Then Ucevi caught his eye in a level gaze for a second or two before turning her attention back to Vette to engage in a contest of friendly insults.
I know that look, the one she gets when I’m missing something important. So, why would my lord tolerate, even encourage, apparent disrespect from a low-ranking subordinate in public… He thought through recent conversations they’d had about the responsibilities of command, and then it hit him. A Sith is only going to tolerate familiarity from a servant if she is something...more. Which means even ranking officers on Tatooine are very unlikely to object if Vette approaches them for access to facilities or is caught poking around somewhere. Though...it also could make her more of a target for any of Ucevi’s enemies. For some reason, that thought bothered him more than he could explain.
Quinn was silently watching the two women banter when movement at the edge of his vision caught his attention. A muscular human woman in an Imperial uniform with a senior sergeant’s insignia had cautiously stopped a few feet away with a frosted pitcher in one hand, and several mugs clutched by their handles in the other. Wait, I know her, that’s…
“Sergeant Fesnil! This is a pleasant surprise!” Her movement had caught Ucevi’s attention as well, and she greeted the older woman with pleasure, one brow spur raised. “What brings you to this festering sarlacc pit?”
The sergeant managed a credible bow without spilling a drop of the liquid in the pitcher. “My lord, when I heard the rumor that a Sith lord had landed today and had a young Twi’lek woman and an Imperial Captain with her, I knew it was too much to be coincidence.”
She glanced away to nod at Quinn apologetically, “Sorry, sir, saluting with these would create rather a mess.” He waved off her apology, and she quickly turned her attention back to Baras’s apprentice who cocked her head slightly to one side.
“I’m surprised to see you here, Sergeant. Balmorra’s a hellhole, but…” she gestured vaguely around, “this isn’t exactly an improvement as assignments go.”
The hand-to-hand trainer grinned a bit sheepishly. Strange, most people who approach my lord are at least a little nervous, but she’s not. “I wrangled an assignment to a team conducting random surprise inspections of remote Imperial outposts, my lord, and we arrived here a few days ago. Wanted to see if it really was you and, well, I knew you’d be here tonight if it was.”
Ucevi laughed, clearly pleased with the sergeant’s slyly teasing tone, and the sergeant grinned back.
“I got here just in time to see you try that Bantha piss that they’re trying to pass off as whiskey, and thought I might offer one of the few bearable drinks.” She shrugged by way of explanation. “My crew’s not too popular with the local garrison for some reason.”
The Sith's smile turned feral, and her eyes narrowed. “Truly caught them by surprise, did you? And while the officers at least will pretend to be civil to your superiors, the ranks aren’t even pretending with you?” The sergeant continued to grin back without actually answering one way or another. “Well, they aren’t any happier to see us, but I scare them too much for anyone to say it. Pull up a chair, then, Syara, and pass the pitcher around our little circle of outcasts.”
Hmm. I thought Fesnil had only done a little hand-to-hand training with her on Balmorra. When did my lord have time to find out her first name? And why bother? In fact, most Sith would have just called her Sergeant and left it at that...if any other Sith bothered with hand-to-hand training at all. The woman took the open seat directly across from Ucevi, then briskly and neatly filled four mugs from the pitcher, sliding one to each of them, all the while still grinning at the Sith almost as comfortably as Vette.
“I’m told this is called Jawa beer, my lord, which is a little stronger than most of ours. Which is all to the good, I suppose, since the alcohol content probably makes it safer to drink. Or just makes this cesspool a little more bearable. At least I’ve been assured that no one’s ever caught anything by drinking it.”
“That’s something, at least.” The Sith woman held the mug up to the light to stare at it through the clear glass, then, with a nod to Vette, she took a taste. It’s odd. The two of them almost always do that when we’re in a cantina. I wonder why… He dismissed the thought as mere distraction, noticing that after a moment of consideration, Ucevi took a longer drink with a sigh.
“Mmm, much more passable than I’d have given this planet credit for, at least after tasting that K'lor'slug poison.” She gestured at the abandoned shot glass. “Thank you for saving our evening, Syara.” She raised one brow stalk at the hand-to-hand trainer, then tilted her mug toward the other woman who nonchalantly clinked her mug against the Sith’s. “And while we’re being sociable in private, my name’s Ucevi.”
Quinn’s mouth almost dropped open, but he caught himself in time. Baras’s apprentice was always carefully formal, even in private, unless the person was a close associate. Vette, Captain Joran, well, she dropped the idea of using her name after suggesting it once to me. Quinn was uncomfortably aware that he, and possibly the Sith-blood woman herself, found their formality helped cushion the tension between them a little.
Then Vette’s uncharacteristic silence penetrated his scattered thoughts, and he followed her own confused gaze. Oh! Well, that explains a great deal, but--- he studied the Twi’lek with a moment of unexpected sympathy--- apparently she wasn’t aware yet that most Sith-bloods have...eclectic interests. Quinn hid his face with the mug of warm, tart beer as several expressions crossed the young woman’s face, her eyes blinking rapidly before she finally settled into a rueful grin. He was quite certain she had been trying to decide if she was relieved or insulted that the Sith had never turned that heated, elemental look on her. But as far as I’ve seen, my lord seems to have an uncanny sense of who finds her attractive, and Vette doesn’t.
The Sith-blood and Fesnil were flirting rather outrageously now, comfortable enough that Quinn began to have some suspicions. Somehow, I think they communicated a great deal more on Balmorra than I was aware of. In fact, by the time that first pitcher of Jawa beer was empty, the sergeant had coaxed Ucevi into one of the side alcoves for a lesson in a game of throwing skill popular in Imperial cantinas. A “lesson” that was a rather transparent excuse for physical contact between the two.
Quinn found himself oddly unwilling to watch, trying to convince himself that his discomfort was solely because Baras’s apprentice was rather publicly involving herself with someone of much lower rank. I am not jealous. And I have no right to be. I knew when I saw the room arrangement that she was planning something for this evening, and after what happened on the ship, I’d be a fool to expect anything else. It’ll make things less awkward between us in the field, after all, he scolded himself. It isn’t as if she has any reason to expect me to offer… and I am not interested. That assertion was sounding less convincing all the time, even to himself. Realistically, he also knew that he could never be more than a brief diversion for her, and even if he could convince himself to be satisfied with that, it would make working with her afterwards very awkward, at best.
He shook off that struggle with his reaction, but as he pushed his empty mug away, he intercepted the curious gaze of someone nearby who was eyeing Vette. Despite his own usual aggravation with the young woman, she was a member of a Sith lord’s crew. The local turned back to his drink hastily when Quinn bristled, giving the man a silent glare. Then the captain sighed and rose. “I believe I’ll make an early evening of it and get rest while I can.” Besides, I need to make my report to Lord Baras. “Do be careful once my lord retires, there are some very unpleasant characters here.”
Vette glanced up, startled, but Quinn spun on his heels without meeting her eyes, striding briskly toward their suite. “Sure, Dad, I’ll be careful.” She was almost certain she heard a sharp, irritated huff as he moved away and smirked at his back. I wonder what got into him? I know more about staying safe than he does. However...
The young Twi’lek glanced down at the datapad again, quickly activating a program she’d set up earlier. Before she’d even left the ship, she’d sliced into the cantina’s comms, something she’d learned during the mission to Nar Shaddaa. With a few lessons from an old friend and some state-of-the-art slicing gear . They were almost certain she’d been able to intercept and record every one of Quinn’s reports to Baras from Nar Shaddaa. And since nothing could be sent from the ship without a copy being transmitted to Ucevi now, he still hadn’t been able to report his version of the mission to the monitoring station.
Once the program was activated, she casually rose and strolled toward her room so she could listen discreetly. Of course, it would be more difficult to track and monitor comms once the pair left the main settlement, but almost all Imperial interplanetary comms for Tatooine were routed through Mos Ila. And if he tries to get secret access to encrypted military comms at any outposts---assuming he can evade her supervision long enough to convince someone he was authorized---someone is going to spill the beans to my lord in hope of currying favor with her.
Vette carefully secured her door behind her. Then she flopped stomach first onto her bed and activated the network connection between her datapad and her holo. She then rested her chin on her hands as Quinn’s image came online, bowing to the creepy old guy. “My lord, your apprentice has arrived on Tatooine…”
Chapter 28: Shadowed Firstrise
The first morning on Tatooine. Quinn begins to realize that there's more to Ucevi's cantina crawls than he thought. Ucevi heads off growls between Vette and Quinn.
Vette was startled awake the next morning by a loud thump and a low feminine laugh, instantly bolt upright in bed, hand going for the blaster under her pillow. Then the first woman’s laugh was followed by another, and the Twi’lek blinked the fog away enough to realize that the noise must have come from the lounge. Only the doors transmitted any sound here, a fact for which she was thankful.
A quick glance at the chrono on her datapad showed that it was just past Firstrise, local time, which apparently converted to “annoyingly early” by their ship’s clock, synchronized to Kaas City standard. They’d managed to arrive on Balmorra when dawn was close enough to ship’s time that neither of the women really noticed the change, and on Nar Shaddaa, well, nothing ever closed there and they could keep their own time. Ugh. How is she up this early when she was partying last night?
Grumpily, Vette rolled out of bed, quickly dressing. No water showers on this cesspit. Gotta hand it to whoever designed the water recycling system on the ship ‘cause there always is enough...and without any chemical smell. She managed a smug grin before yawning. And it’s all mine for the next few weeks.
Covering another yawn, she grabbed her bag and opened the door. Ucevi and Sgt. Fesnil were dressed in snug exercise shorts and cropped tops, grappling in what was clearly an attempt to off-balance the other, both grinning broadly. “Hey, guess what. The doors aren’t soundproof. My lord.”
Ucevi simply grinned at Vette’s grouchy tone and sly pause before adding her title, then suddenly shot her foot out behind the other woman’s knee in an attempt to shift her balance to a single foot. Instead, the older human woman kicked back, meeting the oncoming foot in a blur of motion, seemed to barely shift her weight, and abruptly the Sith woman was on the ground, laughing, as she rolled to the side, regaining her feet before the other woman could follow up her advantage.
“You’ve been practicing, Ucevi!” The woman brushed back dark salt-and-pepper hair and signaled a stop to their sparring, nodding in approval.
“When I can, which is usually only when we’re on board ship.” Ucevi grabbed a couple of towels from the back of a chair, tossing one to the other woman. “Speaking of which, Vette, Sgt. Fesnil has offered to keep you up with your practice while I’m in the field, at least as long as she’s still on Tatooine.”
She chuckled when Vette groaned. Great, so lots of bruises coming up. And … she hesitated, eying the human woman warily, Well, I’m not thrilled to be working with an Imperial without my lord around to glower at them if they get snotty about working with a Twi’lek. But if she’s trying to stay on my lord’s good side, maybe it won’t be too bad. “Fantastic. Just what I needed to hear at oh-dark-thirty in the morning.” About this time, the door to Quinn’s room opened, the man looking irritatingly proper with everything about him already in perfect regulation order. Better beat him to the fresher though. “Oh, well, I’ll get you on the way and head back to one of TooVee’s meals.” She smirked over her shoulder as the door closed behind her.
Ucevi chuckled at Vette’s dig, tossing her towel back on the chair. Poor Vette, trapped on a team with two early morning people. And she is definitely not a morning person before she’s had food and caff. Quinn continued to stand just outside his door, glancing from the sergeant to her hesitantly. But before either could say anything, Syara tossed her own towel on top of the Sith’s, then bowed, still smiling.
“I’d better get back to my own room and get dressed or I’ll be late for the morning briefing. Thank you for the workout this morning, and I hope I see you back from your mission before I leave planet. You have my holofrequency.” She bowed to her again, then snapped off a cheerful salute at Quinn. “My lord, Captain.”
When the door to the suite closed behind her, Quinn came further into the lounge, his expression still suggesting he felt he’d intruded on something. “Good morning, Captain, I hope you enjoyed our last comfortable night for a while.” She picked up a datapad, scrolling through something and gesturing vaguely at the table as she leaned against the back of a chair. “There’s food of a sort, and caff that’s almost drinkable, help yourself.”
“Thank you, my lord, and good morning.” He briskly moved to the seating area. Hmm, looks to me as if he’s relieved to have anything to do, so long as he’s not just standing around feeling awkward .
Ucevi stretched an arm over the back of the chair to grab her own mug of caff, golden eyes still fixed on the datapad. “I’m packed up except for using the vibe shower, and I’ll wait until both of you are done in the fresher. I'll be finished before you have the load on the anti-grav float balanced to your satisfaction.” He flushed, but she glanced up and waved her mug at him vaguely. “Captain, that's far from a criticism. Your dedication to perfection and precision is a valuable asset for our work, don’t be embarrassed by it. I’ll freely admit that I don’t have the slightest idea how to load properly.” He nodded before helping himself to the local cracker-like bread and dried fruit, the flush fading.
“Thank you, my lord.”
Well, he’s even more reserved than normal this morning. I wonder why. “Oh, while I’m remembering, I’m sending you a file - a list of reliable contacts at various outposts, particularly NCOs responsible for actually providing requisitioned supplies, but also a few others who might be useful.”
Quinn paused with a piece of dried fruit halfway to his open mouth, one eyebrow lifting inquisitively. “My lord, how did you get this list? And wouldn’t Quartermaster officers be a better choice for contact?”
“It appears that many of the Quartermasters at the posts on Tatooine are, shall we say, less than professional. In fact, several of them are already facing courts martial. Frankly, the NCOs are more likely to know what they have and what they can lay hands on than the officers anyway, according to Sgt. Fesnil, and less likely to demand bribes, at least from a Sith.” She watched his eyebrows shoot up in surprise. What, you didn’t think I could mix business with pleasure? I’m always amazed at how much people will tell you while trying to impress their way into your bed...or once they’re in it.
“Ah.” He put the piece of fruit in his mouth and wiped his fingers before picking up his own datapad, quickly perusing the document. Ucevi watched his mouth move silently and his brows draw together as he read. “My lord, this is...incredibly detailed. Did Sergeant Fesnil write this all out for you?”
“No, I made notes after she left last night and filled in details this morning when I got up.” She pretended to be focused on the datapad but surreptitiously watched his reaction.
“I...see.” He frowned as he studied her, then stared back down at the list. “Well, this certainly will make resupply much easier, my lord.” He's curious, but can't overcome his sense of what's proper enough to ask.
“Excellent.” She stretched her arm to its farthest to snag a slice of fruit, washing it down with more caff as the datapad recaptured her attention. “Our next problem is securing beasts. I’ve ruled out banthas. They’re supposed to be the most reliable transportation but they also attract the attention of one of the native groups, the Sandpeople, who will attack small parties during the day, or raid larger ones at night to steal the beasts. I think dewbacks are our best choice, and they seem to be preferred by locals.”
Ucevi glanced up at Quinn’s silence, lowering the datapad. Damn. He really is not happy about this, but won’t actually say it. “Captain, you read the same report I did about the maintenance problem with speeders of all sorts on this hellhole. We cannot afford to breakdown in the middle of nowhere with no place to take shelter from the heat while we wait hours, or even days, for help to reach us. And we know wherever this Master Yonlach is, it is not near any settlements, or Breev would have heard about him.”
“Yes, my lord, and I’m aware that native animals will allow us to carry more supplies and gear for survival, as well. It just seems so…”
“Uncivilized?” She grinned. “I’d much rather take a couple of nice, predictable speeders with an anti-grav float towed behind them myself. Not to mention the fact these dewbacks are too sluggish to ride at night, and even if we take food for them, we’ll have to allow an hour or two midday for them to forage. But if we’re going to carry out Baras’s mission, this is what we have.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Buck up, Captain. Just think, these beasts don’t get above fifty klicks, and even that only for short distances. That has to be an improvement over trying to keep hold of me on my speeder at top speed.”
His face lightened a little. “Yes, I must admit that is something to look forward to, my lord.”
Was he…? Ucevi did a double take, but his sober look was spoiled by twitching lips. Well! I was starting to think he’d misplaced his sense of humor this morning.
“However, at least your speeder doesn’t have a mind of its own.”
She chuckled. “Point taken. However, I can restrain a runaway beast with the Force if necessary.”
The door to the fresher slid open, and Vette bounced out and flopped into one of the empty chairs, grabbing the final mug and pouring herself some caff. “All yours, Captain Grumpy.”
Quinn scowled at the young woman, but Ucevi quickly intervened before the two had a chance to forget themselves and start sniping. “Captain, please make certain you apply the sunblock thoroughly. And I mean make certain you get the back of your neck, your ears, anyplace your scalp shows through your hair, or even might show through, and at least an inch past the edge of your clothing.”
“Yes, my lord.” With a glare at Vette, he entered the fresher, the door sliding closed with a decided snap.
“Vette, was that really necessary?”
She shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s fun, ‘cause he reacts so predictably.” The muffled sound of the vibe shower could barely be heard through the door.
“Yes, but you aren’t the one heading into the desert for weeks with him. I get to live with the result until he has time to forget it.” Ucevi raised one brow stalk pointedly at Vette who suddenly hung her head sheepishly.
“I forgot, good point. Sorry.” She shrugged by way of additional apology, then cheerfully popped a slice of fruit into her mouth. “Did you get the recording?”
“Yes, thank you. I watched it first thing this morning, in fact.” Baras's apprentice cradled her mug in her hands thoughtfully.
“Funny, but seems like a lot doesn’t get said, you know? I mean, this is Fussypants, who figures measurements of storage space to the millimeter.” Vette tossed a small piece of dried fruit into the air and snapped her mouth shut on it with a triumphant grin.
“Yes, I’ve noticed as well. The real question is why?” The Sith tapped one long red finger restlessly on the side of the mug.
“Maybe ‘cause he likes you.” Vette tossed another piece of the dried fruit at Ucevi who caught it absentmindedly in her free hand, scowling at the young woman. “What? Do you think I’m blind?” She tilted her head, then turned enough to confirm that she could still hear the vibe shower. “And you kind of like him. What happened to ‘he’s a liability’?”
“I haven’t forgotten. But…,” Ucevi shrugged, “these reports do make me wonder if I might be able to win his first loyalty after all. Maybe...” At that moment, the noise from the vibe shower stopped, and both women fell silent from habit.
She stared thoughtfully at the piece of dried fruit in her hand. Is it wistful thinking, though? My every instinct says that Quinn believes he owes a debt of honor to Baras that he must repay, and he’s only willing to defy him by omission. So why do I want that not to be true? Finally, she popped the piece of dried fruit in her mouth and washed it down with the dregs of her caff.
“Well, it’s my turn in the fresher finally. Do try not to wind him up while he’s loading up the gear, for my sake?”
Vette grinned impishly, “Well, when you ask so nicely.”
Just a note for anyone checking for updates: I'm currently in the middle of moving, so I'm a bit behind on writing. Hopefully I'll be able to pick up the pace on the story a little once that's settled a little.
Chapter 29: Past Dark
Ucevi and Quinn find themselves caught out with dark approaching.
(A special thanks to Tashlen for brainstorming this and the next chapter with me!)
Warning: this chapter includes a claustrophobic episode.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Shit. We’re not going to make it.
They had ridden out of Outpost Varath shortly after Firstrise, resupplied with drinkable water, rations,...and sunblock. Quinn had come very close to disaster on their third day on the wretched planet when he hadn’t applied enough on his neck near his hairline. Fortunately, I spotted the beginnings of a burn at our first break that morning, or he might be sitting in the burn unit of Mos Ila right now. He wasn’t exactly thrilled when I insisted on watching him apply it in the morning and during our noonday break, but the look on his face!
Ucevi allowed herself a moment of amusement at the memory, in spite of their current situation. I’m almost certain he thought I was going to insist on applying it myself otherwise...and that would have offended his sense of the “appropriate.” I think Vette’s influencing me too much; I had to restrain the urge to suggest it just to watch his reaction.
So far, they’d been able to reach an Imperial outpost or camp where they could get quarters or billets every night, though it had been a close thing last night. Fascinating ritual with the Sand Demon. I wonder if there are any records of Sith traveling to this hellhole to take part in it, and what they had to say about it? Still, the point was to get the map to this oasis for the next trial, which we did, and without having to kill it.
According to the maps, they should have been able to reach the next outpost, Mos Anek, well before nightfall. Should. No one mentioned that this blasted canyon winds back on itself almost in circles, or that we’d lose so much time to attacks by womp rats and scyks who think dewbacks should be on the menu.
They could have used an Imperial transport between the outposts, of course, but that would have meant leaving behind the dewbacks and most of their (almost irreplaceable) supplies. Baras hasn’t quibbled at expenses so far or demanded a detailed accounting. But jettisoning that much at a remote camp where they brought a fraction of their value then replacing them at probably more than the original price would probably bring a sharp reminder or two at the very least. As it is, trained dewbacks and their harness were more expensive than I anticipated, but they should at least resell for most of what I paid at any major settlement.
Quinn had half-heartedly suggested waiting for an Imperial supply caravan between the camps and travel with them. Half-heartedly because the next one wouldn’t move out for at least five more days. And I get the impression that the Sand People have worked out their supply schedule since that sergeant in logistics mentioned they’d raided two of the last three caravans. Not that anyone was listening to her suggestion that they begin randomizing the trips, though I can have Vette pass that information to Fesnil the next time I comm her.
Finally, Ucevi brought the dewback to a stop, their supply beasts obediently halting at the other’s lead. She gauged the level of the remaining sun in silence and checked her chrono before glancing over her shoulder at the man who’d ridden in a patient, watchful silence, alert for the beasts that had harassed them all day. “Any opinions on our chances of making Mos Anek before Secondset, Captain?”
“I believe we’re probably in agreement that we won’t have enough time, my lord. Not even if this canyon suddenly straightened out after the next bend and ran directly to Mos Anek. It’s already Firstset.” His words were far more patient than she felt at this moment. “Curious that no one felt it worth mentioning that the distance to Mos Anek on the ground is close to twice what it appears on the map.”
“Damn. Well, we don’t want to be out in the open when the Sand People become active, so let’s look for an unoccupied cave and get the perimeter sensors put out before dark. We can wonder if this was something sinister or simply pettiness later.”
The first cave they found had been claimed by a rather large, angry scyk who had refused to allow them to withdraw without confrontation. Which was why Ucevi was now leading a skittish dewback with a burden of dead scyk---wrapped to prevent leaving a blood trail---back out into the dimming light. Quinn was occupied with placing the perimeter sensors in optimum, and discrete, positions. He had started to object to this division of their labor, but fell silent when she’d raised a brow ridge. Ucevi didn’t need to point out that she could use the Force to easily off-load the body or that her eyes would allow her to return safely even if she was not quite back to the cave before full dark fell, something which could happen quite rapidly in the desert.
The Sith-blooded woman led the beast at least half a kilometer back the way they’d come, an adequate distance to keep scavengers attracted by the body away from the cave. She loosened the ties on the covering and gave the body a shove, letting it fall as naturally as possible. The dewback quickly edged sideways to put distance between itself and the carcass, then calmed at a soothing word. Not the liveliest of mounts, but very easy to handle. And I have to say more comfortable than I expected, and faster. They don’t even spook when the predators attacked, just formed a circle facing outward and waited while we dealt with them. I think I’m going to rather miss him.
Just as she was turning the beast to mount and ride back to the cave, a movement against the darkening sky in the distance caught her eye. The wind had been picking up since Firstset, and high on one of the canyon walls, she could make out what seemed to be fabric flapping in that breeze. The Sith touched the goggles she wore to increase magnification then swore silently. Dammit! That’s definitely one of the Sand People. Too far away to see me though, without these. Quickly scanning the ridge on either side, she spotted at least two others, both farther down the canyon wall.
To the void with our luck today! Well, even if they had state-of-the-art viewing goggles, my skin and this desert robe blend into the landscape. This beast is another matter. Time to practice a skill I’ve barely used in the past decade. She placed herself on the opposite side of the beast from most of the watchers then began to lead it at a very slow, ordinary pace back toward the cave. As they moved, she focused on handfuls of sand and loose gravel, sending them whisking back and forth across the path behind her in a pattern that would create relatively smooth ripples, the sort left naturally by the undisturbed forces of the wind.
I haven't used the Force to hide my tracks like this since the last time Grandmother took me to Korriban and gave me a ten-minute head start on a tracker. Much easier here, with all the loose sand over the compacted surface. Few plants to leave a trace. Thankfully no one’s mentioned Sand People using scent because I have no idea what to do here. If I knew more about banthas or dewbacks, I could lay a false trail down one of the side canyons, but the sandpeople would spot it if I didn't get the depth of the prints and stride exactly right. However…
She turned the dewback into a side canyon just far enough to reach a stretch of rock scoured bare. Behind them she erased all but a couple of partially obscured prints close to the rock, then turned the beast in an arc back to the main canyon, meticulously obscuring their return tracks. Not much, but if they're hunting, that carcass I dumped may be enough to distract them from tracking the dewback. If they spotted it. If those were scouts for a raiding party, they're going to be looking for a caravan. Neither the locals nor the Imperials travel alone near dark. A few Sand People aren't a problem, of course, but if this is a raiding band, there might be forty or fifty...
She reached the haven of the cave and explained the situation tersely while she tied up the beast, and Quinn reassured her that he'd set up the perimeter sensors in two rings that would detect any approaches. The light was dimming rapidly when she went back outside to create a small vortex of moving sand and grit that darted back and forth through the area, obscuring all traces of their passage on the ground.
Not enough, though. If this is their usual territory, they’re probably familiar with every cave and nook in the walls. Closing her eyes, she pictured the canyon wall above the cave. Yes, there are some small boulders and loose rock, enough of them. Dammit, I do not want to do this, but if I don’t …
Clenching her fists, she slowly and carefully lifted enough rock from above the entrance and lowered it to block the opening. Ucevi nudged the remaining debris above them to make certain it was stable before lifting the pile of rubble in front of the cave about a meter in the air, then let it drop, using the Force to make certain she left several gaps of about handspan each to keep a flow of fresh air. That should make it look natural enough. Too much trouble to clear, especially if that was a hunting party, and this is not something the locals could do. As long as they can’t smell us or the dewbacks...
But now with the debris blocking most of the exit, even she could barely see in the dark entry tunnel, and the sensation of being trapped quickly became almost overwhelming. The darkness seemed to contract around her until she could swear she could feel the tunnel walls touching her shoulders, hunching them to make herself smaller.
Heat. Too hot. Not enough air. Darkness...I can’t move...I can’t breathe...Air... Ucevi closed her eyes and forced herself to slow her breathing and unclench her fists, fiercely scolding herself. Feel the air moving, it’s almost cool, fresh, and the temperature is dropping. This isn't a box, I can move. The air is not going to run out. I didn’t see any loose debris on the canyon wall above and even if some does fall, I can clear the entrance again. I am Sith, dammit, I can do this! I will do this. Slowly, she straightened her shoulders and raised her head. Breathe. Focus.
Sorry it's been so long since the last update, and thank you for being so patient! I finally split the chapter in half, leaving a shorter chapter than I'd planned. But the good news is that the next chapter is about 3/4 written already.
Chapter 30: "Dark Past"
The night in the cave doesn't go exactly as expected, and Quinn has to decide how much trust he's willing to place in Ucevi.
(A special thanks to Tashlen for brainstorming this and the previous chapter with me!)
The chapter is about twice the length of most of my chapters, just as a heads up.
Warning: pretty strong episode of claustrophobia.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Quinn finished with the dewbacks, a little concerned when the noise stopped but Ucevi didn’t rejoin him and the dewbacks. Hesitantly, he followed her back down the tunnel where he found her standing rigidly erect, fists clenched and eyes tightly closed in the light of his torch.
How odd. She...looks as if she’s struggling with something, but what? The cave entrance is blocked now. And she was right, even if the sandpeople know about this cave, why would they bother spending hours clearing rubble, especially if she’s hidden our tracks. And frankly, even if they did, I think she could hold off half a clan in the choke point of this tunnel. With my support, at least.
As he watched, she slowly relaxed, in a manner that reminded him of...something. Something or someone he’d seen before, but the memory just escaped him. Then he forgot that sense of deja vu when she exhaled sharply and opened her eyes, completely unperturbed to find him patiently waiting a couple of meters away.
“Well, Captain, no one’s clearing the entrance of the cave without the Force---or heavy excavating equipment---in less than two or three hours. But even if we keep them out of direct line of sight through the tunnel, we need to be very cautious about lights. They might be visible from the ridge opposite us through the ventilation gaps.”
Can a Force user view something like that, or at least without someone’s eyes they can see through? Maybe that’s what she was doing. “Understood, my lord. Though as long as at least two of the three moons is up, I would estimate the probability as approaching zero.” He handed her one of the earpieces set to receive information from the perimeter sensors and waited for her to settle it over her ear. Her hands...I’ve never seen them less than perfectly steady before. It’s not much, not even what I’d call shaky, but there’s a little hesitation to her movements. Curious. They moved back down the tunnel in unison, and he obediently kept his torch carefully pointed at the floor of the cave.
“Hmm, yes, but I’ve already spotted Sandpeople using the ridges to scout.”
“Point taken. Well, the dewbacks are already so sluggish that I suspect only an actual attack by a predator could rouse them now, and I also laid out our bedrolls and dinner.” He studied her for a moment. Curious, she’s still tense, but she has herself under control. I can’t believe the very small potential for an attack by the Sandpeople is the cause, and it’s certainly not the first time we’ve shared quarters in recent months. Though I’m certain both of us could do without the company of the dewbacks.
“Dinner.” She managed a chuckle, but her heart clearly wasn’t in it. “Dry bland rations and water. Ah well, it’s better than raw K’lor’slug in a tomb on Korriban.” The Sith-blooded woman sank down on her bedroll with a sigh. “One side-benefit is that the debris will block out most of the cold night air.”
“After the past two weeks, it’s difficult to imagine that the word ‘cold’ could ever be applied to this planet. Intellectually, I know a desert, with so little water in the atmosphere, re-radiates heat rapidly into the atmosphere after dark.” He passed her the wrapped ration bar and bottle of water, then settled onto his own with the torch carefully pointed away from the entrance, shrugging.
“But in mid-afternoon when it feels as if you’ll never be able to draw another breath that doesn’t suck the moisture from your lungs, that’s hard to believe?”
“As you say, my lord.” She’s trying to make small talk, but her heart isn’t in it, and she’s still tenser than I can ever recall seeing her. I wonder why. “My lord, might I suggest we take watches tonight?”
But he was startled when Ucevi, normally so cautious, shook her head. “Neither of us is a heavy sleeper. I think between the perimeter sensors and the blocked entrance, we’ll be awake instantly if something goes wrong. We both need the sleep.”
“As you say, my lord.” He eyed the dewbacks uneasily and wrinkled his nose. “And if those beasts, um, soil the cave during the night, we may find it almost impossible to sleep after that.”
“Well, I can ease your mind a little on that score. They slow down in all ways when they become torpid, though I won't speak for first thing in the morning when they begin waking up. Fortunately the beasts on this hell hole have evolved to conserve as much water as possible so the smell and mess isn't too bad. Not like it would be with gundarks.” She finished her ration bar and carefully tipped the last drops of water into her mouth from the bottle before standing to rummage in their gear. “Go ahead and get some sleep, Captain, I want to set up the condensers before I lie down.”
Quinn opened his mouth to protest that he should handle that chore then saw the stubborn set of her jaw. I think she's using that as an excuse to avoid laying down for some reason, and she wants me to not notice. This is very...unlike her. What has her so on edge? “Very good, my lord. Good night.” He carefully put away his own wrapper and bottle and settled himself without another word, turning on his side facing away from her. I don't need to understand, and I suspect doing anything except pretend I don't suspect anything would make matters much worse. Sith can be quite touchy about anyone guessing even the tiniest weakness, perhaps it’s nothing more than that?
It was still too warm for him to pull the sleeping bag over him, though the air was already a more comfortable temperature to breathe. But between the hard ground padded only by the sleeping bag and his uneasy feeling that he was missing something crucial, he expected to lay awake for hours.
Quinn shivered, pulling the sleeping bag more tightly around his shoulders, then paused in confusion. Oh, the cave. His hands tightened on the sleeping bag over him. How did this...? He struggled to clear his sleep-fogged mind, eyes blinking rapidly in the very dim light, then sat up to get his bearings.
Ucevi had left one of the torches on the lowest setting, well out of line of sight for the cave tunnel, providing just enough light that he could make her out a few feet away. She was sitting on her bedroll rather than sleeping, legs crossed, hands on her knees, eyes closed. Blast, I knew it. I don’t even remember hearing her finish with the condensers, though, I must have been much tireder than I realized.
He stared down at the sleeping bag that he held in his hands, trying not to follow his train of thought to their obvious conclusion. Somehow, the idea of any Sith, especially his Sith, taking notice of his comfort, if he thought about it, would completely unnerve him. Sith are to be served . The idea of one noticing he was cold, much less acting on it, just did not fit into the world as he knew it.
Instead of letting himself obsess over that, he distracted himself by observing the Sith-blooded woman for a couple of minutes, a bit surprised that she hadn’t noticed when he sat up. The air was downright chilly now, enough that Quinn was surprised that the cold wasn’t bothering her, though she did have her sleeping bag pulled up against her back. Her breathing...it’s rhythmic, slow. In, two, three, four, five. Hold, two, three, four, five. Out, two, three, four, five. Hold, two, three, four, five. I...think she’s in some sort of deep meditation. Well, that would explain why she didn’t react when I sat up.
In fact, watching and counting her breaths caused him to yawn. Can a trance replace the need for sleep? I suppose losing one night’s sleep won’t impair her too much, though, but she already expended a lot of energy fighting womp rats and scyks yesterday, not to mention covering our tracks and hiding the cave entrance was no trivial feat. Still, we should reach Mos Anek by mid-morning, surely. He finally decided that it was none of his business and he might as well get some more sleep so he would be alert enough to compensate for any exhaustion on her part.
But his head had no sooner touched the supply bag he was using for a pillow when the first alarm for the outer sensors went off in his ear.
Damn. He shot bolt upright, scrambling to get to his feet, but Ucevi beat him to the tunnel, unlit lightsaber already in one hand, the dim torch in the other, pointed carefully at the ground. I wonder if the reason she was so on edge earlier was...a premonition? Barracks rumors say that some Sith have visions. Is she one?
Whatever it was, she was alert, her body tensed in anticipation as she stopped a few feet from the pile of rubble that blocked the entrance. Then she glanced over her shoulder to make certain he was close before flipping the switch on the torch to plunge them into darkness.
Quinn drew his blaster as silently as he could, then shivered as much from the oppressive darkness as the cool night air. Who would have thought this festering hellhole of a planet ever cooled off? Then he was startled to realize that as his eyes adjusted, he could make out a little dim light filtering through a few small gaps in the debris, outlining his lord as a darker shape against the cave wall. The moons! If the moons are up, it’s now darker in here than outside, so even if someone tries to peer through one of those gaps, their eyes should be too adjusted to the moonlight to see into the darker cave. I hope.
They waited in silence, both inhaling and exhaling so slowly and quietly that they could barely hear their own breathing. Another alarm for the outer sensors went off, and they could hear the faint rumbles of a bantha in the distance. Not a single scout, then. But they haven’t tripped the inner sensors yet.
For several minutes, the sounds of banthas continued, but never seemed to get any closer, and the outer sensors were triggered a few more times. Finally, after there were no sounds of banthas and no further alarms for at least five minutes, he sighed and whispered. “I think they’ve moved on. It should be safe to turn the torch back on low, my lord.”
But there was no response. Quinn waited a few more seconds, then whispered again, “My lord?”
Nothing. What do I do now? Dammit, I don’t know enough of what she can do, maybe she’s somehow tracking them and can’t hear me? Or maybe she’s having another vision? What would happen if she is and I startle her? Quinn swallowed, his mouth suddenly as dry as the sands outside as he remembered things he’d seen angry Sith do. Things he’d tried not to think too deeply about, things he had dismissed as necessary for the good of the Empire.
I reacted so quickly that I didn’t pick up one of the other torches, and I don’t think I can return to the chamber without one, not and locate another. Something must be going on, but I don’t know how she’ll react if I touch her. Unwanted memories of that horrifying moment in the medbay when he’d realized his mistake flashed across his mind. Especially if I...well!
More seconds ticked past in the dark with no sound or movement from his lord. Whatever other Sith might do, she has never responded capriciously, he tried to reassure himself. Maybe if I can get the torch from her hand and turn it on...
He had almost convinced himself when he realized he could see faint lightning beginning to crackle. It outlined the woman next to him, and Quinn realized that she was standing in the same posture he’d seen earlier, rigid, one hand clenched around the unlit lightsaber in her hand, the other around the torch. And as the lightning grew brighter, he could see that Ucevi’s face was contorted by...something, lips drawn back to bare her teeth. Oh void. This can’t be good.
“My lord? They’re gone, my lord.” He kept his voice as calm as possible, soothing, but the only reaction was for the lightning aura to increase. Dammit, she isn’t hearing me, but if I startle her, she might lash out. The Imperial quickly ran through possible courses of action, but finally concluded there was no other choice than to reach for her hand with the torch. If I touch the lightsaber, she might reflexively turn it on. I...just have to trust her.
“My lord, it’s Captain Quinn, I’m here with you. Let me turn the torch on, please?” His lower lip caught nervously between his teeth, he slowly reached out and touched her forearm, gently sliding his hand down to the torch. The lightning made his hair stand on end but was only unpleasant rather than painful. The Sith-blooded woman didn’t seem to react, but he quickly realized that he could never pry it free from her powerful grip. Instead, he located the sensor that turned on a low beam of light. “My lord, see, everything’s fine.”
“No!” The word was spat out with a growl. “Air, I’m running out of air, I need to get out NOW.” He withdrew his hand hastily as the lightning grew brighter again, the smell of ozone ominously growing stronger.
“My lord, please. Take a deep breath. Feel it. The air is still coming from outside, it’s fresh, almost cold. Breathe it in. I’m here with you, my lord, and I promise we’re safe.”
Finally she moved, raising the still-unlit lightsaber and her eyes snapped open, fixed on the rubble blocking the mouth of the cave instead of him.
“Just one blast will open this damned box and I’ll be able to move again, dammit!”
Void! I think she’s caught in some sort of dream. “My lord, you’re here in the cave with me, Captain Quinn. There’s plenty of air, and you can move, see?” Bracing himself, he reached into the aura of lightning surrounding her, wincing as it crackled painfully across his skin, but resolutely grasping the hand with the torch. Thankfully she didn’t resist when he raised it, then he forced himself to step forward until his chest was touching her hand and torch. As the lightning came in contact with his chest, he bit through his lip but held himself in place, ignoring the trickle of blood down his chin. “See, my lord. I’m right here with you.”
The intensity of the lightning thankfully faded a little, returning to a level that was just bearable before she finally blinked. “Joran?”
Joran? Her Chiss...friend? Why in the blazes would she think I was...him? Or why would she think he would be here now? “My lord, it’s me, Captain Quinn. We’re on Tatooine looking for Master Yonlach, remember?”
Abruptly the lighting almost froze and Quinn could have sworn he heard the lightning being sucked back into her skin as she sagged, shaking her head and blinking rapidly. Finally her eyes focused on the torch resting against his chest. “Captain? I...what happened?”
“You seemed to be having a...vision, my lord, but it seemed the better part of prudence to wake you from it. I apologize for the familiarity, my lord.” He quickly took a step or two backwards, his hand snapping free of her wrist. That’s the safest explanation, for both our sakes.
She slowly lowered the torch to point at the floor of the cave, casting her face into too much shadow for him to read any longer. “I...see. Thank you Captain, that...was probably for the best.”
I don’t think she remembers what happened, or if she does, she only remembers whatever it was she was seeing, not what was really happening. He swallowed uneasily, all too aware that a Sith might view even that much as dangerous knowledge for him to have, much less what he suspected. No, it must have been a vision, and I’d damn well better convince myself of that. Sith don’t have flashba...no, don’t even think the word.
“My lord, I believe the danger from the Sandpeople is past.”
“Of course.” Her voice, ordinarily so rich with laughter or other emotion, was unnervingly flat, but he heard the faint click of her lightsaber hooking onto her belt. Without another word, she handed him the torch and walked briskly back down the tunnel to the chamber where they were camping.
I’m almost certain she hasn’t slept, and I have to believe that she’ll sit there awake the rest of the night, reviewing what just happened over and over, if nothing else. Sith hate to feel as if they aren’t in control, and...perhaps her more than most? That sudden insight startled him. Even when she’s spoken to Baras respectfully rather than trying to take digs at him, she manages to steer the conversation in the direction she wants.
Ucevi stiffly sank down onto her bedroll, legs crossed, and Quinn winced. I knew it. She isn’t even going to pretend to sleep, and she’ll avoid the topic if I try to ask directly. His thoughts raced while he applied a small kolto pad to the cuts on his lip, the sting easing instantly. On the other hand, my lord admires competence and people who do their job without being reminded, so...maybe it’s time to take a cue from Vette’s cheek.
Briskly, he rummaged in his supplies, but as he was dropping a tablet into a bottle of water, words snapped out into the silence behind him. “What did you just put in that bottle, Captain?”
Quinn froze for a moment, then forced himself to continue, capping the bottle and shaking it briskly. “A mild muscle relaxer, my lord, nothing more.”
“For you?” Her question was spoken softly, but the flatness had been replaced with just enough menace to make him rather wish he dared answer yes.
“No, my lord, for you.” He turned matter-of-factly with the bottle and the package the tablet had come from, handing it to her first so she could confirm what it was. “It is my judgement as your medic that you are in danger of muscle spasms or strain after that vision.” With a confidence he didn’t quite feel, he raised one eyebrow at her. “You did instruct me to read up on Sith-blooded anatomy and physiology, I believe, and I assumed you intended me to put that knowledge to use when I judged necessary. If I mistook your intent, of course I apologize. My lord.”
For just a moment, her eyes narrowed at his slight delay before adding her title, then her lips twitched. “You’ve hidden your talent for being very politely insubordinate, Captain. Was that a subtle reprimand I heard?”
Instead of answering, he handed Ucevi the torch, aware that the deep dents left in the bondite grip from her fingers would be answer enough, and sure enough, she silently dropped both the torch and the package back into his hand. Just as silently, she accepted the water bottle and, without a sign of hesitation, drained it. I do believe she's been underestimating her own need for hydration, dammit. I think I’ve been too quick to assume she would actually pay close attention to her own needs.
“Very good, my lord. If you would lie down, I can complete the treatment to ensure you are able to sleep the remainder of the night.” Confidence. Even if that’s the last thing I feel at the moment.
“And if there’s another, more serious alarm?” There was still an edge to her words, and she wasn’t meeting his eyes directly, an evasiveness that disturbed him.
“I assure you, I will be able to wake you up if there is, my lord, without any impairment of your faculties.” His lord eyed him a little suspiciously, but her amusement was finally winning out in her mysterious internal struggle.
“As long as you aren’t planning to tuck me in or something equally silly, Captain. I’m neither injured nor ill, and certainly not helpless.”
Thank the Emperor! Now just to keep the mood light enough that she stays amused by my “polite insubordination.”
“The muscle relaxer will be more effective if you are warm, my lord, especially since you are more sensitive to cold than I am. Though naturally it would be preferable if you pulled the sleeping bag up on your own.”
Her lips twitched again at his subtle dig at what they both knew she had done for him earlier. Then the Sith surprised him by uncurling from that meditative posture to lie down without any further argument, though not without her own pointed dig---using the Force to pull the sleeping bag over herself. Her eyes challenged his the entire time, an action that, far from sending a thread of fear through him, made him think of other emotions that were not appropriate at this moment.
“There. Does that satisfy your sense of duty, Captain?” She wasn’t even hiding her amusement any longer.
“Much better, my lord.” The muscle relaxer should be taking effect by now. Far more confidently than he felt, he took her nearer hand in both of his and gently massaged it until he felt the knots beginning to relax, pretending he was completely unaware when her browstalks shot up in surprise.
“Captain, what the blazes are you doing?”
“Soothing the muscles, my lord.” He answered as nonchalantly as he could with those fierce golden eyes glaring into him. “My studies indicate that this is part of the correct treatment to avoid muscle spasms after intense exertion.” Her eyes narrowed.
“You don’t need to do this, Quinn.”
Well, that’s a good sign that she’s using Quinn finally instead of Captain . “Let me be the judge of that, my lord. Your well-being is my responsibility.”
Her eyes locked with his, and for just a moment, her fingers tightened around his while she ran her tongue across her lips, not sensually, but as if they were too dry. That moment seemed to drag out, then her fingers relaxed again and Ucevi glanced away before closing her eyes resolutely. “Well, if you’re going to be stubborn about it, who am I to complain about a massage?”
Neither spoke another word, though her fingers tightened on his again when he moved the massage to her forearm. Eventually, both hand and arm relaxed completely as the combination of the muscle relaxer, warmth, and massage lulled her into sleep.
Quinn told himself that it was only concern for her physical condition that led him to remain beside her for several minutes more, her hand resting in his, before returning to his own bedroll. And if he studied her sleeping face the entire time, well, how else would he know if she was in pain?
Chapter 31: "Walk in the Shadows"
Ucevi faces herself...and herself...at the oasis. And proves the Force isn't her only weapon.
I apologize if there's any confusion about who is speaking. I had always planned for this scene to play out this way, Ucevi battling both sets of her self-doubts...then discovered it was kind of difficult to keep who was speaking and listening clear. See notes at the end of chapter for more about why I did this.
Also, my deepest gratitude to Riajade01 who has been my reader for several of the most recent chapters, including this one.
“Foolish child, clinging to a long dead past, refusing to grasp true power. You limit yourself, restrain your passions. Doomed. Weak.”
Ucevi watched warily as phantoms with her own face slowly circled, like predatory birds watching for an opening. She waited with her arms crossed on her chest and legs braced apart, eyes following the second phantom as it came into view, flaring with an alien and unnatural white light, spitting its own poison at her in its turn.
“You cling to your fear and lie to yourself that your honor is a shield, denying your true potential. You could accomplish so much more if you would just fully walk in the light, let go of that fear and dead ideas of honor.”
They continued circling and as the darkly glowing phantom passed into Ucevi’s view, she sneered at the silent Sith-blood.
“Honor, duty, such pretty words. Like a blanket reassuring a baby. Did they save your ancestors? Long dead, defeated, forgotten by everyone else. Where did duty and honor get them? Where was your vaunted honor when you fled, leaving everyone you cared for to die? What did honor mean when it came to saving your own skin?”
“I was ordered to survive, to keep our house alive. But I wouldn’t expect you to understand duty.” Ucevi ground the words out through clenched teeth, but her own face, distorted with uncontrolled rage, cackled mockingly back at her as it passed out of view, and the other, just as distorted by unconcealed pity, passed into view.
“Honor? Where was your honor when you woke yesterday morning and contemplated murder to save your own skin? So afraid of anyone guessing your secret fear.”
Ucevi ground her teeth and spit out the words. “I chose honor over duty.”
Now the phantoms stopped on either side of her, leaning close to whisper their poisonous doubts into her ears.
“Pitiful! He knows your weakness now, you and everything you still care for is in his hands, and still you refuse to act. Either to seize what you want or to end his threat. If your grandmother only knew how you fail at your duty...” The face tinged with a more familiar darkness laughed mercilessly at her answering growl.
“It would be dishonorable to repay him with treachery.”
“You risk thousands of years of struggle to save your people from oblivion...for a single man. A dangerous attachment.” The alien brightness sighed, as if disappointed.
“And yet, I chose to trust his own honor.”
“Honor! You toss that word around as if it has some meaning in the galaxy.” The whisper from her other side grew softer, more malevolent. “You have so much fear and rage inside you, locked away. Tap into that memory. Remember. Trapped in the dark, unable to move, every minute like an hour. An hour like a week. Days like years. Darkness and fear going on and on and on. Alone. Delicious.”
The Sith woman refused to be provoked into response this time, simply glaring rigidly out over the pool even when the other phantom took up the thread of torment.
“You still wake up, those deaths calling to you. Unable to move, not even to wipe the tears from your face. You know if you chose to embrace the light, forego those attachments, you would not need to feel their pain, fear darkness, being deserted, alone and forgotten. The light…”
“The light?” Suddenly Ucevi broke free of whatever had held her frozen in place to be tortured, her brow ridges drawing together angrily as she stepped out from between the two phantoms, beginning to circle around them as they stared at each other instead. “I was reborn in their pain and my own, in that darkness. Life, not death. And you forget, I was not forgotten or alone. That honor and duty is something I can believe in. You would have me embrace death and the absence of everything that makes life worth living?”
“The light defends life!” Ucevi’s words had clearly hit a nerve.
“Does it? And at the cost of what? No family, no passion, nothing that makes life worth living. Life is struggle and passion, pain and change. You can only find peace after death.”
Before the phantom could muster a retort, the Sith-blooded woman was behind the other seething phantom, hissing in its ear instead.
“Embrace the dark? You mean limit myself only to the power that can be drawn from anger, fear, and hate? How long can a person sustain those things without burning away?”
“Long enough! You deny the most powerful passions, the greatest power.” The reddish aura flared at the sting of Ucevi’s accusation.
“The easiest, you mean. And how often do they fail just when someone needs them most? I don’t deny my passions, any of them. But I don’t let them rule me.”
“How long can you fool your master? He is steeped in treachery, and your refusal to fully embrace the darkness is as much a weakness as your fear of being trapped alone, in the dark. And do you truly believe he will hesitate to use your beloved honor and duty against you?”
“Baras is a fool. A clever fool, at times, but he sees only what he wants to see.”
By now she had passed back to the other phantom, whose detached pity had been replaced with wariness of its own.
“Embrace the light! You mean the same light that has tried to wipe out my people before? Or do you deny that those who follow the light believe that they are called to wipe out the Sith-blooded. My people?”
“The light protects the galaxy!” The voice of the phantom was defensive now, more uncertain.
“You pretend to represent good and yet that ‘greater good’ embraces, even demands, genocide. Simply because we exist. Hypocritics. How is the galaxy served if even one species is removed?”
“Your people have attacked the Republic repeatedly!”
“Hmm, and all the fault has been on the side of the Empire?” Now she paused behind the other phantom, visibly seething with reddish tendrils of power drifting around it.
“And you! What has the dark done for my people? Killed them just as surely as the light through conquest, slavery, rape, the destruction and theft of our culture and history?”
“Your people were barbaric, primitive, brutal! The dark Jedi gave you order, they civilized you!”
“Did they? Has any people who conquered another ever described the conquered in any other terms? Posed as anything other than benevolent bringers of culture and civilization? Who defines ‘primitive?’ Can a species with space flight, who ruled a dozen worlds, truly be called primitive? Were we any more barbaric and brutal than our own conquerors?”
“And of course your ancestors were beacons of benevolence. A cult that trained assassins.” She sneered, but there was uncertainty in her voice now.
“And healers. Both bound to death and life, duty and honor. And who are you to call them a cult , an order that had stood for millennia before the dark Jedi rebelled against their own order? Which was the cult then?”
“It was a cult, a barbaric order that weakened your ancestors with rules and restraint. Foolish ideas like honor. Duty. ”
Ucevi smiled dangerously as she passed around behind the phantom that still glared too brightly, whispering with a poisonous sweetness. “This war has gone on for over three thousand years, and your real enemy is not me, but her. You’ve both used my people to fight this war. Your light has used us as the face of the enemy, just as surely as the dark has used us as bodies for their war. Pitiful. If you truly believed in the light, you’d face the dark directly.”
By now the two phantoms had locked angry gazes as the Sith continued circling. “You! You’ve thrown the bodies of my people at this war, then used their bodies to breed more soldiers, to steal our very genes to strengthen your “Sith,” stealing even our name. You’ve corrupted most of those who could still be called Sith-blooded so far that they’ve forgotten their past. This is a war between you. The light created you, but you fear the light too much to face it.”
“That’s a lie!”
“This is a war that began on Tython, between light and dark Jedi, and my people have paid the price ever since, walking in the shadows.” She was behind the white hot phantom now, hissing her words. “Both of you want me to be complicit in the destruction of my entire species. I. Refuse. If you believed in your own words, you would face each other directly. Or do all those words about protecting the galaxy mean nothing if it means risking yourself?”
The two phantoms had begun to move closer to each other as she circled again. “You’re afraid of the light, in spite of all of your pretty words about strength and power setting you free. Why should I respect a coward?”
At that, the two figures howled and leapt for each other, lightsabers out while Ucevi calmly took several steps backwards, arms crossed while she coolly observed the fierce battle unfold. And for the first time since the phantoms had appeared over the water of the oasis, she spared a glance for the mouth of the cave where she had ordered both Quinn and Sharack Breev to remain. Out of earshot, thankfully. Not a confrontation that I would care to have reported, especially not to Baras.
Odd to actually see how I look in combat. Unnerving, to be perfectly honest. But time to end this farce. She stepped between the two phantoms, bringing her own lightsaber down hard to ground the crossed blades. “Enough! So easily manipulated, both of you.”
The two phantoms glared at her, then grudgingly, both nodded in unison.
“Good. You do rule your darker passions without denying them.”
“You use your honor and duty to keep yourself in balance.”
The two figures began moving slowly toward her, speaking almost over each other.
“But someday a moment will come when you need strength. Don’t be afraid to unleash that bottomless well of fear within yourself and no one can stand against you, not even Baras.”
“Remember that your attachment is dangerous and don’t hesitate to strike him down if he uses his knowledge to betray you to Baras. You have a duty.”
“Tell me something I don’t already know.” The two figures merged just before they seemed to vanish into her, and she shuddered at the sensation of fire and ice that briefly ran up and down her veins.
As if I didn’t already know I was walking a dangerous line. But if I betray my sense of honor, what anchor do I have left in my life? She told herself resolutely that her decision had nothing to do with the worry she had seen in those blue eyes by the light of a dim torch, the sense that he cared about more than just a Sith lord he happened to owe his duty to. I choose honor over duty, and I have to trust in his own.
So, it never made sense to me that someone who was very gray would only face one side of herself or the other. I think this one says a lot more about who Ucevi is and my approach to the Sith-blooded than the canon encounter. And while Ucevi's loyalty is firmly with the Empire, she isn't the only one who plays the light against the dark...
And I stand by my interpretation that the Jedi (and Republic) advocate genocide of the Sith-blooded. The Republic stories mention their goal as the destruction of the Sith repeatedly (and they have in fact tried it in the past.) As far as the light demanding a certain someone's death, the attitude of the Jedi Council is consistently that of pragmatism, protecting the many over the one. And of course, the phantom(s) that appear at the oasis are the doubts a person has, which are just as much influenced by bias and preconception based on a person's background as the beliefs you recognize in yourself. The phantoms aren't necessarily "right" or "wrong." Ucevi has only what she was taught about the light side, and her brief encounters with Jedi so far have mostly reinforced those beliefs, not challenged them.
Chapter 32: "Fire and Ice"
A reunion with Joran and his crew, by way of the space battle over Sarapin IV; someone pushes Ucevi within a hair of completely letting go of her control.
WARNING: There is an attempted attack, which isn't described, but still might be disturbing for some people. Also graphic language.
Vette giggled, tapping her shot glass against first Joran’s, then his first officer’s, a slender dark engineer named Riassa, before taking a contented sip of the very fine Corellian whiskey. The tips of her lekku curled just slightly in pleasure when she leaned forward to grin at Ucevi around Joran. “Now this is more like it!”
“Anything has to be an improvement over the food or drink at that shithole cantina on Tatooine. But yes, I’d rather regroup at Alderaan’s space station than almost anywhere else; the Alderaanians demand that only the best served in their bars.” Ucevi returned Vette’s grin with a wink and tapped her own glass against Quinn’s and Joran’s where they flanked her seat at the head of the table. “Here’s to one Republic warship disabled and captured! For the Empire!”
The others echoed her toast and drank, still elated at their quick victory. Then at the foot of the table Farnol, Joran’s gunnery and ordnance officer, brushed his blond hair back from a pale, slightly puffy face, his eyes fixed on Vette. The young Twi’lek unconsciously leaned toward Joran as if to put more distance between herself and the human’s leer, her good humor evaporating. “Gotta say that was a nice bit of flying, girl. Surprised me from a rat ta..., er, Twi’lek.”
Everyone at their table stiffened, eyes flicking almost in unison toward Ucevi. That bastard! Dammit, I got a weird sense from him as soon as Joran introduced him to us. And everyone, down to Quinn and Vette, are expecting me to take his head off, but he’s Joran’s subordinate, not mine. I’ll be damned if I’ll undermine his authority by snapping this sunnovaHutt’s neck in a cantina, no matter how satisfying it would be. As if he could hear her thoughts, Joran’s lips curled humorlessly as the Chiss turned his gaze back to the younger human.
“Lieutenant Farnol, I do believe the crew may be getting a little rowdy, and it would make an unfortunate impression on the Alderaanians if they got out of hand. Please join them and make certain it isn’t necessary to discipline anyone tonight.” The words were delivered in a cheerful, friendly tone, but the captain’s narrowed eyes left absolutely no doubt that his subordinate was being banished from the company of Ucevi and her crew. The man glared angrily back at Joran for a long moment before he caught sight of Ucevi’s face and the flush of anger drained from his face….along with the blood.
He was still silently telegraphing his rage when he picked up his glass and moved to the other table, though. A dozen or so ranks from the Raptor ’s crew were there, enjoying rather free-flowing pitchers of beer and platters of nibbles….all provided at Ucevi’s expense….to fuel their own boisterous celebration of their achievement.
Vette exhaled sharply as if she’d been holding her breath, managing a weak smile when Joran briefly patted her hand reassuringly.
Zasha, his pilot-navigator and the last person at the table, grimaced while idly sloshing the golden liquid around in her glass. “Captain, I’m not one to criticize my superiors, but…”
When she hesitated, Joran raised one eyebrow at her coolly. “You disapprove, Ensign?”
“What? No sir!” Her green eyes widened in alarm. “I just meant...well, I think you know that there have been complaints among the ranks about the lieutenant. He, um, doesn’t really like being on the Raptor, you know.” She didn’t quite meet Joran’s eyes for a moment, then glanced from Vette to Ucevi to Joran, her lip caught between her teeth as she waited to see if her unspoken message about the three non-humans was clear.
“Yes, he’s made his feelings about being assigned to my command rather clear, Ensign, though this isn’t really an appropriate time or place to air that situation, is it?”
“No sir, sorry sir.” Her face flamed for a moment, then she shrugged. “I was just worried…” The young woman glanced away, her words trailing off uncomfortably.
Quinn coughed politely. “My lord, the Harpy’s Revenge did take some damage to the armor plating during the attack at Sarapin IV.” Ah, nice change of subject. Good man. “And I would also recommend that the sublight engines and shield generators undergo maintenance as well before we land on the planet. We did put them under considerable strain during that battle.”
Joran nodded in agreement. “I’m putting the Raptor in dry dock for maintenance before we head back to Taris, my lord. They do what they can at Taris space station, but the facilities are….very limited. We’ll probably be here for almost a week, and I’m going to rotate my crew through shore leave while we’re here.”
Stars, when was the last time we were in the same place for more than a few hours at a time? Ucevi felt a surge of delight at the prospect. “Lord Baras seemed to think it would take several more days to line things up for me on Alderaan, so that works out well. Quinn, you don’t need to tell me that you will want to oversee the maintenance crews personally, but I’m going to order you to plan and take at least a little shore leave yourself.” He nodded politely in silent acknowledgment, lips twitching so infinitesimally that she was probably the only one who realized he was amused by her teasing.
“And this seems like an excellent time and place to restock supplies for the Harpy. I certainly won’t object to the quality of food we can get here. Captain Joran, you and your officers will have to have dinner on board the Harpy with us one night before you leave.” Well, there’s one of you I don’t want anywhere near Vette, but you don’t need me to tell you that, do you?
As if he could hear her thoughts, Joran nodded with a too-polite smile. “That would be very kind of you, my lord. Though I do believe it would be best to leave an officer behind with the crew, just in case.” Riassa coughed, covering her mouth politely, but from the way her dark eyes danced, Ucevi felt certain she was concealing a laugh. I wonder if any of your other officers and crew have learned to read your eyes and expressions because you are entirely too full of mischief at the moment. Your ensign is right, though. You need to do something about Farnol before he arranges an “accident” for you and Riassa.
“Good, it’s settled then! Let’s see if Toovee can pull together something appropriate, and Quinn, can we try to avoid having any disruptive work on the ship in progress at the same time?”
“Very good, my lord. I’ll alert him to the possibility tonight so he has time to check his inventory and make suggestions by breakfast tomorrow.”
Vette giggled, her good humor slowly returning. “And give him enough time to do his panicked fluttering while we sleep.”
Joran’s two officers apparently were familiar with the quirky programming of 2V models to chuckle appreciatively when Quinn blandly replied, “Naturally.”
Joran’s junior officers had briefly met Ucevi and Vette a few months earlier on Nar Shaddaa, and rest of the evening was congenial and quite relaxed, other than the incident with Farnol. The engineer and Vette had hit it off and chattered away like old friends, occasionally drawing the more reserved Zasha into their conversations.
Good, solid officer, Riassa, loyal, competent, and surprisingly free of the xenophobia so many Imperials officers have. Glad Joran’s not fighting that battle with her, at least; he’s got enough battles to deal with. Not as sure about Zasha, but she’s no Farnol either. Joran seems to have even won over Quinn; they’ve been chatting very comfortably about mutual acquaintances tonight. Some tension still there, but I don’t think it has anything to do with Joran being a Chiss this time.
About that time, she caught Joran’s eye and felt her lips curl sensuously in response to the warm question she read in them. Dammit, I spent almost six weeks constantly sharing quarters with Quinn, and I’ve been celibate the entire damned time except for that very brief reunion with Syara when we passed back through Mos Ila.
Still…. The Sith-blooded woman caught Quinn’s eye and held it firmly before glancing at Vette, then the crew’s table, and back to Quinn with a raised brow-stalk. Imperceptibly, he nodded understanding. Good man. I’m not going to leave her here without backup, and he has rank. He can glare down Farnol. He may not like Vette, but she’s a member of my crew and he’ll defend her.
To her surprise, though, Quinn suddenly wet his lips as if they were dry and glanced down, breaking his gaze with her. Then she realized that Joran was studying Quinn closely. Hmm, something going on there. Ah, well, that can wait
Briskly, she drew a credit chip from her pocket and tossed it on the table in front of Quinn. “Quinn, I believe I’m ready to retire for the evening. Make certain the Raptor’s crew gets at least one more round, and get yourselves another half-bottle of whiskey if you three run out.” She raised a brow-stalk at Joran and almost purred as she rose, “Captain, shall we?”
“Of course.” He passed his own credit chip to Riassa. “Let them blow off a little steam tonight if you think they need it, Lieutenant. I’d prefer it if we didn’t need to bail anyone out or pay for any damages, but….” The Chiss let the sentence trail off and the lieutenant simply nodded as Joran rose to offer his arm to the Sith. “My lord?”
Quinn watched the pair leaving the bar arm-in-arm, sternly telling himself he had no business resenting the Chiss’s comfortable relationship with Baras’s apprentice. And there’s the problem. She’s not only a powerful Sith, but we both serve the same master. I may be her subordinate in every sense, which is as it should be, but I ultimately answer to Baras. I’m on her crew at Baras’s suggestion and Baras continues to demand reports on her activities. She's Sith-blooded as well, and there are so many rumors about their….appetites. Not that I really believe those, not in her case at least. But how can I admit to her that I’ve been making reports about her to Baras? He realized that his train of thought didn’t even make sense to himself. And he wasn’t quite certain just what he was trying to justify to himself.
About that time, Vette yawned hugely, turning her empty shot glass upside down to indicate she was done drinking. “Celebration or no celebration, I’m still on Tatooine time. Ris, comm me when you get shore leave. My lord says this station caters to rich types who take pleasure trips to Alderaan. Lots of boutiques we can scope out.” The engineer grinned back in anticipation, and Vette nodded at the ensign. “Zasha, you should come too.”
The young woman hesitated, then nodded slowly before Vette wrinkled her nose at Quinn. “But not anyone who's going to bore us by commenting on the prices or how frivolous the clothes are.”
As if I would want to spend several hours listening to you prattle about clothes. Quinn simply raised an eyebrow at her, refusing to rise to the bait.
The young woman smirked as she stood. “Night! Don't get into any trouble that I wouldn't.”
As she strode toward the exit, Quinn glanced at the other table to reassure himself that Farnol was safely occupied….and discovered that the man was nowhere to be seen. Dammit! How far has Vette gotten….?
Abruptly he pushed away from the table, scooping up Ucevi’s credit chip and mumbling some excuse to the other two officers. Riassa, however, apparently had followed his gaze and come to the same alarming conclusion and was only half a step behind him as he strode through the doorway and turned a corner….just in time to see Farnol’s knees hitting the ground, both hands cupping his groin while blood flowed freely from what appeared to be a broken nose.
Vette was too busy keeping an eye on her attacker as she backed away, her hands in a guard position in front of her face, and failed to see the trio of officers arrive with blasters drawn…. I didn't even notice Zasha had followed us ….but Quinn felt a surge of anger at the unguarded panic on the young Twi’lek's face, a reaction he didn’t pause to examine.
Farnol was too enraged by his own pain and humiliation to notice the reinforcements himself as he struggled to scramble to his feet. “Why you little bitch, you rat tail ! Think you matter just ‘cause that Force freak coddles you? Well, I'll show you….”
“Please do finish that sentence, lieutenant.” Ucevi stepped into view through a hatch only a few feet past Vette, closely followed by Joran, both clearly witnesses to the blond lieutenant’s attack. Her hand snapped up before Farnol could even react to her presence, eyes glowing as the man clawed at his throat. “It is an insult to my ancestors to think that even a drop of their blood also flows in the veins of slimy mynock dung like you.” She spat each word as she stepped around Vette, fist slowly closing. Joran followed, placing his body between the lieutenant and the Twi’lek woman.
Quinn’s hair lifted from his scalp in reaction to the sheer power radiating from his lord. She's always been so controlled, but right now, she's a hair away from letting loose that control. I don’t think I ever guessed just how controlled she has been or how powerful and dangerous she may become.
Farnol clearly had come to the same realization about her potential, though from the odor, his realization involved losing control of his bladder as his legs kicked helplessly. His face went from red to purple as he struggled to take a breath. Quinn watched calmly, expecting his Sith to quickly finish him off with a snapped neck or crushed windpipe…. certainly no one in the Empire would expect less from a Sith after twin insults like Farnol’s ….but then Ucevi loosened her grip just enough for the man to gasp in a little air as she turned her head toward Joran.
“Captain, if he'd succeeded in actually laying hands on Vette, he'd already be dead, but it would seem I owe Sgt. Fesnil a rather large bottle of Corellian whiskey. Shall I deal with him, or hand him over to you to punish? He is your officer and with Captain Quinn and Lieutenant Riassa, you have enough senior officers for a field court martial.”
I...she….is she protecting Joran? Even after the past seven months in her company, Quinn was stunned that she would willingly forego her own right to personally punish the fool. Then logic began to kick in and he followed that line of thought rapidly to a conclusion. If he reports that a Sith executed one of his officers, Captain Joran would face questions, accusations that he can’t maintain discipline from those who are...offended by a Chiss with command rank. They'd use Farnol’s assault on a Sith’s crew as fuel against him. But she takes a risk that other Sith will see her as weak. Why would she take that risk for any Imperial, much less a Chiss?
Joran, however, showed no sign of the surprise that he should have felt at her offer, simply turning enough to see Vette himself, while still carefully shielding her from any sight of her attacker. “You were his target, Vette. If you say the word, I'll leave him to my lord to execute.”
The Twi’lek gaped for a second, then she shakily shook her head, making no attempt to see the terrified human past him. “Uh, no, I mean, I don't need him dead. I just never want to have to see him again. And, well, prevent him from trying this on anyone else. I, um, think you can punish him instead, Captain...I mean, if it's all the same...to...both of you. Er, Captain, my lord.”
Ucevi exchanged unreadable glances with Joran, then unclenched her hand, abruptly dropping Farnol to collapse in a heap like a discarded doll, glaring as she spat out her last comments to the man. “Did you hear that, you filthy K’lor’slug fodder? You owe her your life, because if it were up to me, you'd be gasping out your last breath for the next two hours, over and over. And when I was finally done, I'd have sent your worthless corpse to Korriban to be fed to K’lor’slugs. If you’d actually harmed her, you bastard son of a drunken Jedi by a mangy bantha, nothing in this galaxy would have stopped me from taking you to Korriban personally, cutting your testicles off and feeding them to the K’lor’slugs while you watched. And then I’d have watched you slowly bleed to death as they circled.”
With that, she turned her back on the crumpled puddle of piss and fear, moving around Joran to rest a hand on Vette’s shoulder. She stood facing away, speaking softly to the younger woman as if the others didn't exist.
At a gesture from Joran, Quinn and Riassa holstered their blasters and leapt forward to yank the man roughly to his feet, forcing his arms behind him. The engineer silently produced a set of binders and quickly had him secured. Quinn also noticed the engineer clearly took a certain amount of pleasure from forcing his arms back into the most uncomfortable angle possible. Not that I wouldn’t enjoy putting a blaster bolt between his eyes for his insult to my lord. And the lieutenant clearly likes Vette. But I have to wonder if there have been other problems with Farnol before that they couldn't do anything about?
Where Ucevi’s rage had been a bonfire, the Chiss officer radiated an anger as cold as hard vacuum on a sunless moon. Until now, I hadn't understood why people think of them as so cold. He normally is...charismatic. Quinn grimaced inwardly, far too aware that he would never have the natural charm that drew most people to the Chiss. Now I think….he could be a very bad person to cross.
“Captain, Lieutenant, I presume you saw enough?” If anything, the man's voice was colder than his glare.
The lieutenant’s “yes” was in perfect unison with Quinn’s own, though perhaps pronounced with more venom. Definitely some previous problem with the man. Joran raised an eyebrow at the prisoner.
“Well, Farnol, do you have anything to say in your defense before we pass sentence? Keeping in mind who can hear your words at this moment?”
The terrified man shook his head violently but silently. Either he's too terrified...or his throat hasn't recovered enough for him to speak.
“And just in case you recover your nerve later and consider contesting your sentence, remember that your insult to my lord amounts to treason. ‘Force freak’ were your exactly words, I think? There are six witnesses, including three officers senior to you as well as the Sith lord herself.” The man collapsed further in on himself. “Oh, and there's a camera trained on this hall, recording everything. We didn't trust you after your behavior earlier, you see.”
He paused again, rubbing one thumb along his chin thoughtfully. “Having been found guilty of attempted assault on a member of a Sith lord’s crew and of treasonous words about the Sith themselves, we find you guilty. You are hereby stripped of rank and sentenced to ten years hard labor on Hoth.” Joran smiled humorously. “I'll be asking some friends from the Ascendancy to keep watch on you to make certain you don't try to have the sentence shortened. Oh, and I wouldn't recommend trying to escape. If the weather and wildlife don't get you, the pirates will. You’ll wish my lord had taken you to Korriban if they do.”
The man shook his head violently again. Then Riassa yanked him around, nodding at Joran. “I'll take him back to the ship and lock him in the brig with a guard, Captain, then arrange transportation to Hoth for him.”
Ucevi finally glanced past Joran to nod at Quinn. "Captain, please escort them and make certain he's well-secured before you return to the ship. We'll take Vette back to the ship with us."
"Of course, my lord." I know one of her concerns has been that someone would target her crew to get to her, particularly Vette. Was this more than a not-too-bright bully getting caught? Riassa jerked the man around and began to manhandle him down another passage, and Quinn followed with his blaster drawn, acting as guard. I wonder...
I assume that there's a broad range of types in the Empire, from those with relatively little bias toward aliens as long as they're loyal to the Empire to those like Farnol who are offended even by the Sith-blooded. And I have a hard time believing, with the Empire's culture of strength making things right that attempts like this would be uncommon.
Chapter 33: "Shadows and Smoke"
The aftermath. Vette asks some very uncomfortable questions.
Ucevi nodded to TooVee as he set the tray with the pot of tea on the table, and miraculously, he retreated back into his work area without babbling for once. Just as well. Tonight, I’d have a hard time forcing myself to remember that his programming isn’t his fault. But he does have a very good survival instinct occasionally. Briskly, she filled a mug, leaving enough room for a generous dollop of nerf cream and sweetener, stirring it thoroughly before firmly closing both of Vette’s cold hands around it where she sat huddled in a blanket.
“Here, this will warm you up a little.” Joran sat silently on the opposite section of the sofa, twitching his fingers slightly from side to side in rejection when Ucevi raised the pot in a wordless question. Instead she poured herself tea and leaned back with the mug cupped in her hands, inhaling the fragrant steam and sipping occasionally while they waited. She didn't even look up when we wrapped the blanket around her.
The younger woman unconsciously drank the tea without really noticing it was in her hands or even realizing that the tea had an unfamiliar spiciness until the mug was empty. Then she seemed to shake herself and look around, frowning. “Why are you two hovering?”
Ucevi shrugged. “Hovering? I’m just having a cup of tea with you.” She leaned forward and raised the tea pot, offering more to Vette who seemed to really notice the mug gripped between her hands for the first time. As if I’d leave you alone until I knew you were alright.
After a moment’s hesitation, Vette held out the mug, but added her own sweetener and cream this time, stirring slowly and thoughtfully. She took a sip automatically, then her eyes fixed on Ucevi. “So, um, about what happened. You two knew he was going to try that?”
Ucevi shook her head, gesturing at Joran with her chin. “Not exactly. As we left, Joran warned me that he has had some suspicions about that pile of bantha dung for a while, but not any evidence he could act on. You heard Zasha. Just vague complaints.” I didn’t even get a strong sense of his xenophobia when he got angry at the table. Which is…troubling.
Vette’s brows drew together as she thought about that. “So, what was I? Your bait? Was this a set-up and you let me walk into that?”
Joran shook his head violently. “No! But after the way he behaved earlier….we thought you’d just laugh at us if we suggested you not go anywhere on the station alone. Would you have taken us seriously if we had?”
“Maybe.” The Twi’lek’s chin jutted stubbornly..
Ucevi raised a brow ridge inquiringly. “Vette, if I’d told you to stay with the group in the cantina until Quinn was heading back to the ship, what would your reaction have been?” Because you two get along so well.
Vette opened her mouth, then closed it, staring down silently into the dark liquid steaming in the mug. “Ok, ok, I’d have laughed at you and told you to keep Captain Stuffy to yourself. I can take care of myself. And, I mean I did. Take care of it.” Unconsciously she shuddered, then her hands tightened on the mug as she forced herself to stop.
“Yes, you did. And if he hadn’t done anything, you’d never have known we were making sure you had backup.”
“It still feels like you used me as bait.” Vette pulled the blanket more tightly around her shoulders, then stared down at it as if she had no memory of how it got there.
“Vette.” Ucevi waited until the younger woman met her eyes. “Do you really believe that I’d ever do something like that to you without your permission?” Would I, though? If I had to to keep her safe? Dammit, not like that.
Long, tense seconds passed as Vette stared at her, then her eyes dropped to the mug. “No. Or at least not on purpose. But it sure feels like I was being used as bait.” Her words were mumbled into the mug.
Just as Ucevi was about to respond, Quinn entered the lounge, pausing for a moment to take in the pair flanking Vette, then he nodded silently to Ucevi as if conveying some message and passed on toward the bridge. Vette watched him go, one finger tapping the rim of the mug, then her eyes snapped to Ucevi suspiciously.
“What were they doing there? Were they following me?”
I was afraid you’d think of that. Ucevi shrugged. “I made sure Quinn knew I was a little concerned about that filth, but until Joran told me his concerns, I just expected him to try to harass you verbally again after we left. I guess something alarmed them.”
“Wait, so you could think of a way to signal Quinn before you left, but not me? I mean, not even our signal that there’s danger?” Vette’s eyes narrowed.
Ucevi bit her lip, and looked away herself. “Honestly, Vette, I just….didn’t think of it. I didn’t think he was a real risk at the time---I didn’t know any more than what you heard yourself---and you followed behind us before I had time to think it through once I did know….”
Joran spoke back up finally. “Her first thought was to keep you safe and to help me deal with the threat he posed to me and my crew. If anyone’s to blame, it’s me. I hadn’t told her my suspicions before because I let my pride get in the way. I didn’t want my discipline problem solved by a Sith, or at least not this Sith. So I created a situation where, yes, I guess you did get treated as bait, but only because we were trying to plan on the fly.”
“Yeah, well next time, clue me in sooner? I mean, you had time to set up a camera, right?”
Ucevi cleared her throat uncomfortably. “Well, we lied about that. Though every passage on the station does have a security camera on it, and we’ve already secured the footage of that incident. But I’m...sorry. It happened so fast, Vette...I was afraid something would happen to you.” Dammit, I’m caught between keeping up the appearance of simply being possessive of my crew like most Sith and trying not to hurt you. But if I don’t keep up appearances, do you really understand the danger if someone suspects you’re actually a friend?
Vette took a long draw from the mug, scowling. “Hmpf. At least you apologized. Well, I still don’t like Captain Stuffy. And I can take care of myself. It’s not the first time a jerk...” she abruptly censored what she was going to say, stubbornly repeating, “I can take care of myself.”
“I know you can. But you don’t have to, that’s the point of all this, you know.” Vette finally began to relax, to the point she stuck her tongue out at Ucevi who grinned. Thank the ancestors. She's stubborn enough to jump ship over something like this. “And while you could have taken care of him, without witnesses, we really couldn’t have done anything about him.”
Vette huffed. “Because who’s going to take the word of an ex-slave over a fine, upstanding Imperial like that .” She froze, then waved one of her hands apologetically at Joran. “Sorry, didn’t mean the ones like you, Captain.”
“No offense. And it’s just Joran when my crew isn’t around.”
The Twi’lek pushed one of her lekku back behind her, then paused, staring down into her mug. “What the frack am I drinking? This isn’t caff.”
Ucevi chuckled, draining half her mug before answering. “It’s a type of tea, blended with Korribani spices. Traditionally, this one is supposed to be good for shock. Didn’t know if it would have the same effect for a Twi’lek, but…” She shrugged. Damn, I’m babbling. I didn’t need to tell her that.
“Huh. So, one of those traditional Sithy things you talk about sometimes.” Thoughtfully she took another sip. “Figures even your tea is spicy. Kinda like it, though.” Then Vette scowled. “Wait, shock? You know I’ve been in a lot of fights before. Or you should by now.”
“True. But this isn’t quite the same. And no harm done if you didn’t need it since I was in the mood for a cup anyway.”
Vette snorted. “Yeah, whatever. Hey, I thought you two were…” She stopped abruptly, clearly catching herself just before asking why they weren’t already locked in Ucevi’s cabin. Instead she huffed again. “Ugh. I don’t need babysitters, you two. Stop hovering.”
Ucevi nodded and drained her mug before standing, crossing to offer Joran her hand. “In that case, we’ll leave you to it. Help yourself to the rest of the pot if you like it, though. No point in wasting it; it’s not easy to get away from Korriban or Dromund Kaas.” And good luck finding any if you don’t know where to go, unless you have the Old Family contacts.
Vette nodded, but as the two started to walk away from the sitting area, arm-in-arm, a very quiet voice followed them, “Um, thank you. Both of you.”
Chapter 34: "Akisari"
Joran and Ucevi...and reflections on the past
NOTE: Joran's POV, with flashbacks. Angst but mostly vaguely referenced and nothing graphic. References to claustrophobia.
Joran ran the brush slowly through Ucevi’s dark red hair as she leaned back against him. Whatever plans they might have had originally, the mood had shifted drastically by the time they were behind closed doors. Not that that mattered.
As long as everyone assumes this is all physical, that we’re just a pair of rutting flutterplumes who can’t think beyond sex, no one will see past that. I hope. Not that the sex isn’t fun, but… That thought trailed off as he simply lost himself in the pleasure of being here, behind closed doors, casual touch that no one else ever offered him, able to let everything else go with the one person he didn’t need to hide anything from.
Well, except when my damned pride gets in the way and I don’t damned well tell her something she should have known sooner. Though even I never imagined he’d go after a Sith’s crew until tonight. Joran shied away from examining---or even acknowledging---the rage he’d felt when Vette had reacted to that bastard, much less his own response when she’d leaned toward him, as if for protection.
I’m an idiot. “My word is my honor, my honor is my life.” Those aren’t just words to her any more than they are to me. If I’d asked her to promise not to interfere... And because I was an idiot, a sweet young woman is sitting nearby wrapped in a blanket, trying to convince herself that she’s fine. My guilt. And the person I swore to protect with my life is tying herself into knots because she’s realizing what she unintentionally did to a friend.
The last of the tangles had been out of her hair for at least five minutes, but this...this had become a ritual for them more than a decade ago. That first time, she’d barely noticed what he was doing, but it had soothed her, and somehow they always came back to this when one or both was disturbed. Everything went so wrong, so fast. He could see that her eyes were closed, lost in the feel of the brush caressing her scalp. And she felt them all.
They hadn’t done more than strip to their undershirts and shorts before sprawling out together on her bed. Ucevi had been silent, but he had always been more pleased than offended when she felt secure enough with him to turn inward like this. After I got her to Nar Shaddaa---no one’s ever given me an answer for why that pod malfunctioned. His free hand caught a lock of her thick hair, playing with it idly as he continued to brush, remembering.
He sat up suddenly when the girl stirred, startled out of his nap. For four days, he’d kept vigil. The Old Man’s people wandered in and out, treating the physical aftermath of her escape, but even heavily sedated, she had reacted to the presence of anyone in the room except him. The Old Man had told him brusquely that her senses were raw, but that a Chiss might as well be invisible to those senses. Not that he would ever have left her alone anyway.
“I’m here, Ucevi” He picked up the glass of water and helped her sit upright, noting that her arms and legs still spasmed when she moved. She drank thirstily, but then leaned back against the headboard, jaw clenched. The girl stared stubbornly at the wall opposite for several seconds before speaking in a voice still harsh.
“The Old Man?” She winced before reflexively hiding the pain from her damaged vocal cords, then gestured toward the data pad he’d left on the table by the pitcher.
“Yes, you’re on Nar Shaddaa, we’ve been here almost 5 days.”
“What are you thinking about?”
She nodded rather than trying to speak again, accepting the data pad and typing a message on it, gesturing for him to sit on the edge of the bed where he could read it. --- Has anyone else made it?---
“A few in Dromund Kaas who went to ground. Uma’s nephew was with a group that was ambushed and took some injuries before they made it to a safehouse. They’re the only others from the compound so far. We’re still hoping for Jentu….” He broke off when she shook her head, typing again
The young Chiss winced, remembering the studious young Sith-blood with real regret. “You’re certain?”
She nodded. ---I felt him. I felt…--- She stopped typing to stare at the floor for a few moments, then forced her attention back to typing. ---He must know already, but tell the Old Man that they got also Grandmother and Uma and the General.---
He winced . Ancestors, was that what the Old Man meant by her senses being raw, that she felt...all of it? She never said a word, just kept going and then… Part of him wanted to gather her into his arms, but he knew her pride would take offense at any unwelcome attempt to comfort her.
She didn’t respond to his admission, just turned her cheek into his free hand. It’s never far away, is it? How can this feel so comforting at the same time it feels as if we’re both scratching at a half healed wound?
Joran reached out and brushed the long, matted hair back from her face, watching her jaw tighten further in the effort to hold her mask of calm in place. ---Plan Usk?---
“Yes. Her family isn’t asking any questions. But...” Joran pushed more of the thick waist-length hair back from her face, “The latest holo of her has very short hair.”
The girl kept her eyes fixed on the data pad, typing without hesitation. --- Now is best, then.---
It took less than two minutes for Joran to cut away the matted hair, quickly shutting the heavy 60 cm length away in a cabinet, out of her sight. Two minutes to erase a life.
“Does it ever feel like just yesterday?”
“No.” Joran finally set the brush aside, wrapping arms around her waist, and she relaxed with her head resting against his shoulder. “I would never have had the thoughts about the child you were that I do about the woman you are, you know.”
“I didn’t feel like a child by then.”
He just held her silently, dipping into that pool of calm that had always been a part of him. Uncle said my patience was one of the reasons they matched us, not to balance out any recklessness on her part, but because her grandmother almost succeeded too well with her.
Finally, she began to talk, telling him about being trapped in the cave on Tatooine, the brief but damning moments when she almost lost her struggle, her captain's response. Ancestors, no wonder her body language was reminding me… His thoughts drifted again.
She simply sat, staring at the data pad, not even reaching up to touch her shorn hair. Hesitantly, he picked up a brush and sat down on the edge of the bed, turning Ucevi just a little and gently began to brush her hair for her. Still no outward reaction. But he knew her too well to believe that.
“Do you need anything?”
She hesitated, then typed quickly, holding up the pad so he could see it. --- Can you project the night sky? I feel…--- She shuddered, and he quickly reached for the control, triggering the projection.
Joran returned to brushing her hair in silence, watching, waiting through several more minutes of silence before adding tentatively. “I’m still on break until the new Academy year starts. I’ll be here with you until then.” Her head moved just enough that he knew she’d glanced at the reclining chair next to the bed. “I won’t leave you.”
Ancestors, how long will she flashback to that escape? “So your captain probably now guesses...”
“Yes.” He could feel her tense defensively under his hands.
“That’s a weakness he, or his master Baras, can exploit, the one thing that they could use to break you.”
“I know, and it could be very dangerous. I...did think about killing him to protect us.”
Her face remained turned away as he continued to brush her hair. After another minute passed in silence, she began to type again. --- I don’t need a keeper to make sure I still do my duty. I am old Sith, true Sith. “Qo-shâshot.” I will feed my passions on this and dance into the shadows until it is time to strike.---
He sighed inwardly, unsurprised that she was distracting herself from the present with duty and family ideals. Vengeance is easier to face than grief . “Akisari. You are a fourteen year old girl, Sith or not, and your enemy is one of the most powerful people in the Empire. Dancing close enough to a Dark Council member to strike back at her will take years. Won’t you allow yourself even a few moments to mourn first? To honor them?”
She shook her head silently, but the movement turned her head just enough that he saw a damp line on her cheek. So, Sith-bloods can cry after all. Very gently, he stroked her hair, biting his lip before continuing. “Ucevi, we’re alone and the door is locked. I am the only one here. Nuyak hadzuska. Sworn to you and only you. I protect all of you, body, mind, spirit...secrets. Or did only I mean that oath we swore?
She stiffened under his hands before visibly forcing herself to relax. --- I cannot afford any weakness now.---
“Mourning them isn’t weakness, Ucevi. It’s one thing to suppress your grief in the short term the way you had to; we’d never have escaped if you hadn’t. It’s another to refuse to acknowledge it at all.” He could only hope the Old Man had been right about what she needed right now. “You know I’ll never repeat anything you say or do to anyone, Akisari. Trust in my oath. Trust in me .”
“You believe you can trust him, then, even if Baras tries to extract information about you from him? Even using the Force on him?”
“Yes.” She turned abruptly, draping her legs over his and wrapping her arms around him to bury her face in his shoulder. “He has been honorable, Joran. I know that my duty isn’t supposed to be influenced by my personal feelings, but it would be dishonorable to betray him.”
“And you like him. Quite a lot, I think.”
“More than is wise, yes. I know. But I’m not fool enough to start anything with him that Baras can use against either of us.”
He wrapped his arms around her tightly, comforting her, though not himself. Ah, my dearest friend, love does not need sex to be dangerous to you. But you’ve avoided that sort of love as desperately as you would a Jedi trying to kidnap you. And I cannot defend your heart. Dammit, I like the man too, especially after hearing how carefully he dealt with you in that cave. But he is Baras’s man. Yet unless I have to act, I won’t challenge your choice.
She had remained like that for several more minutes before turning toward him, burying her face in his shoulder, hands clenched in his shirt. Even then, she mourned in silence, the only evidence the damp patch growing on his shoulder. She cannot let go of the masks she was taught. And the Old Man is going to give her so little time before she’s forced into a much harder role. However much I agree with their goals, they move us like pawns in their game.
Sith Language notes: Both Nuyak Hadzuska and Akisari are my terms for a specific kind of relationship between an Old Family Sith-blood and someone else. Both imply a very deep friendship and chosen family. Whether or not there's any sex involved is completely irrelevant to the relationship. As far as the sources of the words, anyone who is familiar with languages know that they change over time as long as a few people are still using even part of the language (and that doesn't get into dialects.) So you can have both Classical Latin and Church Latin (for a mild example.)
Since I've imagined a number of Sith-blood cultures coexisting in the past (rather than the rather weird monolithic and unchanging culture idea they tend to project on most non-humans in SWtOR other than Zabraks,) I've created "corrupted" versions of words and grammar, etc. Nuyak Hadzuska can be literally translated using the existing Sith language sources ("my shadow"), but not the actual sense of the words used together in this context. And Akisari is a combination of Akise and -ari, but I can no longer find where I saw "akise," so I possibly invented it. The sense of the relationship in Akisari is someone Joran is bound to by oath and affection and respect. Literally a part of him (as "my shadow" suggests he is to her.)
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Chapter 35: “Reflection of Fire”
Quinn keeps an awkward vigil. Then lets his urge to make everything fit into neat boxes start him down a path of investigation that he might regret.
Also, his denial is getting deeper :D
Thanks to @riajade01 for acting as a reader! Especially the cackle over the ending...
Quinn leaned back with a sigh, adding the latest diagnostic results to his datapad before triggering the holocam feed from the main common room. For the past hour Vette had remained there, alone, the blanket sliding off her shoulders as she stared down into the depths of a steaming mug of tea. Irritated with himself, he toggled the feed off and started running through his checklist again to see what other diagnostics remained. He tried to tell himself that it was just coincidence, this compulsion to briefly recheck that particular holocam feed every few minutes. It had absolutely nothing to do with Vette’s expression when they came into sight of her tonight. Of course not.
I’m an idiot. My lord wouldn’t have left her alone if she was concerned about her state of mind. After all, we detest each other. She’s annoying, undisciplined, and far too outspoken, and she believes I’m too rigid and bound by regulation. She doesn’t understand how important discipline and the chain of command is to a military operation.
He initiated another diagnostic program, then grumbled at himself as he flipped on the feed again. Vette was actually moving, refilling the mug, then almost as quickly , he uncomfortably flipped it off again. However much she irritated him normally, Quinn couldn’t quite deny how disturbed he was at the sight of how... vulnerable she looked, alone, wrapped in that blanket. How young. And he wasn’t certain he’d ever be able to forget the expression of pure panic he’d glimpsed on her face before she realized she had reinforcements.
She handled him quite well herself. Not that I’d expect less from one of my lord’s people, though I suppose it was just as well that there were witnesses.
The diagnostic program pinged to indicate it was done, and Quinn tried to force himself to concentrate on transferring the newest results to his datapad.
My lord did indicate earlier that she wanted me to keep watch on her, even if Vette wouldn’t… The thought trailed off as he realized he didn’t really know where that thought had been going. But I’ve only got one or two more diagnostics I can run to prepare for tomorrow’s meeting with the Alderaanian station manager to arrange repairs. He started another diagnostic in motion, debating what he else he could do to stall going to bed.
That tea pot has to be almost empty by now; maybe I should send a command to TooVee to refill it discreetly. If that annoying droid is capable of discretion. Or silence. For just a second, he felt a little sympathy for Vette’s attitude toward himself. He certainly didn’t care any more for the protocol droid than she did for him. But there was a great difference between military standards for showing respect and abject groveling. I’m not entirely certain how my lord remains so patient with him. Though TooVee's actual work is unsurpassed. She admires excellence.
Despite himself, he flipped on the feed again, this time to see Vette walking away from the couch with the blanket still wrapped around herself, clearly bound for her own cabin. Sighing with a relief that Quinn didn’t examine too closely, he closed the feed. Once he’d transferred the final results to his datapad, he checked to make certain the bridge was properly locked down for the night. On the way to his own cabin, he paused briefly to tell TooVee to clean away the tea things.
While he was putting away his uniform, he couldn’t stop himself from obsessing with the oddness of Ucevi’s actions tonight.
The more I think about it, the more I have to believe that she was protecting Joran just as much as Vette. Lieutenant Riassa hinted to me that Farnol had connections, but with the number of witnesses, I can’t imagine they’d challenge his sentence even if she'd executed him herself. Family ties only go so far when treason is involved. Quinn entered the fresher and began shaving, still burning with the mystery as he stared at his pale reflection.
Why did she forego her own right to punish him herself, deferring to Joran? My lord hasn’t shown any particular concern for her other lovers. Not that she’s been hard on anyone except Parit. But her interest is very momentary; she doesn’t seem inclined toward, mmm, repeated liaisons. Except Joran. Has she made a trip to see anyone else, I wonder?
Once his room was spotless, he climbed into his bed, waved off the lights to find that sleep eluded him. Instead, he stared up at the ceiling in the dark, plagued by the puzzle.
There’s something else there, but I can’t put my finger on it. Not romantic, I think. In fact, he’d overheard Joran make at least one comment that made it clear that he not only was well aware of, but was amused by, Ucevi’s other liaisons. Then it came to him.
With her other lovers, she’s extremely focused on them, almost...interrogating them rather delicately, even expertly. There’s an intensity to the way she studies them, evaluating them, while they simply notice a flattering interest. But not with Joran. No interrogation, no sense that she’s evaluating him, but a sense that she would turn her back on him without a moment’s concern for her safety. And my lord barely does that with Vette. Suddenly Quinn shied away from examining her motives in any more detail.
Baras has only asked me to observe her, not investigate her, and I’m certain he already has someone doing that. He refused to consciously admit that he’d been editing his reports for Baras, rolling over and futilely trying to force himself to relax into sleep.
It would be extremely inefficient to duplicate that effort. But could it hurt to know more about this Chiss, Joran? A little voice in the back of his head taunted him with being jealous of Joran’s relationship with Ucevi. Nonsense. There can never be anything between me and a Sith, especially not an exceptional one like my lord. I’m interested in protecting her. That’s all
He clearly wasn’t going to sleep anytime soon. With a sigh, Quinn sat up and waved the lights back on.
I don’t want to go through Baras’s networks; no point in alerting him when there's probably nothing. But I should have access to his general military records through my lord’s clearance…
Quinn slept in a little the next morning. But he was unsurprised that he was still the only awake when he entered the main common room on his way to the cargo hold. He quickly ran through his morning exercise routine in solitude, mulling over what he’d found in Joran’s military records.
I admit, I was surprised that he and his father had not only been born in the Empire, but held Imperial, not Chiss Ascendancy, citizenship from birth. Both born on Dromund Kaas, both routinely trained for military service alongside the human citizens of the Empire, and his father died in the line of service for Imperial Intelligence a decade ago.
He finished his pushups and rolled over to begin his sit-ups, continuing to gnaw at the problem the captain presented.
Nothing about his mother or any grandparents, though some of them must have lived at least briefly in the Empire. And to have Imperial citizenship...how long have they lived in the Empire? Joran himself had been admitted to one of the best Imperial Officer Academies on Dromund Kaas itself…
I wish the records listed his sponsors. Clearly some personal information had been redacted, not surprising with a family member in Intelligence. But no matter how outstanding his academic record, no one gets into a top academy without the sponsorship of at least two high-ranking individuals. Or a Darth, but that hardly seems likely for a Chiss. Quinn was impressed with the man’s academy record in spite of himself.
His instructors universally admitted that he had an exceptional talent for ships’ tactics on-the-fly, virtually always achieving top simulation scores. Some even suggested that perhaps it was a peculiar “knack” of his people. In a graduating class of over 1000, Joran had finished 18th. Which more than justified his admission to such a prestigious academy, especially since I suppose he also encountered a great deal of resistance. Quinn uncomfortably shied away from what that thought implied.
Joran’s first assignment to a star destroyer was fairly unexceptional, but advanced through the ranks normally. His second assignment, though… A year as aide to the commandant of the Imperial detachment at the Ziost Sith Academy. At the same time my lord was training there. Which explains how they met, I suppose.
Quinn finished the sit-ups and stood to retrieve the weights, beginning slowly with curls. His commander gave him a glowing review for his diplomatic dealings with both the overseers and acolytes. Then added a private note to his file that Joran had had an occasional on-and-off fling with one of the acolytes. Ucevi? Which might have been quiet criticism, but he seemed more impressed that the young officer carried out the affair with absolutely no...unfortunate...difficulties.
Most recently, he’d served on a frigate. There weren’t a lot of details, but near the end of his tour, when they’d been ambushed, Joran had used an unconventional exploit of the pirates’ shields to disable them, enabling them to turn around what had looked like a hopeless situation. His captain recommended Joran for commendation and promotion as a result.
Quinn found it difficult not to compare the outcome for Joran with his own experience. And harder not to resent the man’s luck.
Well, at least I can understand now how he already has his own command. I knew Broysc would make me pay. Captain Joran was more fortunate to have a commander who wasn’t threatened by his abilities. First command, successful assignments, no marks against his command ability.
Otherwise, his record only listed a single relative as his emergency contact, a great-uncle currently living on Nar Shadaa. But the unrestricted record that Quinn could access didn’t include even the man’s name.
Now to work out a way to look for him on Nar Shadaa without going through Baras’s resources. Quinn finished the last repetition, and began to put his exercise equipment away, forcing himself to focus on that task and his mental review of the Chiss captain’s record rather than the fact Ucevi was more than an hour past the time she normally appeared to train, no matter her evening’s...activities.
Immersed in his plans, he was startled out of his thoughts just as he passed Ucevi’s cabin by a rather loud moan. Images instantly flashed across Quinn’s mind of a very familiar face with amber eyes, half-lidded, lips parted as she voiced her pleasure, nails digging into his back while powerful thighs clenched around his, and...
Quinn jerked himself free of those very inappropriate thoughts, his face flaming. What are you doing? Eavesdropping...and fantasizing? On a Sith and her lover?
He found himself extraordinarily thankful that Vette didn’t happen to appear from her cabin just at that moment to notice his burning cheeks. Quickly he fled into his own, almost unconsciously signalling the lock on the door. And if he spent a little longer in his own fresher than normal, turning to the only means he could think of to try to erase that memory and fantasy from his mind, well, no one else would know what the shower washed away.
Not that it worked.
Real life keeps interfering with writing time. Things may improve at the end of May a little. I do have a lot of the next chapter already drafted.
I may have mentioned, but I get very frustrated with the game's inability to produce a rational rank system, or to separate ground ranks from space (naval) ranks. So I'm working with these naval officer ranks: cadet, ensign, lieutenant (junior), lieutenant, captain (junior), captain, captain (senior), admiral, fleet admiral, grand admiral, moff. There is no major, colonel, or general in naval ranks, and no admirals in ground ranks. Cadet's a rank that's not quite an officer yet, but I assume in the Empire in an emergency, they put cadets in the field too as a sort of temporary ensign. The rank of ensign is held for the first year out of academy, promotion automatic short of disciplinary problems. So Quinn is a captain (junior), and his later promotion was to the 2nd captain's rank, simply captain. Which lets me deal with his bizarre promotion from captain to captain 2nd rank, which drives me crazy.
Chapter 36: "Dance with the Shadows"
Vette stumbles into something unexpected, and she and Ucevi have a heart-to-heart.
(Sorry this has taken so long, I was having major writer's block while editing parts of this. Still may rewrite a couple of bits later...)
Vette finally emerged grumpily in the morning after a night of bad dreams and broken sleep. Hmpf. At least now I’m thinking clearly. And my lord and I are going to have a little conversation first thing this morning.
Grumbling, she stopped in the main common area. Well, caff first. ‘Cause calling out a Sith who force-chokes Republic troopers and slams their bodies into bulkheads without raising a browstalk probably isn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done. Right up there with robbing tombs on Korriban. But before she sat down at the table with her mug of caff, faint odd whacks echoed from the passage to the main cargo hold. Curious, she followed the noises as silently as she could.
Peeking around the corner into the hold, Ucevi was in full swing with that odd pole she used for her early workouts. Not that I’ve noticed how Captain Stuffed-shirt always watches her with sad eyes. She snickered internally. Like right now... Then Vette froze. Because the second person wasn’t Quinn...and he wasn’t watching.
What the hell? Joran was somehow mirroring Ucevi with another pole. Well, not exactly. Vette had watched Ucevi enough by now to recognize some of the moves, and Joran seemed to be almost echoing the Sith-blooded woman, the unfamiliar whacking noises the result of the clash of their weapons.
Wait, he’s doing exactly what she is, but one step later. I never noticed before but she makes one offensive move followed by one defensive one. So if someone’s one step behind...one person is always on offense and the other on defense. Vette was quickly sucked in, trying to unravel the pattern. Then she shook herself out of the trance. Wait. How the Void does a random Imperial know her exercise routine so well they look like a pair of professional dancers performing on stage?
Vette felt a brief pang of envy at the harmony to their movements, the absolute confidence that the other would always be exactly where they were supposed to be. Then Ucevi faltered, stepping back out of engagement and somehow signalling Joran who also disengaged. Then both turned toward the doorway.
Ooops. Oh, well, I’m kinda surprised it took her that long to notice. Vette stepped through the hatch and leaned against the bulkhead casually. “So, that was, um, an interesting...performance?”
The two exchanged guilty looks before Joran shook his head. “Don’t lie about it.”
Ucevi snorted. “As if there would be a chance that Vette would believe that was a choreographed fight from a Sith opera.”
The Chiss officer chuckled as he reached for the towel draped across a crate, using it to wipe the sweat from his neck as he racked the pole. “I’ll grab my uniform and use the common fresher to shower, since I suspect you want to have this conversation in your own cabin.”
Vette was studying both of them closely, and for the first time, spotted tiny signals passing between them: a flicker of a brow stalk answered by the tiniest of nods. A slow blink. Wow. What did she just ask and what did he agree to? And how much else have I been missing?
Joran strode quickly out of the hold, but not before it registered on Vette that he was wearing a kind of undershirt and loose exercise pants that she’d only seen on Sith acolytes on Korriban...and Ucevi. Is...he wearing her clothes? What the hell?
“So, um, why do I feel like I’ve been missing something? Or a lot of somethings?”
The Sith woman slowly racked her own pole before draping a towel around her neck and silently nodding to Vette to follow her.
OK, I’m a little weirded out by the silence. Vette had woken up determined to hash a few things out with Ucevi now that she’d had time to get past the shock, but she was beginning to be unnerved. But I’ll be damned if I don’t say my piece!
Ucevi paused long enough to grab a carafe of caff and a mug and led the way into her cabin, waving Vette silently to the chair at the desk.
“So, before you start in on big Sithy secrets or something, I have something I want to say.”
The other woman settled onto the edge of the bed with a mug of the caff, simply nodding for her to continue.
“Look, maybe you didn’t mean to, but...you totally used me as bait last night, and I need to know if that’s all I am to you.”
“Vette...you’re right, and I’m sorry.” The Twi’lek gaped at her in surprise. “I may not have intended to use you as bait, but that was what I effectively did, however good my intentions were. You’re my friend. And I can’t swear, presented with the same sort of situation, that I might not do it again if it’s the only way I can think of to protect both you and Joran.”
Well, I never expected to the conversation to go this way. Vette blinked, the tips of her lekku twitching nervously. “Yeah, intentions only go so far. But what do you mean, protect me?”
“Farnol has high ranking relatives, that’s why Joran hadn’t been able to do anything about him without witnesses. And from what Joran told me, the odds were that after he was humiliated last night, that fetid mynock dung would have stalked you until he caught you alone. You’d probably have injured or killed him. He’d have deserved it, but...what would those relatives have done then?” She waited while Vette stared, then the younger woman sucked her lower lip in to chew on it.
“Exactly. Joran and I would have believed you, but would anyone else? Especially if his relatives got involved? Vette, yes, I’m a Sith, but at this moment in time, I’m simply an apprentice, and do you really think Baras would go to bat to back me up if I tried to protect you? I’d be safe, but I couldn’t be certain you would be if it was a case of your word against his.”
Vette slowly nodded, arms wrapped tightly around herself, lekku still twitching. “OK, point taken, but doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
“No, you don’t. If I were in your place. I’d be pissed as hell and ready to strike out at everyone, including me. Maybe especially me. But you don’t. Which probably makes you a better person than me.”
Vette snorted. “Alright, alright, you don’t have to butter me up. My lord.” Ucevi snorted in response.
Then abruptly, Vette’s brows drew together in confusion. “Wait, you said protect both me and Joran. I mean, I know you like him a bit more than your other, um, amusements, but…?”
Ucevi glanced away, and the silence stretched out for almost a minute before she answered. “Ah. I assume you realize by now that we have known each other for a while?”
“Yeah, you said you met him when he was stationed at the Academy you were studying at. But I don’t see how that explains that dancing around with poles I just saw.” Vette’s lekku had stopped twitching, but now the tips were twisting around each other excitedly.
Ucevi shrugged. “So, would you be surprised to find out that that was a lie? I mean, yes, he was stationed there, but I didn’t meet him on Ziost, and we had to explain how we knew each other.”
Vette blinked. Then slowly frowned, thinking aloud. “Huh. You know, you’ve kinda said something once or twice that made me wonder.” And that would explain what I saw passing between them just now.
Instead of responding to the unspoken question in Vette’s statement, Ucevi instead asked another question. “Have you thought about how precarious Joran’s position is, as a Chiss officer in the Imperial military, Imperial born or not? In command of a human crew? Without open family connections to protect him?”
Vette considered this briefly, then grimaced. “Yeah, I didn’t get the impression that the scumbag was at all thrilled to have him as a captain. But Riassa’s OK with him.”
“True, but you already knew that some Imperials don’t get hung up on that sort of thing, even if they don’t speak out against it either. Are you sure about anyone else in his crew?”
The young woman scowled, but the tips of her lekku slowly began to untwist from each other. “Yeah, I dunno how many don’t care that I’m Twi’lek and how many are polite because of you.”
“Exactly. Most are going to respect Joran’s authority if for no other reason than that they don’t have ranking family to pull their asses out of the fire. His superiors are going to back him as long as the crew member isn’t anyone who matters to them. But Farnol? He had to be caught in the act, with impeccable witnesses.”
Her face had that scowl that had so often caused people to scatter out of her path, but that no longer even worried Vette. “Frankly, he’s damned lucky I actually care what happens to Joran because I was ready to snap his neck at the table last night. Much less later.”
Vette flapped her hands at Ucevi, a slight smile on her lips finally. “Whoa, big scary Sith protector kicking into overdrive. Bring it down a notch, OK?”
Ucevi chuckled, but she still had the scowl. “If I’d done that, Farnol’s family would have insisted on an inquiry into Joran, probably insisting that he had asked me to remove an ambitious subordinate. There wouldn’t have been enough evidence to remove Joran from his command. Probably. But it would have been on his record and he’d have been guilty until proven innocent to all his future commanders. Even later, I couldn’t have killed the slimeball without some sort of repercussions for Joran. If I had rank of my own, and not just as Baras’s most prominent apprentice, it might have been different. Would have been.”
Vette was silent for a minute or two, idly fidgeting with her datapad. Then she sighed. “OK, so, I don’t have to like it, but yeah, I admit it wasn’t a bad plan. Though you know you could have asked me to help arrange an accident that looked like his own damned fault.”
Ucevi raised a brow stalk inquiringly. “Would you really have been willing to help me commit murder before he attacked you?”
Vette whoofed out a blast of air. “Yeah, yeah, bring logic into it. But, you still haven’t explained how you know Joran if you didn’t meet at the Academy?”
“Ah. So, this is where it gets complicated. Traditionally, Old families hide children to protect them, and as part of that, we’re raised by a grandparent or older relative who’s highly enough placed to be free of constant assignments, able to oversee a child.”
“Oversee. Well, doesn’t that sounds warm and cuddly.” Shit. I thought only slaves had a miserable time as kids.
Ucevi winced. “Accurate, I’m afraid. Most of my childhood was as organized as a military academy. Fortunately since we can live several centuries, there is almost always at least one surviving older relative. Grandmother----actually my great-grandmother---supervised my training but mostly left me to the rest of our house to raise, which was probably for the best.”
“House? You lost me.”
The sith-blooded woman shrugged. “Family, people we considered family, and people under the family’s protection. So I was raised by my dead grandmother's best friend. Joran’s family was exiled from the Ascendancy several generations ago and they’ve been tied to another branch of our house since then.”
Huh. She mentioned that most of her family was wiped out, but maybe that was only one branch? Not that I’m going to bring that up myself...
She glanced away from Vette, then spoke softly. “I’ve known Joran for over fifteen years. He brought the only warning we had on the attack on Grandmother, then he smuggled me off Dromund Kaas into hiding on Nar Shaadaa with his branch of the house. You’re my friend, Vette, but my house owes him a debt of honor.”
“Oh.” Wow. Well, at least I didn’t have to mention it, but how the hell did I not suspect any of this? She fidgeted with the datapad again, not looking toward Ucevi. “Um, yeah, I guess I can understand that. But if you think of him as family, what’s with, um...” She trailed off uncomfortably, trying to keep her lekku from curling up and giving away her embarrassment.
“Sex? We’re nothing like siblings, if that’s what you mean. Pretending to have sex was supposed to prevent any curiosity about our meetings.” Ucevi shrugged.
“Um, yeah, I don’t think you two have been pretending. ” Vette rolled her eyes, the tips of her lekku curling and uncurling in amusement.
“No.” The Sith-blooded woman shifted her position on the bed to lean back against the headboard. “I don’t really have a word in Basic for what he is to me. The closest I can get is that he’s my best friend, and I’d have to bury my head in the sands of Korriban to miss the fact that he’s terribly...alone. He’s shunned by most Chiss. He doesn’t even speak Cheun; he’s completely Imperial as far as they’re concerned. You’ve seen how friendly human Imperials are to him. Most Chiss are even less friendly.”
“Huh. Imperials like Chiss better than they do Twi’leks, but that’s not necessarily saying much, is it? But that still doesn’t explain the sex.” Vette fidgeted, not quite meeting Ucevi’s eyes.
Ucevi chuckled. “Maybe because that’s how I express affection?”
“Yeah, so about being your friend, can I pass on that part?” Vette joked, but Ucevi abruptly scowled.
“That... No .” She took a deep breath, shaking her head. “Vette, there are few things we find unforgivable, but coercing passion in any degree is one, and after Baras tried to give you to me…Never.”
Vette’s eyes widened. “Um, OK.” That was unexpected . But good to know...I think? She glanced away, the tips of her lekku twitching a little again. “So...Joran?”
“Ah. We barely saw each other for six years after I went into hiding. He’d had to deal with Imperial xenophobia almost entirely on his own, and when he got to the Academy on Ziost, he was exhausted and bitter and he needed... something. So somehow making a show of me picking him up to pretend to have sex turned into having sex.” She shrugged. “I mean, it worked, we both enjoyed it, so we continued? But it’s never been more than that between us, an outlet. If we never had sex again, nothing else in our relationship would change.”
“Huh. OK. And what I saw earlier?”
“The Si-thar-ka . We teach it to our house’s young children so they all have some basic combat skills, and most of us use it as a kind of physical meditation, a way of focusing ourselves. To do it in partnership with someone takes perfect timing and absolute confidence in each other.” Her eyes unfocused, as if watching something in the distance. “They tested us to see if we might work well together by first introducing him as my new sparring partner.”
“Huh. Well, if being able to make it look more like dancing than sparring is what they wanted, it worked.”
“Yes.” She grinned suddenly. “Well, we also got our pissing contest out of the way in a little unauthorized hand-to-hand contest.” One amber eye winked at Vette. “His pride was hurt by being assigned to work with someone several years younger; and I wasn’t about to let that kind of insult pass.”
Vette laughed. “Yeah. I can’t quite imagine child-you would be any more likely to settle things with a game of pazaak than adult-you.”
“No, especially not with my training. Some bruises, a split lip, and a black eye later, we were friends.” Ucevi shrugged. “Today, we knew Quinn’s meeting would keep him off the ship until after lunch, and I didn’t think you’d be up yet, and it’s been a very long time since we could practice together. I missed it.”
The Sith woman spoke thoughtfully. “Vette, I am who I am and who I was trained to be, and that means being protective of my people. I promise I’ll try to never put you in a situation like that again, but I can’t swear I might not if I’m rushed.”
That’s something, I guess. The one thing I know is that she cares, but is that enough? I mean, what are my options: stay and put up with it or go...where? Vette glanced at the bed where Ucevi was staring down into her mug, silently waiting. At least she’s being honest and she’s not pretending I should be anything but angry about it. She pretty much gives me the run of things to search for my family and never asks about anything I’ve done to help the old gang. Is that worth putting up with occasional high-handedness? “So...am I allowed to tell you off if you do anything else like that?”
“Absolutely. Just not in public.”
Vette shrugged, pouring herself more caff. “OK. But I think you owe me a shopping trip too.”
Ucevi laughed, setting the mug on the shelf by the bed and standing to offer her hand to Vette. “Deal. Just tell me when.”